City launches official plan review
Let the debating over Ottawa’s future begin
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.