Ottawa city planning: It’s broke – so fix it!

By: John Dance

The message was loud and clear: the City of Ottawa’s governance of planning and development is broken, and numerous improvements need to be made.

Such was the strong consensus of 32 community representatives, including four from Old Ottawa East, who, at the invitation of Capital Ward Councillor Shawn Menard, spent a pre-Christmas morning brainstorming on ways to fix what they view as a developer-biased system that neither supports communities nor enhances the city’s environment.

At the top of the list of suggested improvements was the idea of restructuring the City’s planning committee so that urban, suburban and rural development proposals would be dealt with by separate sub-committees with membership on these sub-committees comprised of councillors from the specific area. This recommendation came in the choppy wake of Mayor Jim Watson’s exclusion of all but one urban councillor from the powerful city planning committee.

“Design for beauty, the environment, health and sustainability,” should be the goal of the planning process, participants concluded. A further recommendation was that community associations should be provided resources to enable effective representation at planning committee and at the committee of adjustment where “minor variances” from specific restrictions in the zoning bylaws are considered.

A number of other recommendations were made in support of protecting communities and residents from adverse impacts of new developments.

For instance, participants said the reports that City staff prepare for planning committee should reflect how consultation with communities affected the proposals under consideration.

“There should be community-centric planning,” noted Roland Dorsay of the Champlain Park Community Association.

A glimmer of hope in this regard was shed by City planner Doug James, one of two staff members who attended the session. He said that the revised Official Plan, the blueprint for development, may reflect the importance of neighbourhoods.

The lack of ‘planning certainty’, promised by Mayor Watson and then by Planning Committee Chair Peter Hume at the April 26, 2012 Planning Summit, was a problem pointed out by Paul Goodkey, former chair of the OOECA planning committee.

Goodkey noted that “although the Old Ottawa East CDP consultations have been touted to be a model process to follow, the OOE Secondary Plan policies have not provided the expected redevelopment certainty.”

The failure of the city’s planning policies and practices to create affordable housing was decried by participants.

“We are on the verge of being like Toronto and Vancouver,” noted Glen Milne, former professor at Carleton’s School of Architecture. He highlighted the trend towards “excessively large detached buildings” and the lack of “smaller scale infill that accommodate our kids.”

Some of the many other ideas and concerns advanced by participants included: ease of finding and reviewing planning and “minor variance” proposals; enforcement “with teeth” of building and zoning restrictions; reviewing and adopting best planning practices of other jurisdictions; inadequate green space and infrastructure to support communities; derelict buildings; and excluding councillors from planning committee if they received political donations from developers.

The draft report on the planning session is expected in February with the final report to be completed in March, says Menard.

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