Westboro tizzy (ii)

Well, that Westboro post of a few days ago certainly got the juices going of a number of readers who took time to construct clever and insightful responses. The “comments”  that follow that post are a goldmine of intelligent views. Do read them if you haven’t yet.

One wise reader send me the following link http://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/inpr/su/sucopl/upload/The-Carlings-at-Arbutus-Walk-Vancouver-B-C.pdf which features a “case study” of a low-rise high-density infill, with the suggestion that the developer at Roosevelt should have tried harder to build within the zoning and height limit.

I read the CMHC review of Arbutus Walk, and will add it to my bucket list of urban neighborhoods to visit someday. I also went and google street-viewed the built-out site. I am somewhat cautious of PR-type photos that illustrate such reviews. I recall the glam-shots of the first LeBreton Flats in the 80’s; and I suspect there will be some droolable planner’s porn shots of the current Claridge build-out on LeBreton which will be very impressive (at least to readers not here in Ottawa).

And those frequent mentions in the CMHC document about “lengthy” consultation process, confidence building, legal challenges, etc translates into more expensive product unaffordable to more of the population. Nice comes with a price.

As I may have mentioned in the first post, it is highly unlikely anyone would build a large-ish infill project and be able to meet all the Ottawa rules regarding height, setbacks, guidelines in the infill documents, etc. You don’t have to be a planner to assemble a group of these documents and realize they are full of mushy and conflicting requirements. To meet one rule or guideline you have to violate another. It’s the flip side of the argument that says the “planning rationale” documents that accompany each project application are so flexible you can rationalize any breaking of the rules. You can’t meet them all, either.

For example, most zoning rules require side yard setbacks, even on main streets. These were popular in the zoning rules and neighborhood plans written years ago. Yet in practice, the City planners don’t want side yards anymore, they are usually seen as dead, wasted space. So they will tell the developer to build to the lot line. It is the then the developer that has to ask for a “minor adjustment”, which gets the neighbours riled up. Virtually every community association or opponent to a Committee of Adjustment application I have seen cites the number of adjustments as evidence of evil incarnate. When a real problem lies in the conflict between what was written (then) and what is wanted (now).

There are so many rules, such a huge volume of zoning crap, that it simply cannot be keep updated, especially if for every change the neighbours want input. I have suggested previously that we need to radically downsize the zoning rules from volumes of binders to a simple pocketbook size. This would also dramatically increase the number and size of permitted buildings.  Don’t hold your breath.

And, to put a fine point on it, I don’t want a city where there are a set of iron-clad immutable rules that are almost impossible to change. Because every set of rules brings forth unintended consequences. Every action to promote one feature gestates another that blights. Remember how zero tolerance for drugs in school resulted in kids being expelled for having an Aspirin or Midol?

We have elected Councillors who make the final decisions based on professional advice from staff. I do believe they largely know what they are doing. They want densification, intensification, and staff is delivering that, manoeuvering somehow through sets of rules that are often the opposite of the larger goal, or designed to frustrate that, because they were laid out to appease NIMBY and BANANA sentiments at the neighborhood level.

Yes, we have institutionalized a Janus planning policy with a “no change” face for the neighbourhood and a “densification” face for the planning dept and developers.

And the actions and sentiments at the public participation and community advocacy level aren’t all pure either. I see too much “party politics” and (mis-)use of local planing exercises to gain leverage in the approvals process rather than any belief in the correctness of the outcomes. Can I count how many times I hear activists say something along the lines of “I don’t expect you to follow the height/volume/setback rules we just want to encourage good development/leverage (extort?) community benefits.” There probably are some boy-scouts in the neighborhood studies process who believe in the expressed outcome; for the rest, it’s just another step in an ongoing dance. The ultimate goal is to be spend other people’s money getting what we want.

So if Uniform or whomever wanted to design a zoning-conforming build-out of the site on Roosevelt, I wonder if it could actually be done? A great exercise, I would think, for a professional planner or planning student to do on Sketchup. If anyone out there produces one, I’ll post it, anonymously if required. I’d love to see what could be done on that site to fit the zoning and achieve the same amount of sellable space.

I’m also willing to bet it wouldn’t satisfy the neighbours one iota.


I did find myself wondering if I could find out how much development (eg in square feet) was put on the Beaver Barracks site in downtown Ottawa, and how that might compare to the Roosevelt site. Alas, this would require a lot of number crunching as the lot sizes are different, and someone quite conversant with the building rules (volume of build-out permitted, height, parking, etc). Even if they were comparable densities, would the neighbours have been any happier? To answer that, re-read the last line in the post above.