Placemaking, facadism, ignoring opportunities, etc.

In Ottawa, in this era, placemaking is something for planners to talk about, but Must Not Be Implemented, lest anyone think we have big thoughts. Nice Enough is almost going too far.

Have you noticed how often newish strip malls and big box plazas are trying to look like they are a real place? Some, like Mashapee Common (featured here last year) are quite successful in trying to create a new townscape. More often, though, “architects” and developers simply graft on the appearance of something cute and villagey onto a regular strip mall.

We previously looked at the horrid “downtown” of Minto’s Tradition in Florida, and I note with interest this more sophisticated gussied-up-ification of big box stores in Nowheresville, USA:



It meets ‘progressive’ town planning ideals in getting rid of signs on big posts and freestanding letters (remember early K-Marts that had individual neon lit letters standing above the roof? )  Instead, the building facade jumps up and down to elevate the signs to where they can be seen from the road and parking lots stretching off to infinity and beyond. Isn’t that so much better? The materials used on the facades vary, trying to give the illusion of separate buildings. There are even hints of a (false) second storey (see, for an Ottawa example, the Laurentian High School site at Baseline and Clyde for our own Potemkin village).

Note the too-rigid line of awnings; the cutesy village lamp posts. I do appreciate that the end units of each block were dressed in real stone. The Panera, even more so than a Starbucks, fulfills the role of a community gathering spot, a coffee shop and snack establishment where people meet and greet. I saw students studying from books (ie, therefore high school seniors), moms meeting; a sales rep interviewing someone about insurance careers; high school kids on the way home, the self employed “hanging out” in a public spot to overcome the isolation of the home office. And the out-of-sync tourist eating a salad lunch at 3.30pm.

Between the blocks, the developer installed a landscaped plaza, with fountain, decorative pavers, some plants … and Panera had a nice outdoor seating area, albeit of a modest size compared to their outlets elsewhere. Did the developer direct a patio-friendly tenant to the end site, or did the store seek it out?

I have long regretted in Ottawa that we don’t steer appropriate users to the patio spaces. Look at Ashcroft Canyon on Richmond Road. The west end of the first building has a loverly outdoor space perfect for a cafe or patio seating. But the tenant is a bank. The patio remains desolate. The coffee and pastry shops on the Richmond strip generally got less expensive inside units, without exterior patios.

Does Ashcroft have any sense of how to make a public space, and how that would enhance the value of their development?

When I worked downtown  (err, when I worked at all…) a series of banks and patio-hostile establishments occupied storefronts adjacent a downtown-rare large patio, leaving it to gather cigarette butts. The Cantor’s resto was at the the other end of the building, by the garbage room doors.

During the nice planning  & discussion phase of Downtown Moves, the high paid consultants were full of stuff about frequency of doors, seeing into spaces, etc but by time the project got to completion, any sense of the city measuring,  directing, or encouraging  an exciting place were erased, replaced by passive phrases and bland hopes that new buildings would somehow magically fill in the gaps. Other cities are much bolder, establishing a benchline numeric measure of accessibility and vitality (sort of like a walk score) and targeting a specific improvement goal.

But not Ottawa.

This is a pattern I see all the time. Downtown Moves, Rideau Street makeover, or the architectural input into the LRT Stations, all demonstrated that planners and the consultants and the public understand what constitutes placemaking.

And what appeared on Rideau Street ? Am I the only one disappointed? And what will come from Downtown Moves? I suspect more blandness and missed opportunities. And most of these only to be implemented once the 2017 sesquicentennial is over and the peak load of tourists gone home, with 1970’s-planned Ottawa calcified in their minds. Talk about putting your light under a basket.

For the LRT Stations, very early in the planning process view opportunities and place making opportunities were identified, at considerable expense in consultant’s and staff time.  But subsequently, all such benefits were ruled out, even when they were “free”, by city rail implementation staff that insisted that aesthetic judgements and placemaking had no part in constructing a “purely transportation” infrastructure.

I don’t think these guys / engineers are specially dumb or oblivious; I suspect they were operating on orders from the top of city hall. Placemaking can be free or very low cost; it is not making stations into mini taj mahals on the tundra.

There is a standard set of criteria used for stations, including such gems as more glazing on the south side than the windy north. While this is a truism in general, it should be varied in specific circumstances. But instead, the city is boasting about a Celebration of Indigenousness at Pimisi Station, with a plaza etc on the north side of the station, but the dominant glazing will be to the south side (to eventually look upslope at a parking garage or another building).

Bayview station, built on a highest point west of the core, has potential views north to the River, and east to Parliament. But the glazing will face the blah roadscape of Albert to the south; the dominant views will be west to Big Beautiful Scott Street and the general purpose building at Tunney’s;  no view planes to the north; and city staff insisted they could not even consider downtown views even though they were free. Meanwhile, of course, motorists have one of the few protected viewplanes in the city courtesy the NCC’s traffic-JAM-commuter expressway.

In Ottawa, in this era, placemaking is something for planners to talk about, but Must Not Be Implemented, lest anyone think we have big thoughts. Nice Enough is almost going too far. Instead, the pinnacle of our collective placemaking ideal will be big box plazas like the Trainyards, which is so close to but definitely not accessible to Watson’s signature transit system. That is the  joy of low aspirations.




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