The Development of the Oblate Lands: An In-Depth Report

A beast of unwieldy magnitude, and a symphony of collaboration 

By Rebecca Aird

BACKGROUND

In mid 2012, Sustainable Living Ottawa East (SLOE) began a process to identify and assess “deep” sustainability opportunities in the redevelopment of the Oblate property, which at 10.6 hectares, comprised one of largest remaining pieces of undeveloped land in the Ottawa urban core. This was a significant departure from the tangible projects that had been SLOE’s focus up to that point. But given credible rumours of the impending sale of the property, we knew few things would have greater impact on sustainability in Old Ottawa East. We also had the Community Design Plan, including explicit parameters for the future development of the Oblate Lands, as an excellent foundation for our work. The design plan had been hard-fought to a great outcome by our community association and residents.

At the same time, SLOE was offered a research partnership through Carleton University that would support this work — part of a multi-institutional investigation into how campus-community engagement could best deliver meaningful benefits to community partners. And so the project that became “Deep Green” was born. Our aim was to create momentum, credibility, and actionable options for sustainable development in advance of the sale of the property, hoping this would yield stronger influence than the rear-guard and typically oppositional community interventions that characterize many large developments in Ottawa.

What unfolded over the next two years was by turns a beast of unwieldy magnitude, and a symphony of collaboration and coordination. We had more than a dozen often mind-numbing strategic planning sessions; tasked and directed the two research assistants Carleton provided us over the course of the project; engaged incredible mentors to work with Carleton engineering, architecture and communications classes to produce original research, reports, design panels and videos; gave and attended innumerable presentations; waded through research on leading-edge initiatives; exchanged thousands of emails; and built an incredible network of partners and supporters.

In early 2014, we distilled the findings to date in each of four major themes into a 10-page interim report, then organized an Expert Forum to ground-truth and expand on these. Serendipitously, the timing of the forum coincided with Regional’s purchase. They and Domicile, which had purchased the adjacent Sister’s property, accepted our invitation to sponsor and to attend the experts’ forum.

With presentations on each theme, panel discussions featuring a total of 12 leading experts, and over 100 residents and City and institutional representatives in attendance, the forum strongly reinforced OOE’s reputation as a well-organized and determined community. Regional’s Josh Kardish later noted that in their discussion immediately after the forum, the project leads agreed that their only real option was a more partnership-based relationship with the community than had been the norm in past developments.

Now, almost three years after the shovels hit the ground in the Greystone development in 2016, most of the infrastructure – streets, sewer and stormwater systems – is in place. Construction is complete or underway on over 230 units and will begin on close to 350 additional units in 2020. The shape of what is still to come to reach the eventual total of just over 1000 units is also well determined, though plans for the remaining lands around the Deschâtelets are still under evaluation. So it’s now possible to assess the tangible legacy of SLOE’s work, in relation to each of the four key themes.

OUTCOMES OF DEEP GREEN

Before assessing progress in each theme, a cross-cutting initiative deserves note. Recognizing that the Green Building Council’s LEED ND program addressed many of the goals identified by the community, Regional hired a consultant early in their planning to help them achieve certification. Regional’s master plan for Greystone is the first in Ontario to have attained LEED ND v4 silver. (The Lansdowne master plan achieved LEED ND silver under v3.)

Points toward LEED ND certification are earned in a variety of categories. The central location of the property and associated proximity to services, employment, schools, etc. started Regional off with a good base of points. Regional leveraged these assets well. Some of the significant point-earning elements included the overall design orientation towards “connectivity”, which favours walking, cycling and transit versus cars; the planned parks and other aspects of the landscape design; the intention to include community amenities within the Deschâtelets heritage building; and proposed habitat restoration. Relatively few points were obtained in relation to green infrastructure and buildings.

Community Amenities and Connectivity

 Deep Green Goal: To create a more livable Old Ottawa East by optimizing facilities, amenities and

services that can serve the new development and the surrounding community, and by boosting

pedestrian and cycling activity and residents’ interaction.

Key elements proposed by SLOE included design to reinforce relationships to the river and adjacent neighbourhoods; public gathering spaces; a community centre within or adjacent to the Deschâtelets building; a street and path network prioritizing walkability and safe cycling; and commercial/retail along or adjacent to Main Street.

Regarding relationship to the river, notwithstanding some vexing ownership issues, retention of a 30 metre shoreline corridor with public right of way was never really in doubt, partly because of advocacy by SLOE and OOECA long prior to the sale of the Oblate lands. But rather than private homes backing directly onto this 30 metre corridor, Regional proposed a “window street”, with the City’s planned multi-use pathway – to be completed this coming summer — directly adjacent. This arrangement will contribute significantly to the public-realm feel and function of the shoreline. The switchback connection at the north end of Brantwood Park is also attractive, functional, and fully accessible.

Still in the plans is another stunning connectivity feature — a pedestrian passageway through the Deschâtelets building to the shoreline. Beyond the shoreline, sidewalks on all streets in the development will also enhance pedestrian connectivity. A promised outdoor parking space for VRTUCAR awaits occupation of the first condominium building this fall.

The two planned parks are of course also very significant community amenities. The linear Grand Allée park, which represents an advance in creative thinking about urban parks in Ottawa, will likely open in 2021. Its completion is tied to the construction of the adjacent mixed-use building, anticipated to start this summer. The opening of the forecourt park in front of Deschâtelets will be even further into the future. OOECA’s engagement and advocacy has been key to the evolution of these parks, as well as many other community benefits in the development.

In terms of retail activity, the ground floor frontage of the proposed building cornering Main Street and the Grand Allée is designated commercial. Construction is slated to begin this summer. A firm target date for completion could help land the hoped-for deal with a grocery store or other anchor tenant. It may help that Domicile has recently confirmed several businesses, including The Happy Goat café, in the adjacent Corners on Main development (see Business Beat at page 15 of this issue).

If Old Ottawa East eventually gets a community centre in Greystone Village — a long saga involving many other players — it will be largely thanks to early and ongoing advocacy by the Community Activities Group (CAG). Regional would like to see it happen, and the City has acknowledged the need and been engaged in exploring options. But significant challenges remain in accommodating it — or for that matter any other possible uses that have been explored — in the Deschâtelets building. (Recent offers on the building by French-language school boards are described on page 1 of this issue).

Stormwater Management and Shoreline Restoration

Deep Green Goal: To maximize whole-property stormwater infiltration and optimize the ecological health of the Rideau River shoreline via a landscape-based approach that respects natural features and functions while addressing multiple uses of the land.

Key elements proposed by SLOE included rain gardens; biodiverse swales along the shoreline corridor; specific additional low-impact development (LID) measures for stormwater management; and targeted shoreline recontouring to reduce instability and enhance revegetation success.

At SLOE’s request, Regional organized a day-long workshop on options for the site, led by a top LID consultant. Regional and its consultants translated the learning from that day into an impressive suite of LID measures, proposed to the City in December 2015. Measures within public rights of way included rainwater gardens, swales, and connections that would allow stormwater collected in catch-basins to be directed to trees. Some measures were also proposed on private lands, including an underground cistern for the condo building behind Saint Paul University, to store roof runoff for irrigation.

What followed was a sometimes Kafkaesque maze of bureaucratic hurdles at both provincial and City levels. It’s possible Regional could have better anticipated and planned for some of the procedural challenges. But in the end, despite significant ongoing efforts by Regional and the community, the only implemented LID measures are those on private land. To be clear, though Regional would foot the bill for establishing the infrastructure on public lands, maintenance would fall to the public purse, so City staff due-diligence on anticipated benefits and costs was merited. But given the City’s explicit priority on piloting, learning from and extending LID approaches, it’s hard to understand why – with a willing developer and a mobilized community – nothing was done by the City with the opportunity.

Concurrent with the massive excavation of soil across a large proportion of the property — a significant expense borne by both Regional and the City (through its Brownfields Redevelopment Program) – SLOE proposed there be at least modest recontouring at the top of the steep shoreline slope, which was created when construction fill was deposited along the southeast quadrant of the property in the 1960s. SLOE’s proposed options for further research on this front did not garner traction with either Regional or the City. Admittedly, the range of approvals processes that would have been triggered to protect water quality, flooding patterns and habitat would have made timely and cost-effective alignment a formidable challenge.

On the upside, SLOE regards Regional’s landscaping and naturalization of the 30 metre corridor as a significant success. Including the “soft costs” (consulting, etc.) and the capping and re-grading work, Regional invested well over $500K in this work. The result includes thoughtfully designed naturalization zones; a good list of native species; a mix of grassland, shrubs and groupings of (eventually large) trees; two thoughtfully-situated turtle nesting areas; and lookout points over the stormwater outfalls that are designed to connect people to the river while minimizing impact on the landscape. Logs have also been installed overhanging the water, which along with shrubs planted on the shoreline, are intended to create habitat for muskies, a species of fish known to breed in this stretch of the river. Six bat houses are to be installed in the spring.

The shoreline landscaping will be completed through to Springhurst Park in May. One concern going forward is that the large areas of native grasses and shrubs will be susceptible to invasive species. Responsibility to ensure that does not happen is ambiguous.

Regional also did admirable work in landscaping the Phase 1 properties, minimizing grass and favouring native species. Most significantly, they coordinated across a range of measures to maximize the number and size of trees, including buried hydro lines, steps to protect foundations from root damage, and a depth and quality of soil that will enhance the viability of the trees over the long term. A “Homeowner’s Guide to Living Next to Nature”, with information provided by SLOE, is included in the information kit given to every homeowner to encourage environmental stewardship.

Affordable and Seniors Housing

Deep Green Goal: To ensure that the Old Ottawa East Community Design Plan target of 25% affordable units is met; that the Oblates land development contributes to appealing options for seniors to age in the community; and that innovative housing models and financing approaches for seniors and affordable housing, including opportunities for community investment, are employed as feasible.

Two of Regional’s primes in the early development of the project had been personally and professionally engaged on the issue of affordable housing. This, as much as SLOE’s advocacy, was likely responsible for Regional’s informal early commitment to a significant financial contribution for affordable housing at Greystone. Initial thinking was that this might take the form of mixed-use housing in one of the buildings on the Grand Allee. In late 2015, Regional signed an agreement that allowed CAHDCO, a not-for-profit affordable housing developer, to explore options to redevelop Deschâtelets and an adjacent piece of land.

Notwithstanding significant timeline extensions, a workable approach and suite of partners for that initiative never emerged. So, the fate of affordable housing on the site remains up in the air. Greystone Village will include some smaller and therefore less expensive units. The two proposed buildings at the corner of Main Street and des Oblats Avenue will be rental; with potential for more. But without dedicated affordable housing, the development will do nothing to counterbalance OOE’s trajectory to becoming an enclave for the economically privileged.

With demographics and location in their favour, Regional did attract a developer to build and run a seniors residence. The good news is that some OOE homeowners who would like to stay in the community as they age will likely be able to afford to live there. But there are many others for whom it will not be affordable.

SLOE initiated a process and obtained a grant in late 2014 to tap public interest in the community around innovative, self-abled (versus institutional) approaches to seniors’ housing. A vibrant group of seniors and near-seniors came together and engaged some professional support to help figure out design, financing and affordability. This led to the establishment of a cohousing group that entered into negotiations with Regional. Despite apparently genuine efforts, the two parties couldn’t arrive at a deal.

Sustainable Energy

Deep Green Goal: To realize an ultra-low energy/carbon footprint in the Oblate lands development by maximizing energy efficiency and integrating sustainable energy supply options for the new development; and to consider how such options might be developed to extend to the surrounding community.

The foundation proposed by SLOE was highly energy-efficient design for all buildings in the development. The more aspirational element was a district energy system (DES) to facilitate important innovations such as cogeneration, the purchase of surplus heat from buildings, thermal storage for load or demand management, and use of renewable energy sources such as biomass.

We were impressed with some of the steps Regional took early in the development process in relation to this goal, including hiring the LEED ND consultant, and commissioning a DES feasibility study. But the outcomes have been modest compared to the promise of this early action.

Regarding district energy, participation by Saint Paul University, whose own boiler system was nearing the end of its lifecycle, might have put more wind in the sails. But exploratory conversations by Regional’s consultant were not encouraging. Given this, and the significant upfront costs and challenges of finding and negotiating with a third-party provider, no further action was taken.

On the building efficiency side, Regional committed to Energy Star certification for Greystone homes, built by Regional’s construction subsidiary, EQ Homes. Energy Star is a federal government program. Via a range of measures — including better insulation, air-tightness and high-performance windows, doors and appliances — Energy Star homes are about 20% more energy efficient than homes built to current building code requirements. This is a good thing, and a benefit to Greystone Village homeowners.

On the other hand, Greystone is far from the first residential development in Ottawa to adopt Energy Star. And in the very fast-advancing world of building energy efficiency, this is no longer a stretch target.

Also commendable if not exceptional is Regional’s intention to achieve LEED silver certification for the first condo building, to be completed by November 2019. The additional two towers are to be built to the same standard, though not certified. There are currently no plans for either solar energy generation, or for the provision of EV charging infrastructure.

SO . . . IN CONCLUSION?

There is little doubt that Greystone Village is a more community-enriching and greener project as a result of the groundwork done on the Community Design Plan, the sustainability focus brought by SLOE, and the ongoing engagement and advocacy of OOECA and CAG. Regional has also gained: reputationally for welcoming community engagement; financially from significantly reduced timelines for key development approvals processes; and in the ultimate quality of the development.

It’s also clear that on some key fronts, the development has fallen well short of SLOE’s ambitious hopes. It’s possible more would have been achieved on the stormwater management and energy themes if the key Deep Green volunteers had been able to sustain their earlier intensity of effort throughout the course of the lengthy development. Community engagement is still critical to ensure success on outstanding issues and opportunities, including affordable housing and further energy infrastructure.

But perhaps the most important question is how political and bureaucratic decision-makers and influencers – and other institutional stakeholders – can support the depth and pace of progress needed on the profound sustainability challenges and opportunities we collectively face. Especially when business and community stakeholders align through initiatives such as Deep Green, nimbler and determined responses are essential.

 

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