Ottawa·Analysis

Bayview school site debate shows bureaucratese undermining public consultation

Riverside Park residents spoke out at Tuesday's finance and economic development committee against a revised plan for the former Bayview school site that now suddenly includes small-scale retail and commercial uses.

Residents say they were never consulted about commercial use changes

An aerial view of the former Bayview school site in Ottawa's Riverside Park neighbourhood. (Google Maps)

The residents of Riverside Park have been blindsided twice this year by plans hatched behind closed doors. 

First it was a "surprise" $2-million playground being installed at Mooney's Bay.

Now, directly across the road, the former Bayview school site may be redeveloped to include small-scale retail and commercial uses. That's in direct contradiction to a council-approved 2009 concept plan.

The top bidder wants to build what sounds like a two-storey strip mall along Riverside Drive, with commercial on the bottom and apartments on top — an option no one had ever mentioned during the many months of public consultation for the site. 

Residents weren't happy, and about a half-dozen made the trek to Tuesday's finance and economic development committee to say so.

There needs to be a chance for the community members to come out in an evening and voice their concerns about this change that was done very sneakily.- Ravi Singh, Riverside Park resident

"The concept plan was a disappointment. And I don't think they followed the community consultation that was done in 2009," said Craig Searle, vice-president of Riverside Park Recreation and Community Association.

Searle was part of a visioning exercise back in 2009 when, as he said, "the community was against commercial and retail."

'Not something I've ever advocated for'

Ravi Singh moved to the neighbourhood in 2014 and lives next to the Bayview property. Unlike some of his neighbours, he's not automatically against commercial uses for the site. But he's alarmed that the public only found out about the changes to the original concept plan a week ago, meaning many people couldn't come to Tuesday's daytime committee meeting.

"There needs to be a chance for the community members to come out in an evening and voice their concerns about this change that was done very sneakily, in my opinion," Singh said.

Riley Brockington, the councillor for the area, said he's also against commercial uses at the site.

"It's not something I've ever advocated for," Brockington told CBC News.

However, Brockington said he's known about the proposal for some commercial on the site for months, after signing a non-disclosure agreement that allowed him to see what the preferred buyer was planning for the land but also forbade him from discussing it. (Brockington had also signed a non-disclosure agreement ahead of the Mooney's Bay playground project, into which the city is pouring $1 million.)

Pushing revised plan through on 'gobbledegook'

There are a lot of technicalities being used to get around what were the clearly intended plans for the Bayview school site.

In 2014, the land was transferred to the Ottawa Community Lands Development Corporation, a stand-alone corporation that sells the city's surplus land. When the transfer occurred, council agreed that "any change to the development concept plan [must] be reported back to the City of Ottawa" through its committees before the land was sold.

Coun. Riley Brockington said that commercial uses on the site of the former Bayview school is "not something I've ever advocated for," (Chloé Fedio/CBC)

But because that direction didn't explicitly say that changes had to be brought back to councillors for approval, the finance committee Tuesday was simply told about the changes, and it simply received the report. (Brockington could not find a committee member who would move a motion to defer the issue to the new year.)

And the planning folks seem to be implying that because the community had agreed to medium-density residential development, they had automatically agreed to some commercial development too.

How so? According to the city's director of real estate, Gordon McNair: "If we look at the R5 residential zone, it does allow for ancillary commercial uses."

That explanation prompted Searle to yell from the sidelines: "That's gobbledegook."

It's hard not to side with Searle. Here's what R5 zoning actually allows: it permits "ancillary uses to the principal residential use to allow residents to work at home and to accommodate convenience retail and service uses of limited size." Typically, R5 zoning refers to allowing for small shops on the ground floors of apartment buildings. 

The fact is, no one from the city had ever used the words "commercial" or "retail" or "store" in the years leading up to Tuesday's report. If an intensified residential development had the potential to include commercial development, no matter how minor, why was that never mentioned?

Hiding behind technical bureaucratese is not transparent. And it's not what true consultation is about.

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.