How condo developers are snubbing the public street – with help from the City

What are developers hiding behind the curtain wall?

Large property development firms are seldom compared to little domesticated birds. But in some ways they are canaries in the coal mines of the urban streetscape.

And the song these messengers sing is not a cheerful tune for downtown pedestrians.

Consider this not-so-old  downtown condo:

At first glance, the landscaping is pleasant.  Other than the front door,  the rest of the ground floor is revealed to be blank walls, the utility side of the building that puts up front what used to be kept in the back. And those tiny windows open into the … parking garage. Seriously, this normally sensitive developer has decided that a busy pedestrian and cyclist street on the edge of downtown commercial core deserves exactly nothing as its ground floor. No storefront. No niche bookshop. No quiet RMT tenant. Not even a charming accountant. Nada.

In contrast, the older versions of the Centretown plan encouraged mixed use development, with storefronts at sidewalk level to animate the street. Off of the traditional mainstreets, these storefronts never commanded  prime rents, and so attracted more marginal tenants. Foreign language bookshops. Cultural centres. Minority interest outreach centres. Ethnic or geographically unique foodstuffs.  Hi-tech startups vying for space with hairstylists. For nearly forty years I have walked by this apartment building on Queen, and seen a steady parade of businesses come and go:

Yet despite the example of the continual tenancies in the Queen Street building shown, or in the Albert at Bay building directly behind it, we have the curious case of the condo block called “The Gardens” —  immediately west of them . This Charlesfort-constructed building to think that the highest and best use of downtown ground floor street level space is storage lockers!  Many of the windows along both the Queen Street and Albert Street facades are fake windows, designed to give the impression of something when there is nothing:

There are more Potemkin streetscapes in other Charlesfort condos. The much-lauded art-deco “Hudson” on Kent at Lisgar looks nice at 50 kmh but the windowed residences begin one whole floor up:

And similarly the same builder’s MacIntosh-inspired  “Glasgow” on Bronson is at least 50% fake windows on the ground floor:

Now I would be the first to agree that the ground floor facing Bronson is not a great place for a residence. But directly across the street, there is a pizza restaurant  that manages to attract patrons to sit outdoors to eat right beside the same busy road. Indeed, that whole section of Bronson shows surprising signs of street level activity despite the blight imposed by an overly-burdened street, so storefronts could easily have worked under the condos.

Storefronts and lively sidewalks are the indicator species of a lively downtown. Condo developers are killing the canary before it can sing.

Why? They might rationalize it on the grounds that the street is too busy, too noisy. But then the builders do the same thing on quieter streets like Kent, Lisgar, and Queen.  Is it because they only imagine their buildings being admired by motorists scooting by in jack-rabbit traffic? Does that account for the landscaping that usually consists of long strips of identical plants designed to be seen as a single shape? Certainly the Charlesfort landscaping style is the antithesis of engaging or pleasant viewing for slower-moving pedestrians, who have time to enjoy more intricate and complex interplays of texture, shape,  and colour, such as was used in front of this building (alas, not in Ottawa):

Of course our condo builders do not operate in a vacuum. Some, like Domicile, Claridge, and Ashcroft,  rent storefronts in their other projects. But other builders may not know how to or want to lease space. In those cases, they could sell the ground floor commercial condominiums, like Phoenix DCR did on Somerset/Rochester.  Does Charlesfort just find animating the streetscape not worth their effort? Is all the money in the upper level canopy of the urban jungle?

Municipal regulation comes into play, of course. While the original Centretown plans of the 50’s and 60’s encouraged ground level commercial, particularly noticeable in the area east of Bank Street, subsequent municipal rules swung 180 degrees. The condos clustered at Laurier/Bay are dull because of the unrelentingly boring sidewalk environment,  as most of the condos there (built in the 70’s and 80’s) were forbidden to have sidewalk-facing ground floor commercial. Instead they have residences with zero privacy.

That attitude of mono-use land parceling continues in surprising places. The councilor for Somerset ward frequently opposes commercial use on the ground floor of condo buildings, favoring commercial development focused on traditional shopping streets like Elgin and Bank. This is great for landlords on those streets who aren’t exactly sitting on lots of unrented space, but artificial space scarcity will slowly and relentlessly see the squeezing out of locally owned, unique businesses in favour of higher-paying, lower-risk franchised sameness or clones thereof.  To say nothing for residents of those high rise condos who may eventually decide that if they have to go elsewhere to get to a café or restaurant, they might as well not pay the premium to live downtown.

Squeezed out of mainstreets by the city artificially constraining supply, and rising rents, new and innovative businesses end up fleeing to the “next” great neighborhood where they can find space cheap or funky.  Other cities have lots of older industrial areas for this exodus, but Ottawa and the NCC have diligently worked decades to exorcise those industrial buildings. Adapt and re-use have lost out to raze and revise (but don’t build).

What can we do about this? Policy changes are required at City hall. Our city plans call for lively sidewalks; it is time to reject building proposals that enliven sidewalk environments with the backs of storage lockers and parking garages. Demanding better doesn’t cost the city a cent, and needn’t penalize developers. The City should encourage vitality with flex-use-zoned commercial space. The eventual abundance of ground floor spaces will keep rents attractive, incubate new and innovative businesses, and make streets lively (note, this does not require a bar & patio on every block), and then  more people will want to live in those condos.

Demanding better means nipping in the bud the nascent trend for condo developers to use not just the ground floor, but the first few floors up as parking garage. See Claridge’s Pinnacle condo at Laurier/Lyon with a building with the first two floors being parking. What that glossy brochure shot doesn’t reveal is the ground and second floor windows are fake and hide a parking garage.

Or there is Urban Capital’s The Mondrian, at Laurier/Bank — it’s the image at the top of this post with four or five floors of above-grade parking behind the green curtain wall.

Soon there will be Mastercraft’s Soho Italia with seven stories of above ground parking garage and no underground parking at all. If this continues, downtown pedestrians will be darting from building lobby to building lobby though wastelands of high rise parking garages and dumpster loading zones.

For existing condo buildings that have residential or dead uses on the ground floor, the City should go ahead and rezone them all for flex-use commercial space, and over time the space will evolve. Such change can only improve the ground floor of the Claridge’s Somerset Street Strand condo or Assaly’s 470 Laurier.

And for goodness sake get rid of the dangerous proposal in the new Centretown plan that would simply rezone huge residential areas to permit the gradual conversion of homes into offices and commercial space. That almost unlimited supply of cheaper commercial space near the downtown is guaranteed to destroy the residential attractiveness of these neighborhoods, convert treed and green backyards into wall-to-wall parking lots, and undercut the viability of new commercial space in condo towers.

None of the above is magic wishful thinking requiring a new world order or utopian culture change. It just requires a bit more spine on the part of the City to value the long term pedestrian vitality of the public living room along the street. And less credence given to the short-term profitability of developers.

In another twenty years, when the city planners have retired on pensions, will the Malhotra’s, Greenbergs, and Choo’s be able to point with pride to the vibrant downtown they fashioned? Or will they simply shrug and move off to greener pastures ?

15 comments

  1. This article would be more legitimate if the first picture wasn’t of the SECOND floor, above at grade retail with open windows along the entire street frontage.

    • Geoffrey as the editor of the post I take your point; there is retail at grade there -just for the record it was my decision, not the author’s to go with that photo as it is a strong visual example of “hidden” parking lot.

  2. As a long-time resident of Centretown, I couldn’t agree more with the points raised in this article. In addition, the combination of large numbers of parking spaces in these buildings, above or below ground, and the lack of businesses and services will only encourage these new condo dwellers to resort to using their cars for any and all activity, which is something we should be actively discouraging. More activity at street level also helps to contribute to safer streets. Unfortunately, in many cases where the street level condo buildings are including commercial operations, these seem to be of the large chain variety, thus squeezing out even more small, neighbourhood operations.

  3. Having been involved with so many applications this year, Eric should know that all applications for large buildings that have been approved in 2011 have had, wherever possible, townhouse entrances on the ground floor. This recent City policy follows that of Toronto to have residential entrances (real ones, not just fake ones where the main entrance is off the middle of the building) as frequend as possible to ensure an animated (and often landscaped) streetscape. Where these are along main streets, there are commercial spaces along the main streets (e.g. Central Phase 2)

    Soho Italia promises a blight in what they have initially applied for, but their rezoning application has not yet been approved, much less the site plan, which would outline the location of ground floor stuff.

    The provisions in the draft Centretown Community Design Plan which allow residential space to be converted to commercial/office have been removed after the first draft. Nobody (developers, staff, residents) was very attached to it.

    So in short, yes the buildings you cite have a problem, but the City has already changed its policies (and the implementation thereof) in the direction you propose.

  4. Mr A-M appears to be missing a crucial point – while residence entrances are better than the blank facades shown, commercial uses in new condos should also be allowed *everywhere*. Mono-use townhouse entrances are still mono-use. Restricting commercial to main streets is, as the author eloquently points out, retarded. Good to see an article on this aspect of Ottawa’s pitiful development record.

  5. What I got out of the article was that there was, and is, little demand for commercial space on side streets. Would the city have had to require it if there was such a demand? It was so unpopular that many, if not most, buildings skipped ground floors altogether and surrounded the tiny lobbies with open parking, the rest of the building lifted one storey off the ground on concrete stilts.

    I was recently in Istanbul, where the streets are lined with small retail shops. It was a wonderful atmosphere, but we simply don’t have the downtown population density required to cover all streets with ground floor commercial/retail, and Istanbul’s pedestrian districts don’t have the same competition Ottawa stores do from shopping malls and suburban big box stores. And not only are there insufficient downtown residents to support side street retail, but even the main street commercial areas, which advertise to and attract customers who live outside downtown, have trouble keeping stores occupied. Look at the former Goldstein’s Freshmart on Elgin Street that has sat empty for four years. What good are more retail spaces if they’re all going to be occupied by dollar stores and cheque-cashing stores?

  6. What I got out of the article is commercial space on side streets was actively discouraged and/or banned. And who said anything about “covering all streets”? But don’t actively discourage it either; offices would be good too – cause it’s the *mix* that is nice. Maybe someday when the density is higher, businesses that you didn’t even know you needed will move in. Again, as the author notes, restricting commercial to main streets restricts supply forever and goodbye niche businesses that can’t afford the high rents on Elgin.

  7. Evan, thanks for the clarification. Nonetheless, I don’t see how it relates to the article, which, as far as I can tell was about creating lively street frontages. How does parking not on the ground level, creatively packaged to hide the ugly, relate to this? Keep up the good work.

  8. GDH: one of the points I was trying to make is that the city used to encourage ground floor commercial (centretown/golden triangle area); then banned it and we got residential ground floors. Then the City permitted firms like Domicile to build out the ground floor as parking garage, “to encourage downtown development”; then we got above ground floor of parking (Claridge at Lyon/Laurier); then we got 4 or so floors of parking garage above grade (Urban Capital, corner of Laurier / Bank, and that garage is a “for rent” it isn’t even for the building above it!); and now we have developers eg Mastercraft wanting seven story parking garages above grade with NO underground parking at all, because it is cheaper that way.

    If you’ve been to cities that permit unrestricted above ground garages you know they are pretty bleak and alienated places.
    We need to demand, as a minimum, that ground floors be active spaces, perhaps with flex zoning to be residential/commercial/retail/office so they can change over time; and as a second step, we need to seriously reconsider how much above ground parking garage we are going to permit.

  9. FYI the z6 condos at Booth and Balsam have a corner office/retail unit. It’ll be interesting to see what comes of it.

  10. There is no above ground parking at Pinnacle or at any other Claridge building that I’m aware of. You should make that correction much clearer. A clarification at ‘Mondrian” – Kamlo (Arthur Loeb) owns the commercial space and the independent 5 level parking garage. The Urban Capital residential portion, above and below ground, is separate both physically and legally. Those superimposed major occupancies will getcha every time. Probably doesn’t affect the tone of the article. Back to Pinnacle – some of that glass masks the *ramp* down, the remainder are on the 2nd floor amenity and 2nd floor locker room walls.

    CWC.

  11. The Mondrian is a good example of doing things right.

    You’re dead right about Charlesfort, though; their buildings are pretty on every floor except the one where it matters most. And there is a crying need for more commercial, office, and institutional space on the side streets, if the city is to have economic diversity and “incubation”. Some of the uglier, slabbier 1960s and 70s apartment buildings in Centretown have quite successful retail and office space tucked away on the ground (or even second) floors, and not just “tuck shops” either.

    (What the tuck’s a “tuck”, anyway?)

    There are other interesting side-street actions going on too, on side-blocks adjoining Wellington/Richmond, and even Montreal Road. There’s a lot that the planners could learn, from what is actually occurring more or less organically in the few places that organic is allowed.

  12. The Goldstein’s problem was largely landlord self-inflicted.

  13. While there may not be huge demand for side street retail right now, the built form that is being created must account for that future demand. 

    If it is created in such a way that the residential townhouses that are put in now can change into live/work condos, and even further into straight commercial spaces, then it has been done right. 

    Forever closing the door to having a lively streetscape is an error that we will pay for as Ottawa gets denser and more populous, especially in the core. 

    Cities change, and the uses it’s citizens put it’s buildings to change as well. Buildings that are unable to be changed will have to be torn down, to the detriment of our built heritage. Look at how many of the buildings on Bank, Gladstone and Elgin started off life as strictly residential, and then were converted into retail. In large part, the ability to convert the usage is why those streets are as dynamic as they are. 

  14. Claridge did a terrible job with Claridge Plaza I and II at Besserer & Cumberland, they essentially condemned the whole block at the back of their buildings.  I hope for the residents on the other part of Besserer at the Galleria won’t get the same treatement with the Claridge Plaze III…

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