City approves 8 storeys on Bank Street – what is the future?

Mackenzie GR pic V2
The proposed eight-storey retirement residence and retail building on the Beer Store-Mr. Muffler site on Bank Street was approved by City Council in spite of the proposal’s non-compliance with Traditional Mainstreet zoning, Official Plan requirements and community objections. Photo: courtesy of City of Ottawa

by Carolyn Mackenzie

We all know the narrative: the Glebe is full of NIMBYs who complain about development.

So after the divisiveness of Lansdowne, the Glebe Community Association (GCA) wanted to reset the relationship with the city and developers. We worked constructively to find solutions to meet their needs as well as the needs of the community. More recently, we helped move forward significant proposals on Bank Street, Queen Elizabeth Drive and Bronson Avenue, to promote development that “fits in and works well” with the character of the established, low-rise neighbourhood while promoting intensification and achieving the city’s Official Plan (OP).

The city told us not to expect a Secondary Plan for the neighbourhood intended to tailor city policies to local circumstances, and that there wasn’t much opportunity for development on Bank Street so it was not a priority. So we launched ImagineGlebe, a visioning exercise that produced a community vision for the future of Bank Street. It calls for development that reflects the heritage and established low-rise neighbourhood character and was supported by over 900 Glebe residents and visitors.

The eight-storey Beer Store proposal was officially submitted last August. We met frequently with the developer to review plans, provide feedback and share ImagineGlebe results. Four storeys was fine (current zoning by-law is four storeys), six storeys with meaningful building setbacks and stepbacks could work (six storeys is the default Traditional Mainstreet zoning height) but eight storeys didn’t respect the existing neighbourhood character. Two public meetings confirmed these concerns and over 600 people signed a petition.

What is the city’s vision? With no Secondary Plan, it’s not clear. If the city wants to allow additional height and massing that is a departure from Traditional Mainstreet zoning, we think this should be determined through a robust planning process before this request for additional height is approved.

Apparently City Council agrees. The latest OP (still under appeal) says: “This [Official] Plan supports mid-rise building heights up to six storeys on Traditional Mainstreets unless a Secondary Plan states otherwise.

Why would the city completely ignore this direction? Why were the amendments we proposed to make this project work refused?

We were advised there is no basis in current policy for refusing the request for additional height. But the policy says that, in order for greater height to be considered, a proposal must comply with all policies in the OP, including compatibility, urban design, respect for neighbourhood character, etc., and in addition, must meet one of five subjective conditions. The city stated that this project met two of the five conditions:

The building has access to an arterial road, and

A built form transition can be considered appropriate.

But the first condition actually reads, “The proposal is in an area characterised by taller buildings on an arterial road, not simply “has access to an arterial road.” Why did the city exclude this critical aspect of the condition? Perhaps because stating it correctly highlighted an obvious contradiction, as in the very next sentence they describe the area as “characterised by a lower built form.”

When Lansdowne was proposed, concerns were raised that a precedent would be set by the taller buildings (i.e. the “Vibe” condo at Lansdowne combined with the Lord Lansdowne residence). Both buildings are located at what the city refers to as “gateway” locations that can support additional height. The city’s response to this concern: “No. All development proposals will be considered on their own merit taking into account relevant policies.” It turns out that this response was completely disingenuous, as the two “gateway” buildings are indeed being used as precedents to meet the condition for additional height. If the city’s interpretation of what constitutes “an area characterised by taller buildings” stands, it makes the six-storey height limit on Traditional Mainstreets meaningless.

Regarding the second condition, “building transition,” eight storeys or even six storeys this close to two-storey homes does not make for “building transition.” A one-metre building stepback (on the northern portion) along Bank Street does not make for a pedestrian-friendly “podium” effect. In 2011, eight-storey buildings proposed as part of Lansdowne facing Holmwood Avenue and Bank Street were reduced to five storeys after a successful Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) appeal because they also did not result in effective “building transition.” Afterward, Mayor Watson wrote, “I am very proud to be the mayor of a city in which such a compromise can be found by citizens working together. You and your neighbours have created…a turning point in the city’s working relationship with the neighbouring community.”

The GCA has proposed reasonable amendments that are no different from the types included in Secondary Plans for Stittsville and Centretown, even if members of Planning Committee have chosen to ignore this. The city has room within its policies to support the amendments but has chosen to interpret them broadly to allow this incompatible development. Unfortunately the community has no choice but to go back to the OMB. Mayor Watson, do we really want to turn the page back again?

Carolyn Mackenzie is chair of the Planning Committee of the Glebe Community Association.

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