New rules could open door to more low-rise apartments in established neighbourhoods

Photo: Jean Luc Henry

Thursday, September 10, 2020

OTTAWA CITIZEN, By Jon Willing

The complicated work of encouraging home construction, shoehorning small apartment complexes into Ottawa’s oldest neighbourhoods and satisfying neighbours who will live near those buildings played out during a city council planning committee meeting Thursday.

On the table was a proposal to tweak the zoning bylaw to support, while regulating, multi-unit buildings as residential developments in inner-urban communities.

It means those neighbourhoods — like Hintonburg, Sandy Hill, Overbrook, Carlington and others — are on notice that more infill, densified, residential buildings could pop up if council approves the bylaw changes, which the planning committee fully endorsed.

The policy review has been going on since 2016, ever since inner-urban communities started raising alarms about the proliferation of “bunkhouses,” referring to single units that have several bedrooms jammed into them, spiking the density on a single lot.

Meanwhile, Ottawa’s rental vacancy rate is extremely low, rent prices are increasing, city council has declared a housing and homelessness emergency and the push is on to crank up intensification in existing communities under a soon-to-be-updated official plan.

The city’s residential zones are classified by density, from R1 at the lowest density to R5 at the highest density. The proposal under scrutiny zeroes in on the R4 zone, which generally allows buildings up to four storeys.

The zone also includes some restrictions on the number of units on a lot. Under the new proposal, the city would increase those maximums.

Coun. Jan Harder, the chair of the planning committee, said there are 17,000 R4 lots inside the greenbelt, highlighting the intensification opportunities, but also the risks that come with altering the characteristics of old neighbourhoods.

At the centre of the conflict is the goal of filling the “missing middle” of housing options in Ottawa and making those multi-unit buildings fit in established areas.

Many people who made deputations during the committee meeting pointed to this problem.

“We don’t want to see families driven out of the neighbourhoods because we’re only building studio (apartments) or one-bedroom apartments,” Marjolaine Provost of the Overbrook Community Association told the committee.

Provost also voiced a concern about the threat of overbuilding in neighbourhoods — pointing to a 3.5-storey, 34-unit apartment that’s replacing two homes on Columbus Avenue in Overbrook — and not seeing complementary community infrastructure, like sidewalks and recreation spaces. Overbrook wants the number of units in a building capped at 24, Provost said.

Four members of the Hintonburg Community Association lined up in the deputation queue to criticize the city’s proposal, highlighting the lack of requirements for building design, amenity spaces and affordable housing.

Coun. Catherine McKenney, too, didn’t want people to make a false assumption that encouraging more rental units will generate affordable housing options.

The local homebuilding industry also had a lukewarm reaction to the proposed policy changes.

Murray Chown, a developer consultant representing the Greater Ottawa Home Builders Association, said members are willing to “wait and see how this plays out,” even if they have concerns.

Parking, and the fact that some apartment buildings won’t be allowed to provide parking spaces under the proposed policy, continues to be a hot topic.

Council will consider the planning committee’s recommendation on Sept. 23.

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