Yes, in my backyard
As Municipal leaders work hard to implement Stage 1 of the LRT project we sense widespread optimism for Ottawa’s future. With Stage 2, and potentially Stage 3, our communities will connect from Parliament Hill to the suburbs. The LRT project will connect us all socially, physically and environmentally but as it unfolds, we need to consider the financial impacts if we do not plan appropriately.
The LRT system is not the Field of Dreams; there is no guarantee that simply building it will ensure enough users to support it. Who will bear the financial burden to cover the operational cost shortfall if the ridership is underwhelming? Is it reasonable to assume that the Provincial government will subsidize operational shortfalls? Can the existing low-rise housing stock in suburban communities generate enough ridership to avoid subsidies? If not, will taxes increase for all Ottawa residents to support LRT stations that do not have enough ridership to make the LRT sustainable?
One way to achieve economic success of the LRT is to support planning policies that include intensification around future LRT stations and transit corridors. As existing communities revitalize with infill developments on and around transit corridors, we will use less infrastructure, use less resources and residents will be more likely to use public transit. One focus for development along these corridors is residential properties that are zoned R4.
R4 residential zoned properties contemplate low-rise, wood-framed developments, typically three or four stories. Many planners and urbanites call this the “Missing Middle” or gentle density. If planned properly, this zone creates a strong urban edge for communities, serving, through its allowable built form, as a transition between the transportation corridors and the existing low density detached homes within each adjacent community. If designed properly, buildings will have a direct relationship to the street, helping to frame safe and useable public spaces.
The R4 residential zoning by-law is currently being reviewed by the City of Ottawa and the Planning Department should be commended for their initiative to discuss modernizing this outdated by-law for many reasons: 1) R4 zoned properties are more affordable to build, therefore helping housing affordability. 2) R4 zoned properties are more sustainable to build, aligning with energy and environmental initiatives. 3) R4 zoned properties are more density efficient per acre; therefore creating economic benefits to our City. 4) R4 zoned properties allow creative forms of infill development, therefore providing new choice in housing for growing families and empty nesters alike.
Housing Affordability: A typical R4 zoned 50′ wide lot in Ottawa could be developed for one single family home or a low-rise apartment. You can imagine how a low-rise apartment will be much more affordable on a per door basis. The efficiency of sharing land costs, municipal approvals, servicing infrastructure, public transportation and shared building elements (walls, floors, roof, etc.) equate to enormous cost savings for each residential dwelling. As we create affordable urban apartments, many first time homebuyers have a choice to move out of their parent’s basements to own their first property. These first-time buyers will not need or want a car because they will be the ones who embrace the LRT. If we want to fix housing affordability in our City we should invest in these efficient multi-unit building forms that take advantage of their location to public transportation.
Sustainability: The same low-rise apartment on a typical 50′ lot is also more sustainable. The building science efficiency of sharing party walls, floors, and fewer windows means we need less heating in the winter and less cooling in the summer. Existing infrastructure can service multiple dwellings instead of one without having any additional municipal costs on our infrastructure. In addition, these residents would use the LRT, reducing car dependency. If we truly want to make environmental change at a macro level we should support greater density in close proximity to public transportation and where our existing infrastructure can support more residents.
Economic Benefit – Development Charges & Taxes: A low-rise apartment can also generate tremendous financial opportunities for the City of Ottawa. The development charge for one single-family home in close proximity to the LRT is $22,857. The same 50’ lot with an eight unit low-rise apartment, would generate $107,648 in development charges (the development charge for each two bedroom apartment is $13,456). This creates greater revenue for our City and increases development charge yield efficiency by 470%. One can also appreciate that the same infill project will achieve a greater net density per lot and create additional tax revenue. This additional revenue could be better utilized to support the LRT or other affordable housing options.
As an educated, thriving and passionate city, we need to implement these principles of smart development. A low-rise apartment is a more sustainable, affordable and transit supportive building form that generates higher development charges and tax revenue going forward, and must therefore be promoted with vigour. This column is not about urban vs. suburban or up vs. out and it’s not about profit. It’s about what we can do to better help our city grow sustainably while ensuring the highest quality of life for all residents.
David Renfroe is the Director of Business Development and Planning at Domicile Developments Inc. and the Chair of the Greater Ottawa Homebuilders’ Association’s Urban Infill Council.