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 ?