Monday, February 21, 2011

Tuesday at City Hall: Tower on a postage stamp

On Tuesday morning, the City of Ottawa's Planning Committee will be Considering an application for a 27-storey tower on Nepean Street, on a tiny site the size of a postage stamp. I had hoped to write this up much sooner, but better late than never...

Back in December 2010, FoTenn consultants came to the Centretown Citizens Community Association's Planning & Development Review Committee to seek community input on a 27-storey building their client, Claridge, wants to build at 89-91 Nepean Street. Here's a map of the site:

That map is based on the map (PDF) in the Centretown Secondary Plan. The white area at the top is the Central Business District, outside Centretown. The pink area is the "mid-rise" zone, which was envisioned to max out at about 9 storeys. The brown area where this site sits is supposed to be a "transition zone" between the central area (which generally has tall buildings), and the mid-rise area to the south.

Here's 89 and 91 Nepean Street, looking North-Westish (assuming Nepean runs East-West on Ottawa's skewed grid), in April 2010. The grassy lot is 89 Nepean, and there is a gravel parking lot at 91 Nepean next to it. They're pretty small sites. One of them has a "for sale" sign, though I can't tell for sure which:

It looks like it's in the middle of tall downtown core buildings, but look again due "North" to Gloucester and the core (this time in December 2010):

We can see the rear of a 4-storey building on Gloucester. On the far side of Gloucester is Nagle House, the oldest house in Centretown, and obscured behind the brick building is St. George's Church. While those two buildings are in the core area, it's highly unlikely that either will be developed into a gigantic building since they both have strong heritage value. So instead of being a "transition" from tall central area buildings, it'll surround these two heritage buildings.

89 Nepean is still fenced, though it's been de-landscaped. 91 Nepean has been converted from a 26-car parking lot to the sales centre for Tribeca, the two 27-storey condo non-portrait gallery half a block away (which is its own long story).

In the above view, we can see the seven storey at O'Connor, and the grotesquely tall Place Bell (160 Elgin), which is the epitome of bad architecture, as anyone can attest if they've ever tried to walk past it without getting swept away by the wind. It was one of the main reasons the Centretown Plan was developed.

Looking south from Gloucester, we see that there isn't much happening. Some mid-rise apartment buildings, and the South side of Nepean is mostly parking lots ripe for development. 89-91 Nepean will set the tone for how the rest of Nepean Street fills out.

Claridge's original proposal (which for now is still available at sought to rezone the site to increase the height to 82.5m and to remove nearly all setbacks, setting the stage for wall-to-wall towers along Nepean, a 27-storey version of the 12-storey canyon along Cooper east of Elgin.

They also submitted a site plan which showed that they wanted either a retail store or a community space on the Nepean side (rather than ground floor townhouse entrances, to provide more consistent interaction with the street from residents), as well as a concrete ramp that encroached into the City's right-of-way, which presumably the City would have to maintain.

They included a couple of renerings of the proposed building, which they billed as two "point towers" connected by a common elevator area. Since it had two different styles of cladding, they argued, it was visually two towers. Tell that to the wind.

This other view, looking from the base of their 27-storey tower at Tribeca, shows even more strongly the starkness of the building's height in contrast to the surrounding structures. It sticks out like a sore thumb.

Of course, the "two point towers" argument really doesn't stick. For one, a point tower refers to when you have a large podium as a base, and the tower is set back from the base so that pedestrians experience the building as not as tall as they walk next to it. Second, as the view from the North shows, the rear of the building has only one look.

The CCCA submitted detailed feedback criticizing many aspects of the development. I also prepared a 10-page document listing issues I identified while going through the many documents at DevApps.

Melanie Knight, the City's planner handling the file, came with Councillor Diane Holmes and me to Toronto for an urban planning tour from George Dark in the morning (yes, I got photos), and to learn about how Toronto handles Section 37 of the Ontario Planning Act to seek community benefits in exchange for zoning height and density increases. Catherine Boucher, retired former Executive Director of the CCOC and current DCA Board member, wrote up a report on the Section 37 presentation, which is available on the DCA's website. In other cities, it's standard practice for new developments to include community benefits, but Ottawa is just beginning to catch on.

The City's apparently been negotiating with Claridge for some section 37-type arrangement for the extra storeys on this building (though not a Section 37 per se), though the CCCA still thinks the building is too tall and too big for the site.

The report to tomorrow's Planning Committee meeting show many significant changes to the proposal. For one, there is a very convoluted plan that makes the coning conditional on the neighbouring site (which Claridge bought) also being developed ("don't like one giant building on one tiny site? How about two giant buildings on two tiny sites?"), and in the Site Plan process they'd slap on the community benefits requirements. On the plus side, they've added ground floor townhouse units, though it's unclear how tall the townhouse section will be since that wasn't in the original site plan. I've highlighted in red the outlines of the two towers, one at 89-91 Nepean, and one at 70 Gloucester (which extends all the way to Nepean in a key-shaped site).

Unfortunately, this would require an agreement with Claridge, who has demonstrated bad faith on previous agreements.

The some of the changes are listed in the report to Planning Committee, but it's still hard to understand. This report is solely for the zoning, but there are conditions that need to be met in the Site Plan (which would be approved separately), as well as for the zoning and site plan for 70 Gloucester. It seems designed to say "part 1 is only being approved conditional on part 2 being approved" but I can see them saying later on "we have to approve part 2 because it is within the zoning of part 1," except that part 2 won't have the restrictions we're now being told they'll have, and we'll have no other recourse. Most of the changes in the site plan aren't detailed anywhere because this is only the zoning stage.

While I've spent much time familiarizing myself with the file over the last few months, Councillors on Tuesday will likely be seeing it for the first time and will have to wrap their heads around. The report states:
With respect to the holding provision, the Department is recommending the holding provision as the applicant has been in discussions with the Ward Councillor and staff with respect to off-site community benefits. The purpose of the holding provision is to ensure that a Site Plan Control application is approved which reflects this proposed development and that the monies intended for the community benefits are secured prior to the lifting of the holding provision.
The benefits in question are yet to be confirmed, but at the CCCA's Board meeting last week Councillor Holmes said that it may include streetscaping improvements to Nepean Street and Cooper Street, plus money for affordable housing and for improvements to Jack Purcell Park.

With the City's own planners saying it's OK to build 27-storey buildings all the way to the lot line on this site, we'd have next to no chance to win a lower height at the OMB, so the community benefits are the most we can hope to get from this. Hopefully the City will come to an agreement with Claridge, and Claridge won't pull a fast one on us again by using a loophole to bail out of their side of the deal (like they did with the "portrait gallery" site).

Tuesday will no doubt give us an interesting meeting, but it's just the first of many. There are over a half dozen more rezoning applications for new buildings already in the pipe. One of the many reasons to join your community association is making sure there is strong community input to the planning process as our neighbourhood continues to develop. Download the CCCA membership form (PDF) today and join!


  1. thanks for reporting this one. seems really foolish to build something on such a small lot!! this city is out of control. they need to smarten up and start saying NO. If they build that on that small land, it'll look ridiculous and cause nothing but trouble.

  2. I agree that Place Bell is grotesque, but that's on account of its dreadful street presence.

    What's grotesque about its height?

  3. Is the city "out of control" or is it really that the city does not have the power to say no. Claridge also seems to be the slowest builder around. If these go up at the rate Lebreton is it will be years and years before completion.

  4. You can't have to both ways you can say no to urban sprawl and no to building downtown its has to be one or the others.With that said could this project be better sure but work has to be done on both sides saying no will help no one.


  5. Jayme - we're not saying no buildings downtown. We want the parking lots to be developed. The Centretown Plan encourages it. But the plan, as well as the zoning, encourages buildings that aren't so large that streetscapes become block-to-block walls of concrete and brick. If every site on this block were developed with this kind of building, you'd no longer get sunlight at the street level for most of the year, because they're so tall and so close to the lotlines.

    At least Charlesfort argues that he was redistributing the density of the existing zoning (though I'm skeptical of the math), so that there is still space for life to happen at the ground level.

    Remember that we don't go back home to some place in the suburbs at the end of the day. We live here, and we need parks, schools, daycares, grocery stores, and all the other amenities of daily life in our neighbourhood. We also need sunlight, fresh air, and streets that aren't wind tunnels.

    The existing zoning has more than enough room to meet and exceed the intensification goals of the City's Official Plan through development of vacant lots. The existing zoning, as well as the Centretown Plan, were also conducted with much more public input than any individual building application. Applications dismiss the zoning and the various community-supported plans to drop buildings in without any planning context like so many concrete middle fingers.