Building Heights: Why do builders and developers ask for more?

 Here’s a situation that should sound familiar. A homebuilder proposes a condominium building with more stories than is permitted in the community design plan, the Official Plan or the zoning by-law. Community association representatives are opposed. The local councillor and planning committee members are upset. The issue on people’s minds is, “why do builders and developers always ask for more than is permitted by the rules?” More often than not, the builder’s response is, “we need the changes for economic reasons” with little more in the way of an explanation.

As Ottawa continues to promote building within the greenbelt (intensification), these situations aren’t going to fade away. So, what do homebuilders mean by “economic reasons”.

On average, a tall building project takes three to four years to complete. During this time, the builder/developer is spending money without earning any money in return. Homebuilding is a risky business that requires deep pockets and strong nerves. It’s also a very competitive business (the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association includes 40 homebuilders, 45 home renovators and 360 members altogether).

During the building process, it is common for a builder to face challenges that were not anticipated at the time of purchase (this should resonate with most of us who have renovated our homes). For instance, much of the land in downtown Ottawa is composed of unstable soil. If building a tall building on this type of land, the builder may be required to reinforce the building site at a significant cost. Oftentimes, a building will be proposed for a site where the soil is contaminated (gas stations) and this will require substantial efforts to clean up the soil.

Ottawa’s urban core has antiquated pipes and sewers, with some dating back 150 years. It is not uncommon for a builder to discover that the existing infrastructure cannot support the requirements of the proposed project. In order to proceed, the builder will be required to pay for the pipes and sewer extensions needed to connect the building to the city’s infrastructure.

Homebuilders understand that people have a less than favourable view of our industry. However; when a homebuilder cites “economic reasons” in support of a change to what is permitted under the rules, it is because these changes are needed to make the project work. Without a flexible approach to building heights, we will find ourselves with a vacant lot or a building that is too old to renovate. At the end of the day we should ask ourselves, “do we want a building that brings new shops, restaurants and amenities to our communities or do we prefer a vacant lot?”

Managing how Ottawa grows and develops requires balancing the interests of landowners, homebuilders and developers with those of the neighbouring communities and our city. Homebuilders are not seeking the freedom to do as they please rather they are seeking a flexible and balanced approach to the rules around homebuilding and development. With the right approach in place, we can all work together to build the city we want, while doing a better job of managing the change that comes with it.

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