Office of Councillor Jeff Leiper, Kitchissippi Ward, Ottawa | (613) 580-2485  |
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All-or-nothing intensification: the Highcroft case

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At the end of May, City Council approved a big new expansion of the area in which the construction of new subdivisions can be built. It was a contentious debate. At the heart of it was the question of intensification: how much is too much? Are residents prepared to make compromises? Can even the new requirement that intensification account for half of growth between now and 2046 be achieved?

In his comments to the media, the Mayor said Council has “heard from the vast majority of residents that they support intensification, but they want it to be done thoughtfully through design, while respecting the characteristic of established communities.” He’s right. Intensification can’t be all or nothing.

Residents on Highcroft Avenue are today, though, reeling from their experience of trying to work pragmatically with a developer on intensification that achieves the City’s goals. They’re frustrated that “thoughtful” intensification is just words, and that all-or-nothing intensification is actually the rule of the day. I share their frustration and am angry today at the way those residents have been treated.

As residents know, a developer has made a proposal for the corner of Highcroft/Byron Place and Churchill. It’s a proposed mixed-use development, six storeys at the front facing Churchill, and five storeys (with the fifth storey modestly stepped back after the fourth storey) at the back along Highcroft. It would have 73 units and 43 resident parking spaces.

While the six-storey portion is realistically challenging to oppose given the City’s and Province’s planning thrusts, a key point of contention has been the effect of the five-storey design on Highcroft. It represents a very big change to the existing streetscape.

To respond, residents of Highcroft have hired a planning lawyer who has been able to provide them with pragmatic advice on what Council is likely to approve. They have worked for weeks to try to reduce the impact of a five-storey face on their low-rise street.

A few weeks ago, they thought they had a small win.

A deal in the works would have seen the developer reduce the height by one storey on the Highcroft side, which would have resulted in a full three storeys, with a fourth storey set back at the points closest to the adjacent two-storey home. The fourth storey wouldn’t extend all the way across the face of Highcroft, and so create a gentler transition. It would “read” as a reduction in height from four storeys to three to the neighbour’s two. A moderate number of units might be lost, but it would be an important improvement in the design.

In return for the concession, the residents were prepared to commit to not appealing any Council approval of the development. That would allow the developer to get a shovel in the ground sooner and avoid the expense of a long Local Planning Appeal Tribunal process. It’s not really a win-win, but on the basis of pragmatic, clear-eyed planning advice the neighbours were willing to accept a compromise that sees a significant improvement in how their street will look and feel compared to the original proposal while accepting a very significant new intensification project that is highly controversial. The compromise was being negotiated, but was never finalized.

Last week we learned, however, that the developer has chosen to forge ahead with their original proposal. Likely comfortable that they would win any community LPAT appeal (a possibility) the developer has chosen to roll the dice at taxpayer and community expense. There was a deal on the table, and the developer has walked away.

When the Mayor was defending not holding the line on urban sprawl, he cited the resistance put up by neighbours and councillors as a challenge to achieving intensification goals.

This is why. Neighbours on Highcroft getting pragmatic, sympathetic, sophisticated planning advice in the Highcroft proposal were ready to take the barest concession using the only leverage they had to slightly mitigate the impact of this building – and to let it move forward. I don’t know the developer’s motivations for walking away from the table. I’m sure they feel comfortable that eventually they will get what they want once the community has been bled dry of time and money.

There are grounds in the Official Plan upon which this building can be legitimately rejected by Council. I will be doing everything in my power to convince my colleagues of that. Residents right across the City who know intensification is coming to their ward next will be watching.

My office is hosting a Zoom webinar on Monday to look at the latest plans. See the details of that here.

Posted June 25, 2020