Westboro tizzy

Westboro and Westboro Beach neighbours are all up in arms about a proposed condo (ie apartment) development along the Transitway just west of Churchill. The site is currently manufacturing, a leftover from the days when the Transitway was a railway line and there was industry along it.

The briefs opposing the development plan bring out the usual boogeymen: too much traffic, too high, killer shadows, deleterious change, etc. Being high end, about the only argument not brought out is crime. (Fortunately, an earlier suggestion to route the new condo access away from the older neighborhood by routing through the front lawn of the less-affluent apartment neighbours, directly over to Scott, seems to have died off).

I read the Westboro Beach commentary (note: I used to live on Kirchoffer, adjacent the site, and frequently travel along the bike paths there) and the Swiss immigrant complaint. Both strike me as full of alarmist language and conspicuous spin that ends up “turning me off” their arguments rather than persuading me.

In the drawing above, the intersection of Churchill and Scott is in the very top right corner, mostly off the pic. Roosevelt is in the bottom left, and shows the ped bridge over the Transitway. The redish-pink apartment building on the right exists today. I think it is a coop or other affordable housing development.

The proponent has shown two clones of the existing building on the new site, to show what is permitted under the current zoning. I don’t think this was a scare tactic, as some charge, but it does make it perfectly  clear what the current zoning permits. It is always difficult for people to imagine just what is proposed; in this case there is an existing reasonably attractive building to cut and paste, to look at its height, assess its shadow, etc. Of course, its exterior and shape details could be more modern than the clone shows.

The yellow outline shows the developers proposal for two towers. They contain the same volume of residential units. Most importantly, sight lines are opened up between the buildings, to the benefit of residents all around and especially on the street in the centre which maintains as vista northwestward. There is also about 70% open space rather than 40%, but whether this is a useful benefit very much depends on the quality and sensitivity of the landscaping and relationship to the building. Another barren plaza helps no one.

I don’t think the developers proposal is an affront to planning or democracy. The City plans  call for intensification along the Transitway. The question at hand is what form it should take. The City’s previous preference was for short, blocky buildings with side yards. After having these rules in place for years, the result was a lot of low, blocky buildings with useless side yards. Boring, and not a great environment (granted, it took more than height bylaws to do this; the city had a number of other contributing rules, such as forbidding store fronts from facing the street, they had to be inside the apartment buildings and termed “tuck shops”, etc).

When the City re-evaluated the Escarpment district (old Ottawa Tech lands on Albert/Slater, and the northeastern part of LeBreton Flats) the hired planner suggested switching to the more-trendy tall-slim-buildings-on-a-podium variant. I didn’t think he had much chance, given Councillor Holmes diehard opposition to height and love for the old zoning scheme. But the sketches of both persuaded most participants, and the city, to switch to the tower/podium zoning model. Now it’s all the rage amongst urbanists.

I am well aware that planners can make anything look good. And the Escarpment plan — like all plans — is full of planner’s porn ( for eg, lovely rows of trees along the streets, never interrupted for driveways, garages, turn lanes, taxi stands, or bus shelters…)… you know, the ideal urban glamour we lust for but never quite get in real life.

The more I read about planning, and the more I see up close what developers propose, the more I am convinced that the key to good design lies at the first at the ground level, and secondarily at the first five floors. Above that, it doesn’t matter how tall the building is, it is essentially out of sight. I challenge anyone to glance at buildings in the distance and distinguish between 15, 18, or 24, or even 30 stories.

The developer in the Roosevelt case did provide reasonable, detailed sketches of his preferred development and less detailed sketches of the current zoning, but cloning the existing building was a clever and honest way to demonstrate height and mass. It would have been even better for him to have provided a more detailed work about for the lower height zoning. For example, why not sketch out an all-low-rise version, made up of townhouses and maybe one low rise apartment building, keeping the approved building volume, which might necessitate a few lot line setback adjustments. They could have pushed hard, maybe  proposing 4 storey townhouses all along the back yards of the adjacent houses, with all their window walls facing the existing back yards? Alternative forms will come with their own pricetags.

The developer of course selected to show his preferred option in the best light. He is, after all, selling the concept to the planners, politicians, and residents. This isn’t some dastardly trick: he isn’t obliged to come up with 2, 3, or 10 possible developments.  If the resident associations want to see something else, hire a architecture student proficient with Sketchup and for a few hundred dollars get her to block out an alternative layout, and outline the developer’s proposal in the same level of detail, so all of them are comparable. If they want to control the development, then buy the land and develop it.

The alarmist tone taken by the resident associations are their right too, and it is sometimes easier to fight the bogeyman than to choose between real alternatives. I would much rather have joined a conversation among the residents, developer, planners, and councillor to discuss the merits of the major approaches, the consequences of each, and less rhetoric about unattainable-but-emotional crutches in the line of  no-more-development, no-more-infills, why-can’t-they-build-affordable-starter-home-bungalows-instead.

When its all said and done, and the builder starts to presell whatever it is they get to build, I’m willing to bet a number of the sales will be to the very people who currently live within a few blocks of the site and currently oppose it. They’ll assess their older homes’ maintenance demands, size, and value, and decide on a condo for their retirement years or as an “investment” for their grown kids. It is, after all, a great location for a condo home, quiet, with river views, nearby shopping, transit … now where is my wallet? No, wait, I remember now that wicked all-winter northwind blowing off the Ottawa River — brrr.


You can see more pics and drawings at the planning rationale submission:


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20 thoughts on “Westboro tizzy

  1. Good reasonable post.

    The unfortunate thing about folks who jump for the bogeyman arguments when they’re not really valid, is that they discredit those arguments in the (many) cases where they ARE valid.

    The little boy who cried wolf syndrome. At one point, people at City Hall and elsewhere started tuning it out.

  2. I’m on both sides on this one.
    On the one hand, I agree that yes, we need to have smarter planning tools to allow developers to make creative trade-offs like the podium tower model, or buildings that dramatically step back from the street. I’ll trade a couple of floors for a nicely stepped-back Westboro Station any day over a concrete – er gray brick – canyon like the one Ashcroft is putting up further East. And yes, a relatively dispassionate community forum like a Community Design Plan process is the place to have those conversations rather than the emotionally charged environment around a developer’s proposal. Smart people will almost always choose *some* height over blocky massing.
    On the other, until the planning department is forced to take the CDP process seriously and/or those smart planning policy tools are in place, the existing zoning and the ongoing game of OMB Roulette is the only way for residents to challenge the scale of a new development. At all. And as neighbours, they do have that right – whatever their motives or tunnel vision blinkers. So if the current rules are about height, and every single new commercial development comes in way above the stated limits, that’s where the battlefield will be.

    1. I agree that street level design is probably more important than height. If there’s one thing worse than a skyscraper that doesn’t address the street well, it’s a bulky brick lowrise. Seriously, whoever complains about height in Manhattan?

      I would prefer to see the city focus on good design, high quality architecture and an urban street experience. To wit, I am more disappointed that in many cases, the city does not demand that the developer provide wider sidewalks that are appropriately laid out (ie, without planters, bike racks, etc. effectively fencing off the “private” part of the sidewalk” in exchange for height, or other benefits. I’d also like to see streets like Scott reimagined as urban thoroughfares, not car-moving thoroughfares unencumbered by pedestrian life, driveways, etc. as it now appears to be through Westboro.

  3. My fear is if people keep saying they don’t want devlopement or limited devlopment in the core that will mean more and more urban sprawl.

    1. Can we put this myth to bed, please? There is virtually no relationship between allowing or not allowing infill development and getting more or less urban sprawl. The infill housing market is catering to a far different clientele than the suburban sprawl market. Condo developments seldom cater to families with children, for example. Suburban sprawl is something that has to be fought directly by insisting on creating real communities with higher densities and mixed uses but which are also family-friendly. To date, we have not done that.

      1. Actually, there is both a relationship between urban sprawl and intensification (squeeze a balloon, the mass goes somewhere…) and suburbs are densifying, as per the Provincial Policy Statement. Have you noticed that the once ubiquitous “estate lots” have largely fallen off the market? Condos in Orleans? more and more stacked towns in Barrhaven?

      2. You can look at it that way, or you can argue that inner area infill is actually *harming* the cause of suburban intensification; i.e. people who want to live in something other than houses have little choice but to head downtown or to places like the condos of Westboro because short-sighted developers refuse (at least until very recently) to build anything vaguely urban in suburban areas. The fact that the few condos that are built in the suburbs tend to sell out would tend to confirm that hypothesis. Inner area infill in effect enables suburban sprawl by relieving much of the pressure for suburban developers to develop more sensibly. I have yet to see anything like an honest attempt to make a street like Richmond in Westboro or Wellington in Hintonburg in the suburbs, for example, so if you want to live in a walkable area you have NO CHOICE but to live in an infill area and pay big bucks for the pleasure.

        As it is, the main culprit in suburban sprawl today isn’t so much on the residential front but rather just about everything else, so the net effect of intensification probably isn’t that much in terms of land saved. Employment areas continue to feature stumpy office blocks surrounded by grass further surrounded by asphalt parking areas further surrounded by yet more grass; retail areas continue on the box-in-a-sea-of-asphalt model; schools and churches feature large parking areas, even right next door to each other; roads take up large tracts of land. Again, it comes down to the failure to create traditional mainstreets and to enforce mixed use development in the suburbs.

        I also suspect that if there was a genuine commitment to making denser suburbs, complete with mixed use districts, there would be less opposition to infill and intensification because what people in inner areas see today is that they have to pay for unsustainable sprawl with intensification. Every extra floor added to a project in Westboro frees up suburban land for more sprawl. In that vein, it’s notable how willing suburban councillors are to vote in favour of intensification projects in inner areas.

      3. David, I still haven’t seen any remotely, vaguely “urban” developments in the awful, dreadful, grey suburbs.

        Any examples?

      4. WJM: There have been a few proposals that show a bit of promise in Kanata and Barrhaven (as well as few suburban infills in Nepean) but at this point in time I can’t think of any in a finished state. The Citizen did a few articles on suburban condos in their New Homes and Condos section not too long ago – and those were only “vaguely urban”; they weren’t mainstreet urban by any means.

  4. David
    Your right condos don’t cater to familys my point is your don’t have condo devlopement in the core or limit it you will have people who may want to live in the core but have no choice but to mvoe out to the burbs and the result is more urban sprawl.

  5. David
    Sure thats true but your aslo have people that wnat ottawa to be car free if this was ever to happen you have to have atleast some devlopement in the core of a fair size.

  6. The photoillustration here is all very well, but let’s delve into it a bit deeper.

    The claim is that the existing zoning allowed for a repetition of the existing building to the east or that the same volume of space could be incorporated into two taller but narrower towers. So we have the same number of units and the same density and the same traffic problems, etc. In other words, the developer is not arguing for extra density but rather just to alter its deployment. Fair enough. But why – in this case – is having taller towers a “good thing”? That seems to be the unwritten assumption of the developer, the City and even Eric here. There may be occasions when taller and narrower are better than short and stocky, but it’s not a given that that is always the case everywhere. Site context matters.

    So let’s consider the actual location. Buildings that are similarly massed to the one that already exists would cast shadows over basically the Transitway trench and a bit of Workman and not much else, even at this time of year around the winter solstice. The usual argument for tall and narrow vs short and stocky is that the shadows cast by the tall buildings would fall on individual properties for less time than those of the short and stocky buildings, where properties near to the building might be permanently in shadow. But in this case, that doesn’t apply since the shadows of short and stocking buildings would fall almost entirely on the Transitway. The taller buildings, by contrast, cast shadows on properties that would never have been enshadowed with a compliant development. People living north of this development, i.e. north of the Transitway, are clearly worse off in that respect. The trade-off might well be different if the Transitway were covered over with housing but that’s not the site context.

    One of the other rationales mentioned is keeping a view corridor of sorts open from Winston northwards. This is a bit disingenuous since tall and narrow buildings aren’t the only way to accomplish that goal. The properties are wedge-shaped but the buildings being shown (both proposed and compliant) are rectilinear. If both buildings (taking from the compliant mock-up) are turned into wedge-shaped buildings, with the western building being shorn on its eastern end, the street could still be extended north.

    Since the alleged benefits of intensification would flow with either the short and stocky compliant design or the tall and narrow proposal, and since the site context makes the former preferable to the latter, what actually is the rationale for the latter over the former?

    Oh, right. Sales of condo units with a good view.

    As an aside, it’s interesting that Councillor Katherine Hobbs received a $500 donation from the developer (Uniform) and a $200 donation from the planning consultant (Willis). These were listed one after the other in her filing on election donations. This interesting little coincidence occurred months before anyone local knew that the subject properties were going to be redeveloped. She also had a press release about $200k of improvements to Roosevelt (1) ready to go minutes after Planning Committee approved this project, complete with a high quality image of the development (i.e. one that was not just pulled from the submission to the City). A minute after that, she had another (2) ready to go on the use of cash-in-lieu of parkland funds for improvements to the Winston-Richmond intersection in Westboro. While the improvements seem on the face of them to be worthwhile, the fact remains that no one seems to have been consulted about this sudden splurge either.

    (1) http://ourkitchissippi.ca/development/good-news-traffic-calming-coming-to-roosevelt-avenue-north-of-richmond-road/
    (2) http://ourkitchissippi.ca/news/new-city-square-coming-to-winston-avenue-richmond-road/

  7. Eric: I don’t understand your comment “(Fortunately, an earlier suggestion to route the new condo access away from the older neighborhood by routing through the front lawn of the less-affluent apartment neighbours, directly over to Scott, seems to have died off).” You seem to have this tendency to veer off into class-based rhetorical asides. Which is the better place for an access: an unused swale directly in line with an all-directions stop sign-controlled intersection, or via a residential street where left turns onto a reasonably busy arterial will be required? What’s fortunate about it?

    I think you need to visit the site and take a closer look to understand what the idea was. The apartment building has no front lawn to speak of; it has a brick path to the front door flanked by a bit of grass on either side with a line of trees along the property line. Nearer to the Transitway beyond the tree line there’s a grassed swale with storm drains along the would-be road right-of-way next to the MUP. I have never seen anyone use this space for anything except to gather around in after a recent fire in one of the apartments. My guess is that swales with drains in them are even less appealing that regular lawns. It was in this space that the access was proposed to go. That remnant RoW continues past the existing building and eventually comes alongside the Fendor building where it is gravel and used for access from Roosevelt as well as serving as de facto parking and loading for the Fendor building – a bit of an unofficial annexation, a phenomenon I trust you’re familiar with. That segment of space is in City hands and will likely end up as a continuation of the swale once the project is finished since it is not part of the property owned by Uniform but merely adjoins it (this is evident from the second page of the planning rationale where an overhead view of the site is provided). Indeed, from my reading of the planning rationale the plan is to put in “low berms” (!) between the path and the building. West of Roosevelt the RoW continues on still further going past the ends of Berkley and Dominion as well as the Barclay condo before finally petering out into the space behind the former RMOC building.

    Using that space would be a good place for a woonerf, at the very least as an outbound egress, since it doesn’t do much right now nor will the portion alongside the project be too well utilized either. We’re reassured that the traffic impact on Winston and Wilmont won’t be that great. If that’s the case, then it also wouldn’t be that great on an extension of Scott.

  8. “I have yet to see anything like an honest attempt to make a street like Richmond in Westboro or Wellington in Hintonburg in the suburbs” and subsequent reader comments on intensifying suburbs — “the main culprit in suburban sprawl today isn’t so much on the residential front but rather just about everything else” — are all real issues that deserve some focus. I have long planned but never written some impressions of suburban development. I spent a chunk of time this summer visisting new suburbs in Riverside S, Barrhaven, and Orleans with considerable dissatisfaction. I resolve to do better shortly and comment on them.

    “why – in this case – is having taller towers a “good thing”? is something I dither about all the time. My gut preference is for low rise, eg up to five floors. But alas, if the city insists on perserving huge swaths of low density early suburban developemnt from redevelopment … and to to see this most recently look at the boundaries of the TOD studies being done around stations and note that the boundaries skirt around but do not include the precious SFD’s… then the consequence of land scarcity is that one someone gets some they want to maximize their development potential. It comes back to municipal (mis)management of the urban land market.

    And it is not as if developers act in isolation. If I was downsizing (something we discuss in this household a lot) and I moved to the Roosevelt condos, I might as well get a river view too, why should the riv-view be the perrogative of the very richest people who can buy the front row lots and who then obstruct the view from everyone behind? In short, ordinary folk get river views by trading ground floor space for aerial spaces. I once worked in Pl de Ville, 28th floor, in a NW viewing corner office and it was spectacular …

    As for my class references, yup, while certainly no socialist that doesn’t stop me from assessing people’s actions based on where the money is/goes. Similar to the commentors on Hobb$ election funding. All too often, the affluent and influential get better services from govt than does the lower income neighborhoods. Schools get closed in Hintonburg and Dalhousie, not in the Glebe. The transitway is an open trench, too expensive to cover, in Mechanicsville, but is unacceptable intrusion on the great McKellar dog park along Byron. So, yeah, I do take note when residents try to redirect traffic over the “front lawn” or “front bioswale” of a lower-income building instead of their own precious asphalt.

    I have asked Hobbs for her street treatment plans to share them with readers.

    Thanks everyone for commenting.

  9. Having been at that planning meeting (but having to leave before this item was discussed) I’ll say this: Councillor Hume threatened to evict the people in attendance when they had the temerity to applaud Councillor Holmes for observing on the overly close relationship between developers and city planners.

    In this case: the zoning is for seven stories. That describes a maximum. If I’m a resident, to me that means that the developer may go up to(but not beyond) that height. They could do anything they want in that envelope – but that is the envelope they have to play with.

    What happens, instead of developers playing by the rules as spelled out in plain black and white?

    Why, developers go to the city planning team. They go back and forth and back and forth, all in private, without any public oversight – and then present a fait accompli to both Council and the residents.

    It’s a flawed system. The moment any applicaiton or consultation comes in, it should be a matter of public record. And the city planners should be obliged to reject plans that do not respect height limits. At that point, developers can go to city council directly to amend the zoning – but planners should not be involved. Planners should be allowed to work within the zoning; not propose amendments to zoning.

    Openness and transparency from day one. Full public visibility of what is planned, and of any proposals. And a planning department that works within the overall city plan, and does not propose changes to the city plan. Or, in other words, planners who do as directed by CIty Council, and not the current situation of City Council doing as they are told by the planners.

  10. Planners are professionals. They are not “directed” by City Council. To apply for a zoning amendment is the right of any property owner in Ontario and the amendment has to be considered by the Planner before they provide their professional opinion to City Council who does not always agree with them. Plans need to allow for innovation as well and cannot be static. There are definitely situations of conflict between planners and developers and between planners and council – the public is just not invovled (nor should they be). And obviously the planner has to work with the Developer to secure benefits for the public – so any notion that they are “too close” is ridiculous. The planner when putting forth a recommendation to Council is putting forth their professional opinion and that of the Department which has had many levels of review. They are truly putting forth their opinion of what’s best for the public interest of the entire city, and not just the immediate neighbourhood.

    1. To the contrary. City Council sets zoning, and that is direction to planners. It’s not a start point for negotiation, but rather a decision and direction that city planners should follow. (That they decide that they know better than our elected representatives and set about to overrule elected officials is symptomatic of the grand dysfunction of our city – bureaucrats are supposed to execute policy, not set it).

      The need for greater transparency throughout the process is key. Once a proposal enters city hands, it should be a matter of public record. Planners should not be working hand in hand with developers without public oversight. If what you’re doing won’t stand up to public scrutiny, that says a great deal about what’s being done.

      To say that the public should not be involved suggests a bit of a superiority complex. Vox Populi, Vox Dei, whether you like it or not.

      …and I’d be interested to know whether planners ever, in their replies to developers, ever say “You know this is only zoned for 7 stories, right?”

      1. Transparency in the planning process will only be useful if it’s not used for point-by-point opposition to any and all proposals. I can see why cities and planners tend to shroud some of the process: they already have a sufficient level of spittle-laced opposition to pretty well everything that they do that a more open and transparent process would only help to bog down the process further. It would only encourage the opposition-type community associations by giving them more low-calibre ammunition.

        Since cities already have to balance on the one hand, a pervasive drawbridge mentality in the most of the city’s established neighbourhoods and an ever-present situation of budgetary shortfall on the other (with only a 19th century property tax system and some token easily-revocable transfers to tend to it), it’s no wonder why they want to have these more expensive and valuable neighbourhoods to develop and grow.

        Since it’s unlikely that any hit to property values caused by some vague sense of dissatisfaction with reduced sunlight and more traffic will likely be easily offset by the increase in the number households, it’s an easy choice to make. Especially when the general vicious opposition to increased property taxes is taken into consideration. After all, the Sun crowd is easy to whip up into a populist frenzy, and the remainder tend to talk out of both sides of their mouths with regards to taxation.

        No smoke-filled back rooms, no secret handshakes, and no brown envelopes in the sense that they’re presented by those opposed to development. Only a realization at the municipal level that revenues are very much needed and only one significant potential source: more households.

  11. Chris:

    You’re right. Mustn’t engage those nasty, filthy proles. They’ll expect to have their opinions heard, their concerns addressed. It’s far better to let the Alphas do everything, present a fait accompli to the Councillors (and not let pesky facts intrude into their reports – I mean, if a consultant hired by a developer says it’s true, it must be true), and only then let those fould, miserable, ill-tempered and ill-mannered citizens speak.

    I mean, it’s not like this is supposed to be a democracy or anything…

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