A letter from a neighbour: Mayor Watson, how ugly is Ottawa?

2 12 2011

An open letter to the Mayor

Dear Mr. Mayor,
We are among the quarter million of immigrants that Canada welcomes every year. We moved to Ottawa three years ago, as skilled labor, after having lived in Switzerland and Germany. And as all immigrants do, we compare our new home to our old home. Some things are wonderful about our new home. Many things are just different. And then there are a few things which are very disturbing. For example, ever since we came to Ottawa, we were wondering why Ottawa is ugly. Let there be no misunderstanding: Ottawa has a lot to offer for its residents. The quality of life is high. Green space and water abundant. Nature has been very generous to this city. But man has not. The man-made urban landscape is simply astonishingly unattractive: The few organically grown older neighborhoods are under siege by soulless and uniform “infills” (a term Europeans tend to associate with nasty dental procedures rather than architecture); poorly designed condo towers, not unlike those that were built in the 1970s all over the former Soviet Union, mushroom everywhere in the City; finding an example of decent architecture among the many cheap and thoughtless utilitarian buildings is hardly possible. The urban landscape of Ottawa is a cacophony; it is eclectic, unplanned, and largely untouched by even the slightest sense of esthetics in the public space. And sadly, the world is aware of this. Just read what the Wikipedia entry on “architecture in Ottawa” has to say.

Good architecture matters, Mr. Mayor! It matters, because you and I and everybody else want to live and work in a city which displays, occasionally, some sense of esthetics. But it also matters because an attractive urban landscape helps to attract and retain well-educated, creative people. When a city becomes too ugly, these people leave. And with that the tax base erodes. In today’s world, cities have to compete for the well-educated and mobile workforce, and an attractive urban landscape matters!

Over the last year or so, we have slowly uncovered what makes Ottawa’s urban landscape ugly. Here is how we learned: We live in a quiet residential street in Westboro. Across the street is an industrial site. When we bought our property we were aware of the fact that this site was zoned for residential buildings with a height of up to 19.5 meters. Sooner or later, we knew, a developer would build something. Then one day we heard that a developer had bought the property and intended to build apartment buildings. The height of these planned buildings was not 19.5 meters, not 29.5 meters, not 39.5 meters. The developer wanted to build twin towers with a height of 53.5 meters.

Of course, we were shocked and annoyed by the chutzpah of this developer. But we were not too concerned. You see, Mr. Mayor, in Europe, when a property is zoned for 19.5 meters, residents can be sure that the developers respect the zoning and by-laws. We call it legal security. Also, should the city intend to change the zoning laws, citizens have a say in this. We call it democracy. And when citizens are concerned about a development, they will ask their elected representative for support, and they will get it. We call it responsive government. Finally, in our home countries, there is a competent and impartial bureaucracy in place devoted to the public good. This we call good governance.

But apparently the developer that fancies a 53-meter twin tower in the heart of a neighborhood characterized by two-story building must have assumed that the planning process in Ottawa has no respect for legal security, democracy and good governance. Or why else would he have dared to put forward a proposal which so very clearly contradicts all planning rationales of the city of Ottawa, and which so blatantly ignores the public good for the sake of increasing profit margins?

But not only that. The planning rationale is full of inaccuracies, misleading claims, and plain nonsense. At times, it is so silly that it is actually funny. My favorite part is the claim that the shadows from a 53-meter tower have a less negative impact on adjacent properties than the shadows from a 19 meters high building. Also quite funny is the notion that privacy for neighbors is better ensured by 53-meter towers than by 19-meter buildings. Or how about the claim the twin towers would provide a sense of orientation to the community? How often do residents of Westboro get lost because they have no grotesquely megalomaniac twin towers to provide orientation, one wonders?

Then there is a traffic study (for which the developer paid, of course) which duly states that traffic from the new building will have no negative impact on the traffic situation in the neighborhood. The problem is that this study is methodologically so bizarrely flawed that every undergrad student would be ashamed to hand it in as a term paper.

Surely, no one could take such a planning rationale seriously, we thought. Everybody would understand that all these inaccuracies – no, let me rephrase this – all these silly little lies were just a desperate attempt of an unprofessional developer to build a case when there simply is no case.

But then, Mr. Mayor, a few months later, the City planner delivered his report on this proposal. Would you believe, Mr. Mayor, that the report almost verbatim repeated all the inaccuracies, factual mistakes, and the plain nonsense from the planning rationale? Yes, says the City planner, this proposal is in line with the planning rationales for Westboro (even though it takes three minutes to read the Richmond Road / Westboro Secondary Plan in order to find out that it is not). Yes, the traffic study is done in accordance with City of Ottawa regulations. Does the City regulate that traffic studies must be flawed? Yes, the shadows from the towers have a less negative impact on the neighborhood than shadows from a lower building. And so on.

After having read this report from the City planner, we were no longer annoyed. We were appalled and ashamed. Could it be that our friends and neighbors, who had warned us that the planning process in Ottawa is seriously corrupted, were right? We had refused to believe this. After all, we just immigrated to Canada, and as all immigrants, we want our new home to be something we have not to be ashamed of. We want it to be good.

Mr. Mayor, on December 5 the planning committee will vote on the proposal of Urban Uniform for a zoning by-law amendment proposal for 335 Roosevelt Ave, file Nr. D02-02-11-0068. If the planning committee says “yes” to this proposal, it will say “yes” to the greed of a few, and “no” to the public good. It will say “yes” to the profit margins of the investors, and “no” to the legitimate concerns of the many residents who live in the neighborhood, who raise families in the neighborhood, who pay taxes in the City of Ottawa, and who put their trust in the legal system of this city.

If the committee says “yes”, it will say “yes” to yet another uninspired, thoughtless, ugly and deeply provincial design whose sole purpose is profit maximizing. If the committee says “no”, it will send the developer back to the drawing board. There is no reason at all why a developer should not be able to come up with a design which conforms with the current zoning, and which is attractive for both old an new residents of the neighborhood. And if the current architect cannot do this, then find a decent architect who can. It is not hard.

But finally, and most importantly, Mr. Mayor, the planning committee will vote on something else, too. You know, the unattractive architecture of Ottawa is just the manifestation of something more profoundly and truly ugly: It is the manifestation of a deeply corrupted planning process. If the committee votes “yes”, it will further undermine the credibility of the bureaucracy. It will undermine the respect for its own rules and procedures. It will demonstrate what many citizens suspect: That decisions are made arbitrarily, and not in the interest of the public good. In sum, Mr. Mayor, if the committee says “yes”, it will undermine the very principles on which democratic communities rely: Trust in the rule of law, in democracy, and in accountable and transparent good governance.

The world needs more Canada! We new immigrants read this all over the city. Many of us came because we want to believe in this. Mr. Mayor, I continue to believe that the world needs more Canada. But then there are also some things which the world does not need. Which Canada does not need. Things of which all of us who live here in this community should be ashamed of. We should fix these things. On December 5th, there is an opportunity to start doing just that.


Dr. Christoph Zürcher
378 Wilmont Avenue




19 responses

3 12 2011
Ian Bowles

This is a letter I wish I’d written myself, it just about sums up everything that’s wrong with the Planning process. I hope it makes a difference.

3 12 2011

This is a fantastic letter. Thank-you Christoph for the hours (if not days) you devoted to writing it.
Every time I go to another city I cannot help but notice how much more attractive its architecture is. For example, last month I was at a new hotel in Montreal on Boulevard de Maisonneuve Ouest. It used to be a run-down thoroughfare. Now it is full of buildings that hold your interest when you walk or drive by. When I was in Vancouver last summer I couldn’t help but notice the “walkability” of the downtown because of the wide sidewalks and, again, attractive architecture. When I look at the pictures friends show me from their travels around the world I ask “where is the comparable architecture in Ottawa?”
Of course the current city council is not responsible for Ottawa’s present state. They have a few years yet to make their positive mark on our neighbourhoods and downtown.
In my opinion we need a moratorium on new development in Westboro and the surrounding neighbourhoods. We need some time to evaluate the impact of all the buildings that have been approved and/or are already under construction before any more developments are given a green light. How can we project the impact of yet-to-be approved developments if we have not yet had the opportunity to experience the impact of the many developments that are not yet fully utilized or have not opened their doors?

5 12 2011

All I read is more whining and dripping. If Ottawa is so ugly return to where you came from. I happen to love this city old & new. Let’s face the truth that Ottawa is growing and growing fast. Let’s embace the change..it’s good for all of us, the economy, the city and so what if the developer makes $…..tha’ts how people stay in business.

7 12 2011

The building will hold the same amount of people and the same amount of eyes as the shorter buildings that are permitted by the current zoning regulations – therefore if there were 140 sets of eyes peering into neighbouring properties from all 7 floors of the currently permitted zoning, now there will be 140 sets of eyes in 14 floors. Anyone above the 7th floor won’t be seeing much of anything except dots and slight movement in those back yards therefore the developer just save 50% of the eyes, that as some outrageous neighbours think have nothing better to do than to spend their days peering into the neighbouring backyards for amusement, from being to see anything at all. The neighbours have just gained 50% more privacy.

Traffic studies – what? The same number of people and cars in a short & wide building, to the same number of people is a tall & narrow building – what will be the difference in the increase of traffic? Do people who live higher up in buildings drive more? slower? have more friends? I don’t understand the traffic argument at all.

Uniform is a quality builder – which prides itself on utilizing new architectural concepts of modern day and building exceptional products that are appealing both inside and out. The new design allow for green space and landscaping the old design allows for a strip of grass to be laid around the exterior. Curb appeal will only enhance your property and your home and will bring no shame to the neighbourhood but in history Uniform projects have only increased the value and demand of neighbouring properties.

Standing on my deck I can see into several neighbours backyards – should I not be allowed to have a deck on my house? Should we all not be able to design and live our own lives and have as Canadians our dream?

12 12 2011

Must be weird thinking your life is so fascinating that 140 people want to peer at you reading a book in your lawn chair.

7 12 2011

Westboro has a population of 31,967 according to the City of Ottawa’s site. Of that 145 people have signed a petition. Hmmmm that’s 0.5%
Looks like 95.5% agree with the growth.
As for Mr. Zurcher letter getting some publicity he can thank his friend and neighbour Ken Gray from the Ottawa Citizen for that.
Give it up…and move on to something that needs attention. .

8 12 2011

Howie – I have a petition that’s in favor of this building and no one has signed it. By your logic, that means 100% of the population is against it….

9 12 2011
P.T. Barnum

aa – The arsenal of smoke and mirrors that the minor number of n.i.m.b.y.’s (along with their children,dogs,cats and goldfish that are brought along as theatrical fodder) bring to each ‘project bashing’ is getting both stale, and redundant . The only thing that can’t be stopped is progress. The majority of the people residing in Westboro and, dare I say, the City of Ottawa welcome the changes. If they did not, there would only be a lonely farmer standing in the middle of his field enjoying the sky before it fell,wishing he had never sold. The silence is deafening.

9 12 2011

aa—Your rebuttal to Howie is ridiculous. It’s the complainers that run around getting signatures. Boo hoo hoo.The people that are fine with growth don’t waste their time with such nonsense. I am all for Uniforms change.

19 12 2011

I am amazed that some one can call ottawa an ugly city. We have many different neighbourhoods filled with many different styles of homes. We are growing fast as a city and therfor need more housing and buildings to fill these needs. It is always the minority that complains the loudest. What about all the people who buy these homes or condo’s? What about all the money they put into the economy? Many people complained about the Superstore. Look at it now. We are a G8 country with no real light rail system. The complainers delay and delay progress, look at Landsdowne Live. Delayed and delayed. Like the Superstore, it will happen, and be great for the area in the long run. We are a capitalistic based society. What is so wrong if a developer makes some money. That is whay keeps are city going and growing. For the most part these are local developers, that create jobs and pay taxes to fund other projects. Let’s face it, like always no-one wants anything to happen in their backyard. That is not realistic. Get over it.

9 11 2012

Erm. Okay all of you, keep your city butt ugly then. I have lived in LA, NY, Boston and Chicago. I have also traveled to over 100 cities around the world, and whereas Ottawa’s downtown is quite charming and cultural, many parts of Ottawa are ridden with these old looking, rectangular boxes that are like 20 stories and pack in people like sardines. Its just vulgar too look at. I feel sorry for “Catherine”, whom I suspect is a profit mongering builder of one of these ghetto looking buildings. If you think we should accept the ugly city or get out, you truly do not care about Ottawa. Anyone who truly cares knows the importance of preserving or evolving the aesthetics in a city, and you, “Catherine” (which I highly doubt is your name, nor a female) obviously do not care to do so. You have extremely low standards on what a city should look like and I feel sorry for you that you’ve been inbred with such poor taste.

10 11 2012
Dean McCuaig

I can tell you that living next to an “infill” property is not a wonderful experience. We are living the dream. We live in a 1954 original Westboro home and love the lifestyle it provides. However, all that changed suddenly when the house next door to us was purchased and taken down. A new moster semi-detatched is going in. The new home is a mere 1.2 meters away from our property line, and its fireplace projection is a mere 0.76 meters from our fence. Both are allowed by the current zoning. You can actually touch the house from our fence. I understand redevelopment and the role it plays in urban renewal, but the change is so drastic and so out of place compared to all the other surrounding homes, that it just does not make sense to me. The new place is so big they have to dig right to the property line, which means parts of our foundation is exposed for a period of time. The space is so limited between the property line and the new home, that an entire length of chainlink fencing was “accidentally” removed by the builder. They say they will replace it, but while the chain link fencing is gone, suddenly a little bobcat can fit between our property line and their foundation, and at the same time the backyard is no longer a secure area for our dogs. All that to say, it is not a an experience I would elect to have, but have almost no influence over what is happening next door. I have had a career in the community development field and have always hated the NIMBY reaction to things. This one hits right where I live though, and I have to say my quality of life has been significantly impacted, and our home has sustained damage resulting from the building of a monster home next door. It’s not a fun experience, and I am challenged to find a process that balances the right for new development with the rights of those living in established neighborhoods. Right now, it does not feel like a fair and balanced process for those long-time home owners who love their neighborhoods. Just sayin.

15 11 2014
Blake McIntyre

I had a big double go in next to me three years ago. There are definitely pros and cons. It cost me $4,600.00 to repave my driveway and make other repairs after the sketchy job the contractor did. However, I was living next to an old shack before and my driveway is now wider. The contractor was a beginner (since failed) and the project so mismanaged that nobody made money on it. If the project had been done by a competent, honest contractor, I would feel better about it I am sure. It definitely improves the look and feel of my street – Tweedsmuir Avenue.

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15 11 2014
Dean McCuaig

I guess it is a little like the luck of the draw. Bylaws have changed since the side by side was built next to us. I would like to think our time talking to city planners what their bylaws actually translate to into reality had some impact, but it may just be coincidence. However, what that means is the side by side on our street which looks nothing like any of the other homes, will always be the anomaly on our street. When we sit in our living room you can see people’s reactions on their face as they walk down the street and see “one of these things is not like the other.”

26 11 2014
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1 02 2020
Canada’s capital city: Ottawa – I HATE CANADA

[…] The ugliness is remarked upon by all visitors, new immigrants, and residents – who even write letters about it.The only way to change the state of affairs would be to demolish most of the city […]

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