Office of Councillor Jeff Leiper, Kitchissippi Ward, Ottawa | (613) 580-2485  |
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My vote for intensification in the R4 zones

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At this week’s Planning Committee meeting, I voted to support proposals for the higher-density residential zones around the downtown core that will allow even greater intensification than previously. The review of the R4 zones has been a hotly-debated topic for the last year, and I want to explore my vote here.

The zones in question are the residential fourth density areas (R4). These are zones that are historically intended to accommodate low-rise apartment buildings. In the biggest change for our ward, the cap on the number of units in those is proposed to be increased from 4 to 8 or even 12.

It’s important to note that while there are some important considerations around the design and configuration of what will now be allowed, we’re generally speaking to buildings that are no bigger than what’s currently allowed to be built. The biggest change besides higher unit caps will be the prohibition of parking in order to properly accommodate building amenities and green space.

Fundamentally, the change is intended to accomplish the building of more low-rise rental stock, and to make that available through intensification rather than through sprawl. In this term of Council, we’ve agreed and asserted that there are two crises underway in our city: a climate crisis and a housing/homelessness crisis. The two are inextricably related.

The biggest contribution that cities can make to addressing climate change is to view planning and transportation through that lens by encouraging the shift to electrified public transit and active transportation. We have to hold the line on urban sprawl, and all of our communities need to become transit- and walking-friendly. This summer, Council voted to expand the urban boundary to allow more greenfield developments, but it was not by as much as developers were seeking.

A continued constraint on sprawl reflected in our new growth plans means we have to achieve greater intensification in order to provide the housing that will be necessary to accommodate new households at affordable prices. I think it goes without saying that this needs to be across the city, and in a variety of forms. Not all our intensification can be satisfied by stuffing the areas around transit stations with apartment buildings. Our low-rise neighbourhoods will also have to change.

The housing crisis is also a major driver to this review. Ottawa currently has around a 1.8% vacancy rate – roughly half what a healthy rate should be. Simply, with so few vacancies, landlords who own market housing are able to charge very high rents. Many Ottawa residents who rely on market housing are struggling to pay that rent, or even find a suitable apartment at all. We need thousands of units to be built – both of social housing and market housing – to address this.

What planners, and now likely Council, are trying to achieve is to remove constraints on building low-rise apartment buildings in the R4 zone where for decades those have been allowed, but few actually built.

I’ve been listening carefully to the arguments and have given my support for this a lot of thought. There are several concerns that have been raised to me, planners, and now Council about what the consequences of this are likely to be, and I’d like to address those.

The most important consideration has been the cost of housing. One of the biggest concerns is that allowing greater density will spur more development, and that that development won’t actually be affordable. Those of us who live in Kitchissippi know what happens when infills are built. Smaller more modest homes are demolished and new homes of a variety of types depending on the zoning get built that top out the market pricing.

My perspective on this is that our neighbourhoods are going to re-develop. Kitchissippi is one of the most desirable places in Ottawa to live. When it’s done, there will be seven LRT stations between two lines serving us. We are in close proximity to downtown for walking and bike access. We have two farmers markets, quick access to a beach, an incredible river park system, great schools, and two funky shopping and dining areas. People want to live here. The overall housing shortage and desirability of our neighbourhoods are driving higher property values and development.

The question before us is whether that re-development will continue to be largely astronomically priced homes, or whether we will have other options besides. I have no doubt that people will continue to re-develop properties with semi-detached homes or even singles – three detached homes have gone up on my R4 street just recently. Many homes will also be renovated. What this new zoning will provide, however, is the option to develop rental housing with economics that work. To date, because of the economics of home-building, we have seen precious little custom-built rental put up in our ward.

In short, we can’t make housing in our neighbourhoods less expensive by preserving those neighbourhoods’ exclusivity. If we could freeze development today, prices would continue to climb even further into the realm of the unaffordable. We can maintain the status quo and continue to see homes demolished to build million-dollar semis, or we can take action to add to the city’s rental stock in order to address a supply in crisis.

The housing crisis will require a variety of responses. Intensification is one of those. That, though, will only address the creation of more market-based housing. We also desperately need an inclusionary zoning by-law. As I have raised over and over again, neighbourhoods like ours are rapidly being re-zoned without any of the new housing required to be affordable, and deeply affordable in particular. It is not too late. There are dozens of parcels in the near west end of Ottawa that will be re-developed and we need the leverage to ensure that we’re building neighbourhoods for everyone. We also need more rent-geared-to-income housing such as that built by Ottawa Community Housing and that will require federal and provincial help. We need more dollars for rent subsidy, and greater protection for tenants facing displacement. These are more than can be accomplished through zoning.

There are three other very legitimate concerns that I and the community have raised in the context of this review.

The first is that we are anticipating big increases in population in neighbourhoods such as ours and cynicism is high that the necessary amenities and infrastructure will be in place to support it. At the top of the list are parks and recreation facilities. Those of us who use Plant and Dovercourt know how in demand those pools and gyms are. Very few new facilities have been constructed in decades. The only thing I can say here is that the mechanisms that already exist to support growth are in place. We have to ensure that those mechanisms are optimized to reflect where growth is actually happening, but they exist.

The second key concern expressed is that Council is being quick to increase density in the neighbourhoods closest to downtown – historically some of Ottawa’s most vulnerable neighbourhoods. The worry is that we’ll stop there: already dense, walkable neighbourhoods will be transformed to the significant discomfort of some residents, but richer neighbourhoods will continue to be protected by restrictive zoning.

As a Council, we have committed to a comprehensive review of the city’s zoning once the new Official Plan is passed. I’ve seen that this commitment to intensification is already playing out on the Planning Committee floor where, for example, we just recently passed a controversial 16-storey development in Orleans, have approved tall towers near our LRT stations current and future, the controversial low-rise development on Grenon, and where I believe we will support low-rise intensification projects such as at 33 Maple Grove in the heart of suburbia. The proof will be in the pudding. But, as a Council, we swore with hands on hearts to support intensification right across the city to meet aggressive new targets. I see evidence of that commitment on the part of Council today, and I believe it will continue.

Finally, several community associations have noted some finer-grain issues with the current R4 proposal. The intent is to accommodate more people in built forms that are no larger than what is allowed today in those zones. Between now and final Council approval, we need to make sure the facades of these buildings are interesting, that the language is clear on protecting green space from the Committee of Adjustment, and that there is a guaranteed amount of amenity space for the residents who will live in these buildings. The discussions on those points will continue.

Council will vote on the Committee’s recommendation to pass the R4 zoning changes on September 23. When I vote, I'll be voting thinking of our kids and the many hard-working people who live in our city today and who will move to our city tomorrow who only want the same opportunity many of us had to find a home they can afford in the best neighbourhoods in Ottawa.

Posted September 12, 2020