Interior of Fifth Avenue Court in January 2018. ERROL MCGIHON / POSTMEDIA NETWORK
David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen
Minto wants to tear down its Fifth Avenue Court building in the Glebe, ending a 40-year run for an interesting public space that’s never quite lived up to its promise.
Under plans submitted to the city and now up for public comment, the commercial strip along Bank Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues (home to Von’s restaurant at one end and Pure Gelato at the other) stays intact but everything behind it goes. That’s a combined office and retail complex constructed in the late 1970s, with a fountain, benches and gardens in the middle.
Where the courtyard is now will be the lobby of an eight-storey condo building, plus other private things like a residents’ gym, party room, bike storage and garbage room, surrounded by a ring of ground-floor condo units. The courtyard is toast, which seems both a shame and inevitable.
Exterior of Fifth Avenue Court on Jan. 10, 2018.
The courtyard and its surrounding storefronts replaced a parking lot in about 1980, joining up with the Bank Street retail strip in an unusually creative effort for the time that combined old and new and added a bunch of room for people to just hang out.
A few years ago Toronto launched a little marketing campaign to make sure people know where its private-public spaces are, partly as a way of locking in their public nature.
Ottawa wants to encourage these spaces in new developments along Rideau Street. The new(ish) office tower at 150 Elgin St., holding Shopify’s headquarters, has a lovely publicly accessible terrace on the seventh floor. The ByWard Market has its cobblestone courtyard and the Irish Village pub complex. The Rideau Centre is a duller example, but pedestrians have guaranteed pass-through rights because of all the transit stops around it. New light-rail stations, where they open into private buildings, are other cases.
Privately owned public spaces can’t be wholesale replacements for public public spaces. A mall is not a park or a public square. But they can be good spots if careful design and attentive management bring people and commerce together in creative ways that aren’t purely about money.
A fantasy version of Fifth Avenue Court would have its central fountain surrounded by busy patios with patrons entertained by buskers from a roster kept by Minto. They could have craft markets in there. Yoga classes. Vernissages and whatnot.
In real life, that’s not how it’s worked out.
After the space opened in about 1980 there were art shows and a stupendously well-attended annual Christmas concert by National Arts Centre Orchestra musicians, and it might have helped that the tenants in the building included the Bass Clef Entertainment concert promoters and an ad agency. But activity’s diminished.
Children and parents gathered at Fifth Avenue Court on a Sunday afternoon in 1998, for a fundraising concert featuring the National Arts Centre Orchestra. The annual event got so big it outgrew the space and moved to the NAC itself. YVONNE BERG / POSTMEDIA NETWORK
“It’s a bit of an odd duck, if you will, in terms of being either a public space or a classic mall,” says Coun. David Chernushenko, who represents the area. “Although it is used by some people — I don’t want to dismiss it entirely — it’s underused.”
The Minto people didn’t return a call to talk about the courtyard space, but you don’t have to be a real-estate genius to see the problem.
The Arrow & Loon pub has an interior patio but the other storefronts are almost all medical-type offices — a dentist, a massage-therapy and chiropractic clinic. The city’s 2017-party bureau has had its headquarters on the second floor. These places have no relationship to the space outside them because they have no reason to: patients come in for appointments and then leave. They don’t wander and browse. If walk-up customers are important, you want to face Bank Street, not be tucked away inside.
Fifth Avenue Court (Minto rebranded it “Fifth + Bank” recently, for reasons that are obvious now) is in my neighbourhood and I like it because if the kids and I get pizza at the Wild Oat on the next block but the restaurant’s too full to sit down, there’s always room at Fifth Avenue Court. Which is a problem if you happen to own it and have to heat it and mop it and make sure the lights work.
Coun. David Chernushenko. PAT MCGRATH / OTTAWA CITIZEN
The busiest I’ve ever personally seen it was in December, on the evening of the outdoor hockey game at Lansdowne, when people making their way to the game were in there warming up and adding layers, using the bathrooms and tracking in snow and salt. If you’re Minto, that’s all costs, no benefits.
The proposal is 10 metres taller than the law allows now and needs assorted other dispensations from the city. Chernushenko opposes it, saying there’s a reason the city set four to six storeys, not eight, as a maximum height for the area.
“That’s a livable scale, a people scale, one at which you don’t feel overwhelmed by the hight of the building and at which there’s no discernible canyon effect on the light and the wind,” he says. City council recently approved an eight-storey retirement home on Bank Street nearby and he’s concerned about the pattern.
As for the courtyard itself, though, he doesn’t think many people will miss it.