Charettes — or is it charades? — on the west side

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”.

the base model, before the Helicopters started raining down new buildings onto the neighborhood. No one was hurt, though, as the new buildings were styrofoam and not brick.

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?

Leading the Charette, George Dark (at left) is flanked by Bob Fobert [Fotenn planning consultants], the head of Charlesfort the condo builders, and the head of Arnon corporation, the condo and office builders. In the foreground, a slightly discouraged-looking resident — hello Aline! — holds up her head.
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.

Roderick Lahey, Architect’s new offices, Florida North, come to Beech Street, in delightful proximity to the Prescott, such a quaint and cute place to observe the locals in their rapidly disappearing habitat

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.

While planners worked inside, just outside City surveyor’s were busy, giving the impression the City was acting promptly to implement the change.

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.

24 thoughts on “Charettes — or is it charades? — on the west side

  1. Eric
    Enjoyed reading this. Glad you mentioned the human society site application that was slated to be aquired by the city to expand the park in the secondary plan. If the city had aquired the site it would have been a single land base park expansion. Didn’t happen for whatever reason and it was purcharsed by developers . The community and the plan needs a replacement idea for this , and the site worked on in the charette seems to make a lot of sense, and it needs a solid way to make sure it can be accomplished this time. The flex street is a design challenge i agree. But not an impossible one .

  2. As a members of the younger half of the generational split present at the drop-in, my wife and I think all of this is exciting. As long as there is good place-making, we don’t car how tall buildings are. The more stuff in our neighbourhood will essential eliminate our already-little need for a car.

  3. I don’t own a car. Or a license. And I think extending the street grid for all modes – including automotive – is the way to go. Not just pedbridges.

  4. Hi Eric,
    Geoffrey Hall here, Planning Assistant in Councillor Hobbs’ office. I was looking forward to attending both days in full, but I came down with a nasty cold on Tuesday and have been home sick since. Thanks for the post.

  5. I only had time to drop in for a few hours yesterday, but they were disappointing. It felt like there was a lot of lecturing from the “experts” going on and not very much listening to what the community had to say. If that’s what was going on the whole time, how can the report have any legitimacy?

    So the north/south road east of the tracks wasn’t something I misheard? Incredible. The short time I was at the charette I didn’t hear the words “cycling,” “walking” or “light rail” once — it was all about how the cars will get around, where to store the cars, etc. etc.

    I feel that an amazing opportunity is being missed here, an opportunity to build a neighbourhood focused on walking, cycling and transit. We’ve got a traditional mainstreet, which with good planning could have all the amenities people need within a short walk. We’ve got light rail and excellent cycling connections for longer trips. Why be so car-centric?

    I’m getting really tired of “experts” coming in to tell us how it’s got to be in our neighbourhoods. I don’t care how much education or experience someone has in the field of urban planning — that is not as important as the knowledge of someone who lives in the neighbourhood, who walks the streets everyday, who works in the restaurants and coffee shops, whose children play in the parks and attend the neighbourhood schools. These are the real experts. The point of a charette like this should be to draw out their knowledge, not to lecture them on how their neighourhood MUST change.

  6. How depressing. You’ve captured in great detail how ‘urban planning’ is used to take attractive, established, balanced communities and systematically gut them of anything that made them worthwhile in the first place, replacing well-aged housing stock with scores of high-rises that look just like any other high-rise ‘neigbourhood’ on the continent. Cars and condos, that’s the name of the game—never dare to suggest that a developer doesn’t have the right to squeeze every penny out of every square foot of the city!

    1. This is exactly how I felt when I read this post. I also think it’s a done deal. The developers come in and tell us all how it will go down and they will likely be right. And the condos will be snapped up by those who will think this is the new hip place to live in Ottawa. And given the proposed density it is going to be full of cars. So we have some people working hard at City Hall to make this a more bike-friendly city and we have developers who don’t live here and who therefore couldn’t care less about bikes or pedestrians. They really are running the show.

  7. Heinous. I found the material advertising the charette to carry the message that the “professionals” would make the decisions during the day and the community could drop in after to see what was decided. To be fair, it did say that residents were welcome in the afternoon (so not the morning?), but the words ‘community drop-in’ for the evening slot inferred to me that they preferred I attend the evening review. And of course, doing this during the weekdays ensured that most residents were safe at work.

    1. meghanh, over 100 people participated both days (morning, afternoon and evening) including residents who actually live in the study area and ‘professionals’.

      1. Marcus, I would like to request that you deduct 2 from your list “over 100 people particiated”. My husband and I went in the evening (locals dropping in), but did not participate because there was absolutely no way to participate. There were no comment sheets to fill in, absolutely no explanations why certain things were stuck on the wall, and all the pieces of the areal map and the foam buildings on it were moved around all the time.

        This is my very first response to this blog that I read religiously, and I could say more about the charette, but will limit myself to this clarification of what it meant that “the community dropped in.”

  8. Who would pay to extend the roads across the O-train tracks? We *may* get some neighbourhood improvements through Sec 37 funds, but there *will* be another pile of money for helping cars cut through bike paths.

    We’ve really been looking forward to both the bike path and the pedestrian bridge. We bike with our three year old to her daycare and have to get to Sherwood from Preston. The busy and narrow sidewalk along Carling to cross the OTrain tracks is no place for her wobbly biking, but that bridge would be.

    1. A neighbourhood where kids can safely bike to daycare and to school? Sounds like a priority to me. Doubt that it was ever discussed (or, if it was, taken seriously) at the charette (I hope I’m wrong).

  9. Very interesting commentary Eric. Still, it’s too bad that you were not there when I was. We could have talked. As for attendingmore of the sessions, when you have a more than full-time job dealing with Lansdowne Park, footbridges to be built and defended and committee and council meetings to attend, it doesn’t leave much time to come to charettes that are not directly in your ward. Still, I explained to my family as I left for the fourth evening out of four away from my home that I simply had to attend. They tried to be understanding. You raise some excellent points, but you might do better to stay away from the personal shots. And my name is spelled Chernushenko – it can be Googled, it’s on the city website and on several pages of the Citizen today. Yes, I am feeling a bit cranky . Coming down with a flu from working too hard. And tonight I will be at another public meeting on the proposed footbridge from Fifth to Clegg, aimed at better cycling and pedestrian linkages. That makes a 14-hour work day.
    Cheers,
    David

    1. David:
      Thanks for being the single vote on council against the pie-in-the-sky boondoggle toomfoolery that is the Lansdowne project. If only they valued the naming rights at $250 million they could have balanced everyone’s books. My bet is that your objection will be vindicated in spades as the future unfolds.

      I was going to critque you for taking a shot at Eric taking a shot at whomever but felt that to do so would be ungenerous, so I will avoid doing so. I would hope our urban area is big enough to contain both you and Eric – its a Florida thing if not a Jane Jacobs thing. And I am pretty sure Eric failed the test when he went for his bloggers license; if he had passed he would probably be working today as a columnist at the Globe and Mail.
      All the best.

  10. An demonstration of greed by developers and cold indifference towards the casualties next door.
    A monument to the easy to slide one by city council of 2012 recorded for decades to come.
    There are millions of dollars in view to sell. condo fees to follow. invest now! Pay later

  11. Eric:
    Thanks for the write up although I must admit it makes for depressing reading.
    What really needs to happen here is for the citzenry, the taxpayers, the folks that foot the bill (financial and lifestyle impacts), get together over their own 6′ x 6′ photo map and put together a planning outline that actually works for them, not for the come-from-away carpetbaggers looking to make a lot of money out of imposing misery on the people who created the neighbourhood in the first place.

    Poster Michelle speaks above of a neighbourhood where kids could safely bike to school. I was hoping that was the direction you were going to take with the tri-partite series on infill – an in depth examination of how to go about building a neighbourhood independent of the car, one where the primary means of transport is self-locomotion, one in which the design is implemented in such a way as to ensure the required amenities are within pedestrian/cycling range.

    You had an image in one of the serial posts that showed european worker housing (the potato fields) that had been redeveloped into a compact ped-friendly urban area. I looked at that image and thought no cars, quiet, child safe streets, nearby food strores, nearby transit, and even better nearby occupational locations.

    Since it is hard for folks to schedule real time attendence at a planning meeting how about conducting it online via your blog? Take your neighbourhood and set out some defintions and criteria and then see what the readership is able to contribute. My hunch is that your readership is likely to be far more creative and insightful than the Dark forces at work at the charette. With 8 transitioning down to 100 how much worse could it get?

    Cheers!

    1. Thank you for taking the time to attend the session and write up this post. It makes it easier for the rest of us to understand how our city works.

  12. So much negativity on this thread! I can’t believe how miserable some of you are. The City is going to grow and the only way to accommodate people’s transportation needs without widening the Queensway to 16+ lanes and gobbling up more suburban land is to start putting LOTS and LOTS of people and jobs near high-quality transit. If you’re so passionate then you should have taken a day off work and expressed your thoughts at the charette. Provide constructive criticism to the City and respectfully let them know what you like and what you don’t like – that’s all you can do. If you only provide negative comments with suggestions that don’t make sense to the greater good of the city, you’re not helping and you will probably be ignored. The City probably only ever hears the complaints and us people in support remain quiet thinking “it’s fine with me, carry on”. Myself and other friends in the neighborhood disagree with a few details for Carling station, such as a few misplaced high-rises and new roads, but overall we are very excited and open to the change because it will bring along loads of amenities we can walk to and enjoy. Gladstone station is next and will likely get a similar treatment. There’s a lot more underused land around that [future] station. There are currently no high-rises there so some of you better change your diapers because I can totally see that area undergoing a massive transformation. Why not?

  13. I completely disagree – any seized opportunity to reduce car usage and dependency is a step in the right direction, for more reasons than one!

  14. Change is inevitable, plain and simple. That means taking brownfields, old housing stock, old buildings, etc., and turning them into dense housing or mixed-use buildings. We have exactly that happening in the Carling-Preston area. It means we’re going to get tall condo towers, and there’s little we can do about it. Unfortunately, Ottawans are afraid of heights, and I believe that City is tired of getting the usual NIMBY attitude from its citizens. So rather than consult residents, it has turned to informing, or lecturing, such as was the case at this Design Charette. It’s a missed opportunity on both sides. What the City should have made clear is that density and height are coming to the area – now, how can we make it work? Then, residents could have avoided complaining about height and density, and instead, focused on how to keep cars to a mininum; preserve green space; make walking and cycling #1; make the proposed high-rises include mixed-use components (ie. offices and services), etc. Unfortunately, residents always focus on the wrong thing, and now, the City’s heard enough… our own fault I suppose…

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