Museum of Strife

The (Federal government’s) Museum of Nature is embroiled in a dispute with some locals on the value and location of its parking lot. The nub of the problem is the Museum wishes to convert some of its parkland on its west side into a surface parking lot.

The west side lawn had been converted to a “temporary” construction staging site during lengthy Museum renovations. Alas, in Ottawa “temporary” is usually a euphemism for never-ending. The thin end of the wedge to sneak in unpleasant changes under the guise of reasonably-sounding “it’s only for a while” arguments. The problem with these “temporary” agreements is that they don’t include penalty clauses, so the offending party (in this case the Feds, but in many cases, it’s the City) has no  disincentive to break the deal.

There are a number of aspects of this imbroglio that bother me, and they don’t reflect well on either the City or the Museum (aka The Feds).

  • it bugs me that a compromise reached on the basis of being temporary (the surface staging site for equipment and crew parking) becomes the foot in the door for a permanent parking lot. This teaches us not to be “reasonable” or reach “compromises” if we are just being set up to be screwed, even if excused away as being attributable to “changing circumstances”.
  • it bugs me that the Museum claims it is required for “peak parking”, which generally means that 80% of the parking needs are met by the existing lot, but the new lot is required for the peak 20% of the time. Generally, it is inefficient to provide parking for the peak, same as we shouldn’t provide roads for the peak that would remain underused the remaining 20 hours of the day.
  • If the lot goes in for this peak load, will it have “peak pricing”?
  • Or will the Museum discount parking to better earn revenues off an underused lot? (remember, it isn’t needed for visitors 80% of the time…). I suspect the new lot will simply permit more employees to drive to work where they will have convenient parking.
  • according to some media reports I have seen, the Museum makes a “profit” off the parking which is used to subsidize programming. If they put in an underground garage, this profit will be needed to cover the cost of the garage. I fully agree that parking users should cover their cost of parking and the garage structure. I am not sure why they should subsidize programming. And if parking fees cover the cost of the garage, it’s a bit rich to kill the garage because surface lots are more profitable.
  • when comparing the cost of the new garage to surface parking, does either calculation consider the value of the parkland itself or is it just “free” land? *
  • should the garage on the west side be large enough to replace all the surface parking on the east side too?

The City is no saint when it comes to this matter either. Doesn’t it strike you as hypocritical ironic that city folks complain about the Museum’s lot on Museum land while the City runs a commuter arterial through the east lawn? Why are motorists priority users of space on the east side if they aren’t going to the museum but inferior users of space on the west side even though they are the museum’s customers?

If I was John Baird, I’d be asking the City to flash some money. If the City wants all that Fed land for parkland, much of which is for the benefit of city residents, why can’t the city put its wallet where its mouth is?

To purchase a chunk of land of similar size for a park would cost 2 – 3 million dollars. Will the City put that up for a public parking garage that offers both some short-term alleviation of some neighborhood parking issues, and purchases long-term park space?** Of course, I would expect the City to get some legal rights/guarantees for its money. And for this discussion, we’ll ignore the long-term opportunity cost of taking out urban land to make a park whilst simultaneously using existing park land for roads.

And a bigger issue relates to the way Metcalfe curves through the park. It’s a terrible road link, traffic really zooms through the space, and makes the remaining park space feel like a little island sandwiched between busy roads. The City is ruminating on the possibility of converting downtown roads back to two-way streets. This would be an excellent opportunity to end the misuse of the Museum park (although it wouldn’t surprise me if the City wanted to add another road, southbound, through the west side park…).

Maybe Mr Baird should offer a garage … in return for the east side lawn.

And my last thought on this goes to the cynical nature of the political game. Maybe it’s not about the parkland at all. Maybe it’s all political posturing, a chance to blame someone else, to control / shape the political narrative. You know, the best defence is offence. And it’s all about talking of  parkland and green space and motherhood, and looks good, and doesn’t cost the City anything.


*The City has strange values when it comes to its own parkland. A mature planting of trees and kids playground was removed from the Plant Rec Complex to make way for a large surface parking lot. That’s right, while simultaneously complaining about under-parked neighborhoods, the priority use of City parkland is parking. The suggestion of putting a garage under the new building during construction … too expensive! The value of the parkland removed: “Nothing!” the City cheerful proclaimed.

As for neighborhood suggestions that the parking-lot-that-replaced-the-playground be metered, absolutely not, the City replies, it’s for our patrons. At least the Museum is going to charge for parking. Remember, other than at the Museum, the City’s highest and best use for tax dollars is providing free parking and traffic infrastructure. That’s why there isn’t money left over for the parks themselves.

And maybe that’s why the City is so unenthused about expanding existing parks onto street rights of way if that means losing some non-revenue-generating free parking spaces.

** Let’s leave aside the issue for now about whether we should be building garages and parking at all. Or if they actually improve the neighborhood or make it worse. That’s a whole ‘nother issue.


9 thoughts on “Museum of Strife

  1. Why does the parking lot need a green “buffer”? Shouldn’t the O’Connor parking lot at least be against the sidewalks – it seems like a lot of square footage lost to frame the lot.

    And where will the mammoths go?

  2. The head of the museum said that they have more visitors now, so they need more parking.
    I bet they have more visitors now, after 10+ years of being under construction and longer of being half a museum (Come back civilization). Back in the good old days when there were 2 museums in the building I am sure the number of visitors was higher than it is now. Somehow they managed without adding extra parking.

      1. 518,000 in 2010-11
        315,000 in 1997-98

        Last year, by the by, they took in $650,000 from parking.

  3. Agree that the feds should invest more in Ottawa infrastructure. Baird made it seem that the one-time LRT donation (“are you sure you don’t want to use it to clean up the river?”) would be the only time there would ever be an investment in anything.

    1. It is listed in the “revenue” column of Operations. They don’t break down the expenses of building operations however.

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