Counterblast to our planning authorities

The historic former home of Charlotte Whitton, among others, was demolished last year.   Photo: Diane McIntyre
The larger modern structure on the same site, now under construction    Photo: Liz McKeen

Preserving the integrity of old neighbourhoods

By Frank Oakes

As an advocate of heritage conservation, I am appalled to see Ottawa’s much-loved mature and historic communities, such as the Glebe and Old Ottawa South, being severely blighted by urban renewal of an especially vulgar kind.

There can be little doubt that a lot of the housing in these mature neighbourhoods is outdated, with questionable foundations and old, inadequate wiring, plumbing and insulation; some may need to be replaced. However, where feasible, the clear preference is the thoughtful expansion, renovation and restoration of these buildings, given that the greenest building is the one that already exists. But when replacement is necessary, why can it not be with neighbourhood-compatible and reconcilable architecture? The residential built form in these areas generally exhibits two-storey gable or otherwise angled roof, brick, stone and wood. Yet in the Glebe, OOS and other mature districts, with very few exceptions, what is proudly boasted as “contemporary design” prevails, and it is expressed in massive, three-storey, steel, aluminum, glass and concrete, flat-top, cubist mausoleums. Cold, soulless and incompatible.

These structures are the very antithesis of “intensification,” our new mandated religion, as most are overbuilt single-family structures with third-storey roof-top decks or glass enclosures straining for a view of our parks and canals while limiting the sunlight and views of their neighbours. They answer the call for intensification only by occupying almost the entire lot, resulting in the absence of any greenery except ornamental. No better example exists than the monolithic structure being erected on the former site of the elegant English-style cottage and garden of the late Charlotte Whitton.

Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, the city and the province, the trusted stewards of our domicile, have done nothing for the preservation of our built heritage, except the passage of the Ontario Heritage Act. The Provincial Policy Statement and the Official Plan are empty gestures easily ignored by planning tribunals. Our local heritage authority is buried very deep in a municipal department currently labeled “planning, infrastructure and economic development.” They like disingenuous expressions like “infill” (the developers’ euphemism for demolition) and “Infill that fits.” Without blushing, they utter assurances like “The wishes and convenience of one will not override the overall harmony of the whole street” and “Your street gives you your rules.”

To assuage the sensitivities of heritage advocates, they offer a Streetscape Analysis that totally misrepresents the word “character” and is superficial, doing little more than siting new houses and limiting their height. This document assures the user that “you retain complete architectural freedom to design according to your tastes and wishes” and the tribunals are only too anxious to assent.

The Cultural Heritage Impact Statement does nothing but express self-serving pure fiction, lacking any pretense of independent confirmation. While uttering a few negative points, it will always overwhelmingly support even the most egregious structures. The perpetrators of this process have no understanding of expert testimony. As not only lawyers must know, experts espouse the cause of the party who pays them. If hired by the opposing party, they would argue an entirely different side of the same issue. They are not dishonest anymore than is a lawyer representing a truly guilty client. This is simply the nature of it. But the distortion of the facts is unmistakable. We doubt that there has ever existed such a document reaching a negative conclusion. Surely it would have to be consigned to the recycle bin.

The Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), with its pronounced development bias, became so odious that its very name could no longer be tolerated, even by the government, and had to be changed. However, little else of any substance was done. Now called the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, it remains in Toronto, there is nothing local about it and the OMB panel members retained their positions. Proof that nothing has changed is evidenced by its recent decisions that refute the basic principles of good planning and heritage.  The bias continues under a new name.

Nor has anything changed at the local Committee of Adjustment. Its members, ordinary residents chosen by city council, are political appointments, unburdened by any formal training or experience in town planning.

If matters continue as they are, the Glebe and OSS will soon be obliterated of any heritage value or interest. A very sad commentary on our city’s stewardship.

Frank Oakes, B.A., L.L.B., is a retired barrister and solicitor who lives in the Glebe and takes a keen interest in municipal affairs.

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