Opinion

Harder and El-Chantiry: Ottawa’s new Official Plan won’t squeeze out single-family dwellings

Intensification is part of the city’s future. But we need to make sure there are appropriate places for all age groups and household types, including in multi-unit buildings.

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What will Ottawa look like 25 years from now? That’s the question our city planners have been grappling with for years as they’ve worked on a new Official Plan to help guide Ottawa’s growth over the next quarter-century. Ottawa Council is on track to adopt that new plan later this year.

There will be more opportunities to provide feedback before then, but the level of public interest so far has been incredible. As chairs of the city’s planning committee and agriculture and rural affairs committee, we’ve found it rewarding to be involved in the back and forth with more than 100,000 residents interested in discussing the proposed policies for the new Official Plan over the last three years. We rarely see this kind of engagement in municipal matters.

Given how complex such a guiding document needs to be, it’s understandable that some residents have anxiety about what it will mean for the neighbourhoods we all call home. We know, for example, that many expressed concerns about urban expansion and the balanced urban growth plan that Council adopted. Some still have concerns about the approved intensification target that, by 2046, aims to locate 60 per cent of new homes in existing communities, slowing the pace of urban expansion. It has led to the assumption that our single-family homes will all be replaced by low and mid-rise apartments.

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That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Under the new plan, residents will still have every right to replace their single-family home with another one if they want. While we’ll need to add about 49,000 new family-sized dwellings through intensification, that’s going to be a very gradual change over 25 years — and it will be spread across the entire city. There are currently more than 178,000 eligible lots. And even when taller buildings and apartments are permitted in an existing neighbourhood, those new buildings would still need to be sensitive to the surrounding community and road network.

Some residents have told us they’re concerned about what types of housing will be permitted in existing neighbourhoods. Keep in mind that more than one-quarter of Ottawa’s households have two or more kids, so where single-family homes are replaced with multi-unit buildings, some of those will need to include larger units. We need to make sure there are appropriate places for all age groups and household types.

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That said, households of individuals and childless couples make up 55 per cent of the city, but right now, bachelor or one-bedroom units only make up 15 per cent of supply, with 21 per cent of housing being two-bedroom units. The new Official Plan needs to encourage a more appropriate mix of units for our population — including in existing communities. This will be key to keeping our city affordable.

There’s a strong emphasis on neighbourhoods in the new Official Plan. While we need the housing stock in our communities to evolve and diversify, that change needs to be gradual. And just as important, it needs to be sensitive to context — the housing and character already in place.

That’s one of the reasons rules about intensification will only be dealt with as the city develops a new zoning by-law — to give staff more time to work with residents and community associations. The zoning by-law is the document that implements the vision of the new Official Plan, and staff will take several years to work through it, ensuring plenty of time to develop customized approaches for all of Ottawa’s neighbourhoods.

Visit ottawa.ca/newoto learn more about draft new Official Plan policies, or to read the As We Heard It report that has detail about the feedback received to date and how it is informing and evolving those policies.

Jan Harder is chair of the city’s planning committee and councillor for Barrhaven ward. Eli El-Chantiry is chair of the agriculture and rural affairs committee and councillor for West Carleton-March ward.

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