Ottawa’s Official Plan 2021 to 2046:
Ottawa is growing.
What does that mean in the Glebe?
By Jennifer Humphries
As I write this, the City of Ottawa has just issued a Growth Management Strategy for the New Official Plan. It was to be discussed at a special joint meeting of the Planning Committee and the Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee on May 11. That meeting was to produce a recommendation to city council, with a final decision expected soon after.
This is not a run-of-the-mill decision. It’s a once-in-a-generation chance to determine what Ottawa prioritizes and how livable the city will be for future citizens.
Between 2021 and 2046, the city projects that Ottawa’s population will increase by 400,000 and that 195,000 new homes will be required. The Growth Management Strategy describes the three approaches that were considered to meet this need: Status Quo, Balanced and No Expansion. The strategy recommends the Balanced approach, which would expand the urban boundary dramatically, adding between 1,350 and 1,650 hectares of land for development. All three approaches require adding density in existing communities: in the Status Quo approach, 45 per cent will be achieved through adding density; in the Balanced approach, 51 per cent; and in the No Expansion approach, 64 per cent.
It’s important to recognize that the city has already been achieving substantial growth through intensification within the existing urban boundary. Ottawa blew through its most recent five-year target of 38 per cent intensification, actually achieving 55 per cent in 2018. As a result, the Greenspace Alliance of Canada’s Capital considers a strategy that targets 51 per cent intensification for the next 25 years to be going backwards.
The Glebe Community Association (GCA) supports maintaining the current urban boundary and finding creative, sensitive ways to intensify, both in the urban core and in the suburbs. As stated in a motion approved by the GCA board, urban sprawl would increase carbon emissions and human stress through thousands of additional kilometres driven by new residents in the farthest reaches of the urban area, when we should be reducing GHG emissions from transportation. It would also cost taxpayers for decades to come to build roads, water and wastewater infrastructure.
The GCA also supports the preservation of arable land for agriculture and wild areas for recreation and biodiversity, but the proposed growth strategy would see up to 1,650 hectares of land added to the city’s developable area. To put that in perspective, it’s the equivalent of more than 2,024 Canadian football fields or one and a half times the area of Kitchissippi Ward. It could mean the loss of many small family farms and opportunities for young farmers.
The city’s growth management strategy provides a scoring system for determining which land can be developed, with points allocated for proximity to existing infrastructure and transportation. It deducts points for land that is considered either agricultural resource land or natural linkage (existing or potential natural connections between core natural areas of the city’s Natural Heritage System). Of the total 90 points available, a minuscule four points each is deducted for these two criteria.
You could well be forgiven for thinking that the strategy’s recommendation flies in the face of the “Five Big Moves” promoted by the city to guide the official plan. They emphasize growth by intensification as well as integrating urban design sophistication and by embedding public health, environmental, climate and energy resiliency into planning policies. And yet the city concludes that “the No Expansion scenario is considered too ambitious within the time period of this Official Plan.”
Implications for the Glebe
What does this mean for the Glebe and similar established neighbourhoods?
For one thing, whatever council decides, intensification will be needed. It’s now haphazard and seemingly guided by the interests of development corporations and smaller private investors. We’ve often felt regulations are flouted and that the raft of minor variances undo all the planning that we’ve helped with in good faith.
If the Glebe is destined for intensification, shouldn’t we aim to make it on our terms? Maybe if we do, we can avoid monoliths such as the Claridge Icon at Preston and Carling – literally just around the corner from the Glebe, Glebe Annex and Dow’s Lake communities.
This article certainly can’t cover this multifaceted issue. It’s meant as a discussion starter. Over the coming weeks and months, the GCA board will consider what intensification could and should mean for the Glebe, and how to engage our membership and all Glebe residents and businesses in the discussion. Don’t hesitate to be in touch with us through the website, glebeca.ca.
Diversification, not just mega-towers
I spoke with Anthony Leaning of CSV Architects, who specializes in sustainable building and whose portfolio includes interesting examples of the mid-rise multi-unit residence. He now lives in Old Ottawa East but grew up in the Glebe, son of John Leaning, the architect and author of The Story of the Glebe.
“Intensification has negative connotations,” Leaning says. “We need to think about diversity in household types. The city has a huge proportion of ground-related, single-family housing that isn’t completely suited to changes in demographics.”
Leaning says his sense is the population of many central communities like the Glebe has shrunk in the last half century. Where a home used to have a family of five or six people living in it, there are now often just one or two. “We need more variety. We have lots of homes at each end of the spectrum – small condo and apartment units and large detached residences, with few choices in between.”
Unfortunately, Leaning sees the development discussion as simplified to let’s “tear down a single or a group of single detached residences and put up a high-rise.” Sometimes it goes in the other direction, demolishing a single detached residence to build a much bigger home of the same, single-family type (often contrasting awkwardly with the street’s existing character and scale). Neither of these is satisfactory – the first because it utterly disrupts the look and scale of a neighbourhood of primarily low- to mid-rise buildings and the second because it adds no new residences and may also detract from the street’s aesthetic. As well, numerous studies indicate that high-rise living can create social isolation that can lead to health issues for some residents.
What does Leaning see as opportunities in the Glebe? How can we add homes for more people in a sensitive way that a majority of current residents can accept and maybe even applaud? He suggests an approach similar to the gentle density concept of internationally acclaimed city planner Brent Toderian. Here’s how Toderian defines it: “Gentle density is attached, ground-oriented housing that’s more dense than a detached house, but with a similar scale and character. Think duplexes, semi-detached homes, rowhouses, or even stacked townhouses.”
Leaning points to some of the features that can be achieved through gentle density: ground-level access; varied options within a building, with some units for families and others for singles or couples; and shared greenspace. In Centretown, Leaning replaced a building originally constructed as six rowhouses with 16 townhouses, each with two or three bedrooms, in a combination of stacked and apartment units. Every unit has a door to the street. The development has about the same volume as the original, is no higher and fits well with the rest of the street. “At first, neighbours were nervous, but it’s appropriate for the street and they appreciate that.”
Other examples of density done well include Beaver Barracks at Metcalfe and Catherine and the old Ottawa Teachers College between First and Second Avenues.
Most of the Glebe is zoned R1 and R2. Higher density could be achieved in pockets that are R4 zoned – for example, near the Queensway and Lansdowne and possibly on Bank Street. But the ideal for the avenues and streets in the Glebe may be much more incremental.
Leaning points to the opportunities for adding secondary units which have little or no impact on the outward appearance of the house. There are existing provisions in Ottawa bylaws to subdivide or add an accessory dwelling. There are great examples of homeowners adding apartments for older relatives or friends, for university students or for other young adults. The province encourages this and some cities have incentive grants to help out (see ontario.ca/page/add-second-unit-your-house).
There are huge environmental and social advantages to helping more people live in established urban communities where there is an array of amenities such as we have in the Glebe. It means more people walking or biking instead of using cars, and more people accessing our great schools and shops.
A city of Ottawa incentive grant for secondary units could be connected to increasing a home’s overall energy efficiency in keeping with the climate change master plan. At a recent workshop, Mitchell Beer, president of Smarter Shift and publisher of The Energy Mix, spoke about deep energy retrofits to improve a home’s energy efficiency and decrease its carbon footprint. He noted that adding a secondary suite while retrofitting would make sense – it would support a cleaner environment, offer gentle intensification and, if the unit is rented, provide a way to recoup costs over time.
Capital Ward Councillor Shawn Menard has spoken about the “missing middle,” meaning the mid-rise apartment buildings, townhomes and stacked townhomes and rowhouses that are much less prevalent in Ottawa’s newer residential developments than are high-rise apartment and condo towers.
So what’s stopping us?
Not in my back yard
In a 2018 article about Toronto’s municipal election, Globe and Mail architecture writer Alex Bozikovic referred to the intensification discussion as “politically toxic” with the most vocal protest coming from those in affluent neighbourhoods of primarily single-family detached homes.
Leaning says that Ottawa officials have been sensitive to pushback from existing communities, so the city is focusing on a few key areas, mainly around transit hubs, along main shopping streets and on major redevelopment sites such as Lansdowne. The new R4 zoning review is a bright spot, looking at midsize ground-related buildings with a variety of household types, not just one-bedroom units.
We in the Glebe are regularly accused of nimbyism. It’s understandable. We’ve got a beautiful neighbourhood of homes on a human scale, many houses with heritage value, good schools, parks, places of worship and access to a range of shopping, dining and entertainment. We have the classic 15-minute walkable, bikeable neighbourhood and want to keep it that way. But couldn’t we find ways compatible with the architecture, style and culture of the Glebe to give more people the benefits of our lifestyle?
Referring to a similar situation in Vancouver, UBC Professor Patrick Condon said in a 2017 video that if we don’t bring in some density, our own sons and daughters won’t be able to live in our city (thetyee.ca/News/2017/03/27/Vancouver-Housing-Projects-Video/). It may not be true for all, but for most millennials and Gen Zs, the Glebe as currently constituted is not an affordable option. Condon goes on to say that there is architecture that can fit in: “If I were to put it into one bumper sticker statement, it takes good architecture.” He stressed the word “good.”
In my view, having seen some stellar examples on my rambles in the Glebe and adjacent neighbourhoods, Ottawa is perfectly capable of achieving good architecture. Let’s be ambitious!
Jennifer Humphries is co-chair of the Glebe Community Association’s Environment Committee and a member of Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability. She can be reached at email@example.com.