Retail sites running short while vast employment land remains unused
RioCan's Trinity Crossing in Orleans, on Innes Road near Tenth Line, is a retail haven complete with a Loblaws, Winners/HomeSense, LCBO and a couple dozen other shops.
Prior to amalgamation, the Cumberland municipality zoned that area as employment land – a designation allowing for manufacturing and industrial purposes, among others. It was rezoned for a retail development in 1999 with the help of Brian Casagrande, at the time a consultant planner at the City of Ottawa and now a senior planner with FoTenn Consultants Inc.
“(The city) saw a need out in the Orleans area to provide for more retail,” he says. “The area was struggling to develop into the business park they thought it would be.”
It didn’t take long for much of Innes Road to follow suit, transforming into a retail corridor.
But the flexibility that allowed the employment land to be rezoned is no longer. Vast parcels of land designated for employment sit empty because city planners can no longer easily rezone them.
In 2006, Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing amended the provincial planning act to help municipalities preserve property designated for high-value employment.
The provincial policy statement removed an applicant’s right to appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board when council refuses to pass a zoning bylaw amendment to take away land from an area of employment.
Now, employment land in Ottawa can only be considered for rezoning every five years when the municipality’s Official Plan is revised. City council is not required to process any such applications submitted during the interim.
Ottawa currently contains 4,300 hectares of employment land, of which more than 1,500 hectares remain vacant, according to city staff.
The lots are large, often with good access to roads and highways, but they are typically far from residential developments. As more businesses move downtown and employees require less and less work space, however, the traditional need for big, isolated lots is changing.
AN ACRE PER EMPLOYEE
Many decades ago, as planners envisioned employment of the future, they slotted large areas to make way for manufacturing plants and enormous parking lots. One acre of industrial land was considered necessary for one employee.
Now, much technological development is being done in highrise office buildings, with employees needing less than 200 square feet of space instead of an acre.
Barry Nabatian, director of the market research division of Shore Tanner & Associates, says Ottawa no longer needs to set aside so much land for employment uses.
Jobs needing industrial land in Ottawa are limited, he says. Most local industries are knowledge-based, with many manufacturing plants and warehouses now outsourced.
The prevalence of employment lands – which are significantly cheaper to buy than those designated for retail, at about 30 per cent of the price per square foot – coincides with Ottawa’s shortage of retail land.
Ottawa’s population grows by about 10,000 people per year, which means that each year the region needs 300,000 square feet of additional retail space – the size of a Billings Bridge Plaza, Mr. Nabatian says.
Although there is currently about one million square feet of retail under construction in the region, the demand will continue to grow and the availability of prime retail real estate will keep dwindling, he says.
It’s no secret that Ottawa’s retail vacancy rate is low – 2.5 per cent at the mid-year mark, according to local brokerage firm Cushman & Wakefield Ottawa.
Brent Taylor, a retail broker and founder of Brentcom Realty Corp., says retailers are always looking for high-quality development sites.
They exist – they’re just designated for employment.
Dennis Eberhard, vice-president of development at shopping centre development firm SmartCentres, says his company no longer even tries to rezone employment land.
When the provincial government revised its planning act, SmartCentres begged it to reconsider.
“We lobbied and said, ‘Retail does generate a tremendous amount of jobs in the economy; the service and retail sector is a huge part of Ottawa’s and the whole country’s employment.’”
The problem? It doesn’t create the high-paying jobs envisioned for such property parcels.
Mr. Eberhard says he questions the validity of protecting land that sits empty and unused, when it could generate construction and retail jobs instead.
He says he also finds it ironic that areas designated for shopping malls are close to residential neighbourhoods, where the noise, pollution and traffic will bother people most.
“We’ve argued in the past, ‘Here’s this big industrial park, why don’t we locate on the fringe of it?’” he says.
Ottawa’s Official Plan has to be consistent with the provincial policy statement, but it does allow for employment lands to be reconsidered following a comprehensive review, says Peter Hume, chair of the city’s planning committee.
The next official plan revision is due by early 2014, with a review beginning this month that will determine if employment lands are in places appealing to businesses.
“Things may change,” Mr. Hume says. “But it’s more likely that new land will come in as employment (as opposed to employment land being rezoned).”
Protecting that land is important because it helps create sustainable communities where residents can live, shop and work. If Orleans had more business parks, he says, fewer people would have to commute downtown – decreasing traffic and putting less of a strain on Ottawa’s infrastructure.
“We need to focus on employment lands and bring forward strategies that help them to be developed, not focus on the fact that they’re still vacant,” Mr. Hume says.
SIDEBAR: What is employment land?
According to the City of Ottawa:
- Land with the ability to accommodate 2,000 jobs
- Large parcel sizes for storage, parking and building floor plates
- Key locations (e.g.: on 400-series highways and multi-lane arterial roads)
- Uses include offices, manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, research and development facilities and utilities
- “The maintenance of an adequate supply of suitable employment land is essential to the future economic prosperity of Ottawa and its residents.”
Source: City of Ottawa’s Official Plan Amendment 76, 2009