Eye on Development – 36 Robinson: does anyone think this is a good idea?

Wendy Duschenes

It’s not the most encouraging sign when the room unanimously erupts into caustic laughter at the first statement by a developer’s representative. And yet that is what happened at the most recent public meeting concerning potential developments in Robinson Village when the speaker stated that students were not their target demographic. He may not have been aware of the discussions and meetings that have taken place over the last seven years, but long-term residents of the village have spent countless hours cogently arguing in support of smart development in our area, through letters, petitions and appearances at public and City planning meetings. We have always been clear that we do not oppose good development in sync with the neighbourhood’s aesthetics and social cohesion, as well as with the City’s TOD (Transit-Oriented Development) Vision (4.0) that discusses “establishing context-sensitive development that respects existing neighbourhoods….” And no one objects to replacing a handful of derelict or poorly maintained buildings owned by absentee landlords.

A quick guide to Robinson Village—a small, unusual, city neighbourhood bordering Dutchie’s Hole Park and the Rideau River, just off Lees Avenue near King Edward. Part of, yet somewhat geographically separated from, Sandy Hill, it is a safe, quiet cul-de-sac inhabited primarily by home owners and residents of well-run community housing, and with a good diversity of population, from singles, students, and families, to seniors. The neighbourhood offers great access to the Rideau, parks, bicycle paths, downtown, and a variety of good schools, but suffers from nagging issues such as minimal parking (particularly in winter when the narrow street becomes one lane) and ineffective street drainage. Currently, all buildings are three or fewer storeys, with the exception of one four-storey building, as allowed by the original zoning.

But we have been the focus of determined developers and a vacillating City government over the years. Here is a potted history:

• in 2012, a developer requested a zoning bylaw amendment for a six-storey condo building; residents argued that the change would be deleterious to the neighbourhood’s character while compounding existing infrastructure issues;

• despite our arguments, in January 2014, the City granted the change from four to six storeys (in part due to the misleading argument that one can easily reach the LRT from here) and promised to enforce that maximum height; residents were not happy but accepted the change;

• in January 2015, without notice to residents or any physical signage, the City and the owner of 36 Robinson appeared before the Ontario Municipal Board in response to the owner’s appeal to overturn the new zoning for his property;

• in March 2015, the OMB agreed to a compromise struck between the City and the property owner for the right to build a 27-metre building (designated by the OMB as “eight storeys,” but planned as nine by the developer); there was no consultation with Robinson Village residents, and no notice was given of this change;

• when rumours circulated months later, residents requested information from the City and finally received notice in August 2015 that a City lawyer would hold “office hours” one afternoon at the Sandy Hill Community Centre to “explain” the bylaw change.

So, a tiny enclave of Ottawa with only low-rise housing is expected to endure the negative impacts of a massive, visually oppressive building that will consume most of the space, on all sides, of four contiguous lots, cast long shadows and rob existing neighbours of privacy. Residents have argued for adequate parking, buildings that maintain the style and tranquillity of the area, and attract a diversity of long-term residents and families who would enrich our community and respect their neighbours. However, the developer is proposing a building which we oppose—a nine-storey property with 193 primarily single-renter apartments with balconies and a rooftop amenity, with no innovative green building elements, no live-in superintendent, inevitable parking issues (with a variance to create only 56 parking spaces, at odds with the TOD regulations), and traffic, garbage odour and collection issues.

Keeping in mind that the same developer will be adding another 150 residents in its three other planned buildings, it should not be a surprise that we fear noisy, chaotic disruption in our lives from the likely influx of a highly transient population with no sense of ownership, and a doubling of the current neighbourhood numbers. Given that the University of Ottawa may be building a 4,000-bed, 30-storey residence in the old snow dump near the Robinson/Lees intersection, there is certainly an argument for promoting dwellings that attract long-term residents and families to the downtown core, rather than transient students. And who is most likely to use the LRT at Lees and reduce downtown traffic congestion? How about families and professionals? Students will find it a shorter jog to U of O than to the LRT station.

All of this could have been better, and perhaps there is still a chance that the City will ensure that it will be better. At the heart of this debacle is the critical need to truly recognize resident-stakeholders, to listen and consult in good faith, and to communicate with transparency. In this context, while gardening the other day and thinking about this stupidly missed opportunity to effect intelligent, area-specific planning, I overheard a group of young neighbourhood children creating a game for themselves. With cooperation and calm voices, they cheerfully set out the rules by which they agreed to abide, and then played together respectfully. They demonstrated an excellent approach to tackling an issue that affected a group, and reminded me again why we want residents of all ages in this neighbourhood.

One of four buildings at 36 Robinson, where a developer plans to build a 27-metre high building with mostly single renter apartments.
Photo Wendy Duschenes