Rearranging the benches on RMS Primrose

 Two neighborhood parks on the west side are getting major surgery this year. The redo of Chaudiere Park on Elm Street seems to have found a winner design. An especially innovative feature will be the expansion of the small park to take over a few parking spaces on Elm Street, although that feature may not be constructed until 2014 while bureaucrats fret over jurisdiction (it’s good to keep them busy on the innocuous).

The remake of Primrose Park, a larger site just a block further north, is much more curious. The park was originally designed in the early 1980’s as center piece of the first phase of the innovative LeBreton Flats community of 600+ houses. Houff was the designer at a time when new urban park designs were at a peak of creativity. Dufferin Park in Toronto was a frequently cited inspiration.

The interior of Primrose Park, with Rotary Home on the far side. The trees are wrapped for protection from / to toboggans, as the city insisted on planting trees at the foot of the toboggan slope as the paths aren’t plowed in the winter therefore the slopes would not be used. Parks planning has progressed since then…in the new plan, the lovely oak in the centre may be removed, now that it has matured some.

Alas, the park that was built seemed to accentuate the flaws with some scarcity of the virtues. Toronto got a world famous park; Ottawa built a squib.

The fenced kitty litter pan / tot lot was too small from day one, and an awkward grade change to the adjacent Rotary Club Home constrained it even more. A modest play structure was maintained by the parks dept so as to quickly become the sine qua non of minimalism. Even the smallest tots expressed their Little Miss Sarah Richardson design cred by avoiding the space.

The park sloped inward to its centre, which made some people feel it was isolated. The waterplay feature that was – and continues to be – such a central feature of Dufferin Park never worked in Ottawa, in part because it was mostly asphalt instead of sand, and the city elected not to supply tap water (too expensive) instead relying on surface water drainage which – surprise surprise – turned out to be polluted with cat and dog shit.

Dufferin Park water feature in Toronto (above) was the inspiration, but Primrose Park fell far short of its model

The perimeter “wild areas”, designed to be left to grow in a sort of woodlot where kids could explore, were beyond the ken of the parks folks who insisted on mowing the vegetation biweekly so the kids would be seen and “safe”.

Parts of the park were originally designed to spill-over on the adjacent streets, the hovering guardians of public order and safe streets (for motorists) reintroduced firm barriers to discourage street play.

So in 2012, the City arrives with ideas to remake the park. These ideas exclude the history of the park. Are they specifically designed to thwart the features of the original plan? The new park designers seem blissfully unaware of why it the way it is, so instead of working with what they’ve got, they proposed a total remake right down to regrading the site (the large mounds that make up the topography may be formed from contaminated soils, why do I see sudden high expenses coming …).

The new layout for Primrose Park rearranges more than just the benches

A lot of the public input at the first public meeting held months ago expressed resident dismay that a lot of the remodeling seemed to be for the sake of remodeling. Despite the tender loving care of our parks crews, a number of the trees in park thrived, and thirty years later have reached a noticeable size. The renovation plan removes a number of them. We haven’t seen a same-scale “before” and “after” plan though, just the after, so it’s difficult to figure just how many mature trees gotta go.

The existing entrance plaza at Rochester/Primrose. The apple trees on the right gotta go. It’s harder to tell if the maples remain in the regraded space. This planted area will become the new paved plaza at a different grade, replacing the old paved area shown below.

 The other major public concern is the conflict between those who use the park as a dog run, and those who have children. This conflict has been simmering for decades. I rarely took my kids to this park, just a block from my home, because of the dogs. Others at the meeting expressed similar concerns. Dog walkers felt kids and dogs go together naturally, and if it weren’t for the dog walkers there would be no one at the park at all (! — think about that comment for a moment).

The main entrance to the current park is at Rochester/Primrose, with an entry plaza and tot lot. The city first proposed to close this area completely, even removing a park entrance, but in the latest plan the entrance is back, and has been expanded to include the current tot lot space (relocated elsewhere) with a piazza and picnic tables, a sort of urban square to promote lingering. This design should be a functional winner, even though it necessitates removing most of the mature trees –apples and maples(?) included — and shrubs in the area.

say bye bye to the apple orchard

Keep in mind, though, that is also simply relocating the existing brick piazza space from a point a bit further west to this corner, and replacing that bricked space with … grass. The shuffle of functions goes on: the main dog run feature of the old park was the central field. Once regraded and flattened, it will become a larger tot lot and water spray pad feature. Both will be welcome additions. The spray pad feature at Plouffe Park is crowded, and the (potentially) long hours of pad use here should be popular (there will still be a wading pool a block away at Chaudiere Park on Elm). Kids remain a secondary users of the park, however, being fenced into an area comprising about 1/3 of the park. Other than the entrance piazza, the other 2/3 of the park is left to be an off-leash dog run. (Dog runners will be also gaining new graded parkland along the new OTrain MUP, an area much larger than this park).

The urge for the park planners to change things remains strong, however. The brick sidewalks along the street and in the park will be replaced by … concrete and asphalt paths. The still-sturdy octagonal-pattern concrete retaining walls will be torn out and replaced by curving concrete walls, without disturbing the 30+ year old trees growing just a few feet back. Should be interesting to witness.

Retaining walls and stairs will be removed without disturbing trees or roots; and replaced by a new concrete wall

The brick table area will be replaced by grass; the apple orchard will be replaced by a concrete piazza. Mature trees will be replaced by saplings. (A previous incarnation of the plan replaced more of the mature trees with a giant steel roofing structure for shade, fortunately that was hooted down by local residents). Existing red pavers will be replaced by new pavers lacking the patina of age. No consultation about colour, pattern, size, or permeability. Existing semi-permeable pavers will be replaced by concrete and asphalt. Ahh, progress.

The coloured asphalt water pond will be replaced by an interlocking brick pond. I’m optimistic it will work better than its predecessor.

The main walking paths that transect the park will now cut through the centre of the dog runs, which will prove to be interesting, maybe more so for the skeptical observer at a safe distance than the school kids and pedestrians themselves. I’m sure the dogs will love it.

One of the very curious features of the new design is the north edge. The park abuts the back yards of Ottawa Community Housing townhouses. Residents complain of urine and excrement smells (four- legged or two-legged?) outside their back yards. Some park users complain of garbage tossed into the park. The yards don’t have gates to the park. Originally supposed to be a naturalized area where kids could play amongst the shrubs and bushes, the city understands this mandate as being to  clearcut around the trees.

The new plan again calls it a “naturalized area” but installs a new chain link fence about six feet out from the OCH yard fences. The zone in between will be “engineered wood fibre”, which is park-speak for wood chips, with an entrance only at each end of the zone. It will, in short, be an alleyway with limited access points.

I’m not sure how this passes the CPTED folks (community safety through environmental design) and I think within a few days of a dry spell we will see an urban bush fire scorching the path and the fences. I really don’t see how this alleyway design will improve things; I think it will encourage the very behaviours it is supposed to discourage. The chain link fence itself might survive, though, as it has been remonikered as a “green screen fence”, which means a hedge is planted along the chain link so the dogs can’t see it. Ah, the joys of park-speak.

The far northwest corner of the park has two exits into the OCH properties. The junction of the two has been identified as the pic nic table of ill repute and Big Drug Dealing. Numerous park users called for the removal of the pic nic table, seemingly assured that one simple motion would eliminate neighborhood drug dealing and teenage sex ed. Personally, I think it would have just relocated it to some neighbour’s driveway.

So I was surprised to see in the new plan that the infamous pic nic table was replaced by a shade structure with seating. Is it designed that if you can’t see the behavior, it isn’t a bother? Or because rain puts out the matches and discourages wandering hands? And why isn’t the structure designed to be a small stage? The Company of Fools production in the park last year drew huge crowds. With some clever design a stage could draw on the adjacent slope (aka winter toboggan hill) and paved areas to accommodate throngs of thespian-deprived west siders.

In sum, I see the city spending lots of money to remake the existing park into another park. Some features will be welcome, ie the waterpad and new (if anodyne and safe) play structure. The entrance plaza merely relocates the south side plaza to the south east corner. As for the rest of the changes I am not sure they really are improvements. Just changes. Rearranging the park benches on RMS Primrose. Speaking of benches, there has been no consultation on the style of benches, style of lighting, pavers, or other features. Clean slate for the park planners.

I would have loved to have seen a public advisory (PAC) working group set up;  in my experience PAC’s make real improvements to city designs. Right now, I’m  a bit doubtful that we are getting high value for the money.

 In a contrast to the safe parks people project, local residents are discussing means of taking back parts of Rochester turning circle into play space for youngsters by street painting. If the city can’t see its way clear to expanding parks, maybe it can be accomplished through guerilla action by taxpayers themselves acting first without seeking prior approval from the bureaucracy.

6 thoughts on “Rearranging the benches on RMS Primrose

  1. Regarding your issues with dogs/kids in the park, I had similar issues. A culture of off leash dogs (usually illegally) in a park would also lead me not to go to that park with my kids when they were small; Pointing out rules/signs to dog owners is generally not well received.

    This is a common sentiment, which leads to the depopulation of those parks by all but dog owners. I have no issues with dog and non dog parks existing but it would be great if the distinction were enforced and signs were respected. A secondary issue, even with dogs on leashes, is the (illegal) dumping of dog poop in garbage cans near play areas, which attracts wasps.

  2. So the parks department has a tiny budget with almost limitless demands upon it, and their response is to rip out perfectly serviceable infrastructure, fell healthy trees and dig up verdant landscape in order replace it a twice the price? The brick pavers are just fine, lift them up, regrade and relay them — they can easily even be relaid in a different pattern and slightly different location, if desired! Leave the healthy trees, set the new additions in context around them. If the planters and retaining walls still work, leave them, too! Are we back in the 1960s, where any architect’s fine designs are suitable for anywhere, and damn whatever’s there now potentially detracting from HIS brilliant vision for the site? Good Grief. This isn’t complicated, we’re in a time of austerity, fix what’s broke, leave what’s working, and situate anything new (splash pad, great!) in a way that enhances the whole.

    -Rocket Surgeon

    1. honestly, did whoever produced this design even visit the site? There are decades old nut trees, these are worth a fortune because they take decades to produce. There are flowering fruit trees that put on a gorgeous show every spring, these are valuable because they take years to establish. I feel like a crazy person reading this, why should we have to explain that we don’t waste public investments that still have value.

  3. I can only say that I agree with the above. If it ain’t broke, don’t mess with it, replace it, or destroy it. I”m especially upset that beautiful mature trees will be felled, with no good reason that I can find in the plans. We’re not allowed to fell trees on our own yards without permission and paying a fee, so what gives them the right to get rid of mature trees that harm no one, and will be decades before new saplings mature enough to give the same shade and beauty.

  4. My children have been playing at this park for several years and the number one feature of the park for them and many other children are the easy to climb crab apple trees. With the (city?) pruning of the lower branches they’ve even learned to become better climbers.

    This park has so much potential, and while perhaps isolated for some, it also can provide some peaceful space. And yes there are sometimes nasty teenagers who spit and swear in the park but they also usually shuffle along when my kids go there to play.

    Part of the problem with this park I think is a class issue. If some of the organized and active advocates brought their kids to that park they would be more interested in protecting it.

    Also, I must say from looking at the plans which were released months ago, it’s hard to see or know what is being removed, replaced, and created. The colourful plan looked so pretty I was happy with it.

    1. Trees suitable for climbing by kids should be a requirement for any park, but it has somehow become rare. I wish parks departments would develop expertise in cultivating trees for climbing. There’s a tree in a park in White Rock, BC that is safe for kids 5+ to climb up to heights above 30 feet. It had twinned trunks a few feet apart and lots of bare branches that start out horizontal before bending upwards a few feet from the trunk. You couldn’t design a better climbing structure if you tried. You could fall all the way to the bottom and it would take about a minute and the most you’d end up with is scrapes and bruises. As far as I’m concerned outside play should be about providing opportunities to get scrapes and bruises in interesting ways.

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