Throwback Thursday: A 15 Year Retrospective on Urban Living

A fascinating read that looks back at the attitudes and ambitions when Ottawa first set its sights on developing a more urban lifestyle… interesting to compare this commentary to how the city’s core has developed over the past decade.


A city can only have a vital downtown core if people live there in large numbers, spilling out onto the streets long after the shutters have closed on business addresses.

That’s the urbanites ideal, although it's hardly whats happening in Ottawa, a city where the residential migration to the suburbs has left the downtown less lively than urban counterparts in Toronto or Vancouver.

Perhaps this is starting to change.

A few developers are looking at mixing commercial and residential development in downtown Ottawa. To be sure, this is the beginning of a trend, and not a wholesale takeover of downtown development.

But consider a few cases in point.

Real estate lawyer Craig Callan Jones plans to build several floors of condominiums above a commercial front at Bank and Gilmour streets. He also plans to convert two warehouses on Beech Street-one into condominiums, and the other, adjacent to the first, into a large office building.

David Choo of Ashcroft Homes has big plans for Central Park, his massive project off Merivale Road across from the Experimental Farm. As part of the project, he envisions a strip of ground-floor commercial outlets boasting apartments on the second storey.

Sakto Corporation is building a $ 70-million mini-community just off the Queensway that will place low-rise apartment next to office towers and commercial outlets.

In Westboro, Loblaw Properties Ltd. is developing a 10-acre site at Kirkwood Avenue and Richmond Road. The company plans to put in a large Loblaws store with independent boutiques along the storefront.

At the same time, the company hopes much of the land parcel can be turned to single-family or semi-detached homes, subject to approval by Ottawa Council's committee.

These projects wont greatly alter the face of downtown Ottawa. But if they mark the beginning of a larger trend, them the urban core may regain some of its former vitality.

For former mayor Jaquelin Holzman, it can't happen to soon.

“For nearly a decade, Ive championed the cause of getting more residential development downtown, Ms. Holzman says. If more people were living downtown, if there were more life on the streets after 5 p.m., the whole city would be enhanced by the vibrancy.

The idea of people living downtown is nothing new, not even in Ottawa, Ms. Holzman says. Before the Second World War for example, Byward Market merchants used to live above their commercial premises.

So this really isnt new, Ms. Holzman says. But people for some reason decided they wanted sterile little residential neighborhoods where any opportunity for commercial use was zoned out. It was very unfortunate.

The former mayor believes the divide between commercial and residential uses no longer seems as sacrosanct as it once did, largely, she says, because of the recent trend for people to work out of home offices.

The heritage buildings on the north side of the Sparks Street Mall offer extraordinary opportunities for rafting homes onto established businesses, Ms. Holzman believes.

It makes great sense to have people living on the upper floors all along that street, Ms. Holzman says. “All thats needed is for the federal government, which is the landowner, to decide that residential use is allowable. Wed soon keep it safe at night and to support the stores an bistros that give a vibrant neighborhood feeling.

David Kardish, vice president of the Regional Group, an Ottawa real estate company, is similarly bullish on the benefits of combining commercial and residential use (often called mixed use).

Mixed use is a sign of a healthy, vibrant community, he says. When you mix commercial and residential use, people have certain conveniences at their doorstep. They dont have to get in the car to buy groceries, for example. Its a lifestyle issue.

Mr. Kardish cautions that mixed use won't work everywhere. Commercial outlets can seldom rely solely on business from nearby residents and must count on drive-by customers to top up their receipts. By the same token, residents may not want the kind of traffic that a business must attract to survive.

Mr. Kardish says hed welcome any trend to mixed use in downtown Ottawa. But is what we're seeing a trend? he asks. Planning policies encourage it and were seeing a few scattered instances of it—but Id like to see a few more cases before I’d declare a trend.

Craig Callan Jones of Slater Financial hopes to create a definitive example of mixed-use development in a largely empty warehouse at 95 Beech Street. Nearly a century old, the 20,000-sq-foot building used to be a printing factory. With its high ceilings, brick interior walls, maple plank flooring , and exposed beams, the building could easily be converted into fashionable condominiums, especially for workers in Ottawa's high-tech sector, says Mr. Jones.

He further plans to convert the adjacent warehouse at 95A Beech into office use to provide the commercial component of the complex's mixed- use development.

Mr. Jones has a second condominium project near the corner of Bank and Gilmour Streets.

Four businesses, including a restaurant and a futon store, occupy single-storey premises on the west side of Bank Street. Mr. Jones proposes to add four more storeys of six condominiums each.

To be sure, Mr. Jones is hedging his bets. He wont proceed with construction until hes pre-sold at least 18 of the proposed 24 units, sales that will be based on floor plans.

But I think it should work, Mr. Jones says. The construction will add real stature to the property, and the neighborhood seems to be attractive.

Mr. Jones was a developer of the Domicile loft development at 255 Argyle Street, just off Bank Street, several blocks south of Gilmour. Those units sold with gratifying speed, he says.

He finds real appeal in a development that can both earn money and improve downtown neighborhoods.

To be able to walk or cycle to shops or restaurants where you live, to be able to find the amenities that spell ‘good living in your own mind—those can only be good, Mr. Jones says. “And those are benefits that downtown mixed-use development will promote.

Quite rightly, he says that Jane Jacobs and other experts on city development are all in favor of mixed-use development in urban cores.

In her book the Death and Life of Great American Cities, Ms. Jacobs celebrates city spaces in which many people live and many purposes are served, beneficiaries of the exuberant variety inherent in great numbers of people tightly concentrated.

Ms. Jacobs goes on: People gathered in concentrations of city size and density can be considered a positive good, in the faith that that they are desirable because they are the source of immense vitality, and because they do represent in small geographic compass, a great and exuberant richness of differences and possibilities.

Sakto Corporation of Ottawa hopes that kind of rich possibility will grace its projected development near the intersection of Preston Street and the Queensway. Sakto has already constructed the 150,000-sq-ft Xerox tower on the five acres of land it owns at the site. Within the next two years, Sakto hopes to add a second, 220,000 -sq-ft office tower and, on Preston Street, low-rise buildings that will house retail outlets, a fitness center, and 150 apartments.

What were selling is convenience, says Sakto secretary-treasurer Sean Murray. In the ideal situation, someone who lives and works in the complex will only need to keep a bicycle.

Mr. Murray believes the apartments will appeal to a broad demographic, including both young professionals and retired people who don't want to leave the city.

The Sakto project can work, Mr. Murray says, because of the critical mass that has been achieved. For example, the fitness center might not be feasible if it merely served the 150 apartments.

But with a client base that includes all the office workers in the two towers, it becomes eminently feasible.

Mr. Murray is confident that the project will go ahead as planned, with much of it likely completed two to three years from now.

David Choo, owner of Ashcroft Homes, is in the second year of building his community of Central Park, which occupies 140 acres on the western edge of the Experimental Farm. This $250-million project will have 5,000 residents when it's finished, more than Rockcliffe Park.

Central Park will be a true neighborhood, with many retail units, including a coffee shop, convenience store, restaurant and dry cleaners.

In the next construction phase, Mr. Choo plans to build true mixed-use buildings in which retailers will live above their downstairs businesses.

These will be signature locations for retailers and professional offices, Mr. Choo says. We already have a dentist and a lawyer, and I hope residents will be able to walk down to book travel arrangements, visit their financial advisor, or get their dry-cleaning done."

The building of a complete community is a good antidote to some of the problems that suburban living imposes, Mr. Choo says.

What do people want to do on a Saturday morning? he asks. I dont think they want to get into their cars and make a day trip to buy groceries. What they do want is to stroll down to pick up their New York Times, maybe pick up a few bagels, and visit a small restaurant in the evening. Thats what residents get in the Glebe or Westboro, and we're looking to recreate some of that in Central Park.”

Loblaw Properties Ltd. is building a new Loblaws on a 10-acre site at the corner of Kirkwood Avenue and Richmond Road.

Loblaw consultant Graham Kirby says the store will be “pedestrian friendly,” meaning that the storefront will include a number of boutiques to attract a range of people besides those who are simply thinking of buying groceries.

Loblaw Properties plans to sell the south tip of the site to an infill developer for construction of single-family or semi-detached homes-probably two dozen or so of them, Mr. Kirby estimates.

This is not, strictly speaking, mixed development, because the commercial and residential uses occur in completely distinct buildings. But Loblaw believes that promoting commercial and residential uses together is a good thing, Mr. Kirby says.

This keeps the shopper in his own community," Mr. Kirby says. And if it contributes to the revitalization of an area of the city, thats got to be an achievement."

Everyone agrees mixed use is a good thing—but the question remains: Is this a real trend?

The answer, of course, depends on what happens in the future.

“I think theres probably a trend, but I dont think its growing terribly quickly in Ottawa," says Brian Card, president of the Corporate Research Group. Mixed use is basically for retired people or for people who never married. For that demographic, I think we'll likely see more mixed-use projects coming on steam—so for them, yes, it could be a trend.”