Policy

Character Zoning Pilot Study: A Step Toward Preserving the Character of Durand

Durand residents deserve 21st century zoning that protects the character of their neighbourhood and facilitates good infill development.

By Frances Murray and Yonatan Rozenszajn
Published November 30, 2015

On November 17, 2015, Durand residents who gathered for the annual Durand Neighbourhood Association's Annual General Meeting were treated to the unveiling of the new Durand Neighbourhood Character Project.

Overlooking houses and apartments in Durand (RTH file photo)
Overlooking houses and apartments in Durand (RTH file photo)

Our project consultants, Paul Shaker and Sonja MacDonald of CivicPlan, presented the concept and its possible application to Durand. You can download a copy of their presentation [PDF].

The genesis of this project harkens back to the battles of the early 1970s when low lying historic homes were demolished in favour new high rise buildings. Apart from the collateral loss of heritage, the planning of those high-rises generally failed to pay any attention to the dominant character of Durand, forever altering it to the detriment of all residents.

Houses and apartment buildings in Durand (RTH file photo)
Houses and apartment buildings in Durand (RTH file photo)

Similar challenges are in place today with the City and developers struggling to make new infill developments comply with antiquated zoning bylaws.

The zoning framework today mimics the set-backs of a suburban subdivision together with overtly generous height allowances. It bears no resemblance to the historic street landscape.

Developers must resort to expensive site specific zoning changes or complex variances to win approval for infill projects that fit well with existing houses.

Deeply set-back infill houses (RTH file photo)
Deeply set-back infill houses (RTH file photo)

Summertime consultation between city staff, Councillor Jason Farr and board members Janice Brown, Yonatan Rozenszajn, Wes Jamieson and Geoff Roche revealed that character or "form-based" zoning may have application to mature residential neighbourhoods like Durand.

Form-based zoning focuses on the character of a neighbourhood to guide infill development. As Paul Shaker explained at our AGM, Character can be defined as the recurrence or prevalence of patterns of:

  1. Front yard space;
  2. Existence and orientation of parking and driveways;
  3. Orientation of the principal entranceway to the street.

The City of Ottawa has recently adopted character based zoning for some of its mature residential neighbourhoods. It uses the approach: "Your street gives you your rules."

Property owners retain complete architectural freedom as long as three key streetscape attributes are retained. These attributes are the dominant character attributes and should be maintained or strengthened.

Unlike heritage conservation laws, which dictate the look of existing structures, character-based zoning may only apply to new infill developments or new and permanent uses of land that may require some development approval from the City's planning staff.

So, what's next for Duranders?

  1. An information tool will be set up online to explain the concept, how it might look in Durand and gather more input;
  2. Phase II will include a workshop, street audits and a report delivered to the city.

If you are interested in supporting this grassroots project or would like more information, please email us at info@durandna.com.

Frances Murray and Yonatan Rozenszajn serve as members of the Board of Directors of the Durand Neighbourhood Association.

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By alberta (anonymous) | Posted November 30, 2015 at 23:42:19

There seem to be two contradictory tensions at work in zoning. One is improving efficiency, so that people can plan their developments based on a predictive set of rules and not be sidelined by the fact that Joe doesn't like the colour of the bricks used. The second is negotiating land uses based on externalities. In the past these were primarily nuisances, but now include a second level of externalities based on character. This article is pretty much only about expanding the role of zoning to do more of the latter. It sounds nice when called a 'form', but less so when that form excludes rooming houses or clotheslines or urban chickens. It doesn't seem to me to do anything to improve efficiency or allow the common good to prevail over purely selfish local interests.

Adding criteria relating to the character of the neighbourhood to combat the problem of too long setbacks seems to get at the problem sideways and overlooks the predictive role of zoning. How about just shorten the setback. Advocate for a set of zoning rules that suit a modern city. No more ridiculous road widening, higher minimum height guidelines, more flexibility about lot coverage, mandatory commercial at grade, secondary suites, parking around back etc etc. Then enforce the rules and where someone is within them, don't allow an appeal whether it is from the DNA or that guy who loves going to tribunals.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted December 01, 2015 at 18:37:08

Hi Alberta,

Just to clarify, the proposed Character zoning would only affect low-rise residential, and is for established neighbourhoods like Durand.

Basically, the zoning layer will look at dominant characters of the 21 neighbouring houses in terms of front-facing entrance, parking (in front), etc. It will not have any authority over paint colour, and will have nothing to say about anything done in the backyard such as clothes lines or urban chickens.

We are hoping this new layer will prevent the kind of block-busting by developers that occurred in the 60s and 70s and is starting to creep back (see 1 St. James Place). People find the Durand neighbourhood attractive precisely because of the heritage and history it currently contains. That "development creep" will eventually wipe out the solid housing stock in favour of highrise buildings. This is not NIMBY. The Durand is already the most intensified in the city in terms of people/sq km, and there are plenty of empty lots currently used for parking that can be used for intensification within the urban boundary.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted December 01, 2015 at 20:52:56 in reply to Comment 115290

I remember in the 1970's when downtown Toronto was blighted with car parking lots. They are all gone, having been replaced with useful things.

They changed. We can too.

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