By David Gladstone
A constant challenge for Centretowners is the ongoing development of our mature community. And the fact that we are a mature community — all of our land area was developed and our roads built by about 1890 — is the core challenge.
With some well-justified exceptions, Centretown residents don’t want many brand new buildings; what we do want is good water, sewer, electricity and transit service, schools, well-maintained buildings, healthy trees lining our streets, cycling routes, safe roads, and adequate parking for cars.
I submit that property developers see a different challenge: they see a square mile of fully serviced land lying next to the downtown of Canada’s capital, land waiting to be redeveloped.
The challenge has been there since Lt. Col. By arrived back in 1820 with his Royal Engineers to start building the Rideau Canal. We tend to see Ottawa as a mature North American city with a downtown surrounded by car-oriented suburbs.
While that is a fair description of how Ottawa developed after 1950, Centretown was a fully developed part of the city by 1910 and its development was oriented to getting around by foot, railroad, streetcars, and boats on the Rideau Canal.
Unlike our sister cities of Quebec City, Montreal and Toronto, there were no First Nations settlements in what is now Ottawa, for a simple reason: much of the land was mosquito-breeding marsh. Before it carried boats, the Rideau Canal served as a drainage ditch for the marshes in what is now Lowertown, Confederation Park, and Dow’s Lake.
The reality that demands respect is that Centretown is a community built on drained marsh. If this man-made drainage fails, as is the case in some post-apocalypse movies set in other cities, the marsh will slowly return.
Another challenge is the fact that the Ottawa Valley is the product of faults, which can abruptly move producing earthquakes.
Add in the Leda clay underlying much of Ottawa and we have an explanation of why downtown Ottawa doesn’t have the high office towers typical of downtown
For Toronto and Montreal, the high density required the building of subways and their buildings can be built on rock.
The adoption of cars as the major mode of transportation after World War II posed a major challenge. In many American cities, 19th century communities were partially or entirely given up to the needs of car-oriented suburbs, two of the most-affected cities being Detroit and Los Angeles.
The good news is that, thanks to the efforts of Centretowers since the start of the car era and our political influence (we are the community beneath Parliament Hill!), the only major concession to cars in Centretown was the building of the Queensway, which replaced the Grand Trunk Railroad. Streetcars were removed from Wellington, Elgin, and Bank Streets but our streets remained largely community-oriented, with frequent local bus service. And, as the recent struggle over Bronson Avenue shows, we continue to win over “road-wideners.”
When property developers started to push to redevelop many of our low-rise blocks, Centretowners used their political skills to push back, the cornerstone of our resistance being the Centretown Plan, adopted by the pre-merger City of Ottawa back in 1976. The Centretown Plan is a chapter in Ottawa’s Official Plan (available to read on the city’s website).
While Montreal and Toronto built subway lines to meet their growing post-war transportation needs, Ottawa chose another route to meet the needs of its growth as Canada’s capital and as a high-tech centre: bus-only roads — the Transitway —linking the suburbs with Ottawa’s downtown. Did effective lobbying by road builders and bus producers play an important role? Well yes, but so did the economics of our lower-density city, compared to Montreal and Toronto.
While the Transitway is well-used, its design bypassed many core transit needs, including Centretown to downtown service, Ottawa-Gatineau service and use of the railway lines built in Ottawa during the railway era. As BUZZ readers are well aware, the Prince of Wales (PofW) railway bridge across the Ottawa River remains unused even though it is only 200 metres north of the Bayview O-Train station. And bus service for Centretowners is on the road system.
The O-Train, which started back in 2001, is a well-used, reliable, light rail transit service. However, it doesn’t connect with the PofW bridge, the airport terminal, the Ottawa train station, or Barrhaven (which has a VIA railway station). While it does run to Carleton University, so does the #7 bus, which runs down Bank Street through the middle of Centretown.
The cover of the O-Train schedule (copies are available at the reception desk in City Hall) shows how central light-rail transit service should be for getting around in our fair city.
Community Development Plan (CDP)
As BUZZ readers are well aware, the current planning initiative for Centretown is the CDP. A somewhat confusing aspect of the CDP is that it includes significant changes to the successful and long-standing Centretown Plan (a full chapter in the City of Ottawa Official Plan) and isn’t as tightly linked as it should be to current and planned future transit service in our community. Tall buildings on Catherine Street would be near the Queensway, and about one kilometre from the Transitway, the opposite
of transit-oriented development.
As time moves on, the challenge remains to respect the past and present in planning the future of our Community Beneath the Hill. We’re not perfect but our Centretoiwn is much closer to the green ideal than the ‘burbs many of our friends and colleagues live in. Walking, cycling, and transit are our main transportation modes, we respect our trees and greenspace, walk and cycle to our parks, and much of our electricity is generated in hydroelectric generators. Not bad.
I submit that our Centretown is a community where the pre-car era past and the green present and future meet and cooperate. Yes, our streets are open to cars and trucks, but they include well-used sidewalks, bicycle lanes, bus stops, signaled crosswalks, and car speeds are limited. .
Let’s keep on working together to keep our Centretown a great urban community where walking, cycling, and transit are the major ways of getting around, just as they have been for over 100 years.
And, yes, we want new buildings and neighbours, in ways that build on and add to our green past, present, and future and that respect the legacy left us by the builders of Centretown.