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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The Missing Bike Lane

[Editor’s note: the revelation of the cancellation of half the O’Connor bike lane project was reported during the time the Transportation Committee was meeting, but it wasn’t actually given at the committee meeting. It was, apparently, merely a press release. All the arguments still stand, but I will edit the post for clarity in the near future.]

The city has been planning some new bike lanes. In the immediate future, they plan to build a north-south route along O’Connor. This would stretch from the core through the Glebe (I wrote about it here).

Sorry, wait, wait. That was silly. Let’s start over again.

The city has been planning some new bike lanes. In the immediate future, they had planned to build a North-South route along O’Connor. This would stretch from the core through the Glebe (I wrote about it here), but of course the city is looking to scrap parts of it.

Yes, that’s right, the city planned to do the least possible to help cyclists get in and out of the core, and they’re scrapping it. Reports have varied; they’re either scrapping it from Strathcona to Glebe or Strathcona to Fifth. I’m sure everyone can guess the reason for this change of tune, parking.

The process to build this lane was flawed from the outset. City planners accurately identified a need for new bike infrastructure. We have the Laurier Bike Lane going through (sort of) downtown from east to west, but we had no good bike infrastructure running north-south (and if you mention Percy and Lyon, you’re high; that’s bad bike infrastructure).

The next logical step after identifying the need for a bike lane would be to determine a location; obviously, it’s going to run along an existing street. There’s nowhere in the core of the Glebe to create a brand new bikeway. There was only one logical choice, Bank Street.

Bank Street is our main street. It’s the main north-south route for commuting. It connects to Old Ottawa South, Alta Vista, South Keys and beyond. It has lots of destinations–shops, restaurants, churches. It will even take you to the city’s shiny new development, Lansdowne. It is, in many ways, the place to be.

And it is quite easy to tell that it is the place to be. It has the highest bike, car and foot traffic downtown and in the Glebe. Cyclists are all over the street. It’s the location for one of the city’s bike corrals. And it’s dangerous. If you’re on your bike, you’re dodging cars and buses. You’re worrying about doorings and navigating parked cars. Do you filter? Do you take the lane? The Bank Street Bridge and Billings Bridge are unfit for safe traffic.

Further, the sidewalks are unreasonably narrow. There’s little room. On the Bank Street Bridge, pedestrians can be forced onto the road…a road that cars endlessly speed down. A bike lane offers a buffer to pedestrians, keeping them even further away for the scofflaw death machines. Our planners need to remember, bike infrastructure makes walking safer.

It’s easy enough to say that bikes can just pop over to O’Connor, but that’s ridiculous. Bank Street is right in the middle of downtown. We don’t need (as much) a route on the east side of downtown. Sure, if you’re right in the core, O’Connor is only one block east of Bank, but at Fifth Avenue, O’Connor is approximately four blocks east of downtown. Why would I take that route if I just had to get back to Bank Street (or worse, Kent) at the end of my trip?

So city planners screwed up. It’s not really on them. There’s no political will to make Bank Street anything close to a safe street. Planners had their hands tied. They went with the second-best choice, O’Connor. I can’t really blame them.

A lot of work went into this plan; it wasn’t some idea just thrown out off the top of someone’s head. There was a lot of work. There were consultations with the public and stakeholders. This showed dedication. It showed that maybe, maybe, the city was actually taking things seriously.

Then a business complained, and some residents complained. There were about twelve complaints. People were worried about all the parking that would be lost. The business, a pediatrician for heaven’s sake, worried that their clients wouldn’t be able to park (because apparently they couldn’t park on any of the other streets around there). Because of this, cyclists shouldn’t be given proper infrastructure.

So at the Transportation Committee, we were all blindsided. There had been no mention of any concerns before, but at committee, the planners decided to recommend scrapping half the plan. As a resident, you should be outraged that the process can be so hi-jacked and safety so compromised. As a taxpayer, you should be outraged that city planners wasted all this time and money.

I rode down O’Connor the other day, from Pretoria to Fifth, and here’s what I found out. There’s hardly any parking there, at all. There are maybe five or ten spots between Strathcona and First. You have bulb outs and bus stops. An embassy and a school. An overpass over Patterson Creek. You also probably have room to create the bike lanes and still save some parking.

(Oh, and the sidewalk is pretty narrow. There’s barely room to walk side-by-side going over the creek. This is problematic when walking with children or people with mobility issues, as someone can be force to walk on the road in a bus route. Again, bike lanes would provide a bit of a buffer; it’d be much better to be forced into a bike lane than into an oncoming bus.)

From First to Fifth, there’s a healthy amount of parking, but only on the east side of the road. The west side is all No Parking. But more than that, it’s a ridiculously wide road…which can lead to speeding, which is all the more reason to have bike lanes. In fact, the street is so wide that you could easily have bike lanes on both sides of the road and maintain all the existing parking.

There is a severe level of cowardice and dishonesty going on here. The concerns for parking are pretty unfounded. The whole thing might–might–cost five spots, but city planners are willing to cancel the project to placate the parking lobby (of twelve whole people). When the issue of parking was presented, the planners should have been able to demonstrate that the concerns were unfounded. They should have told the complainers that hardly any parking would be lost whatsoever.

But…cowardice. Or they never really believed in the project to begin with.

Further, the city has once again played residents against each other. Yes, there has to be some give-and-take, but building this bike route will take away so little parking, that there’s barely any cost to it, but city officials–planners and politicians–won’t play that conciliatory game. No, bike infrastructure harms everyone else (even though it will help pedestrians!), so we have to scrap it.

Those complaining were, ignorant, at best, maliciously dishonest at worst. Their concerns where unfounded, yet they had to complain, anyway. It would seem they had done no research into what parking (if any) would actually be lost; the response was just so reflexively anti-bike that it demonstrates the city’s politics of division works.

Or, they’re just liars. Maybe they know that there are no legitimate concerns, but they just hate the thought of (more) bikes going (safely) down the street that they made up this lie, assuming (correctly) that it would work.

All is not lost…technically. Council still gets the final say on this. The issue is to come up today at full council. It’d take a near miracle for council to overrule planners and the recommendation of the cowardly Transportation Committee, but it is possible.

I’m not holding my breath.

One Way Bad! Two Way Good!

Here’s an interesting little study from Louisville (a town with much going for it). Apparently, an extensive network of one-way streets can kill a downtown, and if we truly want to have vibrant downtown neighbourhoods, we should probably switch to two-way streets:

Here is one simple and affordable strategy to renew our downtown neighborhoods: immediately convert multi-lane one-way streets back to two-way traffic. Such conversions reduce car speeds and encourage greater pedestrian and bike mode-share. As a response of calmer residential streets, neighborhoods become more livable, more prosperous, and safer.

The results were stunning. Two-way conversion improves the livability of a neighborhood by significantly reducing crime and collisions and by increasing property values, business revenue, taxes, and bike and pedestrian traffic. Outside consultants, with price tags of millions of dollars, never predicted this in places like Oslo, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Atlanta.

Ottawa is in love with one-way streets downtown. North-south, you’ve got Metcalfe, O’Connor, Kent, Lyon, Bay and Percy (if I recall correctly). East-west, you’ve got… pretty much all of them. It would seem we might want to change that.

(H/T: Charles A-M.)