The little things Ottawa is doing to restore the human scale - 2

Every city has its share of megaprojects, tall buildings, major redevelopments, sports complexes, arts centres, flashy condo towers and starchitect-designed office buildings. But does every city have the sensitivity of the human scale, the feel for the fine-grained detail of its public realm, the attention to small things that add up to pleasant, livable urban environments?

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.

2. Making it easier to shop on foot

Small-scale retail zoning

In the city’s 19th and early 20th century neighbourhoods, the corner store was a staple of daily life. With the advent of zoning in 1964, the dogma of land use separation created a legal environment whereby “legal non-conforming” stores, once closed due to the owners’ retirement or other reasons, had to “revert” back to residential uses. In the first decade of the 21st century, the city lost over two dozen such corner stores.

A vast public consultation program was launched to get the residents of these walkable neighbourhoods to identify areas where they wished to see small, community-serving local stores. The result was an ambitious city-initiated zoning program that re-established and broadened commercial permissions for existing and “ghost” corner store locations, and introduced as-of-right permissions on over 500 properties along key corridors and at key intersections. One of those corridors is the very street, Somerset East, now linked at both ends by footbridges. Incidentally, the latest counts (2017) show that 74% of traffic on this street is now non-car.

The zoning allows residential property owners to open a store in their living room as long as the retail area is no larger than 100 m2, and provided a residential use remains in the building. Providing customer parking is prohibited. Restaurant patios are only allowed on corner lots and can be no larger than 10 m2. All garbage and recycling must be indoors.

With those zoning permissions in place, the city has seen (to its amazement) the return of newly built infill buildings with small commercial spaces at the ground level. The zoning package was positioned as a way to encourage the incubation of new, small community-serving businesses. It was not appealed and had the strong support of the Ottawa Public Health department.

Interestingly, one community association requested a pause to further study how this zoning might apply to their neighbourhood. Their ultimate request was that it be applied to a longer stretch of a street (Armstrong Street) that serves as a bike link and can start to act as an alternative to rising commercial rents on a popular, parallel main street (Wellington Street West) just one block south.

The City has reached out to the Real Estate Board to highlight the new zoning permissions, so that properties with this new zoning, when listed for sale, can be pitched to buyers looking to incubate a small retail business.

Rethinking parking requirements

In 2015, Ottawa undertook an in-depth re-evaluation of its parking requirements. Through extensive public consultation, it adopted a package of changes that maps the city into concentric rings radiating outward from the centre. In the greater downtown core, all parking requirements are removed, except for visitor parking in high-rise condo buildings. This means that a large office building or a retail store of any size can be built without parking. In the neighbourhoods surrounding downtown, residential buildings with up to 12 dwelling units are exempt from parking requirements, and stores up to certain size thresholds are as well.[1] Along traditional mainstreets, any mixed-use building of up to four storeys, regardless of the number of dwelling units may be above the storefronts, can be built without parking.

The results have been immediate. Applications for rental buildings with 12 units and no parking are now commonplace at the building permit office. Several examples of developments with very little parking are also routine. On one traditional mainstreet, there is an application for a building type that was last seen in the 1930’s: five storeys (needed a variance to add a storey), four storefronts, fourteen apartments, and no parking.

The development industry applauded the move, as did residents’ associations. For the industry, the removal of a legal minimum means they can now provide what they feel the market will support. In the most central neighbourhoods, with small land parcels and existing older buildings all around, the costs of excavation are significant. Being able to construct with a shallow basement, or slab-on-grade, makes smaller projects much more viable. Such buildings are easily sold to investors.

In the first blog in this series we talked about Making it Easier to Walk.

In the next blog, we will talk about discreet density and infill.

[1] Restaurants of up to 300 m2, retail stores of up to 500 m2, and grocery stores of up to 1,500 m2, are exempt from parking requirements.