Towards respecting zoning

Towards respecting zoning
Posted on June 24, 2013 | Donna Silver | Written on February 5, 2013
Letter type:


Old Ottawa South Community Association

Author's Note:

Author's Note:

Let me begin by stating that it is a most interesting turn of events when a major developer agrees with the community.

At a public meeting in Kanata to discuss the application for a 12 storey highrise building in an area zoned for one and two storey homes, Mr. Teron, a prominent planner involved in Kanata's design, spoke strongly against the proposal. His words were captured on video that was posted on a discussion group that works on planning and environmental issues in Ottawa. The video that led to this writing is below this letter.

One has to ask several questions. Those questions led me to participate in an online discussion that the Greenspace Alliance of Canada’s Capital was having in response to Mr. Teron’s video. My thoughts were then shared with others including the OSCA Web Editor, who asked if I could re-work that piece here.


My primary job as a councillor's assistant became working on planning and environment files because three of the communities in Capital Ward were being subjected to infill housing on practically every street. Those communities are The Glebe, Old Ottawa South (OOS) and Old Ottawa East (OOE). Over the years, these projects became significantly larger and filled entire lots—from sidewalk to rear yard property lines—and were no longer compatible with either adjacent properties or the local community. In particular, the increase of "garages with houses on top" became a more serious problem as it started to erode parking spaces on the street as more and more paved front yards appeared—not a good thing in walkable communities. More difficult for these and similarly affected communities across the city, and in other cities across the province for that matter, is the increased impact on already limited community spaces and community buildings. Before Section 37 existed, there was very little room to at least negotiate for a community improvement in exchange. But negotiating should not lead to such trade-offs that allow the continuation of what is essentially a destruction of the heart of the city, or the wetlands, forests and green spaces, and the green space treasures of other communities. Legislated negotiations essentially enable the feeding of the beast.

Those communities subsequently spent a lot of time educating themselves on the issues associated with planning, in particular through the recent exercise of the Official Plan revisions and the elephant in their "room"—Lansdowne Park. What is the difference between Capital Ward and Kanata's current battles in this? I would argue there is no difference. My experience gives me a perspective that would like to confirm both the importance of the Secondary Plan, and the difficulties in protecting it. The most important conclusion I have reached after considering the experience of many communities is simple: Either we allow spot rezoning or we do not. Currently we seem to allow it. Other cities across Ontario are starting to react to this as well, and are coming to this see this as a major issue. I had the opportunity to study this in Toronto when I did a two week "exchange" in a Toronto City Councillor's office a few years ago. They have exactly the same comments from their constituents as we have here in this discussion group, and clear across the city.

How to proceed will be an important discussion for this and other groups in the city, as planning staff are already starting to look at the next round of Official Plan revisions (required by the province every five years) and I suggest that the battle for Community Design Plans and Secondary Plans should certainly continue, but the battle to have spot rezoning dealt with needs to start in earnest. And that leads to the recognition of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) as the real culprit here. I personally think it should be abolished—no other province has this albatross to deal with. Are there issues with planning staff? Most certainly, but most of those issues revolve around staff knowing, as do we, that OMB rulings overwhelming tend to favour developers, regardless of the logic brought forward by the members of a community that reflects what both the city's Official Plan and the province's planning act stipulate. I am also not supportive of staff having little interest in defending the Official Plan and existing zoning on properties, but I do understand at least why they don't or won't, and in most cases quite simply can't. Changing them, or their bosses, will not change what happens at the OMB.

I suggest that Mr. Teron is as aware of the above as many of you are. Is he on the right path? It’s not an easily answered question; there are many pros and cons. To keep it simple, we can consider that when Mr. Teron worked on the design for Kanata, his ideas were considered quite progressive and widely hailed as such. I recall reading about it in the Toronto papers. Much has changed since then, and so has our thinking.

Our concern for the environment and the many costs of sprawl as reflected in what we spend our property tax money on has become an important priority. Intensification has become the new "norm" and is considered to be "the fix" for solving the costs associated with sprawl. If intensification as a planning formula is to work, more must be done to intensify where it makes most sense. It need not be so destructive. This would be the crux of Mr. Teron’s arguments, and most people would agree. The high-rises should be where the plan permits them, not willy-nilly throughout established residential communities. Nor should spot rezoning enable what is happening in the urban communities with the increased imposition of what are essentially "sprawl" houses, or in the razing of forests and wetlands. In all scenarios, these developments stick out like the sore thumbs they are. I should note that I am not talking about the designs of some of the in-fill housing—that is subjective and another topic for another day.

Is it all the development community’s fault? It’s easy to target them, and we do. We need to understand beyond the simple profiteering drive exactly what it is that enables this to happen. Simply put, would you buy a product at Store A if you know that Store B had a somewhat similar product at considerably less cost? Most would opt for the cheaper route. This is the main reason developers do as they do. Low density residentially zoned property is cheaper to buy than industrial or commercial property, and is also cheaper to build on as different development charges apply in many instances. This of course is not the only reason for inappropriate development, but it sure as heck drives a lot of what is happening. So we get high rises popping up here and there and a downtown full of blank spaces and two storey buildings. This nonsense not only plays havoc with communities and people's homes and quality of life, but with the development industry itself.

An example of what inappropriate zoning can do is easy to find. Some examples can be found on Conroy Road between Hunt Club and Walkley. An effort was undertaken to have Conroy designated as an Arterial Main Street before the road was widened, which would have made a walkable community for the many residents whose properties now back onto a "traffic sewer" instead of the bustling retail and residential mix that it could have been. Another example of opportunity lost.

There was a plan for retail and residential mixed-use development along the Jock River in Barrhaven that was to be mid-density and walkable. That was scuttled when a stretch of land along Strandherd was rezoned to enable big box sprawl. The result is there is no market left for any retail along the Jock, and the whole idea of the mixed-use, denser development there was dead for lack of market share, which the city had zoned away elsewhere. I don’t think I would have been in agreement with building along the Jock, but these examples illustrate the ability of zoning to totally enforce a reliance on cars and ever-expanding sprawl.

An example of what appropriate zoning can do is found on Colonnade Road, between Prince of Wales and Merivale. It was recently changed from commercial zoning to residential zoning, with an emphasis in the sub-zone for multi-unit dwellings. A once empty massive field that held no commercial interest is now half developed with many three, four and five storey residential buildings, and more to come. Some of these have commercial operations on the ground floors, providing this instant community with walkable shopping that also attracts "outside" shoppers. Outside shoppers are important as they can create vibrant shopping areas that are supported with equal amounts of foot traffic and car traffic. Sounds like a variation on how communities used to be built, with less focus on catering solely to the car. A bonus here is the pre-existing Nepean Creek, and the storm water management ponds that clean the water as it heads towards the Rideau River. It serves as a linear park along the north of this development, and is well used by the new residents and those from the many semi-detached and triplex houses across the creek. Pedestrian links cross the creek, and an existing paved path encourages walking and cycling. To the east, city owned parkland is reserved for soccer and rugby and includes a play structure. Detached single family homes are not yet an option here, but if they were to be, they would most likely be row housing complexes. We can all think of many properties around the city that lie empty because they have the wrong zoning for compatible development.

Another example, closer to Old Ottawa South, is the Campanale building on Bank Street (building at mid-left in picture). Originally planned as a three storey building, the developer needed some encouraging to consider and finally build a four storey building. There was some concern by some residents that this was too high, but two facts won the battle. One, the community had undertaken a study to plot their future, which suggests the desire for four storey buildings, with six storey buildings bracketing this at the intersection of Bank and Sunnyside, and at Bank and Riverdale. Two, the fear of a four storey building was offset by both the inclusion of a commercial ground floor and by noting that the height was actually similar to the nearby Hopewell Avenue Public School. By agreeing to build to four storeys, and designing the building with an aesthetic sensitive to the existing architecture along Bank Street, the Campanale building fits in as if it were always there.

These two examples may be somewhat idyllic, but they exist, and they point us in a direction to start looking at some solutions for stopping the easily approved and highly destructive spot rezoning. First among these is to look closely at the cost to the developer that is attached to zoning. Why would one buy expensively zoned property when it is easier and cheaper to buy rural or low density residential property and then re-zone it? Section 37, while a good idea in principal, is a band-aid solution to offsetting insufficient development charges in the first instance, and the provincially legislated restrictions on what development charges can and cannot finance only serves to put pressure on communities to "get with the program" in the second instance. It’s enticing to think that approving zoning where it shouldn’t be means community centre renovations, additions or construction can be financed (at last), or that shoreline recreation paths (often twinned with much overdue rehabilitation programs) can be obtained.

This practice can pit residents against residents, or communities against communities. Here I speak of geographic communities as well as communities of interest. A more detailed discussion of communities of interest won’t fit here; suffice to say that football fans have no concern with the issues surrounding the Lansdowne Park redevelopment proposal. Media pitting football fans against Glebe residents does a disservice to the process and keeps the focus away from the massive spot rezoning that this project represents.

I was at an event in a rural community, at their community centre/hockey arena, and I asked a simple question to someone who was an ardent football supporter. I asked, “Do you know that this community facility has the same zoning as Lansdowne? Do you know that this could just as easily be targeted by a developer for a similar purpose with similar outcomes?” This question caused a reconsideration of what is happening at Lansdowne by that person, and many others.

Some of you may know that an approach was made to the OSCA board regarding building a high-rise tower on the current library branch site. They did not accept the offer of a bigger library and community meeting space. With overwhelming community support, they chose instead to renew the efforts on the Old Firehall’s renovation and expansion, and the renovation and a small expansion of the existing library branch. Well defended in my view, but I digress.

Having a Community Design Plan, enhanced with a Secondary Plan, even when not respected by the City or the OMB, largely removes pitting residents against each other both in their own backyard and in the city at large. Kanata should have zoning that attracts commercial interests to their Urban Centre zoning as depicted in the Official Plan, as should Barrhaven and Orleans and other defined Urban Centre areas around the city. These Urban Centres should have mixed-use zoning that would encourage appropriately placed residential complexes among them instead of the current proliferation of big box stores.

Residential communities in the urban areas should at the very least ban "garages with houses on top" and enforce the Official Plan lexicon of "having regard for" the fabric of existing communities—and this is meant to include our existing protected environments as well. Both of these scenarios are possible and can be achieved through collectively arrived at zoning decisions that enable what is desired and prohibit what is undesirable—perhaps bonusing desirable development is an option to consider. Demolishing older homes that are heritage buildings (or borderline heritage buildings) should also be stopped by applying an Heritage Overlay Zone where appropriate.

Digging a little deeper, a missing link here is that while the Official Plan designates the desired development, more often than not the actual zoning on the properties with the designation do not match the intended goal. This needs to change if there is to be serious movement towards implementation of the stated goals in the Official Plan. For a quick example, many parks across the city carry R1 or R2 zoning meant for single or semi-detached housing. These should be appropriately zoned to reflect what they are—city owned property.

This is a lot to think about, and the way forward to a common goal is to chat about this with as many people as possible, have kitchen table meetings with your neighbours, bring your views to your community’s planning committee, and develop your own Community Design Plan wish list.

Be engaged instead of enraged. This approach will provide you with two advantages. First, you will be better able to confirm that your community is widely represented when your spokespersons argue against or for something on your behalf at city committees and OMB. Second, you will be better positioned to convince the City that your arguments are not NIMBY arguments—you also speak to a broader need to create a city that works in alignment with the Official Plan targets for intensification in a zoning respectful city.


Donna Silver was Senior Assistant and Policy Advisor to former Capital Ward Councillor Clive Doucet for 12 years and worked extensively on urban development and infill issues for constituents and with City of Ottawa Staff.

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Great insight Donna, thanks for sharing!

I agree about Community Design Plans and Secondary Plans. They are the key to ensuring the character of our communities are respected and maintained. Certainly this has not been the case so far. And, in fact, I have the impression (from FCA discussions) that the City may be trying to remove Secondary plans altogether as a planning tool. We'll have to see what they come forward with in the next update of the Official Plan.

Clive Doucet

It was somewhat painful to read this intelligent and sensitive summary of many years of effort in my office towards a different kind of Ottawa. My approach and the people who worked in my office was always very simple. The city should respect its own laws.

If you strip Donna's various planning stories to the ground, they always end up in the same place. Why can't the city enforce its own laws? Speed limits are not suggested. If you travel 100 kilometers in a 40 kilometer neighbourhood zone, you're subject to prosecution.

The equivalent happens all the time with zoning ten, twenty, forty floor buildings going up in two or four story zones. Even when a community against great odds wins a battle at the OMB, the city's response is to change the zoning so that the community protest is nullified and no further complaint is possible. The city had the same approach to community plans, as soon as they proved to be an effective planning tool their force as a legal instrument was shifted from a compliant requirement to advisory status. The same advisory place which counsels against garage houses.

The older neigbourhoods already exceed all the intensification objectives set for them by the Official Plan yet still they are being torn apart. It's clear why. There are enormous profits to be made. You buy a property zoned at 4 stories and apply for 20, get it and suddenly the property is worth millions more than the original purchase price and nothing has happened but the law changed. A great profit has been made before a drop of cement has been poured. In this way the old city is being stripped of its tree cover as Centre town was years ago with lot line to lot line development.

It's always seemed pretty simple to me. It's got nothing to do with planning. I don't think it would make any difference if you fired every planner in the city. It's a governance issue and until that's resolved I don't see anything happening to change the status quo.

Clive Doucet