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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Opinion: Lansdowne deadlines are illusory and artificial

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Winter at Lansdowne: the season to gather opinion
Winter at Lansdowne: a season to gather opinion

Editor’s note: The first opinion piece published by Spacing Ottawa was about the re-development of Lansdowne which contributor Alain Miguelez rightly called “a key city-building project” Since then we’ve continued to follow the story closely, most recently in this interview with George Dark, chair of the City’s Strategic Design Review and Advisory Panel.

Last week the City’s online survey of what residents want for the “park portion” of  the redevelopment came to a close, and to mark that first-time contributor Tim Lash has shared how he, as private citizen, took the opportunity to inform the process of designing a new Lansdowne. Tim is a consultant on strategies for sustainability..

Over 18 months ago, city staff canceled an international design competition that was underway for the whole Lansdowne site, to favour a sole-source private developers’ bid for a city-subsidized project. This past week, the city wound up an online survey and call for expressions of interest in a new design competition, for just part of the public site. It doesn’t include the main front-street features the developers wish to build and control in Lansdowne Park (commercial, residential, and stadium), although these would have the biggest financial, physical and activity impacts on the site, on the surrounding areas, and city-wide.

We Ottawa citizens and taxpayers are not on the hook yet for the developers’ project – not before June this year. There’s also at least one lawsuit in the offing. However, the city administration plans to spend $375,000 now for up to 5 design firms to provide proposals for just this back part of the site. It’s the least controversial part, closest to the canal.

I sent the following in to the City’s online survey:

Subject: Input to City’s online survey on design for Lansdowne Park

Question #1: What would you, your family and friends like to do in a new urban park at Lansdowne?

1. Do and watch amateur and semi-organized sports and activities (predominantly city-wide community and civic).

2. Green space – real natural surfaces, open and vegetated.

3. Farmer’s market

4. Enjoy the canal and related activities or extensions

5. Enjoy and learn about heritage of Lansdowne architecture and community activities.

6. Large special civic events and ceremonies.

7. Trade shows, if the site is viable for them.

8. Enjoy Lansdowne as an inviting feature of Bank Street – as Central Park is a loved amenity in New York for those along its bordering avenues.

9. Experience the whole and its components as carriers of the best in new environmental and activity design.

10. No new residential in the bounds of the whole park, unless it is for public purposes, e.g some forms of public residential. No new independent retail or commercial hotel.

Question #2: What elements or features do you think the new park should include?

Special natural pavilion along Bank Street. Large mature trees (e.g. maple spp., oak, pine), two rows deep, along the Bank street side of the park – making a leafy pavilion of green for all to enjoy, whether moving along Bank, or using this street-front apron of Lansdowne Park as an approach to the larger public space of the park – whether or not a plan for retail goes ahead. (In preference, it should not become retail; good-sized public space in the heart of the city is too valuable as such. The whole site should remain public, for publicly-determined public use.) This leafy wall will provide a welcome block-long contrast to the steady line of “mainstreet” fronts north and south of it. It will valorize and enhance the beautiful bridge over the canal and the walkways to and from it. It will give growing space for stately trees taller than the City can allow in most streets that conflict with overhead lines, providing welcome arboreal biodiversity.

Good lighting. Emphasize environmental and social sustainability in design. This includes well-targeted activity lighting, without light pollution within or beyond the park boundaries, or further loss of night sky due to spilled light or illuminated high-intensity signage and advertising.

Good sunlight. Don’t lose afternoon sunshine to blockage and artificial shadow from looming structures. This is a likely downside to the retail, residential and hotel as drawn by project proponents. (Note how the US embassy cut off afternoon from the the west of Byward Market.)

Question #3: Do you have other comments that could help the designers come up with a plan that would make this urban park a unique and special place within the City?

1. Value the urban interface. Bank St side of the Park as above, from Holmwood to the canal.

2. Integrated whole design. A key principle for making any large public facility a success and a design to celebrate is BOTH that its parts be fully integrated within its bounds, AND that it be integrated with its surroundings, fitting into overall plans so it supports (A) local neighbourhood and borough aspirations, as well as (B) city-wide functions and enabling facilities such as transportation systems.

3.1. Private is subsidiary to public. Start with a clear unified public purpose or set of purposes for the Park as a whole; the design must be for the whole at once, based on a coherent and publicly accepted purpose, to avoid piecemeal fragmentation, and to achieve harmony of elements that nestle together or complement each other at different scales and with functions that flow together well. Simply having consistent visual motifs or signage on separately designed components, for example, will not provide a worthy unique and special place within Canada’s capital. The current broken-up process, unclear purposes, and phasing is unlikely to encourage a coherent whole for this public space. It may not even allow it, if the Lansdowne Live developers are already starting on architectural design for the commercial parts first. The design of any private components must be secondary and complementary to the overall public design.

3.2. Manage risk of bad design sequence. Do not privilege any private design that jumps the gun. Tell the developers to wait until the purpose and master plan are set, and ensure they know that any advance expenses at this time are at their own risk, not at the risk of Ottawa citizens, and will not prejudice open public decision on the whole.

This advice is wholly offered with good will and is sincerely intended for the betterment of Lansdowne Park for the whole city.

However, with regret, I offer it under protest. The yanking of the original international design competition, and the imposition of a single-source privatization bid to which all due considerations became secondary, was a bad thing. The best step now would be to set that Lansdowne Live initiative aside for the moment, and restore an uncompromised design competition. The “urgent” deadlines for decision are illusory and artificial, and mean little compared to the length and significance of what will now be done to make Lansdowne Park a wonderful part of Ottawa or a miserable one. What is built at Lansdowne will become a monument to the city’s decision processes – for good with principled fair and community-building processes, or for ill with city-dividing politics and influence.

I applaud Delcan’s voluntary withdrawal from the city-led transportation study, which was intended to provide an independent assessment of the study Delcan itself did for the developers. What were city staff thinking, in this deservedly controversial issue, by asking the same people to vet the study they themselves did for the developers? The processes of decision, contract awarding and consultation were already tainted. This lack of judgement by city staff about how to arrive at responsibly independent information and advice is remarkable. I mean bad.

While I appreciate Councillor Hume’s effort to find a way through a bad situation by designing for just part of the site, it doesn’t answer the fundamental issue of the pre-emptive sole sourcing of a public space for private benefit, to Ottawa citizens’ loss of control and Ottawa taxpayers taking on costs and risk. Further, from a professional urban design standpoint, the terms of reference for this design exercise are still not clear about the relation of the part of Lansdowne Park to the whole, nor about the relation of Lansdowne Park as a whole to its surrounding urban living spaces.

It has been encouraging to see people with the professional qualifications of George Dark and Barry Hobin turning their attention to this situation. However, like Delcan, they are also probably in a position where their ability to exercise their full professional design skills and advise on a major iconic public urban site are compromised – by the city’s limited terms of reference for the design study, and possibly by the developer pushing ahead out of turn with designing the most controversial and determining parts of the site.

photo by Mike Gifford


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