Highrises are coming to an LRT station near you

LRT isn't just how people will get around Ottawa. It's where many of them will live. The city is marshalling development toward the 41 stations that will exist by the time Stage 2 is finished in 2025, but not everyone's on board.

The city wants people to be near public transit, but do Ottawans really want to live in the sky?

Sheena O'Donaghue lives in a new, high-end apartment building that retail operator RioCan built on its property overlooking Blair station. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Sheena O'Donaghue has moved into Ottawa's future.

O'Donaghue rents a two-bedroom apartment steps from the Blair light rail station. The new 23-storey building sits on what was a retail strip until owner Riocan started turning its aging shopping malls into tower developments.

"I never wanted to live in a multi-storey. I was quite against it," she said.

But O'Donaghue soon realized she liked the light pouring through her apartment windows. In pre-COVID days, she hopped on the LRT for a quick ride to see friends on her old downtown stomping grounds. Her big dog named Chester isn't even a problem — her building welcomes dogs.

Her husband, meanwhile, can keep an eye on the LRT from his window, and walk two minutes to his job as a train operator.

RioCan Living and Killam Apartment Real Estate Investment Trust have built a 23-storey apartment at Riocan's SilverCity Gloucester Shopping Centre beside the Blair LRT station. They have another three towers planned. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

City council debates this month whether to add rural land for future subdivisions, but the flip side to staff calculations means Ottawa needs more intensification like this: rebuilding on underused properties, and directing development to 41 stations that will exist by the time Stage 2 is scheduled to be finished in 2025.

A staggering number of towers is already proposed or approved up and down lines 1 and 2, bringing tens of thousands of people to live, like O'Donaghue, within a short walk of light rail.

'Sleepy' areas waking up

"Transit-oriented development" is one way the city hopes to house some of the 400,000 more people it expects will live here by 2046. City staff are calling for the existing urban areas to absorb some 92,000 of the expected households, nearly half of which would be in apartments.

And while COVID-19 might have some residents wondering if they want to live packed together, neither city staff nor councillors see the pandemic fundamentally changing the way people live or travel in the long term. 

Developers were in the LRT game years before the trains started rolling. They bought land and started rezoning parcels for towers far higher than any Ottawa has seen.

Council approved 65- and 56-storey towers beside Bayview station, the city's tallest buildings yet. Westboro has been in the thick of it, absorbing new fourplexes and a string of towers on Scott Street near Westboro station.

The phenomenon is spreading. Three apartment towers of up to 36 storeys and a hotel are proposed near Cyrville station. That area currently has just 35 people per hectare instead of the city's population density goal of 200.

When Stage 2 of Ottawa's light rail system is complete, there will be 41 station in all. The city is encouraging dense development around transit. (City of Ottawa)

The LRT is ushering in change to other old areas within the Greenbelt, too. Coun. Theresa Kavanagh expects her Bay ward to become the "next Westboro."

"Bay ward's been kind of sleepy for a long time. There hasn't been much new development at all — no new apartments, no new condos," Kavanagh noted.

Her ward will see seven new LRT stations, and they will bring intensification that will shock some residents, she predicts.

Tower plan 'completely bonkers'

For instance, two highrises could crop up on a patch of land beside Bayshore Shopping Centre and its future LRT station.

"All of the ingredients are there for this kind of development," explained Lloyd Phillips, the planner representing the shopping mall's owners, KingSett Capital and Ivanhoé Cambridge, which have filed a development application with the city.

But the people who live nearby say the project imposes too much change, too quickly.

Just before the COVID-19 lockdown began, Suzette Guo and Jean-Christophe Huot went to an empty store on the mall's third floor to hear Phillips's pitch at a public meeting.

Suzette Guo, right, and Jean-Christophe Huot, left, escaped the highrise life in Toronto and bought a single-family home near Bayshore Shopping Centre, only to learn the mall's owners want to build two 30-storey towers. (Kate Porter/CBC)

The couple lived the highrise life in Toronto, but left for Ottawa and now own a single-family home nearby.

"The proposed plan just brought us back flashbacks of the life we were trying to escape," Guo said.

"They are assuming 80 per cent of the people will not have a car, or will take the LRT most of the time, which is completely bonkers," Huot added.

The couple feels density makes more sense downtown, where people expect towers to be.

"You can't just pop up big buildings everywhere and expect things to be fine," Huot said.

Money for pools, libraries

Councillors, too, say communities need more than transit to make a neighbourhood livable.

Bay ward has no recreation centre, Kavanagh pointed out. Facilities in older parts of the city are aging or overcrowded. If thousands more people move in, the city will need to spend money on more libraries, pools and even bylaw officers, downtown councillors argue.

The Plant Recreation Centre in Ottawa's Little Italy is a busy spot that will only become busier as intensification adds residents, downtown councillors argue. They'd like to see the city spend more to upgrade or add amenities in older areas. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

"I'm worried that intensification is going to be thoughtless," said Coun. Jeff Leiper, whose Kitchissippi ward is already seeing infill developments and tower projects.

"The zoning is easy. It really doesn't cost the city any money to allow greater numbers of people to live in any given neighborhood. The hard part — where I am increasingly cynical — is all that stuff that's going to cost the money."

No sea of highrises

Tall buildings might be strategically located on LRT, but Ottawa's chief planner says people should expect most of the needed density to be spread across triplexes, townhouses and 12-unit apartment buildings in every part of the city, much like in Montreal.

"I don't think we're heading down the path that Toronto and Vancouver are going, where you see a sea of highrise towers," said Steve Willis, general manager of planning, infrastructure and economic development.

"That's not Ottawa. That's not what people want."

Sheena O'Donaghue is surprised by how much she's enjoyed living in a new apartment building overlooking the Blair LRT station. Her dog Chester is a conversation-starter with neighbours. (Francis Ferland, CBC)

For Sheena O'Donaghue, life above the LRT works. When the pandemic is over, she and her husband will hunt for a new condo using the LRT map as their guide, and they will look as far as buildings overlooking the Ottawa River near Petrie Island and Trim Station.

"I didn't really want to live in suburbia, but as long as it's within 15 minutes to get me where I want to go, then I'm pretty open," O'Donaghue said.


Kate Porter


Kate Porter covers municipal affairs for CBC Ottawa. Over the past two decades, she has also produced in-depth reports for radio, web and TV, regularly presented the radio news, and covered the arts beat.

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