On Elgin street: Doing better, still room for improvement

So I whine a lot about planning in Ottawa. That other cities do better. Such cherry picking is easy. It’s time to acknowledge some things done right. Let’s go down to Elgin Street.

The new office building on Elgin Street, opposite City Hall and the Courthouse, may forever be referred to by oldies like me as the “Friday’s Roast Beef building”. Being sans expense account, I won’t gain familiarity with the new occupant of the historic old house, Beckta’s. Others may refer to it as the place where the concert hall isn’t. While I was there just yesterday, damn if I can remember its name. Must have been catchy.

The new office tower with the NZHC, Shopify, and  KPMG, does have some interesting features. There is a seventh floor terrace, open to the public, accessible from an elevator at the Elgin Street entrance. It offers some nifty views:

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It is really nice to have a building with real physical stepbacks, not just the “drawn on” stepbacks Ottawa planners are too inclined to approve. The stepbacks, like on the new Flaherty building just up the street, reduce crowding on the street facade and let in light and air. Too bad the City isn’t inclined to think they are good ideas elsewhere. Our new “unified” TMS zoning will codify that all traditional mainstreets should have six storey buildings along the sidewalks, ensuring dimness on both sides of the street.

It is also a useful contrast to compare the new building with its seventh floor stepback to the adjacent Place Bell with no building stepback but a much larger street level setback / plaza in the NYC style. Hmm. Place Bell, however, is forever condemned in my mind for its multi storey parking garage occupying the west end of its block.

The terrace includes an artsy garden terrace and seasonal display like this, repeated elsewhere around the complex:

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Kudos to Ottawa building managers who are putting out nice displays of plants and other citizen-friendly features in the downtown. It partly makes up for the niggardliness of the City’s non-landscaping efforts in the heart of the downtown.

Down at street level, there are a number of trees set in the sidewalks, including some long linear beds that offer a much better chance for trees to grow and thrive. Long time readers of WSA will have seen many examples of these plant strips, but always from elsewhere. Now we have a few in Ottawa.

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As much as I like the planting strips, the sidewalk did not feel generous when walking along the street. The Bell building sidewalk across the street looked much more inviting, with mature trees and abundant sidewalk space.

Typically for small-town thinking, we decided that short term storage of automobiles was the most important use of the public space along this building. The space would have been waaaaay more attractive and vital feeling with the planter pushed out eight feet into the parking lane. The Scone Witch could then have offered a three season patio. Sidewalk life in Ottawa? Perish the thought.

Perhaps we can yet encourage the city to remove parking space in the summer to make room for patios, as is done in Big Cities like Montreal:


The north side of the building, set back from Laurier, snuck in an entrance via the parking lot of the adjacent church. I really like the sidewalk-in-a-parking lot execution, it’s a sort of  naked street design that might actually work since automobiles don’t drastically outnumber pedestrians.


A bit further north, occupying the former Lorne Building site (are old folks like me forever doomed to remember everything but what they used to be?) is the new Flaherty Building. The building shape is a bunch of varied cubes stacked up. While rigid, it is somewhat pleasing.


The south side has a street-level bike garage (tenants only) which is a first for Ottawa. Much as I like it, as a symbol of active transportation and progressive thought, I also wonder if it isn’t just a variation on a ground floor parking garage for cars — maybe a retail use would have been a better use.



The Flaherty building is distinctive at night. It’s top floors glow brightly, like a beacon. The lighting is not Blue. While other Ottawa buildings have had nighttime lighting plans (eg World Exchange Plaza) there isn’t the distinctive night time environment that lighting creates in other cities. Ottawa planners specifically ruled out having a lighting plan for the cluster of tall towers planned for Preston/Carling, Ottawa’s “new downtown gateway”. Too ambitious, maybe?

Inside, the Flaherty lobby is a series of vacuously large but not grand enough to say WOW lobbies that interconnect on several levels across the split-level site (the Laurier side being a story lower than the Slater side, and Elgin being on the slope.

There is a “green wall” in the lobby (add to the ones at Minto Place, U of O, and Algonquin College). While these walls are supposed to purify air, I don’t see much benefit in them being in lobbies where people just pass through, since the revolving exterior doors let in wafts of outside air. Greenwall greenwashing? Conspicuous environmentalism?


The Flaherty building landscaping on the Elgin side is somewhat brutal, I was left wondering why there was a wide field of rough cobbles around the trees — they don’t expand the sidewalk, they aren’t for walking on, they’re just some sort of barrier. Why isn’t this space a lush planting bed?


and minimal on the side streets too… Sort of like politics, flashy upfront but something else off to the side…


The KPMG building has better side treatments, and the best handling of a heritage building incorporated into a new development that I have seen in Ottawa, and definitely world class. They have a welcoming pedestrian entrance on the Elgin side:



The new buildings along Elgin demonstrate the planning ideas percolating into Ottawa. They have some better features and spaces than the buildings we had before these. Although Place Bell and Place de Ville have space around them that can be relandscaped according to need fashion, which these built-to-the-lot-line ones don’t.

Both the buildings overlook Elgin Street, which north of Laurier is a sad traffic sewer. One has to go to heritage photos to see when there used to be a landscaped centre boulevard like Greber planned, but which we sacrificed to getting car commuters out of the core promptly at five       four thirty        four       three thirty     three oclock.

I remain hopeful  we can continue on a track to even better buildings tomorrow. There’s just gotta be a pony in here somewhere.

3 thoughts on “On Elgin street: Doing better, still room for improvement

  1. I am condemned to recalling buildings by their former names….but the alternative is to forget. Yikes.

    It would be interesting to have city lighting that enhances downtown and at the same time considers all that we now know about obnoxious lighting that is even unsafe. There is plenty of room for exploring this to get a creative balance. Royal Astronomy Society of Canada, Ottawa Centre has much information to take into consideration in the overall plans. What other cities have both beautiful lighting and Dark Skies sensibilities? Tucson is amazing, but where else I wonder. My favourite downtown lighting view is in the Christmas season from the Laurier Bridge. It’s magical, even mysterious and full of life, all at once. More please.

  2. “ensuring dimness on both sides of the street.”

    Can you point out an Ottawa street with six-storey buildings on it that is currently suffering from such “dimness”?

  3. This summer I went to a free concert in the “Friday’s Roast Beef Tower”, two historic string instruments were played by fantastic musicians. The music was lovely, the space was crammed with people (there was lots of us) and the air conditioning extremely loud. So nice effort but this space is still just a stylist entrance to an office building.

    A very nice example of a business that contributes to street landscaping is Takaki’s on Somerset. I love their new Japanese-themed planter!

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