Election time in Ottawa: Where do Somerset Ward’s candidates stand?

by Jack Hanna

The incumbent city councillor and her most visible challenger in the election part company on major issues such as tax increases and how high skyscrapers should soar.

Catherine McKenneyCatherine McKenney, 57, is seeking a second term as councillor for Somerset Ward. She says she wants to solidify lasting improvements in affordable housing, good transit, and better biking and walking in the city.

Her most visible challenger, Jerry Kovacs, a 64-year-old lawyer, says he wants to be a councillor who will stay close to residents to better address their needs.

Here is where the two stand on some of the foremost election issues.

Raising property taxes

The city has held property-tax increases to two percent in the past four budgets. Twice, McKenney voted against city budgets because, she says, they “did not adequately meet the needs of a growing city and downtown.”

She wanted a half-percentage-point higher tax levy each year. That, she says, works out to $20 more per year for the average homeowner. It would have purchased more affordable housing, cleaner sidewalks in winter, lower transit fares, and recreation programs for kids.

Kovacs says, “We need to be really efficient at spending what we have.” He vows to hold property-tax increases to two percent a year.

Skyscrapers: how high?

The maximum height of skyscrapers has emerged as an issue this election. That’s because, last summer, City council ignored a planning document for the district around Preston and Albert, where two LRT lines will meet.

The document, a secondary plan completed in 2013 with copious hours of volunteer work and input by residents, set a height cap of 30 storeys for that district. City council approved a tower more than twice that height, at 65 storeys. Residents were infuriated.

McKenney backed the losing side on council, voting against the development, which she describes as “the worst proposal I have seen in my four years on council.”

She dislikes it because it ignores the secondary plan’s height cap and would have loading docks facing the adjacent community.

Both McKenney and Kovacs say secondary plans, painstakingly developed by residents working with city planners, need to be respected.

However, Kovacs is no fan of skyscrapers, while McKenney could be.

Jerry KovacsKovacs says the sky-blue colour on the top half of his election signs is symbolic. “When I look up,” he says, “I don’t want to see towers; I want to see the sky.

“How can you preserve the character of a neighbourhood with a 65-storey tower?”

McKenney says tall buildings, even 65 storeys, might be okay. She says in some cases a tall, elegant building could be better than a shorter, wider one.

“Height is neither good nor bad,” she says. What counts is how a building affects people on the ground. How much shadowing is there? Do the ground floors provide good public spaces and amenities?

However, she says, if city council decides to embrace very tall skyscrapers, it needs to be honest with citizens and change all secondary plans to allow soaring heights.

Affordable housing

The candidates see eye to eye on the need for a lot more affordable housing in the heart of Ottawa, saying the city faces a crisis. Both would require developers to allocate up to 25 percent of the units in a new project to low-income housing (last April, Ontario granted municipalities this power).

As well, both favour giving city-owned land free or cheaply to non-profit groups building affordable housing.

McKenney emphasizes that some housing needs to be “deeply” affordable, for people who need big subsidies. As well, she says, affordable housing needs to be near transit hubs—bus or LRT stations.

Transit

Both candidates want to improve transit in the heart of Ottawa, first of all by freezing fares.

Kovacs also wants to allow riders to make short trips on bus or LRT around downtown Ottawa for free, by introducing a free-fare zone (such as exists in Calgary).

McKenney wants to bring new life to Prince of Wales Bridge (located west of LeBreton Flats). She wants to use the idle train bridge to establish a passenger-train link tying Gatineau into the Ottawa LRT system.

Other candidates

There are two other candidates for Somerset Ward in the October 22 election, civil servant Arthur David and university student Merdod Zopyrus. Neither responded to requests for interviews for this article.

 

Jack Hanna is the co-chair of the CCCA Planning Committee.