Ottawa architect promotes plan to make major ByWard Market streets car-free

Market plan
Architect Toon Dreessen's plan to revitalize the ByWard Market includes moving on-street parking underground to create more open and pedestrian-friendly public spaces. (Courtesy Architects DCA)

A prominent Ottawa architect has spent his own time and money to come up with a plan that he says will revitalize the ByWard Market in part by taking cars off several major streets and turning them into pedestrian- and bike-friendly thoroughfares.

Toon Dreessen, president of Westboro-based Architects DCA, says he’s been a regular visitor to the Market for nearly two decades and believes traffic congestion is sucking the life out of one of the city’s main tourist attractions.

“I love coming to the ByWard Market,” he told OBJ. “I’ll spend hours every week here, and I just find every year it’s worse and worse. There are fewer and fewer vendors, there’s more parking, there’s more traffic, it’s more congested.

“Tourists come to a market to see a market, and there’s less market for them to see every year.”

Dreessen’s plan, which he unveiled at the historic central market building on Tuesday night, calls for a trial phase that would close several streets, including ByWard Market Square and William Street as well as a portion of Clarence Street from Dalhousie to William streets.

The proposal would see George and York streets be reconfigured to give more room to pedestrians and cyclists. Eventually, all surface parking spots would be removed and replaced with underground lots.

The veteran architect said he was inspired by public spaces such as Vancouver’s Granville Island and downtown squares in Florence, Italy, areas where he says drivers “know that they have to give space to pedestrians and cyclists.”

Businesses don’t need to have parking spots right in front of their doors, Dreessen said. Merchants in car-free districts around the world have continued to thrive, he added, and he’s confident Ottawa shoppers would quickly adapt to carrying merchandise a few blocks to their vehicles.

“It’s a cultural shift, and that’s what I’m trying to imagine here,” he said. “It amazes me that so much of our public space is dedicated to parking. We need to make places for people, not parking. We need to be thinking bigger about the way we’re investing in public space. If we lose the Market as a viable public space, then no one’s going to come here.”

The city has launched its own study on how to spruce up the Market, with an initial media briefing slated to take place on Nov. 8 at the same place Dreessen made his proposal. That report is expected to be completed in the fall of 2019.

Jeff Darwin, the head of the non-profit Ottawa Markets organization that oversees the ByWard and Parkdale markets, said he sees a lot to like in Dreessen’s plan.

“We’ve got too many cars and too many people in too small an area,” he said, noting that eliminating on-street parking has worked in many other places but would require a shift in behaviour.

“In all the great cities of the world, they’ve gotten over that. More people will come if they feel safe and they can get around on foot, and they’ll spend more.”

Potential for new jobs?

However, the idea doesn’t sit well with some business leaders, who fear retailers in the Market will lose customers to other shopping districts that are more convenient to get to by car.

“Is it realistic to expect people to walk extreme distances in extreme weather?” said Jasna Jennings, executive director of the ByWard Market BIA.

“I think sometimes we forget that this is a business district. There are businesses that do not survive on pedestrian traffic. You’re not carrying a Christmas tree home on your back. You’re not carrying pumpkins and bags of potatoes and things like that many miles away.”

Dreessen contended that moving parking garages underground would free up half a million square feet of real estate that could be converted into space for new businesses and residences, potentially creating hundreds of jobs and generating millions of dollars in tax revenues.

“We need more people who are living here on a day-to-day basis, who walk through the market every day, whether it’s to a job or to a home,” he said.

Yannick Beauvalet, the co-owner of L’Hexagone Menswear on Dalhousie Street, said he’s all in favour of boosting pedestrian traffic in the neighbourhood. But he argued that none of the proposals he’s seen tackle the underlying problems that keep people away from the area, such as the perception that the Market is crime-ridden and unsafe for tourists.

“Unless we address a lot of these issues in proper succession, I think we’re just going to keep spinning our wheels,” he said. “This is a jewel that a lot of cities wish they had. It’s great to see these little efforts, but if I read another study, I may go blind. I’ve heard a lot of really interesting rhetoric. What I’ve seen is very little action.”

Beauvalet is calling on the city and province to do more to combat homelessness and clean up the Market.

“That involves a lot more than just saying, ‘We’re going to make a street pedestrian,’” he added, before conceding “there’s no simple solution” to the challenges the neighbourhood faces.

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury, whose ward includes the Market, said he’ll push City Hall to make investing in the district a top priority for the next term of council. He said he expects the city to pump between $8 million and $10 million annually into capital improvements to the Market over the next four years, adding Dreessen’s designs offer plenty of food for thought.

“I’m glad that he’s challenging us,” he said.