Condos, no condos, design review



Condos. No condos. Design review — is it real? Tall Towers are wonderful ! We have it all for you today.

The housing market continues to be unsettled on the West Side of downtown Ottawa. House For Sale signs seem to stay up forever. Even For Rent signs malinger in windows and on porch railings till they are weather-beaten to death.

After the outgoing Council’s orgy of rezoning on the West Side, Watson’s vaunted “new downtown” forest of high rises in Little Italy is looking rather forlorn. Latest to pack up shop is Nuovo, where i hear the sales office is closing (the sales centre, a pop-up building, may be available for events…) as it is too hard to get enough pre-sales to actually build Domicile’s 18 storey tower on Rochester overlooking Dows Lake. Nuovo has also disappeared from their web site (reminds me of Soviet Russia where out-of-favour people, or deaded ones, got air brushed out of photos).

Once sales stall, who wants to be last in putting their money into a building that might not be built….

(The story is different for smaller buildings, where the number of required pre-sales is less; residents of Little Italy wonder why we got stuck with all the high rises whereas Domicile is heading over to Main Street to build some four and six storey condos that developers and the city said couldn’t be done here. Mind, the City also said we couldn’t get the compleat street that Main is getting, either.  Domicile is also actively promoting low rise condos in Orleans. But not here on the west side).

And that is the main problem with the Little Italy location. Too many approved big towers, and a slow market, makes it difficult for anyone to commit to build.

Claridge is going ahead with their ICON tower, construction begins next month, for completion in 2018 or so. There aren’t enough pre-sales to justify construction, rather they are engaged in a big bet on which way the market will go, and when. By completion time they hope the current glut of unsold condos will have been taken up, and the market recovered, and people will be thrilled with their pied-a-terre on the fortieth floor.

(I confess to being a tich dismayed at the lengthy construction time line, given the never-ending hole digging and slow completion of the Tribecca project over by Place Bell, and the thought that there could be a dozen similar such slow build outs in Little Italy over the coming decades. Damn, I’m unlikely to live long enough to see Watson’s new downtown actually appear. Nor is he, come to think about it. And neither of us is likely to live to see the new Carling or Gladstone OTrain stations since they are to be included inside the sequoia condos).

It does amaze me how much people believe whatever happened before will continue indefinitely. Condos are a good investment? Then they always will be. Condos aren’t right now? Then they never will be again.  It’s a pause in the market folks, the bubble popped, the excess inventory needs to be mopped up, and since we all didn’t stop having babies 25 years ago there is a fresh crop of young buyers that need a place to live. And downsizing retirees. And single women who want to own … something.

And the slowdown on the West Side is compounded by a large-ish inventory of under construction and proposed projects. I hear thru the rumour mill that one nearly completed project in Hintonburg has had some buyers forfeit their down payments to get out of sales contracts.

The market is not universally dead, though. Minto has sold lots of units in two reasonably attractive towers at Lansdowne Park*; and has started construction on Beechwood and on Richmond Road at the far end of the Westboro main street. The SoBA neighbourhood continues to sprout new projects, too, although some of the units may be too micro to actually see.


The ICON sales office is temporarily closed, and the skirting of the building has been removed. The whole building will be relocated a block south to the corner of Adeline, where a parking lot has been rented (bought?) to house the sales office while the tower is built.


The ICON is so big, and once its out of the big deep basement garage (9 stories deep, or so I hear) it will be only option here for buyers, sucking up the sales and keeping the competing towers continually delayed.

Another neighbourhood with a bit of glut is just west of Bay. The much delayed Bowery project now seems underway, although construction can be dragged out for a lengthy period while sales (hopefully) accumulate. The City is also on course to approve the 192 Bronson project by Brad Lamb, where the Ottawa Construction Assoc. building (and parking lot) now is.

I went to the vaunted Design Review Panel open-to-the-unwashed session last week to see them handle the latest version of the Lamb condos. The developer walked the panel through the previous versions of the project, showing how it was revised according to their recommendations.

The project originally had three blocks forming one large building: one part facing Bronson, a lower one facing Cambridge, and the tallest block in the centre. The building morphed into different shapes, by stacking and restacking sections, since the golden rule seemed to be that the number of square feet of development couldn’t be varied, just its configuration.

At the end of the presentation, there were some uncomfortable moments, as it seemed several panel members were struck by the success of the developer in following their recommendations had resulted in a single large tower block reminiscent of the large 1970’s slab towers. Which retro-shape they are somewhat obliged to not like.

After considerable hemming and hawing, and polite euphemisms, and planner-ese,  the developer seemed (one cannot be sure exactly what the un-miked panel members said) to be directed to revise his slab tower by … reintroducing some more significant “built elements” at the Bronson frontage, etc, etc. and to chop off the top of his ever-taller tower.

And I thought the great unwashed general public had conflicting and unaware-of-the-consequences comments about projects. Seems we aren’t so _________ after all.

After the session was over, one of the design review panel returned to CIty Hall that evening for Urban Forum, on Tall Towers in Toronto.  His introduction as to why we have forests of tall towers seemed to me to be embarrassingly weak. His review of the gaudy errors of others (eg Doha) seemed a bit too much like a listing of what the outgoing Council would like our condos to look like. Maybe the newbies will have different tastes.

Alas, his feature presentation of what a great job Toronto was doing in shaping livable spaces at the foot of tall towers seemed to be a indictment of all the things Ottawa planners refuse to do. Since a few were at that meeting, I hope they were taking notes.






*Yes I do like the completed Minto tower at the corner of Bank and whatever street it is on the north side of the park. It looks remarkably similar to the Beaver Barracks “affordable housing” built by CCOC on Catherine by the Y. Congratulations to CCOC in having buildings that look like the ones the rich want to live in, and those richer Ottawans who want to live in buildings that look like public affordable housing.

4 thoughts on “Condos, no condos, design review

  1. So… After four years of shoot-the-moon-height-limit-busting, it turns out that measured, managed incremental growth, coupled with respect for what makes existing urban communities work- those are all *good* things for the City, and it’s actually a *good* idea to spread growth around and mix up housing forms to make neighbourhood micro-economies more sustainable through bubble and bust?!? Who could have predicted that?

  2. The current obsession with high-rise condos sprouting all over downtown reminds me of the 1960s, when planners wanted to build expressways everywhere. I think it will end the same way.

  3. Neil

    Its really not the same high rise condos are world wide what is rare in Ottawa is many in the core have this idea build out like crazy just look at the massive housing projects under construction now.

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