What do you do with public land left over from an infrastructure project that is too awkwardly shaped to subdivide and resell to developers and too small to turn into a community park? Did I mention it sits right next to a freeway and rapid transit corridor? That’s the challenge facing the City of Ottawa with a strip of land about one block from my house that was used to stage the construction of the Western Transitway. Six houses were torn down to make way for the bus corridor. But over a year since the Western Transitway was completed between Pinecrest and Bayshore, the land still sits vacant, covered with weeds and dirt (at least during the summer), with a few bits of construction supplies still lying around near its west side. The community has received no news on any upcoming changes to the site.
The property in question is at least 0.5 hectares and located at the south end of South Fairfield Heights, a community squeezed between the Queensway to the south, the old City of Ottawa’s western boundary to the east, the historic Richmond Road to the north (and northwest, as well as northeast), and the Richmond/Queensway interchange to the west. This tract of land formerly owned by the Bells, one of Nepean’s prominent settler families, was developed by Minto in the 1960s with low-density modern housing on very large suburban lots. Residential development continued into the 1970s until Minto sold off the remaining lots to small developers who built custom homes. Since Minto left the community for some other people to deal with, adequate community infrastructure was never built, including play equipment in Bellfield Park, as well as sidewalks and sufficient street lamps along the main pedestrian routes. To this day, the park is a big unused triangular field (there are only animal tracks in the snow), there are no sidewalks, and the main pedestrian route connecting the community to the local bus stop and higher density housing on Alenmede Crescent is pitch black at night. There has never been a proper community organization to bring these matters to the attention of City staff.
The neighbourhood was stuck in a time warp until two events happened around the same time that made residents realize the times they were a changin’. The first was the City’s decision to turn the historic and expansive Bell homestead at the north end of the community into a public interpretive space – a Billings Estate of the west end. The second event was the demolition of the homes on Burgess Avenue to make way for the Western Transitway. During construction, I contacted Alex Cullen, the local councilor at the time regarding what would happen to the land currently used for staging the construction. He said a decision would be made within two to three years after the City’s real estate branch had determined if they could shave off pieces to sell to developers, but welcomed preliminary ideas that could be discussed when the official consultation got underway. As an urban planning student at the time, I prepared this report to gain some practical planning experience, make some suggestions on how to use the “Burgess Avenue Strip”, and finally add some infrastructure that would encourage residents to come together to improve their community.
Adam Bentley is a recent graduate of Queen’s University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning and resident of South Fairfield Heights. He’s interested in enhancing public space for community social development (and is looking for a job!)