Firestone speaks

Last week, the Dalhousie Community Association, of which I am the outgoing president, held its annual AGM. Last year our speaker was John Doran from Domicile, speaking on how to cost out a condo project.

This year, we had Dr Bruce Firestone, best known as founder of the Senators. Until recently he was a professor of entrepreneurship at Ottawa U. He has been an engineer, real estate developer, hockey guy, professor of architecture, engineering, and business, a mortgage broker, author, parent, etc.

He is an engaging speaker. He talks with confidence born of personal experience on the topic and the confidence that comes from regularly lecturing students. Over the next few days, his Powerpoint pages will be presented here, along with some commentary. Of course, if you had attended the meeting you could have avoided my commentary, but getting this second hand means you get some comments too.

Dr Firestone’s topic was Intensification — boon or bane?

The comment in the first slide, about going for an RFP, makes sense from a “gathering ideas” perspective, but the Flats is a site of national significance, and great value to the City (not that you’d know it lately by their behaviour). There is no way that any of the multitude of parties would simply open the site up to see what the private sector might come up with. There were too many agendas: the affordable housing lobby, the national institutions lobby, the keep the rich off the waterfront lobby, the keep the waterfront green and public (and largely unused) lobby, etc.

The Jim McCauley quote above is very interesting and very revealing. First, he conveniently reminds us why we are called the Dalhousie Community Assoc (because we were Dalhousie Ward from about 1873 to amalgamation in 2000). Then note that he is a young boy, so the neighborhood was safe enough for a child to go around unattended, and presumably cross the streets. Corner stores — we still have some of those. They add life and interest to the street, especially if it is mostly walk-up traffic. The boy checked signs, so he could interact with the merchant or feel confident enough to rearrange displays.   In short, a very different life from the modern child who lives in post-1945 neighborhoods where he spends most of his life indoors, or strapped in a car seat, geographically illiterate, and under-exercised. Mind, I am sceptical of the haze of nostalgia people draw over the Flats as if it was some Eden before the fall.

The pic above is the Hollywood idyll from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. It

s always dangerous to draw upon Hollywood for evidence of how something really was. But it does reaffirm what Hollywood thought we thought was an ideal neighborhood. Was the original LeBreton Flats some sort of Eden? Not from what I have read, although the political agenda in recent accounts is awfully thick.

I do note that the first building in the current LeBreton Flats project does have one corner store, with apartments above and beside it. So in theory …

BTW, the yellow brick buildings out on the Flats are the second whack we had at rebuilding the Flats. The first was in the early 80’s, when six hundred or so apartments, townhouses, stacked units, etc were build between Primrose and Albert. These DO have finely mixed retail spaces, for example under the rental apartment building at the corner of Booth. Additional space was included at Rochester and in one of the mews, but they have never been successfully rented out for long, instead bumping from one hopeless cause to another, ending up as storage spaces. There is a gap somehow between the new urbanist ideal and the as-built reality. After a heavy dose of new urbanism, a walk through a new urbanist community is always … enlightening.

In the above slide Dr F laments the lack of institutional buildings on the new Flats. When planned (and planned again, and again, and again)  there were no schools included because the school boards declined to build anything there, saying there was tons of surplus school space nearby. I suspect the same goes for churches. The Museum does have community space available, and the condo buildings have meeting rooms which to the extent that condo groups are a sort of community association means there is meeting space close to home. The roads on the Flats (both phases)  are grid based, and all are two way. On street parking is allowed.

His final reference to schools under a power line seemed a bit odd, since there are no high power lines through the Flats; as for the school in Kanata near (“under”) a power line, explained Dr F, he went there and waved a flourescent tube above his head and it lit up; ergo he did not enroll his kids there. They were bright in other ways.



Now I must confess I got a bit uncomfortable here. I certainly lament that small and medium size developers are excluded from the Flats. But whether built by small builders (more expensive units) or larger builders (with economies of scale), a new immigrant is unlikely to be able to afford a new condo. If he does —  well, anyway, did Dr Firestone’s ancestors buy a new building when they moved to Canada? Of course not. They started out with the old stuff. But there is NO old stuff on the Flats (yup, there used to be old stuff, but in our collective wisdom the city fathers, aided by the Province and Feds, demolished it all for a fresh start. There is lots of blame to go around here. So regardless of who builds the Flats, it is going to be new and therefore more expensive than the old neighborhoods.

And the first phase, the one built in the 80’s, was built with 11 or so small parcels. The idea was to have different builders so the sites would look organically different. Except everyone pretty much wanted what the 8 demo units looked like. So the different builders — Perez, Nicol, St Amour — built very similar units. So similar, that it would be credible to believe that all the units were built at once by one megacorp building to one theme and its variations.

I have met people in the Flats buildings that live auto-free, just like lots of us do in the first phase south of Albert, and in the old residential neighborhoods adjacent the downtown. I don’t see why the Flats disenfranchises kids or isolates adults. Unless one has a magic wand to plunk down 10 buildings at once, the very first ones will always seem alone. But recall, the reason Claridge couldn’t build the closest to the old neighborhood units first is because the City hadn’t — and still hasn’t — rebuilt Booth which is to be 16′ higher than it is now as it sails over the aqueduct. What a spectacle to have had the first buildings with their front doors two stories up! And the City still hasn’t OK’d the lands on the south side of the aqueduct for development. Or the lands on the west side of the Flats, the Bayview Yards, which the City boasted would be better than the Flats, lower-rise, more affordable, “we’d show ’em how to do it”! You’re right, those units are still vapour town.

I am not sure why the spaces between the buildings are dark and dangerous. I suspect that to people who drive by the Flats, the buildings may seem lost in a plain, but if you walk around them the spaces are neither dark nor dangerous, they are lit, intimate courtyards, and well over-looked by eyes on the street. I regularly walk the ped paths through the various parts of the Flats at all times of the year and times of day, and never feel threatened.

As for the blank wall, presumably Dr F knows that the concrete wall pictured was a temporary garage wall pending the construction (now done) of the second wing of the building??

BTW, I am not defending everything about the existing Flats. They are not being built to my choice. But then, I am not the owner, and don’t face the financial and political conditions they face. I have lamented many times on this blog about the abysmal conditions to the immediate west of the new buildings, which resemble Beirut at its bombed-out worst, which is most grievously the fault of the NCC. And of course, the NCC should have pushed the next phase (west side of Booth, and facing the Museum) onto the market by now, although it remains impaired by the same aforementioned lack of Booth Street at its final elevation. (One city councillor once explained to me why the City was so slow finishing Booth street: “it’s their [NCC]project, and they can damn well build the road if they want it”. As we know, great cooperation amongst our levels of government.)

I was interested in Dr F using this 1960’s apartment building east of Carlingwood Mall. He was very hard on the “faux nature” of lawn and scattered trees. But I suspect many of the semi-suburbanites that live in McKeller Park adjacent like that sort of trees on a lawn. The jump to Carlingwood puzzled me a bit, until I learned Dr F has just moved from Kanata to the Richmond Road area.

The illustration of townhouses along the garage front is one of the key tenets of neo urban development. While I would quibble about the excessive garages shown, it gets the general point across perfectly well. I do wonder if the McKellerites would like to see those trees removed and replaced with a row of towns?

Tomorrow: part 2.

4 thoughts on “Firestone speaks

  1. Very cool to hear Dr. Bruce talk this way. Bravo that someone with such deep roots in the Ottawa development community is thinking about how places are built rather than just the economics of condo towers. (Note to self, I owe that man a nice lunch some time.)

    I completely agree with him on the smaller developer vs mega-project issue. But while I also agree with you Eric that “diversity of design and form” may be an illusory goal of micro-development, I think there are a few big factors I think your critique is downplaying unfairly: 1) SPEED of development: with multiple developers competing for the same customers, at least we’d see a few buildings on the Flats (the most infuriating thing about Claridge’s Breezehill proposal is that they don’t seem to feel the same urgency about using the land they have monopoly rights to on The Flats, less than 500 metres away), 2) a more fine-grained approach to the connections between buildings / streetscape / transit / etc, and 3) there’s at least a *chance* for one or more developers to try something different over the many years it would take to fill out the area.

  2. I’m not sure you could parcel out the southern portion of the flats (south of the aqueduct) and expect a wonderous result. This area has got substantial grade changes, an extant transitway, a future light rail line, major water lines, etc.

    If that weren’t enough, it has also been subject to the Escarpment Plan and to the previous light rail plan. Just to illustrate the problem, these two plans were in complete disagreement on just about everything. The Escarpment Plan came out first but the N-S LRT plan paid it no heed (apparently transportation engineering consultants don’t have to read and certainly not pay attention to City Council-approved planning documents created by urban designers); had the N-S LRT gone ahead as illustrated in its EA we would have ended up with a tangled mess of roads and rail lines at the eastern end of the area which would have created a multitude of virtually unusable parcels. For its part, the current light rail plan (both the original cross country and the more recent under Queen alternatives) also pays no attention to the Escarpment Plan, either. The Escarpment Plan will basically have to be redone to conform to the future transportation facts-on-the-ground.

    This is an area that really needs a master plan that considers everything in one go and also one that is willing to put some sacred cows out to pasture (such as why does Booth Street have to go over the light rail line on a massive new structure rather than the other way around?). Are there opportunities that we are missing, such as the possibility of putting an intercity train station at the eastern end of the flats at the foot of the Escarpment? Elsewhere in the world, sites like this are considered and planned with more than one simple objective in mind. The complete build-out might take twenty years, but at least it allows for some things to proceed early. Here though, nothing happens because we have no master plan in place so to avoid constraining future options for other things, nothing happens.

    1. Twenty years? That fast?

      And I second your idea of putting the train station in that general vicinity. Hell, put it UNDER the escarpment.

Comments are closed.