Office of Councillor Jeff Leiper, Kitchissippi Ward, Ottawa | (613) 580-2485  |
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Intensification and the new Official Plan

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(This post is a 15-minute read but is probably the most important I have written. Can’t read it now? Consider bookmarking it and returning to it when you have some time.)

Cities grow.

In Ontario, the broad outlines for how they’ll grow in a way that is economically and environmentally sustainable is set out by the Province in broad strokes. Cities then have an obligation to create an Official Plan (OP) that demonstrates how they’ll grow according to that Provincial direction.

Those Official Plans describe where new suburbs, tall towers, low- and high-density housing, employment areas and commercial mainstreets will be located, what natural features, agricultural land and resources will be protected, and how we expect people to move around. Master plans and secondary plans lend greater geographical, policy and infrastructure precision to the Official Plan.

For several years, the City has been in the process of creating its next Official Plan, and I’ve been alerting residents frequently to opportunities to engage with that. That process is now nearing its conclusion, and a draft plan is available online on which to provide feedback that you can view here. Comment to the City has been extended until March 12, but I'll be engaged in an ongoing discussion with the City, residents, community associations and civil society all summer ahead of a vote on the plan this fall.

There are major implications of change for our ward in that plan that are critical to understand. There are major unknown implications if you live in a neighbourhood such as parts of Champlain Park, McKellar Park, Civic Hospital and Island Park and other areas of the ward that are currently zoned to allow only single-detached homes.

The biggest issue for Kitchissippi is housing density. It is the most contentious election issue cycle after cycle. The draft OP implies significant changes for what will and won’t be approved on housing density for years to come.

Guiding principles

This is a long post and I hope folks will bear with me and read it. The decisions made in crafting the new OP will constrain future city councillors’ ability to either support or oppose individual development applications and will guide what our neighbourhoods look like for years to come.

I won’t spend a lot of time on the “Five Big Moves” that are guiding the OP process. There are two that are critical to our discussion here. First, Council has said that our city should grow predominantly through intensification in the next 25 years, and second, that a majority of trips should be by something other than the private automobile by then, too.

These are, I think, well-supported principles. Within the City’s purview, we can nibble around the edges of climate change mitigation through measures such as encouraging the use of fossil fuel alternatives or seeking changes in the Ontario Building Code, but the biggest sticks we have to address greenhouse gasses are how we constrain or not the physical growth of the city, and the transportation networks we build to support that. Taxpayers and those who care about the climate have a strong interest in encouraging intensification as the most sustainable way to grow.

Stemming from these two big growth and transportation principles, this summer we had a well-publicized debate over the expansion of the urban boundary, and how the city will accommodate a projected 400,000 people in the next 25 years. Probably predictably, Council adopted a middle-ground in the debate between sprawl and intensification. We have decided that 51% of new housing units – a bare majority – will be built as intensification, while 49% will be built as new greenfield subdivisions.

That’s not yet set in stone and won’t be until Council approves a new Official Plan and the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing at Queen’s Park signs it. There is, though, broad support at Council for the overall direction of the Official Plan, and Council has voted overwhelmingly for the intensification/greenfield split.

Intensification/“Regeneration” and neighbourhoods

Achieving an intensification (now called in the draft Official Plan “regeneration”) rate of 51% - which starts slow and increases to 60% by 2046 – means that virtually every neighbourhood in the city is going to intensify. The draft Official Plan suggests that this intensification will be most targeted to neighbourhoods in close proximity to light rail (LRT), employment and amenities (“15-minute neighbourhoods”). This is in keeping with the direction to which we have to adhere from the Province.

The new OP spells out explicitly where these neighbourhoods are. It divides the City into slices and then overlays designations setting out whether the transformation is to be fast or slow.

Kitchissippi is, no surprise, slated for significant regeneration. It is among the first to get LRT and is a walkable community with most amenities nearby. Its neighbourhoods, and those like it around Ottawa, are going to be the most affected when the high-level of policies of the Official Plan are turned into zoning.

Density targets

The draft Official Plan sets out density targets for neighbourhoods that are in the “inner urban transect” that is intended to intensify more quickly than other transects.

The Official Plan sets out that inner urban neighbourhoods will have a density requirement of 80 units per ha.

This provision has become the focus for me, our community associations and for stakeholders right across the inner urban area. They are wondering what that means for their neighbourhood, whether they’re in an R1 neighbourhood like McKellar Park, or a denser R4 neighbourhood like Hintonburg. People are concerned that one-size-fits-all zoning might be applied to their community without respect for its history, character, infrastructure or other considerations.

The uncertainty is compounded by new designations for some streets. Older Official Plan language describing mainstreets is being replaced by a “corridor” designation that now includes streets like Sherbourne. These corridors in general are intended to become denser and support local commercial activities, with little certainty provided as to whether blanket zoning will be applied to them.

Comprehensive zoning review

What the new density targets will mean is supposed to become clearer in an exercise to update much of the zoning in the city in the couple of years following adoption of the new OP.

I want to say, first, that I fully support a comprehensive exercise to update our zoning. Residents will know well that my frequent frustration is that development in our ward is Wild West. Except for some newer secondary plans in the east end of the ward that are defensible and generally holding the line, most development in the ward is occurring in the context of zoning that does not reflect the thinking of even our current or recent Official Plans. Every infill that Council is basically willing to support requires a variance, most complex re-zonings are approved over the objections of many in highly contentious processes.

The obvious challenge, though, is that the new Official Plan will be passed with required densities that will then constrain future councillors ahead of understanding the implications for particular communities. In the next term of Council, the next councillor for Kitchissippi may well be asked by residents to preserve, for example, the single-detached nature of some neighbourhoods – in fact, I consider it highly likely and that this will be an important election issue. With required densities in place, though, that will be difficult to accomplish. The big decisions are being made now, but the details are being left to another day in another term of Council.

Hints of future directions

One thing I can say today is that I consider it unlikely that every neighbourhood will be treated the same. We actually have new zoning in many parts of the ward now that many communities across the inner urban area can look at to understand what the new Official Plan will mean.

This year, two new sets of zoning rules were applied in our ward that preview what should be a new approach to regeneration under the new Official Plan.

First, ahead of the new OP, Council has re-zoned the R4 neighbourhoods such as Hintonburg and Mechanicsville to allow new density after long study. I don’t have reason today to believe that those rules will be substantially re-visited during the comprehensive review since they were crafted with the new OP in mind.

Second, we will likely pass at our next Council meeting the new Westboro infill rules that introduce a more around the edges, on corner lots and on either side of Churchill of the R3R zone that was subject to the triplex ban. Again, those have been crafted with the understanding of greater density requirements in the new Official Plan. My suggestion is that residents who live in other R3 zones in neighbourhoods like Westboro can look to those rules as an example of what is likely to come. Those new Westboro rules don’t allow the density that has been allowed in the R4 zones, but nor do they entirely protect the area from change.

We also have multiple secondary plans that I believe will essentially survive the Official Plan process intact, with the big exception of the Westboro-Richmond plan that hasn’t been defended in years. (Since I know City planning staff are reading this – that needs to be updated as quickly as possible. We have watched what has occurred on Scott, and it would be disastrous not to have a plan in place as development marches up Richmond, Churchill, etc.). Before this OP is approved, we need to understand whether the Scott Street, Bayview, Wellington West and Carling-Preston plans will be subject to change.

Big questions

The biggest question for many, including me, is what this 80 units/ha target will mean, then, for our R1 and R2 neighbourhoods. We know roughly what the implications will be for our R4 and R3 communities, but what about those that are currently restricted to single-detached or semi-detached houses?

I should pause here to note that even greater intensification is planned for streets that used to be called “mainstreets”, now “corridors” in the draft OP. In Kitchissippi, Sherbourne is anticipated to be a new “minor corridor”, and Gladstone a “mainstreet corridor”. Churchill, Kirkwood, Holland and Parkdale between the Queensway and Scott would also be minor corridors, and Wellington/Richmond would be mainstreet corridors. Corridors broadly are intended to support more density and varying levels of commercial activity.

The introduction of Sherbourne is a wrinkle in the overall discussion since it currently has an R1 zoning, the same as the neighbourhood on either side. Whatever happens in McKellar Park with respect to changing the R1 zoning may be different for Sherbourne, and, given the depth at which minor corridors are anticipated to extend, possibly even the streets on either side. Could those become a “transition zone” such as we saw with the new rules in Westboro?

Staff insight

Recently, I asked our City’s planning staff whether the new 80 unit/ha density requirement would force an up-zoning in the R1 and R2 neighbourhoods. What I’ve been told is that maintaining neighbourhoods near transit as exclusively for single-family homes wouldn’t be in keeping of the Official Plan’s direction. The new density could be achieved by replacing a single-detached home on one lot with two on a subdivided lot with secondary dwelling units (apartments). But I still don’t know whether that would mean a prohibition on new single-detached homes on existing lots, or whether new density would be achieved by, for example, allowing semi-detached or denser housing in our R1 neighbourhoods. The new rules for R4 and portion of Westboro's R3 still allow singles and semis like they always have, but residents and I have legitimate and pressing questions about these considerations.

More answers needed

We won’t fully know what these changes mean until the next term of Council when there will be a comprehensive zoning review.

I believe it’s critical that residents have the chance to weigh in on the Official Plan with eyes wide open to what it will mean. Today I think it’s important for residents to know what the implications of the plan would be, and for councillors to have the opportunity to vote on it with those considerations in mind.

I believe that before a vote can take place, we need to set out clearly and transparently some principles with respect to what, if any limits, will be applied to intensification. It’s clearly coming, but if we pass this Official Plan today in its current form, councillors and residents will need to know to what extent the next Council’s hands will be tied with respect to placing limits on regeneration.

I don’t believe, and recent zoning changes bear this out, that one-size-fits-all zoning will be applied to every mature neighbourhood. Every neighbourhood in the next term of Council will have the opportunity to argue for the zoning that it considers important, and to make their expectations known to those running for office in 2022. But the big directions will be set with the Official Plan. Developers will turn to the Official Plan when they argue for zoning changes, and it will be the lens through which the appeal body looks when they appeal Council decisions.

Before I can vote in favour of the Official Plan, I, like you, will need to understand more precisely what it means for our neighbourhoods. I fully understand and support the need for a comprehensive review that will take time and consultation. But we need to ensure we’re being transparent with residents.

I will keep asking the questions of staff posed to me by community associations, other stakeholder groups, and individual residents. My caution to my colleagues and City staff is that without some better understanding of what these directions in the Official Plan mean, it would be irresponsible of Council to pass it.

Posted February 19, 2021