From mediocre to worse


This post originally appeared in the WalkSpace series at

The loss of amenity is noticeable when an attractive bit of the pedestrian realm or sidewalk is adversely affected by adjacent developments. The contrast is less sharp when a mediocre space becomes worse. Yet the result is the same: the pedestrian zone gets impinged and impoverished.

I always find the C D Howe building in downtown Ottawa to be an underachiever. The building is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Inside there’s a waterfall, winter garden, soaring three storey spaces, pedestrian bridges, Jetson elevators, retail spaces, food court …. And outside offers an extra-wide sidewalk with some weather protection, plus “garden” space at the east and west ends. Yet the building still seems unsatisfactory. Is the covered sidewalk diminished by the brutal columns and raw concrete beams? Do the massive flights of stairs down to the lower concourse ever seem welcoming?

On the Queen Street side of the building the sidewalk parallels the main parkade entrance ramps. The space above the ramps is large, about 55′ x 27′ by several stories deep. To the pedestrian walking along Queen it offered nothing of interest, it is just a void. But for that distance the sidewalk feels just a little bit more open, that there is elbow room instead of the hard building façade. The view down onto the descending ramps was partially obscured by a foreground series of air exhaust vents raised about 30″ above the sidewalk on short concrete walls. The sidewalk along the Howe Building was a mediocre experience at best.

Renovations to the building have changed mediocre to worse. Instead of exhausting stale air up out of the steel grates on the short concrete walls, the vents have been extended upwards to enclose most of the opening that was cut into the building. And the result is not pretty. Facing the sidewalk is a metal bars suitable for a wild-west jail or a public housing project:

My first thought was this was some risk-adverse bureaucratic scheme to prevent people from climbing over the horizontal grates and falling down the other side onto the ramps that descend into the bowels of the building. But those steeply angled steel beams are there to hold up a back wall whose  functions seem to be to prevent exhaust air from circulating above the cars while ensuring the down ramps are as dark and dismal as possible. Strangely, the finished face of that solid wall is quite nice — but it faces into the building void, out of sight to motorists, and pedestrians in the public realm get to see the ugly back side of the panels. Wait, it gets worse! The spacing in the grill work is wide enough for people to toss in garbage, so an access door has been put in, complete with an automatic door closing mechanism.

When can we expect to see one of our less simian cousins on display in this cage? Can we toss peanuts to the maintenance man?

The cage does not extend the whole length of the down-ramp. There are two odd little orphan spaces at each end that let some light and view down onto the ramp.

The end result is just plain awful. The void cut into the building above the ramps is still there, but mostly concealed from view. Formerly a sheltered outdoor space, it is now neither indoor nor out. The pedestrian sidewalk had bit of sense of space on the building side, but that is now gone, replaced by an aggressively ugly set of bars protecting the old metal grate. The only bit of nicely finished surface faces into the garage where it cannot be seen even by the motorists.

None of this is a crime. It doesn’t spoil a pedestrian glamour spot. No, it simply further diminishes an already underachieving space. It contributes one more reason not to walk there. Heavy handed renovations like this are just another nail in the coffin of a vibrant downtown. I am left wondering if the City’s Design Review Committee could have foreseen the effects of this and prevented it. An opportunity to improve the pedestrian realm has accomplished its opposite.

4 thoughts on “From mediocre to worse

  1. This definitely makes a mediocre space worse! I don’t understand why they felt this was necessary, let alone functional. I guess it is yet another example of how the planners/designers/etc just don’t care about street level spaces and their contribution to the city.

  2. “I always find the C D Howe building in downtown Ottawa to be an underachiever”, could really sum up the city in general. I think this is what frustrates me the most about Ottawa. Yes, it is a nice city but it could be a great city if the powers could only dream now and again. The CD Howe could also be so much more. I find it depressing to be in there on weekends when the better half wants to go to HR. You can hear a pin drop in the rest of the open spaces. Underachieving to say the least.

  3. Since homelessness became a major issue in Ottawa, a lot of these hot air vents are barred off. Ottawa has brutal winters as we all know and I consider myself lucky that I have a place to live and don’t have to live on the streets. There was a hot air vent near the NAC where homeless people would go to warm up during the coldest times of the winter. They obviously cannot stay there long but it is a place to warm up.

    The NAC put up bars around the hot air vent so that homeless people wouldn’t be attracted to the vent. The result is probably more frozen homeless people. It does happen in Ottawa. The average lifespan for a homeless person in Ottawa is not very high.

    I expect these bars might be another attempt to keep homeless people from warming themselves up.

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