UrbSanity: The LeBreton Community

Originally published in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Jeff Salmon

The days and weeks following the public presentations of the two proposals for LeBreton Flats have seen both schemes dissected, analyzed and compared and contrasted. The two proposals have certainly given us quite a lot to write and talk about.

Like many, I am still on the fence as to which one I would rather see built as there are compelling and discouraging aspects to both proposals. Truthfully I sympathize with the designers, the task of getting it right is such a tall order for a site of this magnitude and prominence.

On the other hand it is a dream project for urban planners and architects alike. The opportunity to participate in the design of a project that will have such a grand influence on a city is extremely rare, not just in Ottawa but across the world. The greatest projects can also be the most challenging.

The design teams were tasked with designing a community, not just one or a few buildings. To put this in perspective, it can take only a few buildings to redefine or rejuvenate a community or neighborhood, but in that scenario the designer has the existing context to respond to. In the case of the LeBreton Flats the design teams had to design the context as well.

Starting from scratch means there is unlimited potential, and as proven by the last time the National Capital Commission sought out proposals for the LeBreton area, there is the potential of it falling flat. The significance of this project to the entirety of the city was evident by the turn out to the public presentations.

Due to the location of the site it could easily become an island unto itself however the timing of light rail will go a long way in making this one of the city centres. For that reason, there is an additional importance that it fit into the broader context of the City of Ottawa while also integrating with neighboring communities – easier said than done when bound on the North and South arterial roads.

When evaluating these proposals, it is important to think about the immediate impact and implications but also to think long term. We should be thinking about 20 years from now and we should be asking ourselves, “based on this proposal, what kind of community is this going to be” and does that live up to what we want it to be?

Looking around the city, Ottawa has some very well-established urban communities and each one has its own unique qualities. The character of each community is something that has developed and evolved over the years into what it is today. Character however, is a hard thing to curate or even recreate.

It is easy to look to other great examples of public spaces around the world and say we should do something like that here. The success of a public space though is often so rooted in its location that it does not easily transfer to other cities. The High Line, in New York City, an elevated urban railway system which was transformed into an urban park is a perfect example of this. The density and verticality – the character – of New York City are part of what make the High Line so special.

For that reason it is extremely important to consider how each scheme showcases and builds upon what is unique to the LeBreton Flats as well as Ottawa.

One element surprisingly absent from both proposals was an outdoor hockey rink. It’s surprising not because hockey is going to feature prominently here in the future one way or another, but rather, because outdoor hockey rinks are a lively feature of almost every community in Ottawa.

While there are bigger urban ideas on display in both proposals it can be the smaller, more familiar urban elements, like an outdoor hockey rink, that make an overwhelming large proposal a little more relatable.

So as I continue to weigh the pros and cons of the two proposals in an effort to come to a firm decision on which I would prefer, I realize what I am actually trying to decide is which one is going to do the little things better.

Which proposal is going to provide the framework for another vibrant and thriving community in the City? Both have the potential to be great, but in the back of my mind I still worry that they may fall flat.

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