Urban compromise

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Eric Darwin is a community activist who was initially opposed to an infill project that went up right behind his home but was appeased when the builder made a point of addressing neighbour concerns. Photograph by Pat McGrath, Ottawa Citizen

Changing a neighbourhood takes communication, good design, lots of money and the occasional glass of red wine

OTTAWA — Eric Darwin knows what it takes to smooth over opposition to new housing on an old street in a neighbourhood wading through change.

A lot of communication, compromise and a little red wine, says the president of the Dalhousie Community Association and backdoor neighbour to a pair of modern stucco, semi-detached homes on Elm Street in Little Italy.

The homes, built by the father-son team of Clyde and Salem McDonald, owners of Eastern Ontario Construction, and designed by an emerging architectural talent and confirmed modernist, Jason Flynn, won honours from the city last year for infill housing and last month earned national recognition for successful urban housing.

And the Elm Street homes came a close second in one of the largest categories of the night at the recent 29th annual Housing Design Awards sponsored by the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association.

“Elm Street is the poster child for successful infill housing,” says Stan Wilder, a 36-year-veteran of planning with the City of Ottawa and a member of Mayor Jim Watson’s Intensification Action Team that has been charged with assembling criteria to support good intensification.

“Intensification is a no-no word to many, but good intensification works,” he says, adding it’s the road map to help Ottawa house a population that will likely exceed one million within a decade, if not sooner.

The most important part of the vocabulary is compatibility.

“We have been saying compatibility over and over again,” he says. “This doesn’t mean a street can’t be eclectic, but there should be some semblance of community. A semblance of streetscape with textures, colours and trees.”

Modern can successfully sit beside traditional homes in established neighbourhoods. But there shouldn’t be a monster house overwhelming a much smaller neighbour, he says.

Trees are good for softening the streetscape, while trading away all landscaping for extra parking is bad, he adds. A wall of street-front garages is the worst.

“Elm Street is a success because a narrow driveway divides the houses, leading to parking in the middle, actually tucked under the first level and hidden from the street,” says Darwin, who lives directly behind the project and blogged during construction (westsideaction.com).

He had concerns during the early days, when the McDonalds bought the lot and tore down a small 50-year-old home that was not much bigger than a shipping container in the working-class neighbourhood.

Then the younger McDonald came over to Darwin’s house, shared a glass of wine on his back balcony and looked at the development from the neighbourhood’s vantage point. There was a meeting and snacks with neighbours at a local restaurant and a “lot of the steam went out of any opposition,” remembers Darwin.

“I didn’t want to be surrounded by cars and people washing their cars, playing stereos and coming and going in the night,” says the community activist.

“The biggest innovation is that the project looks like two ordinary-sized houses. They are not enormous. They look like two detached homes from the front and back. It worked out really well.”

Darwin says he welcomes change to the neighbourhood, emphasizing it’s ridiculous demanding all new homes look they are from 1910.

“The architect did a lot of detailing with textures. This is a good design. Everybody wins when there is more communication and you can talk around doing something that is too big, too dense and too ugly.”

The architect also adopted a solution for privacy in a tight setting, says Darwin — he frosted the glass on the back balconies.

“Intensification is not for the faint-hearted,” says Clyde McDonald, the construction brains in the partnership with his son and a veteran of the industry. Father and son have concentrated on infill housing.

The politics of infill housing can be daunting, pushing back timetables while city hall, neighbours and developers reach an agreement. Often, on larger condo projects, there is no consensus and it has to be settled by the Ontario Municipal Board.

Besides politics, the economics of infill housing demand deep pockets for the developer and buyer, especially in established neighbourhoods where small homes sit on large lots.

The completed Elm Street homes sold for more than $650,000, while lots on one of the most renovated streets in Westboro, Berkley Avenue, go for at least $500,000. There are almost as many newer infill homes as original small homes on the short street and designs go from traditional to contemporary and modern, adding up to an eclectic mix.

Over on leafy Roosevelt Avenue a semi-detached home tops $1 million, says Andre St. Louis, owner of Urban Edge Developments, a custom builder that has flown under the radar for the past decade, exclusively designing and building in Westboro.

“It is a phenomenal walking neighbourhood. It has everything,” says St. Louis, who prefers traditional designs over flashy modern ones. “Traditional homes are timeless. They look like they have always been on the street, as opposed to sticking out like a big beacon.”

He teamed up with award-winning architectural technologist André Godin on a pair of traditional semi-detached homes on Berkley Avenue that were finalists at the design awards earlier this fall.

The Berkley Avenue homes did not win the votes of judges, but Judy Chow and her husband, David Burt, were smitten a year ago, trading a 2,165-square-foot condo on the eighth floor for a little patch of grass.

“I love this house. It is exactly what we need at this stage in our lives,” says the physician, who readily confesses she and her husband, also a physician, were maybe 20 years too early in selling their family home in Hunt Club for condo living. They raised three boys and thought they were free to downsize.

“We thought we were ready. The guys were gone and the condo was large, actually it was two condos joined together and had wonderful views.”

But that first Christmas the boys came home and everyone ended up sleeping on the floor. “We missed the storage and missed the basement,” says Chow, adding they got lucky when another couple offered to buy the condo.

They didn’t want to leave the neighbourhood and happened to walk past the Berkley site. “We loved his ideas. It wasn’t über-modern.” They moved into the townhouse just over a year ago.

There are three bedrooms and the basement is finished, with enough room for the boys to sleep when they visit. “We had already downsized furniture, so the only thing we needed was a sectional sofa for the basement.

“The condo was one big space and we couldn’t get out of anybody’s hair,” she says. “We certainly did need some walls back in our lives.”

Over on Francis Street in Hintonburg, Rick Shean has some walls in his 1,500-square-foot home, which won top honours for infill homes at the awards, but there isn’t much privacy because the house is more glass than anything else.

Windows are larger and interior walls are often glass, maximizing space in the two-storey home that sits on a slim urban lot just 24 feet across. “We don’t need any more space,” says the architect, who works with award-winning architect Christopher Simmonds, sharing the same love for designing with glass and light.

There is storage for toys for his two young children and when it gets too messy, he pulls down the blinds, providing privacy. Outside, the decidedly modern house features a small garden, earning praise from the city for being a good example of infill housing.


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