The Abomination on Bank Street

There’s a proposed development for 890-900 Bank Street. It’ll sit on the block between Thornton and Holmwood, replacing Mister Muffler and the Beer Store (and some patches of grass). It’ll be right beside the Kettleman’s. It will, mostly, stretch the depth of the block, from Bank Street to Monk Street.

And it will be a giant, towering scar on the neighbourhood.

Back in April, I wrote briefly about it, noting the somewhat inappropriate way the proposal was presented to the public, but I didn’t really get into what was so very, very bad about it. I’m going to do that now.

I had always intended to write up a thoughtful, properly-crafted piece with arguments and prose that flowed seamlessly… but there’s too much to cover and I don’t really have the time or energy, so I’m just going to go piece-by-piece through it.

It’s too tall

Literally, it is too tall for the neighbourhood. Bank Street is a Traditional Main Street (TMS) and has very clear zoning regulations. The maximum height (roughly speaking) is four storeys, but you’re allowed to go up to six storeys if you provide added setback for the added storeys. The developers are proposing eight storeys.

This is an eminently sensible plan for the neighbourhood. Most of Bank Street is one or two storeys, and that’s really under-utilizing the street. As Bank Street changes, we need to add some density.

But it has to be the right kind of density. I’ve written before about the concept of gentle density. Basically, most established neighbourhoods should be intensified subtly and marginally. This means that, for example, an area of purely single family homes could see townhouses or low-rises developed. It means growing up, bit by bit, and adding density bit by bit.

There are very few areas that warrant radical intensification. Landsowne did (more on that later). Lebreton Flats does. Adding significant density around transit hubs is logical. Adding towers on Carling Avenue near Dow’s Lake, where it is on the border of a neighbourhood, and on a major thoroughfare makes sense.

It doesn’t make sense on our TMSs. We saw this a year or two ago in Stittsville. The original plan for Stittsville Main Street called for significant increases in height. Residents pushed back, and the city came up with a much more reasonable and palatable proposal. There would be added density. There would be added height, especially at major intersections, but it would still fit within the general feel of the street.

This is what we usually ask of our planners. Yes, intensify. Yes, develop. Yes, allow our city to grow. But be sure to acknowledge the character of the neighbourhood while you do so. It’s a balance, and not everyone is always going to like every decision, but we need to try to strike that balance.

This is why we would allow an extra two storeys along Bank Street–to give developers a bit more leeway. It’s also we would then demand added setbacks–to ensure that the added height doesn’t overwhelm the street and block out the sun.

With this proposal, we’ve abandoned any sense of balance. There is no consideration given to the nature or character of the street.

It’s too tall for the street

We can all admit that zoning can be overly restrictive. Sometimes, zoning needs to be changed and adapted. Sometimes, additional height beyond what’s allowed is a good thing. That’s not the case here.

On Bank Street, this Abomination will overpower and dwarf a good three or four block area, at least. Let’s look at what’s around it.

Kettleman’s is one storey, though maybe a tall storey. Beside Kettleman’s at Holmwood and Monk is a two- to three-storey walkup. It’s down a bit of a slop from the Abomination and Bank Street, so it’s actually barely taller than Kettleman’s.

Across Thornton on Bank Street is a two-storey, rather ugly, building. It’s a typical development, ground floor retail and office space above (and a gym in the basement).

Across Bank Street between Holmwood and Clarey, there are a series of two-storey buildings, a retail and residential mix. Between Clarey and Regent, you will find a single-storey building (Rosie’s Southern Kitchen and Raw Bar), a two-story development (with McCrank’s, Irene’s and Silver Scissors, among others, on the ground floor) and another single-storey building, the Glebe Meat Market.

Kitty corner at Bank and Regent is a three-storey walkup. Beside it,  a one-storey commercial property is being re-built. On the west side of Bank and Fifth (beside the two-storey building), a four-storey building is supposed to be developed. (It’s currently a mostly-vacant lot with a bit of a two-storey building on it.)

As you go north on Bank Street, it’s mostly two-storey buildings, with the occasional one-storey building thrown in (like the Scotiabank).

On the other side of the property, along Monk Street, you see mostly two-storey or three-storey homes. Moving west from Monk Street, it’s all just houses. There are no towers. No mid-rises. No walkups.

Eight storeys is far, far out of the realm of reasonable for this property. There is nothing to the north, east or west that is even close to what is being proposed. It is out of scale; it is out of character. That’s why it is outside of zoning regulations. Not because planners of NIMBY activists are unfairly capping development, but because the CDP is a very appropriate fit. It is a real balance between building up and protecting the character of the neighbourhood.

But, you may notice, I only covered the north, east and west sides of this proposal. What of the south?

This is where things get a little different. Across Holmwood from the Kettleman’s is the Lord Lansdowne, a tower holding a retirement residence. (Oh, did I mention the Abomination would also be a retirement residence?)

Across from the Lord Lansdowne is the tower at Lansdowne Park.

So, if we can have towers there, why can’t we have one at Bank and Thornton? Glad you asked.  These do not fit with the CDP. They violate our vision for our TMS, but they also fall outside the character of the street. Past Holmwood, Bank Street widens. It no longer has a plethora of street-facing retail or restaurants.

Lansdowne Park (or the decaying remnants of Lansdowne Park) have been on that stretch for over a hundred years. A grandstand has been there most of the time. The Civic Centre is approaching 50. From Holmwood to the Bank Street Bridge, Bank Street has a different character, a different feel. It is an appropriate place to build up, as you’re not overwhelming any existing buildings along the street.

The Lord Lansdowne and Lansdowne Park are what we call exceptions. The circumstances on the stretch of Bank Street are different, so they need to be treated differently by zoning. This is what reasonable people do. They make exceptions, but they make sure that exceptions remain exceptions.

We can’t be reasonable with exceptions

At the public consultation last spring, the city planner who is on point for this project admitted that the exceptions made for the twin Lansdowne towers mean that the city might be “forced” to make an exception for 890-900 Bank Street.

You know all those irritating, minor little development fights that go on? Those ones where a minor variance should really be allowed because it’s not really hurting anyone? Yeah, this is why those fights are necessary.

Basically, because the city made exceptions down the road, they could be forced to make an exception for this development. The OMB (more on them in a later post) wants consistency and predicability. And that means if you make one exception to a CDP, to be consistent and predictable, you can’t be allowed to ever enforce the CDP again. A state of no rules is more predictable than a state of carefully considered exceptions to clearly established rules. Or so we’re told.

So, we’re kind of fucked.

Here’s the problem with this, and here’s why local councillors going to bat to reign in the OMB is a really good thing: we make an exception at Bank and Holmwood, so we have to make an exception at Bank and Thornton. Then we’ll have to make an exception at Bank and Fifth. Then we’ll have to make an exception at Bank and Fourth…and so on.

We’ve been handcuffed. We made a reasonable exception, and now developers get to throw out all the rules.

So we have to make a stand. We can’t let this exception-creep totally gut our CDPs. We can’t let our neighbourhoods, communities and Traditional Main Streets be completely compromised, completely overrun with un-checked development.

You might think eight storeys is appropriate, but no more. Thus, you might want the city to approve the Abomination, because that’s what you think the proper vision for Bank Street is.

Too bad. If you want to do that, you need to change the CDP, not completely subvert it. If we start making exceptions, we won’t stop. If you can go up to eight storeys, why not nine? If you can do nine, surely you can do 11. Eleven’ll get you 14, and 14 can be easily flipped to 20.

No, Bank Street isn’t going to see a 20-storey building any time soon, but the point is that we need to guard the integrity of our planning process. And if we’re going to make changes, we need those changes to be guided by planners, and vetted by residents and their representatives. They can’t been forced upon us by developers.

Where’s my setback/where’s the front door/a bit of deception

Remember how I said that zoning allows for added storeys if you have the appropriate setback? Yeah, well, looking at the diagrams, it doesn’t appear there’s any added setback above the fourth floor.

How can that be?, you might ask. Surely, a building that tall on Bank Street would have the necessary setback. The thing is, this building isn’t on Bank Street.

I know, I know, I’ve been saying it’s at 890-900 Bank Street. Settle down; I’ll explain. The current lots do, indeed, reside at 890-900 Bank Street. And those lots will, most assuredly, be swallowed up by the Abomination, but the Abomination will actually, technically be on Monk Street. That’s where the front door will be.

Zoning regulations have a lot weird little intricacies that us mortals can’t always figure out, but from what I can tell, but putting the building on Monk Street, that changes the setback requirements at the “back” of the building.

Now, maybe this is just a case of bad renderings. Maybe they will have the necessary setbacks. That’ll be good.

But there’s another problem here. A one-block stretch (well, really a two-block stretch, the way it is almost bisected by a cross street) of one of our TMSs will have the ass of a building. This isn’t proper development. This isn’t good planning. This isn’t what Bank Street is supposed to be.

This limits the engagement the building has with the street and with the people walking along the street. This changes the dynamic of the building. This is just kind of crass.

It’s kind of ugly

This will be a big tall wall along Bank Street. It’s a mundane, boring building. It won’t have any character, and it won’t blend into the street at all. Okay, blending might not be what we’re really looking for, but it won’t complement the street.

Bank is full of weird little edifices crammed together. There is, mostly, variation along blocks. Even if the entire stretch of the block is unending, uninterrupted buildings, there is variety among the storefronts. There are different windows, entryways and colour patterns. There are subtle variations in architecture. It’s kind of a hodgepodge, but it is a good hodgepodge and it is the nature of the street.

But this design is unimaginative. It looks like every other development that is quickly passed on thrown up on our city streets. There is no thought to aesthetics. There’s no thought to character. It’s kind of nice, but it’s mostly meh.

And it will be dated. It will be so so so dated. Ottawa will have this basic design scattered throughout the city, a reminder of our unimaginative, soul-destroying craptacular development.

And, like, it really is soul-destroying. It’s bad for our health. A study came out recently (I think in the last year) about how boring architecture has detrimental effects on our well-being.

This mundane monolith will be a testament to how we just really don’t care.

There’s too much parking

This neighbourhood is so weird. There are numerous (valid) complaints about traffic, but then our community groups tend to get really upset if the city tries to limit or reduce parking. So when a proposal like this comes along, they cry and cry about insufficient parking.

Hey, look, I get the (supposed) logic here. No parking equals too many cars parked on the street equals more and more cars circling for spots. But this isn’t actually how the world works. Putting in more and more parking just invites more and more people to drive here. This has been shown over and over again. Excessive parking breeds a driving culture and hurts transit, walkability and bicycling.

So if they want to build this Abomination, they need to cut it out with the parking. And if it is supposedly economically unviable without the parking, then their business model is untenable.

I’m not sure we need another retirement residence

I’m a little worried about having another retirement residence. As I noted, there’ll be another one half a block away. There are a couple of other ones nearby.

Further, the developers aren’t really clear on how well the residents will engage with the street and the neighbourhood. On the one hand, they say that this will mean more people on the street (hurray!), on the other, they say that they need lots of visitor parking and that residents can’t be expected to go out and walk and use the bus.

So I don’t really know what to think about this. Maybe it’ll be fine, or maybe it will significantly change the nature of the street and neighbourhood. I’m willing to be persuaded either way.

I think that’s about it

I had started to make notes about this project a while back, but I can’t find them. I think I’ve covered just about everything, but more than that, I think I’m done with thinking about this horrible, wretched, insulting project for a little while.

It’s not what the neighbourhood needs, and I don’t think it’s what the neighbourhood wants. It doesn’t fit. It’s unattractive. And it is just another body-blow to our eminently-sensible zoning regulations.

We need council to fight this. We need our councillor to fight this. And we need our MPP and the provincial government to start taking some power back from the unelected OMB.

P.S. We’re at about 2500 words on this thing, so I’m not going back to proofread (not that I do that much anyway). I’d like to apologize for any typos…in theory, I’d like to apologize for any typos, but I don’t. Whatever. Thanks for reading (seriously).

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5 thoughts on “The Abomination on Bank Street

  1. from the zoning bylaw:
    “For the purpose of determining the front yard setback, a lot that abuts any of the following streets designated “Traditional Mainstreet” in the Official Plan is to be treated as though it fronts that street:

    (g)
    Bank Street,

    from Gloucester Street to the Rideau River”

    If they are dodging setbacks, it isn’t by pretending to be on Monk.

    Otherwise, great article, and pretty bang on. My only quibble is that I think 6 stories is too tall for main streets. If you look at the functional
    Main streets in Canada, they’re almost universally 1-3 stories, with diverse ownership and architecture on every block. 17sw in Calgary, Whyte Ave
    In Edmonton, Commercial In Vancouver, and here in Ottawa, Bank in the Glebe, Wellington W, Beechwood, Elgin and the Market all fall into the same general description.

    • Thanks, Thomas, for pointing this out. I missed that when I went through the regulations.

      I don’t think it’s unreasonable to go to four storeys along Bank Street, maybe even five or six with a suitable setback. There are a number of buildings that are three storeys, so I think four is a nice way to get some increased density without having radical change. Our neighbourhoods are going to be growing, so we have to find ways to let them.

  2. I guess that little trick of not addressing on Bank is how the “new” Glebe Centre building, just south of the Lord Lansdowne (the old Glebe Centre) got approved with a similarly blank ass facing Bank St.

    Definitely need to stop more faceless building asses fronting on to the Main Street.

    • Yeah, I don’t know how that got approved. I’d have to check the zoning. That stretch of Bank across from Lansdowne might not be a Traditional Main Street. It definitely has a different vibe than the rest of the street…which is really too bad, because it would be lovely to animate Bank all the way to the bridge.

  3. Exactly the same fight occurring in Sandy Hill. Richcraft’s plan for 560 Rideau at Cobourg, calls for 16 stories (aprox) in an area zoned 6. We are not an influential bunch and our City Councillor does not care. The case goes to the OMB Monday. The Community had a VERY VERY hard time even getting a lawyer. Big Developers put almost every experienced lawyer in town on a retainer. So they can’t work for residents. The building will require an extra steep ramp spilling cars onto Cobourg right into the path of a new bike lane. That’s also where deliveries, garbage etc will happen! Also many many bike-vehicle accidents.
    Furthermore nearby residents in Ottawa’s oldest Heritage District have paid for engineering studies that agree with our fear that the foundations of many houses could be severely damaged.
    So we raised 20K, and off we go to the OMB. I do not think this will end well.

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