Kanata North is ready to become more than just big tech

Kanata North’s landscape is set for a transformation in the next two decades, which could see its expansive car parks replaced by a lattice of streets populated by residential buildings and restaurants – and serviced by autonomous vehicles.

The Technology Park, which describes itself as Canada’s largest, has been designated a “special economic district” in the city of Ottawa’s latest official plan.

This status opens up zoning rules that had limited what could be built in the area dominated by the 1970s office towers – with the aim of building a society that would attract talented workers, international investment and allow for experiments with just that technology that is being developed in the towers.

Jamie Petten, CEO of the Kanata North Business Association, said landowners and businesses want to meet the expectations of current employees and future recruits.

“The focus is on building a community that serves any range or generation of talent,” she said.

“What we most obviously lack is the next generation of early-stage talents, those who are coming out of university and looking for the first start in their careers.”

Jamie Petten, CEO of the Kanata North Business Association, stands near Legget Drive, a test track for autonomous vehicles in the technology park. (Francis Ferland / CBC)

Petten said they are looking for shorter commutes, places to build relationships and a life beyond their careers.

While 28,000 people work for the 540 companies in the tech park today, according to the business association, there are still 1,000 vacancies on its overall job board.

Petten said the new community includes the launch of satellite campuses at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, as well as locations where these students will be able to “live, work, play and learn.”

2,000 homes in the future

Don Herweyer, the city’s director of economic development and long-term planning, said staff recognized that there were nowhere near for newly recruited technicians to live and build their community, leading to the opening of planning rules.

“It’s pretty important for a lot of professionals starting their careers, so a lot of them lived in the downtown pre-pandemic and commuted out to Kanata North, and it affects those companies’ ability to attract talent,” he said.

The Kanata North Special Economic District is laying out two areas for densification around future bus high-speed transit stations on March Road. (CBC News / Google Earth)

The plan includes 2,000 new housing units at the two transit hubs located along March Road, at Station Road and Terry Fox Drive. Planners expect that density will help provide the customer base for restaurants and shops on the lower levels of condominiums and apartment buildings.

“To make it more of a real 24-hour place to live, you need the 1,000 cores [residential] devices in each hub, “Herweyer said.

There is already a proposal for a 30-storey apartment building attached to the Brookstreet Hotel, referring to the new special economic district in its application to the city.

A new development application proposes a 30-story apartment building next to the Brookstreet Hotel. (CBC News)

Shauna Brail, a professor at the University of Toronto at the Institute for Management and Innovation, said this kind of easing of planning rules and focus on intensification is part of a larger trend.

“It’s never too late, I do not think making an effort to reformulate a plan for a district that is already successful,” she said.

Toronto made its planning rules more flexible transform the industrial King and Spadina area into a mixed-use and residential neighborhood that attracted thousands of residents, she said.

Brail said some of the elements to Kanata North’s new plan are in line with what Amazon was looking for when it explored locations for its secondary headquarters. Ottawa was among many North American cities that bid, though Amazong chose New York and northern Virginia.

She noted in particular the access to highways, an international airport, proximity to universities and a walkable community.

‘Placemaking’ in car parks

Providing these facilities will not only require changes in building height, but will transform vast parking lots into a denser lattice of streets.

Herweyer said the change will not be immediate, nor will it be dictated by the city’s planning office. He said landowners and developers can incorporate private streets, sidewalks and trails into their new projects.

“It’s really place-creating,” he said. “To break down these large, massive places and over time have a finer lattice of streets and connections that will connect you to these destinations or transit, or the opportunities to meet or gather.”

A connected autonomous vehicle from Carleton University was parked in front of the Hub 350 on opening day last month. (Jean Delisle / CBC)

That recently opened Hub 350 will be an economic hub for a neighborhood where investors and new recruits will interact, and the area around the Brookstreet Hotel provides yet another opportunity for event and entertainment space, Petten said.

She said the new street scene will also serve as a 5G test site for local start-ups as well as established players in the park such as Nokia, Ericsson and Ciena.

“There is great interest in creating a viable community here in the technology park. One that is cohesive and one that shows all the good work that is being done here on a daily basis,” Petten said.

An important part of that for Petten is to establish a connected pilot program for autonomous vehicles within 18 months with the goal of moving people within the technology park and ultimately to and from the future Moodie LRT station.

Legget Drive has already been equipped with sensors to help autonomous vehicles navigate the test track.

Brail, who teaches urban studies, said using autonomous vehicles and 5G to differentiate between Kanata North “makes perfect sense” given the concentration of work already being done there.

She said testing autonomous vehicles will be important at the national level, but warns that combining it with intensification and more pedestrian activity could lead to conflict.

“You just have a conflict with a non-autonomous vehicle, it’s just that it’s a conflict we know,” she said.

Put the ‘cookie cutter’ away

The business association said both private and public investment will be needed to make these magnificent concepts a reality.

“Partnerships are key. To ensure that our existing group of businesses here in the park, their managers and landowners and property developers have a strong voice in the future on what this technology park looks like,” Petten said.

This traffic light at this intersection on Legget Drive has been equipped with sensors to help connected autonomous vehicles navigate the test track in Kanata North. (Francis Ferland / CBC)

The newly elected Kanata-Carleton MP Jenna Sudds was part of herding this new planning regime through the city of Ottawa’s official plan in her role as city councilor for the area.

“For me, it’s about liveliness,” she said.

Sudds said the success of the policy will rest on whether the technology park keeps its spirits up after the workday.

To help these changes along the way, the city is currently consulting on a pilot project with “Community Planning Permit” to be rolled out in 2023, which will simplify and accelerate development applications.

Sudds, who was the founding CEO of the business association before he was elected councilor, said the new policy will shift the focus from town hall to management from business and residents.

“These are no longer cookie-cutter policies that all other business parks have, but they are an opportunity to go to our society … to work out what those parameters are now. So power has definitely shifted in the other direction, “said Sudds.

Sudds said the federal government will have a role in funding research in the park, including for the development of autonomous vehicles.

Brail said the city’s work is not finished with this plan and that it will need both “masters and critics” as it attracts the necessary investment for the transformation.

She warns that there may be growing pains when people move into the neighborhood and discover they have needs that were not part of the original plans.

“The goal is to be proactive, but you also have to be prepared to be reactive,” Brail said.

“You have to prepare to do things at the last minute or after the fact.”

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