Op-Ed: The so-called NIMBYs have it right on infill

[23-Sept-2013] Click here to view original article.

Ottawa Citizen, Allan Teramura – I’d like to propose a point of view that seems to be quite radical: that it is not unreasonable for residents to wish that their neighbourhoods remain more or less as they are.

This view has been derided as NIMBY-ism, and a threat to the economic viability of our communities.

While most are open to, even thrilled by, the novelty of large scale changes to the public realm, changes that have a direct bearing on one’s domestic space are very unsettling. Major changes in the dimensions or character of houses can have dramatic effects on how one enjoys life in a fundamental way — daylight in one’s kitchen in the morning, the ability to garden on one’s property, and so forth. For others the changes are cultural. Seeing people on porches, using them as they were intended to be used, is reassuring and comforting. Unfortunately today in Ottawa we find that zoning regulations do not protect mature neighbourhoods from such destructive changes. Many of the provisions seem to be aimed at maximizing options for “developing” properties by speculators.

I suspect this is a holdover from the time, long ago, when the flight to the suburbs was at its peak, and owners of inner city properties were desperate for viable economic alternatives to the status quo. Indeed the “Converted Dwelling” category in the zoning by-law appears designed to facilitate the conversion of large, historic homes into apartments, which would serve the dual purpose of alleviating a post-war affordable housing crunch, and giving owners of such properties, oversized and out-of-style in the 1950s, an alternative to demolition. This provision may have actually saved the character of many inner-city Ottawa neighbourhoods.

Or, it may be that the zoning regulations merely were intended to provide a reasonable amount of flexibility and design freedom, and that the authors never suspected that anyone would want to maximize construction on an inner-city house lot in all five possible dimensions. Should this trend continue, mature neighbourhoods will eventually be totally replaced with enclaves of outsized, costly houses, with no connection to Ottawa’s past. This tendency currently affects the city from Westboro in the west, to New Edinburgh in the east, and to Alta Vista in the south.

At the same time, the shortage in student housing in areas near Ottawa’s universities has led to a minor trend to build mini-apartment dwellings. Unlike the massive luxury houses, these provide reasonably affordable rental accommodations, albeit at the cost of neighbourhood character. The financial model of these structures requires packing the site with an outsized building, housing up to 20 residents. Increasing the availability of affordable student housing has the benefit of increasing community diversity in a general way, but intense concentration of this type of housing on single family lots is threatening to most residents.

What is the alternative?

First, intensification through adoption of the creation of secondary suites in existing dwellings is an excellent way for mature neighbourhoods to absorb additional residents such as students. This approach has minimal impact on the existing urban fabric, and optimizes the use of existing municipal infrastructure.

Second, the development of zoning bylaws that use the thorough analysis of the existing built form by documenting what exists with respect to height, lot coverage, and three dimensional characteristics such as roof form and overall profile as a sophisticated regulatory tool.

Third, the “Main Streets” that pass through established neighbourhoods are often oddly under-developed. A few years back a neighbour came to my house asking me to sign a petition to oppose the “up-zoning” of a local corner lot on the local commercial street, currently occupied by an oil-change joint. My response was I’d rather see six storeys of condos on this site, with shops or restaurants at street level, than a semi-empty lot with a quasi-industrial use.

An intelligent and coordinated approach to re-examining zoning in mature neighbourhoods is long overdue. Fortunately, ity staff have been engaging community groups to develop new guidelines, which will ideally be developed into actual regulations which have teeth.

Ottawa’s mature neighbourhoods are an important asset to the character of the city. Allowing unfettered re-development of these communities, lot-by-lot, is not only unfair to existing residents, but will diminish the character of the city of Ottawa as a place worth visiting.

Allan Teramura is regional director with the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and a partner with Watson MacEwen Teramura Architects, both based in Ottawa.