Heritage plan offers more teeth to keep 'monster homes' out of Rockcliffe (Joanne Laucius, Ottawa Citizen)

A new heritage conservation district plan for Rockcliffe Park may help prevent “monster homes” in Ottawa’s most prestigious neighbourhood. 

The draft plan, which will be before the city’s built heritage subcommittee next Thursday, is an update to previous guidelines set out in 1997 under the Ontario Heritage Act, when the entire village was designated a heritage district. Rockcliffe, previously an independent municipality, amalgamated with the City of Ottawa in 2001.

Rockcliffe is not an architectural conservation district. Rather, its heritage value lies in the relationship of its buildings to the natural environment. 

 The village was laid out in 1864 according to the informal English “picturesque” tradition, featuring a combination of large and small lots, narrow curving roads with no curbs or sidewalks, mature trees and generous green space. But to the dismay of some residents, Rockcliffe’s leafy cachet has also attracted newcomers who wanted to build very large homes.

“We had a problem with what we call ‘monster homes,'” said Brian Dickson, president of the Rockcliffe Park Residents Association. 

In 1995, for example, residents complained that high-tech titan Michael Cowpland’s 20,000-square-foot gold-windowed mansion looked out of place. However, the sprawling house with a 10-car underground garage met all zoning and bylaw requirements.

More recently, some homeowners and the residents’ association have opposed a proposal from architect Robin Fyfe to redevelop 575 Old Prospect Rd. The proposal would see two houses built next to a 1959 modernist house designed by architect Hart Massey. While the built heritage subcommittee turned down the proposal in 2014, planning committee and city council eventually approved it. The matter went before the Ontario Municipal Board in September. A decision has not yet been released.

Under the new plan, new construction has to be “compatible with, sympathetic to and (have) regard for the height, massing and setbacks of the established streetscape.”

All the properties in the district have been rated for their architectural, historic and landscape value, and each has been designated either “contributing” or “not contributing.” Those designated as contributing can only be demolished under extraordinary circumstances.

The new plan will enshrine heritage protection within the zoning bylaws, said Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Tobi Nussbaum.

“The guidelines have been useful, but they didn’t have enough teeth to for the satisfaction of most people,” he said.

If Rockcliffe’s new heritage conservation district plan is approved, questions remain, including whether the plan would cover proposals now underway.

Last month, Fyfe asked that his proposal be exempted if the plan is passed. The project has been in the system for two years. If the plan is approved, Fyfe said he would probably have to make some modifications.

He argues his proposal would actually prevent the construction of a “monster home.” The zoning bylaws currently permit a 6,600-square foot house to be built on the 18,000-square-foot lot. Fyfe’s proposal would see two relatively modest-sized houses, each about half that size. These would be more in keeping with the scale of home in Rockcliffe than a 6,600-square-foot house, he argues. The new plan doesn’t contradict that zoning, he points out. 

Susan D’Aquino, who lives in the Hart Massey House, says she wants clear and precise wording in the new plan. For example, the old guidelines said the retention of large lots was to be encouraged. But there was no definition of “large lots.” And the term “encouraged” is also not specific.  

“Every single word can be interpreted in every possible way,” said D’Aquino.

If it does what the residents’ association hopes it will do, the plan will put Rockcliffe in an enviable position compared to other neighbourhoods, where development has been a divisive issue. But Rockcliffe is in a position to do this because of its heritage conservation district designation, said Dickson.

The plan is a matter of managing change, not stopping it, he said. “We’re not opposed to change. Change is going to happen.”

The plan is a good thing for Rockcliffe, but it also benefits everyone who enjoys Ottawa, said Fyfe.

“I don’t think it’s a status thing. The benefit of the heritage conservation district plan is for everyone.”

Source: Ottawa Citizen