Dreessen: ByWard Market plan needs a bolder vision of excellence

ByWard Market building

On Wednesday, Ottawa council will consider a $129-million plan to revamp the ByWard Market with new pedestrian plazas and a “destination building” that would replace the Clarence Street parking garage among other recommendations.

The ByWard Market Public Realm Plan is the culmination of years of consultation and work to engage the public in ongoing efforts to reimagine the historic civic space. 

But even if approved, the plan will still face challenges – as well as opportunities for one of Ottawa’s most well-known destinations to continue to evolve and become a world-class destination befitting the nation’s capital.

Design

The design vision presented is modest. Its focus continues the tradition of prioritizing cars. The renderings of the proposed development reflect consistency with the “tabletop parking” and flex space used in the recent reconstruction of Elgin Street. The design relies on bollards to separate pedestrians from cars, making the spaces less accessible in winter. This is consistent with the snow-clearing challenges on MacKenzie Avenue, inhibiting accessibility and year-round use of public space.  

The new plan makes most streets 3.5 metres wide in an effort to slow vehicle traffic down. Promoting slow speeds means narrowing the lanes, introducing raised pedestrian crossings and making pedestrians the priority. This is successful if the streets are designed as woonerfs, a Dutch style of street where driving is restricted to walking speed.

Funding

The report has likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It joins reports done in 2004 and 2015, 2016 and 2017 on which no appreciable action has been taken. The 2020 approval contains no funding mechanism and an implementation plan of $129 million. 

The city is hoping design and construction dollars will come from the feds or the province, and the report also recommends a public-private partnership as a funding mechanism. But we only have to look at other failed P3 models to see that P3 will privatize a public asset, cost more and lead to mediocre results.

Public consultation

Feedback from a pro-bono report done by my firm, Architects DCA, clearly shows that people want a pedestrianized public space. 

The city’s own “as we heard it” report includes 857 responses to the question “how do we achieve your vision?” Half wanted the creation of pedestrian-only zones, removal of parking from the core of the Market and better cycling facilities. 

The final report notes that it ensures “pedestrian and cycling modes were considered and prioritized, but in balance with transit and vehicular travel” and that the design “has attempted to strike a balance between all street users” but continues to make cars and parking a priority. The study area includes three kilometres of streets, of which 200 metres (two blocks, separated by a street) are reserved exclusively for pedestrians. That doesn’t suggest that a balance between cars and pedestrians was achieved. 

So what can we do differently? 

Design:

The report calls for a design competition for the intersection of Rideau Street and Sussex Drive. Design competitions should become the norm. They can be used to spur a broad public conversation and be the key to successful public spaces. For example, the success of the new Halifax Public Library was directly related to the design process, which started with a competition. 

A design competition for destination buildings will be essential to success and public engagement. 

Consider Toronto’s historic Distillery District ​– a pedestrian-oriented public space surrounded by heritage buildings that is regarded as one of Canada’s premier arts, culture and entertainment districts. People throng to the area year-round, and it is a successful place for businesses. 

Modern residential development provides a critical mass of regular foot traffic and all the parking is off-site or underground. The place feels safe and is inviting. Should we want any less for the ByWard Market? 

Funding: 

The city can explore funding tools within its own mandate: vacant building fees, expropriation of derelict property and progressive increases in taxation of surface parking lots combined with incentives, such as the deferral or waiver of development charges, that promote development.

Select areas could be the subject of design competitions to be sold to developers, similar to the Edmonton Missing Middle competition. Rejecting the privatization of public assets is essential if we want to learn from our mistakes and ensure we have a positive, lasting, legacy for future generations. 

Public engagement:

A progressive, bolder, design for the public realm is necessary. We should link the implementation of the Public Realm Plan to other city policy objectives, including our new Official Plan. Vision Zero, 15-minute neighbourhoods, better urban design and use of sustainable transportation are all possible in a #BetterByWard. 

Located next to the Rideau LRT, and within walking distance of most of downtown, the Market could be an incubator for testing how to support small businesses in a post-COVID economy, creating the walkable, sustainable community we all aspire to. 

The ByWard Market holds a special place in Ottawa’s heart. Let’s set a bold vision for excellence and open the door to innovative and creative designs that focus on people. 

Toon Dreessen is president of Ottawa-based Architects DCA and past-president of the Ontario Association of Architects.