UrbSanity: Looking ahead

Originally published in Centretown Buzz
by Jeff Salmon
June 13, 2014

The housing market is a moving target, influenced by social, economic, and political forces. Successful developers are able to understand the ebb and flow of the market and capitalize by offering timely projects that fulfill a social or economic need/desire. In the last ten years there has been enormous development and growth in Ottawa and at its periphery, and for the urban core in particular the last few years have been marked by condo fever.

Certain neighborhoods, like Westboro and Little Italy, have undergone significant transformations, becoming hubs for development. In fact, Little Italy had to put a freeze on the review of development proposals while the City tried to catch up and formulate a plan for the area.

Though the condo boom is not on the same scale as Toronto, condo towers now dot the map all over the city, with many more on the boards or in the presale phase. However, the fast-and-furious condo tower market in Ottawa seems to be showing signs of slowing, and I think it is safe to say both residents and developers alike are concerned that the condo tower market is becoming saturated, with very little distinguishing one project from another.

In the same way that condo towers have enjoyed success in recent years, so, too, have infill housing projects.

Unfortunately, with the exception of a few projects, the infill projects have become almost as predictable as the condo towers. This is not necessarily surprising: I believe the saying is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Developers have very little incentive to stray from what has proven to sell. This often means that they don’t tend to stray far from the herd, relying more on an established brand, marketing, or a unique location to sell units.

On the other hand, as I said before, the housing market is a moving target, as the laws of supply and demand shift the emphasis from one building type to another.

So where does that leave Ottawa, if we are in the early stages of a shift away from condo towers? What does it mean for Centretown, specifically?

It likely means that we will see more variety in terms of the housing typologies. Some of the different infill options include front to back splits where one unit addresses the street and the other the rear yard. Another option that is gaining traction is low-rise (four-six storey) condos that are being built on one or two lots. The popularity of this option is bound to rise when the Ontario Building Code is adjusted to permit six-storey, wood-frame construction (currently only four storeys are permitted). Quebec and British Columbia have already made the leap to six storeys, and most believe it is only a matter of time before Ontario follows suit.

Another housing typology that we are likely to see more of is stacked townhouses, where units are located one above the other. Currently, most of the stacked townhouse developments are located at the periphery of the urban core, but this model is sure to find its way into the inner city. The challenge with this particular form of development is the number of lots required to build a series of them—something that is not always easy to acquire in the urban areas of Ottawa.

Putting the challenge aside, stacked townhouses offer a comfortable increase in density while maintaining a more modest scale that would not be out of place in a more established neighborhood. Additionally, the pricing for stacked townhouses would offer a viable option for first time home buyers who want to stay in the city.

We may also see more projects that are a little harder to label. One such project is a Surface Developments offering called Junction, to be located in the Carling and Kirkwood area. The project incorporates town houses and flats together seamlessly, while also providing units at a variety of prices.

Their creative approach to the project is not limited to the design but also includes their marketing, as they will throw in a new car (or VRTUCAR membership or equivalent in upgrades).

While this project may not be to everyone’s taste, it is refreshing to see a developer breaking the mould and raising the bar with a little creativity.

Looking at Centretown specifically, there has not been the explosion of development that some of the other adjacent neighborhoods have had, although there has been some larger projects, like the Central development (at the intersection of Bank and Gladstone) built in recent years.

In this sense Centretown is likely going to benefit from the diversity of building types gaining momentum elsewhere in the city. If we consider how varied the different areas of Centretown are, there will be plenty of opportunities for developers to flex their creative muscles, should they choose to.

This is not to say that the quality or creativity of a project lies solely in the hands of the developer; as residents of Centretown, we can chose to support the good projects and fight the bad ones. Development is inevitable: bad development doesn’t have to be.

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