Outside the LRT zone: A housing boom in Kanata

When it comes to light rail transit service, Kanata got left out.

If stage two of LRT is completed on time, it will reach Moodie Drive in 2025. That’s still five kilometres to the east of Kanata. The third phase of LRT, just an unfunded concept for the moment, might include stops in Kanata by 2030.

Meantime, Kanata is choking on traffic.

Yes, this is a common theme throughout the city, but Kanata’s situation is somewhat more severe.

This is not a bedroom community with traffic simply moving to and from Ottawa. Kanata is also an increasingly successful tech hub, drawing commuters from Ottawa and elsewhere into Kanata every day. The result is near gridlock in both directions at rush hour, to the extent that major tech employers are worried they soon won’t be able to attract the top talent they need to remain competitive.

One way to eliminate long commutes is to encourage workers to move to Kanata. To some extent this has been happening for years, as the 14 census tracts that form Kanata grew in population from 77,300 to 87,200 between 2011 and 2016.

But now Kanata is on the verge of a fresh wave of growth. Home builders have submitted proposals that collectively could add more than 10,000 new houses and townhomes in coming years. That’s enough to accommodate another 25,000 people.

Construction in the Marchwood neighbourhood in Kanata on Friday. JEAN LEVAC / POSTMEDIA NEWS

Here are some of the key projects on the go:

Kanata North Community: multiple developers, including Minto and Valecraft, are preparing to build as many as 3,000 housing units on a 448-acre tract of land stretching north from the established area of Kanata along March Road towards the turnoff to Dunrobin Road. Minto expects to begin servicing its portion of the community sometime in 2020, but it could be a couple of years before we start to see houses going up. When complete, the community will accommodate around 8,000 people.

Goulbourn Forced Road, phases 7, 8 and 9: Richcraft and Urbandale are collaborating on a multi-phase project that aims to fill much of the empty space south of Terry Fox Drive, west of Ciena’s new research and development headquarters. Phase 9, an estimated 400 units, will be first, with tree clearing and blasting expected later this year. Phases 7 and 8, which occupy the western and northern part of the property (not including 40 per cent of the territory, which must be set aside for green space), could begin in 2021 and include more than 1,000 additional houses and townhomes when completed.

Development work along Goulbourn Forced Road in Kanata on Friday. JEAN LEVAC / POSTMEDIA NEWS

* Kanata Highlands (820 Huntmar):  Richcraft is planning nearly 700 housing units for this section of land, situated just west of Terry Fox Drive as it begins its sweep from the north towards the Kanata Centrum shopping area.

Arcadia: a few kilometres further south of 820 Huntmar, also west of Terry Fox Drive, Minto is rolling out the third phase of a housing development growing about 150 units per year. Including houses already built, Arcadia will have about 1,500 units when completed.

Fernbank community – Richcraft and other builders have been filling in the formerly open territory north of Fernbank and between Stittsville and Terry Fox Drive. A healthy chunk of the estimated 10,000 units has already been constructed.

Minto grabbed the market share of new home sales in February. here, construction of its Arcadia site continues Feb. 8, 2016.
Construction of Minto’s Arcadia site during an earlier phase in 2016.  JEAN LEVAC / OTTAWA CITIZEN

Kanata is also dotted with dozens of other smaller developments ranging from 16 units to a couple of hundred.

Assuming these and other building projects actually get done, will it reduce Kanata’s traffic woes or make them worse?

Much depends on who moves into the new developments. Brent Strachan, president of Minto Communities Ottawa, notes the people moving into the Arcadia development tend to be a mix. Some commute downtown to jobs in government, while others work in the private sector in Kanata. “Depending where you are, the commute on existing transit to downtown can be pretty direct,” Strachan notes. In his own case, Strachan has the option of taking one bus, without transfers, from Stittsville into Ottawa’s core.

However, other Kanata area residents face a more circuitous route, often with at least one transfer in a journey that can take 90 minutes.

The 2016 census offers good insight into the commuting patterns. Consider the west Kanata census tract comprising Marchwood, whose population jumped 76 per cent between 2011 and 2016. That made it one of the fastest-growing districts in the national capital region, which grew less than six per cent over the same period.

The census showed that fully 30 per cent of Marchwood’s residents spent less than 15 minutes on their morning commutes, suggesting they worked within Kanata. At the same time, however, the other two fast-growing Kanata tracts — Emerald Meadows and Glencairn (each up about 54 per cent in population from 2011 to 2016) — showed much different results for commuters. In Emerald Meadows, 15 per cent spent less than 15 minutes getting to work, while the same was true of 22 per cent of Glencairn commuters.

What was common to these and most of the other 11 census tracts in Kanata was the relatively high proportion of workers who spent more than 45 minutes getting to work. The average was nearly one in four, as it was in fast-growing Marchwood.

This lined up with another finding of the census: 23 per cent of Marchwood’s workforce held jobs in public administration, the vast majority with the federal government.

The upshot appears to be that adding thousands of additional residential units in Kanata won’t necessarily alleviate commuting woes as much as people would like. The national capital region as a whole last month employed 174,000 public administrators, representing 23 per cent of the total workforce. Little wonder so many Ottawa and Gatineau households have at least one commuter travelling downtown at rush hour.

However, it’s also true that many government jobs are shifting closer to Kanata. At the new Defence Department headquarters on 60 Moodie Dr., buildings six through nine are fully occupied and military personnel are finally moving into the central structure that used to serve as Lab 5 for Nortel Networks. By 2021, 8,500 military and civilian personnel should be operating out of the new headquarters. At the same time, the defence department is planning a new operational headquarters nearby on the Connaught Ranges, just east of the Marshes Golf Course.

The new Department of Defence headquarters at the old Nortel complex in Kanata.   JULIE OLIVER /POSTMEDIA

All of this is encouraging Kanata’s home builders, especially when you combine the defence department catalysts with the growing critical mass of Kanata’s high-tech sector. The latter is 30,000 strong, or roughly 60 per cent of the total for the capital region.

The high-tech core in Kanata consists of firms that specialize in Internet and telecommunications infrastructure — Ciena, Ericsson and Nokia — now riding a wave of fresh demand for fifth-generation wireless and related technologies. A secondary thrust comes from Ford, QNX and other firms deeply involved in the development of vehicles that don’t require human drivers. And there are dozens of other tech firms in Kanata successfully mining esoteric niches ranging from supply chain management software to network monitoring technology.

Construction in the Marchwood neighbourhood in Kanata on Friday. JEAN LEVAC / POSTMEDIA NEWS

From the vantage point of tech workers, the greater the number of firms in one location, the better. If one firm fails, there are others nearby that will be growing — and hiring.

The wider risk with tech, of course, is that the industry is notoriously cyclical. An economic recession, whether in the wider economy or specific to high-tech, would stop the housing boom in its tracks.

That’s something today’s home builders have in the back of their minds while pushing their latest housing projects through city hall, phase by phase.

But, as far as the tech industry is concerned, these new homes can’t get built fast enough.

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