Planning Committee to set new low standard

At its Tuesday meeting, Planning Committee will have the golden opportunity to set new low standards for infill housing.

Yup, right after a lengthy consultation and report process on making infill housing more compatible with the neighborhoods, right after the Mayor tells developers to obey the rules, and Councilor Hume says Amen to That… we have committee ready to approve an infill project that will lower the bar.

The proposal is for 23 infill townhouses at the corner of Rochester Street and Balsam. The proponent, Fanto Group, came to the City a few years ago proposing a bunch of seven (+ or -) storey apartment buildings for the site. They were turned down. Their new proposal is for a mews lane with three bedroom, three & four storey townhouses. Every house has an indoor garage. It’s a much better proposal, except for some of the details.

site plan; balsam is across the bottom; rochester runs north up the left side

 Recall that townhouses have shared walls with their neighbours, so these side walls have no windows. Which means the front and back exteriors of the units have all the windows. And today’s preference is for lots and lots of big windows.

(Above) view of the Balsam Street frontage; the application conveniently lacks any elevations of the buildings with 4′ back yards

And the innovative bit about this project is that the space behind the units, formerly known as “back yards”, have been downsized. Significantly. From the twenty feet or so normally allocated, to four feet. Yup, the back yards are four feet deep. And that means the main wall-o-windows on these houses is four feet from the lot line. A three or four storey high wall-o-windows.

Not, mind you, that Planning Committee is exactly being directed to notice the four foot yards. Instead, the application merely says “reduced rear yard to 1.2 metres” without mentioning that it is a reduction from 7.5 metres. Merely a detail.

Nor, mind you, is Planning Committee exactly being given the opportunity to notice those four foot yards, since the Planning Committee paperwork includes only site plans without the buildings shown. To discover the four foot yards, committee members must search the electronic files.

Nor, mind you, can Planning Committee members assess the impact of these new units on the ajacent lots, since there are no plans showing the adjacent houses.

Will planning committee permit these townhouses to be built with such tiny “yards”? If so, they will be sending a signal to all other infill builders to skip the yard and outdoor space entirely, just ‘borrow’ (appropriate? steal?) the space from the neighbours. And what happens if the neighbour wants to build infill units … could they also be built with their wall of windows four feet from the property line? I tell ya, this neighbourhood will attract exhibitionists from all around the world.

Of course, the adjacent property owners may not be permitted to build similar units along the lot line, in which case it’s a sort of first come land grab situation. Be the first to build up to the lot line so your neighbour cannot intensify on their lot.

Do you think this is an unusual lot, or unusual situation? While ordinary people might think these proposed infills have eliminated their back yards, the planning boffins demur. These townhouses are facing their “side lot lines” according to  the City (conveniently, there doesn’t appear to be any “back lot lines” anywhere). In which case, can we expect infills everywhere to start being built sideways on the lot so the back yard becomes another unit and the whole concept of green back yards is lots lost?

The local Dalhousie Community Association wrote to the City months ago pointing out the blatant undesirability of locating the main window walls of houses so close to the lot line. The planners’ response: “no external activity or amenity areas are proposed … along this edge … minimizing opportunities for overlook… ” and these mini-backyards are  “similar to typical side-yard to side-yard condition and is not considered problematic”. There it is: if you can’t see into the neighbours yard while standing in the 4′ backyard, then the overlook condition from the second, third, or fourth floor of the townhouse doesn’t exist either. This new definition of a lot includes no back of the lot, no back yards, every edge is just a “side yard” condition. I can hear developers licking their lips over this precedent.

What of the City’s Urban Design and Compatibility policy that states “development should respect the privacy of outdoor amenity areas of adjacent residential units”? Well, the planners state that this site plan and those overlooking townhouses “is sensitive to the specific amenity space arrangements on surrounding properties…” while conveniently not showing the adjacent buildings or lots, either with current or intensified land uses.

What is our planning department thinking? Well, I’m glad you asked. Because the report to Committee is very interesting for what it is missing. It is missing any elevation (sketch) that shows what the exteriors of the houses will look like along the lot lines. It is missing the site plan — such as shown above — showing that 10 houses face the lot lines with a four foot setback.  From the planning package, you’d never know there were rear windows on these houses.

Planning staff is normally reputed in the media to be eager to approve developments. Actually, this isn’t the only project in the neighborhood that seems to be skipping approval from those guys who are supposed to be able to recognize and encourage development that meets the norms of good planning. There are at least two other neighborhood projects that are bypassing the planning staff and going up the food chain to seek political approval instead.

And where is Councilor Holmes on this issue? Holmes wants family housing in the area, and not just small condos for Yuppies and Dinks.  To her, these constitute family housing.

Finally, just to show what sort of development I would prefer to see on this site, with similar density, here is a plan working its way through the planning mill, from the same neighborhood showing two rows of townhouses on a site, but the back row actually has 18′ back yards:

19 thoughts on “Planning Committee to set new low standard

  1. Only one thing could make this worse. Casement windows, with their mirror-like qualities. When they are cranked partway open, they provide an exhibitionist’s dream of a view into neighbouring bathrooms and bedrooms. I know this because I have them, and with my neighbour’s new addition sporting the side window he has just framed in, life will be very interesting.

  2. WJM: the problem is that good planning practice, codified in our laws, requires houses to have a back yard, and that main house facades be set back about 20′ from the rear lot line. Otherwise someone can build a new house, or townhouses, or stacked townhouses, or apartments, right up to the lot line with ALL their windows facing into your yard. They could do this at your back lot line, or all along your side lot lines. Welcome to fishbowl life. This is a sure fire way to make infills really really unpopular. The only reason this guy is giving a 4′ setback is to avoid having to put automatically closing fire shutters on all the windows. There, now you may pass.

  3. I know councillor Holmes has complained about not having enough family friendly units and rowhouses like this would fit the bill…if they had yards for children to play in. 4 foot backyards should be unaccetable to the city.

      1. Agreed. If people want a 4′ backyard that is their own business. I have a hard time with the attitude that infill should be exactly like what exists in a neighbourhood. Sometimes, that is not appropriate. Ottawa’s dense neighbourhoods are not actually all that dense, with the exception of Centertown and Sandy Hill, so doing away with backyards is fine by me.

  4. The neighbourhood is changing and there appears to be a land grab as to how much house(s) can be built on the lot. I wonder if this McMansion approach is the latest fad that will diminish the value of the neighbourhood as the years pass by.

    Even the concrete bunker Main Library in Ottawa won awards in its time but few people will defend it now.

    There is an application to build a three story plus building on the conner of Pamilla and Preston on the flooring store lot. Another issue of a low bar for in fill.

  5. Westside, where is the reduction in rear yard rationalized? I’ve serached, but only found the old rationale for the (in my opinion appropriate) mid rise tower…It would seem to me that such an approval (with dangerous ramifications) should be justified or be in real trouble if/when it is appealed to the OMB…A four foot backyard for a ‘family’ home is unacceptable and will set a dangerous precedent for the enitre City.

  6. I tend to agree with WJM on this. It seems as though the applicant got knocked back by the Councillor and neighbours (I don’t think they got knocked back by the Planning Department) and has now reduced the density and unit count and still some people are not happy. A 1.2 m back yard (lets be consistent here and embrace the metric terms…the imperial system has not been the official unit of measurement since the mid to late 70’s) is admittedly small but I find it hard to believe that people spend their free time gawking at their neighbours. My bathroom window on the ground floor is probably 3 m from the edge of the porch on the house next door and I find little incentive to spy on them and vice versa.

    Where is the application that you liked that you linked a site plan to…..keep in mind that the drawing attached seems to show a 4.7 m wide ‘carriageway’ (Planning Dep’t new buzzword that is to be used in all infills where possible) which seems to be less than the 6 m (or is it 6.7 m) prescribed width. That will be a fun one in the winter for snow clearance.

  7. if you have a deck on the roof, who cares about a back yard. If everyone has a deck on the roof, you recreate the over the fence chatting relationship back yard people have.
    Plus back yards kill the environment. If the houses in the suburbs of Ottawa were built with roof top decks/ green roofs on much smaller lots, all of the city would still fit inside the greenbelt.
    How can we make public transit work with low housing density that you get with houses with big lots.?

  8. The City’s devapps web site is not very useful; it mostly links to the two year old 7 storey condo application that was long ago abandonned. The only place I find new info on this project is by going to the city’s meeting site, for planning committee, for tomorrow’s date, and seeing stuff there. I also got a hard copy of the application in the mail because I’m on a community assoc.
    Roof decks can be useful, mainly to adults and some older children. And I could accept, in some design situations, back to back townhouses where there is no back yard at all. And for the second project, shown in the bottom site plan, I see merit in having a common backyard rather than dividing it up into 18’x14′ individual yards. Grass is over-rated as an attractive playspace for kids. Most toys and balls need hard surfaces, like the “carriageway” or “mews”.
    The main issue I see here is permitting more than a few side windows in the side yards. In this proposal, most of the main windows of the house are lined up almost on the lot line. Approve this, and the next infill applications won’t be singles or duplexes but will be a row of houses put sideways on the lot with 3 stories of windows all down your side yard, back yard, and across the rear. Goldfish bowl living.

    1. I like the idea of tearing down the fences in a bunch of back yards to create a mini park.
      Is there any reason why this couldn’t be done on a common green roof/ deck on top of a row of houses? The green roof doesn’t have to be grass. If this was done starting at the design stage of a development, it would be cheap to install sturdy fencing around the perimeter for safety.
      In terms of interior light, solar tube skylights are getting cheaper. They could be placed as needed on the green roof, on tubes that extend up 9′ to prevent kids from peeking down.
      I do agree with your last point about having the windows of units lining up. That is poor design.

  9. My remark here really is about infill in general: We are getting lots of it already in Kitchissippi, and near west. We are drowning in traffic, with each year getting worse. Where or how has infilling helped with lessening gthe traffic problem so far? Is it just too soon to tell?

  10. Marg: each infill brings with it its own traffic increase. But, the mileage driven for urban houses should be much less than that driven for suburban or exurban houses where there is nothing within convenient walking distance. And all those people “out there” will also drive through your neighborhood to get to trendy West Wellie shops or wherever, in addition to the trips they take out there. Each infill family also helps support local businesses, with more local shopping there is less need to travel to further away shops. At least that is theory as I understand it.
    Note however that while urban households drive less than suburban ones, some of that may be due to the household size (DINKS in the City; 2 kids plus minivan in the ‘burbs) and income (urban areas have a higher proportion of lower income, retired, and student population, all of which are less likely to drive cars). So if those infills are occupied by incoming suburbanites, there may not be much reduction in driving until several years on…
    Rest assured that ending infills won’t end your traffic woes, nor are they a significant cause of them.

    1. Thanks, that is good news. We would not wish to end infill, if by infill we can become reasonable. I think that the great increase in traffic in the last few years, therefore, must be due to other factors, not all the new numbers of people driving cars here. As well, in several years we can look forward to all of us driving less, which is the theory at any rate. Thanks.

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