New Lansdowne plan almost ready to be unveiled

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By David Reevely, The Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — The people working on the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park are preparing to show off an updated plan for the project within two weeks, though they're still struggling with some details.

The list of differences between the city's design-review panel for the quarter-billion-dollar project and the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group's planners has been whittled down from "absolutely hundreds" to about a dozen, said Capital Councillor David Chernushenko Friday afternoon, after an all-day meeting on the subject.

Chernushenko sits on the city's design-review panel, which includes planning committee chair Peter Hume and three renowned outside architects and urban designers — George Dark, David Leinster and James Parakh. The group spent most of Friday closeted in city hall's Colonel By room, along with the city's project manager Graham Bird and OSEG representatives, trying to agree.

It's their job to represent the city and the people of Ottawa as the renovation — which includes rebuilding Frank Clair Stadium for a new football team and upgrading the Civic Centre, constructing new commercial and residential buildings on the northern third of the Glebe site, and turning most of the parking lots on the site into real parkland — is planned together with the developers and sports entrepreneurs in OSEG. They've met at least a dozen times, in a process that's taken much longer than it was ever supposed to.

"That has nothing to do with lawsuits and OMB and all the rest," Chernushenko said, referring to the legal challenge that still awaits a ruling from the Ontario Court of Appeal and a long hearing before the Ontario Municipal Board, which can overturn land-use decisions. "It's a beast of a project with so many parts and so many players that in order for the design work, the approvals, and us to properly see things in advance and critique them has taken many months longer."

So long, in fact, that the reconstruction of Bank Street near Lansdowne, which ideally would have been done in lockstep with a lot of the Lansdowne work, is now finished but for some mopping up in the spring, making for new questions about how to fit the two together.

But perhaps the biggest remaining challenge, Chernushenko said, is trees. "How are we going to plant trees in the new boulevards along Holmwood [Avenue] in a way that'll make sure they become healthy mature trees instead of spindly ornamental things that, far too often in urban settings, are all you can get because you've got so little room to work with?" he asks.

Trees need soil to grow in, plus light and water. Squeezing a sapling up through a little gap in paving stones close to the road won't produce a big shade tree in 20 years. It can be done on the cheap now, but everyone will pay for it later, Chernushenko said.

Another point of contention is where to put ducts for the underground parking garage so it doesn't vent into the Lansdowne farmers' market, or at the houses planned for Holmwood. Fitting all the pipes and ducts and other infrastructure together on the historic property in the Glebe is difficult and every idea seems to have a downside, Chernushenko said.

The project's design is now "quite different" from the last set of drawings the public saw when city council voted to continue with the redevelopment at the end of last summer, Chernushenko said. Not in the big things: the planned new buildings are still where the city and OSEG said they would be (though "they're actually not as tall, for the most part"), the Horticulture Building is still being moved (to Chernushenko's dissatisfaction). But they're now "down to the actual level of design and materials."

The trick, he said, is to make the buildings look like they fit together and with the rest of the Glebe, without looking identical. "Among the key that we had was the promise that it's not going to be big box, it's not going to look like a shopping mall, but how do we do that, how do we actually put that into concrete design terms? So that it has the look and feel of many small-to-medium-sized shops, restaurants, services."

Simulating the 100 years of organic development that's created the Glebe is an inherently difficult, maybe impossible, task, and Chernushenko said he quietly won't be disappointed if it turns out that in 20 years the place has evolved quite a bit. He opposed the direction the Lansdowne redevelopment has taken, he said, partly because the neighbourhood needs more recreational facilities, and if that's the direction the market eventually pushes the district, that'll be fine with him.

Chernushenko remains dissatisfied with some of the big things that were already pretty much decided when he won his council seat in late 2010 — the plans to narrow the views of the Aberdeen Pavilion, for instance. And despite the reports that say traffic won't be a big problem once the project is finished in 2015, his gut says it will. Huge events, when the police direct traffic and a fleet of shuttles brings people in from far and wide, will probably be OK, but an ordinary busy weekend day might not be, he said. He wishes his arguments that the site should be for pedestrians only, and that that would be good for the neighbourhood and for businesses, were having more impact.

But he is satisfied with how well the design reviewers have worked together, saying he could count on one hand the number of times they've disagreed on anything substantial. He credited Hume with being adamant about the notion that the renovated Frank Clair Stadium should be a highly accessible "stadium in the park," where people can shortcut across the football field if the stadium isn't in use. And he said the panel has done a good job protecting big features people like and are expecting, like the wood-ribbed "veil" along the stadium's south-side stands.

The next hard part will be enforcing all the agreements in the face of unexpected cost increases and new problems, he said. Chernushenko wants the redevelopment to be as successful as it can be, though he remains a critic.

"We had better make sure that it is special."

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