Monday, August 3, 2009

Tale of the Elgin Street Century, Part II

In part I, I discussed the replacement of a couple of squares of sidewalk on Elgin Street, dating back to 1905. I find that there's quite an underlying lesson here.

When we think of heritage, we tend to focus on the buildings, and not so much the built infrastructure between them. Yet for all the change that Elgin Street has seen since 1905, including the construction of buildings along the same block, pieces of it still survive to this day. Only the bits that have needed replacing have been replaced, and remarkably, some of them simply haven't needed to be.

Nowadays, if someone proposed to demolish an entire neighbourhood and replace it with brand-new buildings, they'd be chased out of the room. It was done in the mid 1960s in Lebreton Flats, and the 1965 [Correction:] DeLeuw Cather Ottawa-Hull Transportation Study proposed much the same for Centretown in order to accommodate suburban commuter traffic. As the below diagram indicates, King Edward Avenue was to be turned into a Queensway-like expressway, Somerset and MacLaren were to be twinned (as Albert and Slater were), with a bridge over the Rideau Canal. As for the houses, they'd be demolished and replaced with towers. Kent and Lyon had already been widened, as documented in this Urbsite post.

Even more shocking were the plans for Laurier and Gloucester, as depicted in the diagram below. Aside from Lebreton Flats being turned into a mess of cloverleafs feeding expressways on Booth and Preston, the blocks between Laurier and Gloucester were to be levelled and replaced with a 17-lane expressway, called the "Downtown Distributor".

The beginnings of late-'60s urban renewal can be seen in the towers along the canal at 10, 20, and 40 the Driveway, and in the quadrant of blocks bounded by Bronson, Gloucester, Lisgar and Lyon. These and other buildings replaced the Confederation-era houses that dominated the area. It was only when the plans started to affect the middle class that serious efforts began to fight them. Their success eventually culminated in the Centretown Plan in the late '70s and is commemmorated by this plaque on Pretoria Bridge (which itself was rebuilt in the '80s):

And while roads and sidewalks aren't quite the same as buildings (particularly since sidewalk height doesn't need zoning limits), this century of incremental sidewalk replacement presents quite a contrast to the more prominent roadwork philosophy.

Throughout Ottawa's older neighbourhoods, streets are being reconstructed one at a time. Century-old water works need replacement, and it's being done one street at a time.

Case in point, Bank street:

In the five-phase development underway on Bank street, absolutely everything is being replaced not only from the street surface, but also beneath it. Until they started piling up during the digging, I doubt many residents would have guessed that there were still streetcar ties under Bank street, from before the streetcars were decommissioned in 1959.

For reference, here's the same block today. I'll come back to this in a future as there is much to say.

Further down Bank, at Arlington, we see a hole where Bank was excavated and everything underground was removed earlier this year. This included the railroad ties, the century-old water mains, and even old brick-lined sewers. In this shot, you can see some railroad ties under the surface prior to their removal, 50 years after the last streetcar went by.

These were all removed from beneath Bank, and piled along the street before being removed, probably sent to the landfill. Preston and Wellington Street West are also being done this way, as are cross-streets in the Glebe one by one. Gladstone was finished last year, and Bronson is next up for multi-phase development.

I find it remarkable that we give so much attention to building heritage, yet almost none to road infrastructure, which is just as much a part of the community fabric, literally connecting it. Pretoria Bridge was saved from replacement by a freeway onramp, and Pooley's bridge, originally built in 1836, survives to this day. A couple of streetcar poles (from which the power lines were suspended) remain with little fanfare or attention. Who knows how long these railroad spikes have been wedged in next to this parking meter on Elgin, not far from the 1905 squares.

But Elgin Street's uncelebrated example remains mostly by coincidence. The plaque marking its vintage disappeared decades ago, and it is only by the lack of road infrastructure renewal funds has Elgin not seen an overhaul like Bank has. Perhaps we should try to preserve it, though there are certainly functional benefits to wholesale redevelopment.


  1. I'm curious, where did you dig up those diagrams from the 1965 plan? I've searched for details on it online in the past and haven't had any luck, and I'd like to see more of it. Send me an email at dmccl033(at)uottawa(dot)ca

  2. These excerpts are scanned from a document caled "A Neighbourhood
    Plans: Creating the Community's Vision for Ottawa's Centretown" by
    John Leaning, written in 1977. This is a reproduction of a 1995
    edition produced by the Centretown Citizens' Community Association,
    with an introduction and afterward written by Robert Smythe. There are
    a few spiral-bound copies of this hanging around, mostly produced in
    2006 for the 30th anniversary review of the Centretown Plan.

    As for the original 1969 Hammer report, I'm planning to head to the Ottawa room at the library someday soon to feast my eyes on a copy of
    the original. Also the 1965 Ottawa-Hull Transportation Study, which I
    had confused with the Hammer report prior to correcting it in this post.