Urban Barrhaven?

When Ottawans think of dense, urban neighborhoods, chances are good that Barrhaven is not high up on the list. In fact, most of us probably wouldn’t even put it on the list in the first place. However, it seems that Minto is trying to change things with a proposed new town “centre” for Barrhaven. I’m chosing to put centre in quotation marks simply because this development is not so much central as it is stuck on the southern end of the suburb, but it is an intriguing proposal nevertheless.

First, let’s take a look at the proposed location.

Image courtesy of maps.bing.com

Image courtesy of maps.bing.com

Located south of Strandherd and west of Greenbank\Jockvale, this is very plainly a new development. There’s no real urban fabric on the site right now, as it’s merely a collection of fields south of a big box\power centre development. Unfortunately, this means that it is a greenfields development, and one that pushes the boundary of Barrhaven further south and west, which is the proposal’s most negative aspect. However, this is balanced by the nature of the proposal.

As described in the article linked, the development will be reasonably dense and mixed use, with 1,200 residential units. Even taking the most conservative population numbers (assuming one resident per unit) that represents a population density of about 95 people per hectare, putting it right up with many of Ottawa’s dense neighborhoods in the core. The addition of office and retail space, as well as nearby transit infrastructure with the southwest Transitway extension definitely makes this a very progressive proposal for an area like Barrhaven. And provided it complies with the City’s urban design guidelines, it could become a genuinely urban space.

I’m not without my reservations, however. It’s becoming more and more common for developers to claim they are building a “new downtown” somewhere—it’s currently happening all over the Greater Toronto Area in reaction to Ontario’s Places to Grow initiative—but it remains to be seen if any of them achieve a true urban experience. Perhaps the best case study we have for this kind of suburban downtown is Mississauga, which is quite dense and actually has one of Canada’s most significant concentrations of high-rise development, but is a long way from vibrant.

Downtown Mississauga. Image courtesy of sherrybrandy.

Downtown Mississauga.

(Image courtesy of sherrybrandy)

While dense, Mississauga is still fundamentally suburban in character. Roads are wide, and cars are still the prefered transportation mode, while buildings ignore the street. It’s a common shortfall of these kinds of developments, and one which the Minto development should strive to avoid. Mississauga is not a perfect analogue, of course, as there is no mall anchoring this development, and the overall height is lower, however there are lessons to be learned. Keep roadways narrow and stops for cars frequent, so that pedestrians have priority over traffic. Don’t forget the sidewalk, and have plenty of shops and buildings fronting directly upon it, while removing parking lots that face right onto the street.

Creating a downtown instead of having one growing organically is always a challenge. I think it can be done, given good design and by paying attention to the mistakes of the past. This is a potentially important development for Ottawa, and hopefully Minto can come up with something interesting and urban.

10 Responses to “Urban Barrhaven?”

  1. September 22, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Assuming they build it like they say they will (which, as you say, is a pretty big assumption), this will be an excellent draw to extend LRT to Barrhaven (hopefully from Baseline, not through Riverside South), as City Staff often claim the population isn’t dense enough to justify it in the suburbs. Maybe it will also spark intensification in parts of Barrhaven already built up.

    One can hope.

  2. 2 Chris B
    September 22, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    Check out Surrey City Centre for a comparable, although Surrey has the benefit of ALREADY having a LRT line there.

    • 3 David McClelland
      September 22, 2009 at 7:59 pm

      That’s another good example, thanks for pointing it out. I forgot that Vancouver also has some prominent suburban downtowns.

  3. September 22, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    Having grown up in Mississauga — I remember when those pink towers of Sussex Centre went up, and oh how swank they looked! — I think you’re pretty close to bang on.

    The gigantic Square One mall, right behind the photographer who took that shot, sucks up basically all the commercial activity in the area, and I’d be concerned that the big box stores at Strandherd and Greenbank will do basically the same thing in Barrhaven. Also, Square One mall has basically always been the centre of Mississauga’s transit system, right next to city hall and a big central library that’s been there since the early 1990s; the development in south Barrhaven won’t have that advantage.

    On the other hand, besides the big-road problem in Mississauga, the neighbourhood there is really bad at mixing uses. There’s a lot of residential density, and a fair bit of commercial density (between the mall for merchants and some mid-rise offices), but you rarely find both in the same block. The Minto south Barrhaven project doesn’t have to suffer the same problem.

    I also lived in Vancouver for a bit and Surrey could be a starker cautionary tale. “Downtown” Surrey isn’t bad, for what it is, but go one more stop to the end of the SkyTrain line and you’re in Whalley, which maybe doesn’t qualify as a slum only because it’s not dense enough. If the neighbourhood doesn’t take off on its own but has easy and cheap transit access to downtown, you can find yourself with a problem.

  4. 5 Pete
    September 27, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    This is the plan for the ‘town centre’ area of Barrhaven. The Minto development is just one part of that plan.

  5. 6 Sara
    September 28, 2009 at 9:06 am

    I saw the design proposals at an open house last week and it looks pretty interesting. The location will be great if the town centre is successful because it will hopefully draw Barrhavians into their own core, rather than just having the migration across the Greenbelt into the downtown core. If government offices could be pursuaded to move out to Barrhaven and Kanata, it would take a lot of stress off of transit.

    One concern that I had about the development was that the residential units will be only four storeys and will not be mixed in with storefronts. The city is allowing six storeys in this zoning, but anything above four storerys requires an elevator, and six storeys will really not cover the developer’s costs in adding the mandatory elevators. Maybe the city should rethink their height restrictions.

    The development will still be built on the maze-like traffic calming model which I think is a bit of a mistake since walkable areas are built on the grid system, where you can easily navigate an area block by block without a vehicle.

    If you put storefronts under residential and office space, the clients will come. Who would get in their car to go to the big boxes if they can traipse downstairs in their slippers?

    • 7 David McClelland
      September 28, 2009 at 12:22 pm

      Thanks for all the info. It’s unfortunate there will be no retail below the residences… that’s a big part of building vibrant neighborhoods. Residential-building fronts tend to be fairly bland, and do poorly at interacting with the street; hopefully, they’ll reconsider this.

      It’s also too bad they’re eschewing the grid pattern. Generally, it just makes the most sense—I find suburban mazes difficult to walk around. They’re counter-intuitive, and force you to walk farther than you would need to were it a straight line.

  6. September 28, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    Good point about grids. They should use a fused grid to lay out the place. I went to a talk at CMHC on fused grids a while ago, and it sounds like the ideal way to develop a new neighbourhood.

  7. 9 WJM
    September 28, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    The city should be using the powers it already has under Ontario law to abolish spaghetti-string, loops and swirls street layouts. Neighbourhoods built on such plans will never grow up (metaphorically or literally).

    If the city had any long-term vision — and they don’t — they would start imposing street layouts. (And God, no, not “fused grids”, which are just cuter versions of whirls and curls.)

  8. October 29, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    I hope it will be another “Perfectly Planned Community” like Avalon was (and still is by the way!). This is what Minto is good at : turning fields into suburbia.

    Could not agree more with WJM.

    Anyway, to me, location is everything, and over there, there is nothing.

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