By Paul Kariouk
Since the designs for the Library Parcel of LeBreton flats were revealed, I haven’t seen a lot of reactions online. While it may be too late to change how things are being done with this site, I’m offering my opinion to suggest we take a look at the history of comparable projects that had similar intentions and why they fell short, to enable a better future.
First of all, I should say that the problems with the site aren’t with the design of the buildings; it’s seldom buildings per se that are problematic in a larger development scheme. The problem is their site planning and how they do (or don’t) pave the way for something better than, well, paving.
From my point of view as a tenured associate professor at Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism, the problems go deeper. In North America, we have over 100 years of history in which cities attempted to introduce socially-minded projects into supposedly blighted areas, and we need to take note of the many times those endeavours fell short.
What the Project Gets Right
From what’s been published about the design, it looks like it’s a responsible project that’s being done right. There seems to be a real social commitment to it, with 41% of the units designated as affordable housing earmarked for Indigenous, new Canadian, and other groups that tend to be disenfranchised.
With other property development projects, the term “affordable” is usually problematic because it’s left unspecified in terms of cost. This is a big issue in many Canadian cities, especially Vancouver. For example, if an apartment typically goes for $5,000 per month, a similar apartment for $3,000 per month might be considered “affordable” — but it’s still so expensive that those most in need of housing continue to be left in the cold.
The good news is that in this case, “affordable” isn’t just developer-speak, it actually seems legitimate. The project is being done in collaboration with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), which has very clear criteria as to what affordable housing means. Once I saw that, the project had my interest because I could see that affordability was being taken very seriously.
There also seems to be a number of sustainability-oriented features aimed at achieving net-zero carbon emissions and LEED Gold and One Planet Living accreditation.
Another good thing about the Library Parcel is that it’s being done right downtown and on a transit line, and typically projects of this kind would be relegated to the periphery of the city.
All of these mean they get really good marks from me.
The architects are KPMB and Perkins&Will, who are both extremely good offices. In particular, I like that KPMB Architects are involved, because they especially have a long history of championing excellent architecture in Canada.
Nonetheless, while the construction quality of this proposal seems ensured by these two offices at the helm, the design of the buildings is safe but I don’t see them as being architecturally innovative. There’s some nice bold red on the building façades, although their inspiration by “the historical red brick homes in the neighbouring communities” and “the Laurentian Forest” seems tenuous to me.
Unfortunately, there’s been a trend in the past 10 years or so to disguise uninteresting and homogenous architecture with some bold colour usage. (This is something the New York Times covered in its article, “America the Bland”.)
Poor Siting and Neighbourhood Integration
The problems start when you consider the buildings in the context of the surrounding neighbourhood. In the images, you see the huge towers butted right up to the surrounding low-rise community and nearby roads.
This nearby housing is primarily Ottawa Community Housing (OCH) community projects which are past their service life. This raises the question of what will happen to the degraded social housing nearby. Will these low-rise homes be replaced by more similar high-rise towers?
Much is made of the fact that the buildings are rotated to “face Parliament”. Again, this gesture seems trivial at best, and problematic for life down at ground level. Glamorous aerial imagery has the potential for urban-design treachery; the citizens of a city only occupy the city’s public ground plane, and that’s where my questions for this proposal arise. Rotating these buildings is creating odd-shaped and less usable land at street level.
There is a long history of buildings in New York City, for example, which also happened to be social housing supposedly to be set in park-like gardens. They were rotated out of alignment with the urban grid, interrupting through-traffic, and yielding tiny fragments of landscaping too small to be maintained or even used, and that led to more crime.
What we now know is that aggregating the smaller parcels of ground space into what could have been very decent local gardens would have avoided the problem of creating niches for criminal activity. Instead, the design of so many of these social housing projects lent accidental credence to the myth that social housing equates to a rise in crime — more on that below.
Because the benefits of the urban grid are so well-recognized, many municipalities no longer allow long, curving streets (especially in suburbs) because they’re so wasteful of space and make it difficult to use what little area is left for landscaping.
When you look at the design images for this project, they are full of green trees and small spaces. The developers clearly want the public to believe that this is going to be a lovely green paradise. But when you look closely, you can see that it’s going to be tiny parcels of green space that are going to be very hard to maintain. Also, the greenery in any areas that are in significant shadow from the tall towers simply won’t thrive (especially when they’re surrounded by hardscaping, as these appear to be).
Many decades of history have taught us that tiny fragments of green space are ultimately doomed.
The Real Problem: It’s Not a Park
The most fundamental problem with this project is that we’re still talking about building at LeBreton Flats as though that’s the right thing to do. This is a prime parcel of unceded and sacred Anishnabe Algonquin land, and the whole site should have been a world-class park.
While the NCC plan for the LeBreton site calls for about one quarter of the space to be allocated as a “parks district”, the actual amount of greenspace seems small. The very term “parks district” seems dubious, a bit like “Park Lite” — is there ever going to be a real park here designed for every sector of the population, or not?
Any other city in the world would not have considered building at LeBreton even for a second; they would have created a world-class park instead. Unfortunately, Ottawa is beset by a property developer mentality and decades-long room-temperature thinking from its past mayors and most of the councillors who are beholden to the developers. Let’s hope that Mark Sutcliffe will finally bring urban intelligence and actual business savvy to Ottawa. (NYC’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was and is one of the world’s richest men and he saw the financial wisdom of greening New York City — something we explored in this article.)
An added tragic irony is that the same developers also get away with shoe-horning in market-rate condominiums on public land (Lebreton Flats, Lansdowne, Chaudière). Density is, of course, very necessary but for the sake of the long-term viability of this housing, it needs to be in proportion to new serious park spaces, wider sidewalks, and mature greenery on street edges — not hardscape.
It’s deplorable that the area is being turned into development when it should have been set aside for a park over twenty years ago (which is when I initially wrote about this issue).
Almost 100 Years of Precedent for Failed Greenspaces in Social Housing
Historically, socially-oriented projects always get a landscape component. They have always been envisioned with beautiful landscapes, which are tragically the first thing that goes because they’re expensive to maintain, and those living in socially-oriented housing have few advocates at city hall to fall back on for support. For this reason, they often end up as dangerous places that attract crime, and after a few years they become hardscape, often parking.
In North American cities (although not in European ones), there are almost 100 years of precedent that shows that socially-minded projects with a significant landscape component eventually become squalid.
To address this with the LeBreton project, is there an endowment or other fund that will ensure that the green space is maintained?
In Ottawa, the NCC and the municipal government are constantly disputing who is responsible for what. When a place like Sparks Street, right next to Parliament, is left in shambles I have good reason for concern about what the ground plane of this new neighborhood will become. This is a municipal issue, but one that should have been voiced to the NCC and city by the designers.
Making a home for so many disenfranchised people is wonderful, but it’s a double-edged sword when history shows that down the road the design at the ground plane is such that it’s not sustainable. Being a lower-income area, it will likely not receive the funds it needs for maintenance and will end up being neglected.
Thinking about the design of the facades and getting an artist involved is fine, but it’s absolutely secondary to issues of a clear game plan for a ground plane whose design enables the city and residents to care about it.
Learning from the Work of Robert Moses
The historical similarities between the project at hand and the “social housing” projects of the mid-20th century are best examined by looking at the work of Robert Moses. He was a very controversial figure, but for our purposes, he created extensive housing, always intended to be in a green setting, which repeatedly failed.
This sequence of images is an example of what actually became (and still remains) of the odd-shaped parcels of “green” surrounding his multitude of rotated buildings. Almost every time the small green spaces were neglected and then eventually paved and turned into parking.
The gist is that no one takes responsibility for a patchwork; if you have a major park like Stanley Park or Central Park, there is a clear sense of ownership, and residents demand that it should be cared for.
Ottawa Lacks a Major Downtown Park
No matter what financial level we’re at, people all need extensive public green spaces for their mental and physical health. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends at least 9 m² and ideally 50 m² of green space per person. Green spaces also attract the best and the brightest to move to your city (and stay when they have kids), spend money, and enrich the city’s tax coffers.
Vancouver has Stanley Park, New York has Central Park, Montréal has Mount Royal, and Toronto has several significant parks, including Toronto Island Park, its world-class remade waterfront park. In contrast, Ottawa has a few small parks and some nice pathways along the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal, but nothing that could really be considered a major park. We also hear plenty of rhapsodizing about the Gatineau Hills, but that’s outside of Gatineau, and requires one to drive or bus to the park. Either way, it makes no sense to have to sit in traffic, adding to urban congestion, to drive to a park when green space should be within walking distance of downtown users.
Ottawa's Tragic Flaw
Over the twenty years I have lived in this city, Ottawa has shown a strong tendency towards misused opportunities, and for eating away at any significant green space that we do have:
- The 50-acre parcel of Lansdowne was turned into a shopping mall.
- The Zibi project at Chaudière Falls was turned into market-driven condominiums.
- The Experimental Farm lost 60 acres for the creation of the new Civic Hospital and its surrounding above-ground parking expanse when there were numerous urban locations where the hospital could have gone.
- About 20 years ago, another chunk of the Experimental Farm was sold and turned into a development called, ironically, Central Park.
- Even the Greenbelt (Ottawa’s as well as Toronto’s) loses acreage every year to greed and development.
I sincerely hope that the LeBreton Library Parcel will turn out to be great homes for members of Ottawa’s disenfranchised communities. But it still has to be acknowledged that it’s repellent that this parcel of land is being built upon in the first place.
Ottawa is in the throes of a long history of throwing away its natural assets in exchange for very short-term gain. This is a trend that I hope ends here.