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1081 Carling heading to committee

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Update - July 13

On Tuesday late day, I was sent a copy of the Ontario Land Tribunal decision in the case of a tower Council refused at the corner of Blair and Montreal Road a little before the last municipal election. I am attaching that decision to this post (click on the icon at the end). My preliminary support for the proposal at 1081 Carling rests in significant part on my disagreement with the Civic Hospital Neighbourhood Association that a 45-degree "angular plane" must be achieved in order for a development to conform to the Official Plan - a question that when I was writing this a few days ago was untested. I believe that the Tribunal's reasoning in overturning our Blair/Montreal refusal is directly pertinent to the 1081 Carling proposal. The Tribunal found that a development can achieve an appropriate tranistion with a variety of potential approaches, of which the angular plane might be one. In my original post below, I set out why I believe the appropriate transition has been achieved (after changes from the original). The "clarity" to which I refer below has, I believe, been provided.

On August 16, the Taggart proposal for two high-rise buildings at the corner of Parkdale and Carling (where the medical building is now) is expected to move ahead to a Planning and Housing Committee vote. I will likely support the proposal when it is in front of us and want to provide my analysis here.

When this proposal was first made, I considered it too dense with two towers. I still do. It’s hard for me to envision two towers in a single block, and I think many residents agree. The towers in their initial form also had an inadequate transition to the surrounding low-rise neighbourhood. Transition is important to me and is a frequent foundation of my arguments when I’ve opposed towers in past.

With persistent pressure from myself and from the Civic Hospital Neighbourhood Association working with the City planners to provide pushback, the proposal has now been re-configured. It is still two towers, but they are slightly better offset, and the tower closest to low-rise housing has been made significantly shorter than previously. The transition, particularly for the east tower on the north side, is still in my view too abrupt. I am less concerned about the height than I am the lack of stepbacks on that east tower.

To date, Planning Staff have provided indications that the proposal in its current form meets the policies and guidelines that are supposed to guide development in Ontario and Ottawa. I expect that when this file lands on a Planning and Housing Committee agenda, it will be with a recommendation to the committee and Council to approve the sought-after re-zoning.

I don’t like the development, but I also can’t disagree with staff’s assessment.

I’ve written about it before, but it probably can’t be stressed too often that municipalities in Ontario don’t have the final say on land use planning. I am absolutely confident that if Council refuses this development that the developer will take it to the Ontario Land Tribunal. I’ve written in recent weeks about developments where the City is unable to even find a planner willing to take our case, and you’ve read about the Province’s drive to add housing, even to the point of issuing Ministerial Zoning Orders to cities to dictate denser, taller housing than they might otherwise approve.

Viewing this file through the eyes of a member of the Ontario Land Tribunal, I cannot fathom that it would uphold a Council refusal in this case when our own planners have laid out a case for how it conforms to the Provincial Policy Statement and our own Official Plan.

Disagreement on transition

There is, though, a wrinkle. I’m not going to take residents into the weeds, but the CHNA and its capable, respected lawyer have made a very compelling case that, in fact, the proposal does not conform to explicit policies contained within the Official Plan. One of the key requirements contained within our plan for tall buildings in locations like this is that they provide an appropriate transition to the adjacent low-rise neighbourhood. If one follows the letter of the OP, reading each word with its plain-language meaning, the logical conclusion is that developments like these must provide a 45-degree “angular plane” from adjacent properties. I won’t delve far into it, but it means essentially that from the property line the height of the development can’t rise at an angle steeper than 45 degrees, and that stepbacks have to be introduced that constrain the height along that slope line. No one disagrees that the east tower fails utterly to achieve a 45-degree angular plane. The west tower is very close, but also fails to achieve it.

The CHNA’s legitimate argument is that planners are required to adhere to a plain language interpretation of the Official Plan and would thus be bound to recommend refusal of this proposal.

The interpretation that planners have made in this case, though, is that the 45-degree angular plan is not, in fact, a hard-and-fast rule to which every development must comply (unless an Official Plan amendment is sought). Their view is that an appropriate transition can be achieved through multiple approaches, and that the Official Plan was intended to provide a general requirement for transition without being prescriptive about how that is to be achieved. In this case, they consider that the developer’s reduction in the height of the podium and inclusion of a public pocket park between the east tower and adjacent low-rise house constitute the necessary mitigation.

I have, after weeks of turning it over, ultimately decided to support staff in their interpretation. I do not believe that the Official Plan is the appropriate place to set out very specific hard-and-fast quantitative rules. That’s the place of secondary plans and even more appropriately in zoning. I believe the language in the OP requires clarification, but I do not believe that anyone involved in drafting or approving the OP meant for the 45-degree angular plane to be a go/no-go consideration. As we move through the comprehensive zoning by-law review it would behoove us – if we intend for the angular plane to be a hard-and-fast rule – to include it in those discussions. It is also possible that, if this is appealed to the Ontario Land Tribunal, that we will have that clarity imposed on us by way of its eventual decision.

As noted, I am siding with City staff on this question. There is no disagreement that a requirement for appropriate transition is absolutely baked into the OP. Our arterial mainstreets like Carling, especially those that are slated for more and eventually higher-order transit, are where Council will approve towers, but the Official Plan very consciously requires that there be a transition to the adjacent low-rise neighbourhoods

I begrudgingly believe that that transition is achieved. Where the west tower achieves something close to a 45-degree angular plane with what is considered a relatively generous setback to the property line abutting the neighbour’s property to the south, the east tower cannot be said to achieve the required transition through stepped height reductions.

I’ve shown here a detail from the proposed site plan. The configuration would see, from the north, the nearest R1QQ property, a 4.9m-wide City-owned laneway, a 13.5m-deep parkland dedication and a 3.3m-deep setback from the podium to the boundary with the park. In all, there is a roughly 21.7m setback from the southern edge of the adjacent low-rise to the east tower’s podium. This is, by any measure, a generous distance to a podium that has also been reduced in height from the original proposal.

The problem arises as the tower is stepped back just 3.2m from the podium for levels 5-9 before levels 10-27 rise up without stepback, albeit with a reasonably generous 7m stepback from the levels below it.

Other changes were made to better transition the development overall from the low-rise to the north that are important, but that are not central to the discussion today.

An appropriate transition to the east tower in terms accomplished by distance is, by today’s standards, arguably in place. The challenge is that despite the generous distance that tower just rises up without break to a height that doesn’t meet an angular plane. On balance, I’m comfortable that if the Official Plan test is that there be an appropriate transition accomplished by various means that this is demonstrable in this proposal. Few people really like height, but it is set back to a degree that Council has not demanded of developments abutting other neighbourhoods on arterial roads, and I do not believe that the Tribunal – if this was refused and appealed – would require more either.

Experimental Farm

There is a second consideration in this proposal that should give councillors pause before we approve the sought-after re-zoning: the development’s impact on the adjacent farm and the research that is occurring there. Agriculture Canada has expressed concern that the shadows cast by this building will compromise experiments in some fields and rob the large greenhouses there of passive heat that will increase their bills.

I’ve spent some significant time speaking with the scientists and they have a real concern. Below, I’ve pasted a screen shot of the shadow study provided by the developer to show that in the later evening, a long shadow will move across several fields in which there is an ongoing experiment testing approaches to assisting bacteria to better help soybean plants fix nitrogen in sandier, dryer soils. I have also pasted a screen shot showing modeling by Agriculture Canada demonstrating the reduced minutes of sunlight (including red spectrum light that is particularly important to the process of photosynthesis and that is more abundant when the sun is at a more oblique angle later in the day: it is helpful to know that there are 260,000 minutes of sunlight in an Ottawa growing season, not accounting for cloudy days).

The concerns are legitimate. As I understand the issue, plantings are not uniform throughout the fields in question: different varieties are planted within discrete small plots. If the sun moves across a field in a way that results in different levels of spectrum across varieties, it will be challenging to isolate the variables in determining which varieties are best achieving the desired scientific outcomes.

Bluntly, I believe that bigger concern being expressed is the future of the Farm. If the different levels of light can’t be accounted for through a regression analysis, the fields here are not at least so unique as to eliminate the potential to do the same research elsewhere. But as has been expressed to me, if the Farm’s research potential is nibbled away at how long will it be before its utility as a living lab is gone? When that day comes would the Farm simply be sold off for development? These are not wild-eyed questions. They are though, I believe, premature: even if the Taggart proposal is allowed to proceed it’s by no means inevitable that it will result in loss of the Farm.

I also, at the time writing, don’t have a good understanding of whether restraining the buildings along Carling to 15 storeys, or even 9, would make much of a difference. By 8 pm the sun is at a very oblique angle to the field. At some point there is a fundamental tension between the City’s plans for intensification to accommodate growth that focus specifically on arterial roads like Carling that will eventually have rapid transit, and the effect on the Farm. Radically constraining growth on Carling versus what is contemplated to accomplish larger sustainability goals raises thorny issues with which the City, development community and Agriculture Canada will need to grapple.

Technically and within the parameters of how the Ontario Land Tribunal would view this case, the effect of shadowing the Farm is likely a non-starter, especially compared to the legally more interesting question of transition that this development poses. Our Official Plan contemplates no special protection from taller towers on Carling and it is not obvious that in the context of twin climate and housing emergencies that it should. It’s a question, I believe, not for the OLT but for the City and Council as we move ahead with our new comprehensive zoning by-law as we look at buildings a few hundred metres east and west of this proposal, including the future of the existing Civic Hospital campus.

None of my reasoning above will be satisfactory to those members of the community opposed to these towers. As is the case with every controversial development we have heard the concerns about increased traffic and the changed character of the neighbourhood. Low-rise homes in the area north and west will be sometimes shadowed that aren’t currently shadowed. There is a discussion to come about how traffic in and out of the building will be handled. There are legitimate questions about the utility of the proposed parkland dedication. I agree that these are issues about which residents naturally feel discomfort. Ultimately, though, there’s little question that in this location this is the type of development that our Official Plan contemplates.

After months of back-and-forth, the developer considers that they are on solid ground with respect to the planning grounds they have argued in favour of the sought-after re-zoning. The outstanding question is whether they and the City are right in interpreting the Official Plan requirements for transition, or whether residents are. If this re-zoning is approved by Council there are two scenarios. The first would see the community very legitimately challenge it at the Ontario Land Tribunal. Clarity would follow. The second is that the re-zoning would go unchallenged, which is also a form of clarity. If the latter path is embarked upon then planners and Council will be asked to determine on a case-by-case basis whether proposed transitions are adequate. We will need to get ahead of that work in the course of ongoing efforts to update zoning in the city to reflect the new Official Plan.

I will ask my colleagues to vote their conscience.

Posted July 10, 2023
1081 Carling heading to committee