Rules are for Others, part 3, Gladstone Avenue

Two of the intensification projects we looked at in the last few days are on Traditional Main Streets. The City’s official plan for TMS calls for up to six story apartments, built lot line to lot line to create a “street wall” and continuous interesting sidewalk experience through a variety of land uses. The model profile for these TMS buildings is given as …

That TMS designation, and the call for intensification to the degree shown in the model building, applies to Gladstone Avenue. This desired height and degree of intensification was reiterated and put into law during the first year of this Council, and the zoning for the lots along Gladstone was refreshed and reiterated during this Council’s reign.

The developer’s proposal for 811 Gladstone now winding its way through the city hall labyrinth, is for an 8 storey apartment building. The developer proposes a mix of studio, 1 and 2 bedroom apartments, and possibly some 3 bedroom units.

In order to develop the site, the developer will demolish 26 affordable townhouses built in 1966. The tenants have already been moved out, and the units are vacant.

Here is a view of the existing street from a similar angle to the “new building” illustration above:



In case you are unfamiliar with the area, these are 1960’s-era urban renewal houses, that have been in the “public portfolio” for 50 years, but are now deemed by Ottawa Community Housing, the developer, to be unworthy of repair.

Yes, the developer in this case is the City of Ottawa, and it’s charging ahead ignoring its own intensification rules that this same Council reiterated and put in place for this specific site.

The site for the current (sic !) application is 1.2 acres. OCH intends to demolish the townhouses by July, and start construction in fall this year, for completion in 2020. They have $11 million in grants lined up, and the City will waive $1.5million of their fees and charges.

Here is an aerial view of the site with the new building approximate footprint outlined in red:

The row of houses outlined in blue are also to be demolished, and turned into a surface parking lot, as the new building has no plans for underground parking. Thoughts of low-income affordable housing demolition and displacement of “vulnerable” people for a parking lot unavoidably come to mind.

The site of the houses facing Gladstone are designated TMS, suitable for 6 storey apartment blocks to be built to a compatible neighbourhood scale, in the City’s words: “street continuity, scale and character is maintained”. The OCH development breaks the continuity, scale, and character by proposing a more monolithic structure taking up a whole block.

It does not appear to have any setbacks at the 5th floor, nor are there balconies (“individual amenity space”) as required by the zoning. The back of the building does not have the 45 degree angle to permit more sunlight to penetrate to the Balsam Street side of the lot.

The building also has a greater setback from the sidewalk than the TMS plan calls for. I see no clue that the greater setback is to create space for a “complete street” design, despite being in a convenient-for-cycling neighbourhood two blocks from a LRT Station. Why doesn’t this block-long development have a cycle track in front of it (the previous Councillor lobbied hard for neighbourhood cycling tracks but after she left the proposals have died away and the city “doesn’t recall” that they were even proposed!).

All that being said, the building as illustrated is quite good looking, having red brick (not black!) at the high profile corner, and no huge surfaces of metal or composite panels. The sawtooth design with many corner windows is attractive, but I expect they will get value-engineered out as the costs need to be cut.

The building will have a number of storefront-like spaces facing Gladstone, but OCH is not proposing to rent them out retail, but to use them for “programming”.

Note that the architect of this building is the same architect as for the 770 Somerset project subject of the previous story.

The 26 soon-to-be-demolished townhouses have 3 and four bedrooms. The new building, according to OCH “will be apartments designed to primarily meet the needs of singles and small families”. It will be mixed income, ie a percentage of rent subsidized and market rent units.

I note that there are two grade schools nearby, both severely under-enrolled (St Anthony, Cambridge St) and at risk of closing, while a new school building for another board is proposed 400m away at 933 Gladstone (on another OCH site) probably to grab a share of the increasing enrolment from the already gentrified and trendier Hintonburg side of the tracks. I am not sure how providing small apartment units will help foster complete neighbourhoods with existing local schools.

But wait, doesn’t OCH have another 77 townhouses with up to 5 bedrooms right across the street? Can’t they provide children to the abundance of vacant schoolrooms? Except that when this building is completed, OCH intends to demolish all those 77 units over the next decade, replacing them with a mix of apartments, office buildings, condos (ie moving towards a mixed income neighbourhood and away from the concentration/ghetto of social housing), etc.

It may well be that the traditional image of a household (2 parents, 2 kids, or some fraction thereof) is obsolete, and OCH and the developer on Somerset are correct to focus on one and two bedroom apartments with a scarcity of children. Planning for a lack of children may well end up with a childless neighbourhood.

Let’s go back to the 811 Gladstone project itself. The proposed building requires a rezoning of the Gladstone frontage to exceed the still-fresh TMS plans, and they want numerous excemptions to the provisions of that plan. And to rezone the Rochester Street side of the site to permit mid-rise apartments on a frontage where the City neighbourhood plans call for four stories max.

Citing the “shortage of affordable” housing argument is likely to sway Council to approve the rezoning. Of the whole site. Note: whole site. Don’t forget the Balsam Street side of the site, also in the OP as four stories, but in the developers plan is called for a “surface parking lot” where these houses are to be demolished:

That new OCH mixed income project has no underground parking for residents or the (non-)commercial spaces along the Gladstone frontage. And the surface parking lot may indeed be temporary, since OCH apparently may sell that side (once its value has been increased by rezoning) for “market housing” in the form of a “six storey” apartment building.

Given that the site on the other side of Balsam from here is already a land assembly, and there is another one nearby, does anyone expect those developers to accept the current four storey height limit when the City merrily exempts itself from its own rules?

While one project breaking the planning rules doesn’t set a “de jure” precedent, it sure sets a moral precedent that is frequently heard at Planning Committee, by NIMBYS and developers alike. It gains additional credibility when the rule-flouter is the city itself. If the City cannot build according to the OPlan, even with millions of subsidies, then how do we expect other developers to play within the rules?

It is beginning to look the proponent of the Bronson project outlined in the first part of this series, may be the only one playing by the rules. Is he a sucker for doing so when the rules seem so malleable?

I expect Council will approve this project, it is so politically appealing to be seen to be doing something about affordable housing, the rules be damned.

However, to save face, I expect it will be tied to a re-fresh of the Gladstone CDP, which the City completed and then shelved before it could be passed into law. Conveniently, the City acquired a big chunk of land in the middle of that CDP area before it could be zoned, where OCH now plans a “Gladstone Village”. A coincidence, no doubt.

In addition, the city was careful to excempt Rochester Heights, which it had publicly stated was up for total rebuilding, from that CDP. Rules are for others, not for us. The City wanted no restrictions on its property, no sirree!

Like every other developer, the city is entitled to ask for rule changes, variances, and rezonings. The frequently levied charge that overbuilding is from “greedy developers” who paid too much for their land, takes on new irony when the City does this itself on land it that has been in the public portfolio for half a century.

Now that the City and OCH know better what they plan to do, I expect they will be more amenable to a revised CDP, now including Rochester Heights, and I am hopeful it might  include Gladstone all the way to Bronson Avenue, because there are on-going land assemblies all along that strip, and I don’t think any of those assemblers will be banking on a six storey height limit.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a huge upzoning along Gladstone, in the vein of the land rush rezoning that occurred just four years ago at the north end of Preston and Champagne Avenues. But only after the coming election.

Better to be clear, and consign the TMS plan to the trash bin of unimplementable wishful thinking, if that is what the City intends. 

It almost makes me wistful for the one developer who actually plans a small building:

Three to five similar scale buildings along the 811 Gladstone block, with different facades and materials, would make a fine traditional main street environment. But that would fit in with the Official Plan, and cannot be countenanced.

And it makes me view the 770 Somerset plan (public meeting tonight at 7) in a new light.


9 thoughts on “Rules are for Others, part 3, Gladstone Avenue

  1. Good 3-parter there, Eric. I’d be interested in knowing what the land price was for each. Obviously nothing for the OCH one although the City will no doubt put “value” on it as part of its contribution. But curious about the Bronson site. And the Somerset one, as it got flipped. This is a big part of developers’ arguments about needing to go higher/wider.

  2. I just want to point out that while corner windows seem attractive, they, along with glass balcony railings, contribute enormously to bird collisions, and should be discouraged (as recommended by other cities’ bird-friendly design guidelines). Safe Wings Ottawa estimates that 250K birds die in collisions with glass every year in Ottawa. Almost every new building I see, large or small, is making the problem worse.

  3. Wish the city were as flexible with its transportation plans, which seem to stay cast in concrete even as we see changing needs, desires and falling usage. Not that I in any way support this utter disregard of the city’s own planning and development by-laws. But flexibility and admission of changing conditions is a wise approach. Where is the wisdom in our administration?

  4. Unfortunately it seems that Council not only ignores the rules when developing its own property, but regularly gives private developers the exemptions and exceptions they want. Isn’t it a rare day that a developer submits a proposal that meets existing regulations and rules? Why would they if they can do something more profitable with the city’s blessing? I agree that flexibility is required but only when it offers clear advantage to the community and does not come with serious negatives.

    1. Jennifer: that is why part 1 showed a current proposal that pretty much meets the requirements; parts 2 and 3 show developments that require huge changes to the rules and trash the whole concept of TMS.

  5. Hi Eric- I enjoyed this series as well. The problem to me is that these buildings seem really boring and plain to me. We are in danger of being overrun with such buildings. I think in the future architects will come up with a name for the era which put up such boring residences. In the meantime I refer to them as “blandings” rather than buildings. The other problem I see is including market rent units. These units do not receive services. Exteriors of buildings are never cleaned and the windows of OCH properties have not been cleaned in decades. I realise it saves a lot of money, but also creates a kind of “dirty” ghetto.

  6. Without knowing the number of new units several aspects are hard to judge: 1 – is it a good trade up in terms of increased rental apartments, 2 – how many will be three bedrooms and really suitable for small families (ie two children, more than one gender or even just for the long run not just pre-school). I would also note that families need green space, something a parking lot won’t provide. When our end of the neighbourhood was planned at least we got Primrose park for all the first phase and it with Elm Street have always been too little space. This project seems to be too much intensification!.

  7. Well, I have no idea about the context, having never been to Ottawa, but based on my experience in DC, and the 21st century real estate market, I would say that getting an 8 story building is probably a good thing. But in return(1) have more units that are larger, because as you pointed out, larger units are being demolished in favor of the project and it is near schools — the biggest complaint of such projects in the US is that “family sized units” are not included, and this is a subtle way to exclude low income large families (2) make underground parking — the city especially has no business making a visible surface parking lot, and a justification for a larger building could be the cost to build underground parking; (3) require that the ground floor be active in either or both commercial and public uses.

    In DC, in return for such “variances” there is an expectation and depending, a requirement, that “community benefits” or other proffers be provided.

  8. I am already mourning the many healthy mature trees that are going to be cut down by this project, to be replaced by matchsticks in shallow graves with no chance to grow or actually selected to remain short. Gladstone is always windy and can be very hot in the summer, these trees offered a lovely green shade and view for pedestrians and of course for tenants. Same for the other side along Balsam Street.

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