The Virtues of Six-storey Height Limits

The following was sent today, to oppose the proposal for a 16-storey tower on a site 90 metres from our house on a street which had in 2005, a community design plan approved which called for increases in height to a 6-storey limit:

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Mr. Doug James, City of Ottawa (Comments on 541-545 Rideau Street: File D02-02-13-0129)

Please accept my comments so late.

We live within the 120 metres of this proposal’s site, in a single-family home, living car-lite and relying on the Vrtucars parked on this site, and on the five bus routes that run within one block of our home.  When we bought here in 2006, we knew of the Richcraft OMB ruling across the street from this site, which allowed for 9 storeys on Rideau and four storeys on Besserer.  We also knew of the recently-approved Community Design Plan’s failure to hold the community supported six-storey height limit, a recognition that this street has a more important role than Besserer’s (although we sustained five months of carrying most of Rideau Street’s east-bound traffic during last fall’s construction shut-down).

Since that time, things have been mostly quiet, except that Cobourg-Rideau, with a restaurant on  each corner, is now mostly empty.  And two of the four corners is changing hands to parties expecting to make a good return from breaching the vision of the street.   These proposals don’t reflect the changing times that have resuscitated the currency of traditional main streets: it status of being the first residential-location choice for those in two age-cohorts: 18-40 and 50-75, leaving the side streets for the slight, but growing numbers of those in the other cohorts to live nearby.

The street provides the basis for a life of full involvement, regardless of income or mode of transportation.  Six stories is a natural height, one that cities around the world have discovered allows all occupants of a building to be part of a street’s life, rather than a perch from which to vicariously observe it (cf, Jonathan Rabin’s dichotomy of “air people” and “street people” in his sketch of New York City (Hunting Mr. Heartbreak).  In those buildings, value declines from the ground up, rather than do the opposite in high-rise buildings.   In a main street, value comes from being connected to the street, and there is a limit in how far the human voice — competing with other noises — can be relied on to carry for a short exchange of information, or for unmagnified eyesight to allow recognition of a someone walking.

Part of the push upward is caused by the car, both the distancing of perspective that its insulating structure induces, and the need to park growing numbers of privately owned vehicles in the same building site, the result of one of the abominations of our the last age: ancillary parking. Oh, yes, I have written the applicant that the Vrtucar parking spaces must survive his wrecker’s ball, and asked why the entire car-access needs of the future residents can’t be accommodated by tomorrow’s thinking, rather than by yesterday’s.  [See the many articles about the decline in young people’s interest in getting a licence or buying a car, and all age groups’ reduction in driving; These structures’ parking facilities are unlikely to be converted to other uses, when demand for them subsides.].

So, despite the several taller buildings existing along the north side of Rideau in this stretch that exceed the six storeys, all were built before the plan’s approval and by public authorities (including 160 Chapel, that was originally the Ontario government’s Pestalozzi College), the street can still belatedly become a true main street.

I hear that theme every two weeks at discussion sessions of our group, Friends of Uptown Rideau, which meets at the Econolodge’s breakfast room (formerly a real restaurant before the street declined).  I hear it at the Sandy Hill Seniors network sessions.  I hear it when I meet neighbours while doing my duties as a block captain for Action Sandy Hill.  The street needs change, but not to be scarred by an act that will be with us for decades.  We even have some doubts that the retail that these owners are forced to build as part of their project will add much to the walking commerce of the street, vs. capitalize on the street’s heavy motor traffic, which will require yet more parking (all if which, because it is on private land, won’t be shared).

Mr. Sinha is more environmental than most infill builders.  That is good, but he is constrained by the same system as us, and feels justified in asking for more density than will be good for the street or for the existing residents.  And the current owner, Robert Jutras, I know, as well; he was the long-time chair of the Uptown Rideau Business Association (URBA), but health issues have led to his decision to act now to realize a dream he had when he first bought on the street many years ago, when he thought the street was ready for resuscitation.  Both are fine people.

Don’t just slot us neighbours into the NIMBY/BANANA camp; we know how streets work.  I lead the annual Jane’s Walk of the street, too, focusing on its changing commercial climate.  I have read Ms, Jacobs’ seminal work twice, and her other books as well.  She has provided the runaway urban development community a slap on the face, that your generation has the freedom to appreciate and implement, unlike my generation.

Chris Bradshaw

p.s., Am I correct in assessing that the City’s notice procedure as resulting in Action Sandy Hill NOT receiving a timely notice of this development, despite their “territory” falling with the same 120 metres as our house?

cc. Councillor Fleury
Friends of Uptown Rideau
Action Sandy Hill
Lowertown Community Association


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