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Mayor Watson, how ugly is Ottawa?

posted Dec 1, 2011, 4:45 AM by Westboro Beach Community Association   [ updated Nov 18, 2014, 6:28 PM by Westboro Beach Community Association ]

Many established neighbourhoods in Ottawa feel they are under siege from infill developers and from new home builders that generally think big is better, and that infill means massive buildings in the smallest possible space.  The letter below was written by a resident of Wilmont Avenue in reaction to the development of the Fendor property.  While the Westboro Beach Community Association agrees with the message of the letter, the views expressed are those of the author of the letter.

Mayor Watson, how ugly is Ottawa?

An open letter to the Mayor of the City of Ottawa

Dear Mr. Mayor:

 We are among the quarter million of immigrants that Canada welcomes every year. We moved to Ottawa three years ago, as skilled labor, after having lived in Switzerland and Germany. And as all immigrants do, we compare our new home to our old home. Some things are wonderful about our new home. Many things are just different. And then there are a few things which are very disturbing. For example, ever since we came to Ottawa, we were wondering why Ottawa is ugly. Let there be no misunderstanding: Ottawa has a lot to offer for its residents. The quality of life is high. Green space and water abundant. Nature has been very generous to this city. But man has not. The man-made urban landscape is simply astonishingly unattractive: The few organically grown older neighborhoods are under siege by soulless and uniform “infills” (a term Europeans tend to associate with nasty dental procedures rather than architecture); poorly designed condo towers, not unlike those that were built in the 1970s all over the former Soviet Union, mushroom everywhere in the City; finding an example of decent architecture among the many cheap and thoughtless utilitarian buildings is hardly possible. The urban landscape of Ottawa is a cacophony; it is eclectic, unplanned, and largely untouched by even the slightest sense of esthetics in the public space. And sadly, the world is aware of this. Just read what the Wikipedia entry on “architecture in Ottawa” has to say.

 Good architecture matters, Mr. Mayor! It matters, because you and I and everybody else want to live and work in a city which displays, occasionally, some sense of esthetics. But it also matters because an attractive urban landscape helps to attract and retain well-educated, creative people. When a city becomes too ugly, these people leave. And with that the tax base erodes. In today’s world, cities have to compete for the well-educated and mobile workforce, and an attractive urban landscape matters!
  Over the last year or so, we have slowly uncovered what makes Ottawa’s urban landscape ugly. Here is how we learned: We live in a quiet residential street in Westboro. Across the street is an industrial site. When we bought our property we were aware of the fact that this site was zoned for residential buildings with a height of up to 19.5 meters. Sooner or later, we knew, a developer would build something. Then one day we heard that a developer had bought the property and intended to build apartment buildings. The height of these planned buildings was not 19.5 meters, not 29.5 meters, not 39.5 meters. The developer wanted to build twin towers with a height of 53.5 meters.

 Of course, we were shocked and annoyed by the chutzpah of this developer. But we were not too concerned. You see, Mr. Mayor, in Europe, when a property is zoned for 19.5 meters, residents can be sure that the developers respect the zoning and by-laws. We call it legal security. Also, should the city intend to change the zoning laws, citizens have a say in this. We call it democracy. And when citizens are concerned about a development, they will ask their elected representative for support, and they will get it. We call it responsive government. Finally, in our home countries, there is a competent and impartial bureaucracy in place devoted to the public good. This we call good governance.

 But apparently the developer that fancies a 53-meter twin tower in the heart of a neighborhood characterized by two-story building must have assumed that the planning process in Ottawa has no respect for legal security, democracy and good governance. Or why else would he have dared to put forward a proposal which so very clearly contradicts all planning rationales of the city of Ottawa, and which so blatantly ignores the public good for the sake of increasing profit margins?

But not only that. The planning rationale is full of inaccuracies, misleading claims, and plain nonsense. At times, it is so silly that it is actually funny. My favorite part is the claim that the shadows from a 53-meter tower have a less negative impact on adjacent properties than the shadows from a 19 meters high building. Also quite funny is the notion that privacy for neighbors is better ensured by 53-meter towers than by 19-meter buildings. Or how about the claim the twin towers would provide a sense of orientation to the community? How often do residents of Westboro get lost because they have no grotesquely megalomaniac twin towers to provide orientation, one wonders?

Then there is a traffic study (for which the developer paid, of course) which duly states that traffic from the new building will have no negative impact on the traffic situation in the neighborhood. The problem is that this study is methodologically so bizarrely flawed that every undergrad student would be ashamed to hand it in as a term paper. 

Surely, no one could take such a planning rationale seriously, we thought. Everybody would understand that all these inaccuracies - no, let me rephrase this – all these silly little lies were just a desperate attempt of an unprofessional developer to build a case when there simply is no case.

But then, Mr. Mayor, a few months later, the City planner delivered his report on this proposal. Would you believe, Mr. Mayor, that the report almost verbatim repeated all the inaccuracies, factual mistakes, and the plain nonsense from the planning rationale? Yes, says the City planner, this proposal is in line with the planning rationales for Westboro (even though it takes three minutes to read the Richmond Road / Westboro Secondary Plan in order to find out that it is not). Yes, the traffic study is done in accordance with City of Ottawa regulations. Does the City regulate that traffic studies must be flawed? Yes, the shadows from the towers have a less negative impact on the neighborhood than shadows from a lower building. And so on.

After having read this report from the City planner, we were no longer annoyed. We were appalled and ashamed. Could it be that our friends and neighbors, who had warned us that the planning process in Ottawa is seriously corrupted, were right? We had refused to believe this. After all, we just immigrated to Canada, and as all immigrants, we want our new home to be something we have not to be ashamed of. We want it to be good.

 Mr. Mayor, on December 5 the planning committee will vote on the proposal of Urban Uniform for a zoning by-law amendment proposal for 335 Roosevelt Ave, file Nr. D02-02-11-0068. If the planning committee says “yes” to this proposal, it will say “yes” to the greed of a few, and “no” to the public good. It will say “yes” to the profit margins of the investors, and “no” to the legitimate concerns of the many residents who live in the neighborhood, who raise families in the neighborhood, who pay taxes in the City of Ottawa, and who put their trust in the legal system of this city.

If the committee says “yes”, it will say “yes” to yet another uninspired, thoughtless, ugly and deeply provincial design whose sole purpose is profit maximizing. If the committee says “no”, it will send the developer back to the drawing board. There is no reason at all why a developer should not be able to come up with a design which conforms with the current zoning, and which is attractive for both old an new residents of the neighborhood. And if the current architect cannot do this, then find a decent architect who can. It is not hard.

But finally, and most importantly, Mr. Mayor, the planning committee will vote on something else, too. You know, the unattractive architecture of Ottawa is just the manifestation of something more profoundly and truly ugly: It is the manifestation of a deeply corrupted planning process. If the committee votes “yes”, it will further undermine the credibility of the bureaucracy. It will undermine the respect for its own rules and procedures. It will demonstrate what many citizens suspect: That decisions are made arbitrarily, and not in the interest of the public good. In sum, Mr. Mayor, if the committee says “yes”, it will undermine the very principles on which democratic communities rely: Trust in the rule of law, in democracy, and in accountable and transparent good governance.

The world needs more Canada! We new immigrants read this all over the city. Many of us came because we want to believe in this. Mr. Mayor, I continue to believe that the world needs more Canada. But then there are also some things which the world does not need. Which Canada does not need. Things of which all of us who live here in this community should be ashamed of. We should fix these things. On December 5th, there is an opportunity to start doing just that.

Dr. Christoph Zürcher
378 Wilmont Avenue