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.

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Thoughts on the Canal

As is clear, I have a bit of an affinity for the canal. It is one of Ottawa’s most iconic features, and it is the defining feature of the city. From logging industry tool to World Heritage Site, the canal is Ottawa.

Which is why it’s so depressing how everything about the canal is so screwed up.

This was underscored the other day, when Parks Canada announced that it had signed an agreement with Ottawa Boat Cruise to start running cruises along the canal…which is nice, since we had nothing this year. There’s even chatter about some innovation, like adding more stops along the canal and integrating the canal tours with the Ottawa River tours. It’s nothing super-innovative, but it’s better than status quo.

Sadly…you knew there was a “sadly”…sadly, the contract is for 42 years. This is absolutely insane. I’ll be 81 (if I’m even alive) when this comes up for renewal. That means one provider locked into this cash cow for four decades. There’s no real innovation involved, just opaque promises about some new ideas. I’m absolutely incensed by this decision. I cannot fathom how Parks Canada could be allowed to lock down the canal for 42 years. It is epic mismanagement.

So, hopefully, Ottawa Boat Cruise and Parks can work together, unprompted, to do some cool stuff, but there’s reason to assume they will.

There’s so much wrong with the canal. This contract sucks. The parkland around the canal is uninspiring. The paths are nothing special. But I shouldn’t be completely negative. So, with that spirit in mind, and my cynicism held in check (as much as possible), here are some thoughts on what we should do with the canal.

(I’m not going to worry about all the different government departments that are involved. Development needs to happen and it’s stupid that we have so many layers–many far removed from the city–mucking things up.)

The Possible

  • Build the Fifth Avenue foot bridge. We’ve built the Corktown Bridge, and the Donald-Somerset bridge is almost complete (seems like it should be done by now, but the city is still saying June). Those are both pretty far north. Get the Fifth Avenue bridge built to connect Old Ottawa South to Lansdowne.
  • Fix the crossing at Bank Street. This means:
    • Proper sidewalks/pedestrian infrastructure. The current sidewalk is too narrow, especially in the winter. Widen the sidewalk or build a separate, but accessible from Bank Street, crossing.
    • Proper bicycle infrastructure. Get those super sharrows off the road and build bike lanes, or, again, a separate, yet accessible, bike crossing.
    • Do some speed reductions. Bank Street is a 40 km/hr zone, but people will go over the bridge at 70 or 80. Traffic calming. Real enforcement. Two lanes. Whatever. Get on it.
    • While we’re on the topic of the bridge, get some proper lights. Those low yellow street lights give really poor visibility at night. It’s friggin’ scary crossing that bridge.
    • Integrate the bridge with Lansdowne. We’re still developing at the foot of the bridge. Make the sidewalk expand into some sort of wide pathway that takes you write to the grounds.
  • Bring back 8 Locks Flat. Parks will sign a 42-year lease for no good reason, but the NCC won’t even open a waterfront restaurant for more than a blink at a time. If it could be winterized, that’d be cool, too.
  • Make more 8 Locks Flats. I’m not a fan of the just-put-a-bar-there school of urban development, but, hell, get some restaurants or something along the canal. Maybe a play structure? Some hammocks? Adult-sized swings?
  • Multiple stops along the canal. Ottawa Boat Cruise is running next year. Let it stop at Lansdowne, Canal Ritz, 8 Locks Flat and all the other 8 Locks Flats you should be creating.

The Challenging

  • Clean up the back of the NAC. I have a friend who loves brutalism. I love it, too, but she and I greatly disagree on the NAC. Whatever merits it has on the inside, it is a massive barrier in downtown Ottawa. It cuts of the core from the canal and parts east. Worse, all of its area along the canal is used for parking and loading. It’s just useless, crappy pavement. Not good Pavement. Useless crappy pavement. Maybe the building can be be incorporated into a vibrant waterfront, but right now it tells me that that part of the canal is to be a backdrop for the upper class and their expensive cultural pursuits. It’s not for the public.
  • Build more foot bridges. There was talk of a foot bridge at Lansdowne where the canal bends, but was deemed to expensive. That’d be neat.
  • Get a proper crossing at Carleton. I can hardly believe I never died walking that tiny dock on my way home from Mike’s Place at 1:00 am.
  • Better connect the canal to Mooney’s Bay. If you drive along Hog’s Back often, it’d be forgivable if you never realized you could easily access either. Connecting them would be great. Integrating that connection with Meadowlands would be super.

The Dream

  • Get rid of the driveways. The greatest thing the Greber plan probably did was free the canal from the rail lines that ran alongside it. That’s not a particularly engaging landscape. Sadly, the government replaced the rail lines with freeways…which amounts to much of the same thing. Freeways make much of the canal (not to mention the Ottawa River) unaccessible. It’s a friggin’ capital-w capital-h World Heritage site, and it’s become a negligible background for grossly speeding cars.

    It’d be especially good to get rid of the Queen Elizabeth Driveway. Much of the Colonel By side of the canal doesn’t really interact with the surroundings, regardless of the freeway. However, the QED really cuts off a lovely potential waterfront. We could connect Lansdowne to the canal (which was the original purpose of Lansdowne Park, if we’re going to get into heritage and all that). We could connect Commissionaire’s Park to Dow’s Lake. The Glebel, the Triangle, Rideau Centre. All of these could connect to the canal. You could leave the Market and walk right to a lovely waterfront, connecting the Rideau Centre, the Westin, the Conference Centre and the NAC just across the canal (we should also clean up that side, so that it’s not just a loading dock for the NAC…brutalism needed be so damned brutal).

  • Turn the Canadian Forces Barracks into a park. Have you gone from Dow’s Lake to the Arboretum? It’s wonderful, except for navigating your way past the barracks. It’s a ridiculous and unnecessary barrier. If we ditched the QED, and got rid of the barracks, we could have an entire stretch of greenspace and public development from the NAC, past Lansdowne, along Dow’s Lake and Commissionaire’s Park, around up through the arboretum to Carleton University. If we also ditched the Colonel By, we could connect to the other side of Carleton and up to Mooney’s Bay. There is so much that could be done with that stretch. Our city life could be immeasurably improved, if we just got rid of these invading freeways.
  • Reform Carling at Preston. We’re starting this. We’re putting up some huge towers, which should be good, but Carling is still too wide and too fast. Give it a road diet. Get rid of the medians. Widen the sidwalks. Build cycletracks. Trees! Those new towers could be the first step in rehabilitating Carling so the neighbourhoods on the other side of the canal can easily access it. Why wouldn’t you want to connect the canal area to Little Italy? And just think how it would rejuvenate Queen Juliana Park. (Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know what Queen Juliana Park is.)
  • Integrate OC Transpo with some sort of boat-bus. I don’t know if this would be at all practical or cost-efficient, but if I could just swipe my presto to take a boat from Dow’s Lake to Fifth, it’d be pretty dang cool. Oh… and make sure I can bring my bike on board.

There is so much more that we could do. I get regular ideas, from the practical to the fanciful all the time. This is just a short list. But it just shocks me how the NCC wants to do absolutely nothing with it. They have resigned themselves…no, not resigned themselves…they have completely embraced the idea that their contribution to canal life is to provide urban freeways purely for commuting purposes.

They’re not trying to improve Ottawa. They’re not trying to build a world-class capital (whatever the hell that might mean). They’re not making a better Ottawa for residents, visitors, tourists or the rest of Canada. They’re using it for a freeway, and they take very seriously their mission to make it’s sole purpose a means to move cars really fast.

Stacking the NCC for the Memorial to the Victims of Communism

[Ed. note: I wrote this draft a few weeks ago and never got around to publishing it. I’m doing that now, but I’m not really doing much editing and I’m feeling too lazy to go dig up supporting links. Enjoy!]

So the Victims of Communism Memorial is slowly winding its way through the NCC’s approval process. In order to help it along, the government recently added a few more members to the board who will–I’m assuming the logic goes–be rather amenable to whims of the government. The new members helped get approval to begin clean up of the site, a necessary step before anything could be built.

It seems pretty obvious that the NCC has not been supportive of this monument at this site, but they don’t seem to have as much power as they usually claim to have. The government supports the monument, unflinchingly, and all the NCC has been able to do is slow the process and make the memorial slightly more palatable.

(The monument has been shrunk. It should now take up only 37% of the site rather than 60%, and this is still a work in progress. The NCC wants to get it down to 33%.)

I have never really understood the stubbornness by the Tory government on this. Yes, I get why the Tories would be most supportive of an anti-communist memorial, and, yes, I get why they might not love building the proposed judicial building that is to be named after Pierre Trudeau. But outside Tribue to Liberty (the backers of the monument) and the government, hardly anyone supports this monument at this site. It’s a rather provincial issue, of no real import. It will probably be little more than a blip during the election campaign, and yet the Tories keep on trumpeting it.

I’ve really been astonished by their intransigence on this, and it makes me wonder if they’re trying to find a way out. They must know that the original design was horribly ill-suited for the site. They must understand the importance of the Long Term Vision and Plan for the Parliamentary Precinct. (Personally, I have some issues with the LTVP, but I think it’s useful to have a plan so that crap isn’t just thrown up all ad hoc.) But they also have too much skin in the game to simply change course now. Their pride would never let them do such a thing. But, perhaps..

Perhaps they’re stacking the board to give themselves cover. Perhaps they’re filling the NCC with CPC toadies who are, by their own admission, unsuited for the job, so that when logic prevails and either a more-suitable monument is designed for that site, or the monument is moved back to the Garden of the Provinces, the Tories can claim that this was a decision made by Conservatives. If the CPC can sufficiently and publically infiltrate the board, then any decision the board makes is a CPC decision rather than a CPC defeat.

But I’m really over-thinking this. I’m sure the Tories are just trying to bring as much ammo as possible to this stupid little petty battle they’ve picked.

I’m with Jim

It hasn’t been a stellar week or two in federal-municipal relations. First, we had the feds announce that they were going to waste $80M refurbing the old-moldy-bread-factory-turned-“temporary”-science-museum rather than building a proper facility in a proper location. That was unfortunate, but worse was the NCC ambushing the city on their LRT plans, deciding that their precious highway is more important than building a livable city.

Thankfully, it appears that Mayor Jim Watson and the ranking local government MP John Baird have reached a bit of a detente for now. This is an improvement, and certainly better than a bunch of appointed NCC henchmen hijacking our development plans.

Before this peace in our time, Watson made the comment that residents needed to make this an issue in the next federal election (which is supposed to occur next year), and he’s absolutely right. There can be valid debates about the LRT. Is it worth the money? What’s the best route? What should be buried? But there is no debate about the fairly useless, almost malicious, organization that is the NCC.

It’s ridiculous that NCC’s prime mission right now is to save a waterfront freeway in Kitchissippi. There is nothing, nothing, about the Parkway that has national significance. It ruins the riverfront, blocks the actual parkland from people and actively destroys the environment. And it’s not even in a particularly significant location.

The NCC needs to be reformed. It’s an outdated organziation staffed mostly with people who little connection to the city (only two of the board members have to be from Ottawa). They have no particular expertise in urban development, and their love affair with parkways demonstrates how archaic their visions actually are. The only people who rein this group in is the federal government.

So, yes, people of Ottawa, the actions and disruptions of the NCC should be a federal election issue.

Even when they do something right, they do something wrong

It was with a bit of (well-deserved) fanfare that the city and the NCC unveiled new crosswalk lights at Fifth Avenue and the Queen Elizabeth Driveway. It made a lot of sense. The multi-use paths on either side of the QED are quite popular with both pedestrians and cyclists. Fifth Avenue is a main street and bike route linking people to the canal. Before the new lights were put in, it was quite dangerous to try to cross the QED, as cars zip by ridiculously fast.

The design of the new intersection was well-executed. Bike lanes were added to Fifth Avenue. At the intersection, the lanes extend from Fifth to the entrance to the MUP. Signage dictates that cars yield to bikes and both yield to pedestrians.

On both sides of the QED, there are pedestrian buttons to trigger the light, as well as clearly marked dots allowing bikes to trigger them, as well. All three different types of users, pedestrians, cyclists and motorists, as kept separate and have infrastructure designed specifically for them.

It’s quite a good little intersection, now.

The other day I was approaching the intersection from the north along the canal MUP. There was a short line of cars lined up across from me waiting to turn from Fifth onto the QED. I pulled up to the intersection just as the light changed. There were no other cyclists and no pedestrians at the intersection. I didn’t get a light.

Having not been there soon enough to trigger the light change, the lights changed only to allow cars to turn. This is a flaw in the project.

Sadly, it’s not unusual for crosswalk lights to fail to change with the traffic lights if they’re not specifically triggered in time. This should change. There’s absolutely no valid reason for it. It is especially egregious at an intersection that gets heavy pedestrian and bike use, and that’s officially part of Ottawa’s bike route network.

This is a perfect example of the car-centric nature of Ottawa planning. Even when we take the necessary steps to accommodate and (hopefully) provide a little equality for all users, we screw it up by always giving consideration to cars, but only giving limited consideration to pedestrians and bikes. You won’t see an intersection where a pedestrian triggers a cross light while car traffic gets an unchanged red.

This is why we have problems. This is why our streets are far more dangerous than they should be. Even with a bunch of pedestrians around, we don’t really want them getting in the way of cars.

Let the NCC pay

The city is locked in a bit of a battle with the National Capital Commission. The city is finalizing (for now) plans for the new light rail transit system. In the west end, the LRT is scheduled to cut through some NCC land near the Parkway. The city plans to build a trench to hide it, but that isn’t good enough for the NCC. They want it buried.

The city is resistant – and optimisitic – since burying the line would increase the cost by $300 or $400 million. Currently pegged at $980M, city council voted to approve the plans as they are without NCC approval. Continue reading