Not What the Plan envisioned, part 2, Somerset edition

Ottawa has an Official Plan (OP), and multiple levels of various sub plans, including many — the CDP or Community Design Plans — which aim at intensification. Indeed, CDP’s could be called City Densification Plans.

So, over on Somerset Street West is Chinatown. This is a most curious neighbourhood. Previous waves of gentrification and intensification have largely leapfrogged this area, bounded by Centretown on the east and Hintonburg /Westboro on the west.

Even massive government expenditure on housing developments haven’t been the stimulus for self-creating and perpetuating growth ( I’m thinking of hundreds of housing units and new prestige-design public facilities on Rochester Heights, in the slum-clearance mode of the 1960’s; or the first 600 high density low rise units of LeBreton Flats Ph 1 (immediately south of Albert, constructed in the 1980’s); nor the not well loved mid rise towers of LeBreton Flats out by Wellington and the War Museum (NCC/Claridgeland).

Somerset is zoned Traditional Main Street. Recall that the previous story here explored the City’s desired building-envelope for main streets, and how one project on Bronson will actually meet it (mostly). This is what the City calls for:

There have been several proposals for new buildings along Somerset that have foundered. The modern building proposed for Somerset/Booth died for lack of electricity and pre-sales, and got resurrected more successfully as The Eddy in Hintonburg. Proposals for the corner of Somerset/LeBreton came and went, but never got built.

The site is large, but has some awkward elements. Here’s a view of St Luke’s Church, to the right of it is Searson Clark co-op, and the rest of the block to the right (behind the world’s tallest electric wire pole…)  is 770 Somerset:

The existing Clark building looks small, but is actually a fairly large building set sideways on its lot. This results in lots of units having views/light dependant on the vacant property next door, a definitely risky gamble the city/developers accepted back in the 80’s. Here is the view from the far right, from LeBreton Street:

Anything developed on this site is likely to box in the sideways-viewing apartments, leaving the lower floors likely quite dark if they look into a small courtyard space between buildings.

Some shapes of building, built up close to the Searson Clark lot line, would reduce the livability of the existing apartments. In negotiation with the City, the Community Assoc, and Councillor, the first proposal for the site transferred some of the lower floor area of the building into additional height, making a thinner 9 storey building, shown first below from Somerset, and then from LeBreton St:

The three different textures of the exterior were designed to make the building look like three different towers set behind each other, although the set backs were not great, and all the materials looked a bit cheap to me. Generally this design is called “wedding cake” style.

And here is a drawing trying to convince viewers that the 9 stories is really 4-6:

The proposed building got rezoned to permit 9 floors, but “shrink wrapped” to permit ONLY that particular building layout and profile. If the developer wanted to vary that, or build something else, he had to go back for rezoning.

I personally think the first proposal for the site was merely OK, and not wonderful. But since the new proposal has come along, the old one has developed a bit of gloss.

The site subsequently sold, and the new developers have made the building “more efficient” by squaring off the corners, and increasing the developable area.

Here is what they propose currently:

Personally, I’m not a fan of the white panelling (see for example, Domicile’s building at the corner of Holland and Wellington West behind The Table restaurant, or Windmill’s The Eddy building on Wellington West). Brick seems to be beyond the budget of many builders today.

The architect tries to break up the mass into two or three buildings arranged behind each other, the foreground being white, the background ones red brick, and one in gray metal.

Here is the view from the low rise residential area on LeBreton Street, looking north back up towards Somerset:

Do you think the new design is more massive? Does it have enough setbacks and modulation in exterior planes and surfaces? Does it look like a cluster of smaller, thin buildings rather than one large building? Personally, I use the NewYorkNewYork development in Las Vegas as my guide — they were quite successful there in making a huge building look like many smaller thinner ones, but this doesn’t seem to be achievable in Ottawa.

Here’s a site plan, showing the proposed development and the adjacent Searson Clark building with its units facing into the new building’s courtyard:

The new building is proposed to have a mix of one and two bedroom apts, and for the sharp-eyed keeners, you can spot a single three bedroom unit right in the “crotch” or inside L of the building. It looks to be suitable for three students sharing, or being a “bunkie” but is certainly not a conventional layout:

In the sketch below, the former building is shown in red outline, and the somewhat thinner new one is shown in black. I think this profile is cut through the narrow part of the building, perhaps close to Searson Clark (look at the floor plate above, by the right gray stairwell) , and not through the much-thicker portion of the overall L-shape,  facing LeBreton Street, by the gray stairwell to the left. But then, what do I know?

The new building has underground parking for residents and has a number of regular size storefronts along Somerset.

Getting a bit lost in the comparison of the “old” proposal and the “new proposal”, is that both are significantly higher and bulkier, and throw bigger shadows,  than the what the City’s Official Plan calls for along traditional main streets, which is six story buildings with set backs above the 4th and 5th floors. Of course, no one has shown any drawings of what that might look like on this site.

There is a public open house on Tuesday at 6.30 – 8.30 pm at the DCC, 775 Somerset Street, 3rd floor, directly across the street from the proposal.

I know some will dismiss this project as “greedy developer”, which is why you should hold that thought in abeyance until tomorrow, when you read part 3, about yet another proposed mid rise building also on a Traditional Main Street. Will that developer meet the City’s TMS rules?

16 thoughts on “Not What the Plan envisioned, part 2, Somerset edition

  1. Say what you will about the by-law, but once one gets into interpreting variances it is a free-for-all of subjective opinions. Developers are not interested in improving the urban fabric beyond being able to sell the units or the building, and we cannot expect more. The danger lies in city councillors and committee members being asked to make these subjective judgements and forgetting that they are the guardians of our city scape.
    Often when a site gets sold after having proposed a plan, the price increases to the extent that the next developer simply has to squeeze more out of the site. A conundrum indeed. stick with the by-laws or change them wholesale and avoid the subjective changes which invite all kinds of games.

  2. gentrification everywhere. where will the not so well to do live in the future in the middle of the jungles or driest desserts on earth where, where can we escape gentrification by the more affluent people buying property in poorer neighborhoods and then because their new neighbors have less money than them, they need to drive them out some way., so they put pressure for gentrification that will cause all of the unwanted poor folks too leave. more than likely they will leave because of tax adjustment (raising the hell out of them) or just plain pressure to upgrade their house to the point that they cannot afford it anymore. gentrification the polite way of kicking people out of their house or neighborhoods. we will have to have protected area’s so that non-affluent people have a place to go in the near future or it’s going to be civil war. and btw for that part about civil war I wish it sooner that later. let’s take back our country.

    1. Does building a new rental apt building on a now-vacant lot “displace poor people?” How about building apts on a former incompatibly used lot, like a garage and storage yard? Or tearing down “affordable” housing to build new apartments? Or tearing down a vacant grocery store to build supportive / affordable housing units? Note too that for many years this lot was owned by a church, which used the funds from selling it to support educational programs and the many good works churches do (note that the apt building beside this one is a church sponsored coop).

      1. Small correction on church sponsored apartment building. It is owned by a non-profit housing corporation and not a co-op.

  3. I like both designs; I like using the white to break up the brick. It is a pleasingly dense design that creates a sense of vibrancy and that a space is used.

    Both are sure a lot better than that parking lot.

  4. This is an abandoned gas station – isn’t it. There are a half dozen of these – like the corner of Bronson and Gladstone, and beside the mcdonalds on Bronson across from Drummonds. These lots will stay empty and chained off until we can make it worthwhile for developers to take a chance on developing these.

    We need thousands of units downtown ( which needs and can handle the intensification ) – or else we will just need thousands of units in Barrhaven (and the new roads and infrastructure that will be required). It is up to us and those we elect to decide what is the future. This building will supply needed rental units – in a low density section of downtown. These people will fill local schools, and work and shop in local shops and businesses – all within walking distance.

    1. The empty lot at Bronson and Gladstone has been vacant for more that 15 years, and is owned by Imperial Oil.

      I manage the adjacent re-Cycles shop, and twice in the past ten years a crew has shown up to take samples of that land to monitor conditions. I was told by the crew foreman that when the gas station was removed all the soil was taken out, and the pit is now basically gravel with some soil on top for grass to hold onto. That said, I imagine any potential developers might still be leery of what may lurk down there.

      (Though bedrock is not too far down, as we found out when suffering through the Bronson Ave. rebuild, for what felt like three months of buk-buk-buk-buk from the machines as they chiseled out the utility trench.)

      1. Mark: numerous developers have been interested in that site. I was told many years ago that the pollution plume spread east under the first residential properties, and that to remove the soil and remediate the gas station site without also doing the area around the houses would be futile as the plume would spread again. Alas, the first property owner east of the site, I was told, refuses to cooperate. I’d like to see that site developed with a landmark building.

        1. Ah yes, I recall said foreman saying “we check every now and then due to some trouble at the east end of the property”. I do know that the neighbour to the south let them come onto her property to do a test and it’s Ok there.

          Also, our landlord (Stan Brown of George Brown and Sons) had the soil tested under our building a few years ago (part of the basement is dirt floor). It was a precaution in case the gas station site ever got developed and anything leaked onto the property. Right now it’s all clear.

          I’ve always had a vague concern that a developer would buy that site, then make an offer to Stan (who owns the rest of the block) and our fine community non-profit would be homeless. But fortunately we have an awesome relationship with Stan, and he has always said he’d rather sell to us if it ever comes down to that.

          I agree that it IS a great location, and the right building would be wonderful. In the meantime, we joke about asking Imperial Oil if we can set up a mini-golf site there. Or maybe for bike polo. lol Did you know there was a proposal for a temporary community garden there?

          1. Mark: it is my vague recollection, but dont quote me, that community gardens cannot go on contaminated sites that have VOC’s or contaminants that move upwards. Or something like that. I suggested once that we use closed bottom troughs, like horse watering troughs, but someone told me that wasn’t good enough because people and children would still be able to touch the original dirt surface. But all that is out of my league.

      2. As of sometime in 2016, the land would have transferred from Imperial Oil to Couche Tard/Macs Milk as they purchased all of the real estate holdings of Imperial Oil.

          1. Mark and Eric,
            Interestingly, when Councillor Arnold was the City representative, a bunch of us did some guerrilla
            gardening on the (then un-fenced) lot and planted some small bushes and trees we had salvaged from (can’t remember). Within a month, they had removed them all and then put some trees in planters and fenced the lot. Go figure!

          2. Couche Tard/Macs Milk bought all of Esso’s real estate holdings in Ontario and Quebec so I’m sure there are some bad sites in all of that.

  5. Look carefully at the large artist’s rendition at the top of your story. Look at the story second from the top. In the middle there is a woman who looks to me that she’s about to jump out of her very tall and open window.

Thank you for reading. So what do you think?