Construction on your street? Follow these tips!

Photo: Jock Smith

by Bob Irvine

“Prepare for the worst, expect the best, and take what comes.” These words by political theorist Hannah Arendt describe the approach you should take if you’ve received a notice from the city that your street will be the focus of major construction this summer.

My wife Karen and I moved from the north end of the Glebe to a house in the south end in the fall of 2015. We have lived through two major street reconstructions (i.e. installation of new sewer and water lines and related work). Here are some tips based on our experience:

Accept the city’s request to document the state of your house (i.e. note any existing cracks) prior to the start of construction. If you don’t and something bad happens to your house (e.g. new cracks appear), you won’t have a leg to stand on when you seek redress from the city.

Postpone any exterior painting or window-washing. (The reconstruction of a city street generates a tremendous amount of dust.)

Think seriously about holding important family events, such as birthdays, weddings and wakes, at locations other than your house when construction is at its peak. (Do you really want to lead Grandma around a five-ton dump truck to attend a baby shower?)

Make sure you understand how the city inspects the reconstruction of a street as the work proceeds. The city hires people from engineering consulting firms to inspect the work on its behalf and makes a big deal about how this inspector “is there for you” if you have concerns. Yes, keep the inspector’s cell number handy. However, during reconstruction of our south Glebe street, the city appointed a new inspector without telling residents. I phoned the inspector with whom I’d been liaising, only to find that he was on a hunting trip in northern Ontario.

The contractor carefully verifies where water, sewer, Bell, Rogers and especially gas lines are located. However, if you know about other buried lines around your house, alert authorities.

Document the entire front of your property near the sidewalk as well as your driveway where it abuts the road by taking a series of overlapping photos along the entire length of your frontage on the street. A company hired by the city also takes photos of this frontage area before work starts and the city inspector keeps them in a binder. However, we found that at our south Glebe house the photographer missed an important section of our frontage.

Be prepared to be shocked at how far the contractor’s power shovels, backhoes and bulldozers will bite into what you thought was your property. If you have flowers, shrubs, fencing, rock gardens or stone walls close to the sidewalk, seriously consider transplanting or moving them.

If you have any fragile items on open shelves inside your house (especially family heirlooms), consider packing them up for the duration of the construction. Some of the heavy equipment used during the project can send big vibrations through your house.

Take with a big grain of salt information from the inspector on when things will happen. When we negotiated a date to take possession of our south Glebe house, the inspector said, “We’ll be totally finished in your area by then.” In the end, we had to walk around huge, snorting power shovels and bulldozers to get to our front door. (“We found something that we didn’t expect down the street.”)

Consider postponing major house renovations that might coincide with street re-construction. Unless you have a big driveway, your tradespeople may not be able to park anywhere close to your house.

Only raise questions and concerns with the “white hats” at the construction site. The foreman (officially “the site-supervisor”) wears a white hard-hat as do the city inspector and any visitors. The city always appoints a manager for each construction project but does not give their coordinates; you can track them down with a bit of googling. The manager is the person to contact if you have major concerns.

Ask for special attention if you have a tree near the front of your property. Because we had an officially designated “heritage tree” in front of our north Glebe house, the contractor took special care in installing for free a copper water-line into our place.

Be prepared for the unexpected. For our north Glebe street, the city decided to install extra-wide “Toronto-style” sidewalks. This meant that the bite into our front lawn was bigger than expected. This, in turn, necessitated the installation, at the city’s expense, of a stone wall where there had just been a sloped lawn. And consider this: for our south Glebe home, the city would not replace flowers that were destroyed during construction unless we told them their Latin botanical names.

Build rapport as fast and as deeply as you can with the sub-contractors who do the final landscaping to bring your front yard back to its former glory. These hard-working men and women are in an awkward position. They are paid by the contractor to work as fast as they can, but making things right at your place requires time and attention to detail. The city gets antsy if there is even a whiff of a homeowner having landscapers “improve” the property at the city’s expense instead of just restoring it. Give the landscapers $5 gift cards to Tim Horton’s. Get to know their names. Bring out a pitcher of lemonade for them. They are putting in physically exhausting days in Ottawa’s sweltering summers. At both our Glebe houses, there was a challenge trying to match new stones and pavers with old ones. In both cases, the landscapers went the extra mile to track down materials that matched perfectly.

Recognize that “it ain’t over till it’s over.” Crews always seem to need to return to make adjustments to manhole covers long after the construction is finished. An antique glass bottle that was handed down through generations was smashed on our floor from the vibration of jackhammers on our street more than a year after reconstruction.

In conclusion, living on a Glebe street during its reconstruction is like driving down “a boulevard of broken dreams.” I hope that, armed with these tips, you can at least enjoy the ride.

Bob Irvine invites Glebe residents who have lived through reconstruction of their streets to share in the Glebe Report any additional tips they may have. 

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