Council uses bylaw to halt bunkhouses in six neighbourhoods

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Mayor says substandard housing aimed at students creates problems for residential neighbourhoods

Jennifer McIntosh, Ottawa Community News

Parking and trash are just some of the headaches councillors whose wards are home to the multi-bedroom residences deal with.

On July 12 council did something about it.

In a rare move, council approved an interim control bylaw that will put a one-year freeze on multiple bedroom residences — more popularly known as bunkhouses.
“I don’t support these lightly,” Capital Coun. David Chernushenko said of bylaw. “It’s meant to target extreme cases. We are talking about four to six units on one floor of a building.”

Chernushenko said the high number of units in a building meant as a single family home or a small low-rise apartment building puts a burden on the city, because there isn’t the set up to store the waste that the number of residents create.

He said residents don’t know each other and are often unfamiliar with the city’s trash pick up schedule — which could create a real mess for the surrounding neighbours.

The bylaw will coincide with a review of the zoning for multi-unit dwellings in residential neighbourhoods. The interim bylaw buys council and city staff more time for that review.

The so-called bunkhouses, or illegal rooming houses, are often single-family homes split into several units.

The bylaw will concentrate on Sandy Hill, Heron Park, Old Ottawa East, Old Ottawa South, Centretown and Overbrook.

River Coun. Riley Brockington asked city staff how the areas were selected as targets for the bylaw.

The answer, from John Smit, manager of economic development and planning, said staff concentrated on areas of the city that have demonstrated problems with bunkhouses.

Developers can appeal the bylaw at the Ontario Municipal Board, but the bylaw would remain in effect until the outcome of the appeal is determined, staff told council.

The city’s planning boss Stephen Willis said staff would need a year to work with the public on a new policy. Staff will report to planning twice in the year.

Perhaps the most vocal of the neighbourhoods to deal with the bunkhouse issue is Sandy Hill.

Just the day before, Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury held back delegated authority for a site plan on a densely populated building proposed for 70 Russell Ave. in Sandy Hill.

Members of Action Sandy Hill spoke to the city’s planning committee about the project, condemning bunkhouses and their impact on the neighbourhood.

The development would see a single-family home replaced with a four-unit 21-bedroom building. The developer is TC United.

Willis said the application checked all the boxes, and the building plan has been reviewed, but Fleury said it “smells like a rooming house.”

Mayor Jim Watson said he thinks the bunkhouse issue is an important one.

“It diminishes the quality of life in a neighbourhood,” he said. “Taking a property that houses a single home and turning into 30 bedrooms isn’t reasonable in residential neighbourhoods,” he said.

Watson said with the advent of light rail, there isn’t the same pressure for university and college students to live in the neighbourhood immediately adjacent to their school. He said with more options, students wouldn’t feel compelled to rent in buildings that are substandard.

Council temporarily halts approval for bunkhouses

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Politicians invoke rarely used interim control bylaw for six Ottawa neighbourhoods

By Joanne Chianello, CBC News

At its last meeting before a six-week summer break, council unanimously approved an interim control by-law that would temporarily prohibit any new construction or renovations of a building with a large number of bedrooms. The maximum number of bedrooms depends on the size of the building, but the aim of the bylaw is to prevent the situation where a building with a few units contains as many as 20 bedrooms.

TC United Group's plan to tear down this single family home 70 Russell Ave. and replace it with a four-unit, 21-bedroom building, will not be part of the freeze on bunkhouses. (Google Streetview)

The freeze on this sort of student rooming house applies only to six student-centric communities: Sandy Hill, Heron Park, Old Ottawa South, parts of Old Ottawa East, Centretown and Overbrook.

There has been growing concern over reported problems caused by cramming so many students into a building that was not designed for so many people.

No community has been more vocal about this issue than Sandy Hill, which has seen an influx of all sorts of intensification developments, as well as high-density student housing projects.

The halt on bunkhouses is a political win for Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury, who has been lobbying his council colleagues for years about the need to take action against this type of housing.

"Years ago, it was a much tougher battle because it was seen as anti-development," said Fleury about his campaign to change the rules around the number of bedrooms in a single dwelling.

Coun. David Chernushenko, who represents Old Ottawa South near Carleton University, said that a single home that in the past may have housed a large family of five or six is now housing double that many people. Sometimes a residential building may have a number of smaller apartments, but each of those units may have four or five bedrooms.

"Because these people are rarely related, they didn't sign the lease together, they may not have even known each other, they're not typically working together on garbage and recycling and green bin," said Chernushenko. "So you get 18, 20 garbage bags, out on the front lawn, often on the wrong week, so they're there for a long time. Then if urban creatures get into them, that's a mess."

In addition to garbage, residents also complain about the noise and general traffic that these sorts of bunkhouses create. And those complaints must be handled by the city's by-law officers.

"Creating these bunkhouses is something I don't support at all," said Mayor Jim Watson. "I think it diminishes the quality of life in a neighbourhood. And frankly it's not a very pleasant environment for students. It may be cheap housing, but it's not good housing.

"If someone wants to build an apartment, that's one thing ... but to build these bunkhouses so that they can exploit the opportunity to get as many students in a house is not acceptable in a residentially zoned neighbhourhood."

Move came as a surprise

There are actually no zoning rules prohibiting bunkhouses. Often the buildings are constructed or renovated under the current zoning — which often allows a single-family home to be split into a few flats, or even a small, low-rise apartment building — and those units are divided into multiple bedrooms with a shared bathroom and kitchen.

But there are no rules about how many bedrooms can be in a single home.

The city is trying to come up with some restrictions and is currently reviewing the zoning for multi-unit dwellings in residential neighbourhoods. The interim bylaw buys council and city staff more time for that review.

The interim control bylaw was worked on behind the scenes for the last week. City officials didn't want word of the development freeze to get out because they didn't want builders rushing to have their building permits approved.

Some Ottawa developers say privately they are stunned by the bylaw. There are sure to be applicants who have already spent thousands of dollars developing a multi-bedroom housing complex, only to find that they cannot move ahead with their projects for a year. And when the freeze is lifted, the rules for these sorts of developments may very well have changed.

The bylaw can be appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board, but the freeze would remain in force during the process.

Mesure exceptionnelle pour freiner la prolifération de dortoirs

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Julien Paquette, Le Droit

En attendant une solution permanente au nombre croissant de bâtiments vieillissants transformés en dortoirs, la Ville d'Ottawa a décidé d'adopter une mesure exceptionnelle afin de freiner leur développement.

Une révision de la zone R4 (zone résidentielle - immeubles d'appartements de faible hauteur) est en cours par les services municipaux. Un rapport est d'ailleurs attendu à l'automne, indique le conseiller de Rideau-Vanier, Mathieu Fleury, dont le district est touché par la prolifération de dortoirs, notamment dans le quartier Côte-de-Sable.

La mesure bloque temporairement l'octroi de permis de construction pour certains projets de bâtiments. Les nouvelles constructions ne pourront contenir, par exemple, d'unités de plus de quatre chambres.

Le conseil municipal ne cible également que certains quartiers où le nombre de dortoirs est jugé le plus important, soit la Côte-de-Sable, Heron Park, Old Ottawa South, Old Ottawa East, Centretown et Overbrook.

M. Fleury précise toutefois que la décision rendue par le conseil survient un peu trop tard pour le projet controversé du 70, avenue Russell puisque la demande de permis avait été effectuée auparavant.

Le conseiller de Rideau-Vanier est conscient que cette mesure exceptionnelle pourrait venir ralentir l'octroi de permis pour des constructions qui seraient, jugées conformes, même après la révision de la zone R4. Il soutient toutefois que l'impact sur ces projets devrait être relativement mineur.

« [La mesure serait en vigueur] au maximum un an, mais ça devrait prendre moins de six mois avant qu'on ait des nouveaux règlements de zonage qui vont corriger à la source cette problématique. »

Il souligne par ailleurs que la plupart des permis de construction sont octroyés dans les premiers mois de l'année de façon à ce que les travaux débutent durant la saison estivale.

Le conseiller de Capitale, David Chernushenko, s'est prononcé vigoureusement en faveur de la proposition durant la séance du conseil municipal. Il juge essentiel pour le conseil municipal d'agir dans ce dossier afin de veiller à la qualité de vie des voisins de ces dortoirs et s'est dit heureux de voir ses collègues Mathieu Fleury et Jan Harder soumettre cette proposition.

« Je ne supporte pas ce type de résolution à la légère. Si je ne m'abuse, nous n'en avons adopté qu'une seule durant mes sept ans au conseil municipal »

À noter que dans la même motion, les élus ottaviens ont également voté afin d'étendre la révision de la zone R4 aux zones R1 (habitations isolées), R2 (habitations à deux logements) et R3 (habitations en rangée).

Still struggling to make Lansdowne Park green

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Trees awaiting planting at Lansdowne Park in 2014. BRUCE DEACHMAN / POSTMEDIA

David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen

Three years after Lansdowne Park reopened, the trees on its commercial streets are still struggling, scraggly things, fighting for life in tough conditions.

“Greening” Lansdowne was a major selling point for the partnership between the city government and the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG), turning a dreary old fairground-cum-parking-lot into a city oasis. And, in fairness, the new trees in the Lansdowne’s eastern parky section are doing just fine. The ones in Aberdeen Square, where the farmers’ market sets up between the Aberdeen Pavilion and the Cineplex movie theatre, are also OK.

The ones on Bank Street and on Marché Way and Exhibition Way, the two streets running into Lansdowne off Bank Street, less so. They were planted in spring 2014, the following winter was savagely cold and a bunch of them died, and the survivors are mostly failing to thrive.

“We’re challenged,” says Roger Greenberg, OSEG’s chairman and the longtime head of the Minto property empire. “We’re challenged with the design that we were given, we’re also challenged by Canadian winters and we’re also challenged by the fact that to keep the site safe we have to put salt down. Salt and trees don’t go well together. So we’re trying to learn from those experiences and get better at it, but we still have a way to go.”

Greenberg used the trees explicitly as a metaphor for the state of Lansdowne as a whole when he gave an annual presentation to city council’s finance committee on Tuesday. The site’s financial performance isn’t what OSEG or the city would like yet but it’s getting there. Ditto its arboreal performance.

The pretty pictures that come with any new development proposal are always supremely optimistic about the lush canopy that’ll enfold the finished product. Shady, leafy and cool it’ll be. One of my favourites, for a building to go up just a little north of Lansdowne on Bank Street, shows a row of big, healthy trees sprouting straight out of the sidewalk, watered by magic.

In real life, it’s hard out there for a street tree. This isn’t Vancouver, where you can stick a broken twig in the ground and expect it to leaf out next spring. Cold winters hurt saplings, whose roots are unprotected by layers of insulating snow. Hot summers stress them out. Paving restricts how much water gets to their roots and how far those roots can spread. They get splashed with poisonous salt and gouged by passing plows. Ash trees historically did pretty well here, then along came ravenous bugs that chewed them to pieces.

At Lansdowne, trees are the main feature meant to soften the shopping streets, which are otherwise nothing but concrete, stone, brick, glass and metal, as barren as when the place was a parking lot.

“It’s not due to ill will on anybody’s part,” says Coun. David Chernushenko, whose ward includes Lansdowne and who was a green-business consultant before entering politics. “Everyone wants to see the trees thriving.”