Parliament sightline rules could prevent taller Ottawa towers

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A proposed towering condominium in Lebreton Flats encountered some pushback this month, thanks to a decades-old rule restricting buildings from blocking views of Parliament Hill. By Dylan C. Robertson.

Earlier this month, the city’s Urban Design Review Panel deemed the 55-storey proposal too high, citing a 20-year-old policy protecting the “symbolic primacy” of Ottawa’s “national symbols.”

Crafted through the 1990s, the policy eventually settled on 21 points around Ottawa and Gatineau from which people must be able to see Parliament’s silhouette. The rule includes the Supreme Court and National Art Gallery, depending on viewpoint.

Two points in Beechwood Cemetery were added in 2008.

Robert Allsopp, a partner with Toronto architecture firm DTAH, helped the National Capital Commission pick the original 21 spots, but now says Ottawa should revisit them.

“The city, and the NCC, have got to reconsider the height controls that have been in place for 20 years now, and were really built on the height controls that were another 20 years before that.”

Allsopp said the guidelines responded to officer towers like Place Bell and Place de Ville, as residential towers were mostly limited to low- and mid-rise apartments. The city now faces growing housing needs, and restrictions on building close to its core.

But developers now fixate on tall buildings, Allsopp says, because they maximize profits and respond to housing demand, despite families preferring to live closer to the ground.

“Currently the development industry’s thinking is that tall buildings are the only way to grow,” he said. That leaves Ottawa at risk of following Toronto, where city officials are playing catch-up to a downtown “overwhelmed with development.”

But Allsopp says Ottawa has neighbourhoods with a good mix of mid- and high-rise apartments, like the area east of the Rideau Centre.

Barry Padolsky, the architect behind multiple projects like the Museum of Nature and the Bank Street bridge restoration, says that’s a result of Ottawa’s gradual approach to development.

He notes that the city’s current official plan targets developing a “necklace” of LRTstops circling downtown, instead of urban sprawl outside the Greenbelt.

“The basic principle of handling future growth is to build in, and not out,” he said, especially along existing main streets and public transit. “It’s broad, but it’s a direction that is quite valid.”

Most of the recent intensification follows that model, Padolsky said, like east of the Rideau Centre, as well as Centretown’s Tribeca East condos and the looming condominium north of Dow’s Lake.

Padolsky noted that the “symbolic primacy” rule had developers redesign the Zibi project adjacent to the Chaudière Falls, because its shape would distract from Parliament Hill — though not its height. The proposed Château Laurier expansion also faces similar questions.

To Padolsky , that means the city has a piecemeal, but effective, approach to balancing its “postcard view” with intensification.

“How do you reconcile the different objectives that we have, and come up with something that brings them together,” Padolsky asked. “The city sort of muddles along, but it does have its heart in the right place.”

In any case, Allsopp says building in Ottawa requires national input. “There’s always been a tension between the municipal interest and the national interest,” he admits, noting a 442-page book detailing that very tension was published in 2015: Town and Crown by David L.A. Gordon.

“I think this is a broad public issue, that needs to be debated publicly,” Allsop said. “Most people are abstracted from this question. It usually comes up when very tall buildings are put up in a local area, and people feel threatened.”

This article originally appeared in Metro News.