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More density needed in Ottawa’s centre

Cover parking lots with highrise apartments

ICONIC LANDSCAPES. Downtown Ottawa is covered in empty parking lots, writes Jamey Heath. More density, and a more fun downtown, is a queer issue, Heath argues. Credit: Pat Croteau

Ask a friend from toronto or montreal to join you in ottawa for a weekend and you’ll likely receive a sneer in return. Sure, we have a great hate-crimes unit and some terrific bike paths, but for a gay weekend getaway-or one at home-let’s face it, we are not as gay-friendly as our hate-crimes unit indicates we’d like to be.

As we chalk up greater victories on the rights front and society welcomes our community more and more, it is time to broaden our discussion to consider other ways of defining queer-friendly. Like urban, liveable neighbourhoods. With municipal elections approaching, we should ask why Ottawa’s downtown is not more vibrant, which is a key ingredient of all cities with thriving gay villages.

This city’s current attitude seems to be to build bike paths all over the downtown without creating the population of people to fill them up. Take a proposed 18-storey condo at Kent and Lisgar, for example, which was vehemently opposed by City Councillor Diane Holmes- as is anything that dares rise-allegedly to protect the character of the neighbourhood. Maybe it’s just me, but perhaps the character of Kent St should be changed and we should place a priority on higher-density buildings in between Kent and Elgin.

Similar proposals were fought at Somerset and Metcalfe. A nine-storey plan at Gladstone and Kent was called a monster. A proposed condo at Argyle and O’Connor was bludgeoned down in size. New restaurants are habitually hazed when they dare open a patio. This, we’re told, is a sensible way to reinvigorate the often lifeless core of a metropolitan area of more than a million people. It has not worked in the decade I’ve lived downtown, watching development sprout in the Market or Hintonburg as the dust from the gravel parking lots swirls around Centretown.

What, exactly, are we protecting in this barren, abandoned-after-dark stretch that runs from Laurier to Gladstone, Kent to Elgin? It can’t be heritage buildings because development proposals would rise on parking lots. It can’t be single-family homes because they dominate east of Elgin or west of Kent. And it certainly isn’t the gay village because, well, we don’t have one, and won’t until we embrace the density that sensible North American cities crave-and that supports daytime recreation, great restaurants and a busy nightlife.

In the United States, economic development professor Richard Florida designed what he called a creativity index that tracked a city’s economic prowess. It came to be known as the gay index since he found cities without thriving queer communities weren’t attracting the kind of people that make a modern economy tick. Pittsburgh, for example, is a city that consistently ranks high on quality of life just as Ottawa does in global ratings. But Pittsburgh is also quite dull, and despite its quality of life, it lags behind other cities such as San Francisco, Austin or Boston on the creativity index and economic development.

Ottawa’s gay index, as friends from Toronto or Montreal can attest, is also lagging. One walk down Bank St after 8pm confirms this, compared to a similar jaunt down Church or Ste. Catherine-and we should wonder what Church St would feel like without its surrounding high-rise buildings. We can’t have one without the other-and elections are good times to ask whether we would like both. I do.

True, cities such as Paris and Washington have height restrictions that mirror those in place in Centretown. But Ottawa isn’t Paris (the French capital has ingeniously increased density within their height limits) or Washington, and both those cities have also seen rather large race riots in the parts of town that we don’t visit when ogling the beauty. Height restrictions do not equal healthy downtowns; Toronto and New York have very healthy residential pockets in the core, yet their skylines hardly flatline.

In Ottawa, we have the worst of all worlds. We have the height restrictions of Paris without centuries of development that allow it to work, and little of the surrounding density that allow urban villages in New York to thrive. If, decades after beginning this experiment, we still cannot go out for an urban stroll to soak in the vibe, perhaps we should acknowledge that the capital’s allergy to development downtown isn’t working.

This is a queer issue as much as the hate crimes unit is, or funding for Pink Triangle Services or Pride festival. We should view it as such and enquire why every plan for something above 12 storeys is opposed, irrespective of its aesthetics or how shabby the street it aims to improve is. Ours is a downtown that starves for spunk. This isn’t to say affordability should be sacrificed; it should not be. Rather, that we should look forward to what downtown Ottawa could be instead of longing for whatever existed before the parking lots sapped life from what should be a hive of activity.

It’s true, this may create some traffic or noise. The traffic would be pedestrian rather than the sprawl-inspired commute that spawns the parking lots, and noise is another word for people on main arteries-which is not a bad thing unless we have ambitions to be a very large Brockville. Without people, we don’t get bistros or bakeries or bars, and Bank St will lag in the transformation that Hintonburg’s Wellington St delightfully has undergone.

But we can’t revitalize Bank St while almost every block to its east is the haunt of parking lots instead of people. Opposing larger developments is not protecting a neighbourhood-there is such a hodge-podge of buildings between Kent and Elgin there is no common feel-it is instead preventing the growth of one. Certainly we don’t want to recreate the horrors seen at Bronson and Laurier, but if every city in North America is trying to put more people into their cores while Ottawa is fighting the trend, perhaps a municipal election is a good time to ask why.

This isn’t an issue of left or right and there’s nothing contradictory about wishing higher density along with social services, arts funding and environmentally sustainable transit. It’s a queer issue and if we’d like a downtown that’s livelier, safer and more queer-friendly we should ask our municipal candidates to better explain the problems that height creates. We know the problems that the lack of it does, as our gay village has been in a putative, hamlet-like state for more than long enough.