FW: [Tr2000] Article: Why Ottawa always gets it wrong (Ottawa planning)
>Why Ottawa always gets it wrong (Ottawa planning)Why Ottawa Always Gets It Wrong
---by Clive Doucet---
I thought the Editor�s Message in the August 2005 edition concerning
Ottawa's pitiable ability to protect heritage buildings and the integrity of
its neighbourhoods was a great Cook's tour of disasters from the past.
Without repeating them all, the four at the top of my list would be: 1) the
destruction of LeBreton Flats; 2) the ripping up of the city's streetcar
system and displacing the rail station from Confederation Square to Alta
Vista; 3) the demolition of the Capital Theatre; 4) the construction of the
Macdonald-Cartier bridge followed by the transition of King Edward Avenue
from a beautiful, treed boulevard to a truck route.
The Editor's Message was complemented by two excellent articles by David
Gladstone and Hank Reardon chronicling modern follies � the city's inability
to use the Prince of Wales Railroad Bridge to extend O-Train service to
Gatineau, and ending the north-south light rail transit line in the middle
of the Mackenzie King Bridge instead of at the Hurdman Transitway Station.
But the question that was never posed along with the chronicle of disasters
is � why? Why is it that other cities faced with the same kinds of choices
get it right and Ottawa gets it wrong? Toronto didn't tear its streetcar
system up; it modernized it and continues to do so. Somehow, the light bulb
went on in the Toronto council chamber that the city's electric streetcars
were worth keeping � even though they were old and in need of repair and
replacement, as Ottawa's were. Today, just four Toronto streetcar lines move
more passengers each day than the provincial GO Train system.
Toronto's old warehouse neighbourhood, the equivalent of LeBreton Flats, was
not flattened for a snow dump, although it could have been because, like
LeBreton Flats, it would have been convenient to do so. It was in the city
centre but out of the way, down by the water. For its wisdom, what did
Toronto get? The Distillery District now famous for its arts venues and
upscale residential accommodation. For its wisdom, what did Ottawa get? A
160-acre vacant lot and snow dump for 40 years.
The Toronto equivalent of the Capital Theatre was not torn down, instead the
renovated building,the Wintergarden Theatre, site for Cats
and other international productions, has become what the Capital Theatre
could and should have become � a jewel in the city's theatrical crown.
Toronto and Montreal's rail stations remain at the beginning of the 21st
century where they were at the beginning of the 20th century � in the centre
of their respective cities, offering the travelling public convenient access
to the city centre that gets better with each passing year.
Whining about the impact of these dumb decisions may make one feel virtuous
but they won't bring the Capital Theatre back, or the streetcars or the
funky LeBreton Flats. The question that we need to know the answer to is:
Why is it that other city councils, when confronted with tough decisions,
make the right decision and Ottawa city councils don't - that's the question
we need to ask ourselves.
I believe there are two principal responses: The first is the National
Capital Commission. No other Canadian city has to deal with an organization
that has public authority and more land than the largest private developer.
If the NCC wants to build a freeway through Gatineau Park, it does so. If
the NCC wants to add a lane to a bridge, as they did with the Champlain
Bridge, they do, even if they have to fight local residents all the way to
the Supreme Court � which they did. The NCC invests enormous amounts of
money in making Ottawa more car-friendly. They build driveways, bridges,
surface and sub-surface parking lots. The NCC has torn up virtually every
rail line that Ottawa had. I've never understood how the NCC considers roads
in Ottawa to be part of their national mandate and rail a problem to be
gotten rid of.
Imagine if Toronto City Council had to face a private developer with federal
public authority who was able to build a bridge to the Island Airport and a
couple of new roads downtown and it didn't much matter what the local
residents or city council wanted. Elections are won and lost over such
issues. David Miller is Mayor of Toronto today because he opposed the Island
Airport land link. He might still be Mayor, but he'd be watching them build
a causeway to the island if he had the NCC in town.
So part of the explanation is the NCC. It's the NCC that tore down LeBreton
Flats, left it fallow for 40 years, and moved the rail station to Alta
Vista. But Ottawa's lamentable lack of vision can't all be blamed on the
NCC. If I were apportioning blame, I'd say it was a 50-50 split � 50% NCC
and 50% Ottawa City Council. Over the decades, city aldermen, controllers
and councillors have demonstrated time and again that they are just not used
to behaving as if they were responsible for an entire city. They are
accustomed to the federal government assuming responsibility, not just for
many roads and bridges but also for much of the city's cultural
infrastructure, regional planning, parks, festivals and recreational
There is no vision in Ottawa, no capacity to make the right decision for the
long term because the majority of Ottawa city councillors get elected based
on the promise not to increase taxes and limit their involvement in
government to essential services � police, fire, sewer, water and roads.
This is the way it has been for generations in Ottawa. It's not a new
situation. This is why anything that deviates outside of this shoebox, even
a very small contribution to the Chamber Music Festival's new Concert Hall,
is fought tooth and nail, even though the sum of $5 million is nothing more
than the money we would normally spend on a couple of intersections. To put
the Concert Hall costs in perspective, the city spent $600 million in 2004
on roads and adds every year about 100 kilometres of new roads that will run
us about $8,000 dollars a kilometre to maintain. No one ever questions that
But God help the councillor who wants to build a pedestrian bridge across
the canal or save an old building.We've been waiting for 20 years for just
one pedestrian bridge across the Rideau Canal and in seven years on Ottawa
City Council, I think I've seen one small building saved from the demolition
hammer. And when the city actually owns a heritage building, we sell them
off or let them rot. The city now has one heritage firehall left in the
entire city. It happens to be in my ward in Old Ottawa South. The other one
on Parkdale Avenue was sold to a developer who immediately flipped it. The
Capital Theatre debacle is alive and well in 2005.
If the people of Ottawa want a city that is more than a service provider of
roads to residential pods; if they want a city with a vision and confidence
in itself, one that brings back not just one light rail line, but a light
rail network; if they want a central library that looks like more than a
boot locker; if they want a city that has an arts district; in short if they
want a city others look towards and admire, not mock; then our citizens have
to elect city councillors who actually care about these things; who actually
care about re-ordering spending priorities, so that we can lease more than
three trains and actually use the old Prince of Wales rail connection to
Hull, instead of stopping the trains within sight of it.
Ottawa is the national capital of dumb decisions and the cheapest possible
alternatives, because that�s the electoral mandate. Change the mandate and
we�ll change the city.
Contributor: Ottawalife Online
Edition: September 2005
Created: 9/30/2005 11:08:06 AM