By Peter Harris
Have you been to downtown Toronto or Montreal recently? The cores of these cities are transforming with stunning new looks and developments. Toronto’s Union Station now features a European-style town square with interlocking bricks and auto laybys for more peaceful passenger drop-off both at the station and across the street at the Royal York Hotel. The atmosphere has been transformed from a typical rushed Toronto traffic block to one that is now posh, quieter and nice to look at.
TORONTO – A WORLD-CLASS CITY
The Eaton Centre’s new Times Square look (fulfilling Toronto’s dream of becoming New York North) may not be original but it’s exciting nonetheless. Pedestrians flock to the area that often features exhibits and special events in the heart of the central core. The architecture of new condos along Yonge Street is spectacular with curved lines soaring many floors up, accentuated with different sized windows for maximum impact. Toronto exudes wealth and sophistication in its downtown.
MONTREAL – A WORLD-CLASS CITY
Montreal’s St Catherine Street gets better every year. Place des Arts has been redone with interlocking pavers. In the summer this busy Montreal street is blocked to traffic to create a massive pedestrian walkway. Even in the heart of the commercial area notable large stores such as The Bay and La Maison Simon participate in street sales and exhibits. At Place des Arts the huge metal lighting arms resembling giant Lego apparatus are now permanent fixtures for the many shows and festivals. Further down St Catherine one of the world’s most renowned gay villages becomes a massive pedestrian walkway with special events, exhibits and street decor unmatched anywhere else. Montreal’s creative street decor, pedestrian access and exciting new events are clearly making it one of the world’s leading cities for tourism.
In Ottawa it’s a different story. Ottawa’s Little Italy is one of the fi nest in North America, thanks to the vision of the merchants and Preston Street BIA. They paid for the granite archway at Carling Avenue and were responsible for the creative art murals in the Queensway underpass, and the patios, street decor and charm from the family-owned businesses. The City of Ottawa contributed funding to remove only half of the wooden hydro poles and overhead wires. They remain a major detraction from all the tremendous work of the private sector.
Bronson Avenue, one of the most used major arteries downtown, underwent reconstruction for nearly two years. It resurfaced with yet again wooden hydro poles. When Jackie Holzman was mayor, a task force of citizens produced a report with recommendations to improve the image of Bronson Avenue because it was a major route from the airport. Some 20 years later, the City of Ottawa was too cheap to bury the hydro wires after two years of reconstruction.
The Ottawa Citizen reported that Hydro Ottawa handed over $20 million of dividends to the general coffers of the city for each of the past two years. Yet we cannot afford to dress up the capital city of Canada.
Sparks Street has been plagued with city planning mistakes for nearly 40 years from the days when the RBC Plaza was approved to more recently the CBC building, with its black glass wall facing the pedestrian mall. The CBC entrance-way on Queen Street is still cursed today, with employees having to circle the block to enjoy the Sparks Street mall. The city believes that new condos on the mall will bring it to life. Unless they are all rented out through Airbnb, they will add nothing to the mall activity. What you need is a hotel. The original plan for the World Exchange Plaza featured a hotel. Somehow, the city allowed it to be converted to yet another office building.
In the meantime, the federal government is still proceeding to convert Sparks Street taxpayer-owned buildings into a fancy Tunney’s Pasture for government workers. What a shame that the public will no longer see the inside of the former Bank of Montreal with its high ceilings or the classic Met Life Building. The bureaucrats march on without direction from our political masters – at all levels – who should ensure more people-friendly uses for Canadians and tourists to enjoy these buildings – á la Old Montreal.
The Gillin family was so concerned about losing the originally planned LRT station at the National Arts Centre (NAC), it pledged $5 million towards the cost. But in typical cheap Ottawa fashion, the city declined this offer. Patrons going to the NAC will just have to hustle in the rain and freezing cold from Metcalfe Street. The National Capital Commission (NCC) at the time lamented the change but did nothing about it – despite the federal government paying most of the bill.
Today the NCC still does not understand that it should be the legal owner of the Prince of Wales Railway Bridge crossing the Ottawa River. It says it is not in the transportation business of light rail. It only funds hundreds of millions to build bridges for cars! The Prince of Wales Bridge is clearly under federal jurisdiction. Even the Ottawa airport had to convince city hall of the need for an LRT connection. When I put LRT on the public agenda back in 1990, the original intent was to use the existing CPR corridor from the Gatineau airport to the Ottawa airport. North-south traffic routes were and still are the worst in the city.
Ottawa seems to think that being a world-class city is to impose out of- scale high rises on unsuspecting neighbourhoods throughout the city. Despite years of official plans, when it comes to out-of-scale building applications, the official plans mean nothing. The City of Ottawa will still continue its long-standing tradition of creating parking issues in neighbourhoods that do not have ample parking. The LRT will do little for the hundreds of visitors who will travel to these buildings by car.
We will see if this new Ottawa City Council will make any difference when it comes to decisions, leadership and vision. But If Ottawa leaders continue to tout the fact that Ottawa is a “world-class” city, then it’s time to start making world-class decisions.
Peter J. Harris is a former City of Ottawa and Regional Councillor.