What are the alternatives to “too tall” ?

Goldilocks knew she had 3 choices …

 At the mayor’s summit meeting held this spring, Watson and Hume were blunt in telling attendees we were in for tall buildings. Lots of tall buildings.  Lots of very tall buildings. It was their tough love moment. But they glossed over explaining why.


Highrise intensification just south of Bayview Station leaves existing housing (in pink) alone; at least that’s the plan.


Then the Citizen published *  an opinion piece by Sarah Jennings, developer, who argued that we could intensify to the standards of glorious Paris with a eight story height limit on main streets. I thought her argument was as glib as the Mayor’s pretending to tell us it like is.

At the risk of some oversimplification, I think we have – like Goldilocks – three choices. One is the low rise model, the one we have been following since the 50’s. Build lots of low rise wood frame houses. This choice is cheap to buy, but the long-run maintenance cost is staggering. The user it serves best is the car commuter, but in the best cannibalizing tradition it eats (destroys) the City that spawned it.

The low density suburban model has been frequently likened to an urban planning Ponzi scheme. Buyers are attracted by low front end costs with initially attractive terms. Municipalities load all the expenses onto the developers (ie, home buyers) and can milk them for giant sports complexes erected to the glory of the Hallowed Politician.

Number crunchers tell us these low density neighborhoods, particularly the ones of single family homes on 50’ or larger lots, can never pay enough to cover the replacement costs of their infrastructure. Like a Ponzi investment scheme, it has to keep growing, bringing in new  entrants to allow the first in to retire. It’s great while the music keeps playing. Nepean’s fabled “pay as you go” finances were as parasitic a Ponzi scheme as one could ever get. Once the infrastructure in the oldest neighborhoods required replacement, it was better to give them to Ottawa. (Since the 40’s Nepan and other suburbs thrived on new growth while handing off the older stuff to Ottawa, which never got the honeymoon period of surplus taxes).

Our taxpayer Ms. Goldilocks’s second choice looks much lumpier than the suburban Nepean bedspread. Sticking up out that coverlet are clusters of high rise towers. Very high rise towers. While most of the ground-level dwellers remain happily ensconced in their ever pricier (great investment, provided you are earliest in) homes, their kids and eventually their retired brethren will be increasingly forced into high rises.

The City likes those high rises, as they put more population on existing sewer and transportation lines. Inner city bus routes are often profitable, in contrast to the Kanata or Orleans routes that lose four times their fare box revenues. But the resultant landscape is simply not comfortable. The developers are restricted to ever-smaller land market, pushing prices high. (And this ignores “windfall” profits to the land owners who escape public attention, focused as we are on the height of the proposed building).

The City-restricted market forces developers to demand higher buildings to maximize what land they’ve got. And it galvanizes homeowners to join community associations who demand Community Development Plans (CDP’s) most of which are NIMBY schemes wrapped in a veneer of livable streets and heritage protection and walling-off sacred low rise neighborhoods from change. And why shouldn’t the first-in on any Ponzi scheme want the interest payments to keep on comin?

The resultant Watson and Hume built environment offers sudden contrasts between very low rise wooden buildings near tall – make that soon to be very much taller – buildings.

Goldilock’s  third choice, as described by Jennings,  encourages her to dream of magical Paris, land of utopian affordable housing choices along popular café lined streets  for everyone with everything eight stories or lower. Why Ottawa could quadruple its population within the Greenbelt without highrises! But, those marvelous traditional mainstreets lined by mid rise buildings are imaginary. Paris streets are lined by six to nine storey buildings, the kind residents in Hintonburg and Westboro and elsewhere love to oppose as inappropriate. And in Paris they are backed by blocks and blocks, miles and miles, of similar eight storey buildings.

Picture your last visit to Paris (or use Google for an e-visit). Don’t you recall those miles and miles of low rise single family homes, with green front yards and green back yards, and lots of trees, and wide but quiet streets, right behind Les Grands Boulevards with their eight story buildings?

What – you didn’t notice them!  Well, neither did I. I suspect they don’t exist. In the description of the  mid-rise-on-main-street choice offered to Goldilocks, proponents forget to ask if everyone in McKeller Park is willing to rezone their neighborhood to eight stories, with buildings go lot line to lot line. They don’t want that? Well, maybe Hintonburg will support that universal mid rise zoning! They won’t? What about Dalhousie? Or The Glebe? Vanier? Rockcliffe Park? Crystal Bay? Anyone??

Those great-to-visit European cities, like Paris, or Munich, or Amsterdam, with their mid rise main streets have mid rise hinterlands. I think Watson is very much aware of political reality when proposes lots of intensification and lots of highrises, especially along transit corridors, but almost always on the edge of low rise neighborhoods. If he can placate the low-rise homeowner while allowing shiny new highrises not-too-nearby to increase density, he wins. Of course the mid-rises along traditional mainstreets still  bring their own firestorms, but are a bit less threatening to the typical homeowner who lives off-of mainstreets.

Where Watson loses is the frustration of residents / taxpayers / voters who feel the process is too opaque and “rigged” to suit someone else. Once everyone decides the fix is in, the Mayor is OUT.

Perhaps I am still too naïve, but I think the argument for intensification within the city limits, the so-called smart growth option, can still be sold to the public. We need to address these three basic models of growth, and identify the traffic consequences of each, the affordability of housing, the impact on tax structure, the satisfaction of housing needs and desires. As it is now, anyone can propose a little bit of somewhere else (Paris! London! Manhattan!) without acknowledging the consequences of actually going that route. Headlines without details.

One of the giant impediments to the process is the City itself. The City is predicated on obscuring the costs of growth, with largely flat rates for sewers and the like. As for roads, the (short term) benefits of new roads  is glorious but the long term cost forced back into the closet. The City insists on reserving micro-planning all for itself, with endless bureaucratic rules that are conceived to guide rational growth but too often stifle innovation. Rather than allocate costs rationally, and let the market decide that what people can afford, the city simultaneously works to prevent growth in underdeveloped neighborhoods while tightly regulating growth outside them, demanding affordability while larding on charges and surcharges that push up the cost of the housing. Then it rewards those who live in smart growth areas or new compact housing with higher taxes than those in Sprawlsville. Like anyone who tries to do too much, to simultaneously achieve too many conflicting goals, the city ends up doing many things badly.

The next time someone says we can have mid-rise or low rise main streets “like they do in Europe”, be sure to ask what’s in the next block. And for the next unsustainable suburb, ask why the City sucks and blows at the same time, ensuring they will forever be car dependent money-losers by design. As for the densification option, stop opposing high rises over there unless you are accepting that those people can all live on your street tomorrow.  

Just because your neighborhood make economic sense in 1940 doesn’t mean it has to be frozen in that form forever, despite the City’s implied promises in zoning.

Remember Goldilocks? Remember the bears came home? They probably ate Goldilocks for lunch.


Sarah Jennings article is at www.ottawacitizen.com/story_print.html?id=6573350&sponsor=

6 thoughts on “What are the alternatives to “too tall” ?

  1. Well I get your point but I guess I’m with Sarah Jennings on this. I remember when the corner of Kent and Somerset was still 3 gas stations and a car rental lot. A design charette I attended proposed four mid-rise mixed-use buildings on those corners but the Claridge goons pitched up a banal 20-floor condo tower and some dreary townhouses with napkin-sized lawns (ever see anyone sitting out in their front yard there?) Thank goodness the car-rental spot is still there. And it’s the same damn thing all the way up Kent, apart from the Charlesfort tower and the OCH block. We gave up perfectly good parking lots for this?!

    With some imagination and determination you can do a lot with 6-8 storeys (viz: Beaver Barracks) and there are plenty of empty and under-utilized lots scattered across the inner city. No it won’t be Paris, but it’d be a damn sight better than what we get from the mine-is-bigger-than-yours guys.

  2. To me, there is very little difference between a modern 8 story building and a modern 20 story building. In either case you can get in the elevator go down to the garage, get in your car, leave the underground parking and zoom down wide streets to go shop at Costco. As long as the building (and the street) is designed towards the convenience of the car driver what difference does it make how long you spend in the elevator? I am no expert on mid rise development in Paris but I suspect that many of the appealing features that people associate with the midrise development in Paris is really all about how inconvenient it is to use a car there and has very little to do with how tall the buildings are.

  3. I have been to Paris and London and in the case of Paris there are virtually no single family homes with a lawn and a backyard for 10 – 15 km in all directions from the middle of the City. Even out on the edge of the metropolitan area, homes are behind large fences and walls and a car space is somehow squeezed in there. Back yards (if there is one) are an oasis of calm for the owners. Most of Paris is 6-8 storey buildings many built w/o off street parking.

    Most of the high rises in Paris are outside the peripheque (sp?) which is the limit of the City of Paris. Most of these high rises are in the ban-lieus which are notorious high rise concentrations of poverty and crime and generally off the tourist beaten path.

    London is not quite as dense as Paris as one you get about 8 or 10 km from the middle you are into the area of semis and small singles. There are some flats above stores on main arterials and the main high rises are in council estates (an oxymoron if I ever heard one). Fifteen or so km from the middle and you are into sfr’s and larger homes in general with gardens and not quite as walled in as Paris.

    Spanish and Italian cities are almost all apartments in the 6-8 storey height range.

  4. I’m surprised this post didn’t generate more excitement, since these topics get everyone in a fighting mood at the community meetings!
    Thanks for explicitly discussing what the “Paris example” would actually mean if we were to implement it. To put it another way: why the old European city model is useful from a pedagogical point of view, but of limited applicability on a large scale for a city like Ottawa. There are no front yards in Paris.
    Also, I appreciate your (ballsy) description of a lot of CDPs. Do developers participate in their construction? I get the impression the height recommendations in them are cynically viewed as an opening salvo in negotiations (just as developers initial height proposals usually have no hope of being approved). Then when ‘compromise’ is reached, it can still be said that the proposal violates the CDP. Um…what a waste of everybody’s time.
    I agree that some concept of what you want your neighborhood to develop/change should be put down on paper. But this ideally is a guideline, not a cudgel you wave around as if it’s law handed down from on high (lots of metaphors). Furthermore, it’s not like 20 buildings are going up in one neighborhood every month. I have NO problem treating every large building as a special case and evaluating each on its own merits. Thumbs down to this 25 story building for being a POS, thumbs up to this 35 story building for being attractive with a nice street presence. This approaches requires only that I be given absolute power to approve/refuse developments in Ottawa.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post. Not only do you illustrate the fallibility of the “Paris Planning” concept that creeps up far too often in the debate in Ottawa, but you also make it clear that no one model alone (towers, paris, ponzi) is going to solve our triple sustainability problem (ecological, taxation, human liveability).

    As a strong proponent of developments that are tall due to their ability to increase density, I recognize that a few towers at nodes are not going to single-handedly solve all problems. They will decrease the affordability of homes ‘on the ground’, and will not appeal to all demographics. They must be designed to integrate with the neighbourhood at street level (the most important level for the day-to-day experience of those living nearby).

    In order to truly address our City’s sustainability while it grows, towers at nodes are only part of the solution. Small-scale infill in neighbourhoods is also required, as is development along mainstreets. At least the City has been trying to reach a compromise regarding the small-scale infill (which is happening quite aggressively, just with less scrutiny for any individual project than the towers have) with their new (slightly intelligible) guidelines.

    On top of infill, we need to design new suburbs to be less Ponzi-like, and more amenable to future infill as the city grows yet bigger. This means considering things like back lanes. This means fewer squiggly roads in favour of a grid pattern. This means zoning certain streets to allow a semblance of traditional mainstreet uses. This means designing these neighbourhoods to be inexpensive to service by transit, and to make transit a quick and easy way for those residents to move.

    Moving on to another tangent – I cannot stress enough how important a good transit system is. That is how we make dense living more attractive to more people. By creating incentives for individuals to live in greater density, the demand for those types of housing solutions increase to everyone’s benefit.

    All that to say – great post!

  6. I’m not so familiar with Paris, but in a larger city, Tokyo, there is a mix of tall buildings and low-rise structures. There is no uniform eight-storey construction as posited in your posting. (And it goes without saying that somehow Tokyo has achieved the density to support transit!)
    I also wonder about the idea that tall buildings at nodes lead automatically to efficient transit and servicing. In the Planning Summit it was suggested that specific locations for tall building construction would be identified. This is badly needed. We are told that greater density will lead to more efficient use of installed infrastructure. A study is required to identify locations at which infrastructure is under-utilized.
    My understanding is that, for the SoBa 23-storey building on Catherine Street, the capacity of the sewer system cannot support the demand created by the new building. Maybe there are other good reasons that such a building should be located there, but, at least from the sewer standpoint, this new project does not achieve one of the objectives of intensification.
    I like your comment about the windfall realized by landowners through spot rezoning. However I do not really think that it is the average property owner, inexperienced with the procedures for having properties rezoned, who benefits. No, our system is that a select group of developers with good planning argumentation, acquire a property with one type of zoning and arrange for the zoning to be changed to inflate the value of the land. Whether the applicant builds the building in question or not, the profit has already been realized through the rezoning. If any return is achieved from the building, that is gravy.

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