The little things Ottawa is doing ... 3

The Canadian capital city, Ottawa, has managed to maintain itself as a truly pleasant walking city in part because of its growing ability to mind the small scale in addition to the large scale. In the last decade or so, it has made some interesting strides in the way it combines planning regulation with enhancement of the public realm. This series of blogs will outline some examples of what Ottawa has been doing.

3.        Contextual infill and new housing forms

Rethinking infill design

Ottawa has been in the fortunate position to witness considerable market interest for residential opportunities in established neighbourhoods. In the case of low-rise infill on side streets, for many years the instinctive response from builders was to tear down an existing old house and replace it with two or three new units (narrow singles, semis, or a row of townhouses). The problem was that the new houses were of a suburban design, with garages in the front, wide driveways, and most living space located one storey up above the garage. People complained of a loss of character.

In response, Ottawa invented a new zoning instrument called the Streetscape Character Analysis (SCA). It works in a simple way: your street gives you your rules. The SCA is an analysis of the 21 lots surrounding the subject property through which the dominant character is determined for three attributes: use of land in the front yard, location and type of parking, and location of the front door. If, for example, the majority of the lots around your property have a green front yard in front of the main house and a driveway to the side, then this is your zoning requirement. If parking is accessed by a back lane, then you will not be given a curb cut from the street. If the houses around you have their front door on the façade, you must put yours on the façade as well. Beyond that, your architectural style and choices are entirely free.

This new zoning, associated with the removal of parking requirements for anything up to 12 units, means that the prime directive in infill design is to fit in with the neighbourhood character, as opposed to accommodating a required amount of parking.

In tandem with these rules, the city has created new zoning to facilitate solutions like the use of a carriageway to rear parking, the re-opening of rear lanes that neighbours have encroached upon over the years, the creation or expansion of new on-street permit parking zones, and the use of corner lots to maximize the footprint of infill dwellings while minimizing potential curb cuts.

Discreet density

The issue of the “missing middle” in housing is less pronounced in Ottawa than in many other jurisdictions. Thanks to provincial planning legislation on urban boundaries, and given market conditions that already accept and demand denser forms of housing, single-detached houses only constitute 30% of housing starts in Ottawa. Townhouses and stacked townhouses are the most popular type of new construction, and condo apartments generally account for one-fifth to one-third of starts.

Still, to go beyond diversifying the housing supply in greenfields, Ottawa has done considerable work to expand the offerings in the already built-up area. This has taken many forms.

For almost two decades, basement apartments have been legal as-of-right in any single- or semi-detached or townhouse dwelling. In 2015, new rules were introduced to allow coach houses (little houses in back yards). By definition, these must be rental dwellings, since lot severances to create a parcel and sell the coach house are not allowed. The rules allow a coach house on any lot where one can be built to a maximum of 40% of the area of the back yard, and 40% of the footprint of the main house (whichever is smaller), limited to one storey in the urban area (two in the rural area), no parking required, mandatory servicing from the main house, and interior space to be building code compliant for a dwelling.

These new rules were showcased at a number of Home and Renovation shows, with thousands of property owners taking the City’s pamphlets, and the bulk of the interest coming from people looking for intergenerational arrangements. The first building permits were delivered in 2017.

In bungalow neighbourhoods, where R1 zoning still applies (zoning that only allows single-detached) new zoning rules now allow the severance of a corner lot into two parcels that are half the size of the minimum lot area to allow construction of two single-detached homes, one facing each street. The rhythm and cadence of the streetscape stays the same, and one of the new houses has no back yard. This was accepted in neighbourhoods that were being transformed by monster homes being built to the maximum allowable envelope under zoning, and then having a tidal effect on everyone else’s taxes.

In neighbourhoods with R2 and higher zoning (zones where semi-detached homes are allowed), the City introduced new zoning permissions for “long semi-detached houses” (i.e. back-to-front semis), where a flag lot is created and a long double house is built on a narrower parcel. Both homes share a single-wide driveway, and a central two-car garage divides the two units away from the street. From the street, the new building looks like a single, but there are two units: one in front with no back yard, one at the rear with no front yard. There is a market for both types of homes. And of course, they can each have a basement apartment.

The little things add up

All these things appear to be “little projects” but in fact represented a significant expenditure of staff time and resources in consulting with the public and the industry, developing the right tools, stress-testing them, troubleshooting them, and amending them where necessary. But they have added up to a rich dialogue about urbanity in which many people became passionately invested. It has also recast the focus of the efforts that our Planning Department expends in the type of city-building in which we engage.

Our experience thus far is that, invariably, measures designed to support and enhance the human scale, no matter how small they seem, are not only worthwhile but end up becoming a connected and mutually-supportive series of systems that are systemically in place to support a certain type of urbanism. Building on that experience, Ottawa has many more of these in store for the coming years.