Category Archives: housing policy

The Dark-side condo shower

Back in October, the City hired George Dark to conduct a “charette” – a planning exercise for the Otrain corridor and neighborhood along Preston, south of the Queensway.

As related here previously, the charette charade seemed little more than an exercise in bombarding the neighbourhood with high rises. Mr Dark presided over a large plan of the neighbourhood,  chummily accompanied by the city’s leading developers and their agents, raining down Styrofoam cut-outs of high rise apartment buildings. (http://www.westsideaction.com/charettes-or-is-it-charades-on-the-west-side/)

The local community association is holding a public meeting of upset residents in the area. The poster below pretty accurately captures their feelings.

Less obvious is the sense of betrayal, that the community went along with the first phases of the CDP (for seven long years !) agreeing to high rises on the vacant lands, former industrial lands, along the OTrain corridor. In return, there was a steep down gradient in the height zoning to the edge of the EXISTING low rise communities.

The main worry was how to ensure the City didn’t back out of the zoning agreement once developers said “if he can get 40 stories over there, why can’t I ??” That of course, was never answered.

But no one expected the City to step in before the CDP was finished, import an out-of-town “expert”, deus ex machina,  to radically change the course of the CDP at the last minute.

The community association is still playing ball, though, trying to insist that the City stop ad hoc rezoning in favour of waiting until the CDP is done. But isn’t the writing on the wall? The City wants high rises. Lots of them. And it has promised to honour CDP’s.

Ergo, CDP’s will now be directed to permit lots of high rises.

In accord with the City’s previous slights-of-hand, such as on the new Centretown CDP, the area will remain zoned one thing ( low rise), and the big squares on the planning maps will continue to identify the area as “low rise”. Except the fine print will say low rise permits 20 story buildings. There, everybody happy?

This project fits the City’s new definition of low rise in the Bayview-Carling CDP. And remember, blocks and blocks of residential streets will have this zoning:

You can read more about this particular project in a previous post.  (www.westsideaction.com/95-101-norman-street-blockbusting-begins/)

Future shape of high rises in Carling and Preston areas

Preston Street is an odd mainstreet, in that it has minimal hinterland of dense residential development. Hintonburg’s and Westboro’s main street areas are more densely built up and have large catchment areas on all sides with a mix of low-rise and high-rise built form. Preston lost its eastern residential areas when 50′s urban renewal wiped out existing urban fabric to replace it with commuter office towers (NRCan), a commuter high school (Commerce, now Adult HS), and a commercial strip predicated on a city-wide market (the ethnic Italian community) rather than an indigenous market. Thus merchants champion converting housing to parking lots, and since the merchants rarely live in the neighborhood, might be more easily convinced of the merits of selling to developers.

Preston Street, the heart of the remaining bit of Little Italy (which used to include all of what we now call Chinatown) is unusual too in that it is in valley, a syncline caused by the Nepean Gloucester Fault Line, parts of which are visible near Lemieux Island,  by the Russian Orthodox church on the transitway, the bowling green beside the Queensway near Parkdale, and Hogs Back.

Notice below the intersection of Carling-Bronson on the top right, and trace your finger along Carling to Preston and then Sherwood and then up the hill to the Farm:

I was interested  to come across the drawing below, whose origin shall for the time being remain unspecified. The faint title of the page is “neighborhood analysis”, and the top part of the sketch is a profile of the existing Preston-Carling area as seen looking north from somewhere over Dow’s Lake.  The building on the far right is the Fitzsimmon’s Building, aka the Nortake Building, and probably known as something else now, right at the corner of the Carling and Bronson.

The tallest existing building in the mid-point area is the NRCan 18 storey office tower at Rochester. There are plans to build a similar office tower immediately to the north of it, presumably that is the light gray shadow, or it could be the OCH red brick apt building in the distance at Gladstone and Rochester. Note that all the area from about Bell St N to Norfolk is marked as having “NO MAX”, which presumably refers to the height limit. I think this refers only to the NRCan lands, and not to all the lands beyond going back to the Queensway …  (Try double clicking on the image to make it larger).

At Preston Street, there is one 9 storey apartment building existing on Sidney Street, a half block down from Carling. The taller gray buildings are presumably the Adobe and Xerox towers at 333 Preston Street.  Off to the left of Preston, beyond the OTrain cut, are the CMPA office buildings and then the Botanica apartment buildings on the anticline — the geological rise up cause by the fault line.

It’s worth taking a minute to examine this drawing, and absorbing what is there now.

The second part of the drawing is proposed buildings. I am not sure who is proposing this build-out scenario. It might be the city, or it might be a developer. Nonetheless, the gap between the developer’s consultants and the city planners is not very wide in this neighborhood, so it’s probably fair to assume this isn’t some wild fantasy.

Start at the Bronson end of Carling again, and note the higher building beside the Fitzsimmon’s tower. Is this close, at Carling, or is it beyond, maybe the development proposed near McDonald’s on Bronson? There are rumours of high rises at the newly-vacated lot at Bell/Carling, but these aren’t on this profile. Nor, for that matter, are any developments on the soon-to-be-vacated and sold vacant lands scattered amongst the NRCan buildings.

There is the potential to create a urban sidewalk facade running from Cambridge to Sherwood, should all those high rises have commercial storefronts on the ground floor or second floors (to take advantage of lake views). Can we actually create a new mainstreet atmosphere here?

Preston  Street is shown clustered in the future with high rises. The Claridge 42 storey building is shown, and kitty corner across Preston is the Soho Italia tower at about 32 stories. Several high rises are shown on the current Dow Motors Honda site, which is several blocks large, and conveniently has no height limits, which might account for the 42 storey buildings shown there (Richcraft now owns the site). On the west side of the Otrain cut area the proposed Arnon high rises on the parking lot at Carling-Champagne, and beyond them the Soho Champagne twin towers and then the Ashcroft towers where the dog pound used to be. Domicile’s HOM condo is now shown just beyond the existing CMPA office buildings.

These drawings shown an interesting examination of current and possible future development related to the geography and geology of the area.

One tidbit for amusement: the Soho Italia excavation analysis (they are going five or six floors down for the garage)  refers to the site draining towards Dow’s Lake. Of course, it is the opposite. Dow’s Lake is uphill, held in place by a dam upon which QE Driveway now runs. The dam was burst once before, in 1900, to flood the lower Preston area and stop the Great Fire. It does make me wonder sometimes about the accuracy of other research that goes into building applications. For interest, stand on the Carling sidewalk and notice how the lawn goes UP to the lake. If you picnic on the grass, you can’t see the lake.

Tomorrow: a similar profile of heights and buildings, drawn from Gladstone to Carling. What high rise fantasies are to be found along Preston??

What condo buyers see

There’s a big flurry of condos going in around the Preston – OTrain corridor. There are obvious attractions, such as shopping and dining on the traditional main streets (Preston and Somerset/West Wellington). And easy access to the numbers one and two employment centres (downtown, Tunney’s Pasture) and minor ones such as NRCan, Agriculture, or Gatineau. And being on one or both of the  two major passenger rail transit lines, and Carling Avenue/Queensway for motorists.

But what will the residents see? Alas, I am unable to hold my camera up 23 stories, let alone 42, but here are some pictures from the top of the Adobe building at +/- 333 Preston, about 12 floors up. The views are interesting.

These pic were taken by a reader (thanks David !) in 2008, so a number of things have changed. Enjoy looking for the evolution of the neighborhood.

view northwards, adult HS playing fields and Qway in the foreground

(above) Preston is still four lanes, no fancy streetscaping, and maybe after this drought no trees or shrubs either since neither merchants nor residents seem inclined to spend even 50 cents watering anything

a closer view north, including Gatineau offices

the view that some will consider the “money shot”: the bright lights of the downtown high rises; but don’t forget the Qway is in the foreground

the other “money shot”: Dow’s Lake and the forest of the arboretum.

(above) The NRCan office tower is on the left, it is the equivalent of about 25 condo stories high. While slimmer, the 42 storey Claridge tower at 500 Preston (corner of Carling) will dominate the skyline, albeit with a more exciting exterior. The Feds are talking of twinning the existing office tower, hopefully with a better exterior. Not visible in the immediate foreground is a one block vacant lot owned by Arnon, ripe for a mixed use development similar to the Preston Square project. They also own the huge parking lot at 853 Carling — look for all the cars in the pic below, just in front of the John Carling building.

view southwest, including the soon-to-be-demolished Sir John Carling building, which (once asbestos is removed) should be refitted as a condo. Note that all the green grass in the foreground of the SJC building is already zoned mixed use development (NOT parkland)

(above) the two Domicile towers on Champagne are not yet built, nor the HOM building, or the two Soho towers or the Ashcroft towers, or Soho Preston, or the Dow Motors site (which has no height limit) nor 853 Carling which is currently zoned for high rise development.

view west: the large lot on the left side of the qway is already new housing, and the adjacent blocks are experiencing a feeding frenzy of infills

If any reader works in the NRCan highrise, or knows someone who does, I’d love to get some pic taken from the top floors of that building.

Intensification not without its drawbacks

On Pamilla Street an infill developer severed the side yard of a small single — the blue one to the right in the pic — and greatly intensified the site. The neighbours objected, took it to the OMB, lost, and the building went ahead.

Why was it controversial? Well, the usual developer sins. They took the front and back yard set back minimums as the permissible maximum building size. So the infill house is huge — so huge, it is in fact 3 houses on one 23′ lot with shared driveway. The neighbours objected to the height, the car traffic, and especially the depth of the house, which extends behind the existing alignment of houses thus blocking off the open sense in the backyards (and the afternoon sun).

The Committee of Adjustment turned it down partially based on the unique open stairwell proposed for the project.

Like other infills for this developer (these include the Elm Street ones that face my backyard, and won a design award last year, and that I like, and which have been subject of numerous posts here) he pushes the envelope. Hard. Here’s the Pamilla infill, now completed, as seen from the street:

From this angle, it is not apparent that the roof has a low slope. How are there three houses here? Well, the first house faces the street, it is two floors high, and has a front door off the nod-to-the-traditional porch. It has three bedrooms, and a finished basement with a rec room, bathroom, kitchenette, and separate entrance, ie a suite.

Then there is a very similar house facing the back of the lot (unit 2, plus its suite). And then there is a third floor, which is one apartment straddling the two lower townhouses. And to get to the top apartment (and the basement suites) there is an exterior flight of stairs that pushes the two ground level townhouses apart. Here’s the view down the driveway:

and here are the stairs, which are open to the next door’s back yard, which was one of the objections to the stairs, due to their impact on the privacy of the adjacent rear patio and gardens:

and here is a view looking way-way-up, Jerome, to the entrance to the third floor apartment, which has about 1100 sq ft:

The house looks fine from the front. Indeed, it is now, along with the renovated single just beyond it that originally had this side yard, perhaps the most attractive property on the street.

And yet. Qualms remain. From a plans-on-paper perspective, the house is similar to the one I like in my backyard. Except those ones (on Elm) have landscaped backyards to my backyard; Pamilla has two parking spaces for a backyard, and the adjacent single has the third space. All paved. No room for plants or big trees. And potential source of noise (car stereos are so convenient for washing the car, or sitting out back with a beer, or entertaining friends — and all the neighbours).

The mass of the house IS huge; it extends well back into the lot. While they let in enough light for grass and plants to grow, I notice my chinese neighbours gave up back yard gardening when the large corrugated tin walls rise up 33′ on the lot line, blocking afternoon sun.

Infill is not painless. Intensification is not painless. The Pamilla project turned out well enough, but is dense. On the other hand, wood frame construction is cheaper to build, which makes the units more profitable to rent, which encourages landlords to provide more affordable units. The renters are getting more house for their dollar than they would in a high rise condo. The neighbours got a good looking house from the street, and an irritant in the back.

Of course, the alternative is the land assembly going on in the next block (Norman St) where Urban Capital is active. I somehow suspect they are not going to propose a stacked townhouse or two.

Owning the Podium

Much of Ottawa’s current discussion about high rises focusses on the podium, or base of the building. In theory, the wider larger base is all the pedestrian sees, and the thin elegant glass tower floats off into the sky after a generous set back.

Of course, this requires a fairly large lot or thin tower. What we increasingly see are small lot edifices, where either the tower is too fat for the base, or the podium effect is just sort of drawn onto the tower by a few horizontal bits of concrete trim. I stopped recently to look at the successfully done podium and tower condos at Richmond-Roosevelt, the western entrance to the Westboro commercial strip. For these buildings, the pedestrian view really is primarily of the podium. And the commercial spaces on the bottom floors really do enliven the streetscape. Podiums can work.

When the tower+podium design is not on a commercial mainstreet, it is common for neighbours and the city to demand that the podium consist of townhouse-type units. Supposedly these animate the street or courtyard level by the comings and goings of the residents and visitors. In fact, most times these apartments are also connected to the internal building corridors, and since the whole project is predicated on making corridors short with easy access to the garages and common facilities, these exterior doors become somewhat unused. Fake, in fact.

Unused ground level doors. When the internal corridor is more attractive to residents …

There is a major economic issue with these townhouse units. They are built out of concrete, just like the high rise above. This makes them very expensive per square foot, compared to freestanding townhouses. So the townhouse units on the Claridge podiums on LeBreton Flats got converted to one and two bedroom regular apartments.

Much was made of the Soho Champagne condo towers having a lively, townhouse base suitable and attractive for families. Alas that fantasy of little kids playing along the multi-user paths has also gone poof, as none of the townhouse units sold, and they have all been converted into one and two bedroom apartment condos, albeit with ground level “balconies” or patios. Now called “pathway suites” they are selling:

This set me to wondering if the condo developers really mind. Maybe they just want to sell the square feet of space. There is no point proposing a building that doesn’t get approved, nor of building a building if it doesn’t sell. So if the planners want them to put in townhouse units, draw them in. And keep in mind that they just may need to be changed to something else further down the line. And the neighbours who thought they won a big victory by insisting on townhouses, they may never notice.

Succumbing to cynicism, I expect condo promoters to market  their next project will have three bedroom family-sized apartments. This will mollify the NIMBYs somewhat. Get approval. Oops, they don’t sell. Reconfigure.

Somehow the planning promise of podiums is getting a bit nightmarish.

 

Firestone speaks

Last week, the Dalhousie Community Association, of which I am the outgoing president, held its annual AGM. Last year our speaker was John Doran from Domicile, speaking on how to cost out a condo project.

This year, we had Dr Bruce Firestone, best known as founder of the Senators. Until recently he was a professor of entrepreneurship at Ottawa U. He has been an engineer, real estate developer, hockey guy, professor of architecture, engineering, and business, a mortgage broker, author, parent, etc.

He is an engaging speaker. He talks with confidence born of personal experience on the topic and the confidence that comes from regularly lecturing students. Over the next few days, his Powerpoint pages will be presented here, along with some commentary. Of course, if you had attended the meeting you could have avoided my commentary, but getting this second hand means you get some comments too.

Dr Firestone’s topic was Intensification — boon or bane?

The comment in the first slide, about going for an RFP, makes sense from a “gathering ideas” perspective, but the Flats is a site of national significance, and great value to the City (not that you’d know it lately by their behaviour). There is no way that any of the multitude of parties would simply open the site up to see what the private sector might come up with. There were too many agendas: the affordable housing lobby, the national institutions lobby, the keep the rich off the waterfront lobby, the keep the waterfront green and public (and largely unused) lobby, etc.

The Jim McCauley quote above is very interesting and very revealing. First, he conveniently reminds us why we are called the Dalhousie Community Assoc (because we were Dalhousie Ward from about 1873 to amalgamation in 2000). Then note that he is a young boy, so the neighborhood was safe enough for a child to go around unattended, and presumably cross the streets. Corner stores — we still have some of those. They add life and interest to the street, especially if it is mostly walk-up traffic. The boy checked signs, so he could interact with the merchant or feel confident enough to rearrange displays.   In short, a very different life from the modern child who lives in post-1945 neighborhoods where he spends most of his life indoors, or strapped in a car seat, geographically illiterate, and under-exercised. Mind, I am sceptical of the haze of nostalgia people draw over the Flats as if it was some Eden before the fall.

The pic above is the Hollywood idyll from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. It

s always dangerous to draw upon Hollywood for evidence of how something really was. But it does reaffirm what Hollywood thought we thought was an ideal neighborhood. Was the original LeBreton Flats some sort of Eden? Not from what I have read, although the political agenda in recent accounts is awfully thick.

I do note that the first building in the current LeBreton Flats project does have one corner store, with apartments above and beside it. So in theory …

BTW, the yellow brick buildings out on the Flats are the second whack we had at rebuilding the Flats. The first was in the early 80′s, when six hundred or so apartments, townhouses, stacked units, etc were build between Primrose and Albert. These DO have finely mixed retail spaces, for example under the rental apartment building at the corner of Booth. Additional space was included at Rochester and in one of the mews, but they have never been successfully rented out for long, instead bumping from one hopeless cause to another, ending up as storage spaces. There is a gap somehow between the new urbanist ideal and the as-built reality. After a heavy dose of new urbanism, a walk through a new urbanist community is always … enlightening.

In the above slide Dr F laments the lack of institutional buildings on the new Flats. When planned (and planned again, and again, and again)  there were no schools included because the school boards declined to build anything there, saying there was tons of surplus school space nearby. I suspect the same goes for churches. The Museum does have community space available, and the condo buildings have meeting rooms which to the extent that condo groups are a sort of community association means there is meeting space close to home. The roads on the Flats (both phases)  are grid based, and all are two way. On street parking is allowed.

His final reference to schools under a power line seemed a bit odd, since there are no high power lines through the Flats; as for the school in Kanata near (“under”) a power line, explained Dr F, he went there and waved a flourescent tube above his head and it lit up; ergo he did not enroll his kids there. They were bright in other ways.

slide10

 

Now I must confess I got a bit uncomfortable here. I certainly lament that small and medium size developers are excluded from the Flats. But whether built by small builders (more expensive units) or larger builders (with economies of scale), a new immigrant is unlikely to be able to afford a new condo. If he does —  well, anyway, did Dr Firestone’s ancestors buy a new building when they moved to Canada? Of course not. They started out with the old stuff. But there is NO old stuff on the Flats (yup, there used to be old stuff, but in our collective wisdom the city fathers, aided by the Province and Feds, demolished it all for a fresh start. There is lots of blame to go around here. So regardless of who builds the Flats, it is going to be new and therefore more expensive than the old neighborhoods.

And the first phase, the one built in the 80′s, was built with 11 or so small parcels. The idea was to have different builders so the sites would look organically different. Except everyone pretty much wanted what the 8 demo units looked like. So the different builders — Perez, Nicol, St Amour — built very similar units. So similar, that it would be credible to believe that all the units were built at once by one megacorp building to one theme and its variations.

I have met people in the Flats buildings that live auto-free, just like lots of us do in the first phase south of Albert, and in the old residential neighborhoods adjacent the downtown. I don’t see why the Flats disenfranchises kids or isolates adults. Unless one has a magic wand to plunk down 10 buildings at once, the very first ones will always seem alone. But recall, the reason Claridge couldn’t build the closest to the old neighborhood units first is because the City hadn’t — and still hasn’t — rebuilt Booth which is to be 16′ higher than it is now as it sails over the aqueduct. What a spectacle to have had the first buildings with their front doors two stories up! And the City still hasn’t OK’d the lands on the south side of the aqueduct for development. Or the lands on the west side of the Flats, the Bayview Yards, which the City boasted would be better than the Flats, lower-rise, more affordable, “we’d show ‘em how to do it”! You’re right, those units are still vapour town.

I am not sure why the spaces between the buildings are dark and dangerous. I suspect that to people who drive by the Flats, the buildings may seem lost in a plain, but if you walk around them the spaces are neither dark nor dangerous, they are lit, intimate courtyards, and well over-looked by eyes on the street. I regularly walk the ped paths through the various parts of the Flats at all times of the year and times of day, and never feel threatened.

As for the blank wall, presumably Dr F knows that the concrete wall pictured was a temporary garage wall pending the construction (now done) of the second wing of the building??

BTW, I am not defending everything about the existing Flats. They are not being built to my choice. But then, I am not the owner, and don’t face the financial and political conditions they face. I have lamented many times on this blog about the abysmal conditions to the immediate west of the new buildings, which resemble Beirut at its bombed-out worst, which is most grievously the fault of the NCC. And of course, the NCC should have pushed the next phase (west side of Booth, and facing the Museum) onto the market by now, although it remains impaired by the same aforementioned lack of Booth Street at its final elevation. (One city councillor once explained to me why the City was so slow finishing Booth street: “it’s their [NCC]project, and they can damn well build the road if they want it”. As we know, great cooperation amongst our levels of government.)

I was interested in Dr F using this 1960′s apartment building east of Carlingwood Mall. He was very hard on the “faux nature” of lawn and scattered trees. But I suspect many of the semi-suburbanites that live in McKeller Park adjacent like that sort of trees on a lawn. The jump to Carlingwood puzzled me a bit, until I learned Dr F has just moved from Kanata to the Richmond Road area.

The illustration of townhouses along the garage front is one of the key tenets of neo urban development. While I would quibble about the excessive garages shown, it gets the general point across perfectly well. I do wonder if the McKellerites would like to see those trees removed and replaced with a row of towns?

Tomorrow: part 2.

Planning in Ottawa, the Clint Eastwood Version

Last week the packed Urban Forum lecture heard and saw Dr David Gordon from Queens expound on planning and urban design in Canada’s Capital, 1800-2000. Note the cut-off year: amalgamation; also removing the necessity to venture views on current plans such as the LRT.

He reviewed planning over the century using professorial wit and hectoring. His theme was drawn from spaghetti westerns, particularly The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. You’ll see the various planning efforts allocated to these categories in the picture below. Indeed, reviewing the outline below will give you a very complete summary of the plot.

Like any short-ish commentary on a complex issue, it was incomplete, selective, and provocative. More than once I winced at his interpretation of things, such as describing the LeBreton project of 1980 (which I once lived, now live beside, and transept daily) as a great success. Maybe I am too close to it and see only the flaws. I must try to be more positive and conciliatory in life.

I was surprised — an I must confess pleased — that he favoured connecting the Vanier Arterial (later remonikered as a Parkway) to the MacdonaldCartier Bridge. While he favoured a bridge over the Rideau River between Porter and Green Islands, I always thought a tunnel made more sense. I regret to say that I was a witness at the OMB hearing that shot down that connection. No doubt I shall be wrong many more times.

He gave kind mention to the mostly forgotten railway relocation programs of the 1948-1970 period, which caused me to dig out my old papers on that subject and these I will inflict on readers in upcoming posts so that we may all be equally edified.

Here is his story line for Clint Does Ottawa: