Re-Store the Core

A couple days ago, a couple of women, while I was waiting at a traffic signal on my bike downtown, asked me where the nearest McDonald’s was.  I was able to point to three locations within about four blocks, east, south, and west.  That would not have been the case twenty years ago, as the newer, larger retailers of food (‘fast food’ arrived with them distinquishing them from ‘greasy spoons’) were nowhere to be seen downtown in Ottawa.

Although other a couple fast-food emporiums follolwed, but unfortunately, the rest of the suburban retailers still stay away.  I believe they eschew downtown for one main reason: the potential sites available for their ground-floor needs are too small for their buildings and their parking lots.  These site are also expensive (including the municipal taxes per square foot).

McDonald’s once the same bias, but realized that they could operate on a smaller scale (look at the outlets inside shopping centres and WalMarts) and that they didn’t need parking in parts of town where walking and transit and cycling predominate, and where those driving had other business that justified actually paying for parking.

But most retailers are what planners call department-store-type-merchandise (DSTM) outlets, places people visit less frequently than convenience outlets (banks, grocers, pharmacies, hardware), and like to cluster so as to allow comparisons with competitors.  This shopping experience also transcends the convenience shopping experience (vs. just picking something up).  This makes the shopping an experience, taking longer, involving kids or friends, and that also tends to require a car.  They also often involve buying items that cannot be carried easily by any of the “alternative” modes, a factor when so few businesses offer delivery services.

The core of Ottawa has been slowly depleted of its stores.  Its area and employment has not grown in step with the metro population. Two downtown streets are institutional as part of the federal government’s “ceremonial route,” while two others are burdened by being dominated by diesel buses, serving as part of the transitway system.   The older adjacent neighbourhoods have lost even convenience outlets; Centretown lost its Home Hardware and its Canadian Tire, a blow for those doing home repairs, and most cinemas.  And car dealerships have disappeared; what other outlet would more benefit from being close to transit?

To coin a phrase, we need the core to be re-stored.  The old-style department stores have shrunk in numbers from six to three, and further shrunk in the range of goods they carry, pretty much leaving non-fashion items to others.  Furniture, home-improvement, automobile (including servicing), electronics, junior department stores (e.g., Walmart and Zellers) are missing, and newer fashion stores that should be in the lone downtown mall, Rideau Centre, are missing.  Only big-box retailers Chapters (books) and Staples/Office Depot have made an exception.

I recently brought this up in a brief I send to the Ottawa planner who is doing the Environmental Assessment for the proposed above-Queenway/417 pedestrian bridge to link the baseball stadium and the Via/OC Transpo station in the near-east end of town.  This happens to be the closest location of the many missing retailers and services that can’t be found in the core.  When I say services, I refer to hospitals and special schools like Lycée Claudel,  Algonquin College, and Cité Collegiale.  And the recent Lansdowne Park redevelopment process will relegate trade-show shows to the airport.

If these retailers and services were in one area with good transit, bike parking, and nice sidewalks linking the various sections, it would not be that bad (but still would beg the overall question about why planners and the commercial development community are not recognizing and fixing the locational problem, since the highest propensity for residents without a car and for visitors also without them, is in the core).  But these facilities/outlets are spread over nine distinct ‘enclaves.’

This is mostly due to a feature of most North American cities: industrial areas were located to the east, which is downwind of downtown and most residential areas.  Now these areas, in an era of cleaner industry and free trade, are cheap and underutilized; commercial uses are their next best (and definitely a ‘higher’) use.  In Ottawa, the nine enclaves are mostly on such lands, but three residential areas are wedged between them.

Only one of the roads that link the nine have cycling lanes, and no bus route goes to more than three, with most bus service having half-hour frequency or less.  The much vaunted transitway system, which follows our only freeway in this part of town, is integrated only into one of the nine — although the proposed pedestrian bridge will link it to one other, to the north, but ignore the newest and biggest immediately to its south.  Finally, the pathway system that Ottawa is famous for ends where the scenery ends: the Rideau River, about a kilometre from the closest of the nine.  (I have been advising the Ottawa Cancer Foundation, anchor of the smallest, how to link into that system).

The message that was most common to candidates’ platforms and pronouncements in last week’s City election was that urban intensification is good.  Well, theoretically.  I have often pointed out that intensification tends to occur only in the areas of town that are already the most dense: core neighbourhood plus older burbs in the west along the old streetcar routes.  Now I have to make the point that these same area lack the places to walk and ride to for daily living because retailing can’t be bothered to try, and planners won’t question their assumptions or practices.  Only fashion boutiques, gift shops, and trendy restaurants/bars thrive along the revived main streets, making them regional ‘destinations’ (for people looking for some ‘authenticity’) rather than true neighbourhood centres.

It’s time to re-store the core.  I suspect most cities in North American suffer the same malady.



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