Modernist vision unveiled for a renovated Lansdowne

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By David Reevely, The Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — Refined plans for a renovated Lansdowne Park have a Modernist bent, with lots of glass and right angles, and a major renovation to the existing Horticulture Building.

Tuesday morning, the city showed off the "completed work" of four architects and designers who've been working on the various elements of the quarter-billion-dollar renovation project. They're tried to turn a plan with disparate elements (a fixed-up Frank Clair Stadium, a new urban park, a moved and reopened Horticulture Building, and new commercial and residential space) into one cohesive project, said the chair of council's planning committee Peter Hume, and they're proud of what they've achieved.

From 30,000 feet, the plans are little changed from what council approved last summer — roughly the same buildings and park elements are proposed for the same places. Frank Clair Stadium still gets a major facelift, including new south-side stands with a sweeping wooden "veil" facing the Rideau Canal. But in the details, much has evolved.

The biggest change is to the Horticulture Building, which has long been planned to be moved from the northwest corner of the iconic Aberdeen Pavilion to the northeast. Besides that, heritage architect Julian Smith (whose record includes renewals of the Aberdeen Pavilion, the Vimy Memorial in France, and Queen's Park) said Tuesday, it'll be stripped of the pale brown paint on three of its faces, have skylights added and expanses of brick replaced with window walls, and several doors either added or reopened.

Perhaps most strikingly, Smith said, the building's northern exhibition area, now used for storage, will be cut down about 15 feet with the permanent removal of one of its 11 "bays" (two others will be temporarily taken off during the move). That will give the building a little more distance from Holmwood Avenue to the north, he said, which will both work better on the site and mean that Holmwood won't have to be closed while the Horticulture Building is prepared and then shifted several hundred feet away.

Inside, the expectation is for food-related uses, such as restaurants or a coffee shop, in the historically significant southern part of the building. The "barn" portion will include an information counter and a large space that can be rented out, likely to a non-profit agency of some kind, Smith said. There'll also be a set of stairs down to Lansdowne's underground parking garage. All of it, he said, is in keeping with "adaptive reuse" — the idea that heritage buildings are best preserved by using them, with renovations as needed that respect their most important historic aspects.

The masses of new windows, for instance, will enhance the Horticulture Building's interior exhibition space; two newly opened doors will encourage people to use the building as a passageway from the commercial part of Lansdowne to the park.

Leslie Maitland, the president of Heritage Ottawa, said she'd have preferred it if the Horticulture Building had been left in place, but if moving it is a given, Smith's work is more than satisfactory.

"We have to compromise here, and if this comes through to fruition, we'll have come to a reasonable compromise," she said. "A building has to have a life."

New York-based designer John Clifford presented the plans for the "mixed-use" area, the residential and commercial elements on the northern part of the site. Closer to Bank Street, they use brick and glass, with more wood in the designs farther east, closer to the planned park.

He's particularly pleased, he said, with the design of the Empire Theatres cinema close to Holmwood, he said. Most movie theatres have a main entrance and a lot of blank walls, Clifford said; the one planned for Lansdowne has shops and restaurants on the ground floor and so much glass up above that it's almost a curtain wall. By night, he said, it'll almost be a "glowing lantern" facing south, a clearly active place full of people.

The same mission was applied to the other commercial buildings, Clifford said, especially on their second floors. Upstairs retail is unusual in Ottawa — unusual in most cities, since merchants like easy access for foot traffic — and it's important that the life up there be visible to passersby.

Capital Councillor David Chernushenko has clearly lost a long struggle to make Lansdowne a car-free place, however. Roads pass through the site and several of the renderings Clifford showed had cars parked on Lansdowne's new interior streets. The renderings do show those streets made of paving stones rather than asphalt and with very slight curbs, however, which are design touches meant to make drivers slow down and share space more deferentially with pedestrians.

Leasing for the site is going well, said OSEG's lead partner Roger Greenberg, though most of the companies looking to move in aren't ready to commit until they can be promised exactly where their stores will be and how big they'll be. With the plans for the site still not completely finalized, would-be tenants mostly don't want to declare their interest lest they "tip their hands" to the competition, he said. But, said Greenberg, there's no shortage of retailers and restaurateurs interested.

The commercial area still has unknowns beyond who its tenants will be. The city has yet to award the "air rights" to develop some taller towers atop some of the retail buildings, so those towers haven't been designed yet.

The urban park that's to replace most of the Lansdowne parking lots and the changes to Frank Clair Stadium have seen fewer changes since the last public viewing of the plans at the end of last summer. Park designer Jeffrey Staates displayed refined versions of the permanent location of the Lansdowne farmers' market, the approaches to the Aberdeen Pavilion, and the "Great Lawn" that's to occupy the southeastern part of the site. It's just a bit smaller than the lawn of Parliament Hill, he said. If that's a "national lawn" at the north end of Ottawa, Lansdowne's big grassy area should be a "civic lawn to the south," Staates said.

He's especially pleased with a water feature — a fountain and splash pad featuring a tall sculpture they're called "the Beacon" — that can be turned off and used as a seating area for concerts on the lawn, and also an installation of vertical slats atop a berm separating the park from the stadium, which can be used as a screen for images.

As for the Frank Clair itself, designer Rob Claiborne said the mission has been to make it a "stadium in the park" and he's happy with the results, including a sunken field that means the south-side stands can be lower, grassy berms at the east and west ends of the field where families can sit for games or shows on blankets, and a concourse that encircles the field entirely, so people can visit concessions and still keep a view of the field.

Wrangling remains. Near the beginning of Tuesday's unveiling, Hume told Claiborne in front of a full house in the council chamber that he isn't done advocating that the stadium should be fully accessible to anyone wandering by when it's not in active use for an event.

There's more to come in Lansdowne Week at city hall, including the release of several updates on Thursday on the project's budget, on negotiations with the Ontario Heritage Trust (which has legal rights to protect certain views of the Aberdeen Pavilion) and on the plans to sell the air rights. All of those are proceeding according to plan, city manager Kent Kirkpatrick said, but wouldn't give further details yet.

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