Category Archives: Chinatown

Building a Better Street, an example from Milan


Let’s go back to Milan. As part of their transformation project towards a Green City, they have recently reconstructed a multi-block street to make it more urban, less car-dominated. They got mostly good results, but with a number of caveats.


The overarching premise was simple: ban through traffic, narrow the traffic  road to one lane with pull-off bays for deliveries, permit local traffic to access garages/courtyards, no on-street parking. The former street surface was converted to the delivery bays, or greened, and a number of outdoor terraces (with inclement weather protection) were installed in each block.


The landscape architects and planners couldn’t stop there though, they also larded the area with fancy paving, including cobble stones that aren’t rough enough to slow vehicles but are uncomfortable for bikes, strollers, handcarts, and even people.



The sidewalks themselves are granite pavers, much smoother, but also expensive. Somehow a demonstration project that uses higher cost items loses some of its persuasive power when it is obviously expensive to implement. Would the walks be any less attractive or used if they were paved in concrete?


The trees haven’t yet grown tall. In the sub-tropical climate of Milan, they should grow quickly. Assuming, of course, that they aren’t planted in roadbed gravel but have 11 cu m or so of good organic soil in each pit or trench per tree.


If you haven’t noticed by now, the street is in the “chinatown” neighbourhood. There was a gritty element to the area. Graffiti. Massage-parlours. Retail outlets used as wholesale depots. The side blocks were a mix of original buildings and infill apartment buildings. Definitely not The Glebe. My Airbnb was in a refurb condo.


There were bike rental stands. Riding was attractive on the low-traffic street, and some of the side streets, but then there were frequent very busy streets with too-fast-moving traffic that epitomizes the traditional auto-centric Milan. Streetcar tracks are also cycle hazards. Some separated bike tracks are appearing on the major boulevards, so it is probably possible for locals to seek out and learn safe routes.


Many of the kiosks had infra-red heaters and closing window or plastic screens. They were busy at lunch, and a few were popular in the evening. Some were not in use. The architects provided a number on each block, I guess whether needed today or not … uses will change with time.


Where the new green street intersected with cross streets, bulb outs narrowed the crossing, zebra stripes were marked, and the interruption to the green street felt controlled. Trucks made deliveries in certain hours. In some blocks, like the one shown below, there were no trees (due to underground utilities?):


Like in many European cities, pedestrian-priority streets work. They work because they are used on pedestrian-scale streets (not too wide, otherwise you cannot get the cars off them, and they don’t make ped friendly streets even if that happens). Occasional traffic like taxis, delivery vehicles, and cars accessing garages works well provided the car is the visitor or guest, and pedestrian needs are obviously the priority. In every case, cycling down the middle of the street is encouraged, indeed, seems to be a promoted feature of the new green street. Self policing seems to work well – even the courier cycles went sedately by.

Why can’t Sparks Street, fossilized into irrelevance by clinging to its pedestrians and only pedestrians model, reinvent itself, if only by introducing a winding (ie, not a speedway) cycle path down its centre on a temporary basis to see if it works well. Instead, it mutters about returning to a car street. Like every other dead or dying traditional main street that tries to cater to both cars and shoppers. It doesn’t and won’t work. The Sparks Street Mall doesn’t need fancy new pavers or $5000 benches. It needs life, and imagination. Businesses and people are synergistic. Attract street users. Business grows. More people come. More business. A virtuous cycle.


for more on Milan, go back several articles to read about the Bosco Verticale


Pop-Up Convenience Store in Chinatown

Yesterday, in a matter of a few hours, Chinatown got a new convenience store. Located at the corner of Somerset and Bronson, the arrival of the new retail outlet reflects an innovation in Ottawa planning. Normally, gas stations have the pumps out near the intersection, and the store/paypoint at the back.

In urban planning terms, this leaves a big gap in the urban fabric. At this location, the store is being located in prime space at the intersection corner, and the pumps are behind it, less visible. (See previous story on the planning:  ).

The foundation for the new store consists of concrete piles:

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The prefabricated outlet arrived in three pieces: front half, back half, and end cap that bridged the two retail parts. The first section to arrive was the “back” half of the store, which has only a single door facing Bronson. Most of the store will face the gas station itself. A convenience store needs some solid walls for the “wall of freezers” so it couldn’t have a glass front on Bronson. Maybe the lessons of this installation will improve for the next one.

The store section arrived on a giant flatbed, and was hoisted off by a crane:

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the section was carefully put down on the blocks:

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The tiny metal tab will be screwed to the  concrete pillar foundation. That’s it, just a few bolts is all that will hold it in place (don’t slam the door on the way out):

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The workers on site moved quickly, as the next section was en route. All three sections were scheduled to be installed on the same day. The crane and installation crews would work until the job was complete. Workers told me they were eating at the Yang Sheng restaurant across the street, and thought it pretty good.

The distant sound of sirens and electronic whoops heralded the arrival of section two, escorted up Somerset Street by two police cars leading a long parade of No 2 buses and cars, who were about to be delayed another thirty minutes while the “storefront” section was put into the lot:


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Squint at the photo below and you can see the retail portion of the store came complete with glass front, doors, finished ceilings, light fixtures, and shelving units. This must have been quite the sight on the 401 (the trucks — and presumably the modules — came from Grimsby, Ontario).

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In the midst of the traffic chaos and pedestrian scramble to squeeze around the trucks, Ottawa’s bravest decided to return two fire trucks to the No 2 Station on Preston. They could obviously see the traffic tie up but that didn’t detour them at all. The aerial ladder truck made it by the storefront, stopped under the Chinatown Royal Arch, much easier than the pumper did:

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The giant flatbed with its over-wide load took quite a while to jiggle into the lot, here supervised by a mythical Chinese guardian lion, aided and abetted by Canada Post:

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The flatbad was driving over the curb and sidewalks repeatedly, while pedestrians and cyclists squeezed by. Apparently, giant trucks manoeuvring on sidewalks doesn’t warrant much safety concern, unlike, say, a giant elk outstanding in a field:

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The front section of the pop-up convenience store finally slips into the lot. It was very tight.

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The only damage was a slight scrape to the side of the store structure where it rubbed the concrete base of a utility pole:

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New developments on Bronson

Two new developments are coming forward on Bronson Avenue. One very big; one very small. One by a big Toronto developer; the other by a local.

The small one is for a demolition and infill on the west side of Bronson between Christie and Gladstone. The proponent has tentative plans for a three storey infill, consisting of a ground level business, with two floors of apartments above. Both apartments are three bedrooms and the layout is conducive to family living. There is also a proposed basement apartment. The building is snuggled up to the north side of the lot, with the driveway to three rear parking spaces and many of the windows facing south.

394 bronson site plan


Don’t squint too hard at the site map set into the bottom right corner of the picture above, as it is for somewhere else, in Orleans, not Ottawa.

This type of small scale infill generally receives support from the local community association. It has been our theme for some time now that it is important to preserve low rise zoning in the established parts of Little Italy and Chinatown so that smaller developers can acquire lots and redevelop the west side in an incremental and organic way. (Big developers should be playing in the vacant brownfields).  In contrast, the City has been following a “plan for very high rises” approach, which requires land assembly. A number of the resultant proposals, eg Taggart’s on Norman Street, are sorely out of scale. Neighbourhood busting is the result of vacant lots and boarded up houses awaiting demolition.

Mind, the City is not all sweetness and light on the small Bronson project either. Recall that the fight over a road diet for the Bronson traffic sewer lead last year by Rescue Bronson. The group “lost” the fight for a complete street, but did force the City to greatly enhance the landscaping, some of which occurred on adjacent private lands. So the City proceeded to rebuild Bronson in that dreadful four lane format leftover from the ignorant ’50’s. But it hasn’t removed from the books its earlier idea to widen the street. So our newly reconstructed Bronson, set to last another century in its current format, requires new buildings to be set back another 3m so that the road can be widened some day. Welcome to planning in Ottawa.

The second development proposal for Bronson is from the Brad Lamb corp of Toronto. They are hinting at a proposal for 196 Bronson, the Ottawa Construction Association HQ at the top of Bronson Hill. That large land assembly was accomplished in the usual way: acquire adjacent single house, abandon it, dilapidate it, board it up, wait til neighbours complain of vandalism, offer to tear it down, expand parking lot. The land assembly now includes significant frontage on Bronson and runs through the lot to Cambridge Street. It is the turquoise bordered square below:

196 bronson zoning map


West of the site is St Vincent Hospital; on the opposite site of Bronson are two apartment towers and the Bronson Centre (former Immaculata HS). Immediately north are heritage-zoned properties, actually home of Heritage Canada. The height limit on the subject land is currently 14.5m.


Interestingly, there is a similar sized land assembly further south on Bronson, at Carling, where Montreal developer Samcon is proposing a condo.

For this lot, however, Brad Lamb has rejigged his SOBA project, rearranging the blocks a bit, to propose this:

196 bronson brad lamb view 1


196 bronson brad lamb view 2


Presumably the taller portion is on the Bronson side and the lower on the Cambridge side, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s the other way around. From the top of Bronson Hill, the views to the north, east, and west will be stunning, and it’s a short walk downtown to make up for the lack of amenities along Bronson.

No word yet if the ground floor will be street-enlivening commercial space or just parking garage, such as Charlesfort likes to provide on the ground floors of its downtown condos (see Bronson at Powell).

Recall that Bronson functions so badly that the City discourages commercial development along the road, most recently trying to close out an already-open doctor’s office because it might aggravate traffic congestion. Highrises won’t cause any congestion, however, because the City says so.

Presumably the garage entrance will be off quieter Cambridge, since the City prioritizes commuter traffic over local access. This will give new residents a sort of video-game experience with the wheel chair bound residents of St Vincent Hospital, co-located on Cambridge.

Chinatown shown the door

Or maybe, Chinatown shows the door. Because the Chinatown BIA has embarked on an ambitious scheme to improve the physical look of the properties along the street by painting the doors and façades of various buildings. Not the whole buildings, but the parts closest up to pedestrians on the walkways.

They have commissioned the concepts from the Ottawa School of Art. These were on display to the public and merchants last week. Now the schemes will be revised to reflect the comments of viewers, and painting the doors and some windows will commence later this month.

The CBIA focussed on some of the more dilapidated doorways, those that enter non-public spaces (ie, service doors), and windows of active businesses as well as some of the storefronts used primarily for storage or wholesale purposes.

Here are some of the works:

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Above: painting an unloved doorway with flowers.




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Above: Painting the door AND the side panels and roof

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Above: painting the panels under an active shop window.

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above: painting some “filler panels” where previous doorways and windows have been blocked up

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above: painting on boarded up windows

My pic of one one concept did not come out. You will have to look for it on the street. The concept was to take a recessed doorway and the side windows leading into it, and painting a trompe d’oeil so that it looks like a curtain now hangs over the recess.

Yet another thing to liven up the neighbourhood and another reason to get out and walk.

A little rain for the Urban Food desert

Much of the west side of downtown Ottawa is a food desert. Consolidation has been happening in the grocery business for a long time. Individual vegetable mongers and butchers gave way to the one-stop shopping convenience of the groceteria, then the larger grocery store, and most recently the Superstore, whether in big-box malls or spread across the urban fabric.

The resulting decline and disappearance of the smaller stores inevitably leaves some greater distance between the remaining or new grocery outlets. This space is sometimes called a food desert. Like any ecosystem, it also offers a niche for the nimble and specialized.

Walking along Somerset just a few doors west of Rochester I found a small raincloud of hope. Urban Grocery and Fine Foods has just opened. I talked to Jeanette about her hopes for the store.

As befitting the first day open status, there were more package goods than fresh. But there was fresh bread, dairy, and fruit. She plans to expand these departments as sales increase and turnover justifies bringing in more perishables. It’s the old chicken and egg situation. Speaking of which, eggs were reasonably priced. The supplying dairy is Cochrane’s which is apparently reputed to be more creamy than the mass-market dairies.

The store decor had a variety of “retro” fixtures:

The store stocks are variety of goods with an emphasis on local suppliers, fair trade, gluten-free, organics, etc. Obviously, she cannot compete with the giants on price, but the store is big enough to have a good selection of stuffs for the speciality market and the in-between grocery runs.

Her main outside sign isn’t yet up, but the store is easy to spot by the colourful window paintings.

Outside on the sidewalk I spotted a Zodiac Mouse twitching his nose in anticipation of a morsel of cheese. For Mr Mouse and the residents in the area, the drought may be ending.

The shadow knows …


The city can talk all it wants about how walking, cycling and transit are high on its list of priorities, but the real test is where the feet hit the ground, the wheel hits the pavement, etc.

An attractive, safe-feeling pedestrian environment welcomes walking, so that it becomes a desirable thing to do, rather than a “have to” or “should do”. Goodness knows, we have been very successful in making motor car travel the default choice. This bias in the public realm won’t be undone overnight.

But sometimes there are very little measures that really help. The benches along our newly rebuilt traditional mainstreets in Chinatown, Little Italy, West Wellington, Westboro, Bank Street … all help make the walk more attractive for a larger segment of the population.

New technology opens up new possibilities. The Chinatown benches, for example, have laser cut steel backs. The Asian motif helps reinforce the character of the street and ‘brands’ the experience. And there are very subtle, unexpected benefits too. Consider the interesting shadow cast by this bench:



The shadow alone will never make you walk the street. Nor will the inset zodiac features. Or the ped lighting. Or the decorative garbage cans. Red bricks do not compel me to walk. But together, the synergy builds to an invitation to walk.

Main street’s modal split

Annie Hillis of the West Wellington BIA (WWBIA) sent me the following data. They conducted a four-day survey in June, asking 830 people found along their typical older-city main street how they came to the street, their post code, and their shopping habits. The WWBIA main street runs roughly from Bayswater westwards along Somerset & West Wellington to Island Park.

The modal split numbers surprised me. 

Forty six percent of those found along the street got there by walking; 26% by car; 13% by bike; twelve percent by bus (numbers throughout this story are rounded off).

Only 26% by car? That’s pretty low. And it seems it’s always traffic and car parking issues that people focus on whenever there is a city study, infill project, proposed high rise condo, or cycling or sidewalk improvement.

Granted, West Wellie has an extensive hinterland of houses and some major apartment buildings on both sides of it, so it is in the centre of its market zone.

In contrast, the Preston BIA (“Little Italy”) lacks a hinterland on its west (cut off by the OTrain cut). There is lots of vacant land to the north, and south, due to our civic fathers’ foresight in “slum clearance” without the “urban renewal” that was supposed to follow along.

Many of the merchants along Preston have a regional and ethnic focus, drawing all over the central urban area for clientelle. I don’t know of any merchants who actually live in the neighborhood anymore, so they end up with a “windshield mentality” whereby they judge things by the way they live and move, which is behind the wheel of a car.

Chinatown actually has a hinterland to the south; and a truncated one to the north (the LeBreton Flats area was cleared in the early 60’s; 600 homes were built in the early 80’s; and now some apartments are being built albeit not yet contiguous with the existing neighborhood. But its merchants by and large are also focussed on a narrow market segment. They also cling to the notion they are a regional draw, which is less true every year; they haven’t yet switched gears to serving the local market (yes, there are some dependent on a very local area draw, but they tend to be newer businesses, smaller ones, not yet calling the shots the way the established Asian businesspeople do). The lesson from West Wellie might be that more goods and services aimed at the adjacent neighborhood would be viable. And that infill projects and intensification would be good for business.

So, back to the 46% who walked to West Wellie. About 78% of them lived close to the street, in the same post code. Not surprising, as distance grew between the shopping street and residence they were more likely to use bike and bus. A surprising  6% of the walkers lived quite far away from the street, many in Gatineau. I suspect they didn’t walk from home, more likely they walked from work at Tunney’s Pasture or other employers in the area.

Fifty three percent of the cyclists (who, recall, comprise 13% of the people surveyed) also lived within the KIY post code, showing once again how bikes are convenient for quick shopping and main street business. West Wellie makes a big deal of how it welcomes cyclists; I don’t sense the same welcome in some other neighborhoods.

Motorists made up 26% of the found ins along the street. Of them, 16% resided in the K1Y post code zone; 25% resided in nearby zones; 32% in other Ottawa zones; and almost 7% from Gatineau.

In general, those who walked and biked came more frequently to the area; 70% of walkers spent money weekly; 62% of bikers spent money weekly. This is in contrast to motorists, only 36% of whom visited and spent money regularly.  In fact, 38% of motorists were infrequent shoppers in the area (less than once a week), whereas only 10% of walkers and 11% of cyclists were infrequent shoppers.

Who shops, what they spend, how often they spend, and what mode of transport they use, makes for a fun data set. But the data is also dependent on the current make up of the surrounding neighborhood. There is still an abundance of low-income households in the area, who maybe don’t have a car. So it would be risky to extrapolate the current modal breakout to newcomers in the area, who may be of a more affluent character. Are people walking by choice, or by necessity?

It would be of interest to canvas residents of some of the new, upscale infill developments (eg St George’s Court) or condos to see if their behaviour is “normalized” after they have been in the ‘hood for a year or two. Just how important is walkability to their decision to live where they do; and do they exercise that desire or not?

I’d love to see similar survey data collected on a regular basis for all the traditional main streets, perhaps every second or third year. I’m sure shopping centres collect that sort of data even more often to ‘prove’ their value to tenants. It’s time for the City and BIA’s to document and track changes to their market area on a regular cycle. Only with facts can we manage growth and change.