Edward Jones and Eugene Melnyk

Who doesn’t love Merlin Olsen? It really didn’t matter what he did, he was eminently-likeable. Whether he was acting as a calm, competent broadcaster; doing the Good Cop-Good Cop routine with Michael Landon on Little House on the Prairie; or pitching flowers for FTD, who could be won over by this lovable giant?

Okay, so now you’re probably wondering why I’m writing about Merlin Olsen on a blog about Ottawa. Well, before he did all those other things, he was a star defensive linemen for the Los Angeles Rams, part of the Fearsome Foursome.

Fine, fine. That doesn’t really answer the question.

About twenty years ago, the Rams fled Los Angeles for St. Louis (who had lost the Cardinals when they moved to Phoenix a couple of years earlier). The Rams were playing in an old stadium, and could get a new one out of the city. St. Louis promised them a new stadium, the Edward Jones Dome, and the St. Louis Rams were born.

…and died about a week ago when the Rams left St. Louis for Los Angeles. They’ll have a new state-or-the-art stadium in Carson City and St. Louis will have the Edward Jones Dome, which will be emptier now that they don’t have a regular tenant.

When the Rams moved to St. Louis, they signed a thirty-year lease. Now, with ten years left on the lease, St. Louis is left an empty dome and $100 million in debt.

This is why I’m very wary of building an NHL arena at Lebreton. Let’s put aside the idea of gifting this land to a billionaire Barbados resident, or letting it be a pawn in an aggressive bid to buy the Senators. We have no certainty that a professional sports team will be sticking around.

The Senators have had some financial problems in the past. They desperately wanted to build a casino in order to make their business viable. And they got all huffy when the city didn’t bow to the whining.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t have an arena at Lebreton. It just means that this massive focus on building an arena is very very bad. If an arena fits in with a solid, overall development plan, so be it. But the developers need to make the case for the arena’s longevity and demonstrate that it’s good for the Flats, rather than just good for a hockey team’s owner.

Here’s how we need to re-build Lebreton Flats: Focus on people

At the risk of sounding boring, I’m getting tired of discussions about municipal greatness. Concerns about status, prestige and grandeur may make suitable fodder for over-analysis in whatever passes for a civic salon these days, but such debates, for all their wonderful wordsmithing, ignore something pretty basic: a great city is a livable city.

And so we turn our eyes to the next bit of monumental city-building in the capital, Lebreton Flats. The federal government, via the NCC, is finally going to do something about the gaping hole in our city they created when they razed a working class neighbourhood (in an attempt to make a world-class capital, it should be noted).

The bidding process to develop this land clearly failed–eliciting only two bids. And we’re told both bids include a hockey arena as a central feature…and maybe a new library. Alongside the established War Museum, these would give the neighbourhood three large anchors, more than enough to sink it.

We need to get our minds divorced of the idea that the primary feature must be a monument or large marquee edifice. If the NCC wants to really make Lebreton Flats great, there can be only one primary feature: people. Architecture, design, tourist traps, these can come later. Establish a community where people can live, work and play. Get people on the streets, moving through the neighbourhood and engaging with it. People are the thread to be woven through the tapestry of every great city community. People make them beautiful and desirable.

It sounds too easy, I know, but there are a number of basic lessons we should have learned by now. First, we need a multitude of users, so we need homes, shops, restaurants, cultural institutions and offices. Different uses bring different people out at different times. There needs to be weekday life, weekend life and night life.

Further, these uses need to be intermixed. Do not segregate them, or each corner of the area will go to sleep at different times. We need to draw people along the street, through the neighbourhood. This means that people have to have reasons to keep going through the area.

Next, make it walkable: short blocks and narrow streets with lots of pedestrian crossings. There won’t be space for lots of parking, so people will need to be able to walk, bike and bus there (which will support the NCC’s mandate to create a sustainable capital). This means the NCC is going to have to break off its antiquated love affair with the car and not build anymore freeways in the city.

 

The area will need to be built to a human scale. The buildings must be constructed for the street life. We need a community that is beautiful when you’re walking through it, not just one that looks majestic from a sweeping, elevated panoramic shot. This doesn’t mean things will be small or short (in fact, big, dense buildings are the way to go). It just means that monuments and “anchors” have to be built so they engage the pedestrian and not just the helicopter pilot.

Because there will be monuments and cultural institutions, no doubt. We just have to make them subordinate to the concepts of livability.

What we need to avoid desperately is making the “Center Monumental”. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs demonstrated the flaw with such planning:

We shall look briefly at on other, less important, in of ancestry in orthodox planning. This one begins more or less with the great Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893…The Chicago fair snubbed the exciting modern architecture which had begun to emerge in Chicago and instead dramatized a retrogressive imitation Renaissance style. One heavy, grandiose monument after another was arrayed in the exposition park, like frosted pastries on a tray, in a soft of squat, decorated forecast of Le Corbusier’s later repetitive ranks of towers in a park. This orgiastic assemblage of the rich and monumental captured the imagination of both planners and public. It gave impetus to a movement called the City Beautiful, and indeed the planning of the exposition was dominated by the man who became the leading City Beautiful planner, Daniel Burnham of Chicago.

The aim of the City Beautiful was the City Monumental. Great schemes were drawn up for systems of baroque boulevards, which mainly came to nothing. What did come out of the movement was the Center Monumental, modeled on the fair. City after city built its civic center or its cultural center. These buildings were arranged along a boulevard as at Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, or along a mall like the Government Center in Cleveland, or were bordered by park, like the Civic Center at St. Lous, or were interspersed with park, like the Civic Center at San Fransisco. However they were arranged, the important point was that they monuments had been sorted out from the rest of the city, the whole being treated as a complete unit, in a separate and well-defined way.

People were proud of them, but the centers were not a success. For one thing, invariably the ordinary city around them ran down instead of being uplifted, and they always acquired an incongruous rim of ratty tattoo parlours and second-hand-clothing stores, or else just nondescript, dispirited decay. For another, people stayed away from them to a remarkable degree. Somehow, when the fair became part of the city, it did not work like the fair.

This last result is what I most fear for Lebreton Flats. It’ll be big. It’ll be monumental. And people wills stay away. If we build the Center Monumental, we will be building failure.

The NCC is charged with making a great capital for all of Canada, not just Ottawa, but the capital can’t be great if the city isn’t. Life, vibrancy, interaction and engagement, there are the factors that will improve the capital. This is what we need to build–a city of people and for people.

Saving Lebreton Flats

The Feds have done significant damage to Lebreton Flats. First they razed it, dispossessing an entire community. They let it sit fallow, essentially rotting. They paved over it with stretches of freeway. They built some…imperfectly developed…condos, and then plunked down the War Museum without much thought to infrastructure or integration.

Now we have a chance to salvage the space, but there’s little to engender confidence in the current process.

The NCC put out an RFP for development plans. They had five potential bidders. They’ve just announced that they have only received two bids. Worse, both include a new hockey arena.

Two bids. That’s it. This land that should be important to Ottawa’s past and future may come down to a coin toss. This is no way to decide. Receiving only two bids (both with the same prominent feature) demonstrates that the NCC’s process is broken. They need to scrap it, now.

It’s not that a hockey arena is a bad idea. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it probably is, but it’s not like every downtown arena in North America is an urban development failure. However, there’s no reason to believe that this Commission in this city will be able to do it right.

The NCC has an unhealthy obsession with cars. They talk about building parks and developing waterfronts, but what they really mean is making a pretty backdrop for people racing down city expressways. It’s an outdated Robert Moses-esque view of the city; the land is there for the wealthy man being chauffeured around to look at as his ride goes 80.

(Naturally, this is why the Flats needed to be raised. Wealthy men riding around in cars should never be subjected to the sight of poor people. How unseemly.)

The city, too, has an unhealthy obsession with cars (though it appears that city planners are starting to realize that building a city around driving and parking is just batshit crazy). We have to drive. We have to park. We’ll plunge a bazillion dollars into LRT, but then we’ll starve public transit to ensure no one actually wants to use it.

If the NCC really wants to build a hockey arena (and why they hell would they? How could that possibly fit in their mandate), there should be no surface parking, none. There should be very minimal underground parking (again, probably none). There should be no freeways or road expansions to get more cars there.

LRT is running there. It’s downtown adjacent, in (what should be) a very walkable area.

But, really, the NCC shouldn’t care a bit about the Ottawa Senators, a team that has flirted with bankruptcy in the past. That won’t build a great capital. It might be a nice accessory, but it shouldn’t be a primary concern at all.

We need and deserve a new community implanted in Lebreton Flats. We need a mixture of uses, a mixture of residences and a mixture of residents. We need this land returned to the city, not gifted to a hockey team owned by a resident of the Barbados.

Developing the Domtar Lands

In commemoration of Earth Day, Windmill Development Group has revealed a proposal to develop the Domtar lands (the Ottawa River islands located adjacent to Lebreton Flats). It’s an ambitious project for a relatively small, enclosed area. It also presents unique challenges, requiring the cooperation of both cities, Ottawa and Gatineau, as well as the NCC. In addition, the land is of importance to local First Nations people, opening up other possible issues. Regardless, the development looks promising and Windmill appears to be taking the concerns of all stakeholders seriously.

domtar-bikepath

Currently dubbed, “The Isles” (though a naming contest is underway ), the project contains key promises that, if adhered to, should make for a lovely little community in the centre of the Ottawa River:

  • An ambitious sustainability plan using the One Planet Community framework
  • Development of a series of new plazas and parks
  • Mixed-use properties including retail amenities, restaurants, commercial and
  • residential
  • Preservation of key heritage buildings for cultural, commercial and retail
  • uses
  • Public access to the previously fenced-off Chaudière Falls
  • Stunning new public viewpoints of our national symbols

“Our rezoning application delivers on the eight design principles we shared with the
public and interested parties late last year,” says Windmill partner Rodney Wilts.
“We plan to bring new life and energy to this once bustling heart of industry, and to
do it through historically and environmentally sensitive redevelopment.”

The description in the news release is a short but precise distillation of Ottawa’s current issues relating to development, taking into account heritage concerns, environmental issues and the need to build traffic infrastructure that does not imperil pedestrians or cyclists:

The redeveloped lands will feature a mix of uses in a compact form integrating existing heritage resources where possible and emphasizing sustainable and active transportation through a network of shared streets that prioritize pedestrians and cyclists over automobiles.

It is, in fact, the exact approach that should have been taken with the Lansdowne redevelopment (even if the particulars would necessarily be context-specific).

The Sun’s Jon Willing presents an interesting response from City Hall:

No doubt, Peter Hume is correct… to a degree. This will be a prominent development of a heritage area with just about no room, literally, for error. If poorly implemented, the use of the Domtar lands will be lost for most Ottawans.
Of course, they are of little use, right now. The islands are a monument to industrial decay. It is, in fact, a pleasant walk to travel from Lebreton Flats across the bridge to the old logging site. I’ve walked it multiple times. But as lovely as it may be, there is absolutely nothing of interest there. We can worry about screwing up the development, creating a little neighbourhood that would be underused and under-visited, but that wouldn’t be much of a change from the status quo.

The site promises to bring people to a central locale where they can enjoy the waterfront (a criminally underused aspect of Ottawa). Also, it is a reminder of what Ottawa has lost in the area just west of downtown. The development would help to bring people back to Lebreton Flats, a neighbourhood that was callously destroyed generations ago. The giant blemish that is Lebreton Flats (ignoring a spattering of in-progress condos, a war museum and a bunch of roads scarring the land) is a shame that the city has mostly forgotten. It is a tale of government placing their own vanity ahead of the lives of citizens. Perhaps this development would kick-start the revitalization of this neglected area.