Some of it is all to the good, of course. The housing stock improves, it helps stop urban sprawl, and it creates homes in a style that better suits modern living and a buyer’s market. It is also an owner’s unstoppable right.
But, undeniably, it creates deep division. There was a fascinating hearing in late September before the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (the old OMB) that crystallizes much of the friction being writ large across the city’s core, one case of more than 8,000 units of central intensification in a five-year stretch ending in 2017.
A group of residents on Broadway Avenue in the Glebe is upset with a plan to tear down 21 Broadway — a traditional 2.5-storey brick house — and replace it with a larger, modern home with a flat roof. The main issue under the rules microscope? The house is set forward in such a way that its facade does not line up with the foundations of its neighbours, giving it a smaller yard with diminished greenery.
On paper, it hardly seems earth-shattering, but the proposal has set off an emotional debate about property rights, our attachment to the look and feel of our neighbourhoods and the unspoken — or non-existent — duty for individuals to maintain the era-look of new builds or additions.
”I don’t really understand why all this happened and it became such a hatred-filled environment,” said Hassan Moghadam, 48, an oral surgeon who bought the $1-million house with his wife, Litsa Karamanos, and plans to tear it down. “Over a house?”
Maghadam is so perplexed by the opposition, the transplanted Iranian wondered aloud if there was discrimination at play. He says he arrived in 1976 “with nothing,” stayed at the Salvation Army, wore secondhand clothes and made a life for himself by “working my butt off.”
“Basically, what I felt like is they’re telling me ‘You can’t live on this street,’ right?” (He performs surgery at The Ottawa Hospital, the Montfort, teaches at McGill and uOttawa and has volunteered at the Ottawa Mission.)
Guided by the family’s wish-list, he says he hired high-end professionals to design and site the house, leaving details such as setbacks and “non-conforming rights” to the experts, who designed within the allowable envelope.
Bernie Sander, 66, has lived at No. 25 for more than 30 years. He led a group of residents so passionate about preserving the century-old streetscape that they scraped together almost $30,000 to fight the plan. After a one-day hearing, they lost, and badly.
“We met afterwards on the street and kind of had a group hug,” he said the next day. “If anything, as neighbours, it has brought us closer.”
It is frightening how complicated these issues can get. At the LPAT hearing, each side had a lawyer and the proponent had a professional planner equipped with a binder two inches thick and at least five visual boards on easels. (We endured several minutes on what constitutes a “bay window” and definitions of “character” and “attributes.”)
Mostly, it comes down to how the city sets the infill rules. “So how has the city done?” asks Coun. David Chernushenko, whose ward includes Broadway. “Pretty badly.”
The problem, in a nutshell: The city is trying to establish a legal framework that forces infill to be in character with the existing street, something that defies easy regulation. According to its Mature Neighbourhoods Bylaw, the core message is “Your street gives you your rules.” And this is the principle that Sander and others felt was being violated by a house that has no big front porch, is set closer to the street, has a full third floor, and doesn’t blend in completely with a strip of century-old homes with mature trees.
“There is nothing about the proposed full three-storey house with its main front wall situated well forward of the houses on the adjoining lots that ‘fits into, respects, and reinforces the established character’ of the Broadway Avenue streetscape,” he wrote in his objection, quoting the bylaw itself.
On the stand, Sander went further. “Why move to a neighbourhood when nobody likes what you’re doing?”
There is much in those words. The hearing was told Karamanos has been shouted at for seeking a minor variance that allows a portion of the front to slightly protrude (about a metre) beyond the permitted setback. And, indeed, several Broadway residents wondered aloud why the new owners want to live on a traditional Glebe street, but don’t want to live in a traditional Glebe house.
Forget the niggly rules for a moment. The dispute is intriguing for the way it exposes the emotional attachment people have to their neighbourhoods, their streets, their homes, the house across the street — the visual comfort that contributes to our deep sense of place. “This is bigger than just lower Broadway,” Sander said.
Broadway resident Andrew Milne, 46, addressed this when he referenced the big trees on many front yards and the impressive open-sided porches that allow views up and down the street. In other words, by its design, the street connects people.
The digital marketing specialist called it “super frustrating” that it has thrown well-meaning people into an adversarial situation where the spirit of the bylaw seems to have been trampled.
“How does (the house) fit? How is it embraced by the neighbourhood? How does it fit into the style of change?”
Indeed, Moghadam picked up on that theme of houses changing neighbourhoods, but from the opposite perspective.
“Now it’s just not a little neighbourhood thing,” he says, adding that opponents have consistently misrepresented the size of the house at 6,000 square feet, when it is actually about 3,400, minus the basement. “Now the entire Glebe has put a pinata on you and says ‘You’re that a–hole who wants to build a monster home.’”
The counter-argument, of course, is that the city sets out zoning and building rules that guide new construction and all Moghadam is doing is following the rules — including asking for minor variances that are perfectly within his rights. What else, really, can we expect property owners to do — survey the neighbours for their architectural taste?
(He went further, in fact, saying he spent $7,000 to have coffee and cookie sessions with the neighbours (planners, lawyers included) to explain the design, which he says respects the surroundings with its use of brick, stone and copper.)
“If you’re telling me you don’t like something, I don’t have to follow your wishes. It’s my house.” He says he isn’t going to be “bullied” by the opposition and wants set an example to his three children to stand up for their rights.
Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper has dealt with infill issues since the day he was elected. We spoke of Carleton Avenue in Champlain Park, a street in my neighbourhood, where at least 40 new homes have been constructed in a 500-metre strip. Most are boxy duplexes that replaced much smaller houses.
How, one wonders, would anyone assess the “character” of the street, when it has undergone a wholesale remake in the past 10 years? In other words, when the previous character was put in a dumpster and trucked away.
“I don’t think we’re doing a very good job at that,” Leiper said, when asked about preserving balance between new and old.
“The size of the infills is changing the character of our neighbourhoods. Our neighbourhoods don’t look the same. They’re losing their charm.”
Little wonder that residents are frustrated: The province is encouraging intensification, the official plans are permitting it, variances are being given out like candy, and yet the city is writing bylaws with reassuring guidelines like “respect and reinforce” the character of the street. Huh?
“So what we see in Kitchissippi ward,” said Leiper, who works on infill issues every day, “is small homes, big lots, lots of demand, demand for suburban-style square footage, and developers seeking to maximize all those elements.”
Leiper laments the loss of trees, the “permeable” space, the urban forest — even the view of the sky — all given way to maximize the living space and economic value.
“Your street give you your rules,” the city says. Not really. The law does, the lawyers do.
To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896 or email email@example.com
Egan: Infill or outcast? When old neighbourhoods grow newer, boxier via demolition