Still struggling to make Lansdowne Park green

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Trees awaiting planting at Lansdowne Park in 2014. BRUCE DEACHMAN / POSTMEDIA

David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen

Three years after Lansdowne Park reopened, the trees on its commercial streets are still struggling, scraggly things, fighting for life in tough conditions.

“Greening” Lansdowne was a major selling point for the partnership between the city government and the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG), turning a dreary old fairground-cum-parking-lot into a city oasis. And, in fairness, the new trees in the Lansdowne’s eastern parky section are doing just fine. The ones in Aberdeen Square, where the farmers’ market sets up between the Aberdeen Pavilion and the Cineplex movie theatre, are also OK.

The ones on Bank Street and on Marché Way and Exhibition Way, the two streets running into Lansdowne off Bank Street, less so. They were planted in spring 2014, the following winter was savagely cold and a bunch of them died, and the survivors are mostly failing to thrive.

“We’re challenged,” says Roger Greenberg, OSEG’s chairman and the longtime head of the Minto property empire. “We’re challenged with the design that we were given, we’re also challenged by Canadian winters and we’re also challenged by the fact that to keep the site safe we have to put salt down. Salt and trees don’t go well together. So we’re trying to learn from those experiences and get better at it, but we still have a way to go.”

Greenberg used the trees explicitly as a metaphor for the state of Lansdowne as a whole when he gave an annual presentation to city council’s finance committee on Tuesday. The site’s financial performance isn’t what OSEG or the city would like yet but it’s getting there. Ditto its arboreal performance.

The pretty pictures that come with any new development proposal are always supremely optimistic about the lush canopy that’ll enfold the finished product. Shady, leafy and cool it’ll be. One of my favourites, for a building to go up just a little north of Lansdowne on Bank Street, shows a row of big, healthy trees sprouting straight out of the sidewalk, watered by magic.

In real life, it’s hard out there for a street tree. This isn’t Vancouver, where you can stick a broken twig in the ground and expect it to leaf out next spring. Cold winters hurt saplings, whose roots are unprotected by layers of insulating snow. Hot summers stress them out. Paving restricts how much water gets to their roots and how far those roots can spread. They get splashed with poisonous salt and gouged by passing plows. Ash trees historically did pretty well here, then along came ravenous bugs that chewed them to pieces.

At Lansdowne, trees are the main feature meant to soften the shopping streets, which are otherwise nothing but concrete, stone, brick, glass and metal, as barren as when the place was a parking lot.

“It’s not due to ill will on anybody’s part,” says Coun. David Chernushenko, whose ward includes Lansdowne and who was a green-business consultant before entering politics. “Everyone wants to see the trees thriving.”

The comparatively healthy trees in Aberdeen Square have more room and are planted in “Strata Cells,” the trade name for a kind of plastic structure that holds up pavement on the surface while letting trees grow in relatively loose soil underneath.

But Lansdowne’s shopping area is tightly packed. Among other difficult conditions, the trees on the major road into Lansdowne — Exhibition Way — can’t be of a kind that gets too big, in case they block legally protected views of the Aberdeen Pavilion from the west. That limits the species OSEG can choose.

Physically, the trees are hemmed in on all sides and even underground, with the roof of an underground garage limiting how deep their roots can go, Chernushenko says. You’ll never grow a mighty sequoia in that. But you can reasonably hope to have trees that don’t croak as soon as you turn your back.

Instead of replanting all the dead trees at once, Greenberg says, they’re doing a few at a time, experimenting and hoping to find winning combinations of species and planters, assisted by a professional horticulturalist. They’re trying sturdy “Shademaster” honey locusts (whose small and plentiful leaves turn brilliant yellow in the fall) and have had good luck with a planter designed to keep salt from contaminating them. Tests before and after last winter showed no worrying increase in the saltiness of the trees’ soil in the new planters, for a change.

For reasons as much mercenary as aesthetic, OSEG is glad to see the improvements. Lansdowne’s supposed to be a high-end destination and treelessness is bad for business.

“We’re committed to — it’s an important part of the retail landscape,” Greenberg says.