Soho Italia: back from the drawing board

Readers will recall the proposed Soho Italia project at 500 Preston (near Carling) by Mastercraft-Starwood:

(Use the search button to find more posts on the previous projects. The main posting is found at


Members of the community had a number of problems with the tower. First, it had above ground parking garage, meaning the bottom 6+ floors were a black box. The building had apartments facing outward on all four sides, right up to the lot line. It didn’t do an acceptable job of enhancing the streetscape, and struck pretty much everyone as being too much building on too little lot. Apparently they were getting similar messages from the planning dept.

A few weeks ago the owner of the house just north of the site phoned me. He has sold his house/lot to the developer.

Starwood, and its architect Rod Lahey, have come back with a revised design. With the additional lot, the revised building has a lower, broader podium, which they have redesigned to reduce its bulk and further separate it visually from the tower above. The entrance is now on Sidney Street, with more usable storefronts facing Preston, and the Preston sidewalk is now noticeably wider. The building is reduced from 36 to 29 floors (this builder fully encloses his mechanical floor at the top, which effectively adds one floor to the count, but it does make for a much nicer skyscape which it would be nice for other developers, such as Charlesfort, to emulate).

The number of apartments is reduced as well, and most of them now face Preston or Sidney Streets, with secondary windows facing the inside of the block. Some of this was achieved by making larger apartments. There is now a set back at the 25th floor, visually reducing the mass of the building. The exterior is now glass window wall with glass balconies, much like Soho Champagne.

The parking garage/podium is still bulky. The developer proposed to disguise it by cladding most of its exterior with an art installation. Starwood makes a big deal of having conspicuous artwork installations at all its buildings. This is a marketing and design feature, but does not “trade off” for more height, in my view.

The neighborhood is faced with a typical Ottawa conundrum here. The City declares in its official plan that it wants intensification and redevelopment around the transit stations. It then pacifies the neighbours by zoning said spaces to be four or six floors. Do they suspect that the OMB will be left to do the dirty work of approving high rises?

In this case, the OMB has already approved a rezoning of the site for this building, proposed a few years ago:

Alas, in obeying the OMB the city rezoned the whole lot for a high rise, not just this high rise. So, the property owned sold the lot on to the new guys in town, who proposed to build it out to the maximum, plus asked for +/-50% more height.

Here is the proponents revised pitch for their Soho Italia project (when I copied it from Lahey’s letterhead, the letterhead info didn’t copy, but the letter below is reproduced in its entirety):

500 Peston changes

September 26, 2011

Soho Italia – Revised Concept Design

500 Preston Street

Ottawa, Ontario

 In an effort to move the planning process forward in a positive manner substantial changes have been made to the original proposal. These changes were incorporated into the proposal to address concerns expressed during the review process. The most obvious change to the proposed Soho Italia Project is the building height reduction and the alteration to the building’s appearance.

 Site Area

 A critical element of this revised design proposal has been the inclusion of the adjacent property to the north.  At the request of the planning department Mastercraft Starwood reviewed the option of acquiring any of the remaining properties along Preston Street between the subject property and Adelaide Street. Recently they were able to purchase the adjacent lot at 496 Preston Street. This additional lot has increased the Preston Street frontage from 38.10m to 45.72m. The proposed development site area has been increased from 1161.25sqm to 1393.50sqm.  The acquisition of this additional property has provided an opportunity to revisit a number of concerns that were discussed throughout the review process. The addition of the adjacent property has also eliminated the potential of the adjacent properties to the north being able to be developed in a similar fashion.  The remaining property between the subject property and Adeline Street could still, however be developed to the current main street zoning guidelines.

 Building Height

 The proposed building height has been reduced from the original 35 +1 storeys to 28+1 storeys. The additional floor (+1) in both proposals is a mechanical penthouse and condominium or amenity area.

 In addition to the reduction of the overall building height a significant setback from Preston Street has been introduced above the 25th floor. The upper four floors, which include the mechanical penthouse, have been set back an additional 8.0m from the Preston Street façade. This increased setback creates a major reference line along Preston Street that is a mere 7.5m above the mechanical penthouses of the previously approved proposal. 

 The final change in the building’s height is the redesigned podium.  The revised podium has been reduced in height from six stories to five. The height of the podium is 19.5m. 

 Building Setbacks

 Apart from the 26th floor setback mentioned above we have increased most of the building’s setbacks from the previously submitted approval.

 One of the most significant benefits of the acquisition of the additional property is the changed relationship between the tower portion of the proposal and the enlarged podium. The revised design has increased the setback distance between the tower and the northern property line from 4.0m to 8.6m.  The setback from Sidney Street to the proposed tower has been increased from 1.20m to 4.20m. In addition to the two setbacks mentioned above, the sixth floor amenity level has been setback an additional 1.80m on the north and south sides and 8.0m from the Preston Street frontage. This design feature has further distinguished the tower from the podium.  A large portion of the sixth floor deck is open to the sky and will incorporate a number of outdoor amenity areas.

 In addition to the setbacks mentioned above is the increased setback to the ground floor along Preston Street. The ground floor retail has been set back 4.6m from the Preston Street property line. This creates a 6.6m wide plaza area in front of the proposed building.  This additional area will be creatively enhanced with landscaping to allow for café areas, sitting areas and outdoor retail display areas. These features will promote activities in this location that traditionally have not been able to occur due to the lack of space between the buildings edge and the street curbs.

 Building Appearance

 The original design concept required a certain amount of height to allow the buildings modulating floor plates to be effective.  A reduction of height from the original proposal would have had a serious negative impact on the design concept. As a result of the reduction in height the original design has been shelved and an entirely new concept and design is proposed.

 The curvilinear balconies that gave the building its uniqueness have been deleted and replaced with large cantilevered glass balconies. The simple rectangular floor plan has been replaced with a more dynamic plan of intersecting rectangles.  The result of these two design elements is a more streamlined building with a greatly reduced building mass.

 A key element of the revised mechanical penthouse is the housing of all of the mechanical and elevator equipment in what appears to be a typical floor. Treating the mechanical equipment in this manner eliminates an unsightly aspect typical of high rise design and reinforces the buildings streamlined appearance.

Reduced number of Units, Parking spaces and FSI

 The proposed change in height has resulted in the reduction in the total number of residential units from 210 to 178.

 The total number of parking spaces being provided is 123. This total is based on the combination of the minimum parking ratio allowed under the existing zoning bylaws, reduced visitor parking and an adequate number of parking spaces to meet the commercial demand.

 The reduced number of required parking spaces combined with the increased site area allowed for the reduction of the number of floors above grade dedicated to parking. The result is a podium that is 5 storeys in height instead of the originally proposed 6 storeys.

 The floor space index of the revised design proposal has been reduced from 13.7 to 8.6.  The existing zoning has a FSI of 6.5.

 Ground Floor Design and Use

 Along with the additional retail frontage created by the increased site area the balance of the ground floor and the lower level has been redesigned.  The condominium lobby has been relocated to Sidney Street, immediately adjacent to the parking garage entrance.  Access to the bicycle storage area will be from grade along the northern property line. The balance of the ground floor is dedicated to maximizing the retail frontage on Preston and Sidney Street. This revised proposal will add over 160 feet of retail frontage and 6600 sq. ft. of retail space to Preston Street. All of the proposed retail area will have direct access to the sidewalk.

 A key change in the revised ground floor is the increased floor to ceiling height.  The revised proposal will feature a ceiling height in excess of 4.8m.

 Throughout the development process a constant topic of discussion has been the need for a grocery store to be located in the area.  To that end we are proposing to develop the entire ground floor as a retail food store. The proposed store will feature 6600 square feet at grade with an additional area in the lower level of up to 4600 sq. ft.

 This proposed use along with the proposed sidewalk enhancements will significantly transform the commercial viability of the area.

 Podium Design

 Another fundamental design change is the architectural treatment of the proposed podium, in particular the treatment of the above grade parking garage. The first objective was to reduce the number of required parking spaces.  This has been accomplished by reducing the total number of units but more importantly by reducing the required parking ratio to the lowest rate allowed under the bylaw. The second objective was to be innovative in the way in which the parked cars are considered. The way we treat the storage of our vehicles has always been an interesting design problem.  One solution is to hide them below grade no matter what the cost both economically or environmentally.  A second solution is to hide the vehicles above grade behind walls of brick or stone and fake windows.  A third and more exciting solution which we have designed for Soho Italia is to celebrate the car with an exciting architectural expression.  Precedent buildings such as the Marina City Towers building in Chicago have elevated the storage of the car to the same level of importance as the residential unit.  Today the parking garage at 1111 Lincoln Road in Miami Florida has become a new Mecca for the architectural enthusiast.  What is proposed at Soho Italia is something new and exciting that has not been done before at this scale.  The proposal is to wrap the above grade parking levels with a major urban art installation that will both mask and celebrate the car.  Mr. James Lahey, a recognized and established Canadian Artist, has proposed the creation of an integrated canvas-like structure of colour and texture that will challenge the way we perceive buildings. Multi coloured enameled steel tubes will screen the open air parking garage.  This will provide a visual barrier, security and allow the natural flow of air to reduce energy use.   Areas immediately adjacent to residential uses will be clad in glass to transition to the neighboring use. The previously proposed electronic billboards and display panels have been replaced in favour of this new more permanent installation.  Mr. James Lahey recently worked on a collaborative installation with Margaret Atwood in Calgary Alberta, and is currently working with Concord Adex to produce a major art installation in their newest residential project in Toronto. Included in our extended design team is Karen Mills.  Karen Mills is an art consultant who is responsible for numerous installations across Canada and throughout the world. Her installations In Toronto include the Dale Chihuly at the Soho Met Hotel and the Jeff Goodman Glass at the Hazelton Hotel.  Both of which were developed by Mastercraft Starwood.

 In response to the expectation that section 37 will apply we anticipate this significant art installation will be an exciting and innovative application.


 This design proposal has been generated as a new, exciting and vibrant alternative to the previous submission. The merits and aesthetic of the previous submission are rooted to the issue of height and the limitations of lot size. This revised proposal has carefully considered the concerns raised, incorporated an increased lot size and looks to providing an architectural/artistic statement that is unique to the Preston Street Community and indeed to the National Capital Region.

 Yours truly

Roderick Lahey

31 thoughts on “Soho Italia: back from the drawing board

  1. It’s awfully Orwellian for them to suggest that adding ten stories (and a lot of mass) to the already permitted 19 floors as a “reduction” in height.

    Considering that urban design guidelines now essentially require mechanical penthouses to be enclosed, I wonder if the City should reconsider excluding it from the height restrictions. Charlesfort, for example, got an extra storey on the Merit after pulling a bait-and-switch: the mechanical stuff that was to be in the top floor penhouse was relocated to the basement, resulting in an extra floor on top of the approved height. But the building’s design was already approved, so how could the City say no?

  2. 36 stories to 29 stories? What has anyone gained from that!? At this point, just build the freakin 36 stories!

    1. WJM, Without thinking about it too much, I’d say:

      In places where it does not destroy the unique pedestrian-friendly Italian neighbourhood feel of the street, like in Lebreton Flats, Bayview, near the new light rail route, or downtown. I’m am sure that there are many other suitable places.

      I suppose I wouldn’t object to one or two eight story developments on Preston, with careful attention to the store fronts. But there are lots of other places where tall, “urban” towers could go.

      1. How does height, of itself, destroy pedestrian-friendliness?

        People walk at street level, not 20 or 30 storeys in the air.

        Pedestrian-friendliness is made (or broken) by how a building FUNCTIONS at street level, and a little bit by how it looks at street level. But mostly by how it functions.

        Anything above that is utterly irrelevant to the pedestrian environment.

  3. I still hate the above ground parking but the new setbacks and design are much better. I’d still keep the height. It’s time for Ottawa to break through the ceiling of mediocrity.

  4. Wasn’t one of the reasons they said they needed all that above ground parking was that the lot was too small to make a reasonable underground parkade that didn’t go halfway to China? I guess this increase in the footprint has minimal impact on that. Never minded the height, but that 6 (now 5) stories of parkade deadspace: ugh.

    1. Exactly. Especially if the building is tall there shouldn’t be any reason not to put the entire parking garage below grade leaving room for all sorts of commercial space facing the street. Ugh.

    2. The excuse they gave us at the community association meeting last week was that an underground parking garage would result in a big hole in the community for six months during construction, and surely we wouldn’t want that. (This from the same people who thought the community would want an Italian heritage museum)

    3. It wouldn’t be “deadspace” if the same people who obsess about height and parking would also not obsess about the possibility of electronic advertising or display to undeaden the “deadspace”.

      1. Really. “Electronic advertising” would make 5/6 stories of above ground parking more palatable? Maybe it would be appropriate on Rideau St, or some parts of Bank or Elgin, but I’m not sure Preston near Dow’s Lake is the place I would choose for that, taking the suggestion for “electronic advertising” at face value…

      2. More palatable than a blank wall, absolutely.

        Why would it be “unpalatable” because it’s on Preston? In fact, given the anti-everything fetishism and the NCC, it would be even LESS palatable the closer you get to Parliament Hill, like on Rideau, Elgin, or Bank.

  5. Certainly, no one ever makes a peep over neighbourhood construction in ottawa……*cough*… *clears throat*….*Glebe!*…..

    Deadspace…with ground level retail and a hugely-needed grocery store, which the community has been crying about for years. Again, there will be windows, doors and setbacks and sidewalk at ground level – from what I’m hearing – how is that exactly the same as what was proposed before?
    With the Champagne Ave buildings about to go up and at least half of the Booth Street complex to be redeveloped, there needs to be a grocery store (esp. with a wine rack) in this location. It’s ridiculous for everyone in the entire area to hop into their cars every time they need something more substantial than coffee.
    As for height – people walking down the sidewalk normally look forward or down, not directly up. No one would notice any appreciable difference in height from ground level by going with 29 storeys instead of 35 storeys. This was done to placate Ottawa residents who are obsessed with numbers and measurements and allowable limits, and turn those things into a psychological tic that affects their behaviour in real life.
    It would be interesting to see what the Preston Street BIA , who made the unusual move of denouncing this project in its original form, will say about it now. A grocery store was the biggest desire from the residents they polled regarding services.

    1. I am still baffled that the BIA — don’t the first two letters stand for “business” and “improvement” — got their pretty underthings in a knot in the first place.

  6. The BIA has spent years promoting a “village” concept of low rises, small businesses, NOT a bar-strip, a variety of businesses, etc, and referred to models such as porto sienna for what they want. Key to that is the sun, warmth, the colonnaded-sidewalk for strolling. A very tall high rise right on the edge of the sidewalk is not normally considered villagey … and the lots closer to the O-Train station at Carling deliberately have NO height restriction in their zoning, so high rise intensification could occur close to the station. Part of the problem is the developer wanting to rezone, and part is the precedent since the planning rationale to rezone this site applies equally well to almost the entire length of Preston, although the developer mocks that interpretation, I suspect it is a valid fear.
    However, be advised that with all the speculation going on in the neighborhood (the Citizen calls it the hotest real estate market in town) (most of the north side of Norman – west of Preston – has been bought out by a Toronto developer) business owners and property owners are realizing that their property may be worth way more than their business. Winters in Hawaii is a pretty persuasive argument for them to like upzoning.

    1. I want the word “village” banished from the Ottawa planning lexicon.

      You wanna live in a village, move to Pakenham. It’s beautiful.

      1. Really? You seem to be the one who has no problem with anything. Why would you have a problem with people wanting to live in a village like atmosphere? That is precisely why people like to live in the Glebe or the Golden Triangle. It’s exactly why people are wanting to get into Wellington Village (oops) and Westboro. Because in a community that is much like a village you can walk or bike to where you want to go. You get to know the shop owners and even the street people. I live in the Golden Triangle and it is like a village. I see the same people all the time. I run into someone I know everyday in my “village”. I like that and I am not alone.

        Ottawans certainly do have to get over some of their height concerns but really, your comments in this thread imply that you think citizens should not have any say in the developement of their neighbourhoods.

      2. Which will do nicely…until the next time the province decides to impose a new set of borders upon Ottawa and her neighbours, in the Mike Harris shotgun-marriage style.

      3. Ottawa is a city.

        Not a village.

        “Village” has turned into NIMBYist shorthand for “we don’t like it, and here’s the standard list of eight reasons why: first, height, second, character of the neighbourhood [blah blah blah], eight, THINK OF THE CHILDREN!”

        I love the kinds of things that “urban villages” are. Main streets and tight-grained streets and mixed uses and all that. But the fixation on the word, used as a justification for opposing everything, is starting to grate on me.

        And yes, you hit the nail on the head as to why people want to live in the Glebe or Golden Triangle or other “villages”. You will notice that the Glebe and Golden Triangle have — ready for it? — tall buildings existing cheek-by-jowel with small ones and even detached homes.

        So how are tall buildings antithetical to “villages”?

      4. Citizens want, demand, and expect, far too much “say” in development. The NIMBYism is utterly out of control.

        The city needs to lay down some broad strokes, emphasizing physically tight street layouts (no more suburban crap), strong, good, street-oriented design principles (no more suburban crap), and, outside of the important viewplanes, which I support preserving, and perhaps a few other special cases, no real limits on height for heigh-limits sake.

        Beyond that, the neighbours should stick to their knitting.


        Here’s a solution for the never-ending height issues: developers can just dig down rather than building up. We can have a 4-6 storey streetscape underlain by several stories of residential buildings. Since most people only use their condos after dark and typically spend most of their time in their condos on the internet or watching their big screen TVs, it wouldn’t be too much of a loss for the average resident (they may even save on heating and cooling costs). After all, we’re always being told that these tall buildings are justified for the purposes of intensification, which building down would satisfy. True, developers wouldn’t be able to sell views, but that’s all right because they always assure us that views are not the reason they build up – it’s only for the aesthetics of thin versus wide buildings, so goes the reasoning.

  7. Gasp. A few more similar developments in the area and Ottawa could risk having a truly urban neighbourhood.

    Or we could get some bland 19 story hideous lowest-bidder monstrosity, with no additional retail.

  8. This building directly affects me and my property. Preston needs infill in all the deadspace along the street, but giant highrises are not my first choice, or the choice of my neighbours. This highrise has been marketed as upscale and talk has been that it is geared for short-term use rather than family homes. What does the neighbourhood gain if the people who live there aren’t spending their money and their time here in the neighbourhood?

    I am 100% for a grocery store, but I won’t get my hopes up until I hear a grocery store is committed to using the space.

    1. Why should you have the “choice”?

      And if not people who actually live in the neighbourhood, who, then, are you expecting to spend time and money in the area?

      1. What? I find your last line confusing. I expect the people who live in this neighbourhood to spend their time and money in this neighbourhood, supporting the businesses and the community.

        I support more people moving to Preston street area. I don’t see how a Hotel Inspired Condo, is going to bring business to the neighbourhood when they are advertising the units with having use of a professional theatre, concierge service, fitness center, pool, etc. That means they won’t have to go to the Gladstone Theatre, Plant Recreation centre, local restaurants, Dow’s lake, and on and on. The condo’s are not being marketed as a way to enjoy all that Little Italy and the area has to offer.

      2. I expect the people who live in this neighbourhood to spend their time and money in this neighbourhood, supporting the businesses and the community.


        That’s why you’ll want more people living there. Now, if only someone were proposing to built a new residential development that would add hundreds of residents to the area virtually overnight. Wait a minute…

        How does having all those services obviate their ability to also spend time and money elsewhere in the neighbourhod or the city?

        The condo’s are not being marketed as a way to enjoy all that Little Italy and the area has to offer.

        And? It doesn’t bother me. Why does it bother you?

  9. Look folks. Can we please get past both the “skyscrapers everywhere” AND the “density nowhere” schools of thought? Eric quite rightly points out the goals of the BIA to maintain a certain kind of character in their area – which is NOT the same as opposing all development and progress. The BIA would quite rightly like to see more thinking in line with this project in the 300 block of Preston – which Eric also highlighted a few weeks back as being a good example of solid infill on an urban main street: Four stories with significant small scale retail / commercial at street level and the 12-13 storey mass of the Adobe building tucked in behind.

    Now, looking at the streetview image, you can’t claim that the 4 storey development has no negative impact on the street – for example, note that the Westward-facing sidewalk is in shadow for a bigger part of the day – but the trade-offs in terms of more positive retail / commercial energy are worth it. So rather than talk about density/height good versus density/height bad, how about we talk about the overall trade-offs and whether they’re worth the price?

    In the case of Soho Italia, I think the balance sheet is still tipped far too heavily toward the developer’s versus the community’s benefit. The question is, given the thorny OMB rezoning, can the City do anything to fix that?

    1. I don’t take it as self-evident that the community needs to “benefit”, or that it doesn’t.

      What’s being “traded off” here? I no get.

  10. Well, the community gets a much-needed grocery store and the city gets a whack of development charges and taxes without investing in infrastructure (see OC Transpo’s service for proof of what a cash-strapped city has to suffer with).
    In return, there will be the shadow of a narrow but tall building, and the annoyance of having to see something that doesn’t look like the buildings next to it.

    That’s what it amounts to. Different people will see it different ways.

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