Posts Tagged ‘development

04
Feb
10

Does Terry Fox Drive really need extending?

As I browsed through the Ottawa Citizen yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice this article, on the extension of Kanata’s Terry Fox Drive being fast-tracked despite a number of environmental concerns. I instantly knew I had to look it up and attempt to understand why it’s so important this particular project has to be pushed through and I came away baffled.

Helpfully, the extension already seems to be marked on Google Maps, so it was easy to get an idea for what the new roadway would look like. As described in the article, it will arc through forest, marsh, and farmland as it makes it’s way from the neighborhood of Kanata Lakes to Morgan’s Grant. And so far as I can tell, it will serve no useful purpose besides creating sprawl and potentially destroying a rare habitat. Not good, to say the least.

The endangered Blanding's Turtle, which can be found in marshland west of Kanata. Image from Canadian Wildlife Service, by Ryan M. Bolton.

I think what we have here is a case of the Greenbelt doing more harm than good for the environment. While I’d rather see the urban boundries of Ottawa’s suburbs frozen where they are for the time being, for growth to be concentrated inwards, it would seem to me that if Kanata has to expand, there are far more suitable areas to the east. There’s a lot of farmland out there, especially north of the 417, land that is for some reason protected, while the land to the west is not. While I hardly advocate paving over farmland for suburbia, it can’t be denied that there is a lot more of it around Ottawa compared to rare turtle habitats.

What strikes me about this is that we seem to have some very screwed-up priorities here. Is it really this important to build a shiny, four-lane monument to urban sprawl? Surely there must be some other piece of infrastructure that this stimulus money can be spent on—something that won’t harm an endangered species. That’d be something I could go for.

02
Feb
10

Trains to return to Ottawa’s Union Station?

Ottawa’s Union Station: it’s a majestic old building, a half-scale replica of New York City’s old Penn Station, and unfortunately underused. Since 1966, when the National Capital Commission removed rail from downtown, the building has been used as a government conference centre, rather than a hub for rail travelers. However, a recent article on CBC News reported that trains may yet return to Union Station, in the form of a station on the new light rail system—taking the place of the Rideau\Sussex station in the proposal.

Ottawa's Union Station. Image by spotmaticfanatic on Flickr.

Certainly as it stands right now, Union Station is a tragically under-appreciated piece of infrastructure. As a government conference centre, the average Ottawan has few opportunities to go inside the structure. As the main hall of a transit station, commuters would be able to use this suddenly re-opened public space on a daily basis.

But in my mind, that’s not all that could be done with the station. I don’t know the interior dimensions of the building, but I would imagine that a transit station would only take up a small portion of the available volume, and other transportation infrastructure (commuter rail, and intercity bus and rail) probably won’t be able to serve the location, meaning no space would need to be set aside for them. So with that in mind, what could be done? One of the things that Ottawa lacks is a real civic place, one to celebrate Ottawa itself. Over the years as a national capital, the federal government has eclipsed the city, and it’s only been in the last few decades that we’ve really begun to find our identity as a municipality instead of as a capital.

So why not this: in our hypothetical, future train station, you walk in the front doors to a lobby, with transit facilities to one side, and perhaps benches and chairs with the odd cafe or two along the edges of the area. Taking up the rest of the space inside could be a City of Ottawa museum, celebrating our history, from rough logging town to major Canadian metropolis. It could even include artifacts that tie in with the location, like the old streetcars OC Transpo is slowly attempting to restore. Granted, we do already have the Bytown Museum, but it could still comfortably fill a role as a museum predominantly about the canal, while the Union Station museum could be about the rest of the city.

This, of course, is just a suggestion—a museum is just one option, but the overriding point is that we may have an opportunity to create a fantastic new public space, and the standard option of renting out space for shops and restaurants would be a tragic waste. The simple return of transit, of course, would benefit the building enormously by itself, but I can’t help but feel we could do so much more. These kinds of opportunities only come along once and a while, and I think it’s important to jump on it when and if we can.

15
Oct
09

Book review: Wrestling with Moses

Hello again, everyone. It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here, other obligations (namely a certain other publication that I write and edit for)  having taken up a fair amount of my time lately. However, I recently finished reading Anthony Flint‘s Wrestling with Moses, and felt I needed to share my thoughts, as it’s a fascinating read on the roles of both citizen activism and top-down development schemes in North American cities.

Wrestling with Moses, by Anthony Flint. Image copywrite Random House, Inc.

Wrestling with Moses, by Anthony Flint. Cover image copywrite Random House, Inc.

As you can probably tell from the cover, the book has nothing to do with Ottawa in any direct sense, but it’s an interesting read nevertheless. It tells the story of famed urbanist Jane Jacobs‘ battles with urban development czar Robert Moses during the 1950s and 60s in New York City. Jacobs and Moses squared off several times, notably over the redevelopment of Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village, and over the construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Flint recounts the history of these conflicts by interweaving biographical details about the lives of both Jacobs and Moses with the details of each of the fights.

The contrast between the two figures is incredible, with Moses epitomizing the auto-centric, developer-friendly attitude that reached its height during the period following the Second World War, and Jacobs the grassroots, community-first urbanist theories which many people—myself included—subscribe to today. Flint is able to tease out how both of these figures came to their influential positions (Moses through careful political maneuvering, Jacobs  through cultivating the support of her fellow city-dwellers) and how their came to their respective beliefs. We’ve seen both these forces act upon the history of Ottawa, as well, with the National Capital Commission taking on a Moses-esque role—witness the destruction of LeBreton Flats, and the vast network of “parkways” that criss-crosses the capital region—and Jacobsian community forces leading to the rise of neighborhoods like the Glebe and Westboro.

What I find truly interesting and refreshing about Flint’s approach to this somewhat-familiar urban conflict is that he does not vilify Moses to any great extreme, nor does he deify Jacobs, both of which are far too easy to do. Instead, he presents them as people—neither was perfect, and neither was entirely right nor wrong. In the case of Moses, Flint makes the interesting point that while it’s easy to focus on his large-scale failures, like the aforementioned battles with Jacobs and the Cross-Bronx Expressway, he also did a lot of good for New York City, opening hundreds of public parks and swimming pools, and it’s impossible to deny that even amidst the backdrop of the Great Depression, he was able to get infrastructure built. Of course, he did so while railroading it past communities and with little regard for things like public transportation, but Flint is still able to elevate the man beyond a two-dimensional cartoonish urban villain.

On the Jacobs side of the equation, while it is impossible to deny her far-ranging influence on urban planning and urbanist thought, Flint still acknowledges some of the weaknesses in her ideas, like the fact that she was never able to truly deal with the problem of gentrification. In addition, he also makes the case that Jacobs-style community activism can sometimes go too far, blocking projects that would otherwise be good for cities and neighborhoods, or neutering them so that their impact is thoroughly mediocre, and neither positive nor negative. Ultimately, Flint argues that the best way to plan cities may be by reconciling the two viewpoints—those in charge of developments need to work with communities, but communities must also work with those in charge to ensure that projects meet and adapt to their own needs.

Overall, Wrestling with Moses is an engaging read, and an excellent history of how Jane Jacobs was able to change the face of urban planning through her work in New York City. Flint’s own viewpoints are mostly unobtrusive until the final chapter, where, his history complete, he allows himself to ruminate on the impact of Jacobs and Moses. If you’re at all interested in the history of urban planning in North America, and are curious how these now 40-year-old ideas apply to the modern city, then I highly recommend picking this one up—you won’t regret it.

22
Sep
09

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.

16
Sep
09

One step forward…

If you’ve ever wondered why it seems like nothing ever seems to get done in Ottawa, look no further than this story. Essentially, John Martin, a Glebe business owner, has filed a legal challenge against Lansdowne Live, claiming that it violates the City’s purchasing bylaws.

Now, I’ve remained quiet on the latest version of Lansdowne Live until now, but I think it’s time I said my piece. I’ll get back to the legal challenge in a moment, but first, let’s take a look at the plan itself.

The proposed site plan for Lansdowne Live

The proposed site plan for Lansdowne Live

So what do I like about the plan? Well, it’s mixed use—in accordance with the City’s master plan and stated goals to control sprawl through intensification. It adds a significant amount of greenery what is currently a concrete wasteland, preserves the heritage aspects of the site, provides space for the farmer’s market, and will provide amenities that the area is currently lacking, such as a modern movie theatre (which is Ottawa’s urban core sorely lacks). Of course, it will also completely refurbish Frank Clair Stadium, which is currently in a fairly decrepit state.

Frank Clair Stadium looking rather worse for the wear before a Gee-Gees football game on Sept. 6.

Frank Clair Stadium looking rather worse for the wear before a Gee-Gees football game on Sept. 6.

It isn’t a perfect plan, of course. The fact that it’s being built by a single developer means that the site could become very architecturally repetitive, which could make the site a little less interesting. It’s also somewhat unsettling that public land will be used for a private development, but then again it’s not as if the land will actually be sold, and it’s not like greenspace will be paved over or anything like that—in fact, it’s much closer to the opposite.

Overall, it’s a nice, solid plan that aims to accomplish quite a lot in a thoroughly urban manner. It isn’t flawless, but it also seems as though early fears over big box stores and power centres were rather unfounded.

The elephant in the room, meanwhile, is the procurement process, and the legal challenge I opened this post with. I’ll grant that we haven’t necessarily taken the best route to get to this plan, and that the design competition probably should have been cancelled. But I do think many people are romanticizing the design competition process.

For one, it was not a design competition in the sense of architects simply submitting ideas for the site, and the City selecting the one they liked best. Rather, it was a “rights to develop” competion, meaning that developers would be coming forwards with plans for the site, complete with a financial plan: how to fund the redevelopment, and how to keep it viable afterwords. That’s why the Lansdowne Live plan was such a knockout when it first appeared, as there was very clear local financial backing, as well as a tenant for Frank Clair in a resurrected Canadian Football League franchise, something that no other developer would be able to offer.

Another aspect of the competition worth mentioning is the fact that any Request For Proposals would very likely have called for a site plan that included both Frank Clair Stadium and the Civic Centre, as the City did not have any plans to move either facility. As well, removing the stadium would cause Ottawa-Gatineau to become North America’s only metro with a population greater than one million with no large stadium facility—not a situation we’d want to be facing. The stadium is notably missing from Martin’s own proposal for the site, meaning it likely would have been rejected from the competition. Martin did propose building a stadium at Bayview instead, but there are far too many unknowns for that to be a viable alternative right now.

So while we may not have taken the ideal route to get where we are, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as disaterous as people like Martin and Clive Doucet are making it out to be. And I fear that taking legal action against the plan will lead to the delay of it’s implementation, while an extremely valuable piece of Ottawa’s infrastructure crumbles before our eyes. Furthermore, if it is blocked, then it will undoubtably be years before we see any action at the site, furthering Ottawa’s unfortunate reputation as a backwater that can’t seem to get anything done, and killing any hope of getting professional football and soccer into the nation’s capital any time soon. That’s a scenario that I’d rather not contemplate.

03
Sep
09

On developers

I’m going to refrain from comment on the new Lansdowne Live plan for now, mostly because there’s a lot of kneejerk reaction out there right now, and I don’t think I can say much at this point that will add anything to the debate. Maybe in a few days, but for now, I’ll be keeping quiet about it in this space.

That aside, watching the reactions has got me thinking about the way we think about large developers like Minto and Claridge in today’s cities. To read some of the comments on the Citizen and the CBC (and yes, I know, comments at online news sites do trend towards being overly hysteric, no matter the viewpoint) you would think that there is a vast conspiracy at play at City Hall, and that anyone who speaks up in favour of Lansdowne Live is obviously a plant charged with playing up the plan. This, I think, all stems from the fact that to some, developers are inherently evil and want nothing more than to steamroll over our precious land and turn it into money factories.

Now I’m not necessarily saying that developers are necessarily good, either—take Minto’s gargantuan sprawling subdivision planned for Manotick, for example—it’s more that to paint them solely with either brush is, frankly, a little ridiculous. The fact is, developers are important to urban places, whether we like it or not. Without them, cities would be stagnant, as civic projects can’t do everything, and nor should they. Someone needs to build new homes, condos, shops and offices and the average private citizen doesn’t have the assets to do so themselves, which ultimately leaves it up to the corporations.

What I’m trying to say here is that we, as urban citizens, need to rethink how we interact with developers just as they need to rethink how they interact with us. We want the places we call home to be vibrant, liveable spaces, whilst developers want to be able to turn a profit off of constructing new buildings. What we need, then, is more dialogue: communities should interact with developers to tell them what they want to see, while developers should interact with the community to ensure that they’re going to be building something that people actually want.

Fortunately, this seems to be happening in some cases. Take the Westboro Collection project, for example, where the developer has openly posted the community comments they recieved on their website (PDF warning). It’s a small thing, but I think it’s exactly the sort of step we need to be taking both to improve the dialogue surrounding future developments in this city, and to ensure that those same developments will improve the cityscape. That, in my mind, will be a key element in making Ottawa a place people truly want to live.

14
Aug
09

The City weighs in on Intensification

The City released an interesting educational video recently (it might have been today, I can never tell as the City doesn’t date anything on their website) on the role that LRT and intensification could play in the future of the city. You can find it here.

It’s about 15 minutes long, and it briefly covers a number of topics, including:

  • A brief history of Ottawa’s development and subsequent suburbanization
  • The problems that suburbanization has caused, and why intensification is important
  • The definition of intensification, and how it would affect Ottawa
  • Which areas of the city are best-suited to intensification
  • The consquences of not intensifying the city

It’s a surprisingly balanced video for a release by a government on an important piece of policy, and does a good job of covering many of the issues that are likely to come up for urban development over the next 20–30 years. It’s also rather interesting to note the tone of the video, and some of the arguements made, as it’s very clearly directed at changing the opinions of suburbanites. The video makes a strong financial arguement in favour of intensification, and notes that places like Kanata, Orleans and Barrhaven will require higher population densities before LRT can be built out to them—infrastructure bribery, I guess. It’s also fairly critical of the car-dependent lifestyle, and really plays up the importance of walkable neighborhoods.

At any rate, it’s an interesting glimpse at how the suburban inertia of development is finally starting to shift towards a new paradigm. It’s certainly a fascinating time to be an urbanist, as we watch cities come to grips with the reality of the future, and attempt to adapt to changing attitudes. This video certainly shows that even though we’re ahead of the curve as far as North American cities go, we’ve got a long way to go before we get where we’re going, even if we don’t necessarily know where that is.




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