City launches of­fi­cial plan re­view

Let the de­bat­ing over Ot­tawa’s fu­ture be­gin

Ottawa Citizen - - CITY - DAVID REEVELY

Ev­ery few years, politi­cians at City Hall are re­quired by law to tear down the pa­per they put up to con­ceal ba­sic dis­agree­ments about what kind of city Ot­tawa ought to be. The process be­gan Tues­day morn­ing, with ar­gu­ments kick­ing off about ev­ery­thing from cars ver­sus bikes to how tall build­ings ought to be on main streets.

For­mally, the city was be­gin­ning a year-long re­view of its mas­sive of­fi­cial land-use plan, its trans­porta­tion plan and its in­fra­struc­ture plan, which need to be up­dated ev­ery five years.

Think of it as the moment at a fam­ily din­ner when ev­ery­body’s had a cou­ple of drinks and starts say­ing what they REALLY think. Only it doesn’t last un­til dessert. It lasts un­til De­cem­ber.

Con­sider an ex­change be­tween a pub­lic-health ex­pert the city brought in from Peel re­gion west of Toronto, a spe­cial­ist in how ur­ban de­sign af­fects our health, and Bar­rhaven Coun­cil­lor Jan Harder.

We have to stop build­ing a city as if easy mo­tor­ing is all that mat­ters, Dr. David Mowat said in a pre­sen­ta­tion in the coun­cil cham­ber, toss­ing up stat af­ter stat show­ing that Cana­di­ans are fat­ter, lazier and sicker than we have been in liv­ing me­mory, and it’s sci­en­tif­i­cally prov­able that it’s be­cause as a peo­ple, we live in our cars rather than walking.

“Many of our health prob­lems are not prob­lems of in­di­vid­ual vo­li­tion,” he said. It’s not like we don’t know that eat­ing too much and sit­ting all day are bad for us. “They’re ac­tu­ally a nor­mal re­sponse by nor­mal peo­ple to an ab­nor­mal en­vi­ron­ment.”

Cana­di­ans, and Ot­tawans are no ex­cep­tion, get as much “recre­ational” ex­er­cise at the gym and on week­end bike rides as we ever did, he said. But we get less and less in­ci­den­tal ex­er­cise all the time — we don’t walk to work, our kids don’t bike to school, we don’t carry gro­ceries home a few blocks rather than dump­ing them in a car trunk. One in 10 Cana­di­ans is di­a­betic now, Mowat said, and if cur­rent trends con­tinue it’ll be one in six by 2031.

“There is no longer any doubt, the con­nec­tion be­tween walk­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties and se­ri­ous, se­ri­ous con­se­quences,” Mowat said in City Hall’s coun­cil cham­ber.

Sure, re­sponded Harder, who’s vice-chair of city coun­cil’s plan­ning com­mit­tee. “But we can­not for­get that the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple in this city are de­pen­dent on cars and al­ways will be de­pen­dent on cars,” and we need a city that al­lows for that.

She chairs the li­brary board and com­pared in­ter­est in, say, cy­cling, to li­brary pa­trons’ in­ter­est in elec­tronic books. It’s the li­brary’s big­gest growth area, but it’s still a niche mar­ket.

“Is it fea­si­ble to think that if we in­vest mil­lions of dol­lars in cy­cling in the down­town lanes, that that’s go­ing to at­tract new rid­ers cy­cling from Kanata to the down­town core?” Harder asked. “It doesn’t. It really doesn’t.”

In the next round, Ta­ma­rack Homes’s di­rec­tor of devel­op­ment Michelle Tag­gart chal­lenged the plan­ning com­mit­tee’s chair, Peter Hume. Among other things, he’d said in a pre­sen­ta­tion of his own, the city wants its of­fi­cial plan and its zon­ing codes to match up. They’ll do the plan first, then rewrite the zon­ing code in 2014, he said, “such that there is ab­so­lute cer­tainty for all.”

He’s been say­ing that for years, be­cause the mis­match be­tween the more gen­eral land-use plan and the more pre­cise zon­ing tends to be re­solved in favour of what­ever de­vel­op­ers want to do and that drives neigh­bour­hood ac­tivists crazy. But this time he added that the city wants to cre­ate new cat­e­gories for taller build­ings and im­pose tighter de­sign stan­dards on them; the cur­rent plan treats ev­ery­thing over 10 storeys the same.

Tag­gart, in a Q&A ses­sion, said she ap­pre­ci­ates the de­sire for cer­tainty but the city needs to be flex­i­ble, too.

“What you’re go­ing to get is a lot of short, fat build­ings with no through pas­sages for walking,” she warned. Ta­ma­rack is work­ing on a project on Kent Street where it wants to in­clude a small street-level park, the kind of the city wants, but it’ll only hap­pen if Ta­ma­rack gets to build some­thing taller than the zon­ing al­lows.

Hume ex­ploded. What we’ve got with the cur­rent “flex­i­ble” regime is tall, fat build­ings with no through pas­sages, he said, and a whole lot of fight­ing along the way. How about we try stricter rules?

“If there’s a bet­ter way to avoid that con­flict, the devel­op­ment in­dus­try hasn’t come for­ward to say what it is,” he said.

Kanata North Coun­cil­lor Mar­i­anne Wilkin­son said she thinks part of the prob­lem is that de­vel­op­ers pay too much for land, then have to push the devel­op­ment rules as hard as they can to make their money back.

Ac­tu­ally, sug­gested Minto’s vice-pres­i­dent Jack Stir­ling, the city’s been at fault for its in­sis­tence on hold­ing in sub­ur­ban devel­op­ment. Land is scarce, he said. A lot for a school, some­thing that has lit­tle in­her­ent value to a de­vel­oper, cost $175,000 a decade ago; it’s $400,000 now.

The city also in­tends to keep the height lim­its on “tra­di­tional main streets” like Bank or Pre­ston or Welling­ton West at four to six storeys. Stir­ling’s happy to hear about higher de­sign stan­dards and lower de­mand for roads, but the six-storey limit on main streets is a se­ri­ous prob­lem.

“It’s lovely to talk about a four-to-six-storey build­ing, but there’s no such thing eco­nom­i­cally,” he said. The build­ing code says build­ings that tall have to be made of con­crete rather than wood, which is cheaper. They need costly sprin­klers and el­e­va­tor.

Here’s some­thing most ev­ery­body agreed on: There’s a lot of talk­ing to do be­fore the new plans be­come law at the end of the year.

Ev­ery­one shares a gen­eral vi­sion of a city we can be proud of, Stir­ling said. “I like to think we’re get­ting close to it, and some­times I do. But we’ve still got a ways to go.

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