Ottawa

How one apartment complex has become a microcosm of the urban boundary debate

The conversation around a proposed four-storey apartment in Bay ward took on broader meaning last week, as it occurred just days after 20 hours of discussion on how this city should grow over the next two decades.

Councillors continue their 3rd day of the debate on Tuesday

Developers want to build a four-storey, 30-unit apartment complex on an oddly shaped piece of land on a residential street off Carling Avenue — and it's taken on greater significance given the larger debate over the city's urban boundary. (Google Streetview)

There's nothing particularly surprising about the fact a developer wants to build a four-storey, 30-unit apartment building in a residential Ottawa neighbourhood.

Nor is it shocking that the community opposes at least parts of the plan, which would see a 12-metre high complex built on Grenon Avenue, just east of the Bayshore Shopping Centre. The project would first require rezoning to allow more intensification on the property, and then an exception to that new zoning so it can be built closer to the lot line than usually permitted.

"This application is an effort on the part of the group of investors to exploit a unique and small land parcel in question to its maximum, without having to observe the rules of rezoning and construction," said Lisa Zanyk, a resident living next door, at the city's planning committee last Thursday.

She's not wrong. The community was being asked not only to accept intensification — which delegates said they did not object to — but also to accept exceptions to the rules of that intensification.

But without an exemption, argue the developers, a housing complex wouldn't be feasible as it would only be six metres wide at one end.

It's a familiar quandary for the planning committee: should they uphold the agreed-upon rules, or grant an exception to fulfil the broader goal of intensification?  But this particular conversation took on broader meaning, as it occurred just days after 20 hours of discussion on how Ottawa should grow over the next two decades — a debate on the urban boundary that continues Tuesday for the third day.

And, oddly, it's an example that could be used by both sides.

Ottawa's urban boundary (CBC)

Once-in-a-decade policy decision

This month, council will decide how to house the additional 400,000 residents forecasted to be living in Ottawa by 2046.

The city recommends adding 1,650 hectares to the suburbs — of the 91,000 new homes that will be needed, the city wants almost half to be apartments, but also envisions 23,000 homes in what are now rural areas. Thousands of other homes also need to be squeezed into existing neighbourhoods, ones just like Grenon Avenue.

There appears to be intense interest in this debate, as councillors heard from 100 public delegations last week.

A number of environmental activists, community associations and other non-profits made appeals to hold the line on the urban boundary, positing that many residents are in favour of intensification if it's done well and in conjunction with the community.

Many in the home-building business, meanwhile, called for even more land be made available. One of their key arguments? There's too much community opposition to the intensification that would be needed by not expanding the boundary.

There are already more than 66,000 suburban homes in the works. City staff proposed allowing an extra 23,300 homes at the fringes of the suburbs by 2046. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Grenon complex becomes microcosm

Developers could point to the Grenon Avenue project as a case in point.

In this project, the property owners — a firm called Building Investments Inc. — reduced the number of proposed units from 34 to 30, and moved all planned surface parking underground.

Staff support the proposal in its current form, and capped the maximum height at 12 metres. (Zoning for four-storey apartments actually allows heights of about 14 metres.)

There's a three-storey townhome complex next to the site, and a highrise just down the street, so proponents say a four-storey complex should be considered reasonable infill.

But the fact some community members opposed it will surely be used by those who argue intensification is too controversial — and hence the urban boundary should be expanded.

Earlier this month, Ecology Ottawa held an online rally to hold the urban boundary where it is. Community and other non-profit groups told councillors they don't want city sprawl, calling instead for well-planned intensification. (Provided by Ecology Ottawa)

Up to council to uphold vision 

Those who want little or even no expansion, however, can also use the Grenon example to bolster their argument. And many councillors on the planning committee did just that.

"If not here, where does this go?" asked Innes Coun. Laura Dudas.

Councillors conceded that the complex, which would be built on largely open land, would be a significant change for the street's residents. Next-door-neighbours, for example, will be subjected to a long, tall wall once it's built — an unpleasant prospect.

The residents of Kitchissippi are keen to see that they're not the only ward in which intensification is going to happen.- Coun. Jeff Leiper

But planning committee members spoke in favour of intensification, despite the challenges.

"The residents of Kitchissippi are keen to see that they're not the only ward in which intensification is going to happen," said Coun. Jeff Leiper, whose own ward has recently experienced a big jump in density relative to other areas of the city.

"They want it to happen everywhere around the city. We know that this pressure is going to be coming to the wards beyond just the downtown."

Rideau-Goulbourn Coun. Scott Moffatt, however, said these sorts of imperfect proposals must be considered if the city is "to achieve our intensification targets."

"There's difficulty when we implement this type of stuff, and that's what we're going to see," Moffatt said. "We've seen it already and we're going to see more of it as we as we move forward with our official plan."

It's a topic that will surely be discussed in more detail Tuesday, when councillors pepper staff with questions about urban growth, debate motions for everything from protected farmland to demands for more information, and vote on once-in-a-decade policy.

As for the Grenon Avenue project: the planning committee unanimously approved it.

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