Ottawa is overhauling zoning bylaws. It will forever change the city

Why the Comprehensive Zoning Bylaw Amendment could be the single biggest task of Mayor Mark Sutcliffe and the current term of council

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The City of Ottawa is about to begin the largest overhaul of its zoning bylaws in a quarter-century, one that will profoundly change the way the city builds and grows.

And, if the words “zoning bylaw” makes you zone out, you shouldn’t. The impact of the changes will be felt from Kinburn to Cumberland, from Manotick to Mechanicsville. It will set the ground rules for everything from residential density to building heights to how much street parking is needed.

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Work begins on the Comprehensive Zoning Bylaw Amendment in March and likely won’t be complete until the end of 2025. It’s the first major revision to bylaws since amalgamation in 2001 and may be the single biggest task of Mayor Mark Sutcliffe and the current term of council.

“It seems geeky, but this is going to affect everyone,” said Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper, chair of the city’s planning and housing committee. “It’s the thing I’m probably the most excited about.”

The zoning revamp will open up new areas of Ottawa to infill development, which until now has been largely concentrated in and around the downtown core.

“Kitchissippi has been a development hot spot for a couple of decades now, and that’s coming everywhere else,” Leiper said. “The building boom is going to slow down in my ward as the land values have skyrocketed, but the same dynamic that’s affected Westboro and Hintonburg is coming to Carlington and Bay Ward and Overbrook. It’s going to come to Orléans.”

At its core is the move by Ottawa and cities across Canada to end what’s known as “exclusionary zoning” — the traditional post-war suburb with single-family homes and broad green lawns. Those idyllic Leave it to Beaver communities are car-dependent, wasteful of space and expensive to service. It’s labelled “exclusionary” because the cost of housing there puts those neighbourhoods out of the reach of low-income families.

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In Ottawa, those areas are known as R1 zoning. The federal government has made it clear, and the Ontario government has made it law, that exclusionary zoning must end. Ottawa’s official plan, passed in 2022, effectively ended R1 zoning. Premier Doug Ford’s controversial Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act, directs all Ontario municipalities to allow three or more residential units per building lot.

Federal housing minister Sean Fraser has also made it known that money from the $40-billion federal housing accelerator fund will only go to municipalities that agree to end exclusionary zoning. (Sutcliffe announced this past week that Ottawa had reached a deal to receive accelerator funds, much of which would be earmarked for affordable housing. The city requested $150 million, but the exact amount it will receive has not been announced).

“The province passed legislation that requires municipalities to allow three units on a lot, and as quickly as we could we drafted a bylaw that allows three units on any lot,” Leiper said. “But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s still a bit of a creaky bylaw. It was a quick response to a directive.”

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Ottawa’s zoning bylaws still contain rules about things like setbacks from property lines and building heights that are counter to the increased density goals of the official plan. Squeezing three or more units on one lot is difficult if the bylaw says you can only build so high and must be a certain number of metres from property lines.

“The developers are looking at our most recent official plan that really doubles down on intensification and saying, ‘These are the kinds of buildings that our official plan tells us we should be able to build. Why doesn’t the zoning reflect that?’” Leiper said. “And residents are wondering, ‘Why are developers getting changes to zoning when we’re relying on our zoning to tell us how are neighbourhood is going to evolve?’

Jeff Leiper
Jeff Leiper is the city councillor for Kitchissippi Ward and chair of the city’s planning and housing committee. Photo by ERROL MCGIHON /POSTMEDIA

“So getting the zoning up to date is critical to provide the kind of orderly development according to the vision council has adopted,” Leiper added. “The process of getting a rezoning is complex. It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. One of the most important things we can do as a city to address the housing crisis is to be sure that the as-of-right permissions are in place to allow builders to build housing rather than seek regulatory approvals.”

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Many of those disputes end up before the Ontario Land Tribunal, an expensive and time-consuming process that can further slow home construction and add costs.

Developers, of course, are eager for the coming clarity.

“We’re hoping there’s going to be a lot more simplicity,” said Jason Burggraaf, executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association. “There are hundreds of different zoning labels. We think of R1, R2, R3, R4 and R5, but there are dozens and dozens of little appendices they add on: R1aa and R1ab … There’s a tremendous variations for every type of conceivable change for lot size and location and particularity. It’s so gargantuan and hard to navigate.”

Some of the zoning bylaws are leftovers from pre-amalgamation days. Burggraaf said one developer was stymied when trying to build an apartment in an area designated as R4, which allows low rises of up to four storeys.

“There was a rule that said, ‘R4 apartments, but no senior residences.’ Why? Why ban that type of use? It could have been instituted decades ago because someone didn’t want a seniors’ residence near their house and it just got carried over the years and through amalgamation. It’s those weird kind of particularities that we have to clean out.”

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That Ottawa has a housing crisis is no secret. Council declared a “housing emergency” in 2020. The wait list for a place to live with Ottawa Community Housing is 12,000 names long and the average wait time is more than five years.

When the city began working on its latest official plan, the assumption was that Ottawa’s population would grow by about 400,000 by the year 2046. With the surge in immigration in recent years, that number is already outdated. Canada welcomed more than one million newcomers in 2023 alone.

“The numbers coming from Ontario Ministry of Finance just this past summer say the number is going to be closer to 560,000,” Burggraaf said. “That’s a big difference from 400,000. The concern now is we’re already planning to be under-shortaged for housing.

Jason Burggraaf
Jason Burggraaf is executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association. Photo by ERROL MCGIHON /POSTMEDIA

“That sheer number of population growth means we can’t afford to cut off any avenue for housing growth. Yes, it’s more densification in neighbourhoods. Yes, it’s more height along corridors and near transit stations. And, yes, it’s new communities adding on to the suburbs. We can’t achieve the housing we want to get by only doing one or two of those. We have to do all three.”

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The federal and provincial governments are trying to spur even denser growth, offering builders GST and HST breaks if they build four units to a lot. That’s something homebuilders would like to take advantage of, Burggraaf said, and something Leiper said could be accommodated by a tweak of city bylaws. Allowing basement apartments, for example, turns a duplex into a four-plex.

Building heights are always a source of conflict, whether it’s a soaring high-rise that casts a shadow across a neighbourhood or a battleship-like infill duplex that looms over its next-door neighbour.

Originally, the official plan sought to limit building heights to four storeys along minor corridors — roads like Churchill Avenue and Fisher Avenue, for example. Ontario over-rode that, after some hiccups tied to its controversial plan to expand urban boundaries, and raised the height limit to six storeys along minor corridors, a change now embraced by Ottawa council.

A construction site in the Gloucester area
Workers brave the winter elements at a construction site in the Gloucester area of Ottawa earlier this past week. Photo by Spencer Colby /POSTMEDIA

Parking is another perennial zoning headache. Increased density means more people and fewer parking spots. Can those people be enticed into relying on public transit instead of private cars? Cue the OC Transpo complaints.

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“Any new project, whether it’s inside the Greenbelt wards or even in the suburbs, on-street parking is a big issue,” Burggraaf said. “Are we going to change how we think about parking? Will we allow more communal parking lots versus individual driveways?

“What happens with transit has a lot to do with parking, too. The more the city can do about the reliability of transit helps address some of those parking issues.”

The comprehensive bylaw amendment process “is a multi-fold issue that goes beyond the construction of homes,” Burggraaf said. “It’s truly about the growth of the city and how it will operate.”

Work on the zoning bylaw amendments began almost as soon as the official plan was complete. Leiper’s planning committee expects to have a first draft available for the public to see in March.

“In May, that will become even more precise,” Leiper said. “Then we’ll spend much of the rest of the 2024 receiving industry feedback and resident feedback and having a really meaty debate over the specifics of the bylaw.”

The final bylaw probably won’t be voted on by city council until December 2025.

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