Get ready to mitigate the "missing middle"

August 29, 2019


The land development corporation that is the City of Ottawa has decided that “missing middle” will be a jewel twinkling brightly in its new Official Plan. The city will allow densification to extend beyond the inner core where it has flourished for the last decade. Three to five storey apartment blocks will be encouraged inside the green belt (if builders agree to build them). This simplistic video by the City's planners explains the concept.


What the City has yet to explain is how it intends to mitigate two impacts related to the missing middle. Both of these impacts have emerged right here in Kitchissippi this summer in a development slated for 701 Churchill Ave (corner of Currell Ave). Visit the city's website related to that development, and check out a favourable online perspective from a builders' forum. The photograph below shows the property as it is today. 



Mitigating the first impact of the missing middle


The missing middle will have a huge impact on tree loss because the four- or five-storey boxes to be built on small lots will need to take up all the space available. 


At 701 Churchill Ave, a heavily treed lot will become home to a 3.5 storey apartment building. Nine trees are to be destroyed. The builder proposes to plant three 2-inch trees on the property. And that's a problem.


Distinctive trees (more than 50 cm in diameter) are clearcut when the city issues a single permit per property under its Urban Tree Conservation By-law. One tree-cutting permit allows 2 or 3 or 4 trees to be cut on the same property. This will rise to 5 or 6, or even a dozen trees when support for the missing middle becomes official policy.  [The city’s woeful attempts to quantify implementation of the tree by-law for private property has never divulged how many trees it has permitted to be destroyed. The city just tracks how many permits it issues.]


Why does this matter? If the city is serious about dealing with climate emergency, it needs to maintain and supplement, not reduce, the living biomass that trees offer us, free of charge. And if the ineffective bylaw we've had for a decade allows every mature tree in the way of a new building to be cut, a toughened bylaw would mitigate those losses by requiring builders to plant one new tree for each one lost. One for one. An eye for an eye. The math is easy. Changing the mindset behind the city's ineffective bylaw? Not so easy. Ottawa's planners and lawyers live in fear of being sued over the tree bylaw. Their risk tolerance is low. 


The city claims that the missing middle will fit nicely into the character of streetscapes in diverse neighbourhoods within the greenbelt and outside the urban core.  But beware of greenwashing. At 701 Churchill Ave., the building will have no car parking, an open space with greenery, and it occupies a prominent corner along the city’s  prototype for a  “complete street” (never mind that the segment of Churchill north of Richmond Road remains "incomplete"). Given this, where are trees in the “green” plan for this development and on Churchill Avenue itself?  How can 3 small trees in a courtyard replace 9 existing trees?


Resident Tim Gray (see his letter to City of Ottawa’s planning department re: 701 Churchill) is a retired surveyor who keeps an eye on development proposals in this ward. His letter to the City has identified where 3 more trees could be planted. He also urges the City to require a green roof on the building to mitigate the loss of 9 trees.


Photo shows the new building proposed for 701 Churchill Ave. 


Mitigating the second impact of the missing middle


The second issue that exists at 701 Churchill Ave. and that will characterize missing middle buildings across the city, involves rainwater capture. 


At 701 Churchill, thanks to a flat roof, the builder is proposing to install internal roof drains that will funnel rainwater directly into the city sewer line on Churchill Ave. Did you know that this has been the practice in most of the flat-roof densification builds in Kitchissippi Ward for the last decade? And did you know that your property taxes are going up, up, and away to help fund projects like the City’s massive gopher project--underground holding tanks (in the form of stormwater tunnels) with a price tag of at least $232 million? 


The missing middle is a type of build that incorporates roof drains as a regular feature. But that's a bad idea. Rainwater needs to reach the earth, not be funnelled, building by building, into the city’s storm sewers.


Why does this matter?  For the last 40 years, the city has allowed development inside the greenbelt to ignore the need for green space while maximizing the use of asphalt (for car parking) and roof area. If the city had mandated that developers build small scale retention tanks for storm water within the green belt, you and I would not be paying for massive tunnels to prevent stormwater overflows from entering the Ottawa River. The current tunnel project, which is behind schedule and may be facing cost overruns (nobody in the media seems to be keeping tabs on this!) may have trouble dealing with increased storm water from severe rainfall as climate crisis deepens.


It’s a simple fix. Let rainwater feed the earth. Don’t divert it directly into the city’s over-burdened stormwater system.


Mitigate now, because we can


Will the City mandate tree replacement on a one-to-one basis and a green roof for the development at 701 Churchill? Will it mandate that the builder replace internal roof drains with rainwater technology that feeds into the ground, not the city's stormwater system? 


I think we need to ensure the missing middle does not become a flabby excuse to increase property tax revenue while evading real action on Ottawa’s climate emergency. That would be business-as-usual.  And it's time the city's planners and politicians did something much different, don't you think? 


Stay tuned.


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