Analysis

Is community planning a waste of time?

Catherine Boucher went to the planning committee this week "to ask whether the community was lied to by the city" when she and her neighours worked diligently for hours on a plan for intensifying her community. It's a question many communities will be asking themselves after council this week voted 16 to 5 in favour of Trinity Group's proposal for 900 Albert St.

Mayor Jim Watson promised certainty in planning last term — now he appears to have changed his mind

Council's approval of a development at 900 Albert St. that is more than double the height that the community plan calls for has residents wondering if they've been lied to. (Courtesy GGLO Design)

Between public meetings, poring over documents and debating with her own community association colleagues, Catherine Boucher figures she spent upwards of 20 hours participating in a process to come up with a plan for her urban community to intensify with the coming of light rail.

All those volunteer hours were worth it, thought Boucher. That work — a result of consultations between community members, landowners — resulted in the Bayview Community Design Plan (CDP), a sort of blueprint for the neighbourhoods near the transit station of the same name. 

Even better, that community vision was turned into a secondary plan, which is an official city document with more teeth than a mere CDP and approved by council in 2013. That policy called for maximum heights of 30 storeys around Bayview Station. The process cost $110,000, not including city staff's time, or the unpaid hours of community participants.

Not about intensification

So when the city's planning staff recently recommended councillors endorse a plan calling for three towers — one at 57 storeys and another at a staggering 65 — Boucher understandably wanted to know what went wrong.
Resident Catherine Boucher speaks against the plan for 900 Albert St. at this week's planning committee. (Joanne Chianello/CBC )

She went to the planning committee this week "to ask whether the community was lied to by the city when we worked diligently on a CDP and secondary plan for this very area."

It's an excellent question. And one which many communities who are either involved in, or pushing for, their own community plans will be asking themselves after council this week voted 16 to 5 in favour of Trinity Group's proposal for 900 Albert St.

There are valid reasons for community members to have expected that 30-storey limit to stick. 

First, unlike older plans, the Bayview secondary plan was written and approved after the LRT was a reality. It takes into consideration the need for intensification near rapid transit. In fact, Trinity's plan for tall towers adds no additional density to the area: the towers have the same density as 30 squat storeys. They've just been rearranged into skinny ones twice the height.  

Mayor Jim Watson defends council's decision to approve a 65-storey tower on Albert Street, given the demand for rental properties and the pending arrival of light rail. 0:36

Mayor Jim Watson's claim this week that we need intensification at LRT stations "because if we don't grow up, you have to grow out," is true. It's also beside the point. This wasn't an argument between urban density and sprawl, it was about what form the same density is going to take.

Mayor promised certainty in planning

Second, the community was expecting certainty in its plan because that's what the mayor promised them.

In a 2012 speech at a city-wide "planning summit," Watson told the crowd that "we need greater predictability and certainty when it comes to development in our city." In particular, he went on, the city "needs to be ensuring that development applications are not completely out of character with the neighbourhoods. Our official plan and zoning bylaws have to mean something."

And this: "There are just too many surprises that upset local neighbourhoods when zoning changes."

Watson's message this week is a little different.

"These things are not cast in stone," the mayor said when asked about his earlier promises. "Circumstances change."

Official plan vs. secondary plan

It's important to note that while the official plan is an overarching vision for how and where the city should grow, a secondary plan focuses on those areas of intensification to establish an even more refined vision. In fact, a secondary plan is not only part of the official plan, but generally supercedes it when the two conflict.

So, again, how did 65 storeys get approved if it talks about 30 storeys in the secondary plan?

High-Rise 30+ buildings will only be permitted where they are identified in a secondary plan.- Official Plan Amendment 150 (OPA150)

At the planning committee and council meetings this week, there was a lot of talk about OPA150, which stands for Official Plan Amendment 150. To hear some officials, you'd think that OPA150 has tied the hands of all councillors who barely had a choice but to vote for the 65-storey tower.

When reporters pressed Watson about why council ignored the Bayview secondary plan, the mayor said "because OPA150 envisions taller buildings in this area. OPA is the bible that we follow. Staff have given us an indication that this is perfectly acceptable."

Here are the facts about OPA150. It updates the earlier planning vision for the city, which didn't really anticipate really tall towers in Ottawa. The amendment makes a distinction between high-rises between 10 and 20 storeys, and those that are more than 30. 

But here's what is says about secondary plans: "High-Rise 30+ buildings will only be permitted where they are identified in a secondary plan."

To be clear, OPA150  in no way supercedes the secondary plan. It's there in black and white. And, as an additional kicker, large parts of OPA150 are under appeal and hence not in force yet.

So how did council deal with this inconstancy? When it voted in favour of the development, it also voted to change the secondary plan. 

That council could so easily override its own policies has shocked some residents. And whether it's allowed may be a subject of debate for the province's newly minted Land Planning Appeals Tribunal, as the Dalhousie Community Association is considering whether to contest council's decision.

Council needs to own its decision

There are arguments to be made in favour of the 65-storey skyscraper: that it will help establish a skyline in an area of town that is set to see a lot of construction in coming years; that, in the words of one city planner, the tower is "a more elegant representation of intensification"; and that others had looked at developing the odd piece of land before and couldn't make it work before now.

But at the very least, the council members who voted in favour of the plan have to acknowledge that they're going with the developer's vision over the one the community spent many hours formulating.

Given that reality, why would anyone give up their personal time to engage in a civic process that can be so easily ignored?

As a rationale for voting in favour of the development, Watson repeated that "any proponent is allowed to bring forward a proposal that may be different from a secondary plan."

They certainly do. But there is nothing forcing council to say yes. 

Mayor Jim Watson says the city has to look at submitted proposals, adding the plan for 900 Albert is at one of the city's key junctions. 0:32

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.