How many bad decisions can one city’s planners make?

By Bruce Firestone | Tiny Homes

Jul 07

Part 1

(A version of this article first appeared in OBJ,

How many bad decisions can one city’s planners make? Lots,
if you are talking about Ottawa. 

Let’s review their record—

got rid of streetcars many years ago, not to replace them with subway or metro,
but dirty, smelly diesel buses that get stuck in snow every winter

-the NCC expropriated lands at LeBreton Flats of what was
then a flourishing working class community only to demolish it and replace it
with… nothing for decades before eventually approving construction of a few
unimaginative condo towers thereby creating another no-place

-Ottawa signed a binding agreement with two respected firms
(Siemens and PCL) for construction of a light rail line to the south only to
renege on its agreement, missing out on $900 million of senior government
funding not to mention $2 billion of real estate projects (hotels, apartments,
shopping and commercial space) planned for, around (and over) new stations,
losing $80 million of its own investment in planning, design and right of way
acquisition, getting sued for $177 million (settling the lawsuit for about $35
million plus millions more in legal fees)… all to build exactly nothing

-Ontario amalgamated 12 Ottawa-Carleton governments into one
(the city of Ottawa) ostensibly to provide for more rational management and a
right-sized civil service, going from 12,500 FTEs—full time equivalents or what
you and I would call “jobs”—to 8,500 only to see the numbers balloon to 16,500,
producing a vast bureaucracy that couldn’t find Ottawa’s rural villages even
with a compass and a map, and costing ratepayers an extra $800 million annually
resulting in property taxes 30% higher than Metro Toronto’s, which any sane
observer would have thought impossible, Toronto being a much larger and more
complex civic organism than Ottawa

saved—wait for it, Dr. Evil-style—“one million dollars” on design/construction
of its downtown arena by truncating half its seating capacity so that the Civic
Centre was obsolete the day it opened in 1967

-the NCC built “parkways” aka roads between where people
live and Ottawa’s three beautiful rivers and canal and closed or demolished
change rooms, toilets, small stores so that even if you’ve lived in Ottawa for
decades, you don’t fully realize its beauty since you are separated from water
by tens of thousands of fast-moving cars and buses so you can’t (easily) access
them or, when you do, there is nowhere to get a tea, coffee or muffin or use a

still, to this day, builds suburbs where you’ll find 3,000 stick-built homes in
a row without catching sight of a corner store, a pub, a shop, a dental office,
a medical clinic or a job, and where every trip is a car trip on curvilinear
roads with rights-of way wide enough to host formula-1 races

-Ottawa recently commissioned a $750,000 consulting study
(which this city does with reckless abandon not to mention spending) by a
Toronto-based firm, half of it funded by a handful of Greater Ottawa Home
Builders’ Association members, as political cover for re-designating suburban
employment lands (ultimately one suspects to be used for residential use and
more tract housing) and getting rid of a long-held policy of having 0.3 jobs
per suburban population (which so far only Kanata has managed to live up to),
an historic mistake, which means that Orleans, Barrhaven and Riverside South
will be doomed to remain bedroom communities, and traffic patterns will only
get more lopsided and worse.

I could go on for another few hours, but imagine my surprise
when I learned recently that in addition to legalizing in-home suites (some
time ago, when Bob Chiarelli was still mayor of Ottawa), the city was
contemplating adding coach houses to its list of permitted uses.

I have fond memories of living in (what was then called) a
granny flat in Santa Cruz California, not far from UCSC. The big house
in front was occupied by a lady who I thought was impossibly old (probably
about the age I am today—in her 60s). I got to know her a bit so I asked her why
she’d built a tiny one-bedroom home in her backyard, “Well, I like students. I
like their company. My own family has kind of forgotten about me.”

And it was true. I never heard her phone ring and she never
had any visitors. She was lonely and, in addition to their conversation, she
felt safer having someone else live on her property.

Then she added, “And frankly, Bruce, I can also use the
extra income too.” The year was 1969.

If you want to keep your most valuable resource in your
village, town or city—your kids—you have to build your brand, make it feel like
living in your community is a cool thing to do, convince young people they can
do great things without moving down the road to a mega city, which noted
urbanist Richard Florida says is a place of ten million or more, of which
Canada has none.

To that end, two senior Ottawa planners—Alain Miguelez,
program manager for zoning, intensification and neighbourhoods and John Smit, manager of policy development and urban design,
Alain’s boss—sat down with me for 90 minutes of frank talk about the state of
the city’s planning.

By way of background, Alain sums up his this way, “In my
tour of duty in zoning, I’ve been focused on removing barriers. I was able to
oversee up-zoning of about 100 kilometres of arterial frontage (to allow both
residential and commercial uses), get micro-retail zoning passed without
appeal, get more frontyard parking flexibility in the ‘burbs, establish
streetscape character zoning for infill in older neighborhoods, open the door to
corner lot severances in the R1 bungalow belt inside the greenbelt, allow
front-to-back semis, allow wrap-around semis, and now we’re doing coach houses
plus a review of minimum parking requirements—we’ll end up eliminating them, or
significantly reducing them, at key locations, allowing open-air markets
as-of-right on church lands, and we’re about to start projects on maker space,
removing obsolete restrictions in many rural zones, and cleaning up yet more obsolete
restrictions in several urban industrial zones.”

Mr. Miguelez goes on to say, “I’ve been lucky that senior
management has gone along with all my stuff. I’ve also been successful with
humour sometimes—one of my star planners is a cartoonist, and I got him
permission to do a video about what impact Ottawa’s parking standards is having on
development in this city.”

Montreal requires one parking
space per 250 square metres of restaurant space, Toronto asks for 7. Ottawa? It demands a whopping 23. What this
means is that pleasing streetscapes and walkable places like Hintonburg or the
Glebe could not be built today.

It’s worth watching their short video—plug this: “Review of
Minimum Parking Standards” into YouTube’s search bar.


Maybe, as James Howard Kunstler says (in Home from Nowhere) it might be better
to, “Burn all your zoning codes.”  

John Smit won’t
go that far, “Right now, developers, community associations and BIAs (business
improvement associations) have to twist themselves into pretzels to get things
done in this city. Our job is to rationalize that. Ned Lathrop used to say, ‘Ottawa is changing from a
big little city to a little big city,’ and we have to adjust to that. Once a
city gets to a million population (Ottawa
is approaching that now), its economy and culture shifts in fundamental ways,
and planning has to shift with it.”


M Firestone, PhD, Ottawa Senators founder, Century 21 Explorer Realty broker.
Follow him on twitter @ProfBruce

Spread The Word

About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.