Up until 1965, you wouldn't find a building taller than the Peace Tower in Ottawa. Federal and city regulations banned developments over 92 metres to preserve the skyline dominance of Parliament Hill.
The rule still exists in Ottawa's immediate downtown area to help protect the classic silhouette. But, outside the downtown core, almost 25 buildings across the city are either already built or nearing completion in the next few years that will eclipse that 92-metre mark, including the 45-storey (147-metre) Claridge Icon, set to be the city's tallest residential condo when completed this year.
Ottawa has become the latest city in Canada to start building up.
"It's just a manifestation of keeping up with the times," says Alain Miguelez, a project manager for community planning with the City of Ottawa.
Mr. Miguelez says the tall buildings going up in areas such as the Lebreton Flats and Little Italy reflect the rapid growth of a city that now has a population of more than one million, with a light-rail transit system coming online later this year.
There is an appetite for bigger projects in Ottawa. Condo sales are booming, with sales up 20 per cent in 2017. The city's median income, at more than $86,000, is the highest in Ontario. Add to that low unemployment, just 5.9 per cent, and the new transit system, and Ottawa is ripe for sky-high developments, says Rick Eisert, a realtor with ReMax/Hallmark Realty Group and a past president of the Ottawa Real Estate Board.
Large condo projects such as Icon were bound to come, Mr. Eisert says. "We knew it was a matter of time. It's a function of the developers where they can put these tall, massive buildings. They're going to have the infrastructure around it and have all the amenities that people are going to require."
An increasing population density drawn to the new transit corridor and living in "essentially, vertical subdivisions," is a good thing, says Councillor Catherine McKenney, as long as the City remains steadfast in making sure the surrounding amenities are developed as well.
"It's one thing to tell people that they can raise a family in a condo unit," she says. "But not if there's not a recreation centre nearby; not if there aren't the amenities and good space for families to park bikes and store strollers and have the daycare available."
The anticipated development of tall condo buildings is a recent addition to Ottawa's real estate landscape.
The city's attempt at "height control," as Mr. Miguelez describes it, may have had a dampening effect in the past. "The way these controls work is that permitted heights rise as you get farther away from the Peace Tower, so by the time you get to Gloucester Street, you can be in the vicinity of 30 storeys … but that's about as tall as you'll get in the historic core," he says. "In total, you're looking at about six blocks south of Wellington Street, roughly between the Byward Market and Bronson Avenue, that fall within this height control system."
Mr. Eisert says that, until 2010, Ottawa was very conservative in terms of development, as builders would only put shovels in the ground if they had presold 75 per cent of a building. But, "there was always a demand for condominiums."
About eight years ago, a group of developersbuilt some condos on spec and "did very well," he says, because they took advantage of pent-up demand. That first round of condos were sold out in short order, but there wasn't as much demand for the second round. That resulted in an excess inventory in 2013 and 2014.
By last year, the remaining inventory was sold amid swelling demand, Mr. Eisert says.
"We're back on a regular cycle. There is going to be requirement for new development because Ottawa is a thriving city," he says. "People are discovering Ottawa. It's a great option not only within Canada to move here but also for foreign people moving into Canada."
Mr. Miguelez says the influx of young people is not just because "it's a nice place to raise a family."
"It's an exciting city. It's an exciting place to be," he says. The high-rise condominiums now under construction, many of which are near the new transit stations, are a reflection of the strong demand. "[They] wouldn't be built otherwise."
In addition to the Claridge Icon, Trinity Group Inc. is building a group of three towers ranging in height from 50 to 59 storeys near the planned Bayview light rail station. The first development outside of Toronto by developer Sam Mizrahi, the 12-storey luxury condo at 1451 Wellington St. W., designed by IBI Group, is going up in Westboro, about 10 minutes from downtown. And the 23-storey ArtHaus, which bills itself as the first mixed-use hotel/art gallery/condo building in North America, is to be completed this year, adjacent to the Rideau Centre shopping mall and minutes from the Byward Market.
Those buildings – attached to well-known developers in prime locations – are dubbed "status properties" by realtor Daniel Warchow, with Royal LePage Team Realty in Ottawa.
"The developers are noting that there is, perhaps, a market to be had [in Ottawa]," he says. "Developers generally have positive experiences here in Ottawa with local government. Those developments, they become star properties. They have cachet. They tend to sell well at very good price points."
Derek Nzeribe, the regional director of marketing and business development for Milborne Group, a Toronto-based real estate sales and marketing company, that includes ArtHaus as one of its clients, says that, although there are a lot of condos going up in Ottawa, ArtHaus is one that found opportunities for first-time homebuyers, investors and end-users.
Mr. Nzeribe says ArtHaus took cues from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. While MOMA has apartments and an art gallery, ArtHaus will feature an art gallery, 14 floors of Ottawa's first Le Germain Hotel, and eight floors of condos. The first occupants will move in this March.
Alexandra Serafini of DevMcGill, the developer of ArtHaus, says there was a good fit for this project in Ottawa. Condominium owners will have their own lobby, elevator, gym, and rooftop terrace separate from what is available to hotel guests.
"It's a new, urban feel," Ms. Serafini says. "When people finish work, people will stay downtown to enjoy downtown."
The National Capital Commission announced big changes were coming to Ottawa's downtown in late January. A $4-billion deal will see the Lebreton Flats, less than 10 minutes from Parliament Hill, get developed to include a new stadium for the city's National Hockey League franchise along with shopping, transit, and residential buildings.
(Mr. Miguelez says the Lebreton Flats development won't be affacted by the city's height controls, both because of its distance from Parliament Hill and because the land is low-lying. As well, there are, "protected views of the silhouette of Parliament Hill from a few vantage points identified in our official plan.")
Mr. Eisert says condos would be a good fit to that area, especially with access to the new transit system. "It's been 60 years and [the LeBreton Flats are] finally getting developed to what it should be. I think it's going to revitalize a lot of things."
The first thing to be revitalized is transit, which is adding a light-rail system through downtown to its current bus network. The first phase of the new LRT, the 13-stop Confederation Line, is expected to open this November and connect to the existing five-stop Trillium Line. Fully 23 per cent of Ottawans use transit as their main means of transportation, more than any other city without a subway in Canada.
"With the graduation of transit service to rail, you're seeing a new generation of buildings that are a notch up in sophistication," says Mr. Miguelez, who points to the 45-storey Icon as one of many that will make up the new area around Carling Station on the light-rail route.
"The Icon is an element you'd see from the [highway] coming in from Montreal. Basically you're driving in and you'll see this tower … and it will call you to a place."