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Planning committee approves controversial Baseline towers across from Experimental Farm


The City of Ottawa's Planning and Housing Committee has approved a plan to build two high-rise towers on Baseline Road, directly across the street from the Central Experimental Farm, despite concerns from the federal government about the effect that shadows cast by the towers would have on research.

A proposed project at 780 Baseline Rd. by Theberge Homes includes three towers at the Lonestar Plaza site. While the first 24-storey tower was previously approved, staff were directed last November to conduct further analysis of the second and third towers, which would be 24 and 32 storeys, respectively.

Despite concerns about shadows raised by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, however, committee approved the proposed project, with Coun. Riley Brockington dissenting.

"We believe that there is a research role for the farm but that research role may need to change," Coun. Jeff Leiper, chair of the committee, said Wednesday. 

"By approving some towers that cause some shadows, members of this planning committee and members of the city council are not convinced that that’s the nail in coffin of the Experimental Farm."

An amendment was made to allow a greater podium height on the buildings fronting Baseline Road, which could mean shorter towers, effectively reducing the amount of shadows on the farm. City planning staff were also directed to work with the developer and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada on a design for the buildings that would further reduce shadowing concerns before the official site plan application is filed.

City staff had recommended approving the project.

"The property is in close proximity to the Central Experiment Farm (CEF), a National Historic Site, which was considered as part of the staff review and recommendations. Comments have been received from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and identify significant concerns regarding the shadowing impacts of the proposed development on the Central Experimental Farm as a result of the proposed development," staff said in a report prepared for committee. "Notwithstanding these comments, the owner has submitted an updated Heritage Impact Assessment to demonstrate the proposed development's regard for the overall cultural heritage value of the Central Experimental Farm as defined in its Commemorative Integrity Statement. Staff have met several times with senior staff from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada between November 2023 and the writing of this report to find ways to mitigate impacts and address their concerns."

According to city staff, a report by Miller Engineering concluded the shadows from the proposed development, when it is fully completed, would not compromise the Central Experimental Farm's heritage attributes.

"The updated Heritage Impact Assessment includes an analysis of various massing options and design measures that were considered as part of the tower design, in part to mitigate shadow impacts on adjacent properties," the report for committee says. "Impacts to heritage resources cannot always be completely avoided and as such the City takes the approach of working to try to mitigate impact. In this instance, the design and orientation of the proposed towers have already been revised throughout the design process in part to mitigate impacts on adjacent properties."

City staff say the developer is encouraged to consider different design options that could help mitigate shadowing concerns even more.

"It was a good outcome," said developer Joey Theberge. "We were a little surprised a few months ago by the committee, but I think, over the last month and a half, we have worked hard together to come to a mutually beneficial decision." 

Theberge said the project will bring much-needed housing to the city. 

"The city wants to put bus rapid transit right down Baseline road and build a station. In order to build a station, you need to have housing right around it, just like LRT did. We feel this corner is the only area that we can actually get maximum density."

AAFC critical of report justifying towers

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada was highly critical of the report that said shadowing impacts would be minimal.

The report for committee includes several comments from AAFC that dispute the findings, citing errors in the Miller Engineering report that AAFC says are not supported by evidence.

"Review of the scientific literature cited by Miller Engineering has AAFC questioning the applicability in this case when you consider most the studies refer to growing plants in pots/greenhouses, not fields, and in tropical/Mediterranean climates not comparable to Canada. The report's narrative discredits the science that takes place in our fields (AAFC's outdoor laboratories) of which AAFC conducts for the production of food crops adapted to climate change," said an email, dated Jan. 23, 2024.

The federal department says shade that towers would cast would make the land "unusable for research" because of the variability of the shadows.

"Sunlight will vary on a square meter basis; meaning that test plots that are side by side or across a pathway from each other, will receive different amounts of sunlight during the growing season. When AAFC selects future varieties for farmer's fields based on yield tests done in research fields, variable shade makes assured selection impossible," it says.

According to research by AAFC, the shadows cast by the proposed towers would result in a significant amount of daily solar radiation being removed from active plant growth.

"The proposed additional towers will have deleterious and irreparable effects on the research lands on the north side of Baseline Road," AAFC says.

Knoxdale-Merivale Ward Coun. Sean Devine appears to agree, saying in comments in the report that he has concerns with how staff are interpreting the Miller Engineering report's conclusions.

"The report appears to conclude that increased shadowing would not have an adverse effect on the ability to grow crops on the site. That would be an acceptable conclusion if the Farm were simply that: a farm. But the CEF is a laboratory and any change in conditions has the potential to impact the comparability of data in long term studies," he said. "To simply say that certain crops could grow there, it seems to me, significantly misses the point."

Speaking Wednesday, Leslie Maitland with Heritage Ottawa hoped all parties could come to an understanding.

"We are encouraging Agriculture Canada and the city to work together to create protective measures that will direct and shape development in the farm," Maitland said. "We absolutely agree that development needs to happen. Ee need housing and we need public transit and mass transit, but it can be done in a way that protects the research value of the farm. I think they have offered a reasonable compromise that will help the developer reach his development goals while hopefully it will result in shorter buildings."

The municipal government is under increased pressure from the provincial government to meet aggressive housing targets. Premier Doug Ford has set a goal of 1.5 million new homes in Ontario by 2031 and has recently said funding earmarked for Ontario municipalities that have not met their housing targets would be reinvested into other cities.

The city of Ottawa's Official Plan calls for the majority of housing growth over the next two decades to be achieved through intensification — that is, the development of land at a greater density than currently exists, typically though multi-unit dwellings like row homes and high-rises.

The proposed project would result in the construction of 1,089 apartments and around 2,850 square metres of commercial space.

The proposal will rise to full city council for consideration on Feb. 7. 

--With files from CTV News Ottawa's Natalie van Rooy. Top Stories

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