Who we approve, and who we don’t

The other day, the Planning Committee decided to delay a decision on the proposed development at Southminster United Church in Old Ottawa South. The proposal went up one storey too high and was about 3.5 M too tall. The community was against it. The NCC and Parks Canada worried about the views from the canal (a rather frivolous concern).

Windmill Developments, who is the church’s developer for this project, said they needed the extra height to make the development (financially) worthwhile.

That wasn’t enough. The church’s need to do something with the land wasn’t enough. The Planning Committee has decided the parties involved should collaborate a bit to come a compromise and, thus, a better plan.

Okay, fine, whatever. I don’t have the strongest feelings on this.

I’ve written (probably too much) about the proposal at 890-900 Bank Street. There, a private corporation wants to build a tower housing groundfloor retail and a retirement/nursing home. The proposal goes up two storeys higher than is zoned, and about 10 M. It also comes out to a greater square footage than is supposed to be built.

The developers (and their representatives) repeatedly lied at public consultations.

The developers, like Windmill and the church plan, say they need the extra height to make the project profitable.

Like the Old Ottawa South case, the community almost unanimously rejected the proposal. Individuals, the Community Association, the councillor…all came out against it. The developers made small tweaks, but never addressed the main issues.

The proposal was passed by both the Planning Committee and council. There were no demands to take some extra time and collaborate with the city and community.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? When a charitable organization seeks a zoning amendment, they’re sent back to try to work out a compromise. When a for-profit corporation–that has repeatedly lied to the community–seeks a significantly greater allowance, it flies through council.

When it’s just the community that is concerned about a proposal, council pays them no heed. When a federal government department complains, suddenly it is incumbent on the developer to acquiesce.

So, this leads to two questions: Whose voice does city council deem important? And for whose benefit is city council working?

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No, we’re not all pedestrians at some point

There’s a quip a lot of urbanists use when discussing the need for proper pedestrian safety: we’re all pedestrians at some point in our journey. It’s a good attempt to try to both create empathy and demonstrate the universal need for safe streets in our car-centric society.

It’s also wrong.

Now, please don’t get offended if you’ve said this and you think I’m picking on you. I’m not. This has been said by many people who know a helluva lot more about urbanism and street design than I do. I want this bit of rhetoric to be accurate. I want it to be a simple way of conveying deeper meaning. I want it to help people get a better understanding of how we build livable cities…and maybe it will help some people, but it’s still not accurate.

If you get into your car and drive from your driveway to the mall and it’s expansive parking lot, you never set foot on a public street. If you drive from your garage to the underground parking at work, you never even step outside throughout your entire journey.

Now, I’m not just picking a nit, here (though I understand how it might seem that way). No, I’m trying to demonstrate that so much of our development is so car-centric, that we don’t all share the experiences of trying to navigate city streets by foot.

We have spent decades designing our cities so that people never have to be pedestrians. We have done our best to design walking out of vast sections of our cities.

So this idea that we’re all pedestrians at some point in our journey may have value, but it’s limited. We are not at the point where everyone is a pedestrian at some point in their journey. We’re still working towards a time when we can use that phrase and have it be accurate.

The struggle is much greater than getting people to realize they need safe streets for when they’re walking*. In many cases, we still have to get people to actually walk.

*And yes, it’s about more than just walking. Ensuring accessibility for all people is a massive part of this issue.

Replicating the success of the Grey Cup

On Friday, one of the Letters to the Editor in the Ottawa Citizen was reflecting on the success of Grey Cup weekend and how that means we should build a mega-shelter in Vanier. Seriously.

I’m going to ignore the Vanier part. I want to pull out the Grey Cup/Lansdonwe analysis:

The Grey Cup festivities were a resounding success for the organizers. Football fans from all over the country were both surprised and delighted by the tremendous show put on during Grey Cup week. The urban park adjacent to the field was flooded with tourists and locals alike, all of whom were clearly impressed. OSEG should be extremely proud of the results of their efforts, over the years, to bring professional football back to Ottawa and to a venue that is the envy of the CFL.

OSEG was right. The “Friends of Lansdowne” were wrong. If one were to visit Lansdowne now, it would be hard to understand how the “Friends” could have wasted so much time and resources fighting such an important revitalization project.

Look, let’s ignore the foolishness of this. Let’s ignore that using the success of one day that might happen once every ten years as a metric for a massive urban development is ridiculous. Let’s ignore that Lansdowne is dead in off-peak hours (let’s call it the Tuesday Morning Test). Let’s ignore that yesterday afternoon it was a ghost town–yesterday, at about 3:30 or 4:00 on a Saturday. Let’s ignore that the Friends of Lansdowne weren’t just saying that the proposal was bad, but that it’d be bad for the surrounding neighbourhoods…and consider the store closings, empty shops and the recent stores opening up along Bank Street, it’s pretty clear they were right. And let’s ignore that judging city-building efforts based on what some tourists from Saskatchewan* think during the couple of days they happen to be in town is pure folly.

No, ignore all that. Ignore that Lansdowne was supposed to be an (ugh) “urban village”. Ignore that it’s not making money. Ignore that OSEG isn’t providing the proper oversight. Ignore the empty stores and offices, dead trees, bashed bollards and broken play structure.

Ignore it all.

I was at Lansdowne a few times over Grey Cup weekend (including at the game), and, yes, it was quite fun. So, sure let’s try to replicate it. But do you know what we did to make it so successful?

We turned the public and private spaces over to people.

We shut it down to cars.

We provided people with unlimited bus rides for $1.

So, fine. The Grey Cup was great and should be the model for all urban development going forward. Let’s do this.

*No disrespect to residents of Saskatchewan; I just chose you because of the impressive number of GreenWhites fans I saw around. Well-represented, for sure.

The real issues with the Salvation Army proposal

After three days of public delegations, vocal and silent protests, an impassioned plea by the local councillor, and some self-serving performative hand-wringing by other councillors, Ottawa’s planning committed finally voted on the proposal to build a mega-shelter/community hub/whatever-we’re-technically-calling it on Montreal Road.

And planning committee got it wrong.

The vote was 6-3 in favour of the Salvation Army’s proposal, with councillors Leiper, Nussbaum and Brockington dissenting. Those three were right. This proposal should not have been approved. And here’s why: the committee was tasked with only considering this as a land-use issue. Delegates and councillors weren’t allowed to speak to the service delivery model or if there were other locations to consider instead.

And as a planning decision, the Salvation Army gave no justification for altering the zoning of this Traditional Main Street.

Maybe this sounds like I’m being obstinate or stubborn or nit-picky (which, granted, at times I certainly am), but that’s not my intention.

This issue is significantly larger than a land-use issue. As I see it, there are three main questions that need to be addressed:

1. What service-delivery model do we want? It seems that everyone in-the-know is switching away from this mega-shelter format. They’re looking at smaller, distributed service models. There’s a lot to commend in this alternative approach. It gets services to more places and, hopefully, more people. Smaller centers are more easily integrated into the existing community. It doesn’t place the entire burden (and, yes, there is a burden to be borne) on one community.

2. If we do want a mega-shelter, is this the right location? It seems we’ve chosen this location because the Salvation Army has chosen it…and they’ve chosen it, it seems, because it’s a very convenient move for them. But this issue can’t be resolved on convenience. We need to ensure that we get the right spot, and we probably have to be prepared to pony up some cash to pay for it. (Also, there’s the tangential issue that the Salvation Army’s consultants weren’t totally on-the-level in their report about the location of the people who would be using the center.)

3. Finally, should we really be farming this issue out to the Salvation Army. Look, they do a lot of good, but they’re not actually a city organization. The Montreal Road location is good for them, but this isn’t like building a new stripmall—we’re not going to open this one, and then open a few others nearby. We’ve let the Salvation Army steer the ship on this—deciding on where, how and who will receive these essential services. That’s not a way to run a city. And let’s not forget that this is a pretty controversial organization. There are questions about homophobia and their puritanical view towards harm-reduction programs. There’s also the fact that this center will only serve men. All this is, as they say, problematic.

This is a tough issue. The services the Salvation Army provides are necessary (even if we quibble about their preferred method of delivery), and the city has all but relinquished their responsibility to look after the vulnerable people who need these services.

It seems that there’s a valid debate to be had about how these services are delivered in the city and who delivers them. This is a discussion we should be having. We need to address issues of poverty, homelessness, and drug and alcohol addiction.

But we’re not having that discussion, and planning committee was explicitly told that they couldn’t even consider these issues. So, if they’re not going to be allowed to discuss the pertinent issues, or even consider the effects of the proposal and its impact on the surrounding community, then they should have done the right thing and declined to give a response, punting this to council.

I mean, it’s going to council, anyway. They’ll get the final say (well…assuming the Salvation Army ever gets the necessary funding), so they may as well have been charged with exploring the full issue.

Until that issue is resolved, no, we shouldn’t approve a shelter on Montreal Road.

Cleaning up the NCC’s mess

Did you ever have that friend growing up who would take your stuff only to return it to you broken? Well, the City of Ottawa has such a “friend”. It was about half a century ago that the federal government took Lebreton Flats from local residents and businesses.

Now finally, the land may no longer be left to rot.

But the National Capital Commission—the agency now in charge of Lebreton Flats—isn’t returning the land to the city or to the descendants of those who used to live there (or to First Nations peoples whose ancestors were the first to have the land stolen). No, they’re going to sell it to someone else, and those people may look to us to help pay to clean it up.

So, together, the federal government and the NCC are the friend who takes your toy, breaks it, sells it to someone else…and then you get a bill to fix it.

Unsurprisingly, the city isn’t too enamoured with this scenario.

True, the city—through its brownfields program—regularly helps to pay for cleaning up contaminated land (to encourage development), but the notion that the program should be used to clean up Lebreton Flats is absurd.

Let’s put aside the fact that this would be a budget-busting expenditure. The program just isn’t set up to deal with the amount of money it would take to clean up the site.

Let’s also put aside that this is incredibly valuable land—we’re not going to get many more opportunities to have such a massive development right beside the city’s core—and so the cost of remediation should be factored into any sale and development of the area.

Let’s even put aside that the city isn’t even considered an official partner in this project, so we—the people who live in the city and will have to live with Lebreton Flats—have no official say in what happens.

Yeah, ignore all that, even though those are good enough reasons to balk at paying for cleaning up the site.

Lebreton Flats has been a wasteland for half a century. Approximately half of Ottawa’s residents aren’t old enough to have seen this prime land as much more than an open field, snow dump or parking lot (save for a few recent condo developments).

As great as a development at Lebreton Flats may be (and there’s no guarantee it’ll live up to its promise), the city has been robbed of the full use of this land for decades.

That’s less housing and fewer places for people to live. That’s fewer parks in our central neighbourhoods. That’s less development, less business, fewer attractions and a duller city.

That’s a big gaping chasm between downtown and the neighbourhoods to the west.

The vacant land stifled development around City Centre, Mechanicsville and the remnants of Lebreton Flats at the bottom of Nanny Goat Hill.

And for what? To host an office complex that would never be built? To rid the city’s centre of a low-income neighbourhood?

That’s decades of lost economic activity and lost property taxes for absolutely no good reason.

The NCC threw poor people out on the street. They destroyed a community. And they ensured that land would never be developed for half a century. They just let it sit there, contaminated…an eyesore a short walk from Parliament Hill.

So no, we, the residents of Ottawa, should not be paying to clean up that land. If anything, the NCC should just give the land to the city (or those whose ancestors first inhabited the land).

They shouldn’t profit from expropriating and wasting land for this long. They shouldn’t get to pawn off the costs of their neglect onto us.

The federal government destroyed one of our neighbourhoods. They let the ground get more and more contaminated. Part of our city was taken from us and broken. We shouldn’t be stuck with the bill.

Yvan Baker and protecting drivers from pedestrians

If you hadn’t heard, an MPP from Etobicoke has come up with a ridiculous law to punish pedestrians who happen to be using their smartphone. Basically, if you’re using it while you cross the street–even legally–you’d get fined. There are a couple of carve-outs (you were already on a phone call, you need to make an emergency call), but even if you were just listening to music, you’d, theoretically get dinged.

I’ve already written about this, and I might write more later, but there’s a new twist on this. The other day, the MPP, Yvan Baker, posted a video he took of himself as he walked down the street.

Many pointed out the utter hypocrisy of promoting his anti-“distracted*” walking and him promoting a video of himself walking down the sidewalk paying attention to nothing but recording his own brilliance.

And, yeah, it’s bad, but it’s not actually hypocritical. It’s revealing.

You see, his law isn’t about protecting pedestrians. There’s nothing in his law that would punish people who are walking while texting on the sidewalk. This law doesn’t worry itself with the other pedestrians who might get bumped into or who might get knocked down and hurt.

It is only concerned about the crosswalk…where pedestrians interact with cars and drivers.

This law is aimed solely at protecting drivers.

But, you plead, a pedestrian isn’t going to hurt a driver. Worst comes to worst, the driver may have to clean some blood and brains off their fender. They‘ll still get home to tuck their kids in at night.

You’re right of course, but this isn’t an issue of driver safety.

No, the point of the bill is to protect drivers from the responsibility of killing someone. It’s to absolve drivers from the guilt of being a murderer when they run over someone, if they can find some sort of excuse to get out of it…some flimsy way to blame the pedestrian who had the temerity, the gall, to dare move about a city outside of a car.

So I’m happy he put up this useless video. It lays bare the depravity of his bill. It tells us just how callous and uncaring he really is.

*More on “distracted” later.

Only In My Back Yard: A different double standard at City Hall

I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that the city is fighting over a baseball diamond, but here we are. Little leaguers in Orleans wanted to build a second, kid-sized diamond at Heritage Park. However, it’s also an off-leash dog park, and the two uses couldn’t co-exist. Local councillor Jody Mitic sided with the doggos and got the city to kill the diamond.

I don’t know enough about the park to weigh on in the specific issue (though, in general, I side with kids over dog-owners), but something about Mitic’s stance was striking.

Mitic is quoted by the Citizen’s Jon Willing as saying, “It’s something the community absolutely does not want.”

There’s an online petition against it, and a bunch of residents are upset. (Though I would have assumed that people within the league were part of the community, too, but anyway…)

This is an interesting standard for Mitic to trot out. If you’ve been following this blog, you know about the developed planned for 890-900* Bank Street. The development company (decidedly not part of the community) wanted to build higher than zoning allowed. The community pushed back.

There was near-unanimity within the community. Feedback was strongly against this. The local councillor, David Chernushenko, was against it. Council approved it, nonetheless. Mitic voted in favour.

I’m not trying to re-litigate the planning decision. Nor am I looking to debate the dog park. Hell, I’m not even trying to pick on Mitic, specifically.

No, my problem is with councillors who have double-standards. We see this all the time (and I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while). They care about issues when they crop up in their ward, but don’t care much at all when it’s another ward.

Or take street safety. Have you heard about how councillors in sububan and rural wards are very concerned about speeding and safety? It’s all very sincere, until we’re talking about having safer, slower streets inside the greenbelt–say Main Street or Elgin. Bank Street is a traditional main street, but it also has to be an arterial, and we’re not going to take any concrete steps to keep people to the speed limit.

This is sort of the corollary to NIMBY-ism. It’s an Only-In-My-Back-Yard situation. Only In My Back Yard will I worry about traffic safety. Only In My Back Yard will I protect zoning regulations. Only In My Back Yard will I consider the wishes of the community. Only In My Back Yard do residents matter.

This isn’t about a baseball diamond or a retirement home or a lower speed limit. This is about treating all neighbourhoods and all residents fairly (which we really don’t). This is about having consideration for the safety, comfort and basic value of everyone in this city.

Not just the people in your back yard.

*Or something like that. I’m too lazy to double-check right now.

The War on Cars in eight lines

[Hey! I just found is in my drafts. I wrote it back in May. Figured I’d finally publish it.]
By now, everyone should know that the so-called “War on Cars” is utter bullshit. It doesn’t exist. Driving advocates, nonetheless, try to pull it out whenever cars aren’t totally, 100% catered to. We’re seeing this with the Elgin Street re-design. Here, in 8 lines, is what the “War on Cars” is:

The City of Ottawa: We’re re-designing Elgin Street. It’ll have two driving lanes, wider sidewalks and no bike lanes.

Driving Advocate: But I need to drive.

City: There’ll be two driving lanes, just like before.

Driver: But I need to park.

City: There are hundreds upon hundreds of spots on nearby streets and in nearby parking lots. We even make parking at City Hall cheap on weekends.

Driver: Not good enough!

City: You can park on the sidewalks.

Driver: WHAT’S WITH THE WAR ON CARS!

What to do if racism flows across the river

So I was watching Mike Patton’s Ottawa City Hall Update again, and I came across this video:

Okay, so any non-racist, non-sexist, thinking person knows the recent anti-(mulsim-)face-covering law is absolute bullshit, but Patton brings up a good question. How will this–and by extension, how should this–affect certain public services in Ottawa.

All signs point to this law being a 1950s-Alabama type law, banning muslim women who cover their faces from riding the bus. (I mean, how tone-deaf to the arc of history do you have to be?) Patton wonders, how is this going to affect OC Transpo buses that cross over to Gatineau? Will they be forced to abide by the law.

In addition, he wonders about STO buses that come over here. Will they refuse to serve Ottawa residents who cover their faces?

Now, it’s not clear that STO is willing to play ball with this racist law, but if it is going to be the law, these are worthy questions.

All right, first things first. I can’t possibly believe the law will apply to OC Transpo. It is decidedly not a Quebec public service and I can’t see how they (we) could be subject to the law. However, if Quebec authorities are going to press the issue, there are basically two avenues we should be willing to take.

First, refuse. We can’t let our public services be hijacked by the racist and Islamophobic agenda of some bigoted politicians across the river. But if that’s untenable, if the authorities decide to harass our drivers or passengers, then we have to stop servicing Gatineau. We can’t be a party to the institutionalized racism of Quebec (not that we don’t have our own problems with racism to deal with).

Okay, so that takes care of OC Transpo. What do we do if STO decides to comply with and enforce the new law? Well, in this situation there’s only one option. We don’t let them operate in Ottawa.

These are our streets. We can’t abide the discrimination. We can’t accept a transit service that actively discriminates and oppresses vulnerable groups to keep doing business in our city.

(I imagine there’d be a pretty straightforward human rights challenge to any attempt to run a racist business in Ottawa.)

Don’t get me wrong. This would complicate things for a lot of people. This would radically change the way people have to move between cities (and with so many government offices across the river, residents really need to move between cities). This wouldn’t be easy, and a lot of people would be mad.

But we can’t value convenience over the equality of women and minorities. We can’t sacrifice the rights of the oppressed to make our commute easier.

Yes, we should use less water and pay more for it

I watched this video the other day. It’s something. Though I commend Mike Patton for his interest in and dedication to civic issues, his argument is a bit off the mark.

To recap, Patton accurately addresses and describes the situation. The city needed people to start using less water, so they implored them to do so. The public, thankfully, listened. Yay! Everything’s great…except that the city was totally relying on the water revenues and suddenly we’re kind of stuck.

Now we need to raise rates, and, thus, pay more for the reduced amount of water we use. The city, obviously, totally bungled this, but Patton’s solution is no better.

Patton wants the city to roll up the cost of water with your tax bill. You won’t pay for the water you use, just a flat fee. Have a pool in the suburbs? Have a small loft? We’ll all just pay the same. [Insert joke about conservatives wanting people to pay their own way.]

No, the current situation is right. People should use less water than they have in the past and people should pay more for it, if that’s what it costs. (This is a pretty straightforward market solution…insert joke about conservatives liking market solutions.)

The only problem here is that we didn’t raise rates sooner. First, that’s a great way to get people to reduce consumption. Second, we should have known that we’d still have to pay for water-related services and infrastructure even if people were using less.

Now, Patton has a point that the cost of delivering water is fixed, regardless of how much we use, but it’s not consistent across the city. It costs far less to deliver water to that loft downtown than to the single-family home in the ‘burbs.

If we’re going to just charge everyone a flat rate, we should make sure they’re paying for the infrastructure they use, rather than continuing to subsidize fiscally-irresponsible development.

(Keep in mind, a year or two ago, we decided to slash development charges so that new subdivisions don’t actually have to pay the cost of the infrastructure that has to be built.)

Of course, then there’s no incentive to reduce consumption, and that seems to be the point of the video. We should, apparently, be allowed to use as much water as we want, consequences be damned.

So, if we want to be fair, what we probably need are different rates for different areas to reflect the cost of service, and we need to charge proper rates that will bring in sufficient revenue to pay for water delivery.

This may be complicated in practice, but it’s not a difficult concept.