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.
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=