On one side of Bertrand Street in New Edinburgh, a neatly graveled laneway dotted with cars serves as a mostly hidden parking area bisecting Ivy Crescent and Vaughn Street.
On the other side of Bertrand, a tangle of half-century old trees grows into a mish-mash of fences that occasionally give way to the odd shed plopped into the middle of the block.
It is right in the middle of that knot of fences and forest that Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke wants to park his car.
It’s technically a road, so he has a right to do it. Moreover, the city says it is better planning to use the backyard laneway for cars rather than build a garage out front.
The different evolution of the two sections of laneway between Ivy and Vaughn illustrates the challenge the city faces as it tries to encourage builders to use back lanes for vehicle access and parking. Some laneways have a long history of being used as driveways, while others have been abandoned and turned into de facto backyard extensions over time.
But if it’s a roadway on the city’s books, a resident has the right to use it to access their property. That’s the case with Lütke’s new Ivy Crescent home, which is currently under construction.
Lütke’s architect, Ottawa infill designer Andrew Reeves, spoke on his behalf. Reeves said he was excited by the possibilities that came from changes the city’s new infill design guidelines.
“It’s a lot more flexible if you don’t want garages,” said Reeves, whose firm is called LineBox Studio. “I wish every property we had could have a laneway.”
Lütke is so committed to this urban-planning ideal that he’s spending around $20,000 to survey the laneway and pay for lawyers and staff to work on getting the lane re-opened, Reeves said.
So far, neighbouring property owners aren’t as enthusiastic.
Kathryn Verey, who lives on the Vaughn side, said neighbours on her street aren’t too happy about the idea.
Verey said the residents “don’t want to cause a big fuss” yet, because there are so many unanswered questions, but she was surprised at how little direction city policies contain about reinstating laneways that have been left unmaintained.
So far, Lütke is only asking for the laneway to be reopened until it reaches his house, which would affect three neighbouring properties east of Bertrand. But Verey sees it as “the thin edge of the wedge” and said it’s only a matter of time until there is a request to extend the laneway through the entire block. If that happens, “it will get pretty heated,” she said.
While most of the residents in that block probably know there is technically a laneway in their backyards, Verey said there should really be some sort of statute of limitations on whether the city can push forward with re-opening it if it has been left unmaintained for a long time – in this case, around 50 years.
“It’s a bit of a double standard from our point of view,” she said.
POLICY IN THE WORKS
In an effort to discourage developers from building long lines of infill homes with garages on the first floor, the city’s new guidelines for infill design encourage builders to use those laneways for vehicle access and parking, rather than the front yard.
Another new policy is expected in 2013 that will look at laneways in more detail. The city and planning committee chairman Coun. Peter Hume confirmed a laneway policy is in the works, but city planners refused to talk about the new policy before it is completed and presented to the planning committee.
Work on the policy has been underway for three years, but it’s taking a long time because the issue is so complicated, Hume said. Occasionally, a proposal to re-open a laneway will accompany a site plan for a new house and those situations almost always breed controversy, Hume said.
Residents get touchy about the city reclaiming the land for vehicle access, even though they have illegally expropriated it for their own use, Hume said.
It is also complicated because laneways are in such various states of repair, he said.
“Some are passable, some aren’t. Some function really well and some don’t.
“Protecting them is the goal, but the question is how to protect them,” Hume said.
The city’s push to encourage use of laneways won’t be easy, Reeves said, but it’s needed.
“It’s a bit of a daunting task, but I commend the city, because I think they are on the right track,” Reeves said.
The first step is informing residents that their property abuts a laneway and preemptively re-opening laneways that have been encroached on, before a new home is even proposed, Reeves said.
“I hope people start understanding when they look at these things that there aren’t just negatives of reinstating laneways but the positive of what it does for your community and what ability it offers architects and developers to do more sensitive buildings and more context-sensitive buildings,” he said.