“It’s just not compatible with this neighborhood !” — so goes the cry heard every day in our fair city. It goes up whether the proposal is for a single infill house, or worse a semi, or even worse, a townhouse cluster or innovative pod of housing units. And then it becomes a banshee wail when the intensification is for an apartment building.
Strangely enough, the cries are usually preceded by a faux-conciliatory “I’m all in favour of intensification but …” We all have no doubt that the objections have nothing to do with the purely coincidental proximity of the project to the complainant.
This is the start of a multipart series on intensification and infills. Or more accurately, on the “compatible” aspect of new building. Maybe its time we started desiring the opposite: infill and intensification that is designed to change the neighborhood. Deliberately change. And in a specific direction. Maybe we should shift our gaze from lot by lot development to block by block development.
So what’s wrong with compatibility?
The first problem is one of definition. To most residents, compatible means “very little different from what is here now”. It is the “no change” starting post. I continually hear residents at meetings claim something is incompatible because the side yards are less, or its one storey taller, or bigger, or of a modern style, or expensive, or has too much or too little parking. Sometimes it even gets down to guessing who will live there, and how well they will or won’t fit into the neighborhood.
I wonder why people feel that their established neighborhood, which reflected the planning norms and prices and values of a city that was maybe just a quarter of the current Ottawa population, should be continued on in perpetuity. Just because there was enough on-street parking when your condo was built in the 70’s, with a city half our current size, does that mean the city is obligated for the next 25? 50? 100? years to guarantee you on street parking? Are our urban values and priorities never to evolve? And why do people in 12-1400 sq ft houses built in the 50’s feel its OK for them to put on a 2000 sq ft addition but outrageous that someone should knock down a converted cottage to build a new 2500 sq ft house (or two?). And now that we live longer, why must we all have to live in single family homes on 40′ lots til the day we die?
Ottawa today is not the same place as it was in grandma’s day. The built form of our city is a picture of the forces acting at the time of growth. We aren’t in 1960 anymore, Dorothy.
Here’s an example of an infill that strives for those compatibility goals while intensifying. It aims to replace one four-plex with two tri-plexes. To be compatible, the councillor wants it to be clad in brick, like the rest of the neighborhood. Others want the top half floor knocked off. I kinda like these modern shoe-box styles, so I find it compatible.
The complainers are right though, when they complain that infills will change the neighborhood. Of course they will. One won’t change much. Or two. But add in dozens, and the look and feel of the neighborhood will change.
Do we know where we are going to when those dozens arrive? Uhh, gosh no, we prefer to avert our eyes, and focus on the short term, and emphasize the “compatible” nature of the project at hand.
Lets look at the site plan of the same two tri-plexes:
Two tri-plexes, separated by a paved laneway. Six parking spaces at the back. The front lot line actually runs through the middle of the front (nod to compatibility) “porch” steps. So the majority of the lot is actually devoted to car parking, with the leftover used for the housing, and a 3 or 4′ strip of grass or something along the perimeter. One tree in each front yard, on the city boulevard. No tree at the back. No greenery visible from the triplexes, or their neighbours.
This a pattern we see more and more of in our central neighborhoods. Pavement squeezes out greenery. There will be cars in front of every house, and in every back yard. There is no escaping the car, its radio, its occupants voices as they come and go.
And its not just the fault of infills. Existing houses get granny suites, or secondary suites, or divided up into apartments. Back yards become parking; trees get in the way and are removed. If the house is within six blocks of an employment centre (eg Tunney’s, or NRCan) then the property owner/landlord has every incentive to squeeze in another parking space at $150 a month.
Every year I see less greenery in the backyards. Houses get visually closer to their neighbours. Cars insert themselves everywhere. Here’s another infill, a triplex on a 23′ lot, that looks great but whose backyard is 100% parking:
The effect of time, by repeating the “compatible” infill, over and over, we end up with a vastly different neighborhood than we started out with. Green back yards get replaced with parking. Cars dominate every side of our housing. Lots of space gets used up with useless side yards. Curbside parking is lost to frequent driveways and front yard parking. Is this really our planning goal for our neighborhoods?
What if instead of focussing on the little steps, we instead looked at the goal, what the neighborhood would like 25 and 50 years out. That might mean less “compatible” infill and more of something else.
Maybe its time to stop looking at individual lots and plan for the whole block.