Keeping an eye on apartment conversions

May 2013

The impending conversion of 167 Aylmer Ave. in Old Ottawa South from a single-family home to apartments has sparked an intense discussion about what kind of redevelopments are allowed on residential streets. Some projects in the Glebe have raised similar concerns — think of 192 Fifth Ave., a single-family home recently turned into apartments, or the 47-unit retirement home proposed for 174 Glebe.

I have been working to clarify what rules govern these types of conversions. In all these cases, the redevelopment plans comply with current zoning, so there’s no way to block them. Still, I have been working on multiple fronts to prevent an epidemic of yard-filling conversions, some of which will become student housing.

But rather than focus on specific properties, I want to consider the fundamental issues at play and prompt some reflection and feedback from readers. For this to happen, we must first consider the context. After two decades raising my family in Capital Ward, and over two years listening to all manner of views as your councillor, I see it this way:

  1. Infill is happening throughout our community. Most residents support it in principle, but with the important caveat that not all infill is good. Where, how big, and what type are legitimate concerns.
  2. People — everyone, not just Glebe residents — are naturally suspicious of change.
  3. Increased population density supports improved public transit, spreads the cost of road repair and snow removal, and triggers investment in community amenities. But it also places greater stress on water, sewer and road infrastructure, and increases demand for parking, community programs and recreational spaces.
  4. Students are a fact of life near universities. Most are respectful and law-abiding, but it only takes one “party house” on the block to spoil the calm. Students, however, are us — either literally us, or our children and our neighbours’ children.
  5. Some areas of Capital Ward can be expensive places to live and lack affordable, smaller housing options for students, seniors, young adults and those on low or fixed incomes.
  6. Many people choose to live in central, walkable neighbourhoods because they do not wish to own a car, or at least a second car. Per capita parking demand is dropping.

So how do we reconcile this reality with our vision for the community? We can start by asking these basic questions:

What do we want to encourage?
Diversity in housing options is essential to a vibrant community. The Glebe should be accessible to a wide demographic, which could be attained by building more well-designed apartments, small infill homes, so-called granny flats and low-rise apartment buildings.

Good design complements existing building forms and materials. It need not mimic older houses, but should contribute to the community’s look and feel through the quality and permanence of the buildings and by creating spaces for spontaneous interaction.

Where do we want it?
Our main streets, arterial roads and corner lots are a good place to start. Many of these are no longer dominated by single homes or low buildings. Mid-block residential locations, on the other hand, are not appropriate, and scale is often an issue. A mid-block conversion from single-family home to lot-filling, towering apartment house will dominate the whole street.

How do we encourage but guide development?
We need much more clarity. The City must explicitly define appropriate height, mass and setbacks. I support the Planning Department’s current study on this matter, as I did the first phase, which was passed last year and recently upheld by the Ontario Municipal Board. We also need to examine and amend some existing, clearly inappropriate zoning.

I have also asked the City to require site-plan approvals for homes in Capital Ward being converted to four or more units. Currently there is no such requirement for “renovations”, which means neighbours don’t even get a heads-up that the house next door is being turned into apartments.

How do we make sure such apartments don’t become a problem?
It’s important to note that most problem locations are not apartments, but detached houses rented to groups. The essential ingredients for a party house seem to be (1) room to host large parties, (2) no shared walls with immediate neighbours, and (3) absentee landlords who take no responsibility for problem tenants. An actively managed apartment building or house is less likely to become a problem.

The evolution toward a denser but still desirable and vibrant Capital Ward is going to pose challenges. Let’s approach it together as partners. If you have any comments or wish me to clarify some of my ideas, please contact me. And whenever you catch wind of a rumoured change — be it a conversion or an infill — please let me know.

Councillor David Chernushenko