Problems build on lack of details
Council must stick to intensification, but give residents more information
BY RANDALL DENLEY, THE OTTAWA CITIZENSEPTEMBER 15, 2009
Councillors will be asked next week to approve a 334-unit intensification project on Baseline Road just west of Greenbank Road. The mix of low, medium and highrise buildings is strongly opposed by people in the neighbourhood, but the developer and city planning staff say it's just the kind of intensification called for by the city's official plan and provincial planning policy.
The planning committee couldn't decide what to do, so now it's over to full council, where members will have even less background than the planning committee did. We have to do better than this, and we can.
Last week, I wrote about the way the planning committee fumbled this issue and some of the over-the-top arguments made by those opposed to the plan. That made me a lightning rod for angry neighbours. One woman set a record by complaining about my column before it was even published.
Despite some people's perception, I'm not on anyone's side in this issue. I do think that if the city approves a policy calling for intensification to make up much of its growth, there is an onus on councillors to follow through. I am also convinced that there is a way to handle development applications that will be better for communities, developers and city politicians.
The city's intensification policy is a good one in that it helps restrain suburban sprawl, but councillors and planning staff should accept as a given that neighbours will be opposed to plans that increase traffic and change the nature of their communities.
The city's first job should be to get the facts out in a way that people can understand. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.
The city includes on its website all the supporting engineering and planning studies for developments like the one on Baseline. That's good, but it also means that skeptical residents will read all this fine print and use it as ammunition. In this case, residents are citing an engineering study that supposedly says that sewer pipes can't handle the flow from the development and houses will be flooded. What it actually says is that the problem can be fixed by replacing 325 metres of pipe. The developer will pay for this. Staff at the planning committee last week failed to explain that.
The skepticism of the public and most of the councillors on the planning committee also makes it difficult to agree on the facts and have an intelligent debate. The skepticism is partly driven by the fact that developers pay for the planning, traffic and servicing studies for their proposals. This causes the public and councillors to dismiss the studies' conclusions if they don't like what they hear. The solution is for the city to retain the consultants and bill the developers, so the consultants are clearly working for the public. It is unlikely to change the content of their reports, but it will boost their credibility.
City councillors also have to accept some responsibility for mediating between developers and the community while showing respect for their own policies. In this case, Councillor Rick Chiarelli has helped inflame the community to give him leverage to reach an unspecified compromise. If he had been doing his job, many of his residents' concerns would have been answered before the planning committee met. For example, many failed to understand that the height allowed in the neighbourhood now is a default amount, not a negotiated deal that is being betrayed.
City planning staff need to up their game, too. It's not enough to give bland, generic assurances that a plan is worthy of approval. On the sewer matter, staff's report says existing underground services are available. That's not entirely accurate. People expect specifics, not a "trust us, we're experts" approach.
In front of the planning committee itself, everyone gets five minutes to speak. Often that means that the person proposing the development gets his few minutes up front and then councillors hear from a long lineup of those opposed. Developers need a fairer opportunity to answer the criticisms of the public.
It's not like intensification can't be done properly. A similar intensification in Alta Vista was recently approved. The height limit wasn't a big issue there because the developer had a right to go up, but the city employed an outside architect from Toronto to work with all the parties and make sure things were done in a way that was acceptable to the community. The neutral third party should be part of any contested project.
Above all, people need to remember the big picture. The city is growing and new residents have to live somewhere. Any kind of growth will mean more cars on streets and more demand on services. People have a perfect right to push for high-quality intensification, but they should acknowledge that growth is inevitable. It can't all go in someone else's neighbourhood.
The bottom line is that we all need to stick to the demonstrable facts and work within the rules that are set by our elected councillors. The alternative is to let the Ontario Municipal Board decide Ottawa planning issues because we haven't the maturity to do it ourselves.
Contact Randall Denley at 613-596-3756 or by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
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