The Lansdowne Conservancy Plan which proposes keeping the entire Park as a public space, builds a stadium and requires no financing from our taxes has been accepted for appeal so the resistance to the privatization of Lansdowne is not quite over yet. But the recent court decision to sustain the city’s privatization of the park makes it clear that the future of Ottawa’s oldest park should have been resolved politically.
Watching Friends of Lansdowne and city lawyers dance in front of judges using competing economists and accountants reports on ‘bonusing’ to the developers by the city because of non-competitive process was a bit like watching angels dance on the head of a pin. The problem was grander, but the courts are not the place for that larger debate. Whether or not it is ‘right’ or ‘proper’ for any present day Ottawa Mayor to take land which was given to the city by farmers in 1868 for public purposes and which it has always been; (not even truck farming was allowed at the park during the second war,) and condo the land wasn’t even on the legal agenda, nonetheless this is the central question and it is a moral one, not a legal parsing of accounting legers.
Back in 1997-2000, Mayor Watson tried to privatize the park via the Canaderel Corporation in his first term as Mayor of the old city, prior to amalgamation and it didn’t work. The old city’s resistance was fierce enough that the Regional Chairman, Bob Chiarelli stepped in and took the park off the city’s hands for a dollar to preserve it as a public space. This resistance to the park’s privatization remained. All the polls showed a clear majority of the old city residents opposed the privatization, but amalgamation has changed the city into one that is not, (more than 80 percent of the present city is rural). The political dice are now loaded against the old city as they have been in every other Ontario city that has suffered a Harris amalgamation.
The consequences are clear. In 1970, the citizens of Toronto would never have stopped the Spadina Expressway if the city had been amalgamated as it is today. Today, the suburban majority would prevail and force the freeway into the centre of the city. This is exactly what has happened in Ottawa, where the old city councillors have been consistently outvoted by the new amalgamated city representatives. Nor is it just about Lansdowne but issue after issue, the widening of the 417, the loss of the North South rail project, the Alta Vista expressway and so on.
If we look around Canada, the only city that has managed to preserve its integrity is Vancouver. The expressways stop at the Vancouver city boundary. There hasn’t even been a street widening in Vancouver for twenty years. Not surprisingly, Vancouver is the only city in Canada where car ownership has declined and the city enjoys a fully integrated transit system, diesel bus, trolley bus, surface rail, sky train, subway and water ferries. Vancouver is also the only major Canadian city which has not been amalgamated.
I write these words more in sorry than in anger for it is the new city of Ottawa that needed a central gathering place more than the old city. ‘Stunning Condos’ at Lansdowne will increase property values in the surrounding neighbourhoods, but the bigger a city gets the more important a central, public gathering places becomes. Recently, I have spent a considerable amount of time travelling and in every city I have visited, I’ve seen the importance of these central gathering places, Millennium Park in Chicago, Granville Island in Vancouver, Central Park in New York, the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, Kew Gardens in London, everywhere I have gone from Istanbul to Montreal, the importance of these public spaces resonates for both locals and visitors alike. People don’t go to Vancouver to visit Richmond. They don’t go to London to visit Hammersmith. It is the central areas of the city with their public places and spaces that draws visitors and when these central areas are diminished so is the entire metropolitan region.
As many testified at City Hall, Lansdowne Park has been that central gathering place for Ottawa. It’s unique in its history and heritage buildings. It’s unique in its location, next to a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s unique in its possibilities. In short, its irreplaceable. Once the land has been carpeted with condos and commercial buildings. (And I don’t use carpeted lightly, the most recent plan calls for 350,000 sq. feet of commercial space. The new IKEA has 400,000.) There will be no returning to the possibilities of a grand, central public gathering space, suitable for taking Ottawa into the 21st century. It’s not just Friends of Lansdowne who have lost. We will all have lost.
*published in Glebe Report, May 11, 2012