Zibi's 'pioneers' take up residence

The first residents of a major development straddling the Ottawa River might have to wait a while before meeting their new neighbours.

1st residents of controversial development will have to wait for promised amenities

Residents are beginning to move into the first condo building in the Zibi development this week. (Stu Mills/CBC)

The first residents of a major development straddling the Ottawa River might have to wait a while before meeting their new neighbours.

Condo owners have started moving into their new homes in the first finished building of the new Zibi development, to be built on former Domtar lands on Chaudiè​re and Albert islands, as well as a swath of riverfront property in Gatineau.

For years now, Zibi has been advertized as a thriving, self-sufficient community where residents will "live, work and play," as developers love to say. The $1.5-billion project will eventually be home to 5,000 residents, according to Dream and Theia Partners, a spinoff of Windmill, the development company that launched the project.

But it will be some time before that dream is fully realized, and the neighbourhood residents are moving into now bears little resemblance to the bustling community in the glossy brochures.

Marc-Antoine Massicotte is among the first residents moving into the newly opened O Condos, part of the Zibi development. (Kristin Nelson/CBC)

An 'intriguing' opportunity

Marc-Antoine Massicotte is among the first to take up residence. In 2015, with a little help from his father, Massicotte purchased a one-bedroom condo on the fourth floor of the newly opened O Condos building on the Gatineau side of the river.

I thought, why not be a pioneer and get into it?- Marc-Antione Massicotte, Zibi resident

"I thought it was so intriguing at first that we would finally have access to those lands," he said. "I thought, why not be a pioneer and get into it?" 

Massicotte isn't deterred by the 15 years it will take before the community's complete. He understands that for now there won't be much in the way of shops and other amenities outside his front door, but said he's looking forward to watching the neighbourhood grow.

"It's going to be fun to see it happen," he said.

An artist's rendering of the completed Zibi condo development. (Zibi)

A controversial development

The community is being developed in phases on previously contaminated industrial land.

The developer said it's designed with the environment in mind, including a net-zero carbon district energy system and a recycling and composting program tailored to residents.

Zibi also promises to open up Chaudière Falls to public view for the first time in over a century.

But the project has also generated controversy. There have been protests, land claims, lawsuits and appeals to the Ontario Municipal Board over the land, considered sacred to the Algonquin people precisely because of its proximity to the once-spectacular falls, a traditional gathering place for Indigenous people.

For all those reasons, it could be a challenge to attract a critical mass of eager early adopters like Massicotte, according to Steve Pomeroy, a senior research fellow with the Centre for Urban Research at Carleton University.

The first residents to buy into the Zibi development are moving into their new homes this week. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Some condos remain vacant

At this early stage, it's difficult to predict the project's success based on uptake: after three years of presales, 14 of the 70 condos in Massicotte's building remain vacant. In total, the developer has sold 83 per cent of the roughly 143 units it's put on the market.

So far, no commercial tenants have been announced.

Pomeroy said while Ottawa's condo market is currently in good health, developments like Zibi face a special challenge because they're ultimately striving to build self-contained communities from the ground up.

While most new condos are surrounded by existing amenities, Zibi's pioneers will have to go without for years or even decades.

The Zibi project is being developed on former industrial lands. Efforts are being made to preserve some of the historic buildings, the developer says. (Stu Mills/CBC)

"You tend to like to try on what you're going to buy," Pomeroy said. "It is a harder sell when you're in an emerging transitional area."

The next building in the Zibi development is expected to open next year, this time on the Ottawa side of the river.

With files from the CBC's Kristin Nelson