Clive Doucet - The Joyless Council
After eight years away from City Hall, I returned to watch the debate over the three record heights proposed for buildings close to the new transit stop in Hintonburg. The tallest is set to be 65 stories. It was the last meeting before the summer break and the room was packed with staff, councilors and even the stands had people watching. Being the last meeting I expected some comfortable buzz; some conversation and sense of occasion. It was about as happy as people sitting quietly in their pews for a funeral to begin.
The Mayor opened the meeting reading from holy script awarding a ‘city builder’ award to a deserving young woman. Her accomplishments were impressive but as he read the text his voice had about as much emotion in it as pancake on a cold griddle. Then from the Mayor’s dais he went through the consents and then the agenda with all the vigor of a carpenter beetle on a walkabout.
It should have been different and I was expecting it to be. The 65 story height extensions in Hintonburg are so clearly contrary to the community’s development plan and the zoning that there should have generated verbal fireworks. Five councilors did oppose it with the Mayor’s majority, sixteen voting for it. Councillor McKenney’s motions attempted to put some humanity into the buildings loading zone and to create some affordable housing within the tower. All her motions were neatly eviscerated by a well prepared game of tennis between the Mayor, planning staff and his supporting cast of developer friendly councilors.
The councilors opposing it made good points that the buildings were clearly, completely out of scale with the neighorhoods around them and modern environmental standards which require more than population. High rises of this size are increasingly seen as heating and cooling sinks. Nor are they needed in Ottawa. To be brief, sustainable cities are not created by building massive buildings and then building the city out into the surrounding country with low rise. The densest cities in the world are mid-rise, not high rise and they have with lots of parks and green spaces and public facilities e.g. Paris.
Further, the core of Ottawa doesn’t need more high rises as it has already exceeded its intensification targets. These enormous buildings overwhelm the small communities and their services like the Plante Pool in Hintonburg. The Mayor did not agree. He told the council confidently that these buildings were necessary to make his new tunnel successful. On the contrary, if the new train’s success needs sixty story buildings around each station, that means there is no faith that the system will actually shift people from their morning car commute to the rail line which forms the bulk of all peak hour trips.
These points were raised by the five dissenting councilors but so meekly that it was as if they were filing legal briefs before a cranky judge instead of behaving like leaders of the communities they represented.
They should have been roaring like tigers, because if they don’t lead at council in this way, how can their constituents figure out that these decisions really matter to the city’s quality of life? I had the distinct impression that they were afraid to raise their voices for fear of annoying the Mayor and his 16 rubber stamps who said and did little except waiting patiently to be let out of school.
I’m now officially in Bernie Sanders age territory but sitting in that room watching the quiet evisceration of all the five dissenting voices, I felt sad for the city but also grateful to have been released from this joyless table which struck me as desiccated as anything I experienced under Larry O’Brien’s brief reign of error.
Clive Doucet is a writer and the former City Councillor for Capital Ward. “Grandfather’s House”, his next book and will be published by Nimbus Publishing Ltd. Urban Meltdown, Cities, Climate Change and Politics as Usual was his last