Redblacks and parkland are exciting, but retail and residential may not thrill
Joanne Chianello, Ottawa Citizen
The slight panic on Roger Greenberg's face during a media tour of the Lansdowne stadium under construction last fall was unmistakable.
Faced with reporters' questions about TD Place and Lansdowne's massive retail centre opening this summer, the frontman for the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group seemed a little stunned that some didn't realize that the new shops and restaurants won't be ready to open for business until the end of 2014 at the earliest — and some not until January.
"You don't just open 360,000 square feet all at once," Greenberg said.
It's a message he's repeated many times since that October 2013 news conference. Greenberg doesn't want football fans looking to grab a beer or a postgame bite to be disappointed to discover that none of the retail section of the development will be open until weeks after the Redblacks' first season ends.
(But that doesn't mean the inaugural season of our latest CFL franchise isn't the perfect opportunity to showcase some of the area's culinary offerings, so this Thursday Citizen food writer Laura Robin will share her picks for eating in the stands, on the site and in the neighbourhood.)
Greenberg's emphasis on what will and won't be ready by this Friday's Redblacks home-opener highlights the under-discussed reality that this major redevelopment isn't so much a unified project as four distinct ones:
The $129-million rebuilt and re-imagined football (and soccer) stadium;
The $37-million urban park on the west bank of the Rideau Canal;
A 360,000-square-foot retail complex;
A residential development that includes two condos towers and mostly sold-out town homes on Holmwood Avenue.
And the four Lansdownes are not all created equal.
It's lucky that the stadium and the park — set to open next month with an old-fashioned picnic to which the entire city is invited — are the first two parts ready to go of a project seven years in the making. They are Lansdowne's least controversial elements.
Sure, there were serious questions about whether a major sporting facility should be situated in a location not served by a single major transportation route, let alone whether Ottawa would support a CFL franchise (a subject tackled Saturday by the Citizen's Michael Woods). For better or worse, that debate is long over. And to give due credit to the OSEG organization, it appears to have thrown everything it has at the daunting challenge of moving upwards of 24,000 fans to and from the stadium on game day.
(Check out this Thursday's Citizen for an interview with the OSEG employee whose professional reputation is on the line this week. No, it's not Redblacks quarterback Henry Burris — it's Hassan Madhoun, OSEG's transportation guru who's charged with making sure the plan goes smoothly.)
Those issues aside, it's a fair bet that the city is by and large enthusiastic about the new stadium. Obviously, football fans are over the moon. For the rest of us, there's an undeniable thrill in the air for something this big to be happening in our too-often quiet little capital. Just the thought of 24,000 fans singing O Canada in the outdoor stadium on a beautiful summer night is enough to choke up the sentimentalists among us.
Next month, the rest of the public sphere of the project — including two heritage gems, the Horticulture Building and the Aberdeen Pavilion — will be launched with considerable fanfare, fulfilling the city's pledge to put the "park" back in Lansdowne Park, as Mayor Jim Watson is fond of saying.
Who can seriously stand against the urban park? Ottawa's central core is sorely lacking in green space, and this will be a welcome addition, as well as an enhancement, to our UNESCO World Heritage-designated canal.
Later this year, though, the more controversial segment of this project starts to materialize: a huge Cineplex movie theatre, a Whole Foods groceteria, a Sporting Life store, an LCBO. At about 360,000 square feet, the sheer magnitude of the retail development has many detractors. This was supposed to be a "unique urban village," but for many the planned retail mix is already shaping up as a letdown. While OSEG will no doubt meet its obligation to city council to deliver 40 per cent new-to-Ottawa retailers or unique "retail concepts," the recent announcement that a 20,000-square-foot Winners will be joining the somewhat uninspiring list of tenants at Lansdowne has only exacerbated that sense of disappointment many feel about the shopping area.
Will Lansdowne's retail development be special enough to attract residents from across the city on days when the Redblacks or the Fury aren't playing? That's the real threat to this viability of this project — not how to handle the traffic on special events.
With as many as 1,000 moving into the site's new town homes and condos — some of which have an occupancy slated for this fall — a few on-location customers are guaranteed for Lansdowne's shopping area. Yet, for the retail segment of the project to success, an average of 3,000 to 5,000 shoppers need to visit every day.
It's not hard to persuade the city to embrace a new hometown team playing in a shiny, newish stadium. It's less obvious that we'll be collectively enamoured with another shopping centre, even one with a glamorous grocery store.
So savour this week's excitement. There's no guarantee we'll feel quite this way about Lansdowne again.