By John Willing
The complicated work of encouraging home construction, shoehorning small apartment complexes into Ottawa’s oldest neighbourhoods and satisfying neighbours who will live near those buildings played out during a city council planning committee meeting Thursday.
On the table was a proposal to tweak the zoning bylaw to support, while regulating, multi-unit buildings as residential developments in inner-urbancommunities.
It means those neighbourhoods — like Hintonburg, Sandy Hill, Overbrook, Carlington and others — are on notice that more infill, densified, residential buildings could pop up if council approves the bylaw changes, which the planning committee fully endorsed.
The policy review has been going on since 2016, ever since inner-urban communities started raising alarms about the proliferation of “bunkhouses,” referring to single units that have several bedrooms jammed into them, spiking the density on a single lot.
The bunkhouse issue is intricate because those rooming houses, often used by students around post-secondary institutions, provide homes to people who need them, but the buildings and properties weren’t intended to handle the density. The buildings have generated property standards and noise complaints from neighbours.
Meanwhile, Ottawa’s rental vacancy rate is extremely low, rent prices are increasing, city council has declared a housing and homelessness emergency and the push is on to crank up intensification in existing communities under a soon-to-be-updated official plan.
The city’s residential zones are classified by density, from R1 at the lowest density to R5 at the highest density. The proposal under scrutiny zeroes in on the R4 zone, which generally allows buildings up to four storeys.
The zone also includes some restrictions on the number of units on a lot. Under the new proposal, the city would increase those maximums.
Coun. Jan Harder, the chair of the planning committee, said there are 17,000 R4 lots inside the greenbelt, highlighting the intensification opportunities, but also the risks that come with altering the characteristics of old neighbourhoods.
At the centre of the conflict is the goal of filling the “missing middle” of housing options in Ottawa and making those multi-unit buildings fit in established areas.
While the city would like to see more family-orientated units in low-rise buildings to provide housing options, it has been difficult to get three-or-four-bedroom rental units built.
Many people who made deputations during the committee meeting pointed to this problem.
“We don’t want to see families driven out of the neighbourhoods because we’re only building studio (apartments) or one-bedroom apartments,” Marjolaine Provost of the Overbrook Community Association told the committee.
Provost also voiced a concern about the threat of overbuilding in neighbourhoods — pointing to a 3.5-storey, 34-unit apartment that’s replacing two homes on Columbus Avenue in Overbrook — and not seeing complementary community infrastructure, like sidewalks and recreation spaces. Overbrook wants the number of units in a building capped at 24, Provost said.
Sheila Perry, president of the Federation of Citizens’ Associations, said she’s “fearful” for neighbourhoods like Hintonburg that are packed with R4 zones.
“We don’t want to overload any one particular area,” Perry said.
Four members of the Hintonburg Community Association lined up in the deputation queue to criticize the city’s proposal, highlighting the lack of requirements for building design, amenity spaces and affordable housing.
Coun. Catherine McKenney, too, didn’t want people to make a false assumption that encouraging more rental units will generate affordable housing options.
The local homebuilding industry also had a lukewarm reaction to the proposed policy changes.
Murray Chown, a developer consultant representing the Greater Ottawa Home Builders Association, said members are willing to “wait and see how this plays out,” even if they have concerns.
Parking, and the fact that some apartment buildings won’t be allowed to provide parking spaces under the proposed policy, continues to be a hot topic.
If a tenant moves in and has a car, that car might be parked on the street, exacerbating parking pressures in a neighbourhood. The city wants to discourage car use and encourage public transit use, but as Chown observed, not all R4 properties eyed for low-rise apartments would necessarily be steps way from transit.
When it comes to Sandy Hill, which was one area affected by the bunkhouse problem, Coun. Mathieu Fleury lost an attempt to cap the number of apartment units to four on properties in parts of the neighbourhood, though he won support to restrict rooftop amenity space and enact requirements for storing garbage.
Council will consider the planning committee’s recommendation on Sept. 23.