Planning Games

More people want to live in walkable neighbourhoods, which our Planning Gods have decided in their wisdom to keep in limited supply. Housing suppliers can be tempted to “game” the rules that no longer reflect reality, in order to meet popular demand.

So here are some triplexes on Byron Avenue:

Acceptable in appearance and a reasonable response by suppliers to meet demand for dwellings. The rules governing triplexes are apparently much easier to navigate than that of buildings with even one more unit.

Look closely at the buildings and notice the basement windows. Looks like another dwelling could be there. And that is what the owners are asking for:

It’s also logical to think that the potential basement dwelling unit opportunity isn’t a happy unforeseen event, but was intended all along. If it looks like a fourplex, walks like a fourplex, and quacks like a fourplex …

Here is another case that caught our community association eye last year. On Willow Street, a pair of now-under-construction triplexes. (Pairs are economically viable since they can share one laneway between the two buildings).

We noticed the high basement clearance, the to-code stair entrances, and the absolute lack of anything at all in the basements. It is just empty space with a nice high ceiling. (Each unit has its own furnace and HWT ):

Rather naively our association thought the housing supplier should use up this space. Maybe the ground floor unit could have two additional bedrooms downstairs? Or maybe a fourth apartment was planned?

We got no real responses to our inquiries to the supplier or city.

Our suggestion of making the ground floor unit a four bedroom apartment would be illegal, since with four bedrooms the tenants could be a number of unrelated persons sharing a common kitchen and living area.  The city has moved to regulate / prevent such co-housing. Our city planners are obviously competent to regulate how people share their apartments. Expect these rules to expand exponentially.

And we also have become aware of other community activists noticing the same gamesmanship going on elsewhere.

It’s sort of like an open secret, everyone knows but no one says.

So here is the question. Are the housing suppliers gaming the planning system to get “easier” approval for a triplex, then intending all along to turn it into a fourplex, thus avoiding the “too onerous” fourplex or low-rise apartment approval process? Will every spot zoned for a triplex get a fourplex? Is this a scam to avoid the parking or amenity conditions that go with a low rise? Should we crack down on the games players or recognize the rules are wrong?

Or is the city planning dept going “wink wink nudge nudge” to steer housing providers to meet neighbourhood intensification and affordable housing goals when the neighbourhood plan is unrealistic or outdated? In which case, are neighbourhood plans too often unrealistic and excessively detailed?

Recall the fiasco a few weeks ago in a development application where the Councillor was opposing the specific development while defending a neighbourhood plan while simultaneously noting it was an unrealistic plan (even though just a few years old).

From the specific case to the general conclusion:

Planning rules are never simple. Attempts to codify the detailed evolution of cities is doomed to failure. Bureaucracies view the city as a washing machine, an object, to which rules can be made and applied to govern its operation thereafter. But if the city is a living organism, then the “rules” will always fall short of evolving conditions. Bureaucracies then write new rules. Which inevitably lead to “loopholes” and “unexpected results” and “paradoxes”. They simply cannot write and interpret enough rules fast enough to keep up with the growing city.

It’s the classic failure of central planning. And of fundamentalism in religion. Or the argument between “intelligent design” and “evolution”.  Just as biological evolution is a specific case of the general theory of evolution, urban growth is another case of evolution, of growth,  that our planning Gods have tried to force fit into their own washing machine. Urban places are never “finished” or “complete” the way a washing machine is.   People with washing machines seldom dream of future laundry care. Official neighbourhood plans often reflect the unrealistic eternal extension of “present-ism”.

I’d rather we treat the growing city  like children that need guidance and direction, more so at the beginning than as they mature, and they ultimately do what they wish to.


8 thoughts on “Planning Games

  1. Hmm….let the children do what they wish? Will you not end up with a Barrhaven, which we critiqued the other day? What is meant by “It’s the classic failure of central planning. And of fundamentalism in religion.” On the one hand, we need planning but just not to the detail of telling us where to put the kitchen in a triplex. Guidance as you call it, I agree, with zoning texts not going into too much detail, and plans as real drawn plans and not just words.

  2. Benn: children need lots of guidance when young. Cities need guidance when starting out to keep things like cement plants away from houses and schools. Then children make more decisions every day as they grow. The central planning fallacy is that planners decide they need to govern things in ever more detail, right down to how much your eaves overhang or the location of your eavestroughs. It surely cannot escape your attention that naturally evolving neighbourhoods tend to be what people like; and the blight within them is due primarily to planners deciding that car repair shops are great companions to residential streets in centretown, etc. Being a good boss, or parent, or God, is sticking to the broad principles and not micromanaging the details.

  3. The same game was played two years ago on the street where I live in Westboro. A developer bought two adjacent lots, demolished the quaint old 2-storey homes, and put up a pair of “triplexes”. The triplexes were complete with 4 identical units each, the lower ones being partially below grade. Each unit had a separate electrical meter, kitchen, etc. all having been inspected by the City before the application was submitted for a Minor Variance to allow occupancy of a 4th “basement” suite – as if this was some late-breaking afterthought.

    By submitting plans for a triplex, the developer had avoided the more onerous planning process (and a $50k fee) for a 4-unit apartment which would have required site plan control (a process that includes consultation with nearby residents) which would have helped ensure that the apartment building was appropriate for a residential street comprised of bungalows and modest single homes.

    The Committee of Adjustment saw through the scheme, referring to it as a “bait-and-switch” and an obvious abuse of process. They denied the minor variance on the grounds that it was not ‘minor’. The planning department neither opposed nor supported the developer at the hearing. I’m not saying they were complicit in the scheme…

    The story ends a couple of months later, when the OMB overturned the CoA decision with no opposition from the City. Now there are a pair of 4-unit apartments on our street.

    1. Interesting. The ‘independent’ Committee of Adjustment must not have been told to pass the request; after all, it seems that NOTHING is too big to be a minor adjustment for them. Case in point is the Exhibition Hall (EY Centre) out by the airport. The zoning only allows such a large Hall if it is part of the airport terminal or a huge hotel. Believe it or not, the Exhibition Hall is actually part of a huge hotel – but, the Committee of Adjustment unanimously approved the minor adjustment of deletion of the hotel component.

    2. City staff never recommend an application for approval. The best that they will commit to is ‘no objection’.

  4. There seems to be a large amount of people from the Gta looking and buying in Ottawa in the last 4-6 months many experts think that will increase big time over the next year which will put more strain on the city as the city have gone from a surplus of housing units to a question if developers can keep up with demand.

  5. Interesting article. The City is catching on to this bait and switch schemes and are tying people to drawings filed and if they want to try and squeeze a 4th unit in later the developer needs to go in for a truncated site plan approval process and also reapply for variances now based on a 4 plex instead of a triplex.

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