How to build public support for intensification

Ottawa City Councillor Tobi Nussbaum’s October 12, 2017 Ottawa Citizen article on intensification is a fascinating example of Ottawa City Council not taking responsibility for its own decisions.

For years, I’ve written about a number of municipal issues, including case studies on transit-oriented development and other urban redevelopment and intensification models. When done correctly, with proper public input, thoughtful design, and developers who have a stake in the community, these new spaces can be exactly as the theory promises. When done piecemeal, as is being done in Ottawa, it’s a recipe for disaster.

You can’t expect developers to behave any differently. This is the same scenario we all experienced in school when we had a substitute teacher: it was the signal to mess about and generally ignore the poor sub. Ottawa City Council has, time after time, refused to take developers to account, so of course they’re going to take things as far as they can. (In Kitchissippi, this means building right to the property line because we can’t possibly expect any family to survive with less than 5,000 square feet of space and four bathrooms. I grew up in a house of five females, one male, and one bathroom; somehow we managed without damaging anyone’s psyche.)

The latest example is Byron Avenue. A developer has been allowed to add in extra units (which were not in the original scope of work), simply because the City doesn’t want to take the matter to the Ontario Municipal Board. Admittedly, the OMB is a developer’s paradise, so I understand that argument, but it sets a dangerous precedent. Developers can now do even more of exactly as they please because they know the City won’t spend money or breath fighting them.

Something similar is happening at the Westboro Superstore. Years ago, the community and the company finally came to an agreement to allow townhouses to be built on the Byron-Kirkwood side of the site. By the looks of things, they will now be apartment buildings. For good or ill, the facts still stand that Loblaws either misled the community, lied to its face, or the current economics made townhomes less palatable to their bottom line. Whatever the reason, the community has little choice but to accept it.

Mr. Nussbaum only refers to main streets. Most people don’t live on main streets; they live off of them, and that’s where the real damage is being done. For more than 10 years now, I have not enjoyed a single construction-free week in my immediate neighbourhood in Kitchissippi, even on Sundays or in winter. Some of that was infrastructure work—sewers, road resurfacings, etc., which are necessary—but much of it is simply over-priced residential development that only a lucky few can afford. The rest of us are expected to bow to this new reality through the ritual payment of substantially higher property taxes.

We used to have intensification targets set for every ward; I can’t even find those numbers on the City’s website anymore. Several years ago, I recall being at a meeting with then Kitchissippi councillor Christine Leadman who reported that, with the redevelopment of Les Soeurs de la Visitation convent on Richmond Road, our ward had already blown its intensity target out of the water. I can’t even imagine how far over that target we are now.

You want to build public support for intensification? Aside from the fact that residents are now so cynical about the process that many have simply given up, the first step is for Council to stop acting like it doesn’t set the tone.

Mr. Nussbaum offers no solutions, save the usual feel-good cliché to “work together,” and takes no responsibility for Council’s role in this mess. Many developers—not all—don’t give a rat’s ass about solutions; they want to get in, get the cheque, and get the hell out. I feel for those developers who are sincerely trying to work with residents, but developers have to understand that we have been burned so many times that we have a hard time believing anything you say.

I can almost hear the mutterings as I type this. NIMBY. Suck it up, buttercup. Westboro whiners. Kitchissippi cranks. Yeah, well, forgive me for being a tad cranky when developers behave as though they own the streets, park their massive trucks wherever they want, break bylaws that for the most part go unaddressed by bylaw officers, treat residents as mere inconveniences (or worse), and then crawl off into the night, leaving behind homes that I couldn’t afford, even if I cashed in my RRSPs and liquidated all that I own.

There is so much going on in our city: the LRT, redevelopment of Lincoln Fields and Westgate, the widening of the Queensway (a move so short-sighted it defies belief), Zibi, Lebreton Flats, the new Civic Hospital. On top of the stress and frustration that residents across the city are feeling from these changes, many of these projects are in or near Kitchissippi. So on top of all that, ward residents must also contend with having their neighbourhoods bulldozed to the point where family and friends who return to Ottawa for a visit barely recognize the old streets. Kitchissippi, of all wards, needs a break, a breather, a time to regroup.

When infill comes to Mr. Nussbaum’s ward, or any other councillor’s, with the same force as it has in Kitchissippi, please tell me why I should have the slightest sympathy?

As for solutions, there is no silver bullet, but a good start would be:

  1. Take complaints seriously.
  2. Allow more time for meaningful community consultation, not a quick presentation, followed by soothing words and no action.
  3. Hire a residential development ombudsman so that community groups don’t have to go into debt to take companies to the OMB.
  4. Require permeable paving so that developments that pave over every inch of available greenspace aren’t flooded when the rivers burst their banks again and the stormwater system overflows.
  5. Enforce new footprint requirements that deny developers the right to always build right to the property line.

I’m sure that people smarter than me can think up dozens more.

Mr. Nussbaum, I invite you (and any other councillor) to take a walk with me on a single street in my neighbourhood. I’ll walk the entire length of it with you—about 20-25 minutes top to bottom, depending on how speedy a walker you are—and show you exactly what I mean. I can point out the development where the foundation was ripped out and re-poured in February because it hadn’t cured correctly the first time (the houses are still not 100% complete after two years); you will see new houses with drip lines extending onto other’s properties; perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to see the stump of a 100-year old Russian olive tree that was in the developer’s way and which a neighbour dug out by hand in order to save the wood to make furniture, with zero help from the builders I might add. And you’ll see plenty of examples of homes that appear to have been built only to house cars, not people.

Perhaps then you will have some inkling of why your article made me want to throw my laptop out the window. I believe this situation is still fixable, but only if Council stops thinking in “ward silos” and stands up for all its citizens.  From what I’ve experienced over the last decade, that’s an awfully big “if.”  Please prove me wrong.

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