Small Downtown Moves

Cars, buildings. and precious few pedestrians. Photo by Canadian Tourism.

Editor’s note: Part 1 of this article was posted earlier this week

The City of Ottawa “Downtown Moves” process has a number of fine sentiments expressed in Council’s direction:

  • Vibrant, safe, accessible streets for pedestrians
  • Improve sidewalks, crosswalks, and walking routes
  • Enhance the public realm and on-street amenities
  • Continuous, safe, and convenient cycling facilities
  • Framework to guide future planning

To date, the planners have tried to package together the improvement ideas generated at the public forums. They distilled these into The Big Moves.

Planners and engineers are problem solvers. Identifying some key streets and their problems is one approach. If the study was being run by public policy boffins and advised by policy wonks then they would come up with process-oriented measures: What do we do that generates the unsatisfactory current state and how do we fix the process to produce a better city?

Public health officials might well come up with different ideas, as might social activists. Or artists. But we hired engineers and planners and will get what we get. The Public Advisory Group is there to offer outsider commentary and input, but it is a small part of the assembled team.

The invited speakers for the urban forum sessions earlier the fall all shared some common threads: focus on the micro, the local, the pedestrian scale. Tackle the small projects before the big projects.

The big moves may be fine, but where are the small moves?

For example, pedestrian travel should be as continuous and direct as possible. How does that fit in with the proliferation mid-block bus stops, and consequently fences to keep pedestrians from crossing the streets where they want to? Just maybe we should be looking at adding formal midblock crosswalks between Kent and Lyon on Slater and Laurier, where mid-block mega-building entrances and bus stops generate pedestrian desire lines that are not oriented to the traffic intersections. If this cannot be done with the BRT on the surface streets, perhaps we could try it when the OLRT opens and bus volumes are greatly reduced. And maybe we could relocate those post-busway stops closer to intersections, where they can have prime billing instead of being shoved off to the less-desired mid-blocks.

And while we are at it, could we remove, then ban, those motorist-first sidewalk breaks at the Minto Place parking garages that clearly prioritize motorists over pedestrians? Sheesh, this is mid-block yet it looks like an intersection!

Throughout the downtown core the curb break installed for driveway and garage entrances need to be revisited. They are designed with the comfort and convenience of the motorist in mind, being flat or gentle gradients so that motorists don’t have to slow down or even notice much of a reminder that they are intruding onto pedestrian territory.

Peds, on the other hand, face tilting sidewalks that are icy, dangerously fast cross traffic, and the strong message that they are second-class even on their own sidewalks. Let’s start a program to remove all those tilted sidewalks, and make cars climb a short, sharp gradient (like an 8° rise in 12° ramp). Just whose downtown is it?

And at Constitution Square, keep the trucks going into the loading docks and not sprawling all over the now-broken up sidewalks by installing a row of bollards running from the curb to the building ace, to  warn peds of the truck crossing, while keeping tucks in their place? Honestly, the south side of Constitution Square feels like a loading dock zone with intruding pedestrians, rather than a city sidewalk crossed by driveways to indoor loading docks.

Why are there no pedestrians on this downtown sidewalk? Why are trucks continually parked on the sidewalk (well off from the loading dock doors) thus breaking it up?

Loading docks, delivery trucks, couriers, taxis — all add life and liveliness to the downtown streets. Take them out and we get suburbia. Antiseptic. Supposedly safe. But boring. So we need to have those activities going on, but we need to shift the priorities from vehicular traffic first, to active people first.

Whose sidewalk is it?

What can we do to manage these sidewalk crossing vehicles? Start, by making it bloody obvious that it they are intruding on a pedestrian priority zone. Require new buildings to share garage entrances with adjacent or subsequent buildings rather than each one having its own curb cut. Make better use of our existing garage spaces, particularly in condos, where individually-titled parking spots sit empty all day when motorists are lining up to pay $200 a month to park.

We might do some other systemic improvements to the pedestrian and cyclist realm too. Let’s ban right turns on red at every intersection since these are solely for expediting car travel. Give peds and cyclists the few seconds of advanced green to get into the intersection first. This one measure is so cheap to implement; is that why we cannot bear to do it?

We simply cannot have a pedestrian friendly downtown if we continually give preference to drivers.

I also hate the negativity of the current countdown crosswalks. The pedestrian green is really a white signal. Then mere seconds after the pedestrians get the go ahead, the signal SHOUTS OUT in large red flashing letters that YOU ARE ALMOST OUT OF TIME, GET OUT OF THE WAY! The warning to not walk is often much longer than the actual invitation to start walking.

I have been in other cities where the countdown starts with the pedestrian green light, thus informing peds they have 58 seconds (or whatever) to cross the street. When the counter starts at the green, it seems permissive and generous with its time. Then, it only turns red at the very last few seconds, when it chides the ped to hurry up; you’re almost out of time.

The message to the Ottawa pedestrian is very different. Ottawa’s is a negative, chiding bureaucrat from the moment the timer begins. Perhaps in that sense it is a fitting messenger of how we really think.

It is easy to pick out some sidewalk building frontage eyesores. The Bell Canada building on Albert is so easy to see because of its big blank walls. But is 240 Sparks much better? Or indeed, any of those large buildings with interior malls? Some of these malls have stores that have blank windows that face the public street but lack entrances (hello 240 Sparks, on the main pedestrian mall no less, or Bell Canada on Gloucester).

Others construct stores that face both the inside mall and the street, leaving the merchant with two entrances to guard. The result all too often is that the merchant closes the street-facing door. His lease permits that, but certainly doesn’t permit closing the door to the interior mall.

The new TD Bank at Minto Place is typical, lacking any street door at all. How could we let Minto design a building with two outdoor patio spaces and a sculpture and a clock tower to animate the street, and then do everything in its power to ensure the rest of the block frontages are sterile? Have you noticed how the original towers of Minto Place had lots of storefronts, with doors, to the street, and that some of these stores actually don’t face the interior mall? But the newest tower, 180 Kent, has an enormous boring wall of offices backing onto Laurier. Dullsville.

Other buildings are more subtly hostile to the street. The CBC building should be a lively façade, but usually is just dullsville with heavy tinted glass. Remember the old CBC program Comment, where some bass-voiced older announcer let selected wackos have their 3 minutes of fame, if only at 12 midnight? Why can’t the CBC give anyone walking the street the chance to offer their opinion for airing at some unprime time?

Q: How do broadcast studios manage to look so dull and boring?

A: Give the task to the CBC.

The CBC building frontage has so much potential, and delivers so little.

The D’Arcy McGee building at 90 Sparks has inside stores but few doors. Instead, we get to admire the desks of the bank clerks, just like we do for so many other downtown buildings. We need to demand all new buildings have frequent store entrances (Gehl recommends every 16-20 feet) but we also need to identify the violating properties and pressure them to fix their unfriendly faces.

The East Memorial Building should convert every second window along the Mall into a boutique door. Not bloody likely! Indeed, what decent reason exists for a Mall west of Bank (except to impose the BIA tax levy) since there are virtually no attractive or active frontages. It’s all dead space. Great gobs of it, fronting onto a dead Mall. Dead meets dead.

There are good developments. Consider the frequent small storefronts in the Telus Building, which continue the 1900’s streetscape:

We design downtown streets with turn lanes, to facilitate car traffic. We direct pedestrians to clump up at intersections, with two directions of peds jammed into the same spot, with waiting peds impeding the flow of crossing peds, and then add in a half dozen utility poles. Downtown Moves can facilitate pedestrian traffic at all intersections by building generous bulbs out at every corner, for every direction. Plant trees and benches. Do this for every block of every street in the downtown district. Actually making the sidewalk inviting and functional for pedestrians isn’t expensive. It’s a matter of will.

Even adding benches should be simple. It takes someone with a mandate to install more benches. Identify spot: install. But in Ottawa, I expect we’d set up a whole team of planners and engineers, who would devise lengthy criteria for ideal bench locations, and then rule out most spots as they were not ideal. The benches themselves would be selected after a lengthy public consultation process, input from the handicapped, documenting the frets of BOMA and the Bank Street BIA. Net result: one or two benches.

Instead, Downtown Moves should come up with a simple goal, like having eight benches per block, or a bench every x feet, so there are lots of benches. Order the benches first; then go out to find spots to park them. Yup, many will be on the parts of the sidewalk that extend back to private buildings. If there simply isn’t an existing spot midblock for a bench, invent one, by removing a parking space and replacing it with a short bulb out. Street life will then migrate to those benches. Smokers for sure will sit on the benches. If we didn’t have smokers outside, our sidewalks would be totally deserted. If any of the benches tend to attract too many loiterers, remove the problem benches. Install first; remove if necessary.

Actually the bench problem reminds me of the bike post problem. The City had hundreds of parking meter posts already installed in the downtown, ready for use by cyclists. But no, they are too close to the curb, too close to the car door, etc etc (all problems we didn’t seem to know we had when they were parking meters being used to tie bikes to, but once they were to become bike racks, the design criteria escalated). Now when I walk downtown I know the cycling planners are busy by the dozens of green dots on the sidewalk painted on, crossed-off, moved over four inches, as staff exert huge efforts in determining the exact best place for a bike to park. Meanwhile, bikes park anywhere anyway.

Downtown Moves can focus on the few big moves, the headline grabbers. It also needs to re-read the readily-available books by Gehl, Ponalosa,Greenberg, and others, for the little things.

It’s not rocket science, all the guest speakers trundled through the speaker series at City Hall over the last years have books advocating simple measures to make the city livable. If Watson will truly show up at the opening of an envelope, then he will surely be there at the photo op for the new bulb out, the priority crossing, the new storefront.

The “small moves”  identified above share with the previously identified “big moves” a common problem. They are measures to fix the problem. There is a role for big and small moves.

But even more important is to set a goal and then keep finding moves — big or small — to get us there.

A number of planning tools exist to measure liveliness along the streets. We need to measure what levels we have now, and set a goal to improve it. Set ambitious goals. Then measure, remeasure, tinker, and measure again. We only fix what we can measure. What if we set a goal to double streetlife in five years? Do you think we could do it? I do.

Now if only the planners and engineers could spec it.

Downtown Moves will hold a Public Open House on January 18th, 2012 (5:30-8:30 pm) at Jean Piggott Place, City Hall.

4 comments

  1. The walk lights drive me crazy. We don’t give cars a flashing red to tell them to finish up. Why can’t the “walking man” at least flash? The red hand doesn’t stop people from crossing, but it seems to infuriate motorists when there are people in the intersection when they have a “red light”.

    Ok… now I’m going to finish reading the rest.

  2. And while we are at it, could we remove, then ban, those motorist-first sidewalk breaks = = =

    Wrong order. Ban first (easier), then remove (as opportunities arise, which will be rare.)

  3. I’m in Toronto and find downtown towers with internal malls particularly problematic. Mall routes are often parallel to sidewalks creating a financial incentive to make the competing sidewalk as hostile as possible. In a related post you mention Ottawa is considering underground or overhead connections.
    TO has long encouraged PATH connections through site plan approval or as a condition for rezoning etc… Because unanimated isolated corridors create security risks, developers invest large sums of money to create large attractive corridors and store space. The last thing the mall owner wants is people walking by on the surface. What you tend to get is dull windswept landscaped space (encouraged by city policy). Keep in mind that TO’s PATH (and the failed overhead system mostly relegated to City Hall) were pushed by Modernist officials to alleviate conflicts (pedestrians) for vehicles (intersections, garage entrances, loading).

  4. Insulting the mayor will get you nowhere. Ottawa residents are already hostile to downtown “community groups” and Councillor Holmes. If you want to influence those who make the decisions in Ottawa, try a new tactic.

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