Planning and Growth Management: The Somerset Ward Experience
Over the past 10 years we have seen an unprecedented development boom in our city. Much of the development in Somerset Ward has been in the form of condo buildings that have been vastly out of scale with zoning regulations. Exceptions for height, number of parking spaces, or amenities often lead to conflict between developers, communities, and the City. Rules are ignored. Relief is sought. Buildings go up. The community is often left feeling battered and ignored. Consultation feels symbolic more than substantive. Why even bother having zoning regulations if nothing is adhered to?
There are three main actors in this relationship: the community, private companies, and the City.
The community is made up of people who live and work next to or close to the developments. They are often represented by Community Associations whose primary interest is to ensure their respective neighbourhoods are safe, liveable, and maintain a healthy quality of life. Community Associations also play an integral role in the establishment of Community Design Plans, which set the standards for developments. Community Associations are accountable to the communities they represent and the Community Associations in the Ward are accepting of intensification if it is compatible with the neighbourhood as stated in the Official Plan.
Private Companies are often operating in housing markets across the country. They push for taller buildings since units on higher floors are more valuable than units on lower floors. The primary motivation of these companies is financial: the more units that are sold, the more the financial gain. As such, the past ten years have seen a booming condo-housing commodity market.
Planning and Growth Management Department
That leaves the City. The Planning and Growth Management department has several branches but the important branches here are the Policy Development and Urban Design Branch and the Development Review Services Branch.
The Policy Development and Urban Design Branch
The Policy Development and Urban Design Branch is responsible for creating such things as the Community Development Plans and the City Official Plans. Many residents spend a good deal of their volunteer time working with City Planners on these documents. Residents expect these plans to guide future development in their neighbourhoods. During the creation of the Centretown Community Design Plan, which took approximately four years to complete, the Centretown Community Association’s comments were ignored until in the final days the group teamed up with the developers and then lo and behold they were listened to.
Development Review Services Branch
The Development Review Services Branch is responsible for processing development applications. It has become increasingly apparent that this branch no longer represents the citizens, or neighbourhoods in the Ward. Rather, this branch represents the interests of the development industry. Applications are pushed through. Input from the public is generally disregarded because this branch considers residents’ comments to be NIMBY comments.
Perhaps this is not surprising given that two-thirds of the Planning and Growth Management Department’s funding comes from development fees. The Branch provides support to any application with little-to-no recognition or consideration of the neighbourhood wants or needs. This is happening throughout the Ward where applications are submitted before the developer and the community have had a chance to sit down and discuss the proposal. At present the process is confrontational and combative, almost always resulting in the City approving the application. Too many City trees in the right of way in front of your building? No problem, we’ll remove them. You want to add 10 extra stories on your building? Fine by us. You don’t want to provide visitor parking? Use on street public parking instead! You want to build your underground parking structure abutting the public sidewalk so that there is no space for street trees? Sounds great! Whether it is a 40 storey condo building or 10 unit conversion, for the Development Review Services branch it is developers first, residents last. Many of these decision are made in the confidential ‘pre-consultation' meeting between the planners and the developers before the application is sent out for public consultation, making the community cynical about the effectiveness of their comments in a process that appears to be predetermined.
The Development Review Services Branch needs to change. We need a branch that will not only listen to the community, but consult with the public as soon as an application is received. Neighbourhoods agree with the goals of intensification, however development and intensification has to meet neighbourhood standards. The Official Plan states that “Ottawa’s communities be built on the basics: good housing, ample green-space, a sense of history and culture…It also proposes to create more liveable communities by focusing more on community design and by engaging in collaborative community building.” To date, there is a lack of City investment to create good housing, ample green-space, and a sense of history and culture.
We need a department that will respect the needs of the Community. Community consultation needs to happen from the beginning of the project and follow through the entire process. Community development also needs to include amenities such as, to name a few, Complete Streets for safer pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, parks and green space, affordable housing, and investments in the Main library branch. It is time that the Development Review Services branch stop considering development companies to be their clients and start considering the public to be their clients.