Originally published in the June 2017 OSCAR.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a number of OSCAR articles about the effort to reduce height allowance and establish a heritage overlay along Colonel By Drive with intent to prevent the kind of overdevelopment that is ruining so many streetscapes in communities such as Old Ottawa South. That effort proved successful. However, we did not include Southminster Church in the geographic reach of the rezoning, assuming that as a long time institutional resident in the community, the church would not undertake any development on that site. How wrong we were, and we now find ourselves facing the prospect of a six storey condo building facing onto Galt Street.
Let us be clear. Southminster Church has contributed enormously to the well-being of our community, and can be expected to continue to do so. As with many churches, Southminster faces financial challenges brought on by declining membership in the congregation. It is only prudent that they consider all options that could offer financial stability over the longer term. However, in doing so, the Church must remain sensitive to and seek to mitigate possible negative impacts of any particular option on its host community.
Residents and neighbours to the Church generally think that development of three storey condos at the back of the Church, respecting the height restrictions (11 meters) of a R3Q residential zoning, would be acceptable. The sale of the property would provide much needed cash to the Church while allowing more people to live in our wonderful community. However, and understandably, based on meetings to date residents are giving a resounding NO to a proposed six storey condo. The development would certainly not be compatible with neighbouring homes in terms of height, and there are other issues, most notably parking that are of considerable concern.
So how do they plan to do it? The City of Ottawa has zoned various main streets including that section of Bank Street in Old Ottawa South as Traditional Mainstreet (TM). The zoning designation permits residential developments up to six storeys where TM zoning is in place. Of course, individual lot size dictates what can end up on a site on a practical and/or design basis. For the moment, the Church, as with Hopewell Public School, is designated institutional. The Church wants to change the zoning from institutional to TM, sever the back of their property along Galt Street, and sell that parcel of land to Windmill Developments who will in turn put up condos. The rezoning, land severance, and site plan are to be neatly packaged to guide the development through the City Planning Committee, Committee of Adjustment, City Council, the Ontario Municipal Board, and City Planning staff. Of course, there will be the obligatory community consultation, no doubt a story in the local media, perhaps a conciliatory statement by our Councillor, and everyone will be happy. Well, not exactly everyone.
Some context is needed.
Residents along Colonel By Drive did not seek protection of their streetscape to prevent development per se. They sought protection against overdevelopment. We are all too familiar with infill which builds to the property border with heights well above immediate neighbours, and often with rooftop balconies, entailing loss of quality of life to those immediate neighbours. Residents along Colonel By Drive wanted protection against any such future abuse of infill bylaws. They also sought protection of the streetscape, all the more so due to their proximity to a World Heritage site, the Rideau Canal. Those arguments held. The proposed development at Southminster ignores all of that. It greatly exceeds height allowances of the neighbouring residential community, notably along Galt Street, and ignores the heritage measures so hard fought for, to protect the streetscape along Colonel By Drive.
On the subject of Traditional Mainstreet zoning some further insight is worth mentioning. Over time, development pressures can be expected along the stretch of Bank Street that winds through Old Ottawa South. It makes sense to ensure appropriate zoning to permit development, but as expressed in Ottawa’s Official Plan, development should remain compatible with the neighbouring residential community. The key word is compatible. A number of years ago a development plan for a land parcel to the rear of a lot zoned Traditional Mainstreet in Stittsville was denied as it was not deemed compatible with the R3Q (11 meters in height) residential community which it neighboured. Rather a four storey condo building was allowed. Windmill says that they have taken into account the impact of height on neighbours. They will stagger back the top three floors. Nice of them to do so, when in fact the zoning bylaw requires this above the fourth floor in any case. In sum, Traditional Mainstreet zoning does not automatically allow six storey condo buildings. To the contrary it allows for up to six storeys. To residents whose homes abut commercial buildings along Bank Street, be forewarned. A precedent at Southminster may cause you much angst and misery down the road.
We are told that the proposed development will allow those of us who live in the community to remain in the community should we no longer wish to maintain a detached home. Apparently there is a shortage within the community of the condo living alternative. The top floor of the proposed condo development is reportedly some 3000 square feet. No doubt it will be really nice, for a few. Take a look at asking prices for condos along the Canal. The asking price for a 3000 square foot condo will not be in the one million dollar range. It will be more likely in the two million dollar plus range. For smaller condos located on the lower floors, you can probably expect to pay over a million dollars. Their asking price will be beyond the reach of most of us in Old Ottawa South. So much for providing an alternative living arrangement for residents wishing to remain in the community.
The proposed development will reduce the number of parking spots along Galt Street. Not to worry, residents are told despite the fact that parking in the area is already at a premium. We were given that line when Lansdowne was reconstructed. If parking availability in the area of the Church has already been considered for Lansdowne, and now it is to be considered by the Windmill development, it would appear to be double counting. So much for visitors to residents along neighbouring streets, let alone those visiting the new condo dwellers, and last but not least, churchgoers. Southminster and Windmill have assured us that it is a concern to them and that they are looking into the matter. Comforting.
And what happens if membership in the congregation continues to fall? What happens if the Church eventually decides to consolidate its operation with that of nearby United Churches in the Glebe, Alta Vista or Centretown? What of the future of the Southminster building under those circumstances? Could it not be converted to an even higher condo building albeit floors staggered back from Galt and Aylmer? Not to worry, we are told. They will ensure that the zoning will be ‘shrink-wrapped’ to prevent that sort of thing from happening. We already thought that the existing zoning was shrink-wrapped. Look at where that has got us. So much for future assurance of zoning protection.
So what can we do? Over the years OSCA has been overwhelmed with development issues. For those who have been involved in OSWATCH or its more recent manifestation, the OSCA Planning & Zoning Committee, it is well known that the volunteer task is time consuming, comes with high stress, takes an emotional toll and often leads to burn-out. Volunteer work on development issues is arguably thankless. It is no wonder that OSCA has stepped back from the objective set out in its official bylaws: to ‘promote and protect’ the interests of residents on development issues. Now OSCA only ‘facilitates and encourages’ dialog about development issues. Alas, that basically leaves discreet groups of residents to their own means and capabilities to organize themselves around individual development issues, starting from scratch each time to decipher zoning rules and procedures. As many can attest, this is not a simple task.
Michael Lynch is a Past President of OSCA. He recently led the effort for the rezoning and heritage overlay for Colonel By Drive.