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Capital Dreams: Imagining how LRT and other projects will reshape Ottawa

"Imagine an Ottawa where you leave your Pinecrest Park home in the morning with your three-year-old, hop on the LRT at Iris Station and 20 minutes — or eight light rail stops — later, you both get off at Pimisi Station, where your daughter’s daycare is located.

A quarter-of-an-hour after that, you’re back on the train for a couple of more minutes, although in nice weather you like to walk to your downtown office.

Even though you own a car now, the LRT is central to how you get around. In your hipster grad school years, when you and those artists shared that open-concept apartment in the reclaimed industrial buildings in SOCY — South of Cyrville — it was natural to take the train to the University of Ottawa a few stops away. It’s still a fun place to spend a Sunday, especially since Art-Is-In Bakery and Beyond the Pale moved out there after their old City Centre location was turned into condos.

You never thought you’d embrace the suburbs until suddenly you wanted a backyard — and Pinecrest Park seemed like the perfect place. You wanted to live near the LRT, but single-home properties in the core that were within walking distance to a station were out of your price range. This neighbourhood was still affordable, if only just, and you’re meeting a lot of other families a lot like yours.

In fact, just last weekend you dragged your daughter and the neighbour’s kids to the central library on Albert Street to hear an National Arts Centre ensemble play a children’s concert and then took them for a hot dog at Central Park. The girls were clamouring to go down to the Fish Shack on the Ottawa River shore or to the Chaudiere Isles market, but you weren’t up for that this time around. The outing was something of a payback to your neighbour who took you to that Sens game after work last month. It almost goes without saying that you used the LRT for both these outings, especially as parking downtown is so expensive if, that is, you can find a spot.

Imagine that Ottawa.

The Plan for Future Ottawa

At this time of year, many of us are looking to the New Year, wondering what the future will hold and concocting plans to help realize our hopes and dreams. But what if we look further ahead for our city — what would the future look like in Ottawa in 20, 50 even 100 years?

George Dark tried to map that future out — or at least what the built form of central Ottawa might look like. Dark is an urban designer and partner with Toronto-based Urban Strategies, and he’s consulted on a number of projects and community plans in Ottawa, including the master plan for the University of Ottawa. As an exercise, Dark and his firm decided to plot all of the possible buildings to the maximum heights that the city has zoned recently in the core of the city (shown in yellow).

A few things emerged from the planning exercise. First, the city won’t ever look like this picture. Although the yellow blocks represent official — and fairly specific — planning policies, market forces and public tastes change. You might be able to plan for the future, but you can’t exactly predict it.

More importantly, though, the exercise shows that Ottawa’s future development is centred around our light-rail plans, starting with the $2.1-billion Phase 1 that we’re building right now from Tunney’s Pasture to Blair Station, and the planned Phase 2, which calls for extending the line east and west, as well as lengthening the O-Train to the south.

That’s mostly by design, of course. The city has brought in transit-oriented-development plans for many of the new LRT stations, and zoned the changes so the land is generally development-ready.

The other striking revelation from Urban Strategies’ graphic is the massive unused greenspace along the Ottawa River, which Dark calls the “front of the city.”

“You have this spectacular river system but your city isn’t really connected to it,” he says. “If you squint at this (graphic) — and assume we go forward 50 years — there is an extraordinary relationship between an emerging densified city and the river.”

These two major factors — realizing the full potential of the LRT and reclaiming public use of the Ottawa River shoreline — are what we need to focus on as we look deep into our city’s future.

Transformative effects of LRT

We are building LRT first and foremost because we’ll eventually run out of transit capacity.

The new Confederation Line will ultimately be able to move 24,000 people per hour in each direction — or more than double what OC Transpo does today.

“On Day 1 in 2018, we’re expecting that same 11,000 people an hour we move now,” says OC Transpo’s assistant general manager, Pat Scrimgeour. “But LRT has got 50 years of growth in front of it, whereas the buses operating on the street have probably less than 10 years.”

But when your city makes an enormous investment in public infrastructure, you expect some sort of return on that investment, from environmental improvements to economic development.

“The evidence of what an LRT does for downtowns is really all over the board,” says Jeff Casello, a professor of transportation with the University of Waterloo.

“There are places where an LRT comes and there’s tremendous success. So Portland (Oregon) is the one everybody points to. There are other places, like Buffalo, where LRT has come and not produced the same kind of result.”

The difference, Casello believes, stems from the fact that Portland was already moving toward “urbanity” — “intensification happening by market forces, new apartments were being built, restaurants were opening” — whereas in Buffalo the opposite was happening.

“The downtown was still suffering, there (was) job loss, no population gain and they hoped that the LRT would reverse those things,” says Casello. “And the LRT by itself won’t do that.”

The professor’s theory bodes well for Ottawa where we’ve been experiencing increased “urbanity” for a number of years. Our population is growing, if incrementally — we total about 900,000 now and expect to be as many as 1.2 million by 2031. (The GTA, by comparison, expects to absorb an extra 100,000 residents a year over the same period.)

Scrimgeour characterizes the LRT as a way of “unlocking economic growth.”

“There hasn’t been any new road capacity built into downtown since the Portage Bridge opened in the 1970s,” says Scrimgeour. “We can’t get past 13 or 14,000 people an hour running buses at street level. If the road system can’t get more people in, and the bus system can’t get more people in, then how can more people take jobs in downtown Ottawa?”

There’s already evidence that the extra capacity of the transit system is affecting where organizations locate. News that the Ottawa Senators are looking at relocating their arena to LeBreton Flats has caused quite a lot of excitement — and is an option made more viable with the higher-capacity light rail coming our way.

Making the Ottawa River the front of the city

On the one hand, we’re blessed with a spectacular waterway along the northern edge of our city that isn’t overtaken by condos, like so much of the Toronto lakeshore. On the other hand, we have a heck of time getting at the Ottawa River, the capital’s very first rapid transit system.

The National Capital Commission launched a consultation about creating a park along the shores of the river. The feedback has been loud and clear: Reduce the four-lane parkway and increase not just the access points but the number of active ways to use the river. People have suggested adding canoe and kayak rentals and launches, public piers, tennis or lawn bowling courts, an occasional cafe (or, heaven forbid, a German-style beer garden).

Windmill Development’s plan to reform Albert and Chaudiere islands into green, mixed-use centres with a cultural bent may go some ways to enlivening the shoreline near the Canadian War Museum over the next 15 or 20 years. But what about the rest of the river?

“What a wonderful, magical thing to start a very long-term idea as to how you get the people who live here reattached to the river,” says Dark. “A little less ceremony, a little less, ‘It’s for the nation.’ That doesn’t mean you ruin it for the nation, but I do think it’s important to attach the city to it.”

How to build the Ottawa we want

The existence of the LRT alone isn’t going to transform Ottawa.

“Build it and they will come is just a saying,” says Peter Hume, who recently retired from a 23-year career as a city councillor, including an 11-year stint as planning committee chair.

He points to the opening of the Transitway in the 1980s that, for whatever reason, didn’t organically spur intensification around the stations. The city has put in a more explicit zoning plan to encourage more dense construction surrounding the new LRT stations, but even that’s not enough.

“We’ve got so much going for us,” says Hume, pointing to our educated workforce, new light rail system coming on track, easy access to nature and excellent quality of life. A less-known fact: Ottawa has the third youngest population in Canada. (No, really — the median age is 38.)

“But you’ve got to be telling people how good you are. We can’t just sit back and wait for people to discover us — it doesn’t work like that and it will never work like that.”

But while we need to brag a little more, we also need to take more risks as a city. Maybe that’s spending public money on expanding the light-rail system or a central library or even buying up property in the core to turn into much-needed parks. It’s also means being disciplined about approving new developments that meet zoning requirements more quickly, says Hume.

“We’ve got to be committed as a city that we’re not throwing up roadblocks,” he adds.

Because if we want the LRT to be a real success — and not just a commuter system that’s empty on evenings and weekends — we need places to go and things to do, from public spaces to private entertainment venues to cultural events. And building that sort of vibrant downtown won’t happen without trying something new.

What will Ottawa look like in the future?

Over the next few years, we’ll see the capital spruced for the 2017 celebrations. And the opening of the LRT in 2018 will be big deal. But more fundamental changes — the kinds that might make that imaginary Ottawa possible someday — is decades away. Considering that 1,300 new condos come onto the Ottawa market each year, it would take 50 years or more to see the breadth of development that those yellow blocks in Urban Strategies’ graphic depict. The Yonge subway line in Toronto was built 60 years ago with 12 stations and it’s still intensifying.

We’re just at the beginning of our urbanization journey, but at least now we have a plan. It revolves around not just expanding light rail, but the infrastructure and developments connected to LRT, as well as reclaiming public access to the Ottawa River.

“Each of these goals would take 50 or 60 years,” says Dark. “But if you don’t have them in the first place, you don’t know how to work on them.”"

Source: Joanne Chianello, Ottawa Citizen. December 27, 2014.