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Ottawa's housing future not in high-rises, says senior planner

A billboard advertising the Trinity Station development at 900 Albert St. A senior city planning manager says while there will be more to come, Ottawa’s housing future is not in high-rises. (Photo/Devyn Barrie)

With one million residents and counting, Ottawa is in a whole new league of cities. Our population gives us a “critical mass” for improved business and employment opportunities, better services and programming, as well as a stronger footprint on the world stage, the city says.

But for housing, Ottawa is hoping to diverge from the mainstream of other large cities. Alain Miguelez, Ottawa’s manager of policy planning, said at a community engagement session hosted by the Ottawa Public Library last week that our city does not aim to follow the footsteps of Toronto or Vancouver when it comes to housing and affordability. While those cities build very tall (and very expensive condo towers), Ottawa is looking at a low-rise future of intensification.

Miguelez and others in the city are working on developing the next official plan, the key document that will guide Ottawa’s development from 2021 through 2046. About 32 people in the Planning, Infrastructure and Economic Development Department are working on the new plan, with over 100 other staff involved across multiple city departments.

One of the most timely topics of the new plan will be the interrelated issues of housing, intensification and affordability. In a time when many residents of large cities are struggling to find housing they can afford in locations where they can easily move around, the city’s plans today have the potential to improve the cost of living here into the middle half of this century.

Steering away from suburbs

The new official plan, Miguelez said, will represent a departure from the old plan in many ways, including how new housing is developed.

Previously, the city’s model for development was to encourage intensification, where new development is added to existing built-up neighbourhoods. But it accepted that the majority of growth would happen in the outer suburbs, where new housing would mostly come in the form of single-detached homes that consume previously vacant rural land. With the new plan, the goal will be to have the majority of new development be via intensification. This idea was outlined in the city’s recent “Five Big Moves” report that proposed high-level directions for the new plan — Miguelez said the idea of most development being via intensification really is a “big move”, given Ottawa’s status as a North American city surrounded by vacant land.

While tall buildings are increasingly being proposed and built in Ottawa — for example, Trinity Station at 900 Albert St. or Claridge Icon in Little Italy — Miguelez said that Ottawa’s future lies more with high-density, low-rise housing.

“We can expect more high-rises in the future, there’s no question about that,” he said. “But in the grand scheme of things, if high-rises constitute 20 or maybe 25 per cent of our growth … it’s not the majority.” Ottawa differs from Toronto and Vancouver here, as those cities see most of their growth via high-rise construction.

The city has been seeing plenty of infill, but there’s still work to be done in getting it right, Miguelez said. One important issue is making sure infill aligns with the character of surrounding neighbourhoods — something that isn’t always happening now.

“A lot of the problems we’ve been having is … infill of a suburban typology in an urban context,” Miguelez said. “These suburban typologies that put big driveways in front, pave everything over, rip (greenery) out, that’s not going to work anymore.”

One of the ways the city is trying to encourage more high-density low-rise housing is by looking at revising R4 zoning rules to allow a wider range of multi-unit infill in certain neighbourhoods. The review of R4 zoning ties in with the new official plan but is a separate project.

Ottawa wants to avoid becoming unaffordable, as other cities have become or will become. “Vancouver is too far gone. Toronto is getting close to too far gone,” Miguelez said. “We don’t want that.”

There are some ways the city can manage it.

One tool is the use of inclusionary zoning. Inclusionary zoning is where cities are able to require developers to reserve a certain number of units in new residential developments around “protected major transit station areas” as affordable housing. The city has yet to implement the tool.

“The question we have to ask ourselves is, would we want to use inclusionary zoning in protected major transit station areas and involuntarily create a disincentive to development there?” Miguelez said. He said there should be thought towards how the city can incentivize more affordable development.

Making it easier for developers to build desirable developments can help accomplish this. For example, more use of as-of-right zoning, where lands are pre-zoned for construction of higher-density forms of housing. Miguelez previously told OttawaStart.com that as-of-right zoning can lead to more affordable housing because it saves developers having to go through red tape to get a zoning change.

A way the city made affordable development more viable was by eliminating parking requirements for high-density residential buildings downtown and around all LRT stations. In a previous interview, Miguelez said that was a significant shift because it allows developers to provide however few parking spaces they want, even zero. This makes the developments not only more transit-friendly, but also more affordable because parking can be a significant cost of design and construction. It makes sense to provide few or no parking spaces at these developments because the expectation is that residents will want to function on foot anyway, he said. It didn’t take long after the change for the city to see construction of small-scale residences with fewer than 12 units and zero parking. They fit well into urban neighbourhoods and are affordable to live in, he said in the interview.

Intensification can also lead to more affordable development for builders, residents and the city alike. It typically costs less to build intensification inside the city rather than develop new land outside the Greenbelt, although the latter is arguably easier for developers to do on a large scale.

A main reason for the lower cost is that the city’s development charges are lower for higher-density housing built inside the Greenbelt than for lower density housing built outside. Development charges are fees that developers pay to the city to cover the costs associated with growth. They are passed onto homebuyers, so lower development charges may reflect on purchase or rental prices.

The charge for a stacked townhouse, with more than two bedrooms, inside the city is $16,826 per unit, while the charge for a single-detached house outside the Greenbelt is more than twice as much — $36,388. The charge for an apartment unit within the Greenbelt with two or fewer bedrooms is even less — $11,961. Not only does it cost the developer less to build and (in theory) the resident less to buy or rent, it’s also more affordable for the city as servicing intensification developments is usually less expensive than new suburban neighbourhoods. There is not usually a need to build new roads and the cost for additional sewer and transit servicing is either low or negligible.

The city is currently consulting on its ideas for the new official plan and has so far reached about 25,000 people through the internet and in-person small-scale meetings, such as the talk Miguelez gave at the Main Library Branch on Oct. 8. You can find out more information on the planning process at Ottawa.ca/NewOP or read the Five Big Moves report. (Or some of our takeaways from it here.)

“Where we are here, we’re in listening mode,” Miguelez said. “We’re not scared of criticism … it helps us.”


Devyn Barrie

Devyn Barrie is the publisher and editor of OttawaStart.com. He currently studies math and physics at the University of Ottawa, and has previously studied journalism and pre-technology (separately) at Algonquin College.