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.

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One thought on “What’s the value of a plan?

  1. Well…..The planning Department (paid for by development fees) and Committee (supported by campaign donations from developers ,- Jan Harder Chair – 12000 from developers and 7000 from individuals) does seem out of control. A coming development on Rideau stands a good chance of seriously compromising the foundations of 12 buildings in a heritage residential area. Despite spending serious coin on our own engineering reports we have been unable to slow the train one iota!

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