The City of Ottawa’s CDP on the Bayview-Carling area has long been an embarrassment. Not that its key worker bee has been lacking, but rather that the city has endlessly unfunded it, delayed it, postponed it, and frustrated it, while many of the prime lots have been spot rezoned, frequently from a two or four storey height to twenty, thirty, and now forty+ stories.
But there are many more sites yet to be rezoned, and the developers are lined up four deep for rezoning, so the City flew in its favourite swat team Urban Strategies, of Toronto.
Here are some impressions of the George Dark — direct from the Centre of the Universe — charette exercise. A charette is a fancy french word for a brainstorming exercise whereby a bunch of people gather around to discuss — and perhaps resolve — a design problem.
This was done by viewing overhead projections of some designs adopted by other cities that had similar problems. By hearing frequent anecdotes about how Toronto has already successfully solved our (much smaller) problems. And by gathering ’round a 6′ x 6′ printed out air photo of the neighborhood with styrofoam scale models of the approved high rises and a lifetime supply of generic apartment building models to be positioned around the map by George Dark or his colleague Eric. Although the lifetime supply ran out before the end of the first afternoon, and the model maker worked on for many hours over two days cranking out “another 18 storey” or “a six story plus two, set back”, or “a fieldhouse, one loft with some two”.
I can’t give a blow-by-blow account of the exercise, as it would be two days long. But here are some personal observations.
Mind your Wills and Mays
Mr Dark is a charming and eloquent person. He is likeable. And he has lots of experience in large scale development. Vocabulary is important. A lot could be gleaned by listening carefully. The area will get lots more highrises. There will be lots of intensification. We will have to adjust. There will be major changes. We — the residents — must change.
Developers may choose to provide this. They may include streetscaping. They may have underground parking. There may be landscaping behind the infills. The City may decide to add a park.
There’s your opinion, and the right opinion
Several times during the presentation someone would say something along the lines that they liked what was here now, and why change, or that they didn’t like something. Often, the moderator rolled with the comments and carried on smoothly. But more than once those comments elicted a sharp “well, that’s your opinion, it’s only one view, and others think differently”. Someone playing along with the preferred dialogue of how many more buildings can we fit along the street, never got reprimanded, but did get elevated into the select club of “we think”. A more than subtle nudge along the direction of correct thought according to Dark Vader.
Fortunately the Agenda 21 intervenor was ignored, and the Glebite who thought a stadium or Senators ice hockey rink would be perfect for Dows Lake got politely navigated by. It proved harder to avoid the lady who thought we should be discussing, in detail, all the possible options and their advantages for a Carling Avenue main LRT line from Kanata that would end at the corner of Carling and Preston.
I’ll see you “four” and up it by “two”
Planning speak can be very curious. If a member of the public present said an area could accept be intensified from two stories to four (ie, stacked townhouses), Mr Dark would repeat out loud “four stories”, thus informing the speaker that he or she had been heard. Within 30 seconds, George, warming up into the next paragraph, would summarize this as “four to six”. About sixty to ninety seconds later he would pause in the middle of his new topic, and in a sotto voice, turn to his faithful assistant over by the big sheets of paper with coloured markers, wave his fingers, and say “six to eight”. And thus the morning went by.
Planning is a sort of high stakes poker, with condo floors being the chips.
The first time I heard Mr Dark say “eight stories transitioning down to ten”, I figured he had made a slip of the tongue. Obviously eight goes UP to ten. Or ten goes down to eight. But throughout the days, I heard this over and over again. Six transitioning down to eight. Sixteen down to eighteen. Words mean exactly what he means them to mean. Alice should have been a planner.
New Park Proposed
A lot of time was spent on the suggestion of a new major chunk of parkland along Beech Street, to occupy the entire block west of Champagne and north of the Emerald Tower, although at one time it was suggested that another building might be squeezed in between the Emerald and the Park. To acquire this park site would cost somewhere in the five to seven million dollar range, if we go by the selling price of similar lots in the area.
While the park idea was well received, it does create two park parcels bisected by Champagne. So another hour was spent speculating on how the City might have a closable street through there, or how one could possibly mitigate that, and what colour one might use to paint the bollards.
Note that there was no suggestion that a large development site be sacrificed to park land; that was specifically rule off the table. Can’t be done, said George. However, the Beverley Apartments, modestly priced accommodation for the modestly waged, well that could go to create an urban playground for the better waged incomers who will live in those gleaming glass towers. As for those displaced residents — too bad, so sad.
The Great Wall of Carling grows a block deeper
Residents and observers of the rezoning applications along the Carling end of the neighborhood have frequently mentioned the proposed “wall” of high rise buildings along the street. Two twenty-something towers on the parking lot at Champagne. Three to five towers to replace Dow Motors. Soho Italia at 500 Preston (still somewhere around 30 floors), or Claridge’s 505 Preston (42 stories), and a buncha unnamed ones continuing along Carling as one goes east.
Until recently, the CDP planning team had alluded to a single row of towers along Carling. Our concerns that they would merely be the first row of many more to come further north, were downplayed. Mr Dark had no such compunctions. Yup, build another row behind them. Or two. At least all the way to Adeline Street. And start to transition down from the thirty and forty floor towers on the south side of Adeline by putting more high rises on the north side (yup, twenty floors on the north side, in the “low rise” area, would be a nice transition down).
Rochester – the previously missed opportunity
All the residential streets running east meet Rochester along the edge of the NRCan properties. The abrupt change from mid and high rise office buildings to low rise residential creates and “uncertain” zone, ergo the houses have been converted to restaurants, or parking lots, and empty spaces, just waiting for a clever suggestion of what to build there. Domicile is first out of the gate, asking for 14 to 18 floors for a condo tower at Norman/Rochester. Dark’s model maker promptly produced five more to fill up the end of every block ending at Rochester.
Once the ‘low rise’ central neighborhood area got bookended by a long line of high rises, it was pretty simply to toss in a few 20 story ones along Orange Street, adjacent to Ottawa’s cute little airplane-sized-spirit-bottle Distillery Distict which would be fashioned out of the historic red brick Mineralogical Laboratory buildings (now vacant, condemned by gross contamination).
Once the row of Rochester high rises reached the current Preston Square development, three or more high rises were plopped onto the large parking lot between the successful Sakto development and the Prescott Tavern. Might as well throw in some six storey new buildings along Preston mainstreet too. And maybe behind them, throw in a few real high rises, sorta like the Adobe building lurking behind the successful row of shops immediately north. They simply won’t be noticeable, we were informed.
Deja Vu 1950’s, motor-centric Ottawa
I was very surprised by one of the urban strategies recommended. Not recommended, that’s too passive a word. Maybe “earnestly sold” or promoted, over and over. I thought that catering to the car was passe, but it sprang up from its coffin, the wooden stake extracted, and the nightmare began: Dont build a pedestrian bridge over the OTrain at Hickory. Make it a road bridge. To “complete” the neighborhood grid (completeness, it seems is only visible thru the windshield of a car, but not perceptible by foot or bike). And the OTrain linear park, new home of the million dollar bikeway now under construction, is apparently unlike the Byron streetcar linear park in that this one will be improved by the addition for three to six new cross streets every 200′.
And that existing ped bridge at Young, get rid of it, put in a car bridge. And some new roads. Put one along the east side of the OTrain cut, to connect up those dead end streets to make it easier for motorists to circle the block looking for parking (actually said !). Can’t we extend those other dead end streets over to join Railway Street on the west side of the cut? George wanted to extend almost all the streets over the cut. I say almost all, because he notably didn’t want to extend those streets that would go through the high rise development sites along Champagne, only those that would deliver motorists to the low rise residential area.
Rentlentlessly criticized and hounded by residents, who continually came back to the undesirability of the Autowa plan, Mr Dark later conceded that the new north-south road might be more like a mews, a lane, cute, mixed use with kids playing on it. The east-west roads would be full size, though. I have no doubt that More Roads will be in the final report.
Why did he want that north-south road along the east side of the OTrain cut?…
Blockbusting revisited, and the Fonze jumps the tracks
Anyone experienced in urban planning exercises quickly learns the standard block busting methods used by cities and developers. Buy a property. Let it run down. Abandon it. Forget to turn off the water when winter comes. Declare it uninhabitable. Make sure it looks ugly. Someone sooner or later will report children nearby playing with matches. Soon the neighbors will applaud when some civic minded functionary suggests demolishing it.
I couldn’t help but think of the analogy when dealing with the short dead end streets running west of Preston. They are short. Some with as few as six houses. More commonly, ten to fourteen houses, on 25′ lots. Most of the residents at the charette wanted these areas preserved for low rises — four floors or less. But the planners enthused about rebuilds along Preston going to six floors. And maybe a taller building behind, where they were be invisible to passers-by. And at the railway track end of the streets, why not intensify the block ends with some new apartments. Like 18 stories high. If you haven’t done the math, the street is now left with very few low rises. And if someone in that short block should happen to apply for a higher building, why that’s up to Council to decide in its wisdom whether that would be desirable. Calling Katherine Hobbs!
And those 18 story high rises, repeated at each dead end along the railway track, was why we need the new streets running along the OTrain corridor. And once Fonzie gets those Champagne high rises to “jump the tracks”, the block busting is well underway.
Did I mention that major developer is suggesting an 18 storey high rise is appropriate for their site on Norman?
Florida, Spike, and the Gang
Am I super-sensitive, or what? I was irritated each time we were told with some enthusiasm that Rod Lahey (architect of many of the glass towers) was moving into an older industrial building on Beech. This is definitely the stamp of approval, the Richard Florida creative -class blessing our previously obscure neighborhood. And he is following on the steps of Barry Hobin, also a landowner who has his offices here, and who was present but not captured in the photo above.
Lahey’s office was represented at the meeting by a junior architect. Let’s call him Spike. Who exuded confidence that his employer’s new high rises would bless and elevate the neighborhood out of the dark ages. We would soon arrive at the gates of nirvana! You poor souls don’t know how lucky you are. We do. We will refashion the neighborhood into a walkable live-work-play transit-oriented-utopia. He so looked forward to working in his new offices.
I got the impression at one point he was being paid to be at the meeting by the Dark crew itself, but surely after the city-planning-department-hiring-fotenn controversey, they couldn’t have thought doing it through a subcontract would be less obvious. Could they?
Spike may change his mind in October, though, because I learned he actually lives in Greeley or some place exurban like that, and plans to drive to work everyday. Alas, the new Lahey premises don’t seem to have any parking, but that’s just a minor glitch for a site that is surely a retirement-nest-egg for the Lahey fortune. Another thirty story condo there would fund many a winter in Hawaii while the habitants slug through the snow on the five foot wide sidewalks.
Of restrained smiles, grins of glee, and smirks
While observing George Dark work by the teams of architects and developers and city planners, I noticed that many of them were readily identified by their tight little smiles. Lips compressed. Often corners of the mouths turned down slightly. But still obviously happy, just not laughing out loud.
Whazzup? I wondered. Were they happy to be participating with the local peasantry, in a joint collaborate urban planning game of charette? Or were they grinning with glee at the positive snowstorm of styrofoam high rises scattering over every corner of the neighborhood? Or was it a smirk, of the I-know-something-you-don’t school?
The “professionals” were readily separable from the locals whose most common posture was arms folded across their chests. Their frowns outnumbered smiles tenfold.
Of the city planners present, I thought they didn’t share the smirk enthusiasm. More than once I saw frowns of dismay.
Big Cheeses don’t smell when absent
The sessions were attended by the aforementioned residents and property owners and architects and developers and city planners and planners-for-hire.
Councillor Holmes dropped in three times. Her staff was present for the whole event. Of Councillor Hobbs and her staff — missing in action. Ditto Cherneschenko, and McCrae (the intersection of Carling and Preston is home to four wards, but most of the action is in Holmes and Hobbs’ wards). The City’s new policy planner chief boffinette came by to hear the opening remarks, but only a few weeks into the planning job, she didn’t feel it was necessary to stay for long.
The NCC sent a representative, who talked rather freely and openly for a civil servant, although she strung so many four syllable abstract words together in each sentence there was a certain ambiguity to what she might have said. NRCan/Canada Lands Corp was represented by one of the hats worn by Mr Fobert-Fotenn, who was also present on behalf of several property owners, developers, and possibly the City planning department itself.
Was the exercise worthwhile?
Well, yes. I learned something. That you could put an awful lot of high rises in a neighborhood if you really try. That what Ottawa really needs is a lot more of Toronto. That highrise condos selling for $450 a foot are the new definition of affordable housing. And that the people buying these new affordable homes will be delighted to pay yet more levies to improve the neighborhood, since the only way we may get local improvements is through the benevolence (or sec 37 extractions)of developers. There will be no real estate bust, esp. for condos.
The future is bright, and shiny, and made of glass. And is very very tall.