Inside Downtown Moves

Photo: Noah Kazis/Streetsblog


The City is running a study to produce an integrated urban design and transportation strategy for the future of downtown Ottawa streets. The triggering factor are the circulation patterns to be caused by the new LRT stations, the removal of some/many/but not all buses, and to restore a balance amongst users (surely a reference to the auto-domination of the previous decades).

The study team held workshops earlier this fall, and brought in significant guest speakers who gave well-attended talks. Yours truly was amongst the throng of attendees and is on the public advisory committee (PAC).

I do not intend to give a balanced overview or summary of the process, or the discussions. I will give a biased/slanted/opinionated version sure to infuriate everyone at some point.

The second “workshop” event was held last week. The first half was lecture style; the second half was spent discussing a bunch of ideas. The consultants have identified eight “big moves” from the huge variety of ideas generated at the first workshop.

The big moves are

1. Queen Street — how can we green it and its cross streets, to promote pedestrian activity and handle the station exit crowds?

2. Elgin Street — can we reconnect it to the downtown and lowertown, perhaps remake it as a grand boulevard?

3. Sparks Street — how do we revitalize?

4. Albert/Slater pair — how to refocus to a new lower-bus-volume street

5. Laurier Avenue — how to work with/leverage the separated bike lanes (SBL)

6. north/south streets — how to improve, and should they become two-way just north or just south of Laurier?

7. Identifying 8 demo sites where big moves can be done

Now being the rep from the West Side (more specifically the Dalhousie Community Assoc) the first thing I noticed was there were no big moves identified for the west side. No major consideration for what the Albert Street reconstruction (from Bronson to Parkdale) in 2012-13 should try to do; no mention of the current commuter-focused-Bronson reconstruction which flies totally in the face of what the Downtown Moves is trying to do; and no mention of linking the west side neighborhoods of LeBreton, Dalhousie, or Chinatown to the downtown. No mention of updating the LeBreton agreement with the NCC to permit treed boulevards (the City insisted the Flats cannot have them, according to the City policy then in effect, but the City now permits treed side boulevards, but alas the Agreement still prohibits them…).

I hope the failure to notice the west side was merely an oversight that might soon be corrected? Pardon me if I get a bit defensive about how the west side always seems to get ignored and shunted aside.

I divide the ideas discussed into two types:

  • the expensive, the grand, the big ideas
  • The cheap and do-able, which may still be big ideas…

For example, one suggestion is that we need to keep lots of on-street parking for the tourists. To start, I don’t think many tourists get those spots nor are they much use for a multi-hour stay. A tourist shuttle bus was also suggested, but I’m not a fan of it, because it is most likely to run infrequently and is yet another thing for occasional visitors to learn about. I smell expensive lemon in that idea.

I much more favour the idea of leveraging the existing bus routes and new LRT by introducing “tourist pass” cards that could be sold at Stations and provide a whole family with cheap ($5/day/family) transit use so that they don’t have to drive to the core at all. Sell them only upon proof of outside residency, and subject them to the usual fare inspections on the transit system. It’s about time the City did something to welcome families from the great hinterland that pays for this rather splendid capital we live in.

Also suggested were wayfinding maps. These are currently “big” in the planning world, having been introduced with considerable success in London, England, and other major cities. They certainly constitute a highly visible delivery; and great photo op for the politicians at the unveiling. BUT, I beg to be the skunk at the party again. These signs are large, they have to be frequent to be useful, and they have to have everything in at least two languages plus pictograms. And being designed by a committee, have to have all the details competing interests want to show, eg shopping, hotels, tourist attractions, transit stops, major buildings, parking lots, info offices, etc etc. Throw in a bunch of adverts around the perimeter “to help defray the cost”, and put said map on a (already too-narrow sidewalk) and you get clutter.

I think a few of these map boards might be useful to have in the core, but not as the primary way finding mechanism. The problem I see is that even after working downtown for 30 years I frequently confuse Albert with Slater, O’Connor with Metcalfe, and all the blocks look the same. Pity the visitor.

My suggestion, which you have all been waiting for, is to colour-code the streets. For example, Laurier has some green bike pavements, so select green for Laurier. Add a green wrap around the lower 5′ of all the streetlight poles. Maybe add green brackets supporting lights at ped height to the existing designed-for-traffic overhead lights. Install some benches, with green bases. Maybe some inserts in the sidewalks of green pavers or pattern. Get some green Art.

Then on Sparks, Queen, or each other street draw out a theme colour. Note that this is not painting everything — from wall to wall — a single colour. It’s about accent colours. Back at Expo 86 in Vancouver I recall the various theme areas of the Fair were color-coded. And many metro systems colour-code their lines/routes (the “red line”, “green line” etc).

As for the really expensive ideas, I confess to not being enthused. I don’t really think we need to buy a developable lot and plant grass on it instead. Grass just isn’t worth $100,000 per blade. And the usual ideas for an “underground city” or a series of “overhead pedway connections” aren’t that doable either.

Something more modest like trying to link up some of the existing alleyways and surface routes makes more sense, without going forward to some great alternative circulation universe. And trying to add onto the now-abandoned exterior arcade pattern that was installed in the 80’s to L’Esplanade Laurier, Place Bell, and a few other buildings, would be worthwhile. (Does anyone notice a pattern, that the City gets an idea, imposes it, and then abandons it once a portion of the system is in place?)

The Bell Canada telephone exchange building on Albert/O’Connor was fingered as a bad building, flush to the lot line, with blank walls. Expensive solution: find ways to open up the façade to the sidewalk. Cheap solution: park mobile trucks or shipping-container vendors in the on-street parking spaces and put the retail on the curb side instead of the inside.

Planners fret about Queen Street. It will become a busier pedestrian street if the subway entrances are built as currently planned. BUT, I think it must be addressed hand-in-glove with the underutilized Sparks Street just one block north. For example, should Queen sidewalks be made wider? Obviously a good idea … except the desired wider sidewalk should be on the north side (it’s sunnier) but the Station entrances are all on the south side, where the sidewalks are already at their widest… And why promote a potential competitor to Sparks street?

I think the wider sidewalks on Queen should be just “modestly” wider, with big bulb outs at the intersections, planted with trees, to handle the crossing crowds. And at those intersections, utilities such as gas MUST be buried deeply to permit trees to grow, and not the current trees-as-an-afterthought-provided-there-isn’t-already-a-utility-there-which-of-course-there-already-is.

And then make better two-season or three-season use of some of those Queen Street surface parking spaces by having pop-up café’s that park there just for the café season (see top photo). While I normally wouldn’t advocate the city going into the café business, I think there is room here for the City to build several re-locatable curbside patio units (plans are readily available from many places, including NYC) that they could rent to adjacent restos and cafe’s to “test out” the idea for a season or two before they commit to building their own. And no, the City shouldn’t charge a huge rent for these things, just the lost parking meter revenue, because it is city building exercise not a revenue enhancement exercise.

I generally liked the idea of reconnecting the upper town to lower town via Elgin, and indeed using Elgin to connect the Centretown to downtown. I liked ideas to get rid of the double left-turn lanes and reinstate the double-row-of-trees centre boulevard. I’d prefer to see that boulevard elevated at least 24″ above the curb to give those trees a fighting chance (Maissoneuve and Allumettieres in Gatineau are the go-to examples).

But up at the War Memorial the consensus breaks down. Would closing or narrowing Elgin on the east side of the Memorial accomplish anything, or just give us a larger pedestrian wasteland to hurry through on the way elsewhere?

The last idea I will cover today is the Sparks Street mall. God knows it needs help. How can a pedestrian-only street, located downtown, with lots of narrow storefronts, which looks so much like those architect’s recipes for success (Hello Jan Gehl!) prove to be so dismal? I think to be successful it needs a certain key volume of people, so that we can people watch, and sense that the street is lively. This is not the case on Sparks today (other than summer noon-hours) where users typically seem to be just going someplace else. So leave it as a ped mall at mid-day, and liven it up at other times.

Ped malls are seldom long-lasting successes in North America. Several have tried to reintroduce more action by re-allowing cars. I imagine here a single lane of through traffic, that winds a bit, and might have a gate that opens automatically only when a certain (low) level of pedestrian traffic is attained. The Third Street mall in Santa Monica has occasional car traffic on it now that Frank Gehry has redesigned it (and since a major developer is negotiating a Gehry project for Ottawa, let’s hire him for Sparks).

I mentioned this single traffic lane idea to an Ottawa engineer who still speaks to me, and he went on and on about how difficult that would be, because of the curbs, new catch basins, the need to take out the little rise in the mall between Bank and Kent, passing lanes, taxi laybys, etc etc. He waxed on until the project consumed millions of dollars and the entire right of way. Maybe we do need a Frank Gehry after all.

Now the downtown core has a separated bike lane along Laurier, on the “south side” of the core. What if Sparks had a separated bike lane  for the “north side” of the core (imagine, no parking spaces lost — Jerry Lepage and BOMA would be thrilled).

I picture laying out a gently curving bi-directional bike route down Sparks using the green surface currently used at Laurier intersections. Yes, post a low speed limit. Put in some bits of curbs at the curves, some planters, and bollards to help keep cyclists on the route and to gently advise pedestrians of the “traffic”. Keep it permeable so the pedestrian ambiance is enhanced, not lost. Enforce civility and the speed limit.

This should be cheap to construct, is easily removable if it doesn’t work, and is well within the bounds of our competent cycling staff at city hall to design and layout by May of this year. Urban experiments can’t come much cheaper than this.

If it works well, then later on figure out how to connect it east and west to other cycling infrastructure. Certainly the west is easy (Bay to Wellington/Portage; Lyon for southbound; a link just past the Garden of the Provinces to the BikeWest route. The east end is a bit more problematic, but I think it can be examined and improved.

I know Ottawa fuss-budgets will complain about mixing cyclists with pedestrians. But this is not a cyclist Queensway. Many other cities mix pedestrians and cyclists on the same elevation (see, for example, numerous earlier posts on the Cambridge MA bike paths) and isn’t much different from the bike facilities on the Portage Bridge or south of the Alexandra Bridge.

(above: Cambridge MA bike path at sidewalk level)

The “downtown moves” team has a website and there are downloadable documents for the keeners.

 

7 comments

  1. Anyone famiar with the pedestrian mall in Burlington Vermont? It’s an enormous success. We go to B just for the mall, which is a total people place. Also, not half bad in Ithica, New York. Not as good as Burlington, but better than our mall. There are similarities with the old Sparks St. buildings before ours got glassy, CBC windows etc. I think part of their success is the wide use of cobblestones, and the older buildings. Height is not out of hand. Plenty of shops among the restaurants, and everywhere you turn, some kind of outdoor eating tables. The college kids enliven it, but they have to get there, just as for eg. Ott U. kids would. No bicycle area that I recall. Outdoor entertainment generally happening at some spot. For example, at Hallowe’en this year, there was to be an outdoor costume party on the entire mall. Amazing.

  2. Sparks Street suffers a lot from the fact that very few people actually live within easy walking distance of the street, and it’s not really on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. No one is going to use a pedestrian mall that is far away from where they live, has nothing happening as a big draw, and is not on a direct route from one pedestrian attraction to another. Sparks runs perpindicular to the route tourists take getting from the transitway to the hill, so that even for tourists Sparks Street is a place you have to go out of your way to use. It doesn’t work as a destination in and of itself, because there isn’t much in the way of street entertainment during the day, and most of the stores and cafes close at 5 when the offices do.

    Contrast this with Rue Prince Arthur E. in Montreal; this pedestrian-only street is smack in the middle of a residential area, so it’s easy to stumble back to your apartment at the end of the night. It is bordered on one end by a major shopping street (St. Laurent), and by a park on the other. Across the park is the Sherbrooke Metro station… all places you would concievably want to go on foot. Most of the businesses are restaurants and bars that take advantage of the lovely cobbled street to put out large patios. It is well-lit, there is music spilling out of the restaurants most of the time, and there are tourist wayfinding posts every second block. The street is lively and well-used at all hours of the day and night, but particularly evenings and weekends.

  3. Laura, some commonalities I see and wonder if that is salient. I think so. Cobblestones, restaurants, outdoor eating and bars etc. In Ottawa when the mall first opened we were very excited and used it thinking “how exciting” but in that era, today’s requirement for excitement would have caused Ottawans heart attacks. I see the National Arts Centre/Confusion Square end and all things heading east from that as very much equivalent to destination places or links to the mall. So for me, I see that end as totally perfect for the mall, in their interest and current usage by peds sight-seeing etc. The other end is the huge problem. Civil Service land buildings, too large to be endearing at street level, so much of the year dark windy and cold. That is where the other end of Sparks needs addressing. If Sparks Mall ended a bit sooner, the eastern portion could be made lively while (temporarily) forgetting about the west end. Meaning, what is the connecting point (in feeling) at the nearer west end? Don’t know. As for lack of residents living nearby, maybe you are right and know more about that than I do. I don’t know what amount of weight to give it. Think I’ll go to Montreal. Have you been to Burlington? Some things there do translate to Ottawa in my experience, although not all. But we should have our own stamp on things anyway. I think we can do Burliington Mall and even better, with our downtown surroundings.

  4. Laura, some commonalities I see and wonder if that is salient. I think so. Cobblestones, restaurants, outdoor eating and bars etc. In Ottawa when the mall first opened we were very excited and used it thinking “how exciting” but in that era, today’s requirement for excitement would have caused Ottawans heart attacks. I see the National Arts Centre/Confusion Square end and all things heading east from that as very much equivalent to destination places or links to the mall. So for me, I see that end as totally perfect for the mall, in their interest and current usage by peds sight-seeing etc. The other end is the huge problem. Civil Service land buildings, too large to be endearing at street level, so much of the year dark windy and cold. That is where the other end of Sparks needs addressing. If Sparks Mall ended a bit sooner, the eastern portion could be made lively while (temporarily) forgetting about the west end. Meaning, what is the connecting point (in feeling) at the nearer west end? Don’t know. As for lack of residents living nearby, maybe you are right and know more about that than I do. I don’t know what amount of weight to give it. Think I’ll go to Montreal. Have you been to Burlington? Some things there do translate to Ottawa in my experience, although not all. But we should have our own stamp on things anyway. I think we can do Burliington Mall and even better, with our downtown surroundings.

  5. Eric, thank you for this excellent post, and your follow-up post, on the SMALL moves that can make BIG differences. I completely agree with how you are framing this. Thank you for the energy and time to write out these ideas. We need more of that type of thinking. Excellent contribution to the discussion.

  6. Queen Street — how can we green it and its cross streets, to promote pedestrian activity and handle the station exit crowds?

    ===

    Doesn’t that question beg the question of whether “greening” is wanted or needed? I’d rather have a street that is pedestrian-friendly by its built form and the built form (at street level) of the buildings that are on it. How does “green” benefit the pedestrian? Typically, it does the opposite.

  7. Partial solution to both Sparks Street problems and limited space on Queen Street for tube access: expedite the construction of tube access points on Sparks Street, under the short block south to Queen.

    Technically, it’s much less onerous than the multi-entrance stations in Montreal, where you can enter a Metro station a shockingly long lateral ways away from the actual platform, far longer than any Sparks to Queen lateral line.

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