Planning committee approves application for Ottawa’s tallest high-rise

The city’s planning committee voted 7-2 in favour of a proposal to build what would be Ottawa’s tallest high-rise, despite fervent pushback from residents and three downtown councillors about the height and overall design of the 65-storey skyscraper and the two other towers that would spring up at 900 Albert St.

The application for the trio of mixed-use towers between the O-Train tracks and City Centre Avenue proposes to blow past the 30-storey limit for new developments in the area.

That limit, approved by city council about five years ago, is enshrined both in official planning policy and a community design plan for future development around the Bayview transit station. However, planning staff said on Tuesday the city’s policy was since tweaked to allow for a maximum height of “30 plus” storeys if the building is mixed-use and “within 200 metres walking distance” of a rapid transit station.

Some residents who spent months working on the community design plan say city staff’s support for the colossal towers leaves them feeling like the city never intended to honour the 30-storey limit, nor residents’ wishes for the look of their community as it intensifies with the arrival of the Confederation light-rail transit line.

The proposal – submitted by TIP Albert GP Inc., the owner of the 1.44-hectare site – needs a stamp of approval from council before it can go ahead. Council’s next meeting is Wednesday – its last one before a seven-week summer break.

Downtown councillors Tobi Nussbaum and Jeff Leiper voted against the project.

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, whose ward covers the site at 900 Albert, said she plans to introduce a number of motions at council regarding the number of affordable housing units in the towers; the proposed loading docks on the south side of the buildings; the 1,059 proposed parking spaces; and the architectural design of the skyscrapers.

‘What’s the rationale?’ Residents say developers, city staff haven’t justified need for 65 storeys

Residents who came to city hall on Tuesday to have their say about the project balked at the height of the two tallest towers – 65 and 56 storeys, respectively.

If built, the 65-storey skyscraper would be just over double that of Ottawa’s tallest existing high-rise. Nussbaum suggested that height also violates new guidelines for high-rise buildings which council approved this spring.

West Centretown resident Catherine Boucher, who worked on the community design plan for the Bayview Station district, said the application for 900 Albert – the first request to test that plan – makes her and other community members feel the city “lied” to them about their intentions.

“Did we miss the ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge’ to the development industry when we adopted this plan?” Boucher told the planning committee. “Sixty-five [storeys] is not 30 or anywhere near it.”

Planners insisted the skyscrapers will end up “completing” Ottawa’s “expanding” skyline into the LeBreton Flats area.

Following committee, Boucher said she didn’t hear anyone give “an actual planning rationale” for exceptions to the 30-storey limit. She said the way the city has handled what she considers a “precedent-setting development” has left her “disappointed.”

“Why bother having [community design plans]?” Boucher said. “It’s very disappointing as a community member to spend a lot of time debating these issues and thinking about it seriously and having city council approve one thing and then just change their mind.”

“[To] the people out there in the netherworlds of the other LRT stations – get ready, because it’s coming to your neighbourhood and ask the city why you bothered to participate in a community design plan.”

Critics tell planners to re-think loading docks, amenities for residents

Back at the street level, residents and McKenney said they’re also less than impressed with the south façade of the towers, which will house a stretch of loading docks, with a separated pathway for pedestrians and cyclists.

“This building is basically mooning the neighbourhood,” said Boucher, who lives a few blocks south of the proposed development.

She argued the developers need to go beyond their offer to cover the loading zone with murals, which she insisted was “nothing but lipstick on a pig.”

McKenney and Mindy Sichel, who spoke on behalf of the Centretown Citizens Community Association, also argued the current design for the site fails to integrate with the community and needs more amenities and services for the residents of its 1,241 apartment units.

“Where are the schools, the parks, the childcare facilities [and] the community centres? These buildings are being proposed in a vacuum,” Sichel said. “People who live in high-rise apartments don’t have backyards. Without community spaces, these buildings will create social dead zones.”

McKenney, too, implored the developers to inject more “animation” into the site.

“We are going to have around 2,000 new neighbours and that’s a good thing — but I want to meet them. I want my kids to play with their kids,” she said. “We are never, ever going to bring our kids to a loading zone, under any circumstances. There’s nothing there, there’s nothing drawing us to that pathway.”

Request to build more than 1,000 parking spots ‘just insane,’ residents argue

The development application is also asking committee and council to approve six levels of underground parking and a total of 1,059 parking spots for the site.

Residents and a few councillors challenged the need for what they called an “excess” of vehicle parking when the three towers will be located 140 metres from Bayview Station, the juncture of two LRT lines and multiple bus routes. They suggested this is counterintuitive to the city’s goal of getting residents to ride the LRT.

“Putting 1,100 parking spots into this facility is just insane,” Hintonburg resident Cheryl Parrott said, arguing Albert Street is “an already very congested road.”

McKenney said she will move a motion to have the number of bicycle parking spots – currently at 800 – match the number of parking spots.

Proposal still needs approval from city council

The development application came before the planning committee one day before city council’s last meeting until the end of August. Some councillors argued this leaves little time and opportunity for public input and that the city should take more time with such a major application in order to “get it right.”

Staff and planning chair Jan Harder argued it’s typical for some projects to be shepherded to council faster than normal, right before the summer break.

While she wasn’t sure whether she would attend city council’s meeting on Wednesday, Boucher said she wants Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson to weigh in on the 900 Albert application. She emphasized Watson “promised that [community design plans] would mean what they said.”

“I’m looking to the mayor to say, ‘Yes, we will do what we said we would do,’” she said.

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