Ottawa

Calls grow to axe minimum parking rules for housing projects

Home builders and a federation of community associations both agree that minimum parking requirements should be abandoned across Ottawa.

City councillor expects draft zoning bylaw this year will propose a cut

Someone stands in a mall parking lot surrounded by parked, dull-coloured vehicles.
Supporters of looser parking rules say minimum parking requirements drive up home prices because parking takes up space that could boost the housing supply. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

When towers come up for debate at Ottawa city council's planning and housing committee, talk often turns to parking.

Developers come with projects that offer fewer parking spaces than housing units, then neighbours worry all those extra cars will spill onto quiet residential streets, turning their communities into parking lots.

As the city works on a new zoning bylaw, there's a growing consensus that it should further relax parking rules to allow developers to build even fewer parking spots — or perhaps none at all.

"The parking minimum makes for more expensive housing," said Coun. Jeff Leiper, who chairs the planning and housing committee.

"It is counter to the trends of reduced car ownership. It is counter to the trends of younger people not getting cars at all. It is counter to … our thrust to try to increase reliance on public transit."

A city councillor sits at a table and listens during a meeting.
Coun. Jeff Leiper chairs a meeting of Ottawa's planning and housing committee. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Under the current bylaw, the city rules require apartment buildings to offer at least 1.2 parking spots for every housing unit in the outer suburbs such as Barrhaven, Orléans and Kanata.

The limit gets lower toward the core. In some older suburbs such as Alta Vista, developers only need one parking space for every two apartments.

Neighbourhoods such as Westboro and Vanier don't have to provide parking for the first 12 residential units. Buildings under four storeys also get a pass.

Downtown, and close to major transit stations such as Hurdman, South Keys and Blair, there are no parking space requirements at all. 

"I know they are looking at whether or not to broaden those areas, and I fully expect that they will," said Leiper.

He also expects reductions in outlying areas. He said councillors would be "surprised" if any part of the city still has a parking minimum above one car per housing unit in the new zoning bylaw.

"A required parking ratio of 1.2 is completely out of sync with where our official plan says we should be going and with where jurisdictions right across North America are going," Leiper said.

"Across the suburbs and through the general urban area, I wouldn't be surprised if they're looking at the entire thing for a significant reduction in the required minimum parking."

Parking rules drive up housing prices

City staff have been talking with community associations and developers as they work through their proposals, which are expected to become public in a draft this year. 

The Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association is calling for the city to go all the way.

"Ideally, we would get rid of parking minimums across the city," said Jason Burggraaf, the organization's executive director.

He said it's about providing "flexibility," since there's always a trade between parking, housing and greenery. There's only so much space and he said underground parking spots can cost as much as $80,000 to $100,000 to build.

A man with a beard stands in front of a map with yellow hardhat beside him
Jason Burggraaf, executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Robert Brinker, president of the Federation of Citizens' Associations of Ottawa, expects parking requirements to be the main issue in the new zoning bylaw.

"We are very much concerned about that," said Brinker, whose federation groups together 75 neighbourhood associations. "Streets only have so much parking … where do we want to park those cars?"

Brinker does have answers to that question, like community parking garages shared between neighbours in different buildings. The current zoning bylaw makes them tough to build. He wants that to change. 

Despite his concerns, he shares the same position as Burggraaf on minimum parking rules: eliminate them everywhere.

He sees the same tradeoff. Space can be used for cars, or it can be used for people.

"Cars are taking a lot of room," Brinker said. "This room costs money. You can build an underground parking garage, but this is also so expensive that it will be rolled into the rent or the condo fees. 

"It's an equity problem. We would like to see more affordable rental housing than parking spaces."'

Builders are required to include a certain number of parking spots for each new residential project they construct. But many developers argue when it comes to parking, mandatory minimums aren't necessary in this day and age. And they just wrapped up stakeholder meetings with City of Ottawa staff, where they lobbied the city to do away with these rules.

Debate could be contentious in older suburbs

There is skepticism in some parts of the city, especially in older suburbs within the Greenbelt.

The treasurer of the Fisher Heights & Area Community Association south of the experimental farm said streets in his area aren't designed for so much parking.

"A lot of places don't have sidewalks," said Matthew McDonald. "The existing traffic and pedestrians have less road to use and it seems unsafe to me."

There are several major housing projects planned along Baseline Road and McDonald expects the problem will get worse with lower minimum requirements.

"It's going to push them all onto the street, because they don't have anywhere else to go," he said. "That's the biggest concern. It's going to clog up the street and make it unsafe, or harder for other people to use it."

The city has designated Baseline Road — along the northwest edge of Fisher Heights — a transit priority corridor, with higher targets for housing density. At the same time, plans for a bus rapid transit are years away. 

"We're not there," McDonald said. "People still have their cars."

To refuse to allow a building to be built that adds density into a neighbourhood because the buses aren't there is, frankly, ass-backwards.- Coun. Jeff Leiper

The counter there is that buildings last a long time. Burggraaf said underground parking locks in an investment that can only be used for one thing: cars. 

"We have to make the investments to have the ridership for public transit," he said. "We have to anticipate living carless inside the urban area 10, 20 years from now, so we have to have the built form to match that vision."

Leiper said a better transit system relies on building the kinds of neighbourhoods that support it.

"If you don't have the density, you don't have the transit," he said.

"It is absolutely chicken and egg. To refuse to allow a building to be built that adds density into a neighbourhood because the buses aren't there is, frankly, ass-backwards."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Arthur White-Crummey is a reporter at CBC Ottawa. He has previously worked as a reporter in Saskatchewan covering the courts, city hall and the provincial legislature. You can reach him at arthur.white-crummey@cbc.ca.

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