Ottawa, it is often said, is a great place to raise kids.
Livability shouldn’t be mistaken for greatness. Ottawa may be quaint and beckoningly close to the great outdoors, but it’s a long way from world class.
So as the National Capital Commission begins yet another consultation on a new vision for the city, it’s worth asking where Ottawa went wrong, and what it could do to become a capital that better reflects the country’s boundless promise?
The NCC, a federal Crown corporation created in 1959 to make the Ottawa area a source of pride and unity, is spending $650,000 on a series of “capital conversations.” The cross-country road trip starts in Ottawa later this month and moves on to Quebec City, Halifax, Edmonton and Victoria.
The NCC is giving itself lots of time to find a vision, dubbing its exercise Horizon 2067 (Canada’s distant bicentennial).
Ottawa could use a makeover now.
Beyond Parliament Hill, the National Gallery of Canada and a clutch of other signature buildings, Ottawa’s downtown has become a claustrophobic wasteland of busy bus lanes, drab office buildings and dingy shops.
There is no tree-lined boulevard leading up to the seat of government, as you might find in most European capitals. Come to think of it, there aren’t many trees at all – the legacy of a city built by lumber barons.
The Sparks Street Mall, just steps from Parliament Hill, is supposed to be a heritage jewel. But for much of the year, it’s a cold and lonely wind tunnel, lined with marginal or shuttered businesses and crumbling heritage buildings in perpetual renovation.
Just to the west of downtown sits the LeBreton Flats, a vast area of mostly undeveloped NCC land that has been an embarrassing symbol of failed urban renewal for half a century. So far, Raymond Moriyama’s hauntingly beautiful Canadian War Museum and one bland condo tower is all there is to show for decades of promise, and talk.
Head east from the Hill, past the Chateau Laurier hotel, and you’ll find a maze of busy arteries, often choked with cars and tractor-trailers. For at least 25 years, city planners have squabbled about how to stop trucks from rumbling through city streets as they make their way from Highway 417 and across downtown bridges to Quebec. A solution remains elusive.
In 1950, French architect Jacques Gréber drafted an urban plan for Ottawa that led to the Ottawa River Parkway and the National Capital Green Belt to control urban sprawl – all great things.
Ottawa-Gatineau long ago outgrew that plan, made for a city of half a million that has since swelled to 1.2 million.
Celebrated Ottawa architect Barry Padolsky says Ottawa’s failure to grow with the country in the decades since is disappointing, given Canada’s wealth and ambition.
“We’ve had a lot of great ideas, but not much implementation,” Mr. Padolsky laments. Much of the problem, he says, is due to the chronic failure of the various players and levels of government to act with a common sense of purpose.
“Probably the biggest failure of Ottawa is to seize opportunities, to act on ideas,” he said.
Efforts to control growth and provide cost-effective public transit have faltered. Far too often development has followed a course dictated by developers, rather than planners. The result has been haphazard development and severe overbuilding in distant suburbs, such as Kanata, including Scotiabank Place, the city’s main sports venue, which is poorly served by public transit.
The federal government recently contributed to the sprawl by spending $208-million last year to buy Nortel’s sprawling former corporate campus in Kanata. Thousands of Defence Department employees will eventually move to the site, cut off from transit lines.
The city is poised to spend $2.1-billion on an east-west LRT line, tunnelled beneath the city. But there’s no clear plan for promoting commercial and residential development near the dozen or so stops along the line.
Here are a few ways to change Ottawa’s destiny:
-- Knock down Scotiabank Place and turn the site back into the rich farmland it was before the Ottawa Senators moved in. Then, build a new sports complex where it belongs, downtown in the LeBreton Flats, linked to LRT lines on both sides of the river.
-- Enclose the Sparks Street Mall in glass, embracing the reality that Ottawa is a winter city.
-- Bury the parking lots on the east side of Parliament Hill and put a tree-filled park on top, creating a window on the Ottawa River for downtown.
-- Create a unified Ottawa-Gatineau bus and LRT system serving both sides of the river.
-- Get the logging trucks out of downtown with a new bridge linking Highway 417 to Quebec’s Highway 50, somewhere east of the city.
There’s no shortage of creative ideas.
The first task is to fix the mistakes of the past. And it need not take until 2067 to do that.