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Pedestrian passes proposed Claridge East Flats development site on Booth Street. [Photo © Jolson Lim]

A recent development proposal for LeBreton Flats has people asking whether Ottawa should loosen restrictions on building height.

An image from a drone shows the sight of the proposed Claridge development with the Peace Tower and Ottawa’s central business district in the background. [Photo © Danielle Clarke]

A plan unveiled by developer Claridge Homes in January includes five residential towers east of Booth Street and between the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway and Albert Street. Three will stand at 25 storeys and one at 30 storeys, while its “signature” tower will reach 55 storeys.

Urban design panellists – responsible for assessing qualities of the proposal with regards to preserving the sightline of national symbols – expressed concern over the tallest of the towers. They collectively noted the 55-storey tower could diminish not only the view of Parliament Hill, but also national symbols such as the Canadian War Museum, the Ottawa River, the Supreme Court of Canada and the National Holocaust Monument, which is currently being built on the northeast corner of Booth and the parkway, just across from the war museum.

NCC’s vision 

In 1993, 21 distinct viewpoints were selected and incorporated into the City of Ottawa’s official plan. Two additional views were added by the city in 2008. All 23 viewpoints are legally protected. These points, described as “picture postcard” views in a National Capital Commission (NCC) report, highlight Ottawa’s national monuments from different perspectives around the city. According to the plan, surrounding building heights should be limited if they affect those views.

Claridge proposes to build the tallest tower on the east side of Booth Street, about halfway between Albert and the parkway. Though the tower does not fully block the view of the Parliament Buildings, the City of Ottawa does have the authority to recommend refusal of an application if it is determined that the recognized sightlines have been obstructed.

Proposal process 

When applications are submitted to the city, the applicant will be asked to demonstrate how the proposal fits within the NCC’s vision for unobstructed sightlines of significant buildings in Ottawa says Douglas James, manager of development review with the City of Ottawa. James adds that applicants will also review a variety of additional views to better understand the proposal within the immediate and broader context looking at both the skyline and potential to take away from important national symbols, such as Parliament Hill.

Danny Brown, a planner with Urban Strategies, the consulting firm hired by Claridge to prepare the proposal, says there were consideration and compliance of policies to ensure the protection of sightlines for the Parliament Buildings. He explains one reason for introducing the 55-storey height was an attempt to embrace the city rather than to take away from it.

“We think that LeBreton is an important place. We wanted to put the signature tower on the site and sort of mark the place in the psyche of the city, and make this look like the next evolution of the city of Ottawa,” he says.

“Given how much heritage there is in the area … this is really emerging as the next hotspot for Ottawa’s development.”

Brown adds the height would encourage densification close to the LRT station that will be built through the area.

“We want to make sure the density of local development brings enough people into the area to make sure there aren’t empty trains running on that transit,” he explains.

We think that LeBreton is an important place. We wanted to put the signature tower on the site and sort of mark the place in the psyche of the city, and make this look like the next evolution of the city of Ottawa— Danny Brown, Urban Strategies planner

While the Urban Strategies planner maintains there was logic behind the preliminary plan, he says his team has taken the reactions expressed in January into consideration for modifying the proposal. According to Brown, they will meet with the city planners once more to obtain more feedback and then formally submit a proposal this year. He says their target date is six weeks to three months.

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View controls not a novelty 

The creation of formal and informal concepts and policies surrounding viewpoints has not been limited to Canada’s capital. David Gordon, professor and director of Queen’s University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, says Ottawa’s view controls have weakened since developments in the 1960s that saw high-rise towers used for an expanding public service come to the Ottawa region. He adds that with a continuing trend of developers proposing to build high-rise, high-density towers, the NCC should re-evaluate its view controls. This would include determining which viewpoints are still important as well as identifying any new views that have yet to be given protection.

The current unobstructed sightline of the Peace Tower from the Canadian War Museum. [Photo © Jolson Lim]

In a recent study Gordon managed at Queen’s, 13 cities — big and small, capital and non-capital — were chosen as case studies for their unique view protection methods.

Cities such as Halifax, Vancouver, Montreal, Oxford and Portland were studied and analyzed in order to find best practices for Ottawa. Research on the 13 cities found that the most effective methods in achieving view protection objectives consisted of:

  • Comprehensive land-use plans implemented through zoning bylaw
  • Types of view controls called “corridors”
  • A regular evaluation of view corridors and view points
  • Public engagement on view policies
  • Creation of policies and guidelines that relate to the enjoyment and qualities of view

Reaction on the ground 

Councillor Catherine McKenney, whose Somerset ward includes LeBreton Flats, has seen the plan and says that while it is important to preserve the city’s sightlines, there must some consideration of the time we are living in.

“I think that we always need to be evolving in the way we think about development and height. At the same time, we are the capital city and we do want to make sure we maintain our view of parliament,” she explains.

A view of the proposed development site from the Booth Street overpass. [Photo © Jolson Lim]

Although McKenney adds she doesn’t see the need for 55-storey buildings, having density in LeBreton Flats could provide valuable opportunities such as affordable housing.

Wendy Trudell, an Ottawa resident who lives a 10-minute walk away from LeBreton Flats, agrees with McKenney on the balance between views and development.

“I know 55 storeys is a bit high, but people are coming to Canada and the population is continuing to grow. People need places to live,” she explains.

“But, parliament and the Peace Tower really is a beautiful sight and I think having established certain places where you can see it is a great idea. We are so lucky to live somewhere as picturesque as Ottawa.”

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