Last April, the Dalhousie Community Association, of which I was President at the time, held its AGM. Hard pressed to come up with speaker to trump the previous year’s John Doran of Domicile speaking on the economics of condo developments, I searched around for an interesting and educational speaker.
Enter Ottawa Senators founder, engineer, professor of architecture, etc etc Dr Bruce Firestone . He agreed to give a talk on urban redevelopment in older neighborhoods, good or bad.
He sure doesn’t pull punches. In fact, he referred to a certain yellow brick condo development as being akin to a brown substance we don’t like to step in. Within hours, that comment had reached Neil Malhotra, of Claridge (the CBC video’d the presentation and some media recorded it, maybe they broadcast the most salacious bits).
Neil has been working hard to improve the image of the family firm. He invited Dr Firestone and myself for an off-the-record walk and talk on the Flats and around the proposed 45 storey building site at Preston/Carling.
The walk and talk was scheduled for one hour. But it went on for hours. Both those guys know how to talk. And they know how to
diss politely disagree with each other face to face. Some of the comments were brutal. No one, NCC or City or architecture profession, politician or functionaire, or other developer, was exempt. And it sure explained a lot about how the current building form on the Flats came about.
It is much more complex than it seems, with more guilty parties pouring in ingredients and stirring the pot while it boils. As always, post facto criticism is easy, a sin I should plead guilty to. The conversation was very frank because … I agreed not to repeat it.
While walking through the project, I snapped a few photos of things that were new to me. Here are some:
The doors in the basement lobbies of the elevators/stairwells are glass, not utilitarian steel blanks. The elevator lobbies had a mix of basement and fine finishes. The garage areas were nicely handled to reduce that “garage” feeling.
The roofs of the mid-rise building are “green roofs” with large planted sections, including some trees. They were in better shape than when I last saw them, and starting to look like more inviting roofscapes. Much of the surrounding grounds continues to look like a moonscape, thanks to the NCC, PWGSC, and City.
The excavated parking garage was under-sized for the number of units that were eventually built. Larger townhouse-type ground-floor units had to be abandonned when they wouldn’t sell. (The reasoning for this was discussed a number of posts ago, when reviewing Dr Firestone’s graph on the value of space on the ground floor of condominium towers). Converting these spaces into more, smallish apartments, which were selling, left them scrambling for parking spaces. On the south side, and introduced these car parking elevators. Residents actually get a deed to a space that has no floor, but is a space under a ceiling. Residents drive up to the gate, drive onto the lift, and get out of the car, push the activation button, and the car is lifted up and shifted sideways to a empty spot. Nifty, and very expensive.
It is easy for the owner of any firm to get caught up in planning the next project, and building the current one. In busy lives, time for retrospection is scarce. Malhotra’s observations on some of the built features were revealling.
I was surprised by Malhotra’s fluency with, and enthusiasm for, current planning trends — things like retail storefronts, narrow frontages, finely detailed massing on the lower floors, fine grain mixed uses. I know one other developer who dismisses these things as BS. Malhotra and the good professor ended up supporting much of the same development. Both ended up agreeing that between the well-intentioned plan and the finished execution lies a quagmire that can turn any blueprint princess into a frog. Successful builders manage to make a buck negotiating the mess, surviving to build a better project another day.
One of the valuable things about the WSA blog is the quality of the comments by readers; and the lack of name calling, which mars so many other blogs and MSM sites. I wouldn’t want this post to elicit some of the latter. As always, I reserve the right to edit or remove some comments.