The real issues with the Salvation Army proposal

After three days of public delegations, vocal and silent protests, an impassioned plea by the local councillor, and some self-serving performative hand-wringing by other councillors, Ottawa’s planning committed finally voted on the proposal to build a mega-shelter/community hub/whatever-we’re-technically-calling it on Montreal Road.

And planning committee got it wrong.

The vote was 6-3 in favour of the Salvation Army’s proposal, with councillors Leiper, Nussbaum and Brockington dissenting. Those three were right. This proposal should not have been approved. And here’s why: the committee was tasked with only considering this as a land-use issue. Delegates and councillors weren’t allowed to speak to the service delivery model or if there were other locations to consider instead.

And as a planning decision, the Salvation Army gave no justification for altering the zoning of this Traditional Main Street.

Maybe this sounds like I’m being obstinate or stubborn or nit-picky (which, granted, at times I certainly am), but that’s not my intention.

This issue is significantly larger than a land-use issue. As I see it, there are three main questions that need to be addressed:

1. What service-delivery model do we want? It seems that everyone in-the-know is switching away from this mega-shelter format. They’re looking at smaller, distributed service models. There’s a lot to commend in this alternative approach. It gets services to more places and, hopefully, more people. Smaller centers are more easily integrated into the existing community. It doesn’t place the entire burden (and, yes, there is a burden to be borne) on one community.

2. If we do want a mega-shelter, is this the right location? It seems we’ve chosen this location because the Salvation Army has chosen it…and they’ve chosen it, it seems, because it’s a very convenient move for them. But this issue can’t be resolved on convenience. We need to ensure that we get the right spot, and we probably have to be prepared to pony up some cash to pay for it. (Also, there’s the tangential issue that the Salvation Army’s consultants weren’t totally on-the-level in their report about the location of the people who would be using the center.)

3. Finally, should we really be farming this issue out to the Salvation Army. Look, they do a lot of good, but they’re not actually a city organization. The Montreal Road location is good for them, but this isn’t like building a new stripmall—we’re not going to open this one, and then open a few others nearby. We’ve let the Salvation Army steer the ship on this—deciding on where, how and who will receive these essential services. That’s not a way to run a city. And let’s not forget that this is a pretty controversial organization. There are questions about homophobia and their puritanical view towards harm-reduction programs. There’s also the fact that this center will only serve men. All this is, as they say, problematic.

This is a tough issue. The services the Salvation Army provides are necessary (even if we quibble about their preferred method of delivery), and the city has all but relinquished their responsibility to look after the vulnerable people who need these services.

It seems that there’s a valid debate to be had about how these services are delivered in the city and who delivers them. This is a discussion we should be having. We need to address issues of poverty, homelessness, and drug and alcohol addiction.

But we’re not having that discussion, and planning committee was explicitly told that they couldn’t even consider these issues. So, if they’re not going to be allowed to discuss the pertinent issues, or even consider the effects of the proposal and its impact on the surrounding community, then they should have done the right thing and declined to give a response, punting this to council.

I mean, it’s going to council, anyway. They’ll get the final say (well…assuming the Salvation Army ever gets the necessary funding), so they may as well have been charged with exploring the full issue.

Until that issue is resolved, no, we shouldn’t approve a shelter on Montreal Road.

Cleaning up the NCC’s mess

Did you ever have that friend growing up who would take your stuff only to return it to you broken? Well, the City of Ottawa has such a “friend”. It was about half a century ago that the federal government took Lebreton Flats from local residents and businesses.

Now finally, the land may no longer be left to rot.

But the National Capital Commission—the agency now in charge of Lebreton Flats—isn’t returning the land to the city or to the descendants of those who used to live there (or to First Nations peoples whose ancestors were the first to have the land stolen). No, they’re going to sell it to someone else, and those people may look to us to help pay to clean it up.

So, together, the federal government and the NCC are the friend who takes your toy, breaks it, sells it to someone else…and then you get a bill to fix it.

Unsurprisingly, the city isn’t too enamoured with this scenario.

True, the city—through its brownfields program—regularly helps to pay for cleaning up contaminated land (to encourage development), but the notion that the program should be used to clean up Lebreton Flats is absurd.

Let’s put aside the fact that this would be a budget-busting expenditure. The program just isn’t set up to deal with the amount of money it would take to clean up the site.

Let’s also put aside that this is incredibly valuable land—we’re not going to get many more opportunities to have such a massive development right beside the city’s core—and so the cost of remediation should be factored into any sale and development of the area.

Let’s even put aside that the city isn’t even considered an official partner in this project, so we—the people who live in the city and will have to live with Lebreton Flats—have no official say in what happens.

Yeah, ignore all that, even though those are good enough reasons to balk at paying for cleaning up the site.

Lebreton Flats has been a wasteland for half a century. Approximately half of Ottawa’s residents aren’t old enough to have seen this prime land as much more than an open field, snow dump or parking lot (save for a few recent condo developments).

As great as a development at Lebreton Flats may be (and there’s no guarantee it’ll live up to its promise), the city has been robbed of the full use of this land for decades.

That’s less housing and fewer places for people to live. That’s fewer parks in our central neighbourhoods. That’s less development, less business, fewer attractions and a duller city.

That’s a big gaping chasm between downtown and the neighbourhoods to the west.

The vacant land stifled development around City Centre, Mechanicsville and the remnants of Lebreton Flats at the bottom of Nanny Goat Hill.

And for what? To host an office complex that would never be built? To rid the city’s centre of a low-income neighbourhood?

That’s decades of lost economic activity and lost property taxes for absolutely no good reason.

The NCC threw poor people out on the street. They destroyed a community. And they ensured that land would never be developed for half a century. They just let it sit there, contaminated…an eyesore a short walk from Parliament Hill.

So no, we, the residents of Ottawa, should not be paying to clean up that land. If anything, the NCC should just give the land to the city (or those whose ancestors first inhabited the land).

They shouldn’t profit from expropriating and wasting land for this long. They shouldn’t get to pawn off the costs of their neglect onto us.

The federal government destroyed one of our neighbourhoods. They let the ground get more and more contaminated. Part of our city was taken from us and broken. We shouldn’t be stuck with the bill.

Yvan Baker and protecting drivers from pedestrians

If you hadn’t heard, an MPP from Etobicoke has come up with a ridiculous law to punish pedestrians who happen to be using their smartphone. Basically, if you’re using it while you cross the street–even legally–you’d get fined. There are a couple of carve-outs (you were already on a phone call, you need to make an emergency call), but even if you were just listening to music, you’d, theoretically get dinged.

I’ve already written about this, and I might write more later, but there’s a new twist on this. The other day, the MPP, Yvan Baker, posted a video he took of himself as he walked down the street.

Many pointed out the utter hypocrisy of promoting his anti-“distracted*” walking and him promoting a video of himself walking down the sidewalk paying attention to nothing but recording his own brilliance.

And, yeah, it’s bad, but it’s not actually hypocritical. It’s revealing.

You see, his law isn’t about protecting pedestrians. There’s nothing in his law that would punish people who are walking while texting on the sidewalk. This law doesn’t worry itself with the other pedestrians who might get bumped into or who might get knocked down and hurt.

It is only concerned about the crosswalk…where pedestrians interact with cars and drivers.

This law is aimed solely at protecting drivers.

But, you plead, a pedestrian isn’t going to hurt a driver. Worst comes to worst, the driver may have to clean some blood and brains off their fender. They‘ll still get home to tuck their kids in at night.

You’re right of course, but this isn’t an issue of driver safety.

No, the point of the bill is to protect drivers from the responsibility of killing someone. It’s to absolve drivers from the guilt of being a murderer when they run over someone, if they can find some sort of excuse to get out of it…some flimsy way to blame the pedestrian who had the temerity, the gall, to dare move about a city outside of a car.

So I’m happy he put up this useless video. It lays bare the depravity of his bill. It tells us just how callous and uncaring he really is.

*More on “distracted” later.