Underground City Not Premature, its DOA

“The feeble business response to the city’s plan to create an underground shopping plaza along the proposed downtown rail tunnel is mainly due to lingering doubts about the $1.7-billion project,” — Ottawa Citizen, quoting expert.

There are two possible issues here, and I dont know what was in the city’s tentative RFP. (And yes, they should be guaging interest now, even with conceptual LRT plans, rather than once the project is costed with assumptions of connections and revenue).

The first issue is whether the city is looking at what buildings/landlords want to be connected to the LRT system. Here are my comments from 4 June 09: Please do not dream of a connected underground city. Pl de Ville has for decades refused to connect its mall to 240 Sparks, Constitution Sq or other adjacent developments. I suspect other landlords also feel the highest and best capture of revenue and benefits is to be one of the very few buildings directly connected to the DOTT. In this scenario, a shallow station will only connect to the first adjacent building. If the stations are very deep, then a horizontal pedestrian tunnel can be run out north/south (or any other desirable direction) from the mezzanine level of the new station, underneath the nearest building and ‘up access’ can be built to several building complexes, sometimes a few blocks away.

But what are the probabilties of such connections? I personally think they are very low, for these reasons: First, the downtown office building market is not a open market, there is essentially only one tennant, the Feds. What landlord wants to increase his expenses to land a price-conscious tennant who probably won’t pay extra to have a direct link to transit? In Toronto, or NYC, there is competition for tennants, and a transit link is a marketing advantage, that can be paid for by increased rents. Those rules don’t work in Ottawa. I hope the (Delcan / Toronto / London )consultants realize that our market is different.

To summarize: I dont think Ottawa landlords will find it economic to spend large sums building deep elevator or escalator shafts to lenthy pedestrian tunnels to connect their buildings to the downtown stations that are 5-10 stories down unless the Fed tennant is willing to pay for it.

This brings us to the second issue. Once the LRT network is given the go-ahead, there should be significant interest in Quickie Marts or similar locating in station mezzanines. This means the downtown stations (Downtown east, downtown west, rideau street, campus) but much less interest in other stations like LeBreton or Westboro, where there are no Quickies now. Some surface stations, like Bayview, or Tunney’s that should see huge increases in traffic volumes, might of interest to a convenience store, but the traffic flows can be pretty erratic and the store has to be open long hours. If they also sold passes, that would be a real convenience to transit users. But the rent collected from a Quickie Mart is not going to make or break the economics of the LRT project, and can safely be left for much later in the detailed design process.

Which brings us back to the question of just what was the city’s proposal for? Linkages to the stations … or convenience stores at the stations?