OMB's west Ottawa condo ruling opens door to height violations, councillor says

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The Ontario Municipal Board’s decision to allow a Toronto developer to go ahead with a 12-storey west-end condo tower if it features “landmark architecture” could give builders a loophole to circumvent city-imposed height restrictions, an Ottawa councillor says.

Council rejected Sam Mizrahi’s proposal for an upscale condominium at the corner of Wellington Street and Island Park Drive last May because it violated the community design plan’s nine-storey height limit.

Mr. Mizrahi appealed the decision to the OMB, the provincial tribunal that has final say over municipal planning decisions. He argued a nine-storey building isn’t economically viable because the site is on contaminated land and requires a $2-million cleanup.

In its written ruling last week, the OMB gave the builder two choices – cut the condo tower to nine storeys or design the top three storeys in a way that makes them so exceptional they qualify as “landmark architecture.”

“It is not sufficient for the project to be ‘well-designed,’” the tribunal said in its report. “Landmarks must additionally be ‘very distinctive.’ They must … ‘stand out’ from the background ‘by virtue of their design.’ The Board has referred to this aspect as ‘an element of wow.’”

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper, whose ward includes the proposed development, said most of his constituents would still oppose a 12-storey building regardless of what it looks like.

“If community and developer and city all agree that something is so … ‘wow’ that it should go ahead, that’s always there,” he said. “But in my view that has to be based on consensus. No matter how ‘wow’ this building is, I would expect that we’re still going to see significant opposition to it on the basis of exceeding the height that’s been prescribed in our secondary plan.”

The councillor said the OMB’s decision sets a potentially dangerous precedent because it could allow developers to get around height restrictions by offering up “landmark architecture” in exchange for extra real estate.

“The fundamental premise that somehow landmark architecture should automatically result in height greater than what we’ve planned for is something I reject,” Mr. Leiper said. “I think the whole city, certainly the urban area, will be following this closely. Now that the door’s been opened, we can expect a lot of different parties to walk through it. Mizrahi won’t be the last to rely on it.”

The concept of “landmark architecture” is extremely subjective, he said, adding the OMB lacks the expertise and the mandate to determine which buildings meet that definition and which ones don’t.

“Frankly, I don’t think that is the OMB’s job,” Mr. Leiper said. “The OMB is not a centre of architectural excellence.”

There needs to be a standard definition of “landmark” everyone agrees upon, he added, but coming up with it will be easier said than done.

“The big challenge for us is to try somehow to create a definition of landmark that has enough certainty to it that developers and communities and we as a city can sit down and look at an application and say, ‘Yes, that is landmark’ or ‘No, it’s not,’” Mr. Leiper said. “I don’t want to underestimate the challenge of doing that. It’s going to be difficult.”

He suggested putting designs to a panel of well-respected architects and planners.

“I don’t know if that’s feasible, though,” he said.

The West Wellington project is the first Ottawa-based construction proposal for Mr. Mizrahi, a prominent Toronto developer. He did not respond to OBJ’s requests for comment.

The OMB has given the city and the developer six months to work things out. Mr. Leiper said he remains confident the two sides can reach a compromise, although he’s not sure what the city’s next move will be.

“It is important that we get this right,” he said.