Last winter, Domtar knocked down an elderly mill building on the Islands in the Ottawa River. Great consternation arose, as they did it Without Consulting the Bureaucrats. Priceless heritage lost!
Like a dog with a bone, the media and planning pundits worried about the lost potential for a vibrant outdoorsy urban waterfront à la Granville Island or The Distillery in Toronto. Few people seemed to notice that Victoria Island is one of the windiest, coldest, bleakest spots in Ottawa, a far remove from sunny* Granville Island or the spirits factory in Toronto. Numerous calls were made for the Distillery Folks to come to Ottawa and Save Our Historic Neighborhood.
I had visited the Distillery District in Toronto last year. It was a rainy day when I visited. I didn’t come away quite as enthused as other observers; it was too much a tourist theme park rather than a real neighborhood (such as the Danforth). That might come in time, though, as urban renewal migrated east of the downtown core.
So a few weeks ago, I dutifully trotted over to take a gander at the Famous Place. It is indeed well done. I kept thinking of Victoria Island and also of Our Lady of the Condos on Richmond Road. What would the convent site in Westboro be like if the Distillery Corporation had bought it?
This dramatic modern interpretation of a flatiron building greets visitors walking from the downtown. Unflinchingly modern, it perches cheek-by-jowel with the original Distillery structures.
Now, as the Friendly Giant might say, Look Up. Way way up:
Yup, that’s one big highrise. And it’s not the only one. Here’s a bird’s eye view of the block, courtesy of Google. Notice how close the very high rises are to the antique Distillery heritage structures. can you imagine Ottawans or our planning folks saying this is compatible development? Our community associations would explode in a burst of dust.
the google view doesn’t quite capture the actual height contrast between the old and new, so here is another angle:
And yet, on the ground, in the Distillery precinct itself, the walking environment is pleasant, the view primarily of the podiums and low rises, with the glass towers somewhat receding and by no means omnipresent or hulking over the place like some overpowering manifestation of Nasty Developer Greed.
Here is the latest tower going up right at the eastern edge of the Distillery buildings, as of yesterday:
So what if Ashcroft proposes a forty storey glass condo to replace the much-maligned four storey seniors residence on the south side of the convent site in Westboro? Would it “ruin” the site? Would the contrast “destroy” the heritage? Would the car traffic render Westboro chaos? (note that these Toronto towers plus a bunch more proposed ones exit onto ordinary city streets similar to Richmond Road and Byron. There is no subway presence in the area, but like Westboro an LRT is on the way).
The Distillery neighborhood gives me great pause to ponder the merit of high rise vs low rise intensification arguments. And puts the Lansdowne and Convent site controversies into a different context. Do we really want the Distillery folks to redevelop Victoria Island? Or the convent? Let’s be a bit more careful about what we wish for.
Perhaps we should have had a wide-open international competition for those sites, where proponents would be invited to come up with their own land use mix and urban developments. Might have been interesting.
But naah, we are much too timid to allow that. We’d get something else … say Lansdowne Park, or LeBreton Flats…
*sarcasm. irony. whatever.