David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen
Lansdowne Park’s water plaza has been awaited by visiting families for weeks. We’re regulars, and we’ve watched the tall sculpture in the middle grow, the pavers go in, the fences come down. My boys have never seen a wading pool or a splash pad they’ve disliked.
Till now. “There’s not enough water,” my six-year-old says.
Lansdowne has a lot to like: Its patios are full, its teams are doing pretty well, it hosts the closest thing Ottawa has to a downtown mainstream movie theatre. I am, right now, wearing underwear I bought at its Winners. The disappointing thing is that most of its successes are elements brought by the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, the city’s private partners.
As for us citizens, we’ve cheaped out on a lot.
The Rideau Canal footbridge and canal access that were part of the original park concept never made it beyond the blue-sky stage. The “heritage orchard” is in a traffic island, the grove honouring Algonquin history is tucked away by a fence. The Aberdeen Pavilion and Horticulture Building are sporadically used. Drivers got confused by the pedestrians-first design, so we painted yellow and white lines all over the cobbles and paving stones.
You can trace the decline of the water feature in the renderings the city and its private partners produced. Early on, it was to be a big boomerang-shaped pool, shimmering in imaginary sunlight in a video “flythrough.” Waist-deep waders cavorted in a still image in which the whole place was the pale blue that says “this is a swimming pool.”
Detail from a rendering of Lansdowne Park’s redevelopment, before plans were finalized.
A slightly later rendering shrank the pool but added fountains shooting water way up over grown-ups’ heads. That was in 2012.
In 2013, as construction was set to begin, they dialed the renderings back again, to something much more closely resembling what they actually built. The pool’s mostly been filled in, the sprays of water reduced to overpowered drinking fountains — though still with some oomph, and dozens of them. There’s the impression of concavity; not a pool, exactly, but enough water to splash in.
Alain Gonthier, the city’s acting general manager of infrastructure, said in emailed responses to questions on Monday that renderings aren’t promises. “A rendering is a depiction of the general essence of the space, and is developed before the actual design process. Details are confirmed through the design process,” he wrote.
Gonthier didn’t design or oversee Lansdowne and this isn’t his doing. But the unfortunate implication here is that when we see renderings, we mustn’t trust them.
Lansdowne’s ‘Water Plaza’ on the day it opened. JULIE OLIVER / OTTAWA CITIZEN
As built, the little spurters produce not much more than a steady trickle, which runs down into a stone trough near the central sculpture. It’s OK if you’re two, though lots of parents will fret about kids that small tripping in the trough part. If you’re a grown-up, you can rinse your feet. Some kids literally seem to have more fun with the actual drinking fountain nearby: it has one of those straight-down nozzles for filling water bottles, and if you put your hand in the flow it goes everywhere.
The benches around the “water plaza” were never modified to match the shrunken water feature: they’re as expansive as they were supposed to be when they surrounded a much bigger pool. By themselves, they’re pretty nifty — slats of wood arranged in wavy up-and-down patterns that turn them into playground equipment all by themselves, great for all kinds of groups to sit or climb around on. It’s just that most of them now face not water but a big expanse of sun-blasted pavers.
This is a problem throughout the kids’ area: there’s no shade. The playground is small but its funny tubular climber isn’t like anything else in Ottawa, as far as I know, offering different challenges for kids of different ages. That’s good, and on cooler days it’s crawling with kids. It’s built on a rubber mat, which is state-of-the-art for outdoor playgrounds, but in the sun it’s like a heating pad. Other dark surfaces — purple plastic benches, a black rubber slide thing — get too hot for bare skin. The saplings the city’s planted will offer respite — in 10 or 15 years.
Gonthier said Monday there are no plans for temporary shade at the playground. If people want shade, they can go inside the Aberdeen Pavilion, he said.
The crowds are at Sylvia Holden Park next door, with a deep wading pool, a playground on sand, and tall trees shading it all. The locals fought to keep the park carved out of the Lansdowne redevelopment; the city had promised to preserve all its elements, just rebuilt and mixed in with the rest of the urban park, but they weren’t buying it. I thought this was just obstructionism until I took kids to each place.
Hot parks with small trees are a first-world problem, of course, except that Lansdowne is supposed to be a showpiece, the best of what this first-world city can do. We know how to do this better: Toronto’s adding playgrounds to its lakefront redevelopments loaded with water features. Boston’s downtown greenway — where a now-buried highway used to be — is full of them. Even in regular suburbs, where we build most new parks, you’d get a better splash pad.