I have long believed that the best urban condition is one that arises from multiple ownership of land, each of them doing their own thing in a kind of organic growth mode. In other words, the best towns, villages and cities in my view evolve with little in the way of interference from a modern planning industry.
Here is an article I wrote a number of years ago that shows how breaking up a development site into many smaller pieces can lead to: a) many more players becoming involved in the development business, b) much more interesting, more human-scale, more walk-able places and c) a higher ROI (return on investment) not only for landowners and building owners but also for their tenants, visitors, tourists and guests. Furthermore, I would argue that the bottom line is superior for the public room, for the city as a whole, and for sustainability–economic, social and environmental.
I lived in Canberra (Australia’s inland capital city built around a large stormwater pond known as Lake Burley Griffin) for a number of years while I got my PhD in urban economics from the Australian National University. If you’d like to see what a town created through the sterile lens of modern planners, I’d advise a quick visit to the ACT (Australia’s Capital Territory). Quick because this car-centric, roundabout-mad city is so boring, it makes my current abode (Ottawa, Canada’s capital city) look like Paris.
This article is probably even more relevant today after the NCC (National Capital Commission) tried twice to develop an important downtown site in Ottawa (called LeBreton Flats) by putting this key piece of land in the hands of single developer. The first time it failed because the condos that were developed were inauspicious to put it in the kindest light possible and the second time because the Rendezvous LeBreton group (made up of two incompatible businessmen) fell apart in mutual recrimination and litigation.
I say to the NCC–divide the lands up into parcels as small as 30′ by 100′ and let tiny developers, investors, mom+pop business owners, social housing agencies, and citizens get access to development sites. If they do that, they’ll get something more akin to the ByWard Market and less like another no-place.
In any event, here’s the original article.
Let’s say you are a planner, architect or urban designer or a developer, owner or representative of an owner of an important piece of urban property. The property could be owned by a for-profit organization or a government agency or a Not-for-Profit. Whatever the case, this is your assignment: Create a superb urban design for this key piece of property.
It happens to be an island connected to the downtown core. Heavy industry has left the land in a devastated condition. However, all you see is the plan shown below.
What do you do?
Well, you as an architect, designer or developer have been taught to:
a. First of all, you walk the land.
b. You are trying to develop an over-arching vision and gut feel for the property.
c. You look at the context for the property.
d. What do adjacent properties look like?
e. What type of development surrounds the property?
f. What structures do you see on this property and adjacent ones?
g. You look at water features and topography of the land.
h. You think about soil conditions—their bearing capacity and you think about environmental contamination and related issues.
i. You examine aerial photos of the property as well as its chain of title to see and understand the history of the area and specifically the property you are concerned with.
j. You talk to neighbors to get a feel for what their vision is for this property and the community.
k. You talk to former owners of the property if you can find them.
l. You talk to urban planner(s) responsible at the municipal level for this property.
m. You meet with local councilors to get their views.
n. You meet with local community associations, business associations and as many members of the local community as you can.
o. You understand traffic flows—pedestrian as well as vehicular.
p. You take lots of photos and makes lots of hand-drawn sketches.
q. You see not only what is there and what is around you but also you visualize what could be there.
r. You are beginning to formulate a functional program—a list of possible uses the site could be put to that will produce the highest and best use for the property.
s. At the same time, you see in your mind’s eye and in your photos and sketches a form (actually a series of forms) taking shape—they appear to have grown out of the land as if you had planted a few seeds then you stood back in wonder and watched buildings grow and spaces between them develop.
t. You understand that form follows function (at least, from a developer’s point of view) but that function follows form—you know in your bones that buildings which are designed for one use often house other uses within their lifetimes so while a developer might be more interested in the functional program (what uses the subject property can be put to) and especially in the revenue streams that flow from them, you are satisfying (at least) two constituencies—the need of your patron (the owner) to realize benefits from the development and your need to create an enormously complex piece of public art through your design skills and intellect—something that will also benefit tenants, guests, visitors, neighbors and the community as whole not to mention the public room.
Now you reach a fork in the road—are you designing this for a single developer, or will this be open to participation by many groups? Are you trying to develop a fine scale plan with many development blocks of all shapes and sizes or are you going to treat this site as a whole?
Since many cities are redeveloping and rediscovering their urban cores, this question is important to all stakeholders. And this question may also arise for other properties that are not located in the core but are of region-wide importance—they could be arenas, stadiums, airports, trade show centers, convention halls, casinos, employment hubs, shopping hubs, universities and colleges and many other facilities that are key economic generators where intense, synergistic development is warranted but they aren’t downtown.
The key question then is: Can you obtain a highly variegated, interesting, micro scale plan that produces maximum benefits for an urban group of stakeholders if you treat a piece of property as if it was a “flat, treeless plain” subject to a mono-cultured zone to be developed by one single actor?
The reason that some urban cores are interesting spaces is that, over the years, there have been many architects, developers and public enterprises have a go at designing and building variegated structures on often tiny pieces of property and thereby making unique contributions to the public room and the public good.
What you get when you permit something like this to take place (by not being overly interventionist or prescriptive with confining zoning ordinances and bylaws), well, what you get is… the ByWard Market in Ottawa.
What you get when, instead, you allow mono-cultures and a single developer to prevail is often an unimaginative redevelopment of places and spaces like what has transpired so far with LeBreton Flats in Ottawa under the NCC’s guidance, which, so far, seems to prefer single proponents developing large tracts. These lands may easily become tet another modern no-place.
Now let’s return to our island project. What if instead of a single proponent and plot of land, you had a base plan that had many different blocks and a road pattern that was sensitive to the land forms?
What if, as a result, you allowed many different types of uses and structures to be developed on this microscale plan by many different participants—developers (large and small), not-for-profits, foundations, charities, individuals? Maybe you would come up with something that attracts more people (11 million per year) than every other attraction in Canada except for Niagara Falls… Well, you might end up with:
Ottawa has some sites of region-wide importance that are eminently suited to re-development or more intense development. These include the lands at Rockcliffe Air Base, LeBreton Flats and Lansdowne Park, the lands at, around and adjacent to Canadian Tire Centre, the airport, Algonquin College, Carleton University, the University of Ottawa, the Domtar lands and the Byward Market. These sites, even if owned or controlled by a single entity could be opened up to many potential developments—that way, they will generate an optimal stream of benefits for all stakeholders including ownership.
A catalyst is something that helps a reaction that is already underway happen faster. Calamitous planning nearly destroyed Newark but now a new bright orange boardwalk and playing fields along the Passaic River are part of an effort to renew the city. Instead of tearing down neighborhoods and replacing them with freeways and isolated concrete or glass towers, emphasis on small scale projects, renovations and refurbishment are bringing different and superior results.
Gone are expensive mega-projects that have a negative value on the day they are completed. Negative not just for their immediate stakeholders but for the city as whole.
How did RendezVous LeBreton’s bid originally win over the board of directors of the National Capital Commission and why, despite the proposal being from a single development group, does it represent solid place-making?
Here are a few reasons:
-the RendezVous proposal included the Ottawa Senators; it’s hard to build an NHL-caliber arena downtown when you don’t own an NHL team
-to right an historic wrong—the NCC turned the Sens down when they first asked to build at LeBreton Flats a generation ago–in the period 1987-1990
-RendezVous has great density; ie, many residential units (around 4,500); you cannot have a vibrant and safe downtown if no one lives there
-RendezVous has more intensity—more mixing together of different uses, more retail space, more office space, more institutional space—people want to live-work-play-learn-shop in their community, and not have to drive everywhere
-their competitor’s inclusion of kitschy attractions like a Ripley’s Aquarium did not help—these types of projects are ones you visit once or twice in a lifetime not every week or month
-RendezVous decided to cover the LRT line bisecting the site, similar to what is being done at NYC’s Hudson Yards (where they are burying the train yards and building the largest real estate project in US history above them) bringing much greater connectivity between neighborhoods
-They integrated both the existing Aqueduct and a new boardwalk, which will highly animate the site—winter as well as summer
-Every NHL franchise has to cater to the “engine” of their team—season ticket holders
-Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz once said the key to running a successful NHL franchise is selling out your building
-former Sens president Cyril Leeder said that the engine of their team is ticket buyers between the ages of 18 and 45, and where do these people want their arena?
-downtown so that after a game (and before) they can enjoy other attractions
-don’t worry about the Canadian Tire Centre in Kanata—it’ll be re-purposed like Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto was: for one or more big box stores with a 7,000-vehicle parking lot, which will attract at least as many people to the building as it does now, and probably make more money than having the Sens play there
-Kanata will be fine
Left to its own devices, the NCC would continue to be slow to develop the site (more than 50 years so far); in all likelihood, it would have resulted in the building of yet another sterile no-place. A better choice is to harness the power and imagination of qualified private sector partners. Lastly, it’s hard to underestimate the importance to this process of the earlier decision by the NCC’s board to bring in world class planners from the private sector planner with the vision, guts, brains and training to take the NCC and Ottawa to a whole other level. Individuals count.
Bruce M Firestone, B Eng (civil), M Eng-Sci, PhD
Real Estate Investment and Business coach
ROYAL LePAGE Performance Realty broker
Ottawa Senators founder
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Image source for Byward Market: William James Topley – available from Library and Archives Canada under reproduction reference number C-005647 and under the MIKAN ID number 3192910. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7686661
Image source for stereo microscope: public domain.
Image source for Canberra:
Image source for modern era ByWard Market: By Lezumbalaberenjena at en.wikipedia – Own work (Lezumbalaberenjena)Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by User:Dmitri Lytov using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15504849
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