Wellington West and the problem with marginal improvements

On Friday, Bridgehead–supposed social justice advocates of the coffee industry–came out very strongly against bike (and street) (and pedestrian) safety. As the city works to improve safety along Beechwood, including implementing bike lanes, Bridgehead decided that the threat to the parking across the street (not to the street parking in front of their business, nor their parking lot) was just too much.

They failed to mention that the proposed re-development of Beechwood would lead to a net increase in on-street parking, but I digress…

Here’s their position:


Bridgehead eventually apologized, though they stuck with their “better balance” argument.

But this isn’t just an issue with a company stepping in it, or with people feeling it’s okay to put cyclists (and pedestrians) (and other motorists) in peril in order to prioritize parking (even if it’s not proven to be a wise economic choice). No, this is also an issue in which a bare minimum attempt to make our streets safer can be used as a rhetorical tool to try to block actual, concrete improvements to our city.

The Wellington West Dooring Zone project is an interesting idea, academically-speaking. Though we know that sharrows, alone, have a deleterious effect on safety, it is possible that including a painted dooring zone (for all the well-deserved scorn it has received) may be a marginal improvement over the status quo.

But, in the end, we know that paint isn’t really infrastructure. We know that the best way to improve bicycle safety (and get more people out on bikes!) is to build segregated bike lanes.

Forget talk about the perfect being the enemy of the good. What we have just seen is Bridgehead making the possibly-not-totally-horrible the enemy of the good. In this situation, the city has created an absurdly low expectation for bicycle (and street) (and pedestrian) safety.

I was open to the Wellington West project. I didn’t want to pre-judge it. I wanted to wait until the research was in before passing judgement. However, if it is going to be used to block other safety improvement efforts, I won’t care what little benefit it might have. We shouldn’t tolerate such half measures.

A bad day for cyclists

Do you want to hear a funny story? A couple of months ago, I wrote an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen arguing that the city is not doing enough to keep cyclists safe. It was planned out a few days in advance to be a part of the new re-branded paper. As the publication day approached, a bit of irony almost befell me. I was riding home along Prince of Wales, in the bike lane. Traffic was pretty busy, and often that means that drivers will pull their cars into the bike lane in order to… I don’t… be assholes, or something. So whenever it’s busy, I make sure to go a bit slower and keep my hands ready for braking.

And, wouldn’t you know it, someone pulled into the bike lane. They weren’t going to go anywhere, I guess they just wanted to get a better look at all the bumpers ahead of them. I didn’t get hit, but I thought how I’d have the “best” bio ever on an op-ed about cycling safety:

Jonathan McLeod was an Ottawa-based writer who killed by a driver.

It would have been a poignant, if unwanted, end to the op-ed.

Anyway, yesterday Prince of Wales was pretty busy again. No one actually drove into me, but a number of people where veering onto the magical painted line that somehow gives cyclists super protection for two-tonne death machines. As I turned the corner, I saw a car in the bike lane… a cop car, lights flashing. It happened around here. You can clearly see the bike lane.

It appears that there was an incident of sorts between a cyclist and a minivan. It didn’t seem like anyone was hurt, thankfully.

I was chatting with a local newspaper editor about it, and he noted that there’d likely be no press release from the cops because no one was hurt, so it likely wouldn’t get much (if any) press. This isn’t really a surprise. Collisions between cars and bikes happen with alarming frequency, but don’t get reported a whole lot.

As I was chatting with the editor, I learned that there was another incident on the evening commute. Along Wellington West, a cyclist was doored in heavy traffic. Here’s a tweet:

It should be obvious that the man in the LTD Landscaping truck almost killed the cyclist. It should also be clear that he committed a crime. There’s no real grey area here. Dooring is a crime. Here’s the response:

Look, I get that the cops can’t be everywhere and police everything, but a man was almost killed. Perhaps the authorities (cops, city councillors, city planners, etc.) should do <i>something</i>, rather than waiting on someone to report this.

Oh, and Wellington West is considered a bike-friendly area. Yeah.

Making a Decision and Sticking to it: the Essence of Uncertainty

So the sad tale of the Mizrahi development in Wellington West continues*. The Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) are getting pissy with the city. They don’t like the Ottawa’s official plan, nor the planning decisions that emanate from it, and they’re threatening to take the city to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB)*.

First, they don’t like that the plan isn’t the same as previous policies. Arguing, I would imagine, that democratically-elected representatives should not have the power to represent the interests of constituents:

The group said that the plan, adopted at the end of November, doesn’t give developers enough flexibility when it comes to the height and appearance of buildings.
“If you study the official plan, you’ll see that it’s quite different from the last couple,” said Dean Karakasis, executive director of BOMA Ottawa. “It’s very prescriptive.”

Well, that’s pretty understandable. The city is beginning to take planning and development seriously, enacting Community Design Plans (CDPs) and refraining from rubber-stamping any requests from developers to break them.

The argument is merit-less, but at least it is coherent. What is less coherent is the following claim:

“This won’t create certainty – this will create confusion,” he said.

According to Mr. Karakasis, the recent debate over a condo development on Wellington Street West that was rejected by the city’s planning committee despite widespread community support is a good example of how “sometimes you try and provide certainty, but it goes against what people want.”

First of all, there is little evidence that there widespread community support. The Wellington West Community Association was against it. Many residents wrote to their councilor arguing against it. What there was was a small number of people who attended a work day meeting of the planning committee who spoke in favour of it (and not all were members of the neighbourhood). Some of the speakers were only in favour of the proposal because they were worried the property would never be developed (Mizrahi now claims to be able to build an economically-feasible nine-storey building).

The CDP was developed through an extensive process that gave residents ample opportunity to contribute. It is far more reasonable to claim that there was widespread support for the CDP.

But since Mr. Karakasis claims the Wellington West saga demonstrates the uncertainty facing developers, let’s remember what actually went on:

  • Two years ago, the city instituted a CDP for Wellington West.
  • A year ago, Mizrahi bought the property on Island Park Drive knowing what was in the CDP (if they didn’t know, it makes the whole argument mute–they weren’t confused; they were oblivious).
  • Mizrahi made a proposal for a 12-storey tower.
  • The city rejected it, as it did not adhere to the nine-storey limit established by the CDP.
  • Mizrahi made a second proposal… for a 12-storey twoer
  • The city rejected it, as it did not adhere to the nine-storey limit established by the CDP.

Say what you will about the city’s decision, there was never really any confusion about their policy.

*I never want to write about this issue again.

**If this complaint goes through to the OMB, it will just be further evidence that the OMB needs to be abolished. Council is elected and Council is responsible and answerable to the residents. The OMB is not. It’s gross that they get to trample on democracy.

Sad Developer is Sad

The sad* tale of Mizrahi vs. the Wellington West Community Design Plan has reached the commiseration phase.
Mizrahi, who sought to build a 12-storey tower in a community with a height restriction of nine storeys (well, actually it’s six, but there’s a special exemption for contaminated land increasing it to nine), are now sad/resentful/hurt because they claim they had no idea the community association would oppose their over-sized development. In fact, they were sure the community association would approve it:

In an October 2013 letter to Mizrahi, the community association said development should conform to the community’s newly-minted CDP. They reiterated that view in January, citing a “strong preference” that Mizrahi’s proposal stay within the CDP’s prescribed height limits. But the October letter also said the community association would not oppose the development prior to the application if Mizrahi adhered to a list of requests and concerns.

Mizrahi said he fulfilled those commitments and met with the association to confirm their non-opposition two weeks before planning committee, before submitting a revised application to the city.

“They stood firm on their position that they were not going to oppose, and they stood by their letter,” he said. “Based on those representations, we went ahead and we moved forward.”

The community association president doesn’t agree with this interpretation, and though it is quite possible that there was some honest mis-communication between the two (or duplicitous backstabbing by the nefarious community association), I’m disinclined to believe Mizrahi’s tale.

First, the timeline just doesn’t fit. Mizrahi has made two proposals to the city, both featuring a 12-storey tower and both rejected. They are not clear as to when they sought the community associations approval (and the story does not state when they purchased the land). It sounds like they worked with the community association in October, after their initial rejection. They also state that they have been working on the project for a year…but they claim they would not have bought the land had they known the community association would object to the height.

So how does that work? They get the land a year ago. They get rejected. Then they talk to the community association? And now they claim that it was upon that communication that they decided to buy the land? Either the situation isn’t being reported properly, or Mizrahi is just flailing around. I’ll guess the latter.

Regardless of their understanding of the community association’s position, Mizrahi still decided to push ahead (twice!) with a plan they knew full-well contravened the CDP. They had to have known that they were gambling on council agreeing to violate the CDP. It doesn’t matter what the community association wants; they’re not an authoritative body and they don’t have the power, alone, to override the CDP.

Mizrahi, after threatening to take their ball to the OMB, is now suggesting they will build a CDP-compliant nine-storey mix-use commercial/retail building. This plan puts the lie to their argument that it was not economically feasible to develop anything shorter than 12 storeys on the property.

I’m really not sure why they should have any credibility at all.

*It’s not really sad… it’s really just pathetic.

Support for Mizrahi Development?

Mizrahi Development’s application to build a 12-storey tower in Wellington West (which I’ve written abouttwice) is up for discussion at City Hall today. City planners have suggested that the application be rejected. It contravenes the Community Development Plan (CDP), which limits development to six storeys, and it even contravenes the special allowance for building up to nine storeys.

Interestingly, a number of residents have shown up to voice their support in favour of the development. This doesn’t really happen too often. Generally, people don’t want giant condos going into their neighbourhoods, but these residents argue that it’s a nice building, that Mizrahi has been very responsive and engaging with the community, and that the property is derelict and it really needs to be developed. They put forth a valid argument in favour of the development, and the anti-NIMBYism is a refreshing change.

But they’re still wrong. Continue reading

Going Back to Six? Mizrahi Developments, Design Plans and Environmental Clean UP

Here’s an update from Kitchissipi Ward candidate Jeff Leiper on the matter of Mizrahi Developments seeking a zoning exemption to allow them to build a 12-storey tower on “brownfield” land in Wellington West:

On May 6, Councillor Katherine Hobbs will bring to the City’s finance committee her motion to pay 100% of the cleanup costs for Toronto developer Mizrahi’s proposed Island Park/Richmond building (report attached below). The developer already has the Councillor’s enthusiastic support to exceed the height limit on the property that was recently established in the West Wellington Community Design Plan. Now, she’s asking Ottawa taxpayers to sweeten the pot for no particularly good reason.

Looking past the (perhaps valid) electioneering, Mr. Leiper highlights a potentially distrubing development. The properties upon which Mizrahi is looking to build are contaminated. Under the current brownfields policy, the city will pay 50% of cost of the clean up (and Mizrahi will get an exemption to exceed the Community Design Plan limit of six storeys, allowing them to build up to nine storeys).

Mr. Leiper notes that Ms. Hobbes’s motion does not stipulate that Mizrahi will have to adhere to the CDP. This would appear to be a giant give-away; the city would pay for all the clean up, and Mizrahi would build an undesirably tall building (according to the CDP).

Thankfully, when asked, Ms. Hobbes clarified:

This doesn’t make it a good idea–and it’s not a good precedent to set, changing zoning laws during the application process–but it might turn out to be a reasonable compromise.