Steve Willis’ Attempt to Makeover Ottawa Part 2 of 2

By Bruce Firestone | Architecture

Oct 03
[A version of this article first appeared in Ottawa Business Journal,]

[Part 1,]

Interestingly,Mr. Willis recognizes that a one size fits all planning and infrastructure approach makes no sense. He promises that in the next OP (official plan) review (slated to be completed in 2021 or 2022), a more nuanced, fine-grained approach whereby individual neighborhoods will be the basic planning “unit.”

“Look at Toronto. What makes that city’s economy and brand standout is that there is a lot of diversity in its neighborhoods. We have to build on the strengths and differences in ours as well.”

This brings me to my next question, “Steve, would you ever consider doing a Rotterdam here?”

He knows exactly what I am asking. Rotterdam, threatened by rising waters, was a failing port city in the Netherlands, which reinvented itself as an experimental city, a Concept House Village testbed where residents could try far-out, sustainable architecture ideas.

He laughs once more, “It’s on my bucket list to visit. Look if any Ottawa community comes forward, one where there is a widespread consensus that they would like to try something like that, I’d like to hear from them.”

I show him a sketch of what I’d like to do with our place, a modest split-level home in an inner-city
location; it already has a 1-bedroom, sideyard, tenanted (legal) apartment,
frontyard parking, a mini farm (where my bride grows corn, beans, potatoes,
herbs, apples, pears, and veggies) and a garage office (where I am currently
sitting writing these stupendous articles). In addition, I’d like to add a coach house, another storage shed, a workshop (or, as millennials call it “maker space”), a backyard games area, plus walkway and laneway awnings (I’m getting too old to clear snow and would prefer to stay in my place rather than move to an old folks home—you know, those vertical warehouses where people go to await death.)

What’s not shown on my hand-drawn sketch is the technology, smart home, energy, rainwater recycling and solar hot water strategies that we are also deploying.

If I could (within the law), I’d add a tiny house as well.

This is a bridge too far—Mr. Willis makes no comment on my cockamamie plan—he just gives me a look that conveys that impression quite clearly.

I ask Steve about city plans to regulate Airbnb, mentioning that it’s my belief that cities like Toronto and Vancouver might be “looking through the wrong end of the telescope” on this issue.

I give him the example of an elderly woman I know in TO who rents an apartment in that city’s downtown core right over a subway line. She makes enough money by taking in women executives traveling to Toronto (she fusses over them, makes them breakfast, and is their curator for the city) via Airbnb to pay her rent.

Like so many women, she is on her own because, by the time people are her age, almost all the men are dead.

Take away Airbnb, and she will join the fastest growing population of the impoverished—the elderly who will then coalesce with that other group of economically stricken individuals—single moms.

“It’s up to council to make that decision so we will have to wait and see but I can say that we have to be very careful about turning our backs on the sharing economy,” Mr. Willis replies.

I point out that Vancouver council banned Uber but was forced to back down within months after millennials there revolted.

“Exactly. We have to be cautious about overextending our desire to regulate everything. Having said this, we don’t want situations where there is rapid turnover of bad tenants because of Airbnb…”

We kick that ball down the road for a future discussion. But not until I point out that the fastest growing trend in real estate over the next 25 years will be, in my opinion, “civil disobedience,” as people simply reject out of necessity burdensome municipal (as well as other forms of unneeded government) regulation.

People will do whatever they need to do to support themselves and their families even to the point of disobeying municipal bylaws/ordinances unless, of course, Justin Trudeau decides to spend an extra $57.2 billion of our money every year (pumping Canada’s deficit up to an unprecedented $85.7 billion) to make every Canadian householder whole. $57.2 billion is the amount of extra money I calculated (seriously) that Canadian households could earn by renting out a spare room on Airbnb or taking in a roommate or hosting an immigrant or refugee. Remember that last year; the average CPP (Canada Pension Plan) payout was $550 a month and Ontario’s minimum wage was $11.40 an hour so an extra, say, 650 bucks each month from a room rental looks decent, especially if you are a young person just starting out or an elder on a fixed income.

One of the other things I found fascinating in our discussion is that Mr. Willis disavows the idea of “industrial policy.”

“We need a jobs policy instead,” he says.

Unlike provincial policies that place a high priority on “employment lands,” Steve believes that real, sustainable jobs growth will come from mixed use, walkable communities.

Ontario, on the other hand, believes that employment lands-based jobs are qualitatively different than McJobs but experience proves otherwise. A warehouse like the one at the corner of Carp and Reis roads, the Lee Valley (Tools) Distribution Centre, is highly automated and not a big job generator (unless you are designing floor robots in Germany to bring and take things from one part of a fulfillment centre to another).

If you are building a huge new training facility like a client of mine is doing for Tumblers Gymnastics (one of the top five such clubs in Ontario)
in Orleans, the jobs created there are permanent and not easily outsourced to Chindia.

Mr. Willis understands that. He points out that Ottawa’s official plan and even Ontario’s own provincial policies have internal inconsistencies, and it’s his goal to sort these out and set new priorities in 2022.

Steve is also one of the few planners I’ve ever met who understands the impact that the internet is currently having on… everything.

He brings up repercussions, for example, on the retail sector and recalls my story of how long it took (four and a half years) to get zoning approval, site plan approval, and building permit for the new Play Value Toys (PVT) facility constructed near a new interchange that connects highway 7 with Hazeldean road, built at huge cost by the city of Ottawa together with the province of Ontario.

When Doug and Janet Jones, PVT founders, together with their son, Reid, first approached the city about building a new HQ for their flourishing toy biz, they explained that most of their growth was coming from fulfillment of internet orders. They ship up to 24,000-pound loads (of high-end play structures, trampolines and other large, bulky products) via semitrailer to all parts of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. As such, they needed a combination showroom, store, warehouse, shipping and receiving area, light assembly area, outdoor showroom (basically, a park to showcase their play structures), offices and, this would be a bonus, an accessory residential use so that, if they ever decided to live and work in the same place as so many mom and pop proprietors have done in North America over the last 200+ years, they could do so.

The planner they met with said, “Nope, sorry, we don’t have any such designation in our zoning bylaws so, no, you can’t do it. Have you thought about a Rideau Centre or Bayshore Shopping Centre location? You are after all a toy store, right?”

He had no concept, no idea, no clue as to what they actually do to survive and what it’s like today to compete with Amazon. And he was a very poor listener. He bitterly opposed the rezoning that the family eventually got approved (unanimously by the way) by AARAC (Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee) and, two weeks later, by Ottawa council itself.

Doug, Janet and Reid needed 4.5 acres of land, near a highway, with the right zoning so they would not have to continue to be rent-slaves for another generation, having already paid nearly $4 million in rent to a landlord who thought that putting a triple X adult store next to Play Value Toys’ original Carling avenue (urban) location was a good idea (true story).

The city also maintains that there is up to a 50-year supply of suitable lands for this kind of adventure, except there isn’t. Most of these employment lands are owned by a handful of large developers and the NCC, who either won’t sell their property to entrepreneurs (they will, however, readily and with alacrity, build-to-suit-to-lease) or they are in the wrong location. And none of them have the right zoning.

A 50-year plan is moronic anyway; even a 20-year one is stupid. In fact, with all due respect to urban planners, any plan they create is outdated the day it’s published. They aren’t all-seeing or all-knowing, nor, for that matter, are any of the rest of us.

So Steve’s idea of introducing more flexibility and more delegated authority is crucial to Ottawa’s future, and not just for businesses like Play Value Toys—technology, services, learning, entertainment, shopping, leisure, transportation—everything is changing really quickly and they all need a gentle, guiding, helping hand from their city not some kind of rigid dictatorship. I mean who serves whom, right?

Again, it’s my view that no one single person will have more influence over the direction Ottawa takes in the next decade than Mr. Willis. No one.

Bruce M Firestone, PhD, Ottawa Senators founder, Century 21 Explorer Realty broker, Real Estate Investment and Business coach. Follow him on twitter @ProfBruce or email him at

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About the Author

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