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Towers poised for approval despite concerns they'll spoil farm research

An architectural rendering shows the Theberge Homes proposal for three towers at Baseline and Fisher avenues south of the Central Experimental Farm. One 24-storey towers has already been approved, with two more, at 24 and 32 storeys, now up for debate. (Theberge Homes - image credit)
An architectural rendering shows the Theberge Homes proposal for three towers at Baseline and Fisher avenues south of the Central Experimental Farm. One 24-storey towers has already been approved, with two more, at 24 and 32 storeys, now up for debate. (Theberge Homes - image credit)

UPDATE | Members of the planning and housing committee approved the zoning amendments to allow the 24- and 32-storey towers planned for the second phase of the Theberge Homes development on Jan. 31, 2024, with Coun. Riley Brockington dissenting. 

Three high-rise buildings could soon tower over Ottawa's Central Experimental Farm after city planners decided the shadows they'll cast won't compromise the agricultural research conducted there.

In November, city councillors approved one 24-storey tower to be built at 780 Baseline Rd., but they put off a decision on two others — at 24 and 32 storeys tall — to allow for more discussion with concerned scientists at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC).

"It was a lot of work, a lot of efforts on behalf of our group and AgCanada," said Joey Theberge, owner of proponent Theberge Homes. "I think it's a good outcome that was a good compromise between both parties."

But a report by city staff shows a rift remains.

"The proposed additional towers will have a deleterious and irreparable effect on the research lands on the north side of Baseline Road," AAFC wrote in its response, published in the same report.

The scientists have said the land that would be harmed by the lost sunlight is among the most fertile on the farm.

Gavin Humphreys and Malcolm Morrison are researchers at the Central Experimental Farm. Humphreys says two planned towers on Carling Avenue would interfere with vital wheat research he conducts.
Gavin Humphreys and Malcolm Morrison are researchers at the Central Experimental Farm. Humphreys says two planned towers on Carling Avenue would interfere with vital wheat research he conducts.

Gavin Humphreys and Malcolm Morrison are two of the researchers who've expressed concerns about the potential effects of neighbouring development on the Central Experimental Farm. (Arthur White-Crummey/CBC News)

City weighed conflicting opinions

The proposed development has already caused considerable consternation in the community and around the council table, with many looking for a balance between preserving the farm and encouraging much-needed development.

The mixed-use residential project has already gone through five iterations, with each new version responding to new concerns, said Theberge.

That included shaving a few floors off of the towers, though AAFC would have liked the developer to go further.

Theberge Homes hired a consultant to analyze the effects of the towers on heritage land. That expert argued the shade affect on the research fields would be minimal.

"The data supplied in their example studies does not support their conclusions," the AAFC wrote in its official response, noting that one of the studies quoted by the proponent was done in Indonesia "where solar radiation is almost 2x the amount in Ottawa."

Joey Theberge is the owner of Theberge Homes in Ottawa.
Joey Theberge is the owner of Theberge Homes in Ottawa.

Joey Theberge, owner of Theberge Homes, said there is still room for compromise. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

That contrast concerns Coun. Riley Brockington, whose River ward borders the development site.

"Of course, the proponent's report is glowing, saying yes, this can be done with very little impact," he said. "And here we have the actual expert and property owner ... saying something completely different."

He's also concerned that the two months provided for consultation weren't sufficient.

"I know how much we value these lands developments coming. So how do we proceed with development and respect the lands at the same time?" he asked. "I believe we can get there. We're just not there yet."

Losing development 'worst' outcome, councillor says

The Baseline development is the second group of towers to head to the planning committee in recent months, with plans by Taggart Realty Management to build condominiums at 1081 Carling Ave. already getting the go-ahead.

The majority of councillors decided at the time that their pledge to build housing trumped any concerns about shadows.

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Sean Devine, who represents the area in question, agrees with AAFC's concerns regarding the scientific risks, but he does not want the development scuttled.

"That would be the worst possible outcome, quite honestly. The city clearly needs development and we need development along our transit corridors," he said. "This is an important transit corridor, and I can't get that transit built unless I have significant development."

This map shows the transit corridors and planned developments that border the Central Experimental Farm.
This map shows the transit corridors and planned developments that border the Central Experimental Farm.

This map shows the transit corridors and planned developments that border the Central Experimental Farm. (CBC News Graphics)

Devine believes, however, that the discussion councillors had around the Carling property has already improved the tenor of debate and encouraged more productive discussions on all sides.

Theberge said he remains open to further changes, a sentiment Devine welcomes.

"There's a number of years where people can get together in good faith and try to push for a built form that is something that hopefully all parties can live with," Devine said.

Residents and AAFC scientists will get one more chance to air their concerns about the Theberge Homes development when the planning committee meets on Wednesday morning.

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Sean Devine gestures during an April 19, 2023 briefing on the city's plan to respond to recommendations in the 2022 LRT inquiry report.
Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Sean Devine gestures during an April 19, 2023 briefing on the city's plan to respond to recommendations in the 2022 LRT inquiry report.

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Sean Devine is worried about the shadow effect on farm land, but applauds the developer for remaining responsive to community concerns. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)