Ottawa·Analysis

Onward and upward: Here's the lowdown on Ottawa's increasingly high hopes

In a single meeting, Ottawa city council is set to give the green light to 11 rezoning applications that will dramatically change the city's skyline. But is this really a skyscraper sort of city? No one really asked.

Highrises up for approval Wednesday would be among city's tallest, including one for 65 storeys

Council is set to vote on 365 storeys of development along Albert Street at its meeting Wednesday. (CBC)

In a single meeting Wednesday, Ottawa city council is set to approve three rezoning applications that could add 350 storeys and 11 new buildings along what's now a mostly desolate one-kilometre stretch of Albert Street. It's an unprecedented orgy of city building that will render the urban landscape just west of downtown unrecognizable.

The most notable of these dramatic alterations to the skyline may be Trinity Group's proposal for 900 Albert St., across from the Bayview LRT station. A single tower comes in at a record-smashing 65 storeys, more than double any existing building in Ottawa today. This application has to get the green light at Tuesday's planning committee before moving along to council the next day.

​The other two developments have already been approved at planning, and now just need council's stamp of approval.

The city wants to rezone the new central library site, just west of Bronson Avenue, for 12 storeys. The two parcels of land immediately to the west are owned by the National Capital Commission, and were rezoned as part of the same application for 25 storeys each.

Claridge's plans for East Flats would include five residential towers, one of which would be 45 storeys, and a park system. It's still unclear who would pay for the park.

Tucked in behind that linear library-NCC stretch of land is a project that's become know at the East Flats, where Claridge Homes plans five highrises — one soaring to 45 storeys — and opens out onto the Booth Street bridge.

What's the problem with height, anyway?

This week's tall towers decisions have some asking if Ottawa is really a 65-storey sort of town.

For more than a decade, the tallest building in Ottawa has been Westboro's 32-storey Metropole condo tower, soon to be outdone by the 45-storey Icon tower Claridge is now building in Little Italy.

Mayor Jim Watson had promised residents certainty in planning, and we certainly don't have that.

Are we really ready to go even higher? Who knows? Nobody has asked.

There have been no formal planning discussions contemplating the wisdom of the cluster of towers council is poised to approve. Council is reacting to developers' proposals instead of asking them to innovate within the bounds set out by the city.

Maybe there's nothing wrong with that. Still, Mayor Jim Watson had promised residents certainty in planning, and we certainly don't have that. Consider that a formal design plan, already approved by council in 2013, called for maximum heights of 30 storeys for 900 Albert. Those painstakingly crafted plans are now being ignored with impunity.
(Courtesy: Google)

Vertical subdivisions

And here's a simple question: Do people actually want to live in these tall towers?

The evidence so far suggests ambivalence at best. Claridge's 45-storey Icon has been in development for years, but is barely half sold, according to the project's own website. Like many North American cities with little history of families raising kids in apartments, we appear attached to our single-family home culture. Ottawa's population at end of 2016 reached nearly 970,000, and most of the recent growth was outside the Greenbelt.

So what is the city doing to attract people to these downtown towers?

Of course, there's the massive investment in the transit system, used as a rationale for any amount of development you have to crane your neck to see. But transit is extending into the suburbs, so it balances out.

And where's the social and public planning for these developments? As Michael Powell, president of the Dalhousie Community Association, put it regarding 900 Albert, the city is approving a "vertical subdivision" without the amenities that go into a traditional suburban development.

Where are the amenities?

Consider the contrast: at its Tuesday meeting, the planning committee will review a new subdivision for Stittsville. The planned 400 detached home and 350 townhomes will come with "three parks, a school site and a stormwater management pond."

In other words, future public amenities like parks and a school are clearly identified to match the residential growth. Yet council is set to approve 3,000 homes for the Albert Street area at its Wednesday meeting, and there are no specifics about where any community centre, new school, or parks will go. The proposal for East Flats includes vague plans for a linear park, but it hasn't been funded.

On the western portion of LeBreton Flats, the RendezVous LeBreton consortium, which headed by the Senators and Trinity, offer mere generalities.
RendezVous LeBreton's project is promising green space and community amenities, but the it's far from a done deal. (Image supplied by RendezVous LeBreton Group)

The centrepiece of their vision is a new NHL arena, but RendezVous also has plans for significant green space, a community centre catering to those with disabilities, and a French public school. All laudable goals — but far from a done deal.

The pattern forming for this key parcel of downtown looks like this: the developers drive the change while the city planners get pulled along in their slipstream.

How high does Ottawa really want to climb? How will the amenities taken for granted in the suburbs be added where verticality defines new neighbourhoods? These are questions being asked too late for the answers to matter.

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.