The revitalized Lansdowne Park is full of promise on game days, but often empty otherwise. Matthew Pearson looks at what works and what doesn’t.
One Ottawa Redblacks fan poses for a photo among Hamilton Tiger Cats supporters before the CFL Eastern Conference final game on Nov. 22, 2015. DAVID KAWAI / OTTAWA CITIZEN
Matthew Pearson, Ottawa Citizen
Game days are the best time to see Lansdowne Park as its most enthusiastic cheerleaders want it to be seen — a buzzing hive of activity where thousands of Ottawa RedBlacks fans converge, packing the bars and restaurants to scarf down burgers and beer before taking their seats in TD Place stadium.
And there was perhaps no better game in the team’s sophomore season than the Nov. 22 CFL eastern conference final against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, which the RedBlacks clinched in the dying minutes thanks to a once-in-a-lifetime catch by receiver Greg Ellingson.
There were 25,091 people in the stands on that sunny, crisp autumn afternoon, and dozens more watching for free from a nearby knoll or inside toasty new condos that overlook the stadium.
While some streamed onto the field for an impromptu post-game party, others high-tailed it to the restaurants on Marché Way, which quickly filled up. The wait for a table at Jack Astor’s was soon an hour long.
Lansdowne was — as its slogan says — live.
Only skeptics, with their heels firmly dug in, would say the finished product is worse than what was there before — an underused island of asphalt in the heart of the city.
It’s true some of the pieces haven’t lived up to their early promise. Lansdowne is less ambitious or unique than many hoped; less civic crown jewel and more cubic zirconia.
There are other black eyes and bruises as well — a mess of lawsuits from subcontractors, including one from the now-bankrupt company that built the stadium’s iconic wooden veil; a retail mix that, in the words of the area’s city councillor, is “predictably disappointing,” and a shaky start for the venerable Ottawa Farmer’s Market, which has seen its foot traffic decline dramatically since returning to Lansdowne from Brewer Park in Old Ottawa South.
With some modest improvements, however, the park could yet become a place people embrace, every day of the year.
View from the north of TD Place Stadium at Lansdowne Park, Jan 5, 2015. JULIE OLIVER / OTTAWA CITIZEN
What’s working, what’s not
The Lansdowne redevelopment always had four pillars — sports, shopping, living and parkland.
Of those, the sporting and living elements most closely align to what the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group promised. The stadium and arena were mostly refurbished as planned – although some modifications were made to the stadium design to keep costs down, including reducing the size of the north side stand roof, entrance canopy and south side veil. And two condominium towers on Bank Street, as well as a row of townhouses along Holmwood, were built and now have people living in them.
The large green TD logo on the veil, however, was never in the plans and caught many, including those on the design panel, by surprise.
“I don’t think any of us actually envisioned that you’d be able to put a big sign like that,” says Peter Hume, a former city councillor who oversaw the redevelopment as chair of the planning committee. “Had we thought about that, I think we would have protected the integrity of the veil as it was envisioned in the renderings.”
TD sign on the wooden veil at TD Place. JULIE OLIVER / OTTAWA CITIZEN
The 18-acre urban park, which was the city’s responsibility, features a plaza used for basketball in the summer and skating in the winter, a playground for younger children and a skate and bike park for older ones, benches, and a water plaza that failed to deliver oomph when it opened last summer.
Yet the retail component is, perhaps, Lansdowne’s biggest letdown.
Four years ago, before construction had begun, there were suggestions that the type of stores that could come to Lansdowne included H&M, Crate & Barrel, J. Crew, Nike, Brooks Brothers, Lululemon and Future Shop.
None of these materialized. In their place, there’s Whole Foods Market, lifestyle retailer Sporting Life, furniture outlet Structube, discount store Winners and a range of chain restaurants, some of which are new to Ottawa. Efforts to coax popular small businesses to move from Bank Street locations to Lansdowne also proved unsuccessful.
Shops that are part of the Lansdowne Park redevelopment in Ottawa on September 27, 2015. JANA CHYTILOVA / OTTAWA CITIZEN
It’s not the “unique urban village” it was pitched as and many expect a fair bit of turnover in the first couple of years.
“If you’re going to draw people from far and wide, then what is here has to be interesting for them to come from far and wide,” says Gilbert Russell. He owns Brio Bodywear, a shop in the Glebe, and formerly oversaw the Lansdowne file for the network of neighbourhood businesses.
“It was always a stretch they were going to get these great retailers.”
Some drivers experienced difficulties with the underground parking at Lansdowne Park. OSEG responded by spending half a million dollars to fix the problem. JULIE OLIVER / OTTAWA CITIZEN
Another aspect Lansdowne critics — and even some outspoken fans — agree on is how disappointing it is to see cars driving all over the place.
Vehicular traffic is prohibited during RedBlacks games and other major events at the stadium, and only VIP ticket holders have access to the underground lot. Everyone else enters on foot.
But at all other times, it feels like a free-for-all.
“Lansdowne is becoming more and more what it was not supposed to be, which is just a series of roads that you drive through,” says David Chernushenko, the city councillor for the area.
It’s become such a problem that OSEG painted white and yellow lines all to help make it clearer who belongs where.
That’s a shame, says Hume. The site was designed not to delineate where cars, bikes and people could go. Pedestrians and cyclists appear to have figured it out, he says, but some drivers failed to grasp the concept.
Though he wishes the entire park could be car-free, Chernushenko says he’d settle for limiting cars to drop-off zones off Bank Street and Queen Elizabeth Driveway, and making the rest of the park, including the area around Aberdeen Square, where the farmer’s market sets up in summer, one big pedestrian precinct.
That’s not going to happen, says Roger Greenberg, OSEG’S executive chairman. “I doubt we would get many tenants to come in to Lansdowne if it were a car-free zone.”
Cars and pedestrians coexist on Exhibition Way in Lansdowne Park, with the help of bollards and painted lines. JANA CHYTILOVA / OTTAWA CITIZEN
There have also been hiccups with the underground parking lot, which has space to hold more than 1,400 vehicles — for drivers willing to enter its subterranean maze.
Signage was confusing, elevators to the shops and restaurants above were difficult to find, and the exits were elusive.
OSEG has spent half a million dollars to fix the problem — the garage has been painted white to help the brightly coloured elevator lobbies stand out better, and there are new signs directing visitors to the surface (or to the garage).
Helpful as these improvements are, they may not sway drivers’ desire to find on-street parking as close to the destination as possible. That means some people drive around Lansdowne in circles hoping one of the few above-ground parking spots will magically open up or, worse, stalk nearby streets in hopes of securing a spot.
Most respondents to an October 2015 survey about the effect on traffic outside of the Lansdowne sector — an L-shaped area bounded by Fifth Avenue, O’Connor Street, Bank Street, the Rideau Canal and Ralph Street — say the traffic and parking impact of large events at the park are “manageable,” but nearly half say 2015 was worse than the year previous (when the park opened).
The problems persist on non-game days. Approximately 40 per cent of respondents say Lansdowne’s impact on Bank Street traffic is a major inconvenience, and within that Lansdowne sector, nearly three-quarters say the impact on on-street parking is a major inconvenience.
Suggestions to solve the problem include stiffer fines and towing illegally parked cars, restricting some on-street parking to residents and guests only, and lowering the cost of parking in Lansdowne’s underground lot.
It was “naïve” to believe that the majority of people coming to Lansdowne would use the underground parking garage, says Brian Mitchell, the Glebe Community Association’s representative on the Lansdowne traffic management committee.
Crowds took to the hill on a beautiful Sunday evening to see Lucinda Williams play for the City Folk crowd at Lansdowne Park on Sept. 20, 2015. DAVID KAWAI / OTTAWA CITIZEN
Outside, feast or famine
A warm September sun shone down as Quebec folk duo Les Soeurs Boulay took the stage on the Great Lawn on the second night of City Folk, the annual music festival that moved to Lansdowne last year.
A crowd of several hundred, sitting on the grass or picnic blankets, swayed to the music. A free stage and craft-beer fair took over the Aberdeen Pavilion and another stage set up in the Horticulture Building.
The park was alive and it remained so, even after the sun had set and the main stage shut down at 10 p.m. so as to not keep the neighbours up.
“It’s just a great vibe for putting on a festival,” artistic director Mark Monahan said at the time. “We certainly hope to be here for many years.”
The vibe’s a bit different on a weeknight in October or January though, when Lansdowne feels mostly deserted. Sure, there may be some kids playing in the park (skateboarding in warmer weather, tobogganing or skating in cooler weather), but the stores and restaurants can seem pretty dead.
Programming, according to one expert, will thus be key to Lansdowne’s long-term success — and popularity.
Jackie Xu barbecues chicken skewers as the first-ever Ottawa Night Market hosted by the Ottawa Asian Festival kicks off at Lansdowne Park in Ottawa July 17 2015. WAYNE CUDDINGTON / OTTAWA CITIZEN
“You can’t just build it and expect people to come,” says George Dark, a re-urbanization adviser who sat on two separate panels charged with reviewing various Lansdowne plans.
“People from Ottawa doing things there will make it more interesting and the more you do that, the less you’ll be worried about the imperfections of the actual physical space,” Dark says.
“It’s got to be about people, it’s always been a people place.”
Dark, who lives in Toronto but takes a stroll around the park whenever he’s in town, had hoped arts and culture would play a permanent role at Lansdowne, and was a fan of the one-time idea to move the Ottawa Art Gallery there. He points to Toronto’s Distillery District, where arts and performance have played a key role.
The city takes the lead on programming the park’s public spaces and has had some early successes with full moon yoga, dog-obedience training and skating lessons. The restored Horticulture Building, arguably the best-looking building on the entire site, has proven to be a popular choice for weddings. And some Winterlude activities will be held at Lansdowne again this year.
Dark says he’d also like to see more effort put toward incorporating the Rideau Canal, including the option of letting boats tie up nearby so people can get off and explore the park.
“That’s a waterfront site and I hope, over time, people get around to taking the fence down, dealing with the management of that landscape and then actually using the waterfront,” he said.
Like Dark, Hume, who has season’s tickets for the RedBlacks and isn’t a stranger to the site, says he’s optimistic about Lansdowne’s future.
Both expect the park will get better over time as the retail mix strengthens, more festivals and events are held there, and residents, even the ones who think the final product looks like a dolled-up big-box mall, come to embrace it.
It’s not without its shortcomings, Hume says, but he’s not disappointed by the finished product.
“We did a lot of things right at Lansdowne,” he says. “In 10 years, you’re going to say, ‘Wow, this has turned into something very cool and very special for Ottawa.”