What should go at street level? (part ii – the bad)

I wrote this post last week for www.SpacingOttawa.ca, you should have read it there! It got a number of responses so for this version of it I have corrected and clarified some things. There are also more pictures, because that is the WSA style!

Thank you for reading.


What should go at street level?

Large property development firms are seldom compared to little domesticated birds. But in some ways they are canaries in the coal mines of the urban streetscape.

And the song these messengers sing is not a cheerful tune for downtown pedestrians.

Consider this not-so-old  downtown condo:


 At first glance, the landscaping is pleasant.  Other than the front door,  the rest of the ground floor is revealed to be blank walls, the utility side of the building that puts up front what used to be kept in the back. And those tiny windows open into the … parking garage. Seriously, this normally sensitive developer has decided that a busy pedestrian and cyclist street on the edge of downtown commercial core deserves exactly nothing as its ground floor. No storefront. No niche bookshop. No quiet RMT tenant. Not even a charming accountant. Nada.

In contrast, the older versions of the Centretown plan encouraged mixed use development, with storefronts at sidewalk level to animate the street. Off of the traditional mainstreets, these storefronts commanded less prime rents, and attracted more marginal tenants. Other language bookshops. Cultural centres. Minority interest outreach centres. Ethnic or geographically unique foodstuffs.  Hi-tech startups vie for space with hair stylists. For nearly forty years I have walked by this apartment building on Queen, and seen a steady parade of businesses come and go. 

Yet despite the continual tenancies in the Queen Street building shown, or in the Albert at Bay building directly behind (facing Albert, and home to a Quickie store and busy restaurant), the Charlesfort-built condos – “The Gardens” —  immediately west of them think that the highest and best use of downtown ground floor street level space is storage lockers!   

Many of the windows along both the Queen Street and Albert Street facades are fake windows, designed to give the impression of something when there is nothing:

There are more Potemkin streetscapes in other Charlesfort condos. The much-lauded art-deco “ Hudson” on Kent at Lisgar looks nice at 50 kmh but the windowed residences begin one whole floor up: 

Behind the planters, the ground floor is parking.

And similarly the same builder’s MacIntosh-inspired  “Glascow” on Bronson is at least 50% fake windows on the ground floor, complete with fake children playing ten feet up the utility posts:

Note that once past the building, storefronts resume at street level. 

Now I would be the first to agree that the ground floor facing Bronson is not a great place for a residence. But look on both sides of the Glasgow, and directly across the street, where a pizza restaurant manages to attract patrons to sit outdoors to eat right beside the same busy road. Indeed, that whole section of Bronson shows surprising signs of street level activity despite the blight imposed by an overly-burdened street, so storefronts could have worked under the condos.

Storefronts and lively sidewalks are the indicator species of a lively downtown. Condo developers are choking the canary before it can sing.

Why? They might rationalize it on the grounds that the street is too busy, too noisy. But then the builders do the same thing on quieter streets like Kent, Lisgar, and Queen.  Do they only put in commercial space if required to by the City? Is it because they only imagine their buildings being admired by motorists scooting by in jack-rabbit traffic? Does that account for the landscaping that usually consists of long strips of identical plants designed to be seen as a single shape? Certainly the Charlesfort landscaping style is the antithesis of engaging or pleasant viewing for slower-moving pedestrians, who have time to enjoy more intricate and complex interplays of texture, shape,  and colour, such as was used in front of this building (alas, not in Ottawa):

Of course our condo builders do not operate in a vacuum. Some, like Domicile, Claridge, and Ashcroft,   rent storefronts in their other projects. But other builders may not know how to or want to lease space. In those cases, they could sell the ground floor commercial condominiums, like Phoenix did on Somerset/Rochester.  Does Charlesfort just find animating the streetscape not worth their effort? Is all the money in the upper level canopy of the urban jungle?

Municipal regulation comes into play, of course. While the original Centretown plans of the 50’s and 60’s encouraged ground level commercial, particularly noticeable in the area east of Bank Street, subsequent municipal rules swung 180 degrees. The condos clustered at Laurier/Bay are dull because of the unrelentingly boring sidewalk environment,  as most of the condos there (built in the 70’s and 80’s) were forbidden to have sidewalk-facing ground floor commercial. Instead they have residences with zero privacy and a convenience store “tucked away” somewhere inside.

That attitude favouring mono-use land parceling continues in surprising places. The Somerset Councillor frequently opposes commercial use on the ground floor of condo buildings, favoring commercial development focused on traditional shopping streets like Elgin and Bank. This is great for landlords on those streets who aren’t exactly sitting on lots of unrented space, but artificial space scarcity will slowly and relentlessly see the squeezing out of locally owned, unique businesses in favour of higher-paying, lower-risk franchised sameness or clones thereof.  To say nothing for residents of those high rise condos who may eventually decide that if they have to go elsewhere to get to a café or restaurant, they might as well not pay the premium to live downtown.

Squeezed out of mainstreets by the city artificially constraining supply, and rising rents, new and innovative businesses end up fleeing to the “next” great neighborhood where they can find space cheap or funky.  Other cities have lots of older industrial areas for this exodus, but Ottawa and the NCC have diligently worked decades to exorcise those industrial buildings. Adapt and re-use have lost out to raze and revise grand plans (but don’t build).

What can we do about this?

Simple policy changes are required at City hall. Our city master plans call for lively sidewalks; it is time to reject building proposals that enliven sidewalk environments with the backs of storage lockers and parking garages. Demanding better doesn’t cost the city a cent, and needn’t penalize developers. The City should encourage vitality with flex-use-zoned commercial space. The eventual abundance of ground floor spaces will keep rents attractive, incubate new and innovative businesses, and make streets lively (note, this does not require a bar & patio on every block), and then  more people will want to live in those condos.

Demanding better means nipping in the bud the nascent trend for condo developers to use not just the ground floor, but the first few floors up as dead space.  See Claridge’s  Pinnacle condo at Laurier/Lyon with a building with much of the first floor being parking and the second floor with all-fake windows hiding … storage lockers:

See Urban Capital’s The Mondrian, at Laurier/Bank for four or five floors of parking above grade. While the facade (shown below) on Bank looks somewhat acceptable (there is a Shoppers outlet at sidewalk level, fortunately) the Laurier side treatment is much less sophisticated:

and soon Mastercraft’s Soho Italia with seven stories of above ground parking garage and no underground parking at all. If this continues, downtown pedestrians will be darting from building lobby to building lobby though wastelands of high rise parking garages and dumpster loading zones.

What to do about it…

For existing condo buildings that have residential or dead uses on the ground floor, the City should go ahead and rezone them all for flex-use commercial space, and over time the space will evolve. Such change can only improve the ground floor of the Claridge’s Somerset Street Strand condo or Assaly’s  470 Laurier.

And for goodness sake get rid of the dangerous proposal in the new Centretown plan that would simply rezone huge residential areas to permit the gradual conversion of homes into offices and commercial space. That almost unlimited supply of cheaper commercial space near the downtown is guaranteed to destroy the residential attractiveness of these neighborhoods, convert treed and green backyards into wall-to-wall parking lots, and undercut the viability of new commercial space in condo towers.

None of the above is magic wishful thinking requiring a new world order or utopian culture change. It just requires a bit more spine on the part of the City to value the long term pedestrian vitality of the public living room along the street. We’ve already seen in case after case that developers will put commercial on ground floor if required to. And these spaces do rent out. And we need to put less less credence to the short-term profitability of developers. These buildings will be around for a hundred years or more. They are the next generation’s affordable housing. They are shaping the future streetscape of our city, its public face. Which cheeks will be on display?

In another twenty years, when the city planners have retired on pensions, will the Malhotra’s, Greenbergs, and Choo’s be able to point with pride to the vibrant downtown they fashioned? Or will they simply shrug and move off to greener pastures ?


Tomorrow: what should go at street level (part iii: the good).

6 thoughts on “What should go at street level? (part ii – the bad)

  1. Preach it brother Eric!

    It brings to mind the sad waste of prime urban frontage that is the Holland Cross development. The commercial space at Scott is oriented toward an inward facing mall with no street level walkin access, while the rest of the block has apartments fronting on Holland but no small retail. It creates this pedestrian dead zone between Tunney’s and the lvelier parts of Holland and WelliWest further South.

  2. I understand that it’s hard to fill those commercial spaces at first. It took the Ashcroft Rochester & Somerset building a couple years to fill up their commercial spaces (though I hear the condo turned down a coffee shop tenant)

    That being said, they’re better off empty than not built. Retrofitting commercial space into the ground floor of the Hudson, for instance, would be a major undertaking. Better to build it now in one form or another so that it can be used later. What it comes down to is the City should require a certain % of ground floor commercial/retail in every new tower.

  3. I seem to recall a planner from Portland pointing out that they created a imilar requirement for all space built downtown. At first the developers cried murder, but now want to be able to make the second floors of many buildings commercial space, too. Developers have to be dragged kicking and screaming to different business models, as do city councillors.

    I think what is also neede is a plan that addresses reanimating some of our streetscapes, beyond the commercial element. I keep walking down Kent and Lyon to and from work, and am struck by the fact that some of those old houses have become… incubator space for restaurants and a few other businesses. Maybe we should be promoting better pedestrian realms along some of these streets in general and relaxing zoning so that it’s easier for a dumpy rental house to be converted to a restaurant or office space.

    Generally, I think what this city suffers from is a lack of respect for the pedestrian realm. I care less that there’s not commercial space in some of these developments, but that they turn a cold shoulder to busy streets and offer nothing to the public realm. I think the city needs to start tightening up its site plan controls to prevent this. This is really urban planning 101.

  4. So, let us look at some buildings that DID put the effort in:

    EcoCité (still empty, unfortunately, of residents) put two stores along Bank Street (at Wilton)
    or, even better, the brand new “G” built by Domicile at Bank and Patterson which houses a 24 hour gym (Snap Fitness) and a slightly pretentious cupcake shop(pe). The gym in particular adds light and eyes on the street at night. I imagine the high rents along Bank Street in the Glebe were what persuaded these developers to put in retail.

  5. There’s at least two parts to the stor(e)y. The city likes tidy zoning – commercial here, residential there. And commercial means PARKING!! because, well, everybody drives to the store don’t they? And the developer/condo corp wouldn’t be quite sure how to accomodate on-site parking for short-term drive-in customers. Cuz, like, those customers don’t want to feed the green machine just to park for two minutes while they nip in for a quart of milk and some smokes, which they can get at any gas station anyway. So, easier to just not bother.

    Then there’s the matter of managing commercial space. The developer sells all the units to individual owners who collectively formake up the Condo Corp. Some of those owners become the condo board and lord knows they have enough trouble managing the residential component, nevermind dealing with fly-by-night shop-keepers who probably want to open a noisy night-spot (drunks on the sidewalk!) or an eatery (exhaust ducts! noisy food delivery vans!) or some down-market retail outlet (who buys this crap!). Better leave well enough alone. Unless it’s Shoppers Drug Mart. They’d be ok.

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