Air rights over the transitway/LRT

Councilor Katherine Hobbs is in the news for asking the City to examine developing the air rights over the west side part of the transitway/LRT line.

I have a bunch of mutually contradictory thoughts on this.

1. The City should sell air rights to help pay for the transitway. Taxpayers are forking out a bundle of money for a transit line, we can recoup some of that expenditure by selling prime access to the most-accessible locations in the city.

Otherwise, many of the development benefits go to the builders on adjacent lands. In some cases, these are private developers; in the case of LeBreton Flats and Bayview Yards, these are “public” developers.

But if it is so desirous the City develop land over the transitway … why is it so slow and reluctant to develop lands it already owns that are adjacent to the stations? (see above locations … plus the huge swaths of unused or underdeveloped lands at the Carling O-train station, Confederation Heights, Westboro station, etc etc). Surely adjacent lands are cheaper and easier to develop right now

2. I have been critical in past postings, and generally cheered on by readers, about the “donut” style of the proposed LRT Stations. If you look at a “future build out” scenario around each station, all the high rises form a ring around the station (on someone else’s land)  but the station itself is the hole in the donut. City land remains the least-built-out, least-return-on-the-dollar site in these accessibility meccas. Yeah, we get increased tax base, but…

(And to be fair, it is not just transit stations that are underbuilt. Many city buildings are extraordinarily wasteful of land. City Hall, for example, could have had a very lively pedestrian street through the building if it also served as the entrance to one or two land-rent-producing condo towers above. Alas, another  suggestion gone unheeded…).

City and Federal bureaucrats seem to prefer single uses of land. Parks over there, roads here, condos over there, talk about mixed use and integration but for simplicity always deliver mono-uses of land. It’s easier that way. There is nothing so complicated as getting bureaucratic silos to cooperate, let alone do something. It is best to restrict air right developments and other nifty ideas to vague architectural sketches used to sell the plan, and then pull a bait-and-switch to deliver same-old unimaginative stuff.

3. A word on building over the LRT tracks. High rise buildings tend to have their supporting pillars about 18′ apart. This is the preferred distance for our current concrete and steel building technologies. Eighteen feet is inadequate to span two tracks. So if the tracks are set close together, some sort of thick bridging beam is required to span the tracks and hold up the building above. For reasons already explained by the LRT teams at public meetings, the resulting building functionality is severely compromised by the thick beam, while simultaneously being expensive.

 Some earlier versions of the current LRT plan showed the tracks running through the Flats but separated by a few meters. This would permit a row of pilotis or building pillars to go between the tracks, so that buildings could be constructed above them. But this concept has been refined out of the current plan. It looks pretty obvious that the site developer (NCC)  decided it wasn’t economic to build over the tracks, preferring instead to build cl0se up to them.

Now all that could change if the land becomes much more valuable (air rights are valuable in NYC, but new condos there go for $3000/ft rather than the $420 foot here). So maybe it would be worthwhile to plan for future air rights buildings, to be constructed when economic. Provided, of course, human nature changes and the adjacent condo dwellers forego NIMBYism when their views get blocked.

In theory, Hobbs could get buildings over the Scott trench supported on giant beams traversing the cut. These buildings cannot be built on pillars supported between the tracks, because as Hobbs well knows, there is a giant square sewer box under the tracks. See for example, this early 2011 sketch of the Tunney’s Station, which shows much of the trench with the sewer box, and no, you can’t build new pillars right beside it.

4. The suggestion we build on the air rights assumes that there is no other use for the space, ie that it is wasted or underused. As underdeveloped as the Scott Street trench is, it is a green spine that is every bit as useful as an Official City Park, sitting off in segregated splendor. McKellerites like the Byron linear park, west side residents might put some value on the Scott corridor.

See, for example, the BikeWest proposal. It would upgrade the primitive path along the north sides of Albert and Scott to a proper bi-directional bike route that would extend due west of the downtown core to Westboro (and extendable beyond). With safer, modern intersection designs there is every reason to expect this path to become a major active transportation link to the core, for 100,000 people living on the west side. Putting buildings on the space is likely to kill BikeWest, or at least render it unattractive to users if it is constantly dodging pillars and garage ramps.

5. Politicians have images to protect and polish. If a politician only reacts to events, they will usually be on the defensive. Other parties are setting the agenda, often parties affiliated with another politician. So it makes sense to be pro-active from time to time. What better way to enliven a slow news month than by demanding staff produce a report on air rights. So glamorous and futuristic, and progressive. Cynical as I am about her motives for asking for the report, it is one that should have been done much earlier.

My cynicism is tempered by the experience of attending LRT planning sessions. Hobbs and Holmes are the only two councilors to regularly attend these sessions or send staff to them. This is to their credit. But then a councillor could easily find out about air rights by simply asking staff at a meeting about them ( public attendees do, frequently). So is the Hobbs inquiry crass politics, or good public policy, or both?

6. Air rights might be an idea always brought up but seldom deliverable.

If development occurs over an open/unused/underused space, then it spoils a view (see, for example, the still-complained-about Pan Am/Met Life building in NYC).

In Boston, the “big dig” that buried a downtown core freeway could have recovered some of its cost overruns by selling air rights … but instead got developed as a sterile and astoundingly underused Rose Kennedy park, an open space if not a liked space. Recall that an Ottawa faction (spokesperson: Senator Mac Harb ) wanted to keep LeBreton Flats all “green space” — trot out usual argument here about lack of neighborhood park space…

Hobbs is not yet offering west enders a good bargain. If it was development ONLY over the transitway, then neighbours might be interested. Instead, they know it is development there AND throughout the neighborhood.

So it is in their own interest to oppose air rights development in favour of open space. We’ll call it park land and a green spine or a linear park, until some other day when it gets chewed up for a road widening or new transit. Earlier suggestions from this blog that parts of the Scott and O-Train trenches be covered over as the easiest and perhaps cheapest way to get additional park land for the City have fallen on deaf ears. Covering the trench is only feasible for affluent neighborhoods.

A proper inquiry about air rights has to consider what we might want to put above the transitway, and why, then cost it out.


8 thoughts on “Air rights over the transitway/LRT

  1. Many city buildings are extraordinarily wasteful of land.

    Setting aside the issue of multi-use city properties, can they at least design their single uses compactly, efficiently, and sensibly?

    The damn liberries, rec centres, and community centres! Greenboro Branch. The new archives building out on Woodlands or Tallville or whatever sterile name that street-like thing has. Orleans. Mlacak. Gloucester North. Alta Vista. Centerpointe. Centennial Nepean Sportsplex All built stupidly far back from the street — in the last two cases, with their backs turned to it. And often with local bus stops that are stupidly located in relation to the building, when you could have had a building that is tight to the street, and incorporates a feature, tight to public use of the rest of the building for security reasons, that doubles as a transit shelter, secure bike parking, etc., etc..

    That, and less area devoted to stupid pointless walkways means less salt, sand, and Blue Stuff that has to be used in the winter, less time and money spent weeding the stupid pointless things, and less money spent every ten years ripping up frost-hoven pavers and replacing them with the same stupid pointless pavers that the frost will spend the following ten years heaving.

    Does anyone at city hall bus or walk anywhere, ever, for any purpose?

    1. “Does anyone at city hall bus or walk anywhere, ever, for any purpose?”

      I often wonder the same thing. I have proposed that the person in charge of road surface maintenance be required to ride a bicycle on said streets, especially at night, and preferably in the rain.

  2. A counterexample is the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library, which has a privately-owned office building above it on a site that used to have just the (Carnegie) library itself.

    This has made the current library site useless for redevelopment now that the existing library is inadequate in terms of both size and layout, but the office building owner doesn’t want to redevelop because that property works fine for them.

    When you think long-term like this, sometimes it does make sense to keep public sites single use. When these times are can’t always be foreseen.

    That said, recall the agreements the city had struck with the two universities to locate buildings over the stations in the 2006 LRT plan.

  3. Charles: yeah, once you sell the land and develop it, it does restrict one from selling it again, and again, unless we have Mayor Bernie Madoff. Selling the air rights over the downtown library help paid for the library. If the library wants a new grander building 3/4 of block by 3/4 of a block, they couldn’t redevelop the existing site anyway. If the building owner above doesn’t want it, the city can use it for other purposes or sell it to someone else, it doesn’t have to go to the building above. There are scads of condo developments in town in which the garage, ground floor commercial, some office floors, and residence floors/units are in separate ownerships. It makes life complex, and feeds lawyers’ starving children, but it is normal.
    If we sell the air rights over the transitway for a 20 storey building, yeah, we cannot then sell it for a 40 storey building twenty years from now when the land “is worth more”. But, we could design the LRT so that we could sell the air rights when the time is right and it is economic to develop them, maybe in 10, 20, or 100 years time. Consider planning as a gift to our children. So, I say the tracks should be a few feet further apart so that air rights can be sold some day, and planning maps should show that the air rights might be developed.

  4. I was at Queen’s Park in Toronto recently and as I sat in the gallery in the assembly room, I could hear (and feel) the subway trains passing beneath the building. I don’t remember ever feeling subway trains pass beneath me while I lived in London. Maybe the tunnel is just shallow at Queen’s Park. But this is a consideration to take into account.

  5. Julia: toronto’s subway, like Berlin’s, is just below the surface pavement. Many in London are deep. You can feel the subway under the Paris Opera House. On a trip to NYC, I could feel long freight trains under my Soho hotel, and they were a long distance down in Manhattan Shist, a very good tunnelling rock. With modern technology, using a concrete road bed and rubber pads, subways are much quieter and transmit less vibration. In Ottawa, the NAC had tech input to the subway location so they were satisified its route would not be felt in the opera house. Note too that Ottawa is using light rail technology, not heavy rail like Toronto subway.

    When developing air rights, usually the first three floors or so above the tracks are parking garage or commercial space where vibes are not much of a problem. Residential goes up higher. I do wonder how LRT compares to say, trucks on Bronson Avenue or Baseline road…

    1. Or to, say, five jillion and three buses rumbling past the National Ugly Centre on a bridge every day.

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