The R4 zoning review: one small step for regulation, one smaller step for Sandy Hill?

François Bregha

Last month, the City released its draft R4 Bylaw amendment. Most of Sandy Hill, and much of the City’s inner core, is zoned R4. Ottawa’s zoning bylaws cover five classes of urban residential zones from R1, that allows only detached dwellings to R5 that permits high-rise apartment buildings. R4 (actually a family of sub-zones with different specifications about lot sizes, set-backs and the permissible number of dwelling units) is the most intensive of the low-rise residential zones.

The City is proposing this amendment to control the recent proliferation of “bunkhouses,” i.e., low-rise apartments with unusually-high bedroom counts designed for student housing, that have raised a host of issues in Sandy Hill, including incompatibility with street character, garbage and noise. The Review had four goals:

  • to clarify the distinction between a rooming house and a dwelling unit;
  • to prohibit further development of dwelling units with unreasonably large bedroom counts in multi-unit dwellings;
  • to balance the rare need for oversized dwelling units against the need to plan for and regulate density; and
  • to ensure that large residential buildings provide adequate space to store and manage garbage and recyclables.

A lot of the City’s proposals involve tightening definitions of what is a bedroom, a residential unit, a single housekeeping unit, a rooming house and so on, in order to reduce current abuses. For instance, a room might be labelled a “den” in architectural drawings resulting in a lower bedroom count. Landlords might rent rooms in an apartment individually, but deny operating a rooming house. What the City proposes is that, in the future:

  • each dwelling unit can have no more than four bedrooms;
  • a new building can have a maximum of four dwelling units;
  • a dwelling unit with more than four bedrooms must be detached;
  • there will be minimum standards for garbage management, including enclosed garbage storage at the back of the building with a path along the side of the building sufficient to allow a wheeled garbage bin or dumpster to be moved along its entire length.

If City Council adopts them, these provisions will come into force immediately. By capping at the number of bedrooms in a new building to 16 and stipulating standards for garbage management, these proposals respond to longstanding Sandy Hill grievances. Combined with the previous Infill 1 and 2 zoning changes that addressed front yards, height, setbacks and building mass, they should help to protect the neighbourhood from inappropriate development.

And yet… given the large number of “bunkhouses” already built in Sandy Hill, some will argue that the City is shutting the proverbial barn door after the horse has bolted. Resources to enforce these new regulations will likely remain inadequate. Developers may find new loopholes to exploit. Student apartments will still be built even if they have to be a bit smaller.

So progress, but a lot of ground has already been lost.