photo of Ottawa City Hall

Ottawa City Hall, where a lot of decisions are made that affect the quality of our built environment.

I’m a complete novice when it comes to any kind of formal political involvement. I place my ’X’ with conviction at every opportunity, but otherwise have no experience of how governance actually works. So, my first foray into those waters a couple of weeks ago, at a meeting of the city’s Planning Committee, was quite educational. The biggest revelation to me was that the process governing new developments is not only unlikely to result in good architecture, but very likely to produce the opposite

At issue was a condominium proposed by Mizrahi Developments for the corner of Island Park Drive and Wellington West.

photo of building

It was a highly competent design that nodded in the direction of the moderne era in which the neighbourhood is rooted. The only problem was that, at twelve stories, it was three stories higher than planning regulations allowed. City Council rejected it on that basis, and the developer appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB).

That’s where things went off the rails. Instead of doing the sensible thing, which was simply to tell the developer to conform to existing height restrictions, the OMB said that it would grant an exemption from those restrictions – but only if the design were revised to become a “landmark” with a “wow factor”.

Frankly, the OMB might as well just have said, “your building’s too high, but if you make it gaudy enough, we’ll let you build it.” That the resulting design is a Frankensteinian mongrel that marries the original design with a grotesque assortment of pseudo-Gothic add-ons should surprise no one. The moment the OMB decided to replace sound planning principles with hopelessly nebulous words like “landmark” and “wow”, this was probably inevitable.

image of building

Nevertheless, the City staff studied the new design, and decreed that it did indeed fulfill the OMB’s “landmark” requirements, and recommended that the design be re-submitted. The Planning Committee, despite cogent opposition from the Councillor of the afflicted ward (Jeff Leiper, Kitchissippi Ward), adopted the staff’s recommendation by a vote of 8-2.

This really seemed to me to be a deeply flawed process. When a decision like this one hinges so completely on wooly terms like “landmark” and “wow”, it risks creating the impression that the real goal is simply to provide developers with a viable route around planning regulations. Not only does it not guarantee good architecture, it seriously undermines public confidence in the ability of the planning process to protect the public interest. It even calls into question whether that’s what the process is intended to do.

As I said, quite educational.