Managing Infill Housing – Another challenging week for City Building

As this past week would attest (March 24-28), City building can be a complicated, confusing and an oftentimes messy affair.

On Tuesday, the City of Ottawa’s Planning Committee directed the Planning Department to take more time and to work with the infill homebuilding community on the infill zoning bylaw. This comes after two years of work by the Planning Department.

On Wednesday, City Council rejected a proposal for a nine-storey building in Sandy Hill that had been supported by Ottawa’s planning department and by the Planning Committee of City Council.

What’s going on?

There is a lot of growth happening in Ottawa. New tall building projects are in the media on a regular basis. Over 1600 infill units have been built in last five years.

It’s the nature of this growth that is upsetting many residents. Ottawa is building inwards and upwards, not outwards. The practical result is more tall buildings and infill developments and fewer suburban housing developments.

When residents get upset, they look to their community associations and their City councilors for help. How Ottawa is growing and where Ottawa is growing, once largely the privy of builders and planners, is now of interest to many more people.

Infill Housing and Streetscape Character

There’s a lot of infill development happening in Ottawa’s older neighbourhoods. Single family homes on large lots (50 ft. wide) are being sold to infill homebuilders. These old homes are being torn down, and in their place homebuilders are building modern semi-detached or three-unit homes.

The type and volume of infill development is causing concerns with some residents who live in Sandy Hill, Westboro, Old Ottawa South, West Ottawa and the Glebe. Residents are looking for rules that will maintain and protect the cherished character of their communities.

In response to the rapid rate of infill building and the concerns of residents, the City of Ottawa has been working on the development of an infill zoning bylaw. The purpose of the infill bylaw is to maintain the established character of Ottawa’s mature neighbourhoods.
The challenge has been to develop a practical way to determine whether or not a proposed infill project conforms to the character of the homes in the community.

This past week, the City’s Planning Committee approved an infill zoning bylaw that introduces a streetscape character test. Under the new bylaw, a homeowner or builder would be required to demonstrate that the proposed change is consistent with the dominant pattern of the 21 lots surrounding his/her lot.
While the streetscape character test may sound simple, the rules are quite complex and confusing. The practical implications of these rules are causing a lot of concern within the infill development community.

Why does this matter?

Many of the Planning Department’s suggested design solutions involve elements such as shared driveways and rear yard parking that can be problematic for owners and unsightly for neighbours.

Another challenge for existing homeowners is that the new bylaw will be applied to all homes and not just the few that were previously scrutinized due to their redevelopment. Existing homeowners who are unaware of the new bylaw may also be surprised and disappointed at the additional time and expense involved in dealing with another layer of approvals required to make small changes that were previously possible.

Homebuilding and residential development in Ottawa are becoming increasingly difficult. More and more, building projects are facing lengthy and costly delays and differences are being resolved at the Ontario Municipal Board.

Few of us will be concerned about the impact of delays and uncertainty on “developers”. However; we may want to think about the additional costs that delays and uncertainty add to the price of a home as well as the potential negative impact on the 25,000 people working in the homebuilding industry.

Homebuilding pumps $1.5 billion dollars per year into the Ottawa economy and is the fourth largest employer in Ottawa. All of this makes a significant contribution to the high quality of life that we all enjoy.

Infill builders are small businesses, employing some of your friends, neighbours and family members.

Ottawa’s homebuilders understand the need for rules – bylaws and building codes are second nature to us. What we need, and what Ottawa needs, is a set of rules that works for all of us and balances the interest of residents with those of landowners. It will be interesting to see how the Ontario Municipal Board deals with the bylaw approved by Planning Committee this week as the City resubmits it and the original hearing reconvenes.

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