a more negative take on the discussion at the forum....
Economics often drives city planning, expert warns
Citizens must police development to get the city they want, activist warns
Maria CookOttawa Citizen
Sunday, June 01, 2008
OTTAWA - Residents who want to protect neighbourhoods from over-scaled and ugly development must roll up their sleeves and get involved in the political and planning process, says a longtime Montreal urban activist.
"Do not think that it is the city-employed planners who are going to negotiate with the developers a development project in the public interest," says Dimitri Roussopoulos, founder and CEO of Urban Ecology, a think-tank on sustainable urban development.
"A lot of what happens in neighbourhoods and cities is driven by very influential and powerful economic interests," he told a public meeting on intensification at City Hall last week.
"If the citizenry of the City of Ottawa is not organized to survey and to watchdog the urban planning process ... you are screwed."
The city held two public forums last week to discuss its intensification policy, which aims to put more buildings and people within the urban boundary to limit costly suburban sprawl.
The policy is part of the city's official plan, which is currently under review and revision.
Intensification is supposed to be a good thing. Yet 200 people turned out last Tuesday, and another 130 people on Thursday at Ben Franklin Place in Nepean, mostly to protest the effects the policy has had in just a few years.
"They see their schools closing, their green space declining and the quality of life shrinking," says Capital Councillor Clive Doucet. "That's why you're seeing so much resistance from all the wards experiencing densification."
In theory, intensification is supposed to make a city more sustainable and cost-effective by making better use of limited resources such as land and municipal services. It saves money by not extending roads and services to suburbs. Higher density should create a more vital street life with more choices and activities.
In reality, communities are seeing excessive height and increased traffic, noise and shade. They are losing trees and amenities such as toboggan hills. Families with children are leaving. Meanwhile, developers continue to push for suburban development.
The negative effects are aggravated by the fact that central area taxes subsidize unsustainable sprawl, which further erodes Ottawa's character as a city of parks, trees, vistas and closeness to nature.
So far, under the aegis of intensification, Centretown, Vanier, Sandy Hill and Lowertown have seen highrises approved over the objections of residents.
The big money for developers is in high-end condos in established areas.
Rideau-Rockcliffe Councillor Jacques Legendre told the Tuesday meeting that he refuses to sit on the city's planning committee any longer because he is disenchanted with the disregard for zoning, the official plan and community design plans, all of which took years to develop.
"There's not much wrong with our current official plan," he said. "It has all the right words. The problem is that nobody, absolutely nobody, starting with the councillors around the table and city staff, pays the least attention to the principles in there. There's chapters about what is compatible intensification. That's what's ignored time and time again."
There is a disconnect between the fine words in the official plan and what people want and the reality of what actually gets built, says Mr. Doucet.
He says six storeys is usually the maximum building height with which
people are comfortable.
The problem is the policy planners who write about good intensification that fits well into neighbourhoods are not the same planners who negotiate with developers, he explains.
Those are site planners. They interpret intensification in a simplistic way, equating it with highrises, and regularly recommend zoning changes to accommodate developer demands for increased height on sites.
"After years of work on official plan and design guidelines, site planners then come forward to council and say they have talked to the developers and they want to change a six-storey height limit to 11 storeys," says Mr. Doucet.
Council often approves these requests because it is dominated by suburban and rural voices. "From a rural or suburban point of view, a tax grab is a good thing," says Mr. Doucet. "It pays for sprawl."
He has seen suburban councillors vote against two-storey buildings in their wards and in favour of 24-storey buildings in Centretown.
Rideau-Vanier Councillor Georges Bédard said the City of Ottawa has 20 years worth of land for houses and a century's worth for apartments without changes in zoning or expanding the urban boundary.
He suggests development should focus on brownfields and areas beyond the core where the city wants to boost transit ridership. Intensification applies equally, if not more, to newer areas and is fundamental to the success of public transit.
Mr. Roussopoulos said he wasn't surprised by the turnout at last week's public forums.
"People are taking their neighbourhoods and their cities with a seriousness that is without precedence in this country."
The last session takes place Tuesday, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Ben Franklin Place (former Nepean council chambers.) The theme is "Intensification that fits: Supporting intensification through Design, Compatibility and Collaboration."
© Ottawa Citizen 2008