Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ottawa Greenbelt Development Under Review

For the first time, the City of Ottawa has identified more than 13,700 acres of the Greenbelt, worth about $1.6 billion, that could be developed without damaging the integrity of the capital's most treasured natural landmark.

The land, about a quarter of the 49,400-acre (20,800-hectare) belt, is enough to provide more than 20 years of urban land for housing and employment if the National Capital Commission decides to open it up for development.

It is the first time since the Greenbelt was created in the 1950s that a government body has put out a serious proposal on developing property that has been kept immune to development. It is also the first time that anyone has put a figure on its value. Assembled for $40 million (in 1966 dollars), about 85% of the belt, made of up of farms, woodland, wetland, trails and scrubland, is undeveloped. Today, shorn of the environmentally sensitive lands that are virtually untouchable, the Greenbelt has about 21,500 acres (8,746 hectares) of theoretically developable land.

Those 21,500 acres are worth $2.5 billion, a city estimate based on the going market price of $120,000 an acre for urban land. The city believes that, realistically, only 13,700 acres (5,560 hectares) can be developed without doing lethal harm to the Greenbelt as a whole.

Ian Cross, author of the white paper and the city's manager of research and forecasting, says in the end, the fate of the Greenbelt will be decided by the NCC, which owns and manages the land. However, it is useful for the coming debate on the future of the city's most prized natural asset to ask whether the Greenbelt envisaged by French planner Jacques Gréber almost 50 years ago is still relevant.

Right now we are building on farmland outside the urban area and the question is, does it make sense to protect agricultural land in the Greenbelt when we continue to build farther out? "The primary purpose of the Greenbelt was to contain urban development, but that is gone. It didn't work. Building sustainable communities in the Greenbelt may be the appropriate evolutionary development.

In its white paper, the city laid out three development options for discussion as the federal government considers the future of the once sacrosanct belt.

The options are:

- Corridor development along major roads in the Greenbelt such as Highway 417 in the west, Highway 416 to Barrhaven and Highway 174 to Orléans.

- High-density mixed-use development along existing or planned rapid-transit lines such as the east and west sides of the Woodroffe transitway, south of Hunt Club Road, to encourage high transit use.

- Extension of urban land into the Greenbelt in existing neighbourhoods in areas such as north and south of Hunt Club west and the west side of Orléans along Innes Road.

The Greenbelt has long been treated with such reverence that it was considered taboo to contemplate any development on it beyond the public institutions such as the Ottawa Airport and research centers that call it home. A series of experts' reports, including one recently from the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, have all said the Greenbelt has fuelled sprawl, instead of containing it. Last year, NCC chairman Russell Mills became the most influential voice in the city to advocate some strip development along the Greenbelt to reduce urban sprawl. And when she announced the NCC's review this spring, chief executive Marie Lemay said "everything is on the table. You've got to ask the basic question: Is the use we have now what we want for the next 10 to 15 years or are there parts where we want something different?"

But others, prominent among them Larry Beasley, a noted urban planner and former chief planner of Vancouver, and Environment Minister John Baird, oppose development in what they consider an important part of the city's heritage. Mr. Baird vowed to fight any such move.

The white paper notes that with 141 kilometres of city roads, 43 kilometres of water pipes and 39 kilometres of sewer pipes running through the Greenbelt, the cost to the city and to commuters of continued expansion beyond the belt is running high. The extra travel through the Greenbelt during the peak period costs drivers $60 million annually. It also costs the city an extra $10 million a year to run buses through the Greenbelt to outlying areas. The cost of vehicle emissions is incalculable, Mr. Cross says. For all those reasons and more, he says, it makes sense to put the Greenbelt into the equation so that whatever the final decision is, all the issues will have been thrashed out.

By the Numbers:

49,400 - Total number of acres in the Greenbelt.

21,500 - Number of acres of theoretically developable land in the Greenbelt.

13,700 - Number of acres that could be developed without affecting the integrity of the natural landmark.

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