Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A case for an urban square in Centretown

A theme that you notice across Canada is the modern, urban square.  Montreal has Victoria Square, Toronto has Yonge-Dundas Square, and Vancouver has Robson Square.

I can admit that I have a love for European cities, especially the old public squares where you can picture people meeting with friends, having a coffee, stopping after work, or discussing politics or the latest events of the city.

There is a growing trend in urban planning called "placemaking" that champions these kinds of places in our cities.  It seeks to create vibrant, people-friendly places where people can meet and interact with each other and their surroundings.

I have visited Yonge-Dundas Square and Victoria Square and have witnessed the social interactions, and in the case of the prior, the concerts and festivals.  Through the work of the NCC, Ottawa has become a hotbed for commemorative places, but we are desparately lacking in a modern, urban square.

I recently submitted a small package to the City of Ottawa and the NCC building a case for such a square in the CBD in Centretown.  One of the final significant pieces of real estate in the CBD is the parking lot bordered by Kent, Albert and Queen Streets which is currently owned by Brookfield Properties.  This land was a proposed location for another Place de Ville complex for the Federal Government, but I ask the question, "Does Centretown need another Federal Government building?" especially on one of the final remaining significant pieces of land in the area.  This would be a travesty with communities like Orleans asking for a Federal Government presence for years.  The good news is the Federal Government is leaving downtown for cheaper, greener pastures in areas like the Trainyeards.  What does this mean for land use in downtown?

The plight of the CBD is that it is a ghost town outside of the hours of nine to five, Monday to Friday.  Will another office building add vibrancy to our downtown?  The greatest enemy of the business area in Centretown is not the prospect of taller buildings, but a lack of people-friendly places and attractions.  I recently disagreed with a tweet from a fellow Ottawa resident who said that tall buildings are soulless.  I argued that a lack of places for people to gather is more soulless than tall buildings.

In this submission I asked the City and NCC to consider acquiring this land for the purpose of developing a modern, urban square (a first for Ottawa).  While a developer may not hand over such a significant piece of real estate easily, it is worth a try.

Click on this link to read the submission.  Let me know what you think.



  1. My problem with trying to build a "place" on that block is that no one has any reason to be at Albert and Kent during their free time. Wouldn't a vibrant urban square need to be located in an area where people happen to pass by / pass through during play time? E.g., while it doesn't fit with the Rideau Centre's plans, their surface purking lot is a space that lots of people go by in their spare time, and could be enticed to gather/linger if it was a beautiful space, maybe with a couple of patios, and shops opening on to it.

    A "Union Square" between a redeveloped Union Station and a Rideau Centre opened up more onto the Col.By side could work as well, but that's not in the NCC's plans for that block either.

    There are several smaller poorly-designed, and thus poorly-used urban plazas in the CBD: Place de Ville Phase one has a nicely-landscaped plaza, but the two towers are closed off to it and it looks onto a stinky and noisy bus jam, leaving it lifeless. The Jean Edmonds, Minto and Centennial Towers' plazas face similar difficulties.

    The one at World Exchange probably offers the best potential, it is larger and better used at noon-hour with summer concerts, etc. Adding life there would probably be easier than building something new west of Bank St. Once LRT has replaced the wall of buses, one could give that plaza a good kick in the seat by relocating the LCBO and the tuck shop that currently open onto the plaza elsewhere in the building, and replace them with a licensed restaurant and a coffee shop, respectively (both with café tables on the plaza).

    anyway that's my three cents.

  2. Building on James' post, I'd like to know why "no one has any reason to be at Albert and Kent during their free time." Is it a case of if we build it, then they will come, or is there a better question we should be asking for why people usually choose Elgin and Byward as their prime entertainment destinations? Even the World Exchange is deserted after hours, though I do see its larger scale potential. I think part of the reason people usually frequent Elgin/Byward is that they're can do your shopping, groceries, errands etc. near by and take a moment to sit and enjoy a coffee on a bench outside. The issue with the Kent/Albert location is that the businesses nearby to do tend to close after hours - but again they do this because there are no people around. It's a chicken-egg scenario. Perhaps if we offered people and businesses more incentive to stick around, then the idea of an urban square in that location could stick.

    -Amen J.

  3. At this link - - there's an article about a similar square that was built in downtown Detroit (that is probably in worse shape than our downtown). This project ended up bringing economic and urban development to the downtown. Employers are returning to the downtown which is inpiring employees to move downtown. Right now a lot of people live in Kanata because that's where the tech companies are. What would happen if some tech companies moved from Kanata to downtown? More people would decide to live downtown which would bring more life.

    These kinds of urban squares can bring life is it's coupled with small commercial space (walk-up coffee shop so people can enjoy a coffee with friends in the square), wifi, and good programming (music, small concerts, movies). This is the reality in Detroit. Tech companies are leaving the suburbs to move back to downtown and it's being attributed to the creating of their public square.

    My belief is, "If you build it PROPERLY, they will come."

  4. On a side note another reason why I think a modern urban square could work at the parking lot bordered by Albert, Queen and Kent is because of how open it is to the street. From the squares I've looked at, the ones that are open on three sides like that piece land is are very inviting. The small square at the World Exchange Tower is very closed because of the landscaping.

  5. Whenever I'm downtown outside business hours and see all the people walking around looking into the windows of closed shops, I wonder who the dummies are who decided that it's a ghosttown around here. I call phoney-baloney!!!

  6. "Right now a lot of people live in Kanata because that's where the tech companies are. What would happen if some tech companies moved from Kanata to downtown?"
    I think that if that happened, federal offices would move from downtown to the newly-vacated offices in Kanata and the net effect would be near zero.