A Modest Proposal for 2011


photo courtesy of The Citizen

 Cities are organic creatures. They grow, we hope, as cities that decline are not exactly great places. We want growth, and new things, but want them somewhere else — easily accessible but not too close.

I am getting tired of the litany of complaints about intensification. We knew when we adopted the policy that it had certain effects: house prices will rise; infill will occur in both small scale and large scale developments. Those new residents will use transit, and walk sometimes, but mostly will drive cars. Changing population demographics means new housing types are desired to meet new needs. Some people tire of older single houses, their maintenance, their large lots. Many new households do not fit the suburban cookie cutter three-bedroom + family room model. Starting households cannot afford $350-500,000 singles — new housing types, such as apartments, stacked townhouses, mini-homes on small lots, will meet some of that need.  Did everyone dream intensification would occur only many blocks away on disused lots?

The whingeing and complaining goes on and on. Don’t build on the parking lot, it’s valuable public space! Don’t build on that vacant parcel of land, it’s heritage! Or, if isn’t heritage, it has valuable trees. Don’t cut those trees! The empty school site … don’t build there, it’s “traditional” open space. Don’t build bland beige box low rise apartments. Don’t build tall ugly apartment towers, they are tomorrow’s slums. Or as one (now de-elected) councillor whined, why can’t the high rises be built out in Greely?

Well, where will that intensification go if it doesn’t go in existing neighborhoods? In places where it is off to the edge of the existing neighborhood, with minimal over-looking or traffic problems, intensification is still opposed by neighbours as “inappropriate” for here. It can’t go in existing neighborhoods, it will change them (what a sin to change what is obviously perfection). It can’t go on the periphery of adjacent neighborhoods. Nor on now-unused industrial lands.

What about on parking lots? No way, those outsiders will have to clutter up our streets getting to and from their new slums-of-tomorrow. They’ll want new types of retail on the mainstreets. Man the barricades! Why, the head of a downtown BIA even spoke out against condos on downtown parking lots because it would displace the parking spaces used by commuting motorists. Does he really think 35 parked cars contributes more to the city than 135 people living there full-time?

Now the sad truth is that NIMBY-ism lives. It lives on in every community association that says “we support intensification but just not here…” It lives on in every commentator that claims “intensification is good, but ours is the wrong type…”, or “intensification is good but only AFTER the city is laced with a tight network of rapid transit on separate rights of ways”. Or some such other never-realizable condition. Or business people that can’t see beyond the never-satisfiable demand for “more parking” because, after all, they live miles away and depend on (business-expensed) cars for everything they do so doesn’t everyone??

So what to do? I have a modest proposal. Everyone that lives in Ottawa now gets to stay here. But to prevent neighborhoods from changing, NO MORE infills, intensification, condos, seniors homes, or anything that “attracts traffic”. To identify these people entitled to live here, we will have to tatoo everyone on their wrist in some sort of un-forge-able biometric ink.

We will start with the heads of community associations. Their children will be tattooed so that when they graduate from school, they will have to move away. To Perth, or Smith’s Falls, or somewhere else that might have them, but they cannot live in the city.

Then we can tatoo the journalists and their breedings. Eighteen?– off you go, exiled. Can’t have you cluttering up our city.

We’ll need some sort of city bureaucracy to track all these people, and everyone’s dwelling unit will need to be meticulously documented to prevent additions, especially of secondary apartment units. If someone moves out of the city, someone can be permitted to move in. To prevent favoritism, such as affluent retiring journalists giving up their single homes to their children, who might now be breeding too, or to prevent seniors from trading apartments-for-houses with younger couples, the City will establish priorities and allocate units based on “fairness” and perhaps a lottery element, but definitely we’ve got to prevent city-permits being allocated on the basis of initiative and wealth. What a better city we will have when bureaucrats allocate housing rights based on race, gender, income, age, and other measures of “equity”. The need for quality municipal civil servants will be priority of course, and they will get first dibs on that house in Westboro that used to belong to some whiner.

I think we will also need some regulatory action to prevent people from sneaking in and violating the new social order. If your daughter still lives at home, but her boyfriend doesn’t, we can’t have him sleeping over with her, as he would become a serial visitor cum resident. The police can’t track everyone, but we can convert community associations into neighborhood watch groups ensuring that residents and visitors are monitored at all times.

Divorce may have to be banned, as it means one household becomes two, taking up more valuable housing units. How unfair. No, one divorcee of the pair will have to accept exile to Arnprior. Can’t have these people changing the neighborhood now, can we? The opportunities to build a better society are wonderous to behold …


I think the more we regulate city growth, the more conditions we put on things, the more hoops we put on development applications, the more we restrict infills and intensification to a tiny fraction of the urban area… the more we get, via the law of unintended consequences, developers who try to bust through the burden of rules. Our planning rules don’t so much guide development as try to prevent it. NIMBY-ness codified.

People generally like the oldest areas of the city, the ones that were built when there were … fewer rules. So here’s my modest proposal: rezone most of the urban area to a single “general residential-compatible mixed use” zoning, with zero lot lines, zero setbacks, a five storey height limit. Any house, any building, any lot, any where, can be redeveloped. This would take  a lot of the pressure off those valuable-because-they-are-scarce sites. Neighborhoods would change gradually. No one would be duped into thinking their 1950’s 1100 sq ft house is the highest and best land use in perpetuity.

13 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal for 2011

  1. Are you serious? Your new year’s resolution is to allow developers (whose sole purpose is profit, and who don’t have to live in the places they build) to obliterate every element of character in a neighbourhood? Should we get rid of the fire code and building code, too? Or do we plan for people to live in these buildings instead of just constructing them?

    There are so many over-generalizations (without a single example cited) and over-simplifications in this post that it’s not worth trying to respond to them all. It’s as bad as Ken Gray’s drivel in the other extreme.

    You say with the removal of zregulations, neighbourhoods would change gradually. This is correct. Without zoning, housing in many parts of the city, especially Centretown, was left to deteriorate into a slum by landowners waiting to accumulate large lots. See the CCCA’s history video for more on this. We recently saw an example of this on the Richcraft site at Bay and Nepean. The result was abandonned houses that attracted crime, vandalism and arson, lowered property values, and drove residents to the suburbs in the first place.

    People cite Vancouver as a city where highrise development is successful downtown. But Vancouver doesn’t have an OMB to appeal Council decisions, ans Council has density-bonusing policies that require developers to provide community benefits (parkspace, daycares, affordable housing, artist studios, etc.) in exchange for increasing zoning height limits. The CCCA is pushing for such regulations in Centretown using Section 37 of the Provincial Planning Act.

  2. As you say, cities change. Sometimes buildings go up on previously vacant land. Other times, house or buildings come down and spaces are made. The neat little parkettes that have grown where houses burnt down are a very creative way to bring public space close to people. It would be far worse if only parking lots are made. Every time I walk by a downtown parking lot I am saddened by the wasted space. Build it up or make it public space, but on grade vehicle parking is one of the worst land uses!
    The city is a living organism and will change. We won’t all like every change, no matter what.

  3. I have started to suspect that developers have come to anticipate NIMBYism and add on 4 or 10 extra stories to the initial proposal so that they can take them off later and look like they are being reasonable. I think NIMBYism creates alot of cost to a developer whether or not the project is big or little so naturally developers go for the bigger developement projects where the cost to get approval can be spread over many units.

  4. My modest proposal for 2011 would be for something to please please please finally happen at Lebreton. I almost feel sorry for those living in the Claridge building who look out onto that wasteland every day!

  5. People will move into the newest tower and mid-rise starting in Feb. If you walk around the first tower & mid rise, there are signs of life: baby gear & toys visible in windows.
    LeBreton is slow for several reasons: one developer, thus lack of incentive to build. Why build new towers to compete with the old … ergo, slow build out at maximum prices. Solution: grant a second builder a bunch of lots and let them compete.
    Second, NCC is retarded. In front of the existing towers looks like bombed-out Beirut, which has mostly been repaired … but LeBreton still looks bombed out! For god sake, fill in the big pits, plant grass and street trees so it looks better.
    three: token but almost useless “ground floor doorways” to apts don’t make for vibrant streets, especially when Claridge clearly doesn’t believe in them and minimizes their utility.

  6. ahh what a beautiful rant for the new year. Though I get a distinct feeling of tongue and cheek from it, sadly I largely agree with most of it… including the forced exile parts 😛

    It seems to me that everyone agreed that intensification was the solution to a problem, just not the one they felt they were currently experiencing. It’s as if no-one, not even those in places where intensification needs to occur understands why it is important. But then those people who live where intensification must occur have never realized how much of a privilege it is to walk be able to reasonably walk to their work and live in their local neighbourhood.

  7. Your new year’s resolution is to allow developers (whose sole purpose is profit, and who don’t have to live in the places they build) to obliterate every element of character in a neighbourhood?

    It would also allow for the development of character, over time, in neighbourhoods which are very sadly lacking in it.

    Too many of our planning principles are aimed at preventing. That is why Ottawa has progressively turned into such a vapid dump.

    Planning needs to be aimed at letting.

    I agree that some more Vancouver-style rules would do Shoddywa a great deal of good, though. However, as long as suburban-style ticky-tacky is all we allow or tolerate, preventing all others, surprise surprise, it’s all we are going to get.

  8. Three cheers! Finally, someone in Ottawa with the courage to speak up and say what is on (almost) everyone’s mind. A life-long resident of Ottawa, I am saddened and frustrated by the direction the city is going in. In the last few years, especially, it seems the city’s most vocal residents have been overcome with a psychosis whose symptoms are: a bloated sense of entitlement and a hysterical opposition to any change or progress. Go to any planning committee meeting at city hall and see red-in-the-face citizens blowing steam over how their kids are going to die and their lives are going to be destroyed by a five (or six, seven, eight) storey building proposed for a spot nowhere near where they live.
    What it boils down to is that they’re bothered by something being there that wasn’t there before. Kind of like this city, which was once not here. In the 1840’s you could hunt deer on Albert Street and farm in the Glebe. Guess what – things change, neighbourhoods rise and evolve, a city grows. The same people who bitch about a condo tower being built on a parking lot downtown then turn around and accuse the developer of destroying greenspace in the suburbs. Yet somehow, they can’t see the connection between the two things they are complaining about.
    A transit tunnel downtown? The people complaining about the cost, those people who feel any transit improvement should be shelved until such time as the city can figure out how to build the whole network overnight (and for free), are the ones who wouldn’t dream of taking public transit. These are the same people who complain about how more residents moving into their inner city neighbourhood will cause annoying traffic jams – annoying, because they refuse to leave their own car at home.
    Traffic has to reach a point where a significant number of people become annoyed and start taking public transit, thus making public transit a viable expense. Its a point that all growing cities eventually reach, but apparently Ottawa needs to stay in the 1970s.
    Planners and politicians with a vision for a modern city are being stifled by a tide of obstinate residents and ‘special-interest’ community associations whose sole motivation is ensuring that nothing changes. We didn’t have this problem in 1950, 1960, 1970 or 1980. We’ve gone from a ‘can do’ society to a ‘do we have to?’ society.
    Keep up the good fight Eric – there needs to be more people like you in this city.

    1. S man wrote: “Planners and politicians with a vision for a modern city are being stifled by a tide of obstinate residents and ‘special-interest’ community associations whose sole motivation is ensuring that nothing changes. We didn’t have this problem in 1950, 1960, 1970 or 1980.”

      S man, please watch were you stick your fingers before you put them to the keyboard. You’ll get it messy.

      We did have these problems in the ’60s. Before the ’60s, City engineers and planners literally didn’t even know what public input meant–they just went about their plans (Greber, anyone?) and whoever had to be evicted for them bedamned. Entire neighbourhoods were demolished or left to rot (Lebreton Flats is only the most famous example). 17-lane expressways, like Toronto’s 401, were proposed to run through established neighbourhoods and downtown living would have been squeezed between a nest of offramps. This is why community associations were started in the first place, and there were 40 of them in Ottawa by 1970.

      In Centretown, these pressures were still there in the ’70s, and the City led the development of the Centretown Plan, so that zoning guidelines could be established to GUIDE new growth, so that residents had an idea of what to expect their neighbourhood to become as it CHANGED. We certainly wanted parking lots to be filled in, but we also wanted older buildings to not be left to fall apart, as was being done by non-resident landlords. Experiments were done with converting some streets to one-way in order to keep through traffic to major streets, and lots of these changes persist to today. Some, like bike lanes on Bank street, did not.

      In the ’80s, these pressures were back again, as the City was proposing to allow highrise development to continue south of the established boundary of Gloucester street. Rallies were held in ’88 to fight this, and the residents were again successful. 12-storey buildings were fine, but no taller.

      Keep in mind, a 12-storey building on a vacant lot is development and intensification. When we move in to Centretown, we know that the vacant lot next door is zoned for 12-storey development. The problem is that the developers almost universally seek to exceed this zoning by 50%, 100%, or six times, in the current case of 89-91 Nepean. (the only current large development that is an exception to this is the Centropolis on Gladstone and Kent, and the Community Association had no opposition to this; in fact, we liked it–BECAUSE IT FIT IN WITH THE ZONING).

      Think of it this way: the zoning is an agreement between the City and the community of how the neighbourhood is going to grow. There is enough in the existing zoning (i.e. without applying for exemptions) for vacant lots in Centretown to be developed which will increase population density by 50%. When the City changes the zoning for a site, or for a whole neighbourhood, of course the community is going to oppose it: the City broke the agreement!

      More on “urban renewal” destroying neighbourhoods, and the establishment of the CCCA is on the video on our website, here: http://www.centretowncitizens.ca/aboutus

      1. Point taken (though I’m not sure where sticky fingers come in).
        From what I’ve seen, the CCCA is the most sane of the inner-city community associations; I too, believe the Metropolis at Kent and Gladstone is a good scale for that corner (however, there was still the obligatory bleeding heart article in the Citizen from a concerned neighbour who felt his property rights extended into adjacent properties – a common occurrence in Ottawa).
        I’m not sure where the CCCA stands on Central 1 & 2 (8 and 9 stories) at Bank and Gladstone, but I do know Coun. Holmes was in favour of it, and she is a good gauge of community sentiment. Also a development that I like the scale of – and lets face it, that corner was no beauty.
        What bothers me is the complaints that arise when any development comes to a particular community. Essentially, anything that wasn’t there before doesn’t need to be built. I wouldn’t touch the convent site with a ten foot pole, but I believe the Westboro Community Association is up in arms from a 5-story mixed use proposal for the corner of Eden and Richmond, now an abandoned used car lot. From what I hear, the only way something can be built in that community is if the developer goes back in time and builds it 50 years ago, so that it is now part of their community and nothing new has to be added.
        I’ve seen people show up at planning committee (and in the Citizen) up in arms over a 2-storey house that is bigger than theirs.
        You can talk about ‘not fitting the character of the community’ all you want – in many cases it is justified, but in just as many other cases it is taken to the extreme. If you take that phrase literally, anything not currently built counts as not fitting the character of the community.
        I’m still waiting for a candlelit ‘save the parking lot’ vigil on Richmond Rd.
        There were nine delegations for a narrow three-story building on a side street in Lowertown last year. The complaints were that it didn’t look 100 years old, and thus didn’t fit the character of the community. Much better to have a vacant lot than have something new. Demolitions and fires will just increase the number of vacant lots until a neighbourhood looks like a row of broken teeth. Developers won’t go near it to “renew” the area because they know what they’ll face. It needs to be pointed out to some people that the city isn’t in the home building business. Residences in all their forms still need to be built by the evil developer.
        Also last year, there was a huge outcry over the building of 10 units along Carling Avenue in Crystal Beach. The word that was thrown around was ‘overintensification’. The reasoning was if bungalows exist nearby, then it follows that anything built near then should also be a bungalow. If the city followed that policy of ‘nothing new, nothing different’, we’d be the boringest city in the world, and we’re already approaching that title for just that reason.
        If that policy existed back when, we’d never have moved from tents to shacks, to two storey wooden homes, to three story brick buildings, and so on and so forth.
        I understand that something new, something that isn’t quite like everything else can offend some, but what is the end result of placating these people? Isn’t variety a good thing – even with architecture?
        When 100 Champagne Ave. came to committee, it was opposed even though it fit the height limit of that area (12 stories). The developer didn’t try to ask for more, yet it was still opposed, even by a (former) city councillor who dissented on the vague grounds that the development was “too damn big”.
        A nearly hysterical lady who lived nearby (not not adjacent, as no one lives on that stretch of Champagne), fretted that her son was at risk of Vitamin D deficiency due to the looming shadow cast by the future monstrosity.
        As you can see, I’m not singling out Centretown in any way; the sentiment I’ve describes exists city-wide, though in some areas more than others. Community associations do a lot of good work, but some – the kind you won’t see out picking up trash or beautifying their area – are concerned primarily with keeping people out of their neighbourhood and keeping everything the same.
        When I hear “my property values”, “my view”, “my privacy”, “my right to (peace and quiet, clean air, etc.)” I come to the conclusion that the speaker is looking out for number one, and number one only. Some projects have obvious faults, but many more are targeted just because some people vaguely don’t like it.
        Wow, how’s that for a rant! Ten pounds lighter, I feel.

  9. Thanks, S-Man. Your point is a lot stronger with specific examples.

    I don’t think Diane Holmes was in favour of Central 1 as it was proposed. It is much taller than the zoning calls for, which is particularly problematic for the houses immediately abutting it. However, not liking aspects of a specific proposal doesn’t directly translate to not wanting any development on the site.

    Developers always ask for the maximum available, knowing that they will likely have to negotiate back closer to the status quo. They do this understandably because it’s in their interest to maximize profit. Similarly, community associations should try to maximize benefit to the community–in concrete terms, not simply the trickle-down argument of “there are more people and that will be better in and of itself because eventually more amenities will appear.”

    Oftentimes a community association’s opposition to a development is intended to maximize community benefit in some way; sometimes it’s just opposition for the sake of opposition.

    You make some interesting points about the distinction of these two types of opposition in your examples. I don’t necessarily agree with you on all of them, but they’re interesting nonetheless, thanks.

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