Civic Gateways (absence of)

Ottawa is nicer than many other cities. Despite the criticisms of the NCC, they do engage in long term planning and city building that generates a sense of grandeur or pride. Without them, Ottawa would be vastly impoverished, just another short-sighted mid-sized city planned with short term expediency the governing rule.

Ottawa is engaged in a worthwhile planning exercise for the downtown core, called Downtown Moves (DOMO). The removal of the bus lanes by 2017-18 creates the opportunity to remake the surface streets in a more livable and pleasant way. And not just replace the bus lanes with parking lanes. For this strategic thinking the city must be lauded.

But only if this isn’t just another expensive study that sits on a shelf being ignored.

One of the shortfalls of the City is its lack of considering large-scale gestures that make a place identifiable. Virtually all of Ottawa’s iconic sites, parks, and monuments are Federal. DOMO opens the door a crack (albeit a very small, understated crack) to something a bit grander.

One of the distinguishing features of Ottawa is the number of Y-shaped or triangular intersections. Confederation Square is the major iconic one and is the number one identifying feature/place of downtown Ottawa, despite it being a somewhat lifeless square much of the time. It’s not so much a place as somewhere to cross through.

DOMO identified a bunch of threshold points that separate the Town from the Crown. I think they understated the potential of the other civic gateway points.

The two gateway opportunities that might be very useful are at either “end” of the Albert – Slater one way pair. At the eastern end, the triangle is nicely landscaped (by the NCC) but it is elevated and is merely a traffic island on the roof of the NAC garage. It’s visibility is not helped by the McKenzie King bridge being mostly a bus road, where uses look out the side windows of the bus rather than forward.

I think this site has enormous potential for a monumental gateway feature with high visibility, without interrupting the Elgin – War Memorial axis. And this not need mean an expensive feature. The function of planning is to identify the opportunity, and preserve the spot, so that at some future time when a monument or feature is looking for a home, there are prime spots available.

Here is a closer up view, which gives a better idea of the significant area available:

The old Lorne Building along Elgin was recently demolished and a new EDC-clone building is going up in its place, which will provide a slightly more uniform backdrop to the vista.

One of the appealing things about the triangle is its similar shape to the War Memorial triangular-square. The section of Albert by the NAC is currently pretty much a pedestrian and urban wasteland, despite the pretty music being played by Oscar Peterson. The NAC is toying with some strategic plans to improve their building, including a main entrance on Elgin, and enclosing the largely-unused rooftop terraces with glazing to make conference or performance spaces. This could enliven the sidewalks which are wide but dead right now.

And at the other end of the downtown, Albert and Slater rejoin. The current configuration at the western edge of the core is another make-do compromise. Albert is overly wide west of Bronson; Slater is routed along the former streetcar right of way along the escarpment. Both sections of road west of Bronson are candidates for road diets once the transitway is replaced by the LRT-in-a-tunnel.

Long term thinking calls for the removal of Commissioner Street between Albert and Slater, to “regularize” the intersection, and the relocation of Slater to be more like this:

The above scheme was drawn by traffic engineers to optimise/maximize traffic flow. It would not be difficult to overlay a city-building, livable streets type revision.

Alas, the area is “outside” the DOMO study zone by 30 feet. And the Bronson reconstruction project (now underway) won’t be considering it. Nor will the Albert reconstruction project (2013+) which runs west from the putative join of Albert-Slater at the current debouche of the transitway. In short, no one is responsible, and the opportunity may simply die.

It’s main hope lies in that it is symmetrical to the eastern gateway point at the NAC, and just might get roped into the plan because of the planner’s love of symmetry and balance. But I’m not too hopeful. Throughout the DOMO process I found their interest and keenness to be on the east side of the downtown, how it relates to Rideau Street or Elgin, and to Parliament (all of which are proper areas of study) but whenever I brought up the west side, how people might get from the Future City on LeBreton Flats, or old Dalhousie neighborhood, or Chinatown, their eyes glazed over and pat phrases about “other studies” tumbled out. The near west side remains unfashionable.

But the DOMO study is not yet put to bed (or on the shelf, as the case may be) so I still have hope someone might spend a day looking at the west side of the downtown core. I am always an optimist. There is always hope.

5 thoughts on “Civic Gateways (absence of)

    1. the NCC plan falls very much into the Town – Crown gateways concept. I am lamenting the lack of a Civic (ie, local, Ottawa) gateway and the civic streets (albert, slater) that could have gateway features and functions but don’t. The NCC is concerned with pomp and ceremony and Bill Clinton visiting; I’m more focussed on Joe Taxpayer going to work or shop in the downtown.
      thanks for reading,

      1. I guess I was hopeing that the lamentable pedestrian underpass would be lit on fire and set sail down the Ottawa River. I haven’t seen any DOMO docs that address this important ped link. I could care less about the pomp and stomp. I am just tired of being treated like a city rat.

  1. Getting to this late, but the gateway opportunity that excites me is the intersection of Bank Street and Wellington. Not because it’s an important site now, but because it once was and could be again – particularly the area North of Wellington between the street and the River.
    It’s historically the area where the main downtown business district connected with the parliamentary precinct, the old Western gate to Lover’s Walk, and the main access point to the Ottawa River waterfront from downtown. Right now it’s an ugly set of parking lots, parliamentary security facilities, and other afterthoughts. Oh, and more parking. To me this would be the ideal place for a public square with a wide pedestrian route down to the river, AND in the ideal world, also some low-scale commercial amenities – restaurants, coffeeshops, and such to create a natural public gathering space.

  2. I did see plans at one point about 10 years ago to replace the parking lots North of Wellington at bank and put something nice in there. They were probably shelved 9 years ago. The NCC is great at drawing up plans of grand boulevards and writing grand documents with 50 year planning horizons, by which time the world will be unrecognizable and many of today’s ideas of urban planning will be proven horribly wrong.

    This is almost better than the alternative, which is to have an NCC that actually follows through on their grand but misguided visions.

    Which gets me to my main point, The NCC does do long-term planning, and attempts to city build, but what of those plans has made Ottawa a better city? It’s a hard thing to say for sure how the city would have evolved without the NCC, but given their propensity to bulldoze and wipe whole neighbourhoods off the map, replacing it with nothing, I have a hard time putting any faith in their planning nous.

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