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Gardens in the Sky

Hardy trees and flowers tucked onto private terraces and balconies add green space where once there was only concrete and traffic

Doug Casey and Charlesfort Developments has created a green terrace between twin towers at the Gardens.

When you own a house outdoor living is easy. When your backyard is a balcony, it's a bit tricky, unless you're lucky enough to live in one of the few garden-friendly condominiums popping up around the city.

Common in large European cities and in the United States, landscaped rooftops and balconies are slowly taking hold in Ottawa. "It's a new concept to Ottawa, and I think it's an important one," says Moneca Kaiser, owner of the residential design and construction company, Moneca Kaiser Design Build.

In this day of uniform streetscapes, Kaiser calls landscaping "a gift to the street" because it enhances people's sense of community. The importance of landscaping is magnified in a condominium because building occupants can often see into their neighbour's space.

"Scale is not important. Small can be enchanting and lovely," she says, adding that condo terraces or balcony gardens can be "wonderful little palettes in the city."

"I thought it was a nice little touch of cosmopolitan flair for Ottawa," says Murray Town, resident of the new Glasgow condominium on Powell Street and owner of one of the building's 11 private rooftop terraces.

"It's larger than any single room I have in the apartment," says the 41-year-old Canadian International Development Agency employee, who owns a two-bedroom, 1,040- square-foot suite two floors below the terrace.

His terrace is one of the largest available at the Glasgow, and he estimates his corner unit has about 17 feet by 11 feet of usable space in the form of a generous cedar deck lined on two sides by a wide ribbon of river stones and the waist-high walls of the roof.

"I think I was the first to buy one, so I had the pick of the litter," Town says, adding that he chose the $25,000 terrace for its size and view over Carling and Bronson avenues.

"I hadn't realized how treed this part of Ottawa is," says the Victoria, B.C., native, looking from his terrace onto the stately old treetops of the Glebe.

Murray Town bought a condo off Bronson Avenue and then spent another $25,000 for a rooftop terrace that is larger than any room in his condo. There is privacy, air and green views of the Glebe.

Town likes greenery, but unlike many of his rooftop neighbours he is not planning to introduce too many plants into his space, instead opting to keep it clean-lined and clutter- free. To date he has outfitted the unit with a wooden patio table and chairs, two relaxing chaises facing the street, and a couple of stone-topped sideboard tables under wrought-iron candle sconces. Eventually he will install a barbecue and perhaps an armoire for storage. A hot tub is not out of the question.

"The possibilities are endless," Town says. Outside the door of his terrace, the roof of the Glasgow looks like a regular hallway, only without a ceiling. River stone, potted shrubs and a stone walkway line the highwalled corridor, leading to the numbered doors of each terrace. Along with the personal spaces, the rooftop also contains a communal terrace complete with cedar deck, patio furniture and two gas barbecues. "It's a mini neighbourhood for the building," says Jason Grant-Henley, design director at Charlesfort Developments, builders of the Glasgow. "People use it like a social space, almost like a street."

The personal terraces have been popular with buyers who want private outdoor space, says Grant-Henley.

"This offered them garden space that could be as much work as they want it to be," he says. "It's their own little private backyard without the grass."

Further down Bronson, Charlesfort's twin condos, The Gardens, offer a different type of green space.

Instead of personal rooftop terraces, residents have access to a communal, open-air Zen garden, complete with a sweeping curved staircase, a path of earth-toned stepping stones set amidst smooth river rocks and lined with discreet lights, flowering plants, shrubs and trees. The stone walkway leads to a central water fountain, which sits in front of a meditative square pagoda.

Five units from the south building open directly onto this second-storey green courtyard, which connects the Gardens' two high-rise buildings. The condo's patios are sunken, with low retaining walls to provide privacy while allowing the occupants a view of the large terrace.

"Garden space can soften the urban edge to the buildings," says Grant-Henley, adding green space is often lost when building in an urban setting.

Jonathan Westeinde, managing partner of Windmill Developments, agrees. Companies like Windmill make it a point to incorporate nature in their urban designs. "It's part of our mandate," Westeinde says.

The company has plans for private rooftop terraces, and balconies suitable for gardens in The Currents, a green condo being built at Wellington Street and Holland Avenue.

Westeinde says people want outdoor entertaining space, but he predicts the popularity of rooftop and balcony gardening will grow slowly due to Ottawa's short planting and growing season. Many condo owners also bought because they wanted hassle-free living.

"The majority of buyers want maintenance-free, worry- free living," Westeinde says. "The majority are not green thumbs."

Terraces are the best long-term solution for condo buyers with a strong bent for gardening, he says.

At 700 Sussex, there is the promise of green, with each penthouse accessing a private rooftop terrace. There is also an eighth-floor mirrored communal garden complete with amur maples, Japanese yews, boxwood, about 1,600 periwinkles and a black-granite stream running down the centre.

Claridge vice-president Shawn Malhotra says cost is the main reason rooftop gardens haven't gained popularity faster.

"It's not like people have an extra $30,000 to $40,000 for a terrace," he says. "We prefer just having balconies."

That said, the structure of 700 Sussex allowed for rooftop landscaping, and Malhotra admits the availability of penthouse terraces was a big selling point for the plush building.

"People do have quite elaborate plans for those. There's a lot of room up there."

Nigel Ammet, project manager at Davis Landscape and Design, believes rooftop landscaping will increase in Ottawa but not because of individuals and their rooftop terraces.

Landscaped rooftops and balconies are common in large European cities, like this apartment complex in the 15th arrondissement in Paris.

"I see it coming more from the architects, engineers and the city planners," he says. "They're going to integrate it into the building system."

As the popularity of urban high-rise living grows, so will the need for shorter buildings in order to have pretty rooftops, says Ammet.

"It gives you greenspace downtown where there was no greenspace before."

His buildings have won design honours from the Ottawa-Carleton Home Builders' Association and in 2002, Builder Magazine named him developer of the year.

He has been a design darling favoured by urbanites and prime ministers. Former prime minister Joe Clark bought one of his townhomes on Creighton Street and outgoing prime minister Jean Chrétien and his wife, Aline, bought one of his customized semi-detached home across from Government House. He grins, shakes his head: "It's cool."

This time, he pooled the MacKintosh inspiration and the Glasgow School of Art with the design smarts of Ottawa architect Barry Hobin, designer Jason Grant-Henley, who is half of the Urban Keios team, and landscape architect Jerol Wheeler.

Mr. Hobin has interpreted the MacKintosh language of large-paned windows, flat roofs and small, curvy balconies in the Glasgow. The Casey team tweaked layouts after running a survey of potential buyers, asking what they wanted.

Inside, the Casey team delivered hardwood maple flooring, granite countertops, ceramic in the bathrooms, high ceilings, big windows, deep baseboards and open spaces. There are also two levels of underground parking and rooftop terraces.

Last weekend, buyers from their late 20s to early 60s sipped wine and bought space in the Glasgow. Sales ranged from $236,000 for a 762-square-foot condo up to $408,000 for a 1,403-square-foot two bedroom with a den.

Three buyers also paid $20,000 and $25,000 for a rooftop garden, including a young woman who said she didn't need a car or a parking spot, but wanted a rooftop terrace.

There are 22 private gardens with outlets for water and gas and a public garden with plans for lilac trees, flowers, benches and a nearby washroom.

The rooftop gardens were refined by Mr. Wheeler and encouraged by Mr. Casey, who first introduced them at the GlassWorks, a condo next to the Queensway and boasting inside ceilings soaring 17 feet.

"This is pioneer time again. We will see if there is an appetite for gardens," Mr. Casey said a few days before the launch. "I'm really pleased.

"The Glasgow is a second generation GlassWorks. You get better each time," he says.

One of the buyers is moving from Glassworks, which was finished a year ago and already has seen selling prices go from $240,000 to $290,000 on the resale market.

Occupancy for the Glasgow is spring 2005. Visit www.charles or call 233-0044 for information.

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