Champlain (de-)forest realities

I went on a walking tour Sunday morning in the Champlain Park neighborhood. This west side group of streets runs north of the transitway, from the Mosque at Northwestern to Island Park Drive. The neighborhood began as a cottage area on the floodplain of the River (the railway tracks, now transitway trench, marked the high water mark of the floodplain). Later, small houses were built in the 1940’s followed by some 2-storey homes. My grandparents lived in one on Cowley.

The neighborhood had its quirks, including a lack of storm sewers and inconsistent rear yard grading, which led to frequent basement flooding. I recall sitting on my grandparent’s back porch watching lighting repeatedly strike the tall CBC mast on Lanark Avenue (now gone) across from my high school, Champlain (now also repurposed) whose principal was Russ Jackson. After watching the storm, we trooped down to the basement to see how much water came in, and to move the beer.

Over the fence to the rear was an extra deep lot with a rather slummy cottage on it, set about 100′ back from the road, occupied by an artist, possibly Victor Tolgesy  whose works include the lady flying in the cloud sculpture hanging in the ByWard Market building. Down the street was a cold-war era house built of solid concrete (or at least with a concrete bomb shelter) so that after the rest of the City was Bombed Out, their river-view house would still stand (don’t laugh, that is why Tunney’s Pasture and EMR Booth Street were built — outside of the bomb blast radius that would take out the downtown, there would still be surviving civil servants available to run the country).

What made the promised 90 minute tree-watching walk on Sunday more intriguing was the heavy political overtones. To its residents, this appears to be a neighborhood under siege.

Many of the giant burr oak trees are in the back yards, but many are also visible on front yards or at corner lots. The trees are very tall, multi-branched, with a distinct upward open shape rather than a round canopy.

Some of the trees are very old, about 175 years, and over a meter in diameter. Here is a tree slice that illustrates their size and leads into the next phase: cutting them down:

The dark smudge near the heartwood in the centre is staining from an iron nail put in the tree about 1840. While it may have been an important survey nail, I think it more likely it was the end of a clothesline. The underwear must be dried.

There is a nice assortment of other large native trees in the neighborhood: ash, catalpa, red oak, silver and sugar maples, rowanberry (mountain ash).

So where did the tree slice pictured come from? Infill. A number of the smaller houses have been replaced in the 70’s through 90’s with suburban-style homes that still don’t blend in well. But they were generally single homes. Today, developers are replacing old stock houses with very large singles, duplexes, or clusters of 3 to five homes. In addition, homeowners are turning smaller old homes into McMansions. These larger homes, or new homes, take up more of the lot, and the trees gotta go.

The political education bit started with identifying the favorite villain, the evil, greedy developer who builds new houses that “don’t blend in” in pursuit of that dreadful profit. In Champlain Park, profit is still a four-letter word.

But over the course of the walk, the political message got more nuanced. The City was fingered as a villain, for wanting to plant Kentucky coffee trees and crab apples and other small-size trees instead of large growing natives. And for being very willing and quick to identify large trees as “having a fungus” or some other reason for cutting them down now. Yup, the City was getting tagged with the “enemy” list, which I personally found very gratifying since I thought I was alone in thinking the worst enemy of the urban forest is the City Employee.

The road department employees also came in for criticism, for excessively wide roads although no one could quite bear to suggest maybe the streets themselves were too wide in the neighborhood. And don’t forget Hydro, which loves to trim trees around overhead wires.

Elderly people were also identified as culprits. In the fall, there apparently is a spate of calls to the City to cut down trees that drop “too many leaves” on the poor elderly homeowner. They should be sentenced to condo-beria.

There was a bit of political self-congratulation too, identifying homeowners that positioned their new homes or whopping rear-facing additions to avoid established trees. The survival of some specimens I saw seemed more due to good luck than anything else (like the foundation that came within 3′ of giant oak, on all three sides…).  Yes, the era of the modest size home is long gone in this neighborhood.

As is the modest-priced house, since infills tend to be large to maintain the ratio of lot price to house price. And it won’t be helped by  insisting on fewer larger houses on the lots (very very expensive) rather than more, smaller houses (duplexes, also very expensive, but only with one very). And the neighbours didn’t take kindly to the condos elsewhere in the neighborhood either, as I saw several lawn signs denigrating condo developers. Where are those old folks going to downsize, or  young couples going to live — Kemptville? Cornwall?

No blame was apportioned to the vendors of the lots who happily enjoyed the large trees, then sold to developers, with perhaps a tich of foreknowledge about what might be coming. Or the homeowner who sold his side lot, knowing the five massive oaks would be cut down, but preferred that the trees go rather than forego his 4′ strip of grassy sideyard. There is no shortage of villains in the area.

But there were heros too. Some residents are collecting acorns, and sprouting them. Residents talk of inoculating ash trees ($300 a pop, must be done several times…) at their own expense.  The Community Association is getting more proactive with developers to try to fit in development and prevent tumorous additions from killing trees.

It is hard to argue aesthetics and environmental values with developers and city bureaucrats who work with dollars. A number of trees in the area were tagged with with price-tags, complete with scan code, showing the economic value of a large tree:

I did not see any signs of guerilla gardening, where residents plant their oak whips on parkland or roadsides, but I am confident that will be happening by next year.

In the meantime, the last laugh may come from the trees themselves. Such very tall trees do periodically shed a large branch, from great height, squishing the car or house below. Or, as shown below, just muscling those pesky humans aside:

6 thoughts on “Champlain (de-)forest realities

  1. As someone who lives on Northwestern Avenue, here’s my perspective. I live in a 1954 house with a 1970s sunroom. On my lot, the house takes about 40 feet of the 130 foot depth, with a front yard of about 25 feet and a back yard of about 55 feet. (all measurements totally pulled out of my a… head.) My side yards are about five feet on one side, about 3 feet on the other.

    We were first-time home buyers in 2000. Since that time, our property value has roughly tripled, based on sales in the neighbourhood. Whee, right? We’re rich. Except what good is it to us?

    The developments that have been happening in our neighbourhood have been upsetting to me for a number of reasons.

    1. The race to develop our neighbourhood is shutting people like me out of purchasing. I wouldn’t even LOOK in my neighbourhood for a house now, as I would have then. I can’t afford to pay $800K for a house. I don’t mean to say that people who can afford these houses are BAD people. But they’re different from the people who live here now. For example. I live next to a single-income family with three children under 5. On the other side is a single-income family with two children under 6. Both income earners have good jobs, but they could NEVER support a $600K mortgage, and they don’t come from families that could buy them a house like that. They love their neighbourhood to the point that they sacrifice some creature comforts in their houses to be here.
    2. The houses that are getting built are huge. A house proposed for three or four doors away from me is a 4+1 BR, more than 3K square feet, $1.3M. The same developer is selling a semi around the corner with 3BR, 4 baths, and is likely over 2K sq ft. That means that on a 50×100 lot, there are two houses with 4K sq ft of space. By comparison, my house is about 1600 sqft on a 50×130 lot.
    3. Our neighbourhood is unusual. We have big lots. And we have a lot of small houses. And we’re zoned R2. The proposed house near us would replace a wee bungalow that I’d wager is under 1000 square feet. But do we have to see all of the mature trees go down? Do we have to see the builders use every inch of the footprint allowed (and beyond, sometimes)? Do ALL the houses have to exclude normal humans from the buying process? (Keep in mind, if someone had a 25% down payment & bought that $1.3M house, they will put more than $320K down and pay $6K per month for their mortgage)

    Intensification? Good principle. But we are already watching wellington and Richmond be lined with condo towers. There’s the 36-storey proposal for Parkdale and Armstrong. There have been many semi-detached projects in our neighbourhood. How intense do we have to be?

  2. Thanks for covering the walk Eric, with your own unique – and “saucy” – perspective. One important thing should be noted up front. When you say “What made the promised 90 minute tree-watching walk on Sunday more intriguing was the heavy political overtones. (sic.)” it would probably be useful to mention that the walk was organized by the Ottawa Forests and Greenspace Advisory Committee – a council-sanctioned policy advisory body – which has been working with our local Champlain Oaks project (

    The central question of the walk was a policy / political question: in the face of increasing development / infill / change, what can we do to preserve as many of our old growth trees as possible – particularly the magnificent pre-Confederation bur oaks? So it should be no surprise that when you turn up for a walk that was set up to discuss a policy issue with people who help frame policy, that’s exactly what you get.

    Myself, I’m a fan of urban living, and the continual change and yes, the extra people and dwelling units, that come along with it. And no, I don’t blame sellers or developers for acting as the system gives them incentives to act. Can I wish they’d act differently? Sure, but I realize they’re acting on their own very clear and understandable interests.

    Which is why engaged citizens like us have to keep working as a counterpoint, pushing the City to make sure it acts as a smart (non-lazy) brake-tender on intensification when there are other public-good assets to be considered – a forest of ancient urban trees for example.

  3. Looks like an already expensive condo might be the only way anyone can live in Westboro in the near future, given the way houses are appreciating. Yup, intensification has made property values plummet. Just wait till they get light rail – they’ll have to give away their homes for free!

  4. If the Burr oaks are so valuable to the city and community perhaps homeowners should get a significant discount on their property taxes for preserving one of these rare beauties. That way large diameter trees could, in a sense, pay their own rent.

  5. OK, so what I’ve always wanted to do with a Tree Slice like that one is use it as a local history time-chart. Take a whole bunch of significant events, especially any that might be in evidence in the tree rings themselves and label them on the appropriate concentric circle-like shape.

  6. I missed the walk, but thank you for covering it so entertainingly (or “saucily”–ha!). In our house we similarly troop down to the basement to inspect for seepage after a long, heavy rain. I wonder, are there storm sewers in this neighbourhood now?

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