The existing development of the Flats now underway, could have been better.
Today, let’s look at a number of obvious “misses”.
Then, in subsequent days, we’ll look at Windmill’s The Isles.ca project; then what could go on the next phase of the Flats; and then what another city, somewhat renowed for its planning, did with their urban industrial conversion to new urbanist mecca (with lots of pictures….).
The NCC and City actually get along, sometimes. Other times, they are competitive. Even spiteful. The City was not in a good mood when it hammered out a development deal with the NCC for the Flats. For example, accepted best urban design calls for trees along the curb, setting the pedestrian sidewalk back a bit from the motor traffic. It also serves to visually narrow the road right of way, calming traffic. The City absolutely forbade the NCC to plant trees between the sidewalk and curb. Thus the harsh streetscape not just at the Claridge condos but out by the War Museum. And this restriction continues for the next Claridge buildings and the development along Booth. The City does not impose this elsewhere in the city, just in this special place. And in contrast, the city plan for its street — Albert — is well landscaped with tree traffic splitter islands, inner and outer boulevards, bike tracks, etc (this is the 2018 build, not the bus-intensive temporary layout you see going in now):
I have talked to senior NCC planners several times to encourage them to get this restriction on their streetscapes removed, but thus far they have shown zero interest.
The City wanted some conspicuously “public”, “affordable” social housing units. No developer wants to handicap a new development out of the gate with the cheapest, most problematic housing setting the stage, so that building was put into one of the latter blocks to be developed. A block facing Booth Street. But the building needs to meet the long-term elevation of Booth once the LeBreton LRT station is built, and that would be about sixteen feet higher than it is now. And the City wouldn’t build the new Booth without Federal money (it’s their project, they can pay for it...as one city rep told me) , which eventually it got through the LRT joint funding agreement. Within a year or so, Booth will be at the new elevation, and the social housing component won’t be held hostage by either party. Unless they can find a new squabble.
Until then, the new condos sit in bleak isolation. So close to the LeBreton transit station, but a hellish walk to get there, running a gauntlet of parked cars and trucks, on sidewalk-free mud-rich Fleet Street busy with dumptrucks:
Myopically, planners think this OK because residents can walk out on the north side of the buildings and walk uptown along Wellington, as if everyone works downtown, or only wants to go downtown, never anywhere else, and don’t mind the cold northwest winds, and certainly not go anywhere by [ughh…] bus.
Out in the sticks, developers usually “front end” parkland, if only for initial grading and greening, so that buyers have confidence they won’t be in a construction site forever, and the kids will have somewhere to play and the dogs to poop. On the Flats, parkland is being developed one building parcel at a time. Did no one consider the utility of a bike path being built in 100′ segments, not to be completed until the very last building is built? Or that buyers might like to see growing trees, not just transplants?
If the NCC and City had wanted to, they could have developed the aqueduct into a linear park at the beginning, and trees would be 20 years mature by time the latter buildings are constructed, and buyers would feel they were some place. Instead, this downtown site looks suburban bare, like a converted farm field.
Or worse. Here was the office tower / embassy component site, right in front of the buildings, looking like Beruit / Bagdad / Aleppo on a good day. It took a lot of confidence to buy a home facing a debris-scattered pit:
Fortunately, the NCC is now filling in this pit and landscaping it. But why $3 million now, for a “temporary” landscaping feature to create a “bold drive by experience”, when they couldn’t put trees, landscaping, or a path in advance of residents for fear construction might disturb it later? Does it really take an annoyed cabinet minister to get tired of the view to demand something better? Can we get cabinet ministers to use transit?
And this is avoiding comment on how well the city develops and [doesn’t] maintain its share of the bits of finished parkland.
Now planners could point to the park in front of the War Museum as developed green space. On paper, it meets the checklist: trees, check. Grass, check. Paved paths, check. Benches, check. Animation, check (if only for two weeks of NoiseFest). But compare the boring, flat, minimally developed space with say, Confederation Park, or Major’s Hill, and the inutility of the park for use by the residential public becomes obvious. Like the Fallen FireFighter’s Monument, it is designed for occasional use, to be a nice drive-by, and utterly unused most of the time. Maybe, once the Flats is more built out, and if it is built with lots of residences, and maybe a hotel or two, the park could be augmented with shrubs and people-user-friendly features.
Where is there a play structure or tot lot or pathway bench for the residents of the new buildings? Perhaps they are supposed to load their kids into the car seat in the underground garage and drive somewhere else for little Chloe to eat some sand?
The Flats was, like all good new urbanist projects, to be mixed use. Alas, the site reserved for the offices / embassies remains unwanted, depriving the area of ongoing activity and customers for commercial space. Other major redevelopments offer incentives to early commercial tenants or find some user for the office building. But here, the NCC handed off the site to another department, and heavens, no department dare talk to another. Silos are sacred. In a few days,when we look at another project similar to LeBreton, we’ll see in some detail how well they promoted — and attained — a vibrant mixed use right out of the gate.
Claridge rented out one store front in the first building for a while, but the tenant disappeared. A subsidy or below-market rent may have been necessary until enough people moved in to support a shop. Community building isn’t necessarily self supporting before the residents are all there. Another developer is putting its vacant storefronts in Ashcroft Canyon to good use for seasonal and pop up stores. If you are looking for a condo, the Flats area still feels isolated, barren, inactive, dead. The closest business, the Mill Street Brew Pub, is geographically close but feels distant.
Not unexpectedly, the NCC wants to minimize the land take for streets in the new neighbourhood. This includes Booth. So they agreed, some time ago, for a maximum width for Booth. Which the City is reconstructing (work starts in early 2015) almost entirely as a road (not a street) for fast commuting. No treed boulevard. No bike track. No “complete street”. Just ugly. Worse than Bronson, except newer.
And the NCC is going along with it. A much better street could be achieved by increasing the right of way just a bit, to allow for a centre boulevard, a plant strip along the curb, bike track, sidewalk, and a friendly street frontage, while preventing the city from turning all into commuter lanes. Instead, senior NCC planners looked agape at me when I reminded them that THEIR plan for the Flats called for storefronts along Booth, curbside parking, as a traditional main street with storefronts, with apartments above. Somehow, Booth remains disconnected in City and NCC planners’ minds from the principles of good planning and the long term goals of redeveloping the Flats, to say nothing of mismatching their agreed-upon designs for The Isles development.
Another missed opportunity comes at Bayview Station. The City and NCC identified that this station was on a high point of land, with great (potential) views of the downtown and Ottawa River. But after identifying the view potential, and after acknowledging the dramatic place-building opportunity they had, the City decided its LRT stations must reflect our mayor’s frugality (as if capitalizing on a view costs money…) and be simply applied engineering solutions, so the design was tweaked to ignore (if not actually spite) the views and place making opportunities. The City absolutely refuses to talk to the NCC about doing better here, because of its policy to focus only on the big “asks” for the major stations, like downtown and the western parkway.
In turn, the NCC continues to focus on motorists’ views — but never transit’s — along the western commuter expressway and the protected view plane for motorists from Greber’s Prince of Wales railway bridge overpass/hill, and even the motorist view plane from Holland Avenue to Tunney’s Pasture, and ignores the tens of thousands of future daily users of the Bayview Station where the Confederation and Trillium lines meet, and the LRT network that will extend (someday) to Gatineau. That transit users are human, or even tourists, still escapes their 1970’s-car-centric thinking.
There are signs of change at the NCC, and with some intervention, Kristmanson and Watson could still authorize slight changes to the Bayview platform to make it a significant public place with a focussed view line to the downtown. If only.
Aside from stations, the new Confederation line track runs through the Flats. Lots of new buildings will overlook it. Is there any effort to “green” the tracks? In European countries especially the track right of way is landscaped and well considered. Other than specifying some trees and shrubs be planted along the right of way, no one here views it as a visual asset. We landscape streets and roads, and maintain verges and rights of way, but the rail rights of way are largely ignored, perhaps a legacy of their industrial past or a product of city and NCC planners and managers not being transit users. Any bets our LRT corridors will look this nice?:
Could the NCC miss anything else? Why yes. The Flats master plan calls for a major pedestrian and cyclist north south alignment that runs roughly from Rochester to Broad Street alignment, across the aqueduct via one of the historic bridges, out to the Museum park (the paved walkway is already installed there) and then over top of the War Museum via the pathway already in place there, and then over the [being rebuilt now] ped bridge from the back of the Museum over the water channel to the Isles development site. Whew. Will be great when its finished. Except … the City has “forgotten” to provide a crossing of the Confederation Line tracks and the NCC has neglected to insist on one. Oops. The time to install a crossing, especially if it is an underpass, is before the tracks are laid, not after.
The Flats still has enormous potential. More buildings means more life. More buildings change the scale and foster acceptance of development. More varied users add life all day. The NCC is finally adding some more green amenity space. The Pimisi and Bayview Stations will appear over the next three years, dramatically altering the perception of the Flats from being no-where to being wonderful. Planners have to focus on the future community, and the city fabric, and less on the area as a place to drive-through-to-somewhere-else.
And we must avoid the temptation of some grand mega-building or mega-institution dropping out of the sky to solve all our problems. Which is the subject coming up next, when the Senators come marching in.