We certainly hear continual wails of horror at that big empty space on the west side of the downtown business district. A wasteland. Toxic. A former charming quaint modest income neighbourhood of friendly folks always smiling who were cruelly expropriated.
About 65% of the Flats was rail yards and industry of the most polluting and nastiest types. Eddie McCabe wrotes stories about growing up on the Flats — they are eye-opening as to how bad it was. A large-ish portion of the “empty” Flats never did have anything on it, as it was created by filling in Nepean Bay in the 1960’s (all that hilly green space on the pic above, between the river, the parkway, and Bayview station, right over to the aqueduct inlet pond, is created land. It was created by dumping toxic waste into the river. Now someone gets to clean it up).
Let’s look at some specific land parcels of the Flats:
Parcel A was expropriated in 1963. It was a mish mash of industrial sites, junk yards, row houses, and badly polluted ground. The expropriation for urban renewal stopped when useful or repairable housing was encountered. The removed housing was not of the quality seen today on Lorne Street or Primrose Street.
In the early 1980’s, the NCC and CMHC created the first LeBreton community, of 425 townhouses and five storey apartment buildings. It was built to the maximum density possible without having “dangerous” and expensive underground parking structures. The result is a dense set of communities and a streetscape dominated by parking lots and front door garages. It also had a park, made by recycling toxic waste into decorative mounds to avoid having to cart them away for disposal. If we assume 2 people per house, that 1980’s project brought back about 1000 residents to the Flats. Of the three CMHC urban demo projects built in the 1980’s (LeBreton, CrombieTown in Toronto, and False Creek, in Vancouver) Lebreton had the highest resident satisfaction ratings.
It is possible to build high density in various formats. Here is the same plot of land built out in three formats. The 1980’s LeBreton project is the bottom townhouse layout. The Claridge project from the early 2000’s is the mid rise shown in the upper left parcel. Today, Ottawa favours the tall tower format, but not a tower in the park, but a tower surrounded by lower rise stuff, sort of like combing combing the two plots below, putting the tower in the centre of the stacked towns.
The Parcel marked B on the aerial photo is the early 20th century phase. It consists primarily of mid rise buildings (4 to 7 floors) with two 7 storey towers put on top of the first mid rise building. The exterior colour scheme was devised by the NCC, not the developer. It has all the wonderful features mid rise urban renewal is supposed to have: courtyards, arches, townhouse units, green roofs, resident amenities (indoor and outdoor swiming pools, hot tubs, party rooms, gyms, etc). Exteriors are made of brick, glass, stainless steel, gloss tiles, and modular panels. There are quiet traffic calmed streets, two restored heritage buildings, pedestrian only spaces, naked streets, main entrances off courtyards and ped only streets so people are encouraged to live car-free. Only a small bit of commercial was included in the first few buildings because there wouldn’t be the population to support them, and the plan favoured a traditional main street of storefronts along Booth, but that building couldn’t be built until the CIty installed the overpass over the transitway and built the elevated Booth, both of which are happening only now. My guess is there will be about 1000 residents in the new buildings.
These buildings looked out of place when initially built in isolation on the east end of the Flats, and the image has stuck. But they sell well. It didn’t help that the NCC was slow to landscape the surrounding areas, leaving them looking like a war zone in the middle east. Public Works failed to build the two 11 storey office buildings on a podium, designed to help enliven the area with mixed uses, Parcel D on my map.
In my view, too much of the criticism is “drive by” — it is rare to find a critic who has walked around the buildings themselves. And they aren’t all small boxy condos, either:
Some people don’t like the very modern style of the buildings. There will soon by a lot more of them, because Zibi on the Islands is the same style, and I’ll bet the whole of this current competition for the Flats will push modern style. Sure, the developers will call them townhouses, or even “brownstones” but they won’t look or act like the early 1900 brownstones now so popular in Boston, NYC, and elsewhere.
Parcel C has a development agreement with Claridge to build more apartment and townhouse units, out to Booth street. I suspect Claridge will go slow, hoping to rezone the area and “update the plan to reflect current transit oriented priorities” (ie, more higher high rises).
The yellow brick phase on the Flats has other curious features too. The City forbids any of the streets there to have planting strips or trees between the sidewalk and the street. This makes for a “hard” public streetscape. The aqueduct was partially restored then abandoned; a potentially attractive park feature that would have attracted residents lies fallow:
And the attractive national kayak course beside the buildings is largely unknown to the public because it is not visible from a major road.
Area D, where the two office towers didn’t materialize, is now being landscaped by the NCC as part of a “bold, drive by experience”. The landscaping is “temporary”. Area E is to be the Holocaust memorial; construction is supposed to be imminent.
Area F is the War Museum, which receives a quarter million visitors a year. Not bad for a museum that cost less than a suburban high school. Behind it, new bridges are being built / rehabbed, to increase access to Zibi:
My bad guesstimate from looking at the map is that about 50% of the expropriated area on the Flats has already been developed for housing, museum, memorials, festival space, and parkland.
Area I on my map is the parcel of land south of Bayview Station. AKA 900 Albert. It is owned by Trinity Developments, which is also in partnership with the Sens to put an arena on the Flats. Their parcel is already development approved for two 35-ish storey towers and shorter one. They are negotiating to buy “air rights” over the OTrain Trillium line tracks, right over to Tom Brown arena, but don’t expect to see buildings over the tracks. Instead, they will likely “transfer” the development potential purchased from the city air rights and add them on top of their existing towers, hoping for a Toronto-style hyper-accessible location when both the full-length Confederation and Trillium lines are opened in 2023 (and a LRT to Gatineau too). Yes, I expect approvals for the 50-70 storey range. Whether they get built in my lifetime is another issue.
It may be tempting to see the Flats as having a number of aborted projects. I’d argue something better. If the whole place was built out in one decade, everything would like too much alike. Like high rise housing projects of the previous mid century period. Instead we have a 1000 folks in the low rise houses south of Albert; another 1000 in the Claridge phase, with maybe another 2000 to come as he builds out to Booth Street over the next decade. Whomever wins the development rights to the rest of the Flats will easily take 25 years or more to build out all their housing and offices. The City simply cannot absorb more. This will give us housing styles ranging from the 1970’s to the 2040’s. Should be a good variety, which will make for interesting neighbourhoods and streetscapes.