Put up a parking lot? Condo slump raises questions about vacant properties

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Put up a parking lot? Condo slump raises questions about vacant properties

Gary Davis isn't your typical NIMBY complainer.

Intensification? Loves it. Tall condo buildings on his street? Bring 'em on.

"If they were building a tower now, it would be even better," he said of the property kitty-corner from his condo on Champagne Avenue.

"No one's opposed to having another tower here. We like it."

What Davis is actually upset about is that the empty land across from his home is being used as a temporary parking lot — against all city rules and an official vision for the neighbourhood as pedestrian and cycling friendly.

The dispute between residents, including the Civic Hospital Neighbourhood Association, and developer Mastercraft Starwood is heading to an Ontario Municipal Board hearing in June.

It's a scenario that's worrying some residents and councillors: what happens to empty lots that have been rezoned for tall towers, but where construction is now on hold — possibly for years — because of the slump in the condo market?

Parking lot against all city rules

Take the case of 115 Champagne Ave. South, near the intersection of Carling Avenue and Preston Street.

It's the location of Phase 2 of the "SoHo Champagne" development, built by Mastercraft Starwood. (CBC was unable to reach the developer after several attempts.)

In an agreement with the city, the developer promised to landscape the property if there was a delay in constructing the second tower of the project.

The city's official plans for the area calls for the neighbourhood to revolve around pedestrians and cyclists. There's even a footbridge nearby that crosses the O-Train tracks.

Instead, the company leased the property to nearby auto dealer Otto BMW, which is using the lot to park cars.

"Now we have cars moving in and out of here every day, and having a commercial car lot across the street is hardly an attractive feature of a residential neighbourhood," said Davis.

"You do the research when you're moving into a neighbourhood. And it was decided it would be residential, cycling, pedestrian, child-friendly. So people buy here … All we're asking [the developer] to do is to respect what they agreed to and what the city designed."

Part of the dispute involves the exact date that the developer is required to provide landscaping. But those technicalities aside, the property isn't zoned as a parking lot and the developer didn't have the right to lease it as one.

Mastercraft Starwood is now seeking a zoning exemption at the OMB.

'Put in something nice'

In the Champagne Avenue example, the city planning staff is backing residents and fighting the developer over the temporary parking lot. But that's not always the case.

Just this week, the planning committee approved Claridge Homes' application for a temporary three-year parking lot on George Street in the ByWard Market.

The property has been zoned for a 22-storey condo tower, but now that construction has been put off, Claridge wants to use the land as parking for its nearby Andaz hotel.

The local councillor isn't happy about the temporary parking designation.

"What happens is, they get continuous renewal and instead of being temporary lots, they become permanent lots," said Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury.

He points to the parking lot at the Notre Dame Cathedral that's been given temporary status — for the past 25 years.

The temporary lot issue is one that worries other councillors in inner-city wards where there are dozens of pre-zoned properties that are potentially years away from being developed.

"The easy thing for the developer to do is to build a parking lot on them," Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper said at this week's planning committee meeting, where he voted against Claridge's ByWard Market parking lot application. 

"Almost every month we hear from the community: put in a garden, put in a park, put in something nice. I know there are challenges, but we need to challenge the development community to do better."

City can't force active use of empty lots

The city does encourage developers to provide some sort of active use for their empty lots. One of the most popular asks from residents is for a temporary parkette.

And some property owners have obliged: there's one at Rideau and Charlotte streets; there's a promise to install a small park at 234 O'Connor St., a heritage building that council decided this week can be torn down.

"If their properties are animated in that way, that's definitely helping with the streetscape," said Lee Ann Snedden, the city's acting director of planning services.

But the fact is, the city can't usually force property owners to turn their empty lots into something interesting while they wait for the condo market to turn around.

Developers can board them up and can apply to turn them into temporary parking lots.

And occasionally, it's the community that puts the kibosh on an interesting use for a lot.

Mechanicsville residents weren't thrilled when developer Richcraft Homes floated the idea of a food-truck park on its property on Parkdale Avenue, across from the Tunney's Pasture government campus.

City not enforcing rules while waiting for appeal

In meantime, cars remain parked illegally at 115 Champagne Ave. South.

As per its usual practice, the city doesn't enforce its own rules while an issue is under appeal. 

Davis can't understand why that's the case and wrote to Mayor Jim Watson to say so.