Moffatt: Ottawa’s low-rise design guides will hurt affordable housing

Moffatt: Ottawa’s low-rise design guides will hurt affordable housing

City Council declared a housing emergency in 2020. It didn’t declare an ugly buildings emergency.

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Ottawa city staff have released updated urban design guidelines for low-rise infill housing, outlining their esthetic preferences for residential infill buildings under four storeys. While infill guidelines have been around for years, this update comes as Queen’s Park expands areas that allow multi-unit homes and in advance of city hall’s new zoning bylaw that will do the same. With increased demand for infill housing, the guidelines will have a broader effect on housing in the city.

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Unfortunately, that effect will further squeeze supply and drive prices higher.

The design guidelines stem from the belief that new homes, especially multiplexes, are architecturally incompatible with established neighborhoods. So, what are the architectural features that city staff find cause this lack of compatibility? The list is long, and includes flat roofs, exterior staircases, boxy masses, and materials such as corrugated metal.

Owners and tenants of century-old homes in Ottawa’s most established neighborhoods may be surprised to learn their flat roofs are out of context. Residents and tourists of Montreal may disagree that exterior stairs are eyesores. The minimalist Hart Massey House on McKay Lake is surely inappropriate in stately Rockcliffe Park; it’s also designated as a National Historic Site of Canada for its design excellence. And if corrugated metal is such a problem, maybe the city should retract the Urban Design Awards for Infill Housing it gave to 1145 Richmond Rd., 57 Lewis St., 76 Chamberlain Ave., 45 Grant St., 121 Armstrong St. and 360 Cumberland St. Of the 2011 Award of Merit winner, clad prominently in corrugated metal, the jury stated it “would never survive the test of traditional urban design guidelines, but somehow it works.” Somehow, indeed.

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But it’s not just the dubious aesthetic concerns that make the guidelines questionable. Features such as flat roofs, flat walls, exterior stairs, and corrugated metal serve to either maximize floor space (allowing more units or bedrooms) or keep costs low (making the project viable). Instead, the city is asking developers for expensive materials, cumbersome “articulation” and other extra ornamentation that raises costs of construction and maintenance. In response, small developers can either pass costs on to tenants (raising prices) or give up on an apartment project and just build a luxury single detached they can sell for a higher margin (lowering supply).

Considering the affordability challenges in Ottawa, are these outcomes of rigid design guidelines worth it? According to the guidelines, yes: “It is as important for new development to fit well with the pattern of the surrounding context as it is to fulfill intensification goals.” But it is not, in fact, equally important. City Council declared a housing emergency in 2020. It didn’t declare an ugly buildings emergency.

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The city should scrap the aesthetic standards and focus on function. This also helps planners meet the streamlined site-plan approval process recently mandated by the province. No, doing so won’t create a wild west of unreasonable buildings. Zoning still provides rules for setbacks and heights. The Building Code still governs building standards. We still have a tree protection by law. Architects still have expertise and pride in their work. Consumers still make choices based on personal preferences (especially if there’s enough supply). Quality, creative design follows naturally from these factors. The design guidelines stifle it.

But what about neighborhood characters? Well, character is more than building form; people matter too. Take Alta Vista, where residents are opposed to higher density targets in the New Official Plan. Its modest homes are being replaced by guideline-conforming mansions. Meanwhile, the neighborhood’s population has decreased 12 per cent since 1981 as the population ages and the birth rate declines. With smaller household sizes, multi-unit buildings are needed to replenish the historic population — preserving character, not destroying it.

By regulatory style, the city is appeasing homeowners anxious about change (and property values) at the expense of getting more homes built where they’re needed. Is that an unintended consequence of the guidelines, or the point all along?

Jordan Moffatt is a writer in Ottawa.

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