'Free' money no reason for secrecy in city of Ottawa projects

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Better process needed for spelling out transparency in private-public deals

By Joanne Chianello, CBC News

Surprises are good for birthdays. For spending $1 million of public money to alter public land on a deal negotiated and approved in secret, not so much.

Last week's announcement that the city will hand over $1 million to a private company to build a 50,000 square-foot playground on a beloved waterfront without informing councillors, without consulting the community, with no public details available about the deal — and not even a single pretty picture to woo us — is another display of a lack of transparency at the halls of municipal power.  

Questions, questions

In January, Sinking Ship Entertainment approached the city to build Canada's largest playground at Mooney's Bay for its Giver TV program that airs on TVO. Using children and adult volunteers, the show has built more than 40 playgrounds. Ottawa's — which the company estimates will be worth $2 million — would be a salute to Canada and a 2017 legacy project.

In return, Sinking Ship wanted $1 million in public money, as well as complete secrecy while conducting negotiations, during which the company reportedly changed its mind once or twice about coming to Ottawa.

Because the city money comes from a parkland fund that is meant for city-wide projects, bureaucrats were able to approve the funding without going to council first. That a city manager could spend $1 million on a park without their approval came as a surprise to some city councillors — and likely not a few taxpayers.

There are many unanswered questions over this deal that was hatched in secret in less than five months.

What are the details of the financing? Does the city bear any fiscal responsibility if the project runs out of money part-way through? Who exactly are the other partners and how much are they donating? Giver is trying to crowdfund $150,000 for the project. As of Thursday afternoon, it had raised $770. What happens if it doesn't raise the $150,000?

What were the criteria for the site? Why did Britannia or Andrew Haydon parks not qualify?

What will the long-term costs be of maintaining this new playground, costs that will fall to city taxpayers?

Pedestrians biggest loser at Lansdowne

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Putting parking on the Bank Street bridge could calm traffic and make the road less hostile for pedestrians heading to Lansdowne.


Fifty-eight per cent of fans took sustainable transportation to RedBlacks games last year, but only a fraction of that was on foot.

By Emma Jackson, Metro

Pedestrians are losing out at Lansdowne Park, and fixing Bank Street bridge could be the solution, Coun. David Chernushenko said Wednesday.
A staff report found that more than half of all visitors took alternative transportation to major events like RedBlacks games and the AC/DC concert last year.

But only eight to 10 per cent of visitors walked there, something Chernushenko said could change if Bank Street’s famously hostile bridge was more comfortable for pedestrians and cyclists.

“That couple of hundred metres continues to be a problem,” he said, particularly in off-peak hours when speeds pick up.

The bad reputation could be sending potential visitors elsewhere, he said, or adding to the Glebe's on-street parking shortage if they choose to drive.

Chernushenko asked staff to consider new ways to calm the bridge to make it more hospitable. He particularly wanted to take the street down to two lanes from four in off-peak hours, even if that meant adding on-street parking.

That idea was immediately decried on Twitter by cycling advocates who argued a bike lane would do more to promote safety and sustainable modes than parking.

“As if (Bank) wasn’t bad enough, let’s take away the passing lane and add car doors,” tweeted one frustrated rider.
Traffic planning manager Phil Landry said bike lanes and wider sidewalks weren’t feasible last time the bridge was rebuilt, and the green super sharrows have only resulted in “minor behavioural changes.”
He said speed boards would remind drivers to go 40 km/h.
Chernushenko also raised concerns about pedestrian space inside Lansdowne itself. Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, which runs TD Place inside Lansdowne, has been criticized for channelling cars through what many thought would be a more community-oriented space.  
Brian Mitchell from the Glebe Community Association said that’s a major concern for his residents, who are struggling with high on-street parking rates.
“It has proven to have a very car-centric design, which is quite disappointing for a centrally-located destination in 2016,” Mitchell said.

Labour council challenges proposal for holiday shopping

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Jon Willing, Ottawa Citizen

City council would be making “a significant and major mistake” by allowing Glebe shops to open on six holidays, says Sean McKenny, president of the Ottawa and District Labour Council.

The labour group plans to ask the mayor and councillors to block a staff recommendation to make shopping legal in the Glebe on some statutory holidays.

And the organization says it would consider an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board if city council approves the measure.

The Glebe BIA has asked the city’s permission for retailers to open New Year’s Day, Family Day, Victoria Day, Canada Day, Labour Day and Thanksgiving Day, plus any future holidays declared by the province.

Council’s finance and economic development committee is inviting residents to weigh in on the shopping proposal at a meeting Tuesday. City council is scheduled to vote on the committee’s decision Feb. 10.

McKenny argues those are days families want to be together rather than be scheduled to work.

“It’s incumbent upon our city council to ensure that we have that piece in play in our city,” McKenny said.

McKenny said he’s concerned city council will allow other retail districts to open on holidays if the Glebe BIA receives permission.

Lansdowne neighbours struggle with late-night noise, city's inaction

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Matthew Pearson, Ottawa Citizen

People who live near Lansdowne Park want the city to do a better job enforcing its own noise bylaw because loud music is keeping them up at night.

No one is supposed to operate amplifiers and speakers between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. if it disturbs the peace and comfort of people in their homes or businesses, according to Ottawa bylaw 2004-253.

But events at Lansdowne Park — particularly dance parties and wedding receptions in the Aberdeen Pavilion and Horticulture building — appear to be doing just that. And some residents say they’re fed up.

On Wednesday night, Michael Vickers says he could hear loud noise coming from an event inside the Aberdeen Pavilion after 11 p.m.

Although he has registered complaints on at least 10 previous occasions, he didn’t call bylaw this time because the response, he says, often seems skeptical.

“Nobody cares about the disruption that that’s causing,” said Vickers, who lives a few hundred metres north of Lansdowne’s Holmwood Street entrance. “The response we’ve had from bylaw officers and other people is, ‘You’re just these anti-Lansdowne people and you’re whining again.'”

Noise disruptions are a common — and at times complex — irritant for some city dwellers and, in this case, the problem appears to be worst for those who live in a small cluster of homes near Lansdowne’s northern edge.

Farmers' Market struggles in move back to Lansdowne

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Laura Robin, Ottawa Citizen

Lansdowne Report Card: FARMERS’ MARKET

Grade: C+

WHAT’S WORKING:

  • The farmers. They’re working really hard and overcoming big obstacles to bring their produce to the city, and setting up attractive stalls in spite of the hassles (like nowhere for them to store things or park nearby.)
  • It’s a fabulous new opportunity for the market to operate year round, inside the Aberdeen Pavilion in winter. It opened again Sunday, Jan. 10, and will open each Sunday, right through to next year’s Christmas market.
  • The outdoor area has some upsides compared to previous sites, such as good drainage.

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT:

  • The city and OSEG need to treat Ottawa Farmers’ Market as a valuable asset, not an afterthought. By spring, the city should provide the outdoor amenities it promised.
  • OSEG should not mess with market hours, as it has in the past.
  • Free parking should be offered for market customers, at least for a limited time.
  • Signs on Bank Street and the Queen Elizabeth Driveway, and in the underground garage, should remind people about the market and how to get to it.
  • A welcoming, shaded spot should be created for pausing and picnicking near the market.
  • Consideration should be given to making the Aberdeen Pavilion the market’s exclusive home, with permanent stalls, like Montreal’s Atwater and Toronto’s St. Lawrence, with a big enough range of products that it’s a one-stop shopping and tourist draw.
  • If Loblaws can sell Labatts, Ottawa’s farmers market should be allowed to showcase Ottawa’s exceptional craft beer scene.

Like a particularly hardy crop of kale, it seems that Ottawa Farmers’ Market will survive, though it was uprooted — twice — for the Lansdowne Park redevelopment.

The transplant back to Lansdowne was unquestionably difficult, though, with wilting sales, at least one lost livelihood and even some sacrificial pigs and lambs.

Lansdowne's public spaces: Mixed reviews and room for improvement

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The Skating Court at Lansdowne Park. BRUCE DEACHMAN / OTTAWA CITIZEN

Bruce Deachman, Ottawa Citizen

Lansdowne Report Card: PUBLIC SPACES

Grade: B+

WHAT'S WORKING:

The Skating Court: With the lights of the Aberdeen Pavilion and the rest of Lansdowne as a backdrop, this is perhaps the most picturesque skating rink in Ottawa, at least among those measuring less than 7 km in length.

The Great Lawn: Whether you’re into solitary yoga or a concert with your 15,000 closest friends, this is a great outdoor space.

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT:

Playground: For all of Lansdowne’s supposed grandeur and inclusiveness, youngsters got the short end of the planner’s stick.

Aberdeen Pavilion and Horticulture Building: Arguably the two most attractive buildings at Lansdowne, they require more, and better, usage.

The design competition for the urban park at Lansdowne came quite late in the years-long process to settle on a redevelopment plan, leading critics to charge that the public areas were simply an afterthought to appease those opposed to the boxy commercial buildings.

Still, the $42-million publicly funded project – which included moving and refurbishing the Horticulture Building – was a far cry from the original plan to split $5 million in landscaping costs with OSEG. The results are meeting with mixed reviews, although of the all elements at the new Lansdowne, the public spaces can be easily improved over time with more programming and additional components.

Here’s a look at the public spaces and how they have fared.

Lansdowne's retail development: Still waiting for that 'wow'

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Aberdeen Pavilion reflected on the glass of the Local Public Eatery across the street at Lansdowne Park on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. JAMES PARK / OTTAWA

Robert Bostelaar, Ottawa Citizen

Lansdowne Report Card: RETAIL

Grade: C

WHAT'S WORKING:

  • Select venues: Whole Foods is a favourite for those who seek GMO-free produce and “responsibly caught” seafood, while the Cineplex VIP is a cushy place to catch a movie. Winners might not be a big overall draw, but it’s popular with the clerks and food servers who work in the park. Among bars and restaurants, the airy faux-industrial Local Public Eatery has a happy vibe.

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT:

  • Parking and promotion: Many in Ottawa think Lansdowne has only limited parking. Developers need to talk up its vast underground garage — with free parking for customers of the movie theatres and some larger stores — and how most spots remain open to shoppers on game days. Efforts are underway to brighten the underground space. Sacrificing a few spots to open some tight corners would also help.
  • Atmosphere: The developers and City of Ottawa can do more to enliven the zone with music, art shows and similar added-value attractions. The skating rink that opened last winter is a good start.

For shoppers, for diners, really for anyone tired of the same old same old, the 2010 report offered a candy shop window of inducements.

Just imagine, it suggested, a swath of Lansdowne Park transformed into a “unique urban village with interesting stores, cafés, restaurants, services, cinemas … ”

Imagine, it purred, a place where you can sign up for adventure travel, watch a chef prepare a new creation, take in a 3-D demonstration at a sports store or simply relax on a “see-and-be-seen patio.”

Follow our blueprint, promised retail consultant J.C. Williams Group Ltd., and watch this patch of sports stadium pavement just south of downtown Ottawa transform into “an awesome or wow-factor retail experience.”

One year in, that shopping zone has yet to deliver a wow.

The new Lansdowne: Not a crown jewel, but better than a lump of asphalt

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The revitalized Lansdowne Park is full of promise on game days, but often empty otherwise. Matthew Pearson looks at what works and what doesn’t.

 

One Ottawa Redblacks fan poses for a photo among Hamilton Tiger Cats supporters before the CFL Eastern Conference final game on Nov. 22, 2015. DAVID KAWAI / OTTAWA CITIZEN

Matthew Pearson, Ottawa Citizen

Game days are the best time to see Lansdowne Park as its most enthusiastic cheerleaders want it to be seen — a buzzing hive of activity where thousands of Ottawa RedBlacks fans converge, packing the bars and restaurants to scarf down burgers and beer before taking their seats in TD Place stadium.

And there was perhaps no better game in the team’s sophomore season than the Nov. 22 CFL eastern conference final against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, which the RedBlacks clinched in the dying minutes thanks to a once-in-a-lifetime catch by receiver Greg Ellingson.

There were 25,091 people in the stands on that sunny, crisp autumn afternoon, and dozens more watching for free from a nearby knoll or inside toasty new condos that overlook the stadium.

While some streamed onto the field for an impromptu post-game party, others high-tailed it to the restaurants on Marché Way, which quickly filled up. The wait for a table at Jack Astor’s was soon an hour long.

Lansdowne was — as its slogan says — live.

Only skeptics, with their heels firmly dug in, would say the finished product is worse than what was there before — an underused island of asphalt in the heart of the city.

It’s true some of the pieces haven’t lived up to their early promise. Lansdowne is less ambitious or unique than many hoped; less civic crown jewel and more cubic zirconia.

There are other black eyes and bruises as well — a mess of lawsuits from subcontractors, including one from the now-bankrupt company that built the stadium’s iconic wooden veil; a retail mix that, in the words of the area’s city councillor, is “predictably disappointing,” and a shaky start for the venerable Ottawa Farmer’s Market, which has seen its foot traffic decline dramatically since returning to Lansdowne from Brewer Park in Old Ottawa South.

With some modest improvements, however, the park could yet become a place people embrace, every day of the year.

Bank Street lane reductions begin Monday

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Meghan Hurley, Ottawa Citizen 

Bank Street will be reduced to one lane in each direction near Lansdowne Park, between Holmwood Avenue and Exhibition Way for Hydro Ottawa construction.

The lane closure will be in effect from Monday until Jan. 22, the city said in a statement.

Buses will operate as usual on Bank but there could be delays for those using the Bank Street entrance to Lansdowne.

To avoid the construction, the city suggests the public use the Queen Elizabeth Driveway entrance.

The sidewalks will not be affected by the construction.