Kanata North is ready to become more than just big tech

The City of Ottawa hopes a new street grid, connected autonomous shuttles and an injection of residential buildings transforms Kanata North from a technology park into a vibrant 24-hour community.

Official plan calls for 2,000 residential units and more activity in the area dominated by offices

Blackberry QNX's offices in Kanata North are set back from the road by a large surface parking lot. According to the new official plan, it could be replaced with an urban streetscape where employees can grab a coffee, or test their autonomous vehicle technology, as seen in concept art from a city presentation. (CBC News)

Kanata North's landscape is set for a transformation in the next two decades that could see its expansive parking lots replaced with a grid of streets populated by residential buildings and restaurants — and served by autonomous vehicle shuttles.

The technology park, which bills itself as Canada's largest, has been designated a "special economic district" in the City of Ottawa's latest official plan.

That status opens up zoning rules that had restricted what could be built in the area dominated by 1970s office towers — aiming to build a community that will attract talented workers, international investment and allow for experiments with the very technology that's being developed in the towers.

Jamie Petten, CEO of the Kanata North Business Association, said landowners and businesses want to meet the expectations of current employees and future recruits.

"The focus is on building a community that serves every range or generation of talent," she said. 

"What we're missing most obviously is that next generation of early stage talent, those that are coming out of university and looking for that first start in their career."

Jamie Petten, CEO of the Kanata North Business Association, stands near Legget Drive, a test track for autonomous vehicles in the technology park. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Petten said they're looking for shorter commutes, places to build relationships and a life beyond their careers. 

While 28,000 people work at the 540 companies in the tech park today, there are still 1,000 openings on its aggregate jobs board, according to the business association.

Petten said the new community includes the launch of satellite campuses of Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, as well as places where those students will be able to "live, work, play and learn."

2,000 residential units to come

Don Herweyer, the city's director of economic development and long-range planning, said staff recognized there was nowhere nearby for newly recruited tech workers to live and build their community, which led to the opening up of planning rules.

"That's pretty important for a lot of professionals starting their career, so a lot of them were living downtown pre-pandemic and commuting out to Kanata North and that affects these businesses' ability to attract talent," he said.

The Kanata North Special Economic District lays out two areas for densification around future bus rapid transit stations on March Road. (CBC News/Google Earth)

The plan includes 2,000 new residential units at the two transit hubs located along March Road, at Station Road and Terry Fox Drive. Planners expect that density will help provide the customer base for restaurants and shops on the lower levels of condo and apartment buildings.

"To make it more of a real 24-hour place to live, you need that core 1,000 [residential] units in each hub," Herweyer said. 

There's already a proposal for a 30-storey apartment building attached to the Brookstreet Hotel that refers to the new special economic district in its application to the city.

A new development application proposes a 30-storey apartment building next to the Brookstreet Hotel. (CBC News)

Shauna Brail, a University of Toronto professor at the Institute for Management and Innovation, said this kind of loosening of planning rules and focus on intensification is part of a larger trend.

"It is not too late ever, I don't think, to make an effort to reformulate a plan for a district that's already a success," she said.

Toronto made its planning rules more flexible to transform the industrial King and Spadina area into a mixed-use and residential district that attracted thousands of residents, she said.

Brail said some of the elements for Kanata North's new plan line up closely with what Amazon was seeking when it scouted locations for its secondary headquarters. Ottawa was among many North American cities that bid, though Amazong chose New York and northern Virginia

She noted, in particular, the access to highways, an international airport, proximity to universities and a walkable community.

'Place-making' on parking lots

Providing those amenities won't just require changes in building height, but turning sprawling parking lots into a denser grid of streets. 

Herweyer said that change won't be immediate and it also won't be dictated out of the city's planning office. He said landowners and developers may incorporate private streets, sidewalks and pathways into their new projects.

"It's really place-making," he said. "Breaking down these large, massive sites and over time have a finer grid of streets and connections that will connect you to these destinations or transit, or the opportunities to meet or gather."

A connected autonomous vehicle from Carleton University was parked in front of Hub 350 on its opening day last month. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

The recently-opened Hub 350 will be an economic focal point for one neighbourhood where investors and new recruits will interact, and the area around the Brookstreet Hotel presents another opportunity for event and entertainment spaces, Petten said.

She said the new streetscape will also serve as a 5G testing ground for local start-up companies, as well as established players in the park like Nokia, Ericsson and Ciena.

"There's strong interest in creating a walkable community here in the technology park. One that's connected and one that showcases all of the good work that happens here on a daily basis," Petten said.

A key part of that for Petten is establishing a connected autonomous vehicle pilot program within 18 months, with the goal of moving people within the technology park and eventually to and from the future Moodie LRT station.

Legget Drive has already been outfitted with sensors to help autonomous vehicles navigate the test track.

Brail, who teaches urban studies, said using autonomous vehicles and 5G to distinguish Kanata North "makes perfect sense" given the concentration of work that's already being done there.

She said autonomous vehicle testing will be important on a national scale, but warns combining it with intensification and more pedestrian activity could lead to conflict.

"You just as equally have a conflict with a non-autonomous vehicle, it's just that that's a conflict we know," she said.

Put away the 'cookie-cutter' 

The business association said both private and public investment is going to be needed to turn these grandiose concepts into reality.

"Partnerships are key. Ensuring that our existing group of companies here in the park, their executives and landowners and property developers have a strong voice in the future of of what this technology park looks like," Petten said.

A major goal of the special economic district is fostering activity in the technology park after the work day, shown at right in a concept drawing from a City of Ottawa consultation document. (CBC News)

Recently-elected Kanata-Carleton MP Jenna Sudds was part of shepherding this new planning regime through the City of Ottawa's official plan in her role as the city councillor for the area. 

"For me it's about vibrancy," she said.

Sudds said the success of the policy will rest in whether the technology park keeps its buzz after the workday.

To help those changes along, the city is currently consulting on a "community planning permit" pilot project, set to roll out in 2023, that will simplify and speed up development applications. 

Sudds, who was the founding executive director of the business association before being elected councillor, said the new policy will shift the focus from city hall to leadership from the business community and residents.

"This is no longer cookie-cutter policies that every other business park has, but it's an opportunity to go to our community ... to draft what those parameters now are. So the power has definitely shifted in the other direction," Sudds said.

Sudds said the federal government will have a role in funding research in the park, including for autonomous vehicle development.

Brail said the city's work isn't done with this plan and it will need both "champions and critics" as it attracts the investment needed for the transformation.

She cautions there can be growing pains as people move into the neighbourhood and find they have needs that weren't part of the initial plans. 

"The goal is to be proactive, but you also have to be prepared to be reactive," Brail said.

"You need to prepare to do things at the last minute or after the fact."


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