In February 2022, Alain Miguelez started his role as the Vice-President of Capital Planning at the National Capital Commission. Prior to joining the NCC, Miguelez was Manager of Planning Policy with the City where, among other projects, he oversaw the launch of the new Official Plan.
Miguelez was kind enough to answer a few of our questions, meeting with IMAGE both as a professional planner and as a long-time resident of Sandy Hill. These views are his own.
Note: This is an extended version of the interview that was published in the June-July issue of IMAGE. Questions marked with a * indicate where question/answer has been added or updated.
Let’s start with your connection to Sandy Hill. How long have you been in the neighbourhood and how have you seen it change during this time?
I have lived in Sandy Hill on and off since 1983 when my parents moved here from Alta Vista. I’ve strayed to other neighbourhoods for short periods and lived in Montreal when I did my Masters’ in Urban Planning, but Sandy Hill always pulled me back. I have certainly seen the neighbourhood evolve.
On the one hand, it has managed to remain a fantastic place to live because of its proximity to downtown and its great transit and mobility options. It remains a vibrant, mixed neighbourhood with a diverse population, including students, which gives it its own distinct flavour. It’s a gorgeous neighbourhood thanks to its Victorian architecture and its tree-lined streets. It has history and it gives you a definite feel of the passage of time.
Progress has been made in traffic calming and cycling facilities, although more remains to be done. Like all downtown neighbourhoods, Sandy Hill has suffered from the disappearance of many smaller retail options (there used to be a hardware at Rideau and Augusta; there used to be more corner stores; there used to be more small local businesses). To some degree, these losses are being compensated by cool new little stores that the City’s brilliant micro-retail zoning now permits on streets like Somerset East, and by the evolution of Laurier East as a more commercial street. In addition, no matter what we think of stores in the new University residence building at Laurier and Friel, they are convenient, and popular. And we have the wonderful example of Working Title with their magnificent patio, event space and bakery. All this is possible because of the critical population mass in Sandy Hill. Other neighbourhoods aren’t as lucky.
Sandy Hill has been affected by some ugly bunkhouse-type developments, which highlights the need for strong urban design direction. It has also been impacted by suburban-type infills with garages in the front or front yard parking which completely clash with the urbanity and green-front-yard character of Sandy Hill. There is still too much legacy front yard parking that should ideally be removed over time.
Overall, I would say that the long-overdue repopulation of Rideau Street with all of the new buildings being built there will be a real positive for the neighbourhood – it will solidify a critical mass of people on our main street which will allow for a greater range of retail and service choices near all of us.
Has being a Sandy Hill resident influenced your approach or perspectives on planning?
It gives me “boots on the ground” in terms of understanding and appreciating how urban neighbourhoods function (as opposed to suburban neighbourhoods) and what makes them thrive. I think that lots of people have internalized suburban ideas, assumptions or expectations that simply cannot be applied to an urban neighbourhood – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The natural evolution of suburban neighbourhoods is for them to become more urban over time.
*I’ve heard through the grapevine that you don’t own a car. What does this say about Sandy Hill being a walkable neighbourhood?
It’s true, and I’m hardly alone in this. If you look at the most recent data from 2011, 57% of downtown households don’t own a car, and 41% of households in neighbourhoods around downtown also don’t own a car. I personally and professionally think that it should be a goal of public and planning policy to keep increasing those numbers.
My wife and I chose Sandy Hill because it allows us to function on foot. We would probably not be able to do this as easily in too many other neighbourhoods. Public transit is adequate because there are enough routes on Rideau Street, even on Sundays, that you don’t have to wait unreasonable amounts of time for a bus. That said, reductions in bus frequency erodes and undermines people’s instinct to rely on transit. I still lament the splitting of route 5 which used to provide a transfer-free link to Billings Bridge. The 19 isn’t as useful to me anymore and it imposes a transfer to the 5, but both routes are not synchronized well enough at the transfer point to make this a viable option. Of course, being able to walk or take a short bus trip to the O-Train is a big plus.
I enjoy living on foot, shopping on foot, and using the transit system which allows me to not have to concentrate on driving and lets me relax, listen to a podcast or just enjoy watching the city as a spectator. And, to me, there is a special satisfaction, when you walk, the notion that you keep “going forward” from one place to the next, from one block to the next. You don’t need to backtrack to where you parked a car, you just keep going. In my mind, that kind of pedestrian satisfaction cannot be replaced by a motor vehicle.
If I need to use a car for longer trips or errands that require moving heavier things, I borrow or rent one. Those are infrequent enough to make the math work from a financial standpoint as well – and I know of many neighbours who do this too or use car-share services like Communauto.
*In the spring, the province published recommendations to facilitate the construction of new housing that seemed to reduce heritage protection. As someone who has shown a concern about heritage, how do you feel about these proposals? How can Ottawa increase housing supply while protecting heritage?
Some of the recommendations of the Ontario Task Force on Housing were good and some concerned me. As an urban planner, I think that the recommendations to end exclusionary zoning were appropriate, in fact probably overdue, and will be fundamental to the healthy evolution of the city and its various neighbourhoods. However, those were not included in the final package that the Province put forward in the More Homes for Everyone Act. In any event, those don’t affect Sandy Hill much since most of this neighbourhood is already zoned R4.
The More Homes for Everyone Act ended up focusing on the approvals process and on changes to the Building Code; we’ll have to see how much any these changes might help build more housing faster. Generally, in bigger cities like Toronto and Ottawa, some development approvals take more time because of the complexities of the larger buildings that are built in those larger centres and the challenges of established, sometimes historic contexts in which such new projects are introduced. Requiring cities to refund application fees to proponents if approvals are not given after a certain time has elapsed would not make those complex issues go away. Similarly, the new limitations on parkland dedication in transit-oriented communities may have a range of outcomes depending on location which remains to be seen. These matters are so context-sensitive that a one-size-fits-all approach can give very different results depending on where you are.
*Now that you’re no longer with the City, I’m wondering if you could share your thoughts on the Official Plan as it pertains to Sandy Hill. In 2021, Sandy Hill residents expressed frustration and disappointment with the consultation process — including during a virtual Q&A with City planners. As someone who is both a Sandy Hill resident and an urban planner, do you feel the neighbourhood’s needs were well-represented in the new Official Plan?
Let me start by saying that I feel a great deal of ownership towards the new Official Plan, and I think it’s the right plan for the City and its neighbourhoods in that it sets out a path of evolution that reinforces all the things that we’ve heard people are looking for as the city grows. People want walkable neighbourhoods, convenient access to things, beautiful architecture and quality public spaces and park spaces.
The transect approach that was adopted by the new Plan is a very useful way to see the city according to each of its distinctive contexts. In the first 20 years of amalgamation, we saw that urban planning rules cannot be the “one size fits all” type but must reflect each area for what it is and talk about where it’s going in more place-specific terms.
The consultation efforts deployed by the City were exceptional because COVID restrictions meant that in-person meetings weren’t possible. I know lots of people were unconvinced about using Zoom as a platform, but I think we all observed that online consultations actually allowed for a lot more people to participate –there were up to 10 times more people in attendance at Zoom meetings than in-person. And I know that my former team at the City responded to every question, even if it meant an e-mail after the virtual meeting when time didn’t allow for everyone to ask a question (some meetings had up to 800 people in attendance).
I think Sandy Hill is much better represented in the new Plan than in the old one. There is stronger language on heritage and urban design. There are better development policies that call for the type of urban buildings that fit into the context much better than suburban-type buildings that clash with the context. The old Sandy Hill Secondary Plan was updated and brought forward with all its key directions.
When it comes to planning projects present and future, where do the greatest opportunities lie for Sandy Hill?
The ongoing consolidation of Rideau Street is the most significant opportunity for Sandy Hill to cement its status as a true 15-minute neighbourhood. Its mixed-use buildings will fill gaps that have existed along the street for decades. Improved cycling facilities, more work on the design of local streets to make them true 30 km/h streets, and more frequent transit along Rideau, Laurier, Somerset and King Edward can only help.
The Prime Ministers’ Row initiative is very interesting and has a lot of great potential. It can make Laurier Avenue into a special, thematic destination which could become a special place for the interpretation and understanding of Canadian history through a focus on its prime ministers, and it could also lead to theming any number of supporting elements along the street, from local bars and restaurants to specialty shops or public spaces and street furniture.
More consolidation along Laurier would be beneficial – there are still a few voids along the street, such as the empty lots and parking lots around Laurier and King Edward, which with good buildings could make the street gel much better. And, of course, it would be nice to have a new pub or two to replace the Royal Oak and the old Dunvegan.
Are there ways in which you might be able to advocate for Sandy Hill/downtown neighbourhoods in your role with the NCC?
As a professional planner, I do not advocate. I provide recommendations to my employer based on the result of consultation processes and on sound planning principles. Parts of Sandy Hill are covered by NCC plans and when the time comes to revisit those plans, my new NCC team will consult and make professional recommendations.
That said, as a resident, I am pleased with the NCC’s focus to create more outdoor public space for well-being. One example is our partnership with the Urban Winter Trails Alliance, creating 100 kms of groomed winter trails in Ottawa, 12km of which are along the Rideau Winter Trail, along the eastern side of the Rideau River, from North River Road to Bank Street.
*You will be overseeing the new Interprovincial Transit Office with the NCC. What would you say to Sandy Hill residents who may be critical of the pace in which interprovincial planning decisions are made? I’m thinking specifically about resident concerns to get large transport trucks off the streets of downtown.
The mandate of the Transit Office will be focused on bringing the STO (Société de Transports de l’Outaouais) tramway into Ottawa – our stated preference is to use Wellington Street, and to take the opportunity to pedestrianize a good part of Wellington in the process.
The NCC just authored a new Long-Term Integrated Interprovincial Crossings Plan which offers a vision and strategies for the interprovincial transport of people and goods in the National Capital Region. The plan guides the NCC and partnering agencies in their work to build a more sustainable transportation system. It addresses the challenges and uncertainties that face transportation in the region, now and in the future, including by delivering a blueprint for the region’s interprovincial crossings. In terms of infrastructure investments, it found that a new crossing would provide an opportunity to divert interprovincial heavy trucks, if combined with municipal measures to ensure that the truck using Rideau and King Edward are only those of a size and weight consistent with a dynamic urban area with heavy pedestrian volumes.
*Despite Ottawa being a pioneer of active transportation (with NCC paths, open parkways during the pandemic, etc.), why don’t you think it has gotten the praise and recognition of other active transit-friendly cities like Montreal, Vancouver, and Victoria?
Offhand, I don’t get the sense that Canada is a country that celebrates its national capital city in the same way other countries do. And I think that Ottawa, perhaps to its own detriment, still believes that its role as the capital consists in making space for other cities to be celebrated and has perhaps been too shy to stand front and centre. To me, this is difficult to understand in this day and age. Canada is an urban country (80% of Canadians live in urban centres) which means to me that the capital city needs to be a good urban place to be suitably representative. Perceptions can change and I hope they will change. The NCC remains committed to innovation and making the capital city a true leader in urbanism and good city-building.
Thank you to Mr. Miguelez for his responses.