Capital Crimes

The City of Ottawa approved its new official 20-year Master Plan in November 2013 — two decades that will prove pivotal. Governments seem firmly intent on seeing the economic future backwards through the lens of an analog, fossil fuel and resource-based economy. Yet the rapidly emerging Third Industrial Revolution, framed by the digital/green/creative triple helix, is making the form of rapidly evolving “city states” significant determinates of success. How a city directs its urban development, including how its physical form supports the synergy between entrepreneurs, knowledge institutions, government, citizens and a host of non-government/non-business organizations will greatly determine prosperity.

Ottawa has many attributes that should allow the region’s economy to be more than just a seat of government augmented by a decent tourist industry.  But past urban planning failures have made the city miss its potential in a way that may ultimately undermine its future. The new Plan touches many of the right buttons, as have previous unfulfilled plans, but it also falls well short of providing a compelling vision likely to stir the city’s conservative residents. Fortunately, there are a few emerging initiatives that might provide a tipping point.

A City with Many of the Right Attributes     

Until recently, Ottawa (along with its estranged cross-river twin, Gatineau) was comfortably tucked in behind Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver as Canada’s fourth largest metropolitan area. While never considered on an urban par with the big three, the nation’s capital long ago shed its reputation as a city with few good restaurants, an absent local art scene and a one-trick pony economy tied to the federal government. When Chef Mark Lepine recently walked away with the top prize at the 2014 Canadian Culinary Championships, it symbolized Ottawa’s emerging culinary maturity. Similarly, behind Ottawa’s non-stop world-class summer music festivals is an eclectic and healthy music and arts scene.

Economically, despite three jarring setbacks, the National Capital Region’s high-tech economy is on the move once more. Certainly, the bursting of the dot com bubble followed by the catastrophic collapse of Nortel prior to the onset of the 2008 financial crisis significantly imploded the Region’s boast of being “Silicon Valley North.” But recently, the region has seen its high-tech employment base return to within shouting distance of its 2000 heyday. Statistics Canada’s April jobs report found 68,300 IT jobs spread over 1,800 tech companies in the Region, a whopping increase of 20,000 over the previous April. As Ottawa Citizen financial reporter James Bagnall stated, while this is somewhat less than Toronto’s addition of 31,000 similar workers, it represents more than double in terms of growth rate. In addition, he adds, “for all the talk about Kitchener-Waterloo becoming Canada’s entrepreneurial hotspot, the National Capital Region has four times as many tech employers.”

Six months prior, CIBC’s The Hottest Technology Companies in Canada report identified Ottawa as on the rebound. Nortels’ negative impact on technology investment may remain substantial and government “has not helped in the last two years.” But Ottawa’s tech employment resurgence appears based on the emergence of smaller, innovative start-up firms, suggested by the fact the capitalization of public tech companies remains well behind Kitchener-Waterloo, the GTA and Montréal.

Starting with a defense of Ottawa’s cultural reputation and slipping into a summary of its recovering tech economy based on small, innovative and nimble start-ups is no simple caprice. There is a powerful reciprocal relationship between success in attracting investment in the new economy and the existing and developing quality of place in which this investment will take place. Ottawa’s population already boasts an inordinately high education attainment level (most PhDs per capita in Canada and second only to Boston in North America), strong English and French universities and technical colleges, high-income levels and, most importantly, geographic positioning smack in the middle of the Buffalo-to-Québec City “creative cluster.”  As the 2009 report Canada’s Creative Corridor – Connecting Creative Urban and Rural Economies within Ontario and the Mega Region puts it: “Location, Location, LocationEastern Ontario is in the heart of the Mega Region that is the 12th largest in the world, 5th in North America; it represents 50 per cent of Canada’s GDP.”

And as Richard Florida argues, capital investment now moves to where creative human capital congregates. For these workers, the quality of life defines where they will settle. “Despite all the hype over globalization and the ‘flat world,’ place is actually more important to the global economy than ever before,” he writes in his second book Whose Your City? Successful cities of the future will critically assess to whom and by what means they should structure their built and cultural form. Director of Project for Public Spaces, Phil Myrick, notes, “Cities and regions that thrive in the 21st century will be differentiated by their lively neighbourhoods and business districts, cultural and recreational attractions, great sense of place, protected natural areas, and deep pride in local character, products and foods.”

Poised for Greatness… or Disappointment

It would seem that Ottawa’s highly educated workforce, back-on-track tech economy and strategic location augur well for its future in the new economy. And some, certainly Mayor Jim Watson, believes the city more than meets the urban standard demanded of the new successful city state. “We continue to best our Canadian peers in surveys in areas such as best cities to live in, most sustainable cities, most connected cities and most affordable cities,” he bragged in a speech last October on Ottawa’s Economic Outlook.  Moneysense magazine agrees, recently ranking Ottawa number four in quality of life while the international HR firm Mercier placed it behind only Vancouver in North America and 14th in the world.

Yet there remain nagging doubts. Last year, veteran journalist Janice Kennedy wrote a scathing op ed in the Ottawa Citizen. “Where the only change in a tired environment is deterioration, where the operating mantra is to be satisfied with the lackluster, the second rate, the cheapest – there is, well, Hooterville.” In addition to Prime Ministers that have consistently refused to invest in the city’s National role, provincial and municipal governments have “been pragmatic and cautious, obsessed with tax reduction instead of initiatives to enhance the life of the city…” Kennedy could have pointed out much more than penny-pinching governments and “yesterday ugly” bush-league architecture with the latter reaching its nadir in Place de Portage federal complex across the river from the Parliament Buildings. For example, the admired but flawed 1950 Greber Plan turned the banks of the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal into “parkways,” better understood as moderate speed commuter expressways. These almost completely strip Ottawa of dynamic waterfront living.

In addition, for two cities so close together and sharing an intertwined economy, the level of collaboration between Ottawa and Gatineau suggest two solitudes. Journalist Mark Sutcliffe calls them more “like courteous, detached neighbours than close siblings” that act as competitors rather than partners. In addition to a poorly integrated transit system, one egregious result
is the failure to build a properly placed truck bridge across the Ottawa River. Thus convoys of diesel spewing transport trucks clog once elegant King Edward Boulevard before chugging down Rideau St. within a half kilometer of the Parliament Buildings.

There is also a strong case that the recently downsized and increasingly marginalized National Capital Commission (NCC), originally created to implement the Greber Plan, has done more harm than good. Its biggest failure arguably was the brutal eviction of thousands of working class residents from LeBreton Flats below Parliament Hill in the early 1960s that left a desolate eyesore. 50 years later, with the exception of the stellar War Museum, little has changed save for a painfully slow-to-emerge, architecturally bland condo village, the result of a botched “developer competition” that ended up with but one contender.

Finally, there is Ottawa’s significant cultural infrastructure deficiency. The city’s significant Art Gallery collection is housed in a few rooms (albeit plans are pending for a new gallery/condo tower combo); its summer music festivals lack a venue commensurate with their reputation; there is no discernable entertainment district; and city council adamantly refuses to invest in a central library worthy of a major city, such as Halifax’s marvelous new facility or Calgary’s planned building by Snøhetta. 

Urban Planning – Three Decades of Great Hope and Dashed Expectations

While the current Master Plan suggests a revitalized approach to urban design and planning, Ottawa has tried to get it right in the past…but failed. In the early 1990s a well-funded public engagement process produced a progressive vision of a contained city, building on the emerging theories of new urbanism and transit-oriented development (TOD). The resulting plan called for a dynamic, increasingly denser urban core augmented by new, animated and walkable “urban villages” centering Orleans, Barrhaven and Kanata outside the Greenbelt. Instead, the South Keys development of a prime piece of undeveloped real estate close to downtown became the harbinger of the pervasive, single-use, big box developments that would proliferate both along major streets within the Greenbelt and in the outlying communities.

Under a new name, the 2000 Smart Growth Summit, the next master plan process was likewise a comprehensive collaborative exercise. However, subsequent suburb-dominated council reneges and Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) appeals overturning development boundaries unleashed unparalleled suburban sprawl. Frenetic big box development ensued – and continues – including the massive Rail Yards, cheek-to-jowl with the city’s core and a key transit station. Currently, the engineer-led planning department seems willfully blind to the bizarre contradiction between blanket approvals of super-low density big box malls and spot zoning for super high condos justified by the mantra of “urban intensification.”

Recently, the OMB overturned a City approved zoning amendment to permit a pair of 16 and18-storey towers in a neighbourhood of single-family homes. The surprise was not just that the usually developer-friendly OMB sided with the community opposing the change; it was the harsh critique of the city’s Planning Department arguments supporting the rezoning. The problem, stated panel member Mark Denhez, was not that the rationale provided by the city was unconvincing; it was that a rationale was completely non-existent. In other words, he seemed to be saying, the city planners supported the change because the developers wanted it. 

Ken Gray, past editorial editor of the Ottawa Citizen’s City Page and now editor of the influential Bulldog online blog, wrote tongue-in-cheek last February on the merits of simply abolishing the city’s planning department and outsourcing its responsibilities to the local development industry. He hinted that the controversial public/private partnership redevelopment of Lansdowne Park (Building, February/March 2013) indicates this may have already happened. The OMB decision exposed Ottawa’s ad hoc approach to urban planning unsullied by any guiding vision or even minimal appreciation of sustainable, 21st century urban planning principles. 

Transit: Resting On Its Laurels Too Long

In the 1980s, Ottawa opted for a dedicated east-west bus Transitway, now augmented by a repurposed heavy rail line to the south. As a consequence of rejecting a tunnel under the city core, a massive jam of hundreds of buses trying to slice down two streets in the heart of the city happens twice daily. Despite this problem and less-than-love for bus transit, however, Ottawa’s transit ridership is one of the highest in North America. Unfortunately, this led the city to delay the inevitable move to light rail with a downtown tunnel and now a troubling trend of declining users.

Gigantic “moles” are now well into digging a tunnel, and the new Confederation Line along a core section of the Transitway will commence in 2017. However compared with Calgary, a city of similar size (and sprawl), Ottawa is decades behind. The new line will bring Ottawa up to perhaps Calgary circa 1990 (Confederation’s western terminus is a hike from the downtown and will require suburban commuters to now make an extra change). The Mayor fortunately has proposed an almost immediate rapid expansion to be completed by 2022 (with apparent provincial support) that should bring the city up to Calgary’s 2006 level. Meanwhile the latter has already embarked on an ambitious 30-year expansion plan with firm TOD principles in place (Building, October/November 2013).

Equally important, the original Transitway was appropriately considered an instrument for TOD. But like other cities, the crucial connection between transit and land use development was poorly understood. Effective instruments to require development around stations never materialized. As a result, many of the stations inside the Greenbelt have little surrounding them. Those outside never developed the appropriate density when developers flatly refused to create the new urban centres suggested in the Official Plans. If anything, the Transitway resulted in the now well-understood defect of many “efficient” transit systems; it increased sprawl by making housing attractive even further from the city core.    

A 20 Year Blueprint

Last November, Ottawa approved its new Master Plan to guide the city’s development over the next 20 years. Unlike the two previous initiatives, the process was relatively low key and driven without any shared aspirational vision of the future. Despite a “Planning Summit” kick-off in November 2012, the process unfolded largely under the public radar, perhaps in response to the ongoing, often-acrimonious fights with communities over the city’s makeshift spot zoning approach to towers. As a result, there is no clarion vision statement of the future, no stunning visuals to capture the public’s imagination and no suggestion that we are at a defining moment for establishing the new economically successful city-state.

At the summit, Mayor Watson set the basic agenda that is clearly reflected in the Master Plan’s Strategic Direction chapter: it has to contain urban expansion; get serious about promoting TOD; and focus on how suburbs should be built and retrofitted while pursuing planning initiatives that contribute to a stronger economic engine in a climate of greater predictability and certainty. This the new plan does, not with a bold, new and prescriptive vision but with the sound but unfilled principles found in the previous two plans. Indeed, even the failed, outside the Greenbelt TOD-based City Centres of the 1990s plan, minus its lively graphic renderings, reappear as priori

The question, putting aside the potential debilitative ability of the OMB to override city plans, is: will there be a willingness, absent in the past, on the part of council to uphold the Plan’s key principles and are there the instruments readily in place to direct both council and the planners? In an interview, city planner John Smith maintains there are appropriate tools this time to ensure a proper correspondence between transit and land use development, something he admits had not happened in the past. Most important, he says, will be proactive programming, easier approval processes, pre-zoning, much more detailed secondary plans, more clarity and certainty, as well a better ability to engage developers and communities. Surprisingly, however, council has just recently repealed its existing lower development fees for TOD-based developments, thus deleting a major existing incentive.

The new plan ensures “an agenda of certainty,” says fellow planner Marica Clarke. Both she and Smith make it clear success will rely on developers being more open to proper TOD-based planning and well-structured, intensified mix-use developments. Yet while they believe the industry is increasingly coming on side, Ottawa’s Building Owners and Management Association (BOMA) has already appealed the entire plan to the OMB, calling it too confining.  This challenge comes despite considerable fluidity in the plan’s language. A close reading of the Strategic Direction chapter suggests persuasion instead of prescription will be the central tool. While in a few cases the city will require admirable practices, such as laying out road networks to facilitate transit routing and ensure reasonable walking distances to transit stops, considerably less prescriptive actions such as lead discussions, consider, negotiate, will consider are the norm. “Shoulds” vastly outnumber “shalls.”

In addition, detailed Secondary Plans for individual communities will be critical tools for the realization of the finer details of development, but only a few in the core area have been completed. Notably, admit both planners, most of the work still needs to be done on the very complex and contentious issue of restructuring only recently completed (and still sprawling) suburbia. As the plan concedes, almost two thirds of residential growth will take place outside the Greenbelt, which will result in almost half the population by 2031 living in areas currently lacking any semblance of humane urban centers. While residential/employment intensification goals per gross hectare for town centers, “main streets” and transit stations both inside and outside the Greenbelt have been set for 2031 and beyond, most are only 25 to 50 per cent of the urban core goal of 500.  

Bright Lights on a Shadowy Stage

BOMA’s OMB challenge, a plethora of big box “power centers” and some truly awful concrete condos on central Rideau St. suggest Kennedy’s Hooterville mentality is alive and well. There are some signs, however, that the city may trip into more appropriate 21st century urban planning, at least within the city core. At the same time, a stable of smaller developers is emerging with a finer grasp of urban design.

Bayview Station – An Urban-based Knowledge Economy?

When rapidly growing tech success story Shopify outgrew its offices in the funky downtown Byward Market, it was forced to move into a bland concrete tower in order to remain in the downtown. The next such enterprise may be able to find a home in the proposed high density mixed-use Bayview District. Located just west of LeBreton Flats and made up of the large, grossly under-used and privately owned City Centre lands and an equally significant site owned by the city, this dual brownfield site sits at the axis of the new light rail line and the south running O Train.

Based on a District Community Plan, this is one of the few areas where the Master Plan includes a relatively detailed Secondary Plan (which no doubt has contributed to BOMA’s nightmares). Centred on the proposed Bayview station for the LRT/OTrain, the development will, says the secondary plan document, “become the new western urban gateway to the city’s downtown…an LRT mobility hub [of] high-quality, mixed-use urban environment that supports a creative and diverse range of new employment and residential opportunities [based] on high quality architecture and urban design.” A key component will be the conversion, already underway, by the design collaborative PrototypeD of an extant 1940s industrial building into a $30 million innovation center.

The approximately 46,000-sq.-ft. non-profit centre will provide new accommodation for city owned Invest Ottawa as well as providing space for start-ups, digital media labs, maker-space facilities, design studios and presentation spaces, dedicated to “industrial design, prototyping, fabricating and additive and subtractive manufacturing.” Equally important, while the Innovation Centre will provide cool, affordable physical space to help retain in Ottawa emerging talent from the city’s education institutions, it will also ensure the availability of experienced business mentoring and assistance for accessing financial capital. There may even be an “accelerator component” where investors pay start-ups to go through an intensive period of idea business model development.

It should be noted, however, that the paltry $15 million “in kind” put up by the city, a fraction of the annual snow clearing budget, pales in comparison with such investments as Cleveland’s recently opened $500 million downtown center for promoting biotechnology.

The Isles – A Tipping Point?

The crucial climax for pushing the Region over the edge to sustained quality urban design, however, may come not from public leadership but from Windmill Development Group’s rapidly progressing plans for the Chaudière Falls’ historic industrial lands. This iconic 37-acre site, also clearly visible from Parliament Hill and a dramatic part of both cities’ central landscape, stretches along the Québec bank of the Ottawa River and across two Ontario islands sliced by channels and industrial canals lying below the falls and its hydro dam.

The planned zero carbon, mixed-use community envisages 3,500 residents and a similar number of jobs geared toward the knowledge economy. New construction, the adaptive re-use of some existing industrial buildings and the integration of elements of less salvageable historic elements will include low- and high-rise residential condos, shops, restaurants and public access to the multi-varied waterfront.  Now in the planning approval stage, the speed the project has moved is astounding for Ottawa. After Windmill thankfully beat out the federal National Capital Commission (NCC) in acquiring the lands from papermaker Domtar a couple of years ago, it quickly undertook a wide-ranging, open public consultation process that included local First Nations communities, Ottawa Riverkeeper, Ecology Ottawa, the Heritage Canada Foundation and over 900 citizens. Unlike so many of the NCC’s notoriously narrow “consultations” in the past, the process started with broad ideas on which the company sought input before developing its eco-village transformation.

By working also closely with both municipal governments and the NCC though a unique joint design review panel, Windmill partner Rodney Wilts says the company has already been able to roll out, to almost universal excitement, detailed development plans for the complex site. This momentum stems both from the genuine collaborative process undertaken and from architect Peter Busby, (Busby is also a partner in Windmill), understanding of the importance of strong images ea
sily accessible to the public, planners and politicians alike. As with the striking visuals he prepared for Edmonton’s Blatchford village, The Isles has been presented in delightfully detailed architectural and urban design renderings. Even though these designs are “conceptual,” the public and politicians can tangibly “see and feel” the quality of space to be provided by the new and heritage-adapted facilities and public spaces.

In comparison, the Bayview plan sadly fails – no doubt because of NCC opposition – to re-connect the planned urban village to an equally robust Ontario riverside while its rather dry site plans and massing model diagrams lack the vicarious tangibility of The Isles’ renderings.

The plans call for not one but three Innovation Centres to encourage onsite knowledge economy jobs. Wilts admits that except for the actual physical plant, ensuring this takes place lies outside Windmill’s expertise and will require input from government, high-tech industries, venture capital specialists and relevant education institutes. He points out, however, that Windmill founder Jeff Westeinde has strong ties with the high tech sector and an MOU has already been signed with Algonquin College to work on sustainability issues and opportunities.

Modest Signs of a New Breed of Developer

The Isles is the most encouraging sign that a new breed of small but creative developers is emerging in the Capital. The rapidly intensifying, mixed-use urban villages of Westboro and Wellington have been assisted by smaller developers intervening with attractive, low-to-medium rise residential buildings with street-based retail. Both are “linear villages,” the former a once prosperous and now born again main street originally tied to Ottawa’s east/west tram foolishly abandoned in the 1950s. The later once served as a modest, working class neighbourhood but now is seen as the informal home to the city’s artistic community.

A key transitional moment for Westboro, for two decades Ottawa’s up and coming village that never seemed to up and come, was the construction of the two acre Westboro Station mixed-use condos by developer Morley-Hoppner. Designed by Ottawa’s Barry J. Hobin and Associates, the three modern mid-rise towers provide a strong western gate to the community. The buildings are punctuated with coloured glass panels, animated with step-backs and large unit terraces and provide an open plaza used by a local brewery-pub as its exterior terrace. The sidewalks, adds Hobin, have extra width to enhance public space. In an interview, Ken Hoppner says that he and the Bourque family, who own the land, made an early decision to avoid a tall, oversized project such as a nearby one by another company that failed to get off the ground. “The family wanted to do more than make money, they wanted to feel proud, even boast about its contribution to the neighbourhood.”  The project sold out in three months.

In terms of the market, Westboro Station, as well as other mixed-use, street-based and modern mid-rise projects now built or in construction in the two villages, have relied heavily on long-term older residents who have downsized from nearby houses, Hoppner says. Ironically, the promised return of LRT nearby has also helped. While a number of proposed plus-30 storey Ottawa towers — even with high-profile architects and distinctive designs — are having a tough time finding buyers, Morley-Hoppner just released a Hobin-designed six-storey condo (coupled with a heritage conversion) in Wellington Village, just down the street from The Eddy, a LEED-Gold six storey mix-use condo developed by Windmill that also sold out quickly. Equally important, a number of the city’s major actors, such as Minto and Ashcroft are starting to get into the act.

All has not been smooth sailing with some significant battles between developers and the powerful community associations. Hobin agrees that the city’s largely ad hoc approach to its stated policy of intensification has not helped. “The larger community needs to take ownership and bring the public and the private sectors into sync so they become mutually supportive,” he says. Introducing stronger employment centres into these areas is also a priority, he says. Collaboration that results in clear rules and predictability for developers, is key says Hoppner “because the urban centers of cities is where the future will take place.”

A Future Uncertain

Ottawa is not an urban disaster, but it has failed significantly to realize its potential despite being the country’s most planned city. The NCC has largely eschewed the insights of progressive urban design, squandered public goodwill through arrogance, lack of transparency and collaboration, or simply failed to deliver, as is the case with LeBreton Flats and the truck bridge. Federal governments have pandered to the dislike by many Canadians of their own capital rather than invest in cultural institutions on par with similar national capitals. While the city has on several occasions produced appropriate, if not poetic, visions and supporting plans, defeat has invariably been snatched out of the jaws of victory. Whether or not the current muted technocratic Master Plan and emerging work by some in the private sector constitutes a true tipping point remains to be seen.    

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