Walkley Road and the changing face of Ottawa South

Best know for the South Keys Shopping Centre, and as the former riding of Dalton McGuinty, Ottawa South is currently in the process of trying to ‘upgrade’ itself. With a focus on the main east-west arterial road Walkley, as opposed to Ottawa’s main north-south route Bank Street, development is as fast and as furious as the media reports of crime from along this (in)famous stretch of road. Starting at the edge of the Rideau River and coming to an end just past Highway 417, Walkley’s character changes significantly the further you head east. But this is starting to change as development creeps towards St Laurent Boulevard and brings with it the possibility of both rejuvenating the area and displacing some of those who call Walkley home.

Bank and Walkley

Perhaps a strange place for a hotel, Marriott’s newest Ottawa Residence Inn location is now in the final stages of construction at the corner of Bank and Walkley. Having been rezoned to include hotels in 2008, the area is currently a mix of oil change shops, strip malls and liquor stores. Why a hotel chain would want so badly to build here is not immediately clear – perhaps it’s proximately to the transit route, but that is not even entirely ideal here – but what it does signal is the start of a transformation that is now beginning to take place. For with hotels come tourist, business travellers and those just passing through, and with them comes money, as they need to eat, shop and transport themselves around the city. It also brings jobs to the area where there is little employment save for retail and food chains. What will be be interesting to see is the change a hotel chain will bring to this important intersection as it tries to (sub)urbanize itself as a destination of sorts.

In addition to the building of a hotel, Bank and Walkley’s northwest corner is now also home to a new-ish Shoppers Drugmart (the one just a few blocks North on Bank is still open, just not as ‘pretty’) and construction has begun on a “Warehouse Loft” condo building.  Linden Developments, in partnership with Marriott, has now begun preliminary work on the site, describing on their website their attempt to bring back a sense of Ottawa’s industrial past with their new loft units. Glossy promotional images of brick walls and modernist furniture complete the lifestyle sell that does not seem to realize where it is located, or the fact that this is not an actual “loft” conversion of a former factory, simply an architectural pastiche. Far from an urban metropolitan street corner, Bank and Walkley seems to be having an identity crisis, or perhaps hoping for a change in identity. But build it and they will come… and who will come, and how this will change the area, is the million-dollar question.

Herongate Hall

The most controversial of the redevelopment along Walkley, however, the tearing down and rebuilding of much of Herongate Mall, has quickly become a social issue for the neighbourhood as long time, and often low-income residents fear the rising shop prices that new stores in a new “mall” most likely will bring. While the free standing Scotia Bank and existing Food Basics are all that remain on this near triangle of land that is bordered by Walkley and Heron Road, a new big box Rexall opened this past April, along with a Dentist office and Subway restaurant. Long gone are the golden days of the 80s and 90s and of Dominion and Zellers. This once enclosed mall, which fell into decline in the 2000s and led to its unofficial title of being the worst mall in Ottawa, is finally getting the facelift it needs.

But despite all of the deserved and undeserved commentary that the recevelopment has gotten, Herongate serves a very important function in the neighbourhood for those who need groceries at a fair prices or who do not have access to a car. It is still not unusual to see residents pushing shopping carts up and down Walkley with their purchases and belongings, as for many of them this is the only way to get a meal on the table. And while people have been assured by site developer Trinity that the Food Basics will remain, the larger issue of any redevelopment in such an area is displacement. For with a nicer shopping center comes higher-end retailers, higher sales prices and ultimately higher house prices and property taxes. And if you can’t afford to keep up, you may just be forced to leave. But where do you go when you are already struggling to make ends meat?

Trinity shows little and says even less on their website for the Redevelopment of Herongate Mall. What the images do show is a collection of big box stores along the periphery of the site surrounding a sea of parking spots. But will people really drive to Herongate? Isn’t this ironically, and due to the necessity of the neighbourhood, a pedestrian mall in a part of Ottawa’s urban fabric that is so hostile to the walker? Or will this all change with the addition of flashy storefronts and ample room for the car and convenience? How will this commercial rejuvenation affect property taxes and housing prices for the better, or the worse, depending on who you are? How will this change the demographics of the neighborhood and the larger area around it? The trend of redevelopment creeping along Walkley is picking up its pace and shows no signs of stopping at the intersection of Heron and Walkley. But how do you invest in an area, to ensure it does not become a place of urban decay, without displacing those who call it home?

Town Houses and Terrace Homes

Driving down Walkley you will see a variety of housing typologies from single family homes to apartment building complexes. But what is becoming predominately present are the growing number of terrace and townhouses. Popular with young professionals and young families a like, these units are going up fast, including a more recent development by Richcraft Homes. Moving in are graduate students and medical professionals thanks to the close proximately to both Carleton University and The Ottawa Hospital. It also has the added bonus of being within the Greenbelt and close to the highway and parkway. And with prices in the mid $200,000s these are also some of the last within Ottawa under the $300,000 mark. The demographic is shifting as those trying to get into the housing market are buying hardwood floor and stainless-steel appliance-filled condos just down the road from many community housing projects.  And that’s ok, even good for the overall urban health of the area by encouraging mixed-income neighbourhoods. It is in fact great that the area is being invested in, but we also need to be aware of the changes that are taking place along Walkley, as it could quickly become an even bigger issue of displacement. Ultimately, there needs to be a better look at how we create strong mixed-use, mixed-income neighbourhoods, and Walkley may just be the best place to start.

What do we do with Walkley?

This is not to say that Walkley should not be redeveloped, built-up, urbanized or “upgraded”, and there are definitely major issues with crime that need to be addressed, especially east of Bank Street.  Walkley should not be left to fall into a state of decay or to ghettoize itself. But what is most important, however, is that whatever development or redevelopment does happen along this very important residential and transportation road, it is done with the betterment of the standard of living of those who are already living there in mind.

This is a much bigger issue than just a hotel, a mall and some townhouses, but Walkley is beginning to act as a microcosm for the ongoing debates over how to help “fix-up” a neighbourhood without displacing its most vulnerable residents. If we can figure it out on Walkley, how to gentrify without displacing and how to create diverse, balanced neighbourhoods, we are on our way to solving at least a few big, urban problems.

Image: Kristen Gagnon

One comment

  1. You’ve made some very good points and given us some food for thought regarding the future of Walkley Road and possible effects to its residents. We agree that it is important to consider the needs and rights of all residents when major changes are being made within a community, and ensure they are improvements for all concerned.

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