What to do with a highrise (proposed)

Right on the boundary of Hintonburg and Dalhousie, which is to say in the heart of the west side turf this blog purports to cover, at the intersection of Breezehill and Somerset, Claridge is proposing a 28 storey highrise.

The adjacent mainstreet is lively; the views of the downtown superb. No doubt the 28 floor request is an opening gambit. If he actually gets it, bonus for him. But I suspect he will be quite happy to get 18.

Why 18? Because that’s the height of the 30+ year old apartment a block west at Bayswater. Funnily enough, opponents of high rises often cite “inappropriate context” when opposing high rises, but no one brought up context at a recent meeting held by the Hintonburg Community Assoc (HCA), perhaps because of the existing 18 storey building a half block away, nor the 10 storey building, also about 30 years old a half block south of Claridge, nor the 10 storey OCISCO building a few blocks west.

First, the meeting: the turnout was typically large, and had the usual mix of calm and emotional attendees. Nothing like a proposed high-rise to bring out the crowds. The HCA was busy selling memberships.

The HCA leadership handled the meeting very well. Much better than some other anti-development public meetings that remind me more of lynch-mobs than anything else, with the chair persons leading the chorus, developers filling in the role of the local [insert name of minority group here]. In this case, the leaders reviewed the appropriate neighborhood plan (well, one of them … more on this in a minute), and the proposed development, and actually devoted the first half hour to extracting from the audience a list of those things that were good about the development. And the audience, somewhat timidly given the sceptical (not quite hostile) environment, came up with a number of reasons why the Claridge proposal deserved a hearing.

Then came the deluge of complaints. They ranged from

  • traffic: people who live there will come and go, sometimes by car
  • danger to schoolchildren in the adjacent schoolyard who would be playing too close to a high-rise condo (unspecified risk, apparently it is self-evident that this is of great imminent danger to play near a high-rise, although another faction of the community wants the children even closer, by co-locating a daycare in the base of said highrise)
  • children walking to school will face busier streets
  • it will be ugly
  • residents will be too rich; there isn’t enough “affordable” units; high rises are socially alienating and crime will go up, the building will fill with undesirables;  there won’t be family units (except for those who complained all the kids in the new building will fill up Devonshire school and keep other deserving local children out of Devonshire and forcing them to attend other schools without adjacent dangerous highrises),  etc
  • the additional residents will fill up all the restaurants and locals won’t get reservations
  • it violates the spirit and nature of the local CDP

Other than the usual anti-highrise NIMBY arguments, two arguments stood out as key: traffic, and the CDP. Let’s look at each.

Traffic: all the vehicular traffic for the building (condos and storefronts and offices) is currently proposed to enter and exit from a widened laneway that runs between Breezehill and Bayswater. The builder is apparently not opposed to southbound traffic being restricted, so that all users would exit northwards to a mid-block entrance on Somerset. This puts a lot of traffic crossing the sidewalk (undesirable) and the sight line to the east is short due to the bad hump in the road as Somerset goes over the O-Train. Alternatively, traffic could be (partially?) permitted to use Breezehill, which really exercises the Devonshire parents. (Other traffic handling measures have not been explored).

No one mentioned if the existing 216 or so apartments already existing at Bayswater and Somerset are a major traffic hazard to kids, other pedestrians, or overload the neighborhood with traffic. There is apparently no traffic study yet.

But IF the proposed Claridge building is too much traffic, then what does that mean for all the other intensification developments proposed in the Bayview-Carling CDP, also accessed via Breezehill? Will any form of intensification be traffic free? Obviously not, so when the lands along the east side of Breezehill and further south (which includes several whole blocks of land) are redeveloped as high rises or townhouses, or even the fabled six storey magic height that is harmonious-with-all-good-things, won’t there be a lot more traffic on Breezehill anyway? Why oppose just the first one in?

One speaker had the HCA meeting had the solution: they complained Devonshire lacked a drop-off car lane for parents to drive their kids to school. Let’s leave aside for a minute why parents don’t simply boot the kids who are 8 and older out the door and tell them to take a hike, or let them ride the school bus, do we really want to take an urban area school with limited schoolyard and convert more of it to a drop off lane? Don’t go there.

The condo will debouch about one car a minute at rush hour if there is one exit; and about one car every two minutes if there are two exits. Multiply this by the dozen or so so intensification developments that will appear over the next two decades, and Breezehill will be seeing a lot of traffic. Telling developers to build their high rises elsewhere won’t reduce traffic in Hintonburg either. We’ve got to face up to fact: there won’t be enough room on the streets for everyone to drive, whether they be existing or new residents. Existing residents don’t have a monopoly on the streets. Opposing the Claridge condo because it will generate traffic is merely the first round of a whack-a-mole game that no one will win.

The CDP:  The Hintonburg area has just completed a main-street CDP that imposes a six storey height limit. They are justifiably proud of their plan. But even many HCA members doubt how faithfully the city and developers will honour it.

And it is the focus on the CDP at the recent public meeting that bothered me. I noticed two major flaws in the CDP arguments.

To hear the people at the meeting, or to read complaints like this one  http://www.offhand.ca/ , one would think that the CDP was the ultimate planning document. But it isn’t. It is a fairly low-level one. At the top is the provincial direction, to intensify. Followed by the Official Plan, which calls for intensification. And the Transit-oriented-development mandate that draws a radius around each transit station and directs that these areas be intensified, in part because the development charges of these high rises will be paying for the LRT. (The Claridge proposal falls within not just one, but two of these radii.) So the Claridge proposal just happens to fit nicely with these higher-level plans and directives, and their hired planners will be arguing that to Planning Committee, and then Council, and then the OMB. It is insufficient to compare the Claridge proposal only to the Hintonburg CDP, it needs to be seen in the larger context. To focus only on one CDP when evaluating the condo plan is insufficient, bordering on misleading.

The second flaw in the CDP argument comes from the claim it “violates the spirit and intent of the CDP”. Now the catch is that the Claridge highrise technically and legally isn’t in the CDP zone, it starts an inch south of it. But it is also equally close to the Bayview-Carling CDP that calls for a corridor of high rises along the O-train corridor. So if one is to honour the spirit and intent of the adjacent CDP, why should it be only the Hintonburg CDP and not the Bayview CDP? This of course is dangerous ground. As much as people argue the proposed Claridge building is out of context when looking west, it is in context when looking east. No one mentioned at the HCA meeting that the Equity site a hundred meters east is already zoned for 25 residential stories and has been for about 20 years. Oh oh.

And no one mentioned the Hintonburg Hub proposal, one long block north of Claridge. We don’t yet know what height it will come in at. Social housing providers aren’t immune to economic reality, and they don’t find six floors attractive economically either. I wonder if those who are so exercised about Claridge going above six will be so vocal when social housing goes higher. (The adjacent OCISCO social housing building is already 10).

The arguments pro and con the development could go on forever, drawing from the standard list of NIMBY and pro-high rise rationales. To some extent, the HCA meeting was like a ritual dance, where the “little people” are heard, preserving social order, until their delegates at City Hall make the Big Decision. Personally, I wouldn’t give good odds for Claridge getting 28. He will get 18. If Planning Committee insists on lower, he’ll be off to the OMB which is almost certain to give him at least 18, maybe even the full 28. The manoeuvering over this project will be interesting to watch.




24 thoughts on “What to do with a highrise (proposed)

  1. I don’t have anything to add, but thank you for the insightful analysis of the situation.

  2. With all the development slated to go in, the views will no longer be superb. The view will be directly into another highrise. Only the buildings by the river will have a view.

    Can the area really support this much development? Is the need for expensive condos really that high?

    I don’t see many families living in the condos, so the school population will be spared. None of the developments are promoting family-friendly environments. Small, cubed living spaces. No shared family outdoor or indoor spaces, no grocery, no daycare, etc.

    What types of businesses run on the main floor of these generic condo developments – if the Glebe or Wellington are any indication, it will be a fitness center, a real estate office, a Shoppers Drugmart, maybe an H&R block, and possibly a Sushi place, but not the interesting, vibrant stores that make the neighbourhoods interesting.

    1. Meg: yup, some views will get blocked by another building, others will remain for decades or centuries. Funny enough, Manhattan high rises remain popular and in demand, as do high rises in many other cities. As for expensive condos, try buying a one or two bedroom house in Hintonburg. I have looked. They either don’t exist, or they sell for about the same price per foot as the condos. New condos sell for similar prices per square foot as new infill low rise houses, and only slightly more expensive than century old wood houses. Hmm. Are they really expensive?

      It is true the condo units will tend to have (somewhat rectangular) layouts (except the curent craze of building round turret like rooms on the corners eg the gardens, beaver barracks, claridge plaza 1, 2, 3, and 4, the ones in vanier that aren’t triangular flatiron rooms, etc) , but then, so do most of the houses on the west side. Many, but not all condos, have party rooms, meeting rooms, shared dining rooms, some have coop libraries, and often recreation facilities. We ignore these recreation facilities at our peril when we see only government supplied ones. As for no daycare, well that is exactly what the developer and an active part of the community are discussing right now, is how to get a daycare in it to replace the one (they anticipate will be expelled from )Devonshire.

      We dont know what businesses will go in the commercial space. Fitness centres are in some buildings because fitness centres are in demand. Is it wrong to provide facilities people want, or can they only be provided in one-storey buildings owned by governments that build sprawly buildings on former parkland (eg Plant Rec Complex)? Shoppers Drugmarts exist because people want them. They have a grocery dept that in some centres is quite comprehensive and well priced and are today’s version of the over-romanticized local grocery store. The Exchange building in westboro has all interesting local stores on the bottom (Bra Chic, a clothing store, a furnishings store,etc) and the Westboro Station has a popular local pub Clocktower with large outdoor patio, and the chain-store coffee shops Bridgehead, an art gallery, an optician, and a drug store. Is this a bad selection that must be banned? New buildings are unlikely to offer the cheapest spaces in the neighborhood, they are after all built to a higher performance standard and located at the population nodes. But they sure aren’t vacant either.

      1. Eric – agreed wholeheartedly.

        Glad to hear that the Claridge proposal will include some sort of street-level stores, as my biggest complaint about intensification (of which I’m an avid proponent) is the fact that the local amenities often do not keep pace with the increased population such a development brings to a neighbourhood. I always fear the creation of a condo dead zone akin to what has happened on Laurier Ave West (living on the north end of Parkdale intensifies this fear).

      2. I’m all for the space offering up daycare space and daytime parking for the school. Will condo dwellers be drawn to a daycare in the building – doubtful, unless spots are open for kids and not just non-Devonshire students. If it is a neighbourhood daycare, would that mean fewer spots for Devonshire students who also desperately need afterschool care (unless Plant would finally get onboard and offer some afterschool programming….). Hopefully a fitness center will not be needed since Plant Rec is next door (well over the bridge).

        Why can’t the generic highrises stay in Westboro and bring in something more challenging to 1050? A car-less condo building? A green roof/garden roof? Townhomes on the base that face the school yard with tiny green lawns?

        Do people ask for the drugstores, bra stores and coffee chains, or do they assume it is their only option?

  3. Agreed – this topic was covered very thoroughly. Kudos to the HCA for handling a contentious meeting and staying open minded.
    From following these meetings, I’ve learned that existing high-rises essentially don’t exist – it’s only new buildings that threaten kid’s lives.

  4. I thought I had heard every NIMBY complaint in the book until I read your posting (btw, good summary of the issues and facts) but for existing residents to complain that this new development would then result in too many people in the neighbourhood clogging up restaurants and not allowing existing residents to get reservations is the epitomy of the self-entitled world we live in where people seem to feel that their actions are not under scrutiny but those of others are. Was this complaint tongue in cheek or said with conviction.?

    1. My version is somewhat tongue in cheek. Some people think the new residents would help support existing businesses and cause new ones to appear. The speaker said that new residents would simply make it harder for existing residents to get reservations. His point was more that additional residents wasn’t necessarily a boon, and had downsides for residents. At least I think he was complaining more about mixed impacts than his failure to reserve early enough.

  5. and Luke, it isn’t a summary of the facts and issues, it is a highly subjective, opinionated commentary on the meeting. I dont set out to be fair, or an impartial record. Nor do I want simply to provoke. It should be enjoyable, educational,thought-provoking, and lead to a better neighbohood. At least that is what I say right now. Thanks for reading.

  6. So Eric, I’ll start with my obligatory request to STOP USING THE TERM NIMBY! It’s just not helpful if we really want to discuss these issues as grownups.

    So I’m curious. If you were king of Ottawa and had absolute sway over this site, what would the height limit be? Should there be a limit at all – or should we simply let developers decide what the market or the site will bear?

    Should we permit 30, 40, why not 62 stories like the tallest of the much-touted newer “Vancouver model” towers?

    1. Dennis – I’ll try to avoid NIMBY and YIMBY-like terms. The current focus on height is not helpful. I nice building could be quite tall. I dont think the Metropole gets there, nor do the soho buildings or this claridge proposal. I’m actually a fan of the old NYC style buildings that go up in steps, getting narrower at the top. To me, they are elegant and height is graceful due to its slenderness. The current crop of glass rectangles, with or without turrets and bowed fronts,are still just … boxes. The scale jars with the human-ness of the city. And the current starchitect craze for trapezoids or “leaning” buildings is pretty gimmicky. I’ll be much more willing to approve taller with good design.

      1. Eric. On “NIMBY”. Thanks. The divisive, binary tone around the intensification debate is drowning out and discouraging a lot of thoughtful voices. Many of us (you included) are trying to say “let’s slow down and think about WHERE intensification goes and what it looks like”, which is of course a far cry from saying “No growth anywhere!”

        When you come down to it, a huge majority absolutely agree that a) intensification is good, but b) there do have to be limits / controls / tradeoffs of some kind, c) that height limits are kind of a dumb way to do that, but d) if that’s the only planning tool communities have, that’s where the battle lines will form when developers play the “ask for the moon, settle for the stars” game.

        So yeah, I was one of those at the earlier, more contentious, meeting arguing against 28 stories on this site. And I got incredibly angry at the bafflegab and diversions Claridge threw out to do anything but answer the question “why 28 stories”? But not because I don’t want a nice, reasonably dense building on this site, but mostly because I was frustrated by the PROCESS we were being forced to endure in one overheated meeting after years of sitting on the Wellington West Community Design Plan committee talking about the issues in a thoughtful, grownup way.

  7. I’m sorry, Eric, I guess I missed something. How is local residents’ approval of a ten story building NIMBYism or “anti-intensification”? Because I heard a lot of support for a building of that height, even though ten stories would also violate the Hintonburg CDP.

    Doesn’t this demonstrate flexibility on the part of the community, rather than NIMBYism?

    And is your argument about traffic really this: “We’ve got to face up to fact: there won’t be enough room on the streets for everyone to drive.” Seriously? Well then, I guess that we might as well eliminate traffic concerns from all future planning discussions, huh?

    “Highly subjective”, check. “Opinionated”, check. “[D]on’t set out to be fair”. Uh-huh.

    Personally, my objection wouldn’t be nearly so strong if it weren’t right next to a school. So call me a NITSBY, if it makes you feel better (I think it’s cheap to use any of these terms BTW)

    No, I don’t fear the wind blowing objects off of 28th floor balconies onto the heads of Devonshire students (although I suppose that is a possibility). I do however, think that architectural scale is important, and that this building this size will dwarf the school next door in a way that will take away from the school setting and be unfortunate for future students and staff. I also have concerns about where children will play during the two year construction period. I can’t imagine that the adjacent yard will be safe.

    There are plenty of places to build a the sixth tallest tower in the city, including LeBreton Flats, the Bayview Yards, countless other used car lot closer to the planned Light Rail stations. Build 28 stories there, and ten stories next to Devonshire School. That way, everyone wins.

    1. Re traffic: if 250 or so units generates unacceptable levels of traffic on Breezehill and Somerset,and is turned down because of it, then how are we going to intensify the large area being designated for development east and south of Devonshire, which will also generate similar amounts of traffic. We currently have a car-dominated city, we cannot assume that all future growth will continue to be so car dominated. They simply wont all fit on the streets. People are going to find other ways to get around. Our late-starting LRT is a baby-step in this direction.

      As for there being plenty of other spaces for tall buildings, there was a guy at the HCA meeting announcing he was upset with the Bayview Yards plan because it had too many buildings too tall. At a recent CofA hearing on some townhouses facing the park at the yards, neighbours were complaining that townhouses were too tall. Townhouses!

      Where are these closer sites, because the Claridge site is within the 1600 foot radius of two transit stations. Do we shorten that to 800 feet? 100? I should point out that Phoenix’s proposal for two 32+ storey buildings right at Bayview Station, with six thousand employees and only 200 parking spaces (everyone would come and go by transit) still generated the usual neighborhood assoc cries of too tall, too intense, too close to (fill in name here), build it somewhere else.

      I am reminded of the Laurier residents who think bike lanes are fine, provided they are built where no one (including cyclists) wants to be. But do our children, or our parents, or ourselves when we no longer wanting a single family home, going to want to live in a highrise in Greeley (if they will have us)?

  8. I can’t help but agree. If they can’t build a mere 30ish story building along the transit way, less than a kilometer on foot from one of the best transit stations in the city along a major road (somerset) then where can we built towers?

    To the “we’re not NIMBYs” people… of course you are. You’re not negotiating in good faith, you’re demanding the same old squat buildings. It’s time for height and 28 stories isn’t even that tall.. If you’d support some properly tall buildings and put your energy into making them good buildings we’d all be better off. Demand mixed use space, street level retail, common areas, underground visitor parking, infrastructure upgrades, or whatever the community needs, but if you keep sinking iall your resources into fighting battles that you wont (and shouldn’t) win then how far will you get?

    1. The answer is, we (let’s call us the “SIMBY (Smart In My Back Yard) People”) have sunk a lot of time and energy into trying to find a better way through City-led and endorsed Community Design Plans. It’s time for the City to force the developers to sit down and actually participate in those discussions if they want to apply for rezoning in an urban area.

      1. Why would developers abandon the current method, where they subvert the city planning department first, and avoid those nasty proles who seem to think that their opinions matter, and that community design plans have some meaning?

        Next you’ll propose that the city seek best value for money and not merely give away prime real estate for some mythical waterfall…

  9. About NIMBY:

    NIMBY means “not in my back yard”. It does not mean “anti-development”. The term NIMBY is not a derogatory term for those opposed to development, but a term meant to have people consider their own potential hypocrisy.

    A NIMBY is someone who believes in something in principle, but not when it affects their own limited interests. Therefore, a NIMBY in respect of intensification is someone who approves of it, so long as it does not occur near to them. It seems very clear that some of the comments to this story are by people holding someone NIMBY views.

    That is OK – this need not be a derogatory term, but merely one (as I mentioned above) that makes you think. I have held NIMBY views before, and tempered them when I have thought about the benefit to the wider community, city, planet.

    I think Eric hits the nail on the head when he says that the key factor is not height, but making the building design appropriate for the context & community.

    Regarding this development: if we are asking the builder “why 28 stories?”, then it is just as easy to ask the community “why 6 stories?” or “why 10 stories?”. There are occasions where a height restriction is legitimate – if there were a 30 storey building proposed to replace the municipal parking garage in the ByWard Market between York and Clarence streets, this would actually negatively affect the character of a heritage-designated neighbourhood. However, in most cases where the “character of the neighbourhood” argument is put forth, it is simply a way of requesting the status quo.

    We have to think seriously about where as a city greater density can best be achieved (or else give up the fight against sprawl, or price ourselves out of being a liveable community and become less economically attractive for business). Beside the O-Train corridor, near the transitway, in walking and cycling distance of several major employment nodes is probably a good place to start.

    If this is an appropriate location for density, then why should the tower not be 28 stories (or even 38)? But if the developer is going to build such a tower, let’s make it attractive to look at from a distance (Hudson Park or the Mondrian vs. Claridge Plaza), and at a pedestrian level (Westboro Station or Central vs. the Metropole, or again – Claridge Plaza).

    Overall, I would say that the proposal is of a good development, which could become better if Claridge takes to heart the comments of devoted community members such as Eric and some of the others who have posted replies to this blog.

    A few final notes:

    In terms of ‘taking away from the school setting’, I don’t know how this is the case. Neighbourhoods evolve, and Devonshire is now an urban school. As a child, I loved playing with lego and watching construction projects – I imagine many school children will be intrigued and excited to watch the building go up. Once it is there, seeing tall things in the sky will not be a traumatic experience for any child; if anything it will be part of their socialization as urban children, and set the school apart from the more boring surroundings of the typical suburban school.

    Regarding traffic – yes, developments in established communities create more traffic. However, I remain unconvinced that they create more new traffic in those communities than would be created by new development of the same number of units on the outskirts of the city. Commuters cross through neighbourhoods and take shortcuts. I would rather have traffic that begins mid-way through my community than traffic that merely crosses through it.

  10. Some of the pro-height argument just doesn’t add up. The argument is that we should build tall towers near transit, because people will live there and use the bus, yet we should still provide excessive parking spots as well so everyone can drive? Why not make some car-free buildings (this is not a new concept and has been done before) since the argument for these buildings is the fact it is on the transit corridor?

    Also, is 0.7km really considered close to transit? In the middle of a downpour/snowstorm/ice storm, that 15 minute walk to the bus is going to seem really far away.

    It seems everyone is just willing to sit back and take what the developers offer instead of challenging them to do better, to do more interesting, to do something new for Ottawa’s downtown. If the argument is density around the transit hubs, then let’s do everything to encourage the actual use of the transit hubs.

    My issue with the development near the school is different. I don’t actually see this area as part of the transit hub, so we should stop lumping it in with the Bayview area development. This spot is unique and will set a precidence for the new development to come in that very small area – the Bank note company, the Enriched Bread Artists building – 3 prime spots in a very small space that will be developed. Why isn’t the question what is best for this small parcel of land – taking into account the other spots – and looking at development that way. I haven’t heard anyone say family friendly development. There is a school right there! A recreation center right there! A bike/walking path right there! What development could be done to encourage family friendly building? Large condo/apartments? Row/townhouses? Everything is primed for school age kids, families are moving from the ‘burbs back into town, so let’s give them somewhere to live.

    1. There will be an entrance to Bayview Sttion right across the street, so that does, albeit imperfectly rank as a connection to transit.

      Part of me i saddened to see warehouse-like structures fall, as they do make nice spaces for small businesses, artists and other creative-types to incubate at low prices. My major concern is that with heightened intensification, we lose these important sites for the next wave of urbanism to germinate.

      But back to the original point, which has been raised by many: if you can’t build high-density buildings in proximity to transit stations, where on earth are they to be built? The argument does indeed hold tru that if you design a transit sstem that conects high-density nodes, be they residential, employment or recreation, you will get transit ridership. Stations built on empty industrial lands don’t really do much to generate ridership. Furthermore, rail transit systems like the O-Train and LRT require densities higher than what we have in downtown Ottawa. Want rail? You have to take the densities to support it. That is, unless you want the property taxes that would go with it, otherwise.

      With regards to the “familes” line of atack, this is worth considering, to some extent. However, we are still Ottawa, where the single-family dwelling reigns supreme. Hintonburg, Westboro and Wellington West are still dominated by these types of structures, and as long as there is a critical mass of people dedicated to these communities, it will remain that way.

  11. How much parking should condos have? This question has come up previously, and I have discussed it previously. It seems that some people will use any argument to oppose a condo: put in “adequate” parking, and it’s too much; put in less parking, and the neighbours protest that their streets will be over-run with parking by owners or guests.

    As mentioned many times, we have to move away from parking spots deeded to specific units, so as to make better use of the spaces; we need a vrtucar spot for every 17 units without parking spaces, plus a few for the rest of the residents; and we need more guest/commercial parking at the expense of resident parking. This is just a start. We need to study both new and proposed building parking requirements.

    1. Except that at the first Hintonburg/Dalhousie meeting, the developers expressly ruled out anything less than at least one parking space per unit. They are on the record as saying that it essential for profitability that they offer each buyer a parking space

  12. Meg: from the Claridge site, walk across Somerset to the pedestrian-only staircase that leads one along a short quiet stretch of Breezehill N to the new path proposed along the east side of the soccer field that will lead directly into the station under Albert Street. It’s a very short walk, and no need to climb the steep hill beyond Tom Brown; OR, cross the OTrain tracks along Somerset and descend to the new ped pathway being constructed this summer (opening Dec 2012) that will be paved and lit and lead in a pretty direct line to the east side of the new Bayview Station, OR walk south a few blocks on Breezehill to the proposed Gladstone Station on the OTrain line when that is built. NOTE: the Bayview design is still changeable, and the city is reserving the option of building a station at Somerset on the OTrain line. The new ped underpass was designed specifically with this in mind, as are the pathways and elevations, etc. The Claridge building is not proposed for occupancy until the new east-west OLRT line is open, and will be there for at least a 100 years. Presumably the transit lines may improve a bit in that time too. Mind, I wont be around to see that then.

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