Opinion By Mohammed Adam 1017 Views

Adam: Tall building syndrome – we don't need to let Ottawa Council get away with this

Ottawa Council’s recent decision to approve a 65-storey tower in Bayview is a betrayal of a commitment it made to citizens – and a classic example of why people are increasingly losing faith in their government.

But citizens shouldn’t just complain and fade away. Councillors will soon be knocking on doors seeking support for re-election. Mayor Jim Watson is the leader. Take him to task. Make this a litmus test. Show up at debates and ask the mayor, and ask councillors, why you should vote for them when they won’t stand with you when you need them. Ask why you should trust anything they say.

The fundamental problem is the city’s fixation with high-rises as the panacea for urban sprawl. This has become such an article of faith the city is blind to all warning signs about them. Next year, however, Ottawa will begin a review of the Official Plan and this will offer the best opportunity for citizens to demand change. Don’t miss it. Organize, prepare and participate.

The real issue about high-rises is not whether Ottawa can or should build them. This is Canada’s capital and we can build any number of towers we want. The problem with the Bayview development is that residents were misled by their leaders. Community design plans take time to do, and Bayview area residents stuck with it for seven years, working with the city and development industry to come up with a plan that council then approved. To now suggest this plan isn’t worth the paper it is written on, as council has done, is a betrayal.

At a 2012 planning summit, Mayor Jim Watson talked about ensuring that “development applications are not completely out of character with the neighbourhoods.” He called for “greater predictability and certainty when it comes to development in our city,” adding, “There are just too many surprises that upset local neighbourhoods when zoning changes.”

Ottawa's getting taller

Fast-forward to 2018 and Watson now says community design plans aren’t cast in stone. Any developer can ask for changes, then council decides. And sure, developers can ask – but council doesn’t have to go along, as Watson said at the planning summit: “Our official plan and zoning bylaws have to mean something. We can’t have developers buying properties for inflated prices and then come to City Hall looking for massive up-zoning to recoup costs.”

Which leads one to wonder why council so willingly obliged when the developer asked for 65 storeys instead of the maximum-30 the community design plan established.

“My view is that we have to ensure that the success of the LRT is there with intensification because if you don’t grow up, you have to grow out and growing out is all about urban sprawl, which no one is supportive of because it is very expensive and it’s not good for the environment,” Watson said in justifying council’s decision.

The mayor is right about the unsustainability of urban sprawl, but the argument that high-rise intensification is the remedy doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Numerous studies show that “growing up” doesn’t necessarily create housing for people; neither does it make housing affordable. Most high-rises are luxury condos, so expensive that middle-income groups cannot afford them – let alone low-income earners.

Take Vancouver. A recent planning conference in Ottawa heard that, faced with more than 12,000 residential properties unoccupied for more than 12 months a time, Vancouver introduced an “Empty Homes Tax” to help fix the problem. One study found that if you put together all the empty condos in downtown Vancouver, they would make up 35 towers, each 20 storeys high.

The thing is, unoccupied high-rise buildings give the illusion of density. There is, of course, the United Kingdom’s House of Commons report that noted: “The proposition that tall buildings are necessary to prevent suburban sprawl is impossible to sustain … Tall buildings are often more about power, prestige, status and aesthetics than efficient development.”

There is mounting evidence that high-rise development is not necessarily the answer to urban sprawl. A fully-engaged citizenry can persuade the city to rethink its strategy.