Stacking the NCC for the Memorial to the Victims of Communism

[Ed. note: I wrote this draft a few weeks ago and never got around to publishing it. I’m doing that now, but I’m not really doing much editing and I’m feeling too lazy to go dig up supporting links. Enjoy!]

So the Victims of Communism Memorial is slowly winding its way through the NCC’s approval process. In order to help it along, the government recently added a few more members to the board who will–I’m assuming the logic goes–be rather amenable to whims of the government. The new members helped get approval to begin clean up of the site, a necessary step before anything could be built.

It seems pretty obvious that the NCC has not been supportive of this monument at this site, but they don’t seem to have as much power as they usually claim to have. The government supports the monument, unflinchingly, and all the NCC has been able to do is slow the process and make the memorial slightly more palatable.

(The monument has been shrunk. It should now take up only 37% of the site rather than 60%, and this is still a work in progress. The NCC wants to get it down to 33%.)

I have never really understood the stubbornness by the Tory government on this. Yes, I get why the Tories would be most supportive of an anti-communist memorial, and, yes, I get why they might not love building the proposed judicial building that is to be named after Pierre Trudeau. But outside Tribue to Liberty (the backers of the monument) and the government, hardly anyone supports this monument at this site. It’s a rather provincial issue, of no real import. It will probably be little more than a blip during the election campaign, and yet the Tories keep on trumpeting it.

I’ve really been astonished by their intransigence on this, and it makes me wonder if they’re trying to find a way out. They must know that the original design was horribly ill-suited for the site. They must understand the importance of the Long Term Vision and Plan for the Parliamentary Precinct. (Personally, I have some issues with the LTVP, but I think it’s useful to have a plan so that crap isn’t just thrown up all ad hoc.) But they also have too much skin in the game to simply change course now. Their pride would never let them do such a thing. But, perhaps..

Perhaps they’re stacking the board to give themselves cover. Perhaps they’re filling the NCC with CPC toadies who are, by their own admission, unsuited for the job, so that when logic prevails and either a more-suitable monument is designed for that site, or the monument is moved back to the Garden of the Provinces, the Tories can claim that this was a decision made by Conservatives. If the CPC can sufficiently and publically infiltrate the board, then any decision the board makes is a CPC decision rather than a CPC defeat.

But I’m really over-thinking this. I’m sure the Tories are just trying to bring as much ammo as possible to this stupid little petty battle they’ve picked.

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We Must Rejuvenate Albion-Heatherington

There’s a bit of a controversy brewing in Ottawa. The planning committee approved a Strategic Initiative to improve the Albio-Heatherington neighbourhood, but the initiative has hit a bit of snag as the chair of the planning committee, Jan Harder, has introduced a motion to nix the initiative.

There’s a lot wrapped up in this issue: politics, obstruction, leadership, but mostly a neighbourhood that needs some help. Before we get to all that, we have to take a trip to Atlanta.

East Lake

Atlanta’s East Lake neighbourhood has quite the history. At the previous turn of the century, it was a wealthy neighbourhood, known for its golf and its upper class residents. But wealth can flee and time can beat you down. East Lake slipped into socio-economic (and literal) disrepair. It became poor and violent. “Little Vietnam” they called it.

As with many blighted North American neighbourhoods of the late twentieth century, housing projects were built. “The Projects”. A disparaging title we all know too well. These developments were a way to try to cordon off poverty and crime while also appearing to do something about it. Everything that makes cities great and neighbourhoods livable is ignored in the construction of housing projects.

Public spaces are created, but they aren’t vibrant. They aren’t welcoming. Little draws people to them. Without the watchful eye of city life (or the means to defeat poverty), crime is allowed to flourish. And the more crime, the fewer people who will venture out. The cycle perpetuates.

So in the 1990s, it was time to do something. They tore down the projects that only served to ghettoize the neighbourhood and they embarked on a plan to address the poverty and crime. The plan was based on:

  • Break up pockets of poverty by mixing middle-class families with low-income ones.
  • Help pre-k children get ready to learn with programs to boost literacy and language skills.
  • Provide a web of support services for families, such as job training and reading programs.
  • Find a strong lead agency to coordinate assistance. Locally, that is the East Lake Foundation. Founded in 1995, the organization helped build more than 540 new apartments to replace the projects.

East Lake has been a tremendous success. No more Little Vietnam. No more shooting gallery. The deep poverty is being relieved, and the transformation is being used as a model to rehabilitate communities across America.

Albion-Heatherington

Albion-Heatherington is not East Lake. It has no disparaging nicknames, but it does have a poor reputation. It is known its poverty and its crime. In a city with one of the highest median incomes in the country, Albion-Heatherington has not been afforded the opportunity to share in that wealth.

Enter councillor Diane Deans.

The issue of crime, public safety and urban renewal was an issue during the last election for Gloucester-Southgate (as well as neighbouring Alta Vista). Albion-Heatherington had issues with violence last year. It is clear that something needs to be done.

The city’s Strategic Initiatives proposal specified $250,000 for neighbourhood revitalization, and this proposal went to the planning committee for approval. There was nothing in this proposal that specified Albion-Heatherington, it was just for revitalizing some neighbourhood(s). It was Deans who stepped forward and moved that the Initiative specifically name Albion-Heatherington. The committee agreed.

Leadership

Many times in the past year, I have thought that city council lacked leadership. Councillors rarely stepped out of line, generally supporting the mayor’s agenda. Consensus is nice, but few seemed to have a vision or the gumption to chase that vision.

Some deferred to planners, others the mayor. Many, the mayor included, would claim that no one was talking about an issue, so there was no need to address it. This is a leadership deficit.

Deans is stepping up. She has identified an issue in her ward and she has found a way to address it.

The Plan

Deans wants to model the rejuvenation of Albion-Heatherington after the East Lake project. This makes perfect sense. Clustering poverty intensifies it. Mixed-income residential areas afford a means of economic rejuvenation, offering more hope to those who would otherwise be sequestered in poverty. But the appropriateness of this idea rests on more than just Albion-Heatherington’s need for rejuvenation.

The neighbourhood is located along Walkley Road, officially designated an arterial main street (an oxy-moronic designation, but we’ll put that aside for now). This designation means that Walkley doesn’t have to be life-suppressing thoroughfare it currently is.

Walkley is primed for more development, intensification and residential/mix-use builds. The Albion-Heatherington project would leverage this designation, and help Walkley realize its potential.

Further, the city already owns vacant land along Walkley, and Ottawa Hydro will be looking to sell land in the near future. We have resources we can actually use, right now, to implement the rejuvenation project (though it obviously can’t happen right now).

The Process

Mayor Jim Watson likes his processes. He has a lot of control over the budget process and Strategic Initiatives, and he clearly likes it that way (as many would). Luckily for us, he’s generally a competent manager. We may not always get the grand vision from Watson, but he’s a crafty steward.

He’s also a politician, and he doesn’t like to be upstaged.

Watson did not put the Albion-Heatherington proposal into the Strategic Initiatives. This is outside his plan and his process…sort of. The mayor likes to have committees address issues, and he likes to adhere to decisions of committees. Well, the committee decided to tap Albion-Heatherington as the neighbourhood in need of rejuvenation. According to Watson’s history, we should stick with that.

And according to Watson’s rhetoric, we should plow ahead. The mayor likes to note that the recent election was the time for people to vet ideas and choose a course for the city. Since he heard no one talking about re-drawing ward boundaries (because it is time to do so), he doesn’t think the city needs to be bothered with it before 2018.

Issues of crime and poverty were issues during the election for Albion-Heatherington, and they’ve been issues for years. If elections are the time to set our priorities, then fixing Albion-Heatherington should be just such a priority.

The Politics

Jan Harder doesn’t like this. She chairs the planning committee, and the planning committee didn’t do what she wanted, so she has decided to do an end-run around the committee process. She is moving to gut the Strategic Initiative, removing any reference to Albion-Heatherington and reducing it to nothing more than an exercise in deciding how to decide on a neighbourhood deserving of rejuvenation.

(As if Albion-Heatherington isn’t just as–if not more–deserving than any other neighbourhood in Ottawa.)

As planning chair, it seems she might wield an inordinate amount of influence. She’s been around a long time and certainly knows how to work council to help her constituents. Deans does not have the profile that Harder has, even if she demonstrates more vision, empathy and leadership than Harder.

This is the politics of progress vs. the politics of no. There’s no way to ignore that.

The Pettiness

Mayor Watson opposes the plan, in part at least, because he does not want to see one neighbourhood jumping ahead of other neighbourhoods to receive this help. The audacity is stunning.

It takes gall to suggest that Albion-Heatherington is seeking special treatment from the city.

In recent decisions, the city has expressed a desire to extend LRT further south to the Airport, and to accelerate the expansion of LRT to Kanata. We are looking at extending the transitway to Moodie, and recently councillor Qaqish has declared his desire to have a transit link between Riverside South and Barrhaven.

In recent years, we have continued to expand the Queensway out in the suburbs. We built Vimy Bridge. We have constructed new interchanges along Hunt Club. Brian Coburn Drive may be expanded.

These expensive projects have all gone ahead with council’s blessing, but spending a far more modest sum on helping out a poor inner-greenbelt neighbourhood is just unfathomable, apparently.

The Cynicism

I truly believe this is a ploy to do nothing. Diane Deans wants to get on with a plan to help a neighbourhood. Jim Watson and Jan Harder want to spend the money not on helping a neighbourhood and not even on deciding on a neighbourhood to help, but on setting up a framework on how to decide on a neighbourhood to help.

There is a faction on city council that opposes urban renewal. They reject pedestrian safety, healthy transportation, mixed-use development and intensification. They reject libraries and safe injection sites. And now one of them, at least, is rejecting the most basic measures to help those beset with crime and poverty.

This is obstructionism, and it will severely hurt our city.

The Conclusion

Council needs to approve the Albion-Heatherington plan. It needn’t be a Strategic Iniative (though it’s nice when an initiative is actually doing something, rather than setting up the framework to decide on a neighbourhood to then decide on possibly doing something). Find the money. Stop expanding roads. Don’t accelerate the LRT. Raise parking rates. Raise taxes. Raise development charges. Stop subsidizing the suburbs.

Jan Harder’s ward is getting rich off the backs of people like those living in Albion-Heatherington. It is imperative that council fix this imbalance.

What’s the value of a plan?

We’re getting some development issues at City Hall, again. We have a heritage building, a fresh Community Design Plan and developer looking to build a hotel. We also have the planning committee and the local councillor on opposite sides. This could be quite a mess.

The building is at 180 Metcalfe Street. It’s a century-old art deco building. It’s lovely and well worth the heritage designation. It’s also a little small for this location, only about six or seven storeys. The developer is looking to go higher, much higher. A 27-storey tower is being proposed.

Whoa. Whoa. I’m sure some of you are thinking that that is just too big a change, but don’t worry; no one really has much of a beef with the height. The secondary plan allows for 27 storeys, and we’re talking right downtown where intensification needs to be upwards.

The issues isn’t the height. It isn’t adding on to a heritage building. It’s the potential use of the building. There’s to be a six floor hotel underneath 21 floors of condos. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is a clear contravention of the CDP.

The CDP was only finalized a few years ago, and it has some very specific requirements for new buildings. The area is to be predominantly residential, so developments of this are supposed to have no more than two ground(ish) levels of commercial units. Everything else must be residential. (And, no, a hotel doesn’t count as residential.) So where did we go wrong?

Well, the zoning is the issue. Currently, the site is zoned for twelve storeys of office space (because, lord knows, Centretown needs another twelve-storey office building), and the zoning comes first. In a screwed up bit of legalities, the owner of the property gets to flex his muscles over the regulations of the elected government, if he or she so pleases.

(And, remember, property rights are bogus…but that’s a different subject. We can revere property rights while still being able to run our city.)

So with our hands tied, city planners have suggested a compromise. We’ll get six storeys of commercial units instead of twelve floors of offices. We’ll get a hotel, contradicting the CDP, but, in a way, striking a compromise between commercial and residential. And we’ll still get 21 storeys of true residential development. The planning committee reviewed the compromise and approved it.

Councillor McKenney disagrees with the decision. She believes the CDP should rule the day…and she’s probably right, here’s why:

  • Community Design Plans are important. We need to have an idea of what kind of city we want, and what kind of communities we want. It’s important to be able to regulate the types of development that occur in each ward (and each ward will probably be slightly different).
  • More and more, the OMB is making planning decisions for the city, usurping what little democratic control we have over our municipal lives. The OMB wants consistency and predicability (and then does everything they can to undermine it). They want a plan, but they don’t want deviations from the plan; that’s inconsistent and unpredicatable. One compromise can lead to another, and the OMB will whittle away at our community plans until they’re worthless (and the OMB loves sprawl and everything that is wrong with urban development, so giving them more power isn’t good).
  • Residents–average Joe Ottawa–put a lot of time and effort into drafting CDPs. It’s a long process, taking up to two years (or more). There are lots of consultations and meetings, and the city is notorious for ignoring residents concerns if they don’t attend these consultations and meetings. So the residents of Centretown have worked very hard and sacrificed much to create this plan, and they have as much ownership (if not more…really, much much more) of their community as do developers. It is unjust to toss aside all that work. It also discourages community engagement in the future. Why would you spend hours working on a city plan if a developer can come in and trash it? This is actually a part of a significant issue in Ottawa politics right now, as the political class often seems far to beholden to moneyed interests.

…But–there’s always one, righ?–as much as the CDP should rule the day, this building should be built. Is a six-storey hotel underneath a 21-storey condo ideal? Maybe, maybe not. It’s not a bad plan. City planners are correct that it serves the spirit of the CDP, mostly. It will be a good addition to the neighbourhood, and it will be additional density. We need to build up, not out. (Not that there’s a ton of space to “build out” in Centretown, but whatever space there is needs to be cherished.)

The real problem here is the CDP, itself. This development should not run afoul of the CDP. This is the sort of development we should want downtown. Sure, we don’t want hotels on every block (is that an actual risk?), but we don’t want office towers everywhere, either. We want a neighbourhood where people live, work and play, and part of that play could involve tourists.

And so, we’re in a pickle. First and foremost, we should follow the CDP…but the CDP is too rigid. Property rights shouldn’t trump all city planning, but they do, so a compromise is in order…which is just going to make city planning via CDPs and secondary plans all the more difficult in the future. When we’re in such a bind, it leads me to believe we have an error in the process (as well as the horrible sword of the OMB dangling over our heads).

And so, I’ve pretty much supported every position on this issue, which might make you wonder what I think council should do.

Council should approve this. They should work with the developer to try to get them more in-line with the CDP, offering whatever carrots they can. Our hands are tied, and though McKenney has the moral high ground here, that’s not going to be particularly helpful. I think the fight might do more to weaken the CDP than the compromise.

But, on another level, we should work to curtail, if not eliminate, the OMB. And we should work to ensure that developers can’t run our communities.

P.S. I do feel rather conflicted on this issue, so I reserve the right to change my mind and pretend this post never happened.