What better topic to kick off Spacing Ottawa than with Lansdowne Park? It has attracted a great deal of controversy and misinformation, but in looking at the future of this important municipal asset, I have sought to steer clear of the rhetoric and asked myself a few basic questions about what the city ought to consider as it ponders Lansdowne’s future. The answers I give here are my own, as a citizen of Ottawa and one who is ambitious about the evolution of this city.
What should Ottawa seek to achieve at Lansdowne?
Lansdowne was never intended as a park in the strict sense of the word. It has always been, and should continue to be, a magnet for people and a place of intense activity revolving around sports and commerce.
The beloved Aberdeen Pavilion witnessed Ottawa’s early Stanley Cup victories and Frank Clair Stadium was, for decades, the site of football triumphs and agonies, from the Riders to the Panda games and the short-lived but fun Bootleggers. The Central Canada Exhibition was, and has remained, the city’s main venue for entertainment and agricultural fairs. The Civic Centre witnessed Memorial Cups and the rebirth of the NHL. Big-name concerts have played both the arena and stadium. I personally saw dozens of concerts there, from U2 to Pink Floyd. Pierre Trudeau won the Liberal leadership at Lansdowne and his retirement was fêted there too. Exhibitions, from Christmas shows to toy and clothing sales and the controversial Arm-X weapons shows, have also been mainstays. The place is impregnated with local and national history.
So, Lansdowne is a legitimate activity hub. So it should continue to be. Having such a place in the core of the city is all the more relevant to us after our experience with the Senators playing in Kanata. Scotiabank Place has actually deprived downtown of other big shows, which now mostly bypass Lansdowne in favour of Kanata.
How to requalify Lansdowne in its rightful and established functions is the relevant question. Those (mostly Glebe residents) who would see Lansdowne’s redevelopment as an opportunity to get rid of the stadium are displaying a profound selfishness. If you don’t like to live near a stadium, then the Glebe isn’t for you. Ottawa has plenty of downtown neighbourhoods that don’t have stadiums. It’s as ridiculous as Sandy Hill residents asking for the University of Ottawa to be moved so they can enjoy peace and quiet without students and their parties. In all central neighbourhoods, there are trade-offs. You take the good and the bad, and the word “bad” is used loosely here, in exchange for the privilege of a convenient residential location. That’s life in a big city.
Sports. Having a downtown stadium and hockey arena are essential pieces of our capital city. Getting back into the Canadian Football League, and playing for the Grey Cup (a trophy which was born in Ottawa), are legitimate claims our city has to participating in the nation’s sporting life. Adding pro soccer is a way to bring the facility into its time. Major junior hockey, better priced for families than the NHL, is hugely popular in this city. Being able to host international events, tournaments and games is also something a city our size and stature should aspire to. The stadium and Civic Centre, in short, must be renovated. For all the righteous indignation about the costs of renovating these facilities, I ask myself where was the outrage at their advancing decay over the years.
Link to rural roots. The agricultural fairs of yesteryear are long gone, but today there is appetite and real potential for a more urban version of this link to rurality: the farmers’ market. Installing one in the Aberdeen Pavilion, modelled after the hugely successful Atwater and St. Lawrence market (in Montreal and Toronto respectively), would be a natural evolution for Lansdowne. In the 21st century city, every neighbourhood should have a market. Lansdowne can be the Glebe’s. Reusing a cherished heritage structure to house it will only strengthen its appeal.
Will it attract “traffic” from other neighbourhoods? Of course it will. The thrill of living in a big city is variety. Being able to choose from several markets would be a pleasure for everyone, and a chance to see other parts of town. This same “traffic” will also explore the rest of the Glebe and likely shop there too.
Commerce and public space. The original Central Canada Exhibition was about selling farm goods. Today’s SuperEx has morphed into an outlet mall appended to an amusement fair. The various trade shows, from the Spring and Fall Home Shows, the Christmas Craft Show, and dozens more, are also commercial initiatives. What is sometimes missed in the heat of debate is that markets are very much public spaces. The way they are designed matters enormously in how these spaces function and integrate into their surroundings. So far, Lansdowne has functioned as an isolated site without any meaningful links or attempted integration into the Glebe. Now is the time to rectify this.
The question in my mind is, should Lansdowne continue to host seasonal and temporary comnmercial trade shows, or should it become a more established place of commerce? Neither option precludes the design of Lansdowne as good public space. Indeed, if regular retail were the chosen way, there is genuine opportunity to weave the edges of this enormous property into its neighbourhood by extending the pieces of it that people appreciate, the traditional mainstreet (Bank) being the most obvious. Having a large quantity of retailers with doors on sidewalks actually prolongs the Glebe’s mainstreet with the same urban design language as its historic parts. On the other hand, large exhibition halls are likely to have large expanses of blank wall and limited entry points. They are much more difficult to design as good public spaces, and doing that would almost certainly involve small retail outlets opening up to the outside.
I look at the Rideau Centre and assume, optimistically, that we would never build it like that again today. It is a monstrosity of a box, selfish to the outside, ugly and self-absorbed. Despite this, it not only failed to kill the Byward Market, it vaulted it to the top of the food chain among Ottawa’s retail districts. Ask any merchant in the Market if they’d like to see the Rideau Centre closed. At Lansdowne, the effect of new retail will be much better if the retail is deployed as door-on-street shops along Bank and some new streets, some pedestrianized, leading to the Aberdeen Pavilion. These new streets and the extension of the Bank mainstreet can truly become successful public spaces. What is more public than people attending to their household needs, on foot, mingling informally with one another? People who harbour repugnance toward “commerce” as an impure form of public space need to answer the question: where else will you fulfill your household needs? Most likely, the answer will include a car trip to a suburban big-box power centre. And here is the big picture of it all: we have to reconquer the commercial function of the city as the generator of good public spaces. Lansdowne can do that, and it is a legitimate place in which to do it.
Will more stores cause “traffic”? Certainly. Again, redeveloping such a big site with pedestrian space on the surface and underground parking is a change for the better. People who drive will get there, like they get to the much more congested Rideau Centre area, and likely park underground if they know they are spending half a day, or surf for a metered parking spot if they are bolting in and out. More congestion only means slower traffic and, therefore, safer streets. That is the reality in the Byward Market. The Glebe now qualifies for this. It is a real improvement. Besides, the fear of cars assumes that everyone will drive. Everyone won’t. Even shopping malls like Billings Bridge or St. Laurent have over 25% of their clientele arriving by transit. The Glebe is a walkable destination. Many will walk or bike to it. More frequent bus service, however, will be needed.
Parks and green space. There has been little of that at Lansdowne for many decades. Adding this component will be a plus. But, as all urban amenities, parks and open space have to be sized and designed properly for the function they are intended to fulfill. Lansdowne belongs to the whole city. It cannot be a local park. It borders the Rideau Canal, which is now a world-recognized heritage site. Its green portion should be active, open to all, metropolitan in scope and programming, and active. Concerts, festivals and big events should find a home here. There is no such thing as a “minimum size” for this type of city-wide park, it just has to look and feel right for what it’s meant to be. The fact that it is in an old and dense part of town means that it will be more compact, and this is good: compact space is better at bringing people together. The logical place for park space at Lansdowne is next to the canal, to link with the pathways and to not overstep the logical place of commerce and sports, which are already next to Bank Street. Having a water inlet from the canal into this park space, as some have proposed, would be beautiful. The site’s overall density of activity, with sports, a market and other commerce abutting the park, would feed people into the park by virtue of closeness. However, having all of Lansdowne as just a park would produce a very large open space that would be almost impossible to fill with people on a regular basis, and therefore it would be dead.
Amusement park. The SuperEx is also a vital component of Ottawa, a real summertime ritual. Losing it to the suburbs (Albion Road or wherever else) will be tragic. Cities like Toronto have amusement parks like Centre Island that function all summer long, and ideally Lansdowne should seek to keep that function and integrate it into its green space. But these types of amusement parks take up more space than will be left if other components are allowed to evolve with more space of their own. So, if we lose the Ex, we should find another urban site for it. The green space between Carling and Dow’s Lake, west of Preston, is one example of a location that should be tested for this purpose.
Was “Landowne Live” the ideal way to go about redeveloping Lansdowne? No. Is it a legitimate and legal process? Yes. Is the process reason enough to discard the opportunity before us? Certainly not.
In this process-obsessed city, much has been said about the “sole-sourcing” of the Lansdowne redevelopment. This is technically inaccurate. It has to be remembered that the city chose between Lansdowne and Kanata and had its own study of potential stadium sites. Lansdowne Live, it is fair to say, was an unsolicited proposal, but it is not a sole-source deal. Construction contracts for the stadium will be tendered. The partnership itself is a conglomerate of companies each with their own interests and spheres of activity. There have been other non-solicited proposals, like Plasco’s to turn household waste into energy, that could also have been termed “sole-source” but somehow there hasn’t been a flicker of controversy about those. So, the “sole-source” argument is a mere front for the opposition and sidesteps the real issues.
The ideal process would have been to look after this asset long ago. In fact, in the days of Jim Watson, after the original Rough Riders folded, there was a proposal to have an international design competition, and Glebe residents would have nothing of it. They pushed for Frank Clair Stadium to be demolished, and had the Regional government not stepped in to buy it, today we would have condos at Lansdowne.
The process we have today is a result of our own civic disengagement toward Lansdowne. The real crunch time arrived when the south stand lower deck had to be demolished after being found structurally unsafe. Today we have an asset in structural jeopardy and an opportunity to fix it. I suspect that those who persist in wanting to stop everything and start a whole new design competition don’t have the stadium’s best interests in mind. And this distorts the debate. The bottom line is: what will Ottawa be left with?
Design is vitally important. The City can and must exercise its power to obtain the right design. The stadium must be redesigned to be a true urban stadium. Retail must be designed as if it were the Byward Market. Green space must be designed to be urban and active. Other functions that may be added, like a hotel, or office space or residences, must also be designed in an urban way to fit into and strengthen the Glebe.
There should be more people at Lansdowne. There should be more action. As a city we should rejoice about any plan that accomplishes this. When you sweep aside all the cobwebs of the rhetoric and entrenched positions, we as a city should want Lansdowne to be a public space and people place designed around sports, markets, commerce, and green space. And that, in my view, is what would really make this redevelopment as a marker of our civic maturity.
– Alain Miguelez is an Ottawa urban planner
photo credit Rob Huntley