Community by Design
by Andrew Elliot
Glebe Report Issue: December 9, 2011
In last month's Glebe Report, the editor put out a call for ideas about our interpretations of the word "community" as it relates to our experiences of and in the Glebe. So I went out to see how the design of historic houses relates to our streetscapes, and how this in turn helps create a community.
One hundred years ago, most Glebe houses were built according to design rules - some strict, some less so - that were intended to create a special visual appeal between a private residence and the more public domain of the front yard, the sidewalk and the street. It is instructive to look at two heritage houses (the Glebe's only designated historic homes) to see what I mean.
One such place is Queale Terrace, built in 1906. It is a stunning two-storey solid brick structure with a flat roof, and five projecting square towers topped with pyramidal roofs, two-storey wood porches, and a saw-tooth plan. This overall plan accommodates the land's natural contours to create a visually charming streetscape, and allows for a high level of density on a small lot. Nearby, we can learn more from the Powell House at 85 Clemow Avenue. Completed in 1912 for William Powell, the developer of the nearby Clemow Avenue estates east of Bank Street, this house was designed by noted architect W.E. Noffke and is a fantastic example of the Spanish Colonial Revival architectural style. You will see that it displays a special interrelationship between its design, its landscaped property, the street, and to nearby parkland, creating a pleasing visual dynamic.
Currently, the Glebe is undergoing change from infill development. In the past few years, seventeen existing houses have been lost to new infill. While most do not appear to contribute to the existing historic patterns of the streetscape, a few do. What is "good" infill design? Consider the following basics: a small garage is tucked away to the side or back of the house; a front veranda provides the opportunity for an interchange between the sidewalk and the house; and a small driveway leaves room for a landscaped front yard of grass, trees and bushes. A new house on Thornton is designed in this way.
What constitutes a "bad" infill design? Consider the following basic features: a paved driveway covers most of the front lot; a windowless double garage creates a wall fronting the sidewalk and street; and an absent front veranda adds to a generally spare look. A new house on Strathcona Avenue is designed in this way. While one kind of infill design welcomes interaction with the com- munity, the other discourages it.
Ask yourself: What brought you here? What makes the Glebe different from other Ottawa neighbourhoods? And are the historic streetscapes worth protecting?
Can we impose on developers and homeowners some design rules for new buildings? Much of Centretown has a Heritage overlay zoning by-law, which encourages the retention of existing heritage buildings. If a new building is built, then it must be guided by the historic look of the existing streetscape. (For more information, see Heritage over- lay, Section 60, http://ottawa.ca/ residents/bylaw/a_z/zoning/parts/pt_ 02/index_en-06.html). Would this work on our streets?
Given that many other city communities have completed their design plans, it's time to start thinking about one of our own. However, to be effective, a community design plan requires a local planning commission that can and will enforce the spirit of the guidelines or zoning bylaws that enshrine the design in law. Are we ready to hold up our collective inheritance - our distinctive streetscape heritage - and protect it for the good of the community?
Let's talk to each other and find out.
Andrew Elliott is an archivist, writer and architectural historian.