City Prepares New Rules to Soothe Public as Condo Slowdown Looms

[06-August-2013] Click here to view original article.

Ottawa Citizen by David Reevely — Firmer rules for property development in Ottawa are meant not only to soothe angry community associations but to make projects cheaper to plan and execute — which developers will need as the industry slows down, says the chairman of city council’s planning committee.

The city is launching consultations this summer on its new official land-use plan, the top document that’s supposed to guide construction and, at last, close the gaps between the old plan and fine zoning rules that have produced dozens of neighbourhood fights over condo towers and small-scale infill projects downtown.

Alta Vista Coun. Peter Hume has chaired the planning committee since 2003. He’s promised repeatedly to deliver certainty, so that builders can be pretty sure what’ll be approved and what won’t, and so residents can be pretty sure they know what’s allowed near their houses. This is the plan that’ll do it, he insists.

“We’ve enjoyed a real robust condominium market,” Hume says. “As the pace slows down, certainty in our policy and our design directions is going to be important.”

Anecdotally, even developers in Ottawa quietly acknowledge business is slowing. Not crashing, but slowing. There’s a glut of projects that have been approved but not started construction, too. In a condo boom, developers can afford to spend more time in zoning fights because they know the units they end up selling will make them money — they’d rather not, of course, but they can. “Maybe that’s OK if the market is absorbing 2,500 units in a year,” Hume said. “But if it’s 1,500 or 1,200 or 1,000, maybe not.”

So one thing the new plan includes is firm caps on building heights in each neighbourhood, replacing language that allows buildings to be as tall as a developer thinks he or she can sell as long as a professional urban planner can make the case that it suits its environment and brings something to the community.

“Everyone’s going to know the lay of the land,” Hume says. If a gas station is in a redevelopment district, it’ll get new zoning — tall zoning, mind you — that’s clear. The new plan also has language declaring that local community plans that city council has approved take precedence over the citywide plan, instead of requiring that they be read together, whether that makes any sense or not.

The current plan talks about how important it is that new tall buildings fit into their neighbourhoods and how hard that can be to pull off. The city’s planners are supposed to do things like consider “the quality of architecture and urban design, particularly as expressed in Council-approved design guidelines” when they sign off on new highrise projects, but the language never gets very specific.

The new draft of the plan spells out just what the city means, starting out with adding a requirement for a “design brief” when a new application comes in, a document spelling out why the proposed building looks the way it does and making the case for why it fits in well with its surroundings. “Proponents of new development will demonstrate, at the time of application, that the design of their development fits with the character of the existing neighbourhood,” the plan says, then rhymes off numerous details the brief is supposed to address, from the shapes of windows to rooflines to building materials.

“We’re giving those design guidelines we’ve produced — reams of them — some teeth,” Hume says.

Including a design brief with all the other masses of documents developers have to file puts design and aesthetics up for public discussion. In an effort to emphasize the importance of good design, the city formed a design-review panel of architects and other experts a few years ago to go over high-profile downtown projects, but much of its work happens in secret, in “pre-consultations” nobody but the builder’s people get to see.

Developers often describe that process as rigorous and tough, but it’s not always for the best. The design panel tends to stymie attempts to make new buildings’ architecture distinctive — and that’s included eliminating the curvy lines of the “Soho Italia” building at the south end of Preston Street and turning it into a glass box. The builder, Mastercraft Starwood, is trying to change the plans back after the councillors on City Hall’s planning committee lamented the loss of the old design and approved an even taller building next door with a similar look.

The design-review panel also chopped off the sloping top of a building on Parkdale Avenue called the “Rhombus” so it wouldn’t loom over another tall building nearby, a move even the local community association, which isn’t thrilled with the project as a whole, said made the plans worse and not better.

The city’s getting formal training for its planning staff, Hume says, helping them take a tailored urban-design certificate program through Simon Fraser University in B.C. (the program offers courses in Ottawa). The regulators should be able to help developers solve problems, he said, and go toe-to-toe with them if they need to.

The sum of the rule changes is meant to force builders to object when the broad policies are being set, if they have objections to raise, rather than seeking exemptions project by project, Hume says. And indeed, that’s already happening: the first time the city publicized any of the proposed rules, back in January, Tamarack’s Michelle Taggart warned against policies that are too restrictive, saying they’ll stifle creativity.

That’s the standard complaint from developers, the standard reason given by the city’s planners for recommending exemptions, and the standard reasoning accepted by Hume’s committee.

Even as the condo market slows, Hume says, he hopes a stronger planning regime will attract more developers who haven’t worked in Ottawa before. Toronto-based condo king Brad Lamb, a real-estate agent who decided to get vertically integrated by beginning to build the things himself, has two Ottawa projects on the go, glassy and protruding and different from what the city’s used to.

“The developer community in Ottawa is very insulated,” Hume says. “It’s very easy and profitable for them to do what they’ve been doing for 20 years.”

The new official plan is supposed to be approved by city council in November, with a new zoning code to match it following after.