Opinion

‘Conversion houses’ – coming soon to a street near you?

BY JEFF WALKER

On April 24, 2013, Ottawa city council did something they rarely do: they convened an emergency meeting of council and implemented a one-year moratorium on what are described as “conversion houses” in downtown neighbourhoods, including the Glebe, Old Ottawa South, and Sandy Hill.

189 Fourth Avenue. PHOTO BY JULIE HOULE CEZER

189 Fourth Avenue. PHOTO BY JULIE HOULE CEZER

Why did city council take this serious and virtually unprecedented measure? Because of a growing concern that some of the measures taken to promote intensification in downtown Ottawa have created unintended consequences that threaten the nature and character of downtown neighbourhoods. Conversion houses are essentially properties that maintain a façade of their previous character, but are in large part new structures. The difference between a conversion house and a standard infill is that with an infill, the builder does not maintain any of the previous structure on the lot, whereas in a conversion house, they maintain some elements (often minimal) of it.

The measures taken by the city to promote intensification involved:

  • Allowing these new structures to be built on an entirely new footprint, that can be built up to 11 metres in height and from the front setback can cover 75 per cent of the lot, as long as the brick façade in the front is maintained.
  • Allowing up to four units in these structures. There is no limitation or rule around the number of people, or number of bedrooms, in any of the units.
  • Allowing for 0.5 vehicles per unit in these structures.
  • Requiring no variance for making any of these changes, nor community consultation – just a standard building permit.

Some developers, architects and bylaw experts quickly realized that, with officials relaxing the rules in this way, there would be a huge opportunity to make money by using such developments as large-scale rental properties. They cannot be called apartments or rooming houses, because that would put them in new bylaw categories with different rules. No matter. Because the new conversion house rules are vague, with enough loopholes, these properties can operate without being officially deemed apartments or rooming houses as such.

As of now, more than 10 such buildings in downtown Ottawa have already made it through the approval process, allowing for the conversion of homes or triplexes that might have had five or six bedrooms to buildings that now have 20 to 25 bedrooms. That is not a typo. In what was once a single family home there are now structures that in each of the four units, have five or more bedrooms.

Want to see what one of these structures looks like? Take a walk down to 189 Fourth Avenue, or if you have time, head to 167 Aylmer Avenue in Old Ottawa South. In the case of 189 Fourth Avenue, what was a six-bedroom triplex will now become a 20-bedroom rental building that is almost double the square footage of the previous building, with space for 0.1 vehicles per bedroom.

According to David Reevely of the Ottawa Citizen, there are 14 more conversions of a similar nature now in the pipeline at the city, on hold until the moratorium ends. (Notably, four of these were submitted the day before the moratorium was put in place).

In a recent Ottawa Citizen article, the architect who drew up the plans for the Fourth Avenue and Aylmer Avenue properties, Robert Martin of Robertson Martin architects, suggests that these kinds of structures fill the bill for the future of the Glebe: “the rules are the rules and the area is just evolving.” Moreover, he suggests that those who question the compatibility of such buildings must be “people who don’t want any changes in their communities.”

Change in our community is necessary. But with such significant loopholes in the rules, and the absence of community input, these 20 to 25 bedroom conversion houses pose a threat to the balance we have in downtown neighbourhoods among families and students, young professionals and retirees, and renters and owners.

Not only will these structures inevitably change the character of our neighbourhoods, they will also have an economic impact. Economic logic makes it more feasible for developers to bid up the price of virtually any home for sale and convert it to a building of 20+ bedrooms, than it is for single families to buy these homes.

If, as some developers and architects wish, the moratorium is lifted without appropriate revisions, many more of these conversion houses could end up on your block.

If you have any questions about conversion houses please contact planning@glebeca.ca.

Jeff Walker, a member of the GCA Planning Committee, is a Glebe resident actively involved in community dialogue on converted houses.

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City planning ‘consultation’ – a tilted playing field?

BY ROBERT BELL

On the surface, the community consultation process for property development seems reasonable, with opportunities for community input and an appeal process. It should work.

CONSULTATION FOR PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT – THE PROCESS

In its simplest form the process is:

  1.  The property owner asks the city for permission for a deviation from the current zoning.
  2.  The city sends out notices to the adjacent property owners for input and posts a sign on the property.
  3.  Concerned property owners make their comments.
  4. City planners consult with internal city departments, take into account the community input and make a recommendation. This is circulated to the interested and adjacent property owners.
  5.  City planners make their recommendation to the Planning Committee, a group of councillors selected to represent the interests of the city as a whole.
  6.  Concerned citizens speak for or against the recommendations.
  7. After due consideration of community input, the Planning Committee approves or rejects the city planner’s recommendation.
  8. Council approves or rejects the recommendation of the Planning Committee. 9. If the property owner or the concerned citizens are dissatisfied with the result, they can take their concerns to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB).

I believe this process works well for minor variances such as a minor encroachment on the minimum setback as part of a house extension. However, I have observed from personal experience that as the stakes get higher for the developer, the City and affected residents, the playing field tilts toward those with the biggest stake and the most resources to pursue their interests. And it tilts at almost every one of the very reasonable steps listed above.

WHEN THE STAKES ARE HIGH

  • A developer making his initial consultation with the city already has architectural renderings to demonstrate the development; his planning consultants are expert in showing how the subject site is perfect for much more development than current zoning allows. The planner may provide some guidance to the developer at this stage and the decision is made and there is no going back.
  • The adjacent property owners respond to the proposed application. In my experience, these are dismissed, as not applicable planning objections.
  • The city’s planning department makes its recommendation. As a planning document, not a community document, it does not take into account any community input. Curiously, the Official Plan and provincial policy give the planning department freedom to recommend buildings that are far outside the current city zoning if they so choose (a “notwithstanding clause” for planners).
  • Planning Committee members are not as representative of the areas of the city as one would hope. From the suburbs, they have little empathy with the communities most directly affected by intensification in the core of the city. Surely, this could be easily fixed.
  • Concerned citizens have five minutes each to speak. Some councillors listened politely. In my experience, none asked meaningful questions.
  • In my experience, once the community, city planners and developer presented their cases, there was no discussion, not a word, before the application was accepted. It seemed that they had made up their minds well before the meeting and were not going to be changed by any community arguments. The rationale used by the developer, the province and the city is intensification. If some intensification is good, more is better.
  • Going through the process, we learned that it is very difficult for the Planning Committee to reject a City staff planning recommendation. If they do, the developer will go directly to the OMB, subpoena each city planner to testify on behalf of the developer, and the City would have to hire outside planners to defend its decision to reject staff’s recommendation. The developer would inevitably win, so why even try to change a city planner’s recommendation?
  • When council gets a recommendation from the Planning Committee, it is in the same situation. The OMB would likely side with the developer, especially when the developer’s plan is supported by the city’s professional in-house planners and the Planning Committee. So, they pass the proposal.
  • Finally, dissatisfied concerned citizens can always go to the OMB. It only costs a few dollars to submit an appeal, we are told. However, to present effective legal and planning arguments to the OMB, you have to hire lawyers and planners of equal stature to those of the developer and the city. To add insult to injury, the citizen, if his or her appeal is found to be without merit, will be billed for the developer’s legal costs as well. This is where resources make the biggest difference. City planners, the Planning Committee and the council do not want to challenge the developer, the developer at each stage has the option to go to the OMB and it is used as a stick. Since the opportunity for gain is so high, the developer can afford to invest in the best experts to present their case to the OMB.

A process that works for minor variances with people of relatively equal resources is skewed when stakes are much higher, and the developer has the resource advantage. The problem has been recognized and the Federation of Citizens’ Associations is trying to address this with the city.

Robert Bell, chair of the Development Committee for the Dow’s Lake Resident’s Association, has participated in the planning approvals of two large developments.

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