Ottawa’s planning and zoning battles continue

In February, a housing task force created by Ontario Premier Doug Ford released a report suggesting solutions to the province's ongoing housing crisis. According to the report. 1.5 million new homes need to be created in Ontario to help meet demand from buyers and renters. The report suggests limiting the zoning power of cities to make denser housing easier to develop, streamlining the rules and bureaucracy that govern planning and development, speeding up the approval process, and adding financial incentives for cities that add more housing. Adding more houses, apartments, and townhomes promises to create many new jobs in construction and development, reduce commute times, and make it much easier for businesses to hire new talent and bring them to Ontario.

Contesting Ottawa's Plan

While Ottawa's city planners agree with the principles behind the provincial report, officials are concerned that blanket, province-wide changes to planning powers and zoning would remove the unique character of individual neighborhoods. Ottawa's city planning documents have been the subject of debate for years, with recent debates centering on the impact of city-wide planning measures on various neighborhoods across Ottawa. Older neighborhoods, like Carleton Heights and City View, cited that their aging 1950s infrastructure would have trouble keeping up with rapidly changing modern standards last October. Other residents voiced concerns about the removal of trees, while professional land developers have criticized the use of vague language in previous drafts of the city's plans. Most critics of the city's plan agree with the reasoning behind the decisions, but feel like changes should be implemented carefully on smaller scales rather than being pushed on the whole city.

Exclusionary Zoning

The heart of the debate over city planning in Ontario centers around exclusionary zoning. Under exclusionary zoning, only certain types of structures can be built in various regions of the city. Many Canadian cities have huge swaths of land dedicated to only detached homes, making it illegal for developers to build townhomes or apartment buildings without fighting their way through a difficult approval process. Critics of exclusionary zoning point to its bizarre logic and the effects it has on suburban sprawl. The size of the structure isn't regulated as strictly as its use. These detached homes can be huge, and they can grow. The same rules that govern a homeowner using a compact track loader, such as a Caterpillar 239, to install a deck or pool also allow a bungalow owner to transform their tiny home into a multi-story mansion. Despite this, even small rowhomes and tasteful apartments that fit the design theme of a neighborhood are disallowed. Developers can theoretically work through red tape and gain city approval for non-detached home housing projects in these zones, but it's a big barrier to entry that prevents many players from stepping up to the plate.

Echoing Neighborhood Concerns

Stephen Willis, the general manager of planning for Ottawa, has taken citizens' concerns to heart. Just like city residents were concerned that Ottawa's plan needed to be adjusted for various neighborhoods, Willis thinks that the provincial plan needs to be adjusted for each city. "Much of what they're recommending we just did in our official plan," he said. He expressed concern with several recommendations, including one that allows the development of 6 to 11 story buildings on any street with a public transport route. Ottawa's recently updated plan takes a more nuanced approach, allowing 4 stories on "minor corridors" and up to 40 on major streets.

Willis also thinks the provincial report would strip the city of Ottawa of key tools that allow it to help blend new developments into existing neighborhoods. One idea recently mentioned by city staff involves a "missing middle" style of housing. This in-between solution involves units that are neither detached homes nor high-rise apartment structures but rather something in between., City staff members have mentioned various flat configurations that allow multiple families to live on a single lot in 3-bedroom apartments while maintaining the design and feel of classic Ottawa neighborhoods. Proposals like these seek to help alleviate the pressure caused by exclusionary zoning in a way that's sensitive to the unique circumstances of individual neighborhoods.

Fighting For The Future Of Housing

According to the Ontario housing task force's provincial report, the two-way commute time in Toronto sits at 96 minutes, the longest in North America. While Ottawa residents' commutes weren't quite that bad, the numbers are still quite high. The 2016 census suggested Cumberland residents who take the bus had a commute of more than 51 minutes each way. The 1.5 million housing units recommended by the housing task force will go a long way to fixing this issue. Not only will creating new housing and revitalizing old units create jobs, but a shift in planning to centralize housing around major urban centers will also shorten commutes, make hiring easier, and reduce traffic by allowing more residents to incorporate public transit into their routines.

It's clear that change needs to happen. The only question is the scope. Ottawa neighborhoods have been fighting against blanket citywide change to preserve their neighborhood identities, while the city of Ottawa has expressed its concerns over provincial suggestions that would hinder its ability to craft regulations for unique neighborhoods and situations. If the province acts on the report by passing province-wide changes to planning, regulations, and zoning, we might see city planners lose some of their ability to make nuanced decisions to preserve the identity of neighborhoods. On the other hand, we might also see more simplified, universal regulations that make it easier for Ottawa to fix its housing crisis by adding more places for people to live.

Photo: Karol Wisniewski, Pexels