The City has done a review of all the infill housing put up in the last few years in selected central area neighborhoods. Staff went out and photographed every house from the street. I must commend them for actually doing part of the study out in the real world and not from charts and drawings in the back room. It wasn’t that many years ago that the City reprimanded staff for actually going out in the field. It is a practice I would like to see more of (the going out in the city part) by planners. There are been a number of zoning and planning issues on the west side in the last year for which one of my early questions to the planner is “have you gone and visited the site?”. The answer is always NO.
I make my views known only after I visit the site in question. It always amazes me what I see on-site that isn’t apparent on a plan. Things like context. For a recent zoning variation for example, the planner didn’t know the short stub-end street had the only entrance to underground parking for a condo that faced another street a block way. Oops, minor detail. He also didn’t notice the “sidewalk” was only 18″ wide and flush with the asphalt pavement. Pish and bother.
I thought the city’s staff did a fine job of the infill review. They caught and identified a number of issues that bug me. They proposed a number of suggested “improvements”, which I was much less enthused about.
For example, some infills basically present a street-front of garage doors. The proposed solution was to limit the frontage that could be garage doors to 50%. That might work. But it ignored other possible solutions, such as better garage detailing that turns them from utility to design WOW. Or better paving and landscaping to reduce its impact (of the infill samples shown, too often the dominant garages had dominant over-paving and inadequate landscaping too. Fixing those might reduce the garage door problem).
And what if a developer, faced with a narrow-lot infill, decides that rather than putting in 2 units of 12-1500 sq ft, decides to put in one giant monster home of 3500 sq ft with a one-and-half-wide garage door that meets the new rule but makes the infill less affordable?
I was also very unenthused about suggestions that more parking be put in the back yard. God, aren’t we surrounded by cars on every side now, and yet the city might encourage putting more of them in back yards! Kiss back yard trees goodbye. And out of sight, out of mind, I expect those parking spaces to expand over time to take over the whole yard. Anyone for a backyard BBQ with musical accompaniment courtesy of an oversize Bose car stereo system? Please, keep the cars out of the back yards.
Indeed, the city’s responses were typical of a bureaucracy. If the rules don’t work, if you’re digging a hole, then dig harder. Throw up more rules. The most obvious problem was that many times there were tradeoffs to be made between the choices. If no garages at front with living spaces above … then we might get garages at front with living spaces behind. Is this better? Maybe we should ask the neighbours? (I propose a less-rule-bound solution below).
Too many side doors? Are the narrow frontages too hard paved? Well, let’s reduce the available amount of soft space by requiring the front door and walk be on the front instead of the side. Oops. That might not get us the intended result. Indeed, they had plenty of examples where the front “sidewalk” is really just another parking space. Why not specify a six inch curb between walk space and driveway? and driveways that are as wide as the garage, not right out to the lot line.
While pleased the planners went out into the real world to see the infills, they only showed the “bad” examples on their site and at the meetings (and kudos to them for actually showing real-world problems; no word on what those owners think of being singled out as mistakes). There was no indication of what we could aspire to. Let’s see what the planners think are good ones before we adopt their rules that are intended to get more of that result.
The planners showed too little initiative in that they restricted their review to street fronts. But almost every house has a front and a back. And just as many people look at the back as the front. And the back possibly engenders more discomfort since it is our “private” space that gets invaded by infills.
Consider the infill going up behind me, at 145 Elm. I have featured it before. The house goes right back as far as it legally can, 25′ from my lot line. Fair enough, them’s the rules. But … the house is three floors high with huge windows that effectively appropriates my garden as their own, because their principle living floor is level 2. They’ve got the height advantage. But wait… the 25′ setback is for the house only, it doesn’t count the “projections”, in this example, a second floor deck that will be about 10×20′. As visible from the photo (deck not yet in place) the entire deck will be above my fence, and above any height fence I could legally install.
For this infill, the developer is nice to work with, he has agreed to make the deck’s glass railing frosted, so I won’t spend all my time looking at my neighbours’ knees and we won’t be looking at at each other all day even when sitting down, indoors or out.
But, the City hasn’t addressed these overlooking issues or back decks, they only looked at front facades. They need to consider the back yard too.
Rather than more rules micro-managing what can and cannot be done, which only invites more niggly-piggly nit-picking by lawyers and sharp “got-ya” deals at the expense of innovation, I would prefer if infills either had to go through a neighbor’s consultation or design review process.
I have met several developers of infills who confess astonishment at what neighbours will accept (even welcome) if approached before hand and the options/alternatives discussed. How many ugly infills could have been improved through an inexpensive consultation? If there are ongoing disputes, on to the design review panel of “experts” (lay or professional, volunteer or paid). If disagreement continues, I suspect we’ve got a “shark” developer (or as one person at the meetings put it, a “rape ’em and leave ’em” developer). In those cases of continued disagreement, send it on to planning committee. And I do realize that some neighbours will never accept any change. The existing residents, the developer, and the future resident have rights and obligations.
Last points: the City web site shows numerous examples of struggling trees. Sometimes these are poorly planted new trees, in too-small holes, surrounded by impermeable paving. In this case, the problem is a combination of cheap or ignorant tree planters and a failure of the city to have and enforce tree planting standards. So import the correct tree standards and require them to be followed. This could be done by inspecting the hole before the tree goes in, or requiring landscapers to certify the planting conditions (if they cheat, and get caught, good bye landscaping license).
Infills are expensive. They have higher risk than tract homes on greenfield sites. They are usually in more desirable locations. In most cases, they are way more valuable than their neighbours. So with higher price, comes higher-income households. Who are more likely to be mid-life, multi-vehicle owners. It will take them time, if ever, to adjust their suburban lifestyle to the city. To realize they don’t need two or three cars. That maybe they needn’t to be chauffeurs to sports teams any more. Let’s not make infills more expensive and even more the preserve of the very affluent minority. I’d like my kids to have a choice to live in the city. Or the suburbs.
You can have fun viewing infills at the city web site http://ottawa.ca/residents/public_consult/infill/findings_en.html