Building Better Suburbs

It may not seem like it, but I spend a fair bit of time thinking about how we can make our suburbs better. Really, it’s only fair. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we make our city better, so I should make sure I’m thinking about how to make the entire city better.

Naturally, my first inclination is to think that we should start building the suburbs like we urban areas. They should be walkable, sustainable, mix-use…all that good stuff. It’s pretty common in urban planning circles to hear people note that we’ve been surbanizing our urban centres, and its about time we start pushing back, and expanding urban areas.

Now, I tend to believe this is true. And I tend to think it’s the just thing to do. And I reject the argument that people demonstrate that they prefer the suburbs. Not only is there a strong cultural imperative to embrace the suburbs for the last, what?, five decades? The suburbs are also heavily subsidized by urban neighbourhoods. Don’t tell me that people are merely demonstrating their true preference, when we’re actually paying them to move to the suburbs.

But it seems like it’d be a bit concern troll-y of me to say that I want to build better suburbs when I really want to turn them into urban areas. (Even if it’d be absolutely true, a moral imperative and the most benevolent thing the city could do.)

No, it’s fair to say that if we’re going to improve the suburbs, we should try to improve them within the suburban framework.*

Interestingly, Ottawa has been doing a lot to try to improve the suburbs, and, in fact, it’s been the case of bringing a bit of urban wisdom to the suburbs. When you look back over the past few years, you’ll notice a few different initiatives undertaken by city hall and city staffers.

We’ve slowly, but surely, increased density in our suburbs. Lots are getting smaller. We’re moving away from bungalows, and embracing tall, narrow houses, semi-detached homes and townhouses. New suburbs are fitting more people into smaller areas. This is a good thing.

Further, we’ve been working to improve density in older, established suburbs (including “the bungalow belt” as areas like Alta Vista and Bel-Air are sometimes called). City staff are working to allow corner lots to be split, so that more units can be built on a block. This is the sort of gentle density that can be very palatable but also helps achieve some pretty important goals.

This won’t be a radical change. It’s nothing the city will impose. For it to happen, the lot owner has to want to split the lot. Until that happens, the status quo remains.

A significant policy change occurred when the city decided to allow small businesses to move into residential neighbourhoods. Again, this isn’t going to be a tidal shift in the nature of these neighbourhoods, but adding more corner stores (or what have you) that can be walked to, that can liven up the street and that can demonstrate that mix-use zoning isn’t some urban hellscape is a benefit to both the local communities and the city, as a whole.

There is more stuff going on. The Stittsville CDP is a huge leap for bringing urban planning to the exurbs. Attempts to bring businesses to Orleans could, at the very least, help keep some commuter traffic in Orleans. And if we’re ever able to hold the line on development boundaries, that will create pressure to build up and intensify.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s still a lot of work to do. Decades of suburbanization and car-centric have taken a massive toll on the city, as they have on most of North America. It is still very important to hold the line on our urban neighbourhoods and to push the urban environment further outwards, but there are hints that we can be doing suburbanization right.

*Personally, I think as we improve the suburbs, they’ll naturally shift to a more urban framework, but that’s a side topic.

Developers and Development Charges

City council made a bad decision this week…well, they made three bad decisions, but I’m only going to focus on one. Last year, the city increased development charges (DCs). This was a fine move. New builds are taxing on our city services and our city finances. New development isn’t inherently bad, but it is costly, and shouldn’t be subsidized by the rest of us.

Well, nothing is permanent, it seems. Homebuilder associations threatened to take the city to the Ontario Municipal Baord, so the city caved, slashing the increases and promising to never ever do anything to make these perfect, sainted, benevolent developers even slightly inconvenienced ever again (essentially).

I’m not going to get deep into it right now…mainly because Rideau-Rockliffe councillor Tobi Nussbaum’s statement is pretty perfect. (And I’m stealing it in its entirety and I hope Team Tobi doesn’t mind.)

At City Council today, I voted against a settlement agreement to resolve an appeal to the City’s updated development charges bylaw. Ottawa updated its development charges in 2014 and the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association (GOHBA) and other developers subsequently appealed the decision at the Ontario Municipal Board.

The Province of Ontario requires municipalities to review and update their development charges every five years. The City collects development charges from homebuilders to pay for the increased capital costs of services such as new roads, water and sewer pipes and transit to accommodate residential growth. As a result of the settlement, the City will have to reimburse $7.4 million in collected development charges to builders and can expect to forego tens of millions of dollars in future revenue.

I voted against this proposed settlement agreement for two main reasons:

ACCOUNTABILITY

The settlement agreement goes far beyond the 2014 changes to the development charges. It includes a clause that would prohibit Council from introducing any new projects to its development charge system prior to January 1, 2019, unless the appellants agree. By approving this settlement, the City is giving the appellants a veto power over what City Council can do in relation to development charges for more than three years, eliminating the opportunity to include new projects as part of the next development charges review, expected in 2017. To use a concrete example, although Council had the right to impose a development charge to help offset capital costs for childcare, Council will be forbidden to do so by this settlement agreement unless the appealing developers agree.

TRANSPARENCY

The 2014 Development Charges By-law amendment was the subject of considerable consultation, both with the industry and with the broader public. City staff recommended approval of it to Council in June 2014 without any suggestion of legal risk. Given that city staff is now recommending drastic alterations to the recently adopted development charges, either Council was not properly informed of any legal risks at the time the changes were passed, or the city should not agree to settle and instead proceed to a hearing at the Ontario Municipal Board on the basis of the rigorous research, transparency and consultation that underlined the 2014 review.  Either possibility raises significant process issues.

For a public regulator to grant veto power over its future decisions to the very bodies it regulates raises serious concerns. Considering that the settlement agreement was passed at the same meeting that Council considered directions for its 2016 budget, which includes a $36 million-gap that needs to be filled, such a voluntary ceding of Council authority is both legally and financially problematic.

The city is obligated to demonstrate the highest level of openness and transparency, particularly when dealing with the development industry. A settlement agreement, negotiated and debated behind closed doors, that alters a publicly-consulted set of rules and provides veto power to developers over City decisions, does not meet that test. The result of that failure is a loss of public trust.

Nussbaum and Somerset councillor Catherine McKenney were the only two to vote against this horrendous motion. Good for them.

I get council’s desire to settle. The OMB is a monster, and has consistently sided with developers and against democracy. The provincial government is severely hurting the city by giving the OMB such expansive powers. It seems not a significant debate about urban development goes by that someone doesn’t express concern that the OMB will punish the city for a decision we might (and, usually, should) make.

But that doesn’t mean we turn over the keys to government to developers. It already seems like city council is in the pocket of corporations. Now, we’re just that much closer to codifying it.

City Streets and Signs of Improvement

Remember those “safety” signs the city recently unfurled, Slow Down For Us? It appears the city has released a new phase in this program, Please Stop For Us (I can’t find any reference of this initiative on the city’s site):

066All the same critiques apply to this sign as applied to Slow Down For Us. This isn’t really a safety plan; it’s a tacit admission that the city has built ridiculously unsafe infrastructure for our city (this sign was spotted just off Fifth Avenue near Bank Street). Streets with residences, children at play, (relatively) high pedestrian and bike modal shares, and a good deal of density aren’t actually safe for those who are using the streets on a regular basis.

It’s gross that our city leaders eschew actualy safety in favour of these awareness campaigns while continuing to build a thoroughly unsafe city.

Nonetheless, I kind of like this program.

You see, just as Slow Down For Us is a tacit admission of failure, Please Stop For Us, is tacit recognition that cars don’t actually the rule the road, and drivers have an obligation not to kill people. When people are driving on our city’s streets, they should stop for other people who are using the street.

To get a better sense of this, it is important to realize the purpose of city streets. Streets are not meant primarily for facilitating transportation; streets are meant to facilitate city life. Especially in dense urban areas, the purpose of the street is to engage the resident. For shopping. For socializing. For recreation. For entertainment. For exercise.

It is more important for the life of the city that people be engaged in the life of our streets rather than speeding through them, 20 – 30 km/h over the speed limit. This is why we need road diets, wider sidewalks, raised crosswalks, bike lanes, reduced speed limits and a host of other city-engaging initiatives.

This is why drivers need to stop for us.

It’s not quite car-free, but it’s a start

There’s a vacant lot sitting at the northeast corner of Cumberland Street and York Street. It’s quite a shame. What should be a prominent intersection is sadly underdeveloped, Mr. Mozzarella’s valiant attempts to hold things together aside. But now we have a new proposal for the lot. EcoCorner Inc. wants to build a  mix-use tower with retail at ground level and small residential units above (approximately 400 square feet).

It’s interesting. It’ll need a variance. And the community is already skeptical of the proposed height.

What the community isn’t questioning, however, is this building’s most unique feature: it will be car-free. Underneath there will be parking, yes, but it will be bike parking. The building will offer no parking to residents.

Well, let’s back-up a bit. It will offer no on-site parking to residents. There is chatter that they could provide off-site parking with a shuttle service to and from the lot. So that’s not exactly car-free; it’s more car-remote. I don’t like the rhetorical sleight-of-hand (we haven’t always had good experiences in Ottawa with developers who don’t actually mean what they say), but I do like the initiative.

There is very little reason that a building must provide parking to residents, especially a building in an area like the market. It’s a walkable neighbourhood (though it does need some infrastructure improvements…and it needs King Edward fixed) with a plethora of shops, restaurants and other amenities nearby. There’s transit that links to other central neighbourhoods, as well as the transitway and, eventually, the LRT. You don’t need a car to live downtown.

Of course, you might want a car. That’s the big objection (especially if you read comments at The Sun), but that’s a red herring. No one will be forced to move into this building. No one will be forced to sell their car and live there. Every other new build in Ottawa offers parking. Almost all of our residential buildings offer parking. There is no shortage of options for people who want to buy or rent a home for their car (there are also parking garages in the Market).

The big worry would be residents appropriating street parking for their cars. This does not seem like an insurmountable issue. The city doesn’t have to issue parking passes to residents (I’m not even sure if they do that for the Market…and I’m too lazy to really look into it right now). If you live in the core, you are not eligible for an on-street parking pass; the Market can be the same.

The off-site parking could be a concern. It’s not exactly eco-friendly to constantly drive people to their cars, and I have a bit of a worry that if the city changes the bylaws to allow “car-free” buildings, they’ll make remote parking a requirement.

(I don’t think this will happen. I think city officials are starting to understand that you don’t have to have parking absolutely everywhere, but the city still loves cars and parking, so you can never be sure.)

A more immediate concern is the suggestion that the car-free parking could just be shuffled onto the city:

One possible solution to the visitor parking issue would be for the developer and the city to reach an agreement that would designate some spaces in the city-owned lot at Dalhousie and Clarence for the building’s exclusive use, Fleury said.

This would not present a step forward in our city planning. We already provide businesses and residences with too much parking, a lot of it free. We need to move away from this dependence on parking cars. If the city wants to help, it would be much better for them to find a way to help Vrtucar (and any similar services *cough*Uber*cough*) expand. We can rid ourselves of car ownership without ridding ourselves of cars.

The project still has a few hurdles. Aside from getting a parking variance, the proposed height also violates the secondary plan for the neighbourhood. I am loathe to start tinkering with secondary plans too much (because then why have them at all?). If this tower is going to be built, it needs to find a way to keep the spirit of the secondary plan even if it can’t adhere to the letter of the plan.

(Or it could be a little shorter.)

Regardless of the height issue, this could be a major victory for bringing a little more parking sanity to a city drunk on cars.

Why does the Glebe want more cars?

852 Bank Street Rendering.PNG_img-250x250-INNER-852 Bank Street RenderingI don’t get it.

Listening to reports from the media and from local councillor David Chernushenko, apparently all my neighbours want more cars driving through our community. At least, that’s I how I interpret this story.

For those not paying attention to minor neighbourhood squabbles (hey, I get that), the lot at the Southwest corner of Bank and Fifth has been, essentially, vacant for quite some time now. There is a defunct service centre, but mostly it’s just used for parking. Finally, we have a proposal for a new development. It’s two storeys with a part of the second storey being a patio. It’s not perfect (I would like a bigger setback, personally), but it’s good, and we’re never going to get “perfect”, anyway.

Outgoing councillor Peter Hume criticized it for not being tall enough. He wondered why we wouldn’t have a building go up to four storeys there. It’s a valid question. The land is zoned for more than two storeys. The rest of the block is two storeys, so going a bit higher wouldn’t be a drastic change, and it would add a bit more density without adding a monstrous tower. In the end, though, it was a compromise. The developer isn’t providing any parking spaces, and it was felt that a higher building would require more parking.

This is a wonderful compromise. We block out less sky and we don’t waste prime land on a parking lot. Kudos, developer people.

But residents aren’t happy. They want parking spots on that lot.

I get their worry; they don’t want all the surrounding streets getting jammed up with cars, but creating an incentive for more people to drive to the area is not going to help that. As it stands, we will have this new development, but there will be a clear statement (just like with Lansdowne and the most of the rest of the shops on Bank Street). Don’t drive. We don’t want to create a neighbourhood to which people are regularly inclined to drive rather than bus, walk or bike. We should be removing car infrastructure rather than adding to it.

And, let’s not forget, there is not a shortage of parking in the Glebe. Bank Street is never completely full. Rarely is an entire block even full. Add to that all the side streets, and you’ll see that we already give way too much space for cars (and, don’t forget, we’re planning to build a four storey parking garage at Bank and Second).

This new development is within a block or so from my home. I’m glad the lot will finally be used for something other than a monument to urban decay. And I am very thankful that we won’t be wasting the space housing cars. We do enough of that already.

The city planners have claws

Mastercraft Starwood* had made a proposal for a landmark building downtown. By going the landmark route, they would have the opportunity to build up to 27 storeys. For that privilege, they would have to present something extraordinary. City planners say they failed… extraordinarily:

“In effect, the proposed development with two residential towers of 27 storeys extending to the street edges and adjacent property to the east will draw attention to itself not as a striking piece of architecture that in itself might be considered a piece or art, but rather as an anomaly within the central character area,” planner Douglas James writes in the review.

Meow.

(Okay, maybe that’s not really worthy of a “meow”, but what do you really expect from planners?)

That the design failed is not much of a surprise. From the picture it’s a nice-enough looking building, but it really isn’t special (the massive branding doesn’t help either, I’d say). Part of the fault lies with the whole landmark policy which should entice extraordinary designs by giving developers much freer rein.

Somerset Ward candidate Thomas McVeigh articulates the problem with the current policy, in relation to this proposal:

The proposal doesn’t even meet the requirements set out by the watered down proposal. The required open space is 2% short of what is required. It’s a quibble, but really, when we’re asking for extraordinary design, for the developer not to even bother meeting that requirement shows that they don’t really see this as an opportunity to excel, instead it’s just a loophole to half-heartedly get the checklist crossed off.

So what does McVeigh propose:

If we are going to ask for our development community to come up with extraordinary designs, for them to give up 40% of the property to the city, and for them to really impress us, we’re going to have to give them an opportunity to make enough money on the deal to make it worthwhile. I’d like to let them make enough money that I can further shake them down for some community owned housing so that these building aren’t just vertical gated communities.

Letting developers build even higher (27 storeys isn’t really that high for downtown Ottawa) would be the way to entice innovative design and more public space. I think McVeigh is right that we need to re-visit the policy, loosen the height restrictions and actually get some extraordinary buildings downtown.

*That really sounds like a made-up name.

Jack Astor’s and the Urban Vision

Yesterday, the Ottawa Citizen published an op-ed of mine offering measured support for the Lansdowne re-development project. I know it’s a controversial issue in Ottawa, but there was a bit of pushback that I really wasn’t expecting:

There are two points where I mention Jack Astor’s. Here:

Despite assurances of unique boutique retailers, we are getting Winners. And Jack Astor’s. And PetSmart. We are getting establishments that superficially play into the original vision, but demonstrate a lack of understanding of the connections between urban dwellers and their neighbourhood.

And here:

Lansdowne, as a residence, is being marketed as the newest hip urban experience. It aligns nicely with the compositions of the Glebe and Old Ottawa South, while still maintaining its own character — smaller dwellings, no single-family homes. This is not the Winners/Jack Astor’s crowd. The residential development is a good match for small boutique stores. Unfortunately, if the retail mix does not attract the local crowd, it will need a car-heavy commuter class to survive.

I responded noting that I wasn’t objecting to Jack Astor’s, per se, but that it is a part of the overall composition of food and retail stores going into Lansdowne, and that composition is a betrayal of the original plan put forth by OSEG and their partners J.C. Williams (in June of 2010, J.C. Williams claimed that OSEG claimed to have formal interest from many unique boutique retailers). However, my interlocutor was objecting to the specific inclusion of Jack Astor’s:

I’m still unconvinced. Jack Astor’s is a derivative corporate chain with a name that was originally just silly wordplay. It is akin to Boston Pizza, Montana’s and Outback. These are the big box stores of restaurants. Look at the current Ottawa location. The restaurant’s design, as well as the general form that the restaurant takes does not fit with the urban vision of Lansdowne.

We must remember that OSEG (and J.C. Williams) stressed that they were looking to complement the Glebe and Old Ottawa South. The vision of Jack Astor’s (either the Kanata location or their other locations) in no way complements these neighbourhoods. It clashes.

Of course, when talking about Lansdowne, we’re talkinga about a vision, a new urban village. Even if we don’t want to compare it to the long-established urban villages of the Glebe or Old Ottawa South, we could, at least, compare it to Ottawa’s newest hip urban neighbourhood, Hintonburg.

Can anyone reasonably argue that Hintonburg needs a Jack Astor’s, that the chain would, in any way, fit with the vibe of the neighbourhood? I can’t imagine taking any such argument seriously.

Further, I don’t have to make the claim that Jack Astor’s is commonplace in Ottawa. I’m not judging the project by my aesthetics, I’m judging them by the aesthetics laid out by OSEG and J.C. Williams. They’re the ones who said that they would get unique stores rather than chains, but that when they got chains, they would get ones that would then be unique to Ottawa and would fit with the overall concept. Jack Astor’s isn’t unique to Ottawa, even if it is not commonplace, and does not fit with the vision.

In the end, Jack Astor’s is a perfect fit for the types of stores that OSEG has found, stores like PharmaPlus, Winners, GoodLife, Sporting Life and Telus. These are all chains that better fit a suburban shopping model than a walkable urban village.

Perhaps Jack Astor’s will scale back their typical overbearing exterior and create something that will at least look like it fits with the Lansdowne vision. That would be nice. But there is no way to justify their inclusion with the purported vision. Lansdowne is walking a fine line. They’re a part of the Glebe, but trying to set themselves apart. If they go too far, we will see the waste of the land and the erosion of an existing comunity.

A Successful Test

Last week, OSEG had a test-run for RedBlacks fans and TD Place employees. They intent was to welcome the fans, tour the facilities and figure out just how the whole thing was going to work. It was, by all reports, a success. It is clear (and there was never much question) that Jeff Hunt and his cohorts know how to run a sports franchise. It was the development side of things, including transportation, that was a little more worrisome.

Thankfully, the transportation aspect seemed to go smoothly. I wound up on Bank Street at about 5:30 pm. It was noticeably busier–more drivers, more cars parked, more pedestrians–but everything was moving smoothly. Even on my bike, I was able to quickly merge with Bank Street traffic, change lanes and turn onto my street (which has no traffic light).

One interesting development is the effective reduction of Bank Street to one lane. On-street parking is prohibited from 3:30 to 5:30 in the afternoon, and it doesn’t usually fill up right at 5:30, but last week was different. With all the parking (which, note, won’t be available for Friday’s home opener), cars had to occupy the centre lane, exclusively. This meant that straight-through traffic had to co-exist with left-turners and those lost or hunting for a parking spot.

My takeaway from this is that it would not be much of a problem to reduce Bank Street to one lane, expand the sidewalks and add bike lanes.

This would also address the one real issue with the open house, pedestrian traffic. Bank Street sidewalks are too narrow for the current burden of foot traffic. RedBlacks fans will just make it all the more crowded. Complicating matters is that a lot of fans appear to have little idea as to how to walk down and share a busy urban sidewalk. I’ve often noticed that those who don’t walk very much demonstrate little awareness of the pedestrians around them, and this was reinforced last week. But if that’s the worst of the traffic problems, I’ll take it (and, perhaps, it will be a learning experience for a lot of our residents).

There is, of course, a big caveat to all of this. There were only about 10,000 fans in attendance (according to reports, which are likely to overstate things) and we are expecting 27,000 at Friday’s game. In addition, fans did not all arrive for the 6:00 pm opening; they trickled in for hours. This probably won’t be the case Friday. It could complicate things.

How to kill a street

I got a flat this morning. It’s not a huge surprise; my tires are old and worn, and I drive a pothole-filled route to work. Still, it kind of sucks. Getting home may be a challenge, but I have three potential options: I could bus with bike on the front; I could walk my bike home (it’d be long, but rather lovely); finally, I can pump up the tire, hope it’s a slow leak and ride home, pumping as needed. That’s the option I’m going with.

Of course, this means I need a pump (I needed a pump, anyway, so this is no biggie). Working in the west end these days, I wandered over to Canadian Tire during lunch to pick one up. It’s the Canadian Tire on Carling Avenue. It’s relatively new (stress “relatively”), having been constructed at the site of the old Turpin dealership. There are some other store there, and it’s right beside a Boston Pizza.

Approaching these businesses, it became so very apparent–once again–that pedestrians aren’t really wanted. Carling is a horrible place to walk, anyway (cars speeding past going north of 70 or 80 clicks, no buffer between the sidewalk and the right lane of traffic), but these buildings were built facing away from the street.

Parking is in the “rear”, but it’s not really the rear, because that’s where you can enter (actually, I think you can enter from Carling–on my way out, I found a small door that seemed like a fire exit, thankfully it wasn’t, that lead me out to the sidewalk through Canadian Tire’s front garden). The stores are built only for cars and drivers. The stores have literally turned their backs to the street.

I can’t blame the stores or the developers for this (well, I can blame the developers a bit); they’re just responding to incentives. It’s really the city’s fault. The west end around Carling could be a wonderful area. The neighbourhoods are lovely, there are (or were, I moved out a long time ago) some good schools and there is enough commercial property that it’s not just a quite bedroom community.

Unfortunately, by making Carling a six-lane, island-separated road, the city has turned Carling into a thoroughfare. It’s unpleasant for walking or biking, and there’s no real draw for people to be out and about.

Carling really could be much more than that. Reduce the traffic lanes, shorten up the blocks (at least for pedestrians), throw in a bike lane. There are shopping centres and strip malls along the route. There are, in fact, some neat restaurants. It wouldn’t take much to make the street a little more lively.

Instead, it’s a road seen mostly as a blur through a passenger window.

Is OSEG Just Lying?

News came out yesterday that Winners is the newest retailer to set up shop at Lansdowne Park. The groans were inevitable. OSEG and the city have touted Lansdowne as an urban village, a “unique urban village”, but adding Winners to a list of shops that includes PetSmart, GoodLife, Booster Juice and Telus is just more evidence that the vision isn’t so much “urban village” as it is “South Keys North”.

OSEG and the mayor can object to the big box store label (and, perhaps they’re right, they’ll be medium-sized box stores), but they can’t really claim anything unique or village-y about this shopping plaza. So, it really brings us the question, were they just lying?

It is possible that Lansdowne will still resemble something close to an urban village–and I certainly hope it does–but the overall promise is going unfulfilled. Maybe OSEG never planned to make an urban village. Maybe they had no idea whether it was even possible. I should probably assume stupidity rather than malice.

But it reminds me of their treatment of transportation. The travel plan for RedBlacks games hopes for hundreds of cyclists. This is a good development, and they have planned for it, to an extent. They will have 600-1000 spots for supervised bike parking (for special events), and they are installing 300 bike rings throughout the grounds. So, they’re trying… sort of.

If OSEG really wanted people biking to Lansdowne, they wouldn’t handcuff the city when it comes to re-developing Bank Street. As it stands, we may not be able to get rid of on-street parking (thus making actual room for hundreds of cyclists) due to the contract with OSEG.

Further, the travel plan requires parking buses on the Bank Street Bridge, creating a walk-your-bike-zone (which apparently won’t actually be enforced). It’s bad enough that the bridge is unsuited to bicycle traffic (and pedestrian traffic), and the city isn’t doing anything substantive about it, now–on game days–they’re telling people to get off their bikes. And remember, Bank Street is considered a cycling route by the city.

I still have hopes for Lansdowne. I don’t think the obvious mistakes are crippling or irreversible (well, maybe some of them are irreversible). I just hope that the apparent dishonesty is just an appearance.

We shall see.