March of the High Rises

The City has recently seen a spate of high rise applications and project announcements. Claridge has a number of downtown high rises in the high 20- storey range: beside Bell Canada, on Nepean and Gloucester, and on Queen at Lyon (currently Barbarella’s and a parking lot).

There are taller applications too. The first out of the gate* was Soho Italia, proposed for 500 Preston Street near Dow’s Lake.

The Soho Italia structure is notable for several features: most of the parking garage is above grade (about 7 stories of it) clad in a perforated black metal screen; the building rises straight up occupying all of its small lot; the builder anticipates sec 37 “community benefits” and tries to proactively offer a “cultural centre” space on part of the lobby level and basement and via a large screen TV on the south side.

The lot here is so small the original undulating façade only fits on it “on average” — the ‘out’ part of the waves extend over the City street while the ‘in’ part of the waves is entirely within the lot, leaving a tiny bit of their air unbuilt and thus justifying using the City’s air space.

The builder has submitted the rezoning application and its application has been deemed complete.  The application went on technical circulation last week.  I suspect the Soho Italia will have a reasonable chance at approval, albeit a bit scaled down by the end (personally I’d rather the tower be made thinner and left 35 stories tall rather than be left its current bulk but a few stories shorter).

The arguments for the rezoning relate to its proximity to a main road arterial (access) and the Carling O-Train station. It is on a traditional main street, which provides shopping amenities (alas, no grocery store yet…) and needs neighbors.

Those arguments are generic to any location within the prime walking radius of any rapid transit station. If the Soho Italia wins its case, then the template will have been set for very intense development around every transit station. The land rush will be “on”.

Right out of the gate following Soho Italia will be Claridge, who has been propsecting  land along the OTrain at Somerset,  and Westboro Station (Claridge is somewhat late to the Richmond Road land grab, but there are still lots of sites left). If 35 stories is approved for Soho Italia, I fully expect them to go back to demand their downtown lots to be retroactively increased to the same height. Phoenix is already talking to the City about 30+ storey developments by the Bayview Station.

Immediately north of Parkdale Market is a proposal for another high rise:

When viewed from the south, the building looks very large, but from the north, or that helicopter view loved by developers and planners, it seems rather in scale with the high rises already build along Parkdale at Scott and the cluster of office buildings at Tunney’s (of which a whole bunch more are coming, not all of them to be located on the northwest quadrant of the Pasture). Did I mention it is but a short stroll to the Tunney’s LRT station?

OMB approval is written all over this, as it is compliant with the Official Plan, although not the loop-hole-ridden neighborhood plan.

A few days ago I was on a panel discussing Ottawa’s planning, and fellow panelist George Dark, who is frequently consulted by the City, noted that the City has been lax in identifying intensification areas related to the LRT. I disagreed. Each of those 10-minute walk circles drawn around the stations is the rezoning target, but the City lacks the guts to come out and say so. (Indeed, when the original transitway was built in the 80’s, the City outright promised ajacent neighborhoods their would be no upzoning, which is why, 30 years later, there has been so little development along the transitway).

Planning should be about forecasting the future, and letting people know what is likely to change. In those aspects, the Official Plan is clear: Intensification. Big time. A string of high density residential and employment nodes along the transitway. But on the mechanism for achieving that, the City is silent. Better to avoid controversy. Blame it on the OMB, or greedy developers.

I made the point with Dark and the Spacing audience last week that if the City proactively identifies the degree of intensification that will follow the LRT routes, then the routes themselves become a real problem to identify since the NIMBY forces will be opposing transit because of the intensification that follows. It makes chosing the best route difficult if some of the proponents favour a route mainly because it is far from where they live (we already experienced this on the western LRT study).

Upzoning makes locals unhappy. A courageous City would face the music, and make the plans. A timid City sets the stagework behind the scenes, and disclaims responsibility as the play unfolds. In Ottawa, the land rush is on, the greediest and boldest will win. Them’s the rules.  

The losers in that scenario are not just the existing locals. Instead of the City planning for an intense node, for example at Carling/O-Train, so that most towers get a slice of the view, and there is some graduated heights, and a pleasant main street atmosphere, there is instead a winner take all situation, where the biggest blockiest tower that obscures those behind gets the prime dollars and everyone else gets second best. Soho Champagne only wins until the next guy builds another tower between it and the view.

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*I ignore the Minto building beside Westboro Station, already the City’s tallest condo and a good indicator of the size and height of the proposed new condomania. It got its height not solely because of its proximity to transit, but in part as a trade-off for lower-rise development around it. The new applicants aren’t bothering with low rise stuff, they want tall.

27 thoughts on “March of the High Rises

  1. I’m not at all height averse (even in my own backyard) but what makes me nervous is that these buildings are…sub-optimal from a design and aesthetic perspective. 7 stories of above ground parking on a site marketed on the basis of it’s proximity to rapid transit? Unacceptable. And the Tega homes tower? Hideous! Neighbors are stuck with ugly infill houses, but the entire neighborhood and beyond are stuck with buildings like these — and for decades. I know there is a design review panel in the city — do they review all projects, and in all areas of the city? Or just the “historical” areas?

    1. Does Ottawa (or any Ontario municipality) even have any powers to – for lack of a better phrase – legislate “niceness”, especially at street level?

      1. Yes, municipalities were given more power to control design in either the 2005 PPS or a relatively recent update of the Ontario Planning Act. This is why we now have the Urban Design Review Panel, and the planning department has been making more use of the panel. However, the panel sessions are not a public process, and their recommendations are not binding.

        My worry is that Tega (of the Attika condos) is having enough issues with their four-storey building on Gladstone, (i.e. rendering adjacent buildings uninhabitable, among other things I’ve heard but haven’t verified), I can’t imagine how they could successfully pull off a 36-storey building without destroying the adjacent neighbourhood–literally and physically, not just aesthetically.

      2. I dunno, Charles. High-rises and detached houses or other lo-rise buildings co-exist quite peacefully elsewhere in town:

        http://maps.google.com/?ll=45.417296,-75.68225&spn=0,0.009602&z=17&layer=c&cbll=45.418708,-75.684115&panoid=Hl8vw499CiVZT_nMOkRR4Q&cbp=12,43.29,,0,0

        http://maps.google.com/?ll=45.418711,-75.684117&spn=0,0.009602&z=17&layer=c&cbll=45.418944,-75.685711&panoid=KLnPcoOq6I2yDOsaXFdTmg&cbp=12,79.98,,0,0

        http://maps.google.com/?ll=45.414728,-75.685544&spn=0,0.009602&z=17&layer=c&cbll=45.414834,-75.685068&panoid=dYAsqQccJuF14stHbXh4hA&cbp=12,271.83,,0,-13.78

        I don’t see a functional difference between a 12- or 15-storey building like these ones in the Golden Triangle, and even taller buildings. The height isn’t the issue. Functionality at street level is what counts.

      3. WJM: You dunno what? I don’t understand what you’re responding to. I’m saying that the City does have, and does exercise, the powers you were asking about regarding building design.

        I said nothing about the benefit or detriment of the height of the building itself, other than mentioning the building’s height and scale in order to identify it and comment on the builder’s ability.

        I said nothing about tall buildings in general, nor did I mention any specific projects in Centretown. Are you trying to put words into my mouth?

      4. I dunno about this statement:
        I can’t imagine how they could successfully pull off a 36-storey building without destroying the adjacent neighbourhood–literally and physically, not just aesthetically.

      5. I think “they” specifically refers to Tega Homes. I didn’t read Charles’ statement as a wet blanket on the whole idea of a taller building in that neighbourhood.

      6. The storey count is to illustrate the mass of the building. Read my original comment again. It goes:

        1. Tega is building a four-storey (i.e. small-medium) building at Gladstone/Kent/Florence.
        2. The work on the four-storey building is causing significant damage and encroachments to neighbours, including rendering a neighbouring building uninhabitable and closing a neighbouring business.
        3. Tega is also proposing a 36 storey (i.e. big) building
        4. Therefore, the 36-storey (i.e. big) building will cause considerable damage to the neighbours if it is built by Tega at the same standard as the four storey one.

      1. 58 Florence Street is uninhabitable because of the shoddy work on Centropolis: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/Tenants+ordered+unsafe+Ottawa+apartment+building/5032004/story.html

        Tega has also dug into the property limits of adjacent backyards, I hear that Savasta’s Auto Body next door on Gladstone can no longer operate safely due to the ground settling, and the crane was erected without a permit. The settling is so bad that even the house kitty-corner across the street has visible cracks.

        I’m going to ignore your continued questions about height because you clearly don’t understand that a bigger building requires more and more complex work and this gives more opportunities to screw up, opportunities which this developer seems to take, as documented in the above paragraphs.

      2. And yet, it is entirely possible to build a tall building without mucking up the neighbours, but please, feel free to ignore my continued skepticism about the supposedly city- and neighbourhood-fatal effects that are alleged to be inherent in tall buildings.

      3. WJM: Will you give it a rest please? Charles is and clearly has been referring to Tega’s abilities with respect to building just about anything. He has not made a comment on tall buildings generally other than pointing out that taller buildings offer more opportunities for things to go wrong, which seems a pretty neutral point to me. It’s not about whether a tall building can be made without mucking up the neighbours, it’s about whether Tega can.

        Otherwise, you’ve just been trying to put words in his mouth. He hasn’t been ignoring what you’ve written; rather, you’ve been ignoring what he has written.

      4. David, I didn’t put words in anyone’s mouth. Someone who isn’t me mentioned height. I asked that someone what height had to do with it.

        Please stop putting “putting words into someone’s mouth” into my, um, fingers.

    1. I actually quite like the condo tower in Chicago that the Italia is a knock-off of:
      http://www.rentmonitor.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/Chicago_Aqua.jpg
      Chicago has a lot of nice examples, but these are high-rent areas where it is more cost effective to use the best materials and put a little more effort into the appearance.

      Of course, there is element of subjectivity to a discussion of “ugly” vs. “nice”, but I think there are a lot of things that aren’t so subjective: in addition to the cities above, many would say that Vancouver condos (glass+concrete) are attractive. They’re not really my cup of tea, but I will say this: someone cared (or, knew they could sell them for more), if they gave a darn about the design and used high quality materials. Can you say the same about the salmon colored condos on Rideau, or numerous other buildings by that developer, or others in this city? A design committee would ensure that materials in new builds complement period materials of nearby buildings, and shoot, if building is terrible, subjectivity be damned and just say it: 30 stories of punched windows and stucco wall panels just isn’t going to cut it. I’m pretty sure this already exists in Ottawa…

      1. It’s not the materials I care about so much, it’s whether care has been put into the street-level uses, functions, and interactions. There are plenty of buildings in Ottawa made out of lovely materials, but which utterly sterilize their surroundings.

  2. If the Soho Italia wins its case, then the template will have been set for very intense development around every transit station. The land rush will be “on”.

    Good!

  3. I can’t help but roll my eyes at this:
    [“Indeed, when the original transitway was built in the 80′s, the City outright promised ajacent neighborhoods their would be no upzoning, which is why, 30 years later, there has been so little development along the transitway’]
    Thirty years of that type of “planning” is what we’re up against!

    Having said that – I agree with everyone here. Soho Italia should go thinner, not shorter, if the ultimatum is given. No one wants another wide, tall-but-not-tall-tall building in Ottawa that does nothing to dazzle the eye, if indeed the Italia is capable of doing that. Bayview and City Centre (even Tunney’s) need to build, baby, build! And there needs to be focus on street interaction and architecture instead of the usual all-or-nothing, obsessive focus on height.
    Not only are we overdue, I think most people (minus the usual collection of NIMBYS) are ready for this change.

    1. There is so much wasted space at Tunney’s it’s not even, erm, Funney. And that’s without even considering redevelopment possibilities in the residential area to the south.

    2. I’m not sure we can blame the near total lack of intensive development around Transitway stations to regulation and old RMOC-era promises.

      A more likely explanation is that locations around stations on the BRT-based Transitway simply do not attract much in the way of development, local opposition or not (a cynical BRT supporter at the time could have tried to mollify the locals by telling them that no one would want to develop near a busway anyway, though that might have angered them for different reasons…).

      Take Baseline Station, for example. It’s one of the oldest (if not the oldest) Transitway stations in the entire city and it was located in a place where the planning actually did allow for intensification … yet how much have we seen there to date? Basically none, as the discussion on College Square in another post bears out. Algonquin College just ran out of room (so to speak). Someone could have proposed a 36 storey tower at Baseline Station ages ago and opposition would have been muted since it would not affect practically anyone.

      We also have to recognize the fact that much of the Transitway goes through places where it is practically (i.e. politically, due to ownership) impossible to intensify anyway. The East Transitway follows a freeway winding itself along the edges of suburban parking lots whose owners’ attentions are directed elsewhere than a busway skirting the edges of their lots while a significant part of the Southeast Transitway and virtually all of the original Southwest Transitway (Lincoln Fields-Baseline) are in creek valleys under federal ownership. The only section of transitway that goes through land that might be redeveloped is the West Transitway Scott Street trench section.

      1. Such is the hazard of building your transit system along the path of cheapest least resistance. It doesn’t help that the unimaginitive builders and city council take “development somewhere in the general vicinity of up to a mile away” as being synonymous with “transit-oriented development”.

        There are opportunities for redevelopment down the road, if the city is willing to play hardball with proponents. I’d let the South Keys/Greenboro owners do just about ANYTHING when it comes time to redevelop those properties, as long as the redevelopments are truly, truly, TRULY oriented towards the transit system, while grudingly accomodating cars. I.e., the opposite of what we ended up with there.

        Ditto Place D’Orleans, Lincoln Heights, Bayshore. Commercial buildings like that are not going to be in their current form for long.

      2. And on Baseline – perhaps the area is zoned for intensification, but the current plan is for every-so-slightly-cuter suburban-form development. Another opportunity lost by a city that really doesn’t know how to be urban anymore.

  4. Hi Eric, very informative blog. I like it a lot! What about “Gotham Ottawa” by Brad Lamb? Is this the one going to replace Barbarellas? Also, did you see the condos on Carling and Churchill created a domino effect on demolishing adjacent old homes? 2 adjacent homes on Churchill Ave had been already sold and demolished, third one is now for sale.

    1. Taras: the Gotham is proposed for Gloucester/Lyon, kitty corner south of Minto’s Carlyle and Minto’s adjacent stacked townhouses; it is the other end of the block from the proposed tower by Richcraft. The Gotham site is all occupied by houses now. I cannot remember if I posted pic of it on this blog (search Gloucester Street) or at http://www.ottawadalhousie.ca.

      The Claridge development for the site of Barbarellas (there goes the neighborhood!) and the parking lots that occupy the queen-lyon-albert block were covered in an earlier post, try searching this blog for Claridge or Albert Street.

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