Opinion: Ottawa’s ugly planning history

How many bad decisions can one region’s planners make? Lots, if you are talking about the city of Ottawa.

Let’s review some of the highlights (or lowlights, if you will) of urban planning in the nation’s capital through the years:

Ottawa got rid of streetcars many years ago, not to replace them with subway lines, but with dirty, smelly diesel buses that get stuck in the snow every winter.

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The National Capital Commission expropriated lands at LeBreton Flats at what was then a flourishing working-class community only to demolish the neighbourhood and replace it with nothing for decades. Eventually, the NCC approved construction of a few unimaginative condo towers, thereby creating another “nowhere.”

Ottawa saved – wait for it, Dr. Evil-style – “one million dollars” on the design and construction of its downtown arena by truncating half its seating capacity so that the Civic Centre was obsolete the day it opened in 1967.

The city signed a binding agreement with two respected firms (Siemens and PCL) for construction of a light-rail line to the south, only to renege on its agreement. That decision caused the city to miss out on $900 million in senior government funding, not to mention $2 billion of real estate projects – hotels, apartments, shopping areas and other commercial space – planned for the areas around new LRT stations. The city also lost $80 million of its own investment in planning, design and right-of-way acquisition and got sued for $177 million in the process, eventually settling the suit for about $35 million plus millions more in legal fees. All to build exactly nothing.

The NCC built “parkways” – a.k.a. roads – between areas where people live and Ottawa’s three beautiful rivers and canals, along the way closing or demolishing change rooms, toilets and small stores. As a result, even if you’ve lived in Ottawa for decades, you don’t fully realize its beauty since you are separated from its waterways by tens of thousands of fast-moving cars and buses. When you do manage to access them, there is nowhere to get a tea, coffee or muffin or go to the bathroom.

Ontario amalgamated 12 governments in the former Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton into one, the City of Ottawa, ostensibly to provide for more rational management and cost savings. Instead, the number of full-time-equivalent municipal positions – what you and I would call “jobs” – jumped from 12,500 in the pre-amalgamation days to 16,500, producing a vast bureaucracy that couldn’t find Ottawa’s rural villages with a compass and a map and costing taxpayers an extra $800 million.

To this day, Ottawa allows suburbs where you’ll find 3,000 stick-built homes in a row without catching sight of a corner store, a pub, a shop, a dental office or a medical clinic and where every trip requires a vehicle that must travel on curvilinear roads with rights-of-way wide enough to host Formula One races.

I could go on for hours. So imagine my surprise when I learned recently that the city, which already legalized in-home suites some time ago, was contemplating adding coach houses to its list of permitted uses.

I have fond memories of living in what was then called a granny flat in Santa Cruz, Calif., many years ago.

The big house in front was occupied by a lady who I thought was impossibly old (probably about the age I am today – her 60s). I got to know her a bit, so I asked her why she’d built a tiny one-bedroom home in her backyard.

“Well, I like students,” she said. “I like their company. My own family has kind of forgotten about me.”

And it was true. I never heard her phone ring, and she never had any visitors. She was lonely and, in addition to having the company of the students, she felt safer having someone else live on her property.

Then she added, “And frankly, Bruce, I can also use the extra income, too.” The year was 1969.

The point is, if you want to keep your most valuable resource in your village, town or city – your kids – you have to build your brand. You have to make it feel like living in your community is a cool thing to do and convince young people they can do great things without moving down the road to a megacity, which noted urbanist Richard Florida says is a place of 10 million or more, of which Canada has none.

To that end, two senior Ottawa planners – Alain Miguelez, program manager for zoning, intensification and neighbourhoods, and John Smit, manager of policy development and urban design, Alain’s boss – recently sat down with me for 90 minutes of frank talk about the state of the city’s planning.

“In my tour of duty in zoning, I’ve been focused on removing barriers,” Mr. Miguelez told me.

“I was able to oversee up-zoning of about 100 kilometres of arterial frontage (to allow both residential and commercial uses), get micro-retail zoning passed without appeal, get more front-yard parking flexibility in the ’burbs, establish streetscape character zoning for infill in older neighbourhoods, open the door to corner lot severances in the R1 bungalow belt inside the Greenbelt, allow front-to-back semis, allow wrap-around semis, and now we’re doing coach houses, plus a review of minimum parking requirements. We’ll end up eliminating them, or significantly reducing them, at key locations, allowing open-air markets as-of-right on church lands, and we’re about to start projects on makerspace, removing obsolete restrictions in many rural zones and cleaning up yet more obsolete restrictions in several urban industrial zones.”

Mr. Miguelez credited his superiors with giving him leeway to pursue changes he believes are necessary.

“I’ve been lucky that senior management has gone along with all my stuff,” he said.

“I’ve also been successful with humour sometimes. One of my star planners is a cartoonist, and I got him permission to do a video about what impact Ottawa’s parking standards is having on development in this city.”

For example, Montreal requires one parking space per 250 square metres of restaurant space, while Toronto asks for seven. Ottawa? It demands a whopping 23. What this means is that pleasing streetscapes and walkable places, such as Hintonburg or the Glebe, could not be built today.

It’s worth watching the city planner’s video. Just plug “Review of Minimum Parking Standards” into YouTube’s search bar.

Maybe, as American author and social critic James Howard Kunstler says in his book Home from Nowhere, it might be better to “burn all your zoning codes.”

Mr. Smit won’t go that far.

“Right now, developers, community associations and BIAs (business improvement areas) have to twist themselves into pretzels to get things done in this city,” he said. “Our job is to rationalize that. (Former deputy city manager) Ned Lathrop used to say, ‘Ottawa is changing from a big little city to a little big city,’ and we have to adjust to that. Once a city gets to a million population (Ottawa is approaching that now), its economy and culture shifts in fundamental ways, and planning has to shift with it.”

Bruce M. Firestone is founder of the Ottawa Senators and a broker at Century 21 Explorer Realty. Follow him on Twitter @ProfBruce.

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