Federal Modesty

Tomorrow, a government agency will expropriate Centretown. Then, they’ll bulldoze it.

Ottawa’s downtown area isn’t befitting a G7 capital. Ramshackle rowhouses and concrete condos aren’t built for a capital city. There’s nothing there that brings pride to a great nation like Canada. The government wants a Centretown that is built for all of Canadians. When tourists, not to mention foreign dignitaries, come to our city and make their way from Confederation Square to Confederation Boulevard, they don’t want to be confronted with haphazard development born out of an old logging town. Centretown as we know it isn’t really necessary anymore. The government will remake it into Confederationtown. There’ll be so much more pride.

This will cause the displacement of thousands of people, sure. It’ll be the destruction of a community, our heritage and maybe a bit of common human decency, but it’s necessary if we’re to build the type of capital that is sufficiently representative and reverential to our dominion. This is really what our true heritage is.

It’s not logging. It’s not the great fire. It’s not the flu epidemic. It’s not families struggling to survive as fathers are off “protecting the country”. It’s not about people who have made lives here, built this city or helped others in the community.

Ottawa is about Canada. The town is subservient to the crown. This city is to be used for the aggrandizement of the nation. Residents can move elsewhere. There are suburbs. And if you don’t like that, there’s the Glebe or Vanier (for now) or Hintonburg.

Tomorrow, Centretown–Confederationtown–belongs to this great nation. What patriot could disagree?

Next week, the federal agency will sell Confederationtown to the owner of a sports team…or maybe a circus. There will be nods to city-building (a few tastefully-erected residential units), but this will be about using this land–that clearly and rightfully belongs to the nation and the government–as a monument to our great land. We’ll have shopping! And cars! And maybe some weirdly-positioned amusement venues!

Confederationtown can’t possibly be thought of as anything to do with Ottawa, the city. Ottawa isn’t a city, really; it’s a capital, and to make a great capital, you have to make sure that the central, tourist-specific areas are built to attract tourists to the city (even if they never go to the car museum). It needs to look great from the sky. It must be majestic. Regal.

You may think there are flaws to this plan, but the government is tired of this whole in the centre of the city capital, which totally isn’t their fault. It would be a sin to scrap this corporate sellout and wait an extra day to build a greater city. It’s been a week!

Ottawa needs this. They need to build up in the crater than is Confederationtown. When else will we be able to make a great, monumental district. Something that will serve the approach to Parliament Hill. Something that will reflect so majestically, so monolithically on each and every Canadian. Every Canadian has an equal stake in this neighbourhood. The impact of the government agency’s decision affects each region of Canada equally, and so this city must be transformed into something it isn’t and never was.

This is Canada’s capital. In the next eight days, we’ll make it the capital we all deserve.

Lansdowne and Traffic Lies

A while back, The Citizen ran a review of the first couple of years of Lansdowne Park. It was a thorough review and well done (though it did fall into the trap of saying it was better than what was there before as if that’s any sort of standard whatsoever…it’s not rubble, yay us!).

I won’t really dig deep into the article. I’ve written enough about Lansdowne (and I’m sure I’ll write more in the future). It may not be a failure, but it has numerous failings and whatever successes it has had (it has a few) have occurred in spite of the efforts of the city and OSEG to ruin the park. So, yeah, it’s underwhelming, but there’s still potential (to an extent, there will always be potential; eventually, potential won’t be good enough).

The piece was critical of Lansdowne (though probably not critical enough…who wants to be that much of a downer?), and, naturally, that prompted a response from OSEG in the form of an open letter from CEO Bernie Ash. It’s the usual sort of corporate speak that you’d expect. It didn’t make a compelling case for Lansdowne, but there wasn’t much to object to, either.

Much.

There is at least one area in which Lansdowne is an absolute, utter failure: traffic. Since it opened, Bank Street has been a mess on Saturdays and Sundays. Despite vague gestures to sustainable transport by the city and OSEG, people are still driving there (perhaps because OSEG regularly turns the whole place into a parking lot, has painted traffic lines all over its pedestrian space and merchants validate parking). The neighbourhood has a legitimate beef about the horrible state of traffic and transit to and from Lansdowne (and the lacking bus service along Bank Street really doesn’t help).

Mr. Ashe addresses this, sort of:

The biggest fear expressed in the public hearings during the pre-development stage was that increased vehicular traffic in the Glebe would isolate the neighbourhood, just like the Citizen’s Andrew Cohen might be at an Ottawa Tourism party (see his widely panned column). That fear was not realized. In fact, a survey of Glebe residents, quoted in the Citizen series revealed a tremendous level of satisfaction with the transportation plans that were implemented to minimize car travel to Lansdowne on major event days and maximize the utilization of OC Transpo service.

Do you see what he did there? He didn’t address the issue of traffic. He addressed the issue of traffic on event nights. (And, you know, traffic is bad on event nights, but maybe not as bad as it could be…once again, Lansdowne clears a very low bar.) But event nights aren’t the issue. Every weekend, traffic is backed up along Bank Street no matter what is going on at the park. That is the issue.

OSEG has done this before. When confronted with traffic problems, they sidestep the issue and talk about something else (traffic for events). It is incredibly dishonest, and quite insulting to their audience.

So they’re not telling the truth, but they’re not lying, exactly. Yet another low bar to clear.

Ottawa, D.C.?

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion about the direction of Ottawa (specifically, is Ottawa as bad as that notorious Andrew Cohen column from a few weeks back). During the discussion, it was noted that one of the issues that often arises when Ottawa is actually trying to do something is the many layers of government agencies that must be appeased. It’s not just the city and the province, but also the federal government. And within the federal government, it could be the NCC, Parks Canada or Public Words (or whatever they’re call now, departments change names way too frequently).

There’s been a solution that has been floated a few times, and I heard again at the television studio, we need to create a federal district, just like Washington, D.C.

I’ve never fully understood why people can be so enamoured with this idea. I’ve pondered it, and I just don’t see what’s so great about this idea. So, I think I’ll break out some of my objections.

It’s ahistorical

There’s a difference between overtaking a small, 18th-century town (and a whole lot of empty space), and annexing one of the largest urban metropolitan areas in your nation. When Washington was born, it incorporated Georgetown and Alexandria (Alexandria was later given back to Virginia), but it also encompassed a lot of room for development. This vacant swamp on the Potomac gave planners a blank canvas to build what they hoped would be a great capital. They designed the streets and the blocks with intent, everything falling into a grand plan.

Sure, Ottawa may not be that old of a city, but it is an established city, already. Trying to turn it into the next Washington, D.C., ignores what it already is. Yes, the feds have been trying to shape it in their preferred image for a while (and, in certain, sometimes horrible, ways, they’ve done a bit of that), but this city has been around for a long time, and we can’t just wish away our history.

It’s undemocratic

Washington is, in many significant ways, ruled by the United States government. The federal government can control spending and pass laws…all specific to the district. The council basically serves at the pleasure of the federal government.

Residents of Washington don’t have a senator. They have no voice in the Senate. They have one, one, member of congress, but she’s a non-voting member, so even though they have a voice in the House, they don’t have a vote.

You can claim this won’t happen to Ottawa, but whatever path could be laid out of Ottawa isn’t much better. Would we get a Senator? Maybe? I assume we’d get to keep the dozen or so MPs we have…but that’s out of three hundred plus MPs. The rest of the country would hold an inordinate amount of sway over local issues.

Its anti-community

The notion that Ottawa should just be some mythical representation of the country at large completely ignores that there are people who (to borrow a phrase) actually live here. Our lives aren’t toys for some mythic nationalism that has never really existed.

The U.S. built Washington to be a jewel in the crown of their republic. It was built, from scratch, to be grand and glorious and, well, kind of nation-worshipping.

Canada doesn’t have that sense of jingoistic national pride. Ottawa hasn’t been raised to be the glorious top of our national maple tree (or whatever dumb metaphor we want to dream up). It’s been, generally, tolerated at most. Ottawa is derided for being a city of bureaucrats, a city without any fun, a boring city. It’s not true, but the reputation is there. Are we going to build on this reputation?

And what if we suddenly contract some American-style fervent nationalism? What if we decide to transform this into Washington on the Ottawa River? Are we tearing up Centretown? Do we need to annex the Golden Triangle in order to expand our glorious, monumental downtown? Do we move people out of central neighbourhoods because residential buildings aren’t what make a great capital? The NCC instructed bidders in the Lebreton Flats RFP that they weren’t looking for any residences there. They wanted tourist traps…I mean crap of national significance.

It’s ahistorical, Part II

As mentioned, the federal government has put their stamp on Ottawa, before. From the Greber plan through the current machinations of the NCC, they’ve done a lot to “re-shape” our city, including:

  • Razing Lebreton Flats.
  • Building freeways along our waterfronts.
  • Freezing out development of our waterfronts.
  • Running industry out of town.
  • Getting rid of our street cars.
  • Obstructing LRT development
  • Twice moving Knox Church (a pretty old church, part of our heritage, you might say) because it was in the way of their car-dominated monument-building.

The issue with industry is oft-overlooked. Ottawa’s labour market is dominated by the feds, definitely (but it’s not the majority employer people seem to think it is). But that’s because the Greber plan decided that Ottawa shouldn’t have industry. That was for cities like Montreal and Toronto, and Ottawa shouldn’t compete with them.

The federal government decided that we shouldn’t compete. We shouldn’t be able to have the same standard of living. Our employment should be dependant on the federal government (and the whims of political parties and voters across the country…remember that undemocratic thing?).

Why would want to put this institution in charge of our city?

It’s anti-federalism

The provinces are actually important. They do things. Like health care and education and social services. Does Ottawa have to take this on ourselves? Will we be limited by the federal government on what we can spend on such services? Or will the federal government pay for our health care and education. They’re really good at paying for such things and not using them to play politics, right?

And what if you need a specialist? What if CHEO can’t do the surgery that your child needs, but Sick Kids can? Right now, you could just take your child to Sick Kids (well, it’s difficult on families, but it’s part of Ontario). If you’re on the Ottawa DC Health Insurance Plan, you’ll have to pay the difference between what Sick Kids charges and what the feds will pay. And don’t try to tell me that we’ll definitely have a gold-plated insurance plan.

Then there’s college and university. Will students have to pay out-of-province tuition to go to Queen’s or U of T? I can’t see Ottawa residents getting in-province tuition breaks across the country.

So I just don’t by it. I don’t believe that Ottawa’s ills can be solved by turning over city management to a non-representative, non-accountable technocratic entity hoping that it’ll tap into some fantastical source of Canadian nationalism that hasn’t yet existed.

If anything, we need less federal government in city affairs. It’d make far more sense to abolish the NCC than to turn it into some federal overlord.

Urban life is a fantasy, a nuisance

There’s a pretty insidious attitude you see pop up now and again in our city. When it comes to our downtown and central neighbourhoods, city officials will often treat them as a means to an end for suburbanites (the streets are for commuters, the facilities are for entertainment and work) or, worse, a nuisance.

(The corollary to this is that people in central neighbourhoods will see suburban neighbourhoods as purely a drain on city resources and undeserving of nice things.)

One city councillor, Rick Chiarelli, demonstrated this attitude perfectly, if unwittingly, a month or so ago.

Speaking on CBC, Chiarelli was defending the Where Is My Plow app that completely failed users during the first big snowfall of the season (even when it worked as designed, it was still a failure as a communication device). Chiarelli was noting that the app was only for residential streets (though, as we all probably know, it wasn’t for all residential streets), and it wouldn’t give estimates for main streets, like Bank. This makes absolute sense. Bank Street is a high priority street for clearing. It’ll always be one of the first done (at least downtown), and it gets done regularly during the snowfall. That’s fine. No problem. As someone who lives on Bank Street, no complaints.

As a follow up, he notes that the app was designed for streets “where people actually live.”

Dick move, Mr. Chiarelli.

I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he knows that people “actually live” on Bank Street. (I’m typing this from a Starbucks on Bank Street underneath condo tower, sitting at a window facing another condo tower.) It was just easy shorthand for him. There was no evidence of malice. (From all appearances, he seems a jolly and likeable chap.)

So his words were ill-measured, but there is still meaning behind them. It may be shorthand, but it’s shorthand for something. He’s trying to build a city for the suburb-dwellers in his ward. He’s not considering that people (like me) actually live on Bank Street. We don’t count.

This is the attitude I’m talking about.

Council is often quite dismissive of people living an urban lifestyle. Whether it’s transportation, service delivery, schools, events, development or taxation, central neighbourhoods are considered secondarily or not at all.

It’s ugly, and it’s just demonstrative of the bullshit urban-suburban(-rural) culture wars that politicians feed upon. And it’s perpetuated by lies and misinformation. Whether it’s Jan Harder claiming Barrhaven is denser than downtown (well, if by dense…) or Chiarelli saying that people don’t actually live on Bank Street, it’s harmful to the city, and it’s just plain dumb for city-building purposes.

And, you know, I’ll bet these condo towers have more residents that Joyce Crescent in College Ward.