Neighbourhoods await changes to key city-building plan
Ottawa is writing a new official plan from scratch for the first time since 2003
The City of Ottawa is rewriting parts of its city-building blueprint after a deluge of feedback from residents concerned their neighbourhoods could be made unrecognizable in the decades to come.
The official plan is one of the most important legal documents that elected officials are called upon to approve. It has long-lasting implications for what is built where. Council is set to vote this fall on the first new official plan for this city in two decades.
But a long, complicated first draft led an unprecedented number of people to write the city. Many feared older neighbourhoods would see four times more housing units, and houses on busier streets would make way for rows of six-storey buildings.
A coalition of community groups called the People's Official Plan fully supports compact city building as a way to curb greenhouse gas emissions and build vibrant neighbourhoods. But it worries this official plan could fail if city staff and politicians can't make the case for how and where to create the 15-minute neighbourhoods they want.
"Right now, it's just this dark cloud saying, 'We shall intensify somewhere between Britannia and Beacon Hill,'" said Paul Johanis .
Alta Vista alarmed
City staff are poised to pull back on a few especially contentious points. The city recently posted two dozen pages of answers to residents' questions, and will soon release another report about what they heard.
Coun. Jean Cloutier said the draft was neither final nor perfect.
"There are a lot things in there that need to change," he said.
His residents in Alta Vista, Ottawa's original suburb, were especially disquieted and vocal. Some 500 attended a video meeting in March, wanting to know more about how neighbourhoods will transform.
"People are raising concerns because they don't understand what's going to happen," said Pauline Comeau, who spent weeks trying to figure out technical official plan documents. She said she wishes the city had communicated more broadly — she delivered hundreds of pamphlets to neighbours to point them to the city's information.
Council approved goals a year ago to house half of its growing population by intensifying existing neighbourhoods. According to the draft plan, a vast area from Britannia in the west to Blair Road in the east will be considered "inner urban."
In some of those areas, the city stated 80 units per hectare would be required — Alta Vista averages about 20 homes per hectare — and if a property owner rebuilt, they would have to put four units on the lot.
City staff declined an interview, but Cloutier said that density mandate will now become a target, and people will be allowed to rebuild a single-family home. The city is listening, he said.
"Since then we've pulled up our socks as the city and done a little bit better," said Cloutier.
Final report in mid-summer
Concerns came from many other quarters. Seven community associations including such demographically diverse neighbourhoods as Vanier and Rockcliffe Park wrote to the city for the first time as one voice.
That area east of downtown said the city needs neighbourhood-level plans that consider the community centres and trees that fill social as well as physical needs. They said the city shouldn't underestimate the unknown impacts the pandemic will have on where people will live and work.
The Council on Aging of Ottawa sees good things in the draft plan but worries it falls short on planning for accessibility, especially during winter. The city needs to encourage housing options so older adults can downsize in their own communities instead of being forced to move to multi-unit buildings planned around transit stations, they said.
"I think we're a little bit of an afterthought," said Miriam Fry, a volunteer chair.
Many are eager to see changes to the final official plan, which is due mid-summer. Johanis said the document needs more time, but credits city staff for doing their best given council's decision to approve it before the 2022 election.
Cloutier said he still believes Ottawa has the right vision for how to grow, while maintaining the character of its neighbourhoods, and said residents can expect to have more say before a vote in September.