Examples of cities filling in big empty downtown spaces
September 15, 2014 12:27 PM   Subscribe

Ottawa needs to finally develop a massive field sitting empty in the middle of the city. They want it to be a landmark. I'm terrified they'll screw it up like they always do.

Ottawa has a big empty area called LeBreton Flats right in the middle of the city. It used to be a neighbourhood until it was bulldozed some decades ago but was then never developed. It's been sitting empty since then, just a big huge field right next to Parliament, right on the river. The city is finally getting serious about doing something with it.

I'm wondering, for my own curiosity, what other recent examples there are of cities that have done great, imaginative things with large urban spaces that turned into centerpieces. I'm terrified that Ottawa's city council will use this as an opportunity to screw it up like they've done so many other things (putting a hockey arena in KANATA?!) and just slap some condo towers up there and a few Shoppers Drug Marts and call it a day.

So what other cities have had a similar situation and done it right?
posted by fso to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Boston's Big Dig ended up transforming into a really nice park (Rose Fitzegerald Kennedy Greenway) that goes through the city.
posted by carmel at 12:42 PM on September 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's a bit smaller (only 9 acres, apparently) but Columbus, Ohio, used to have a mall downtown, City Center, which died a slow and painful death, and was demolished a few years back. They replaced with the Columbus Commons. There's a bandshell/stage, some permanent vendor space, a carousal, etc. along with some apartment space, and it's a nice, flexible community space downtown. They have all sort of stuff going on there, some of which caters to the business folk (Food trucks every Thursday at lunch! Screening of US World Cup games!), some of which have a wider reach (massive food truck festivals, concerts, plays, start/finish line party for the yearly half marathon, festivals). It's not quite a centerpiece yet, but it's definitely been a successful use of space downtown.
posted by damayanti at 12:43 PM on September 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know about "doing it right," but D.C. just did this with regard to the space where the old convention center was situated is now a major multi-block development with super-high-end retail and about-as-high-end housing.
posted by General Malaise at 12:44 PM on September 15, 2014

Buffalo's Canalside took vacant waterfront property, bulldozed an arena, moved roads that isolated neighborhoods and turned it into a public venue, outdoor museum filled with bike trails and pedestrian attractions. Even that last shitty subway stop got use out of it. It is pretty fantastic.
posted by munchingzombie at 12:47 PM on September 15, 2014

In Winnipeg, The Forks was a large rail yard until the late '80s. Now it's one of the main social hubs of the city, with a couple of museums, a minor-league baseball park, a couple of markets, a marina, a hotel, and an outdoor stage. You can see the difference between the two pictures on this page.
posted by Johnny Assay at 1:27 PM on September 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Chicago's Millennium Park, including the popular Crown Fountain, Cloud Gate, a pavilion by Frank Gehry, and a bunch of other things.

Cost: $.5B.
posted by goethean at 1:37 PM on September 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

I was going to go for The Forks as well, but on preview I see I have been beaten to it. Toronto and Chicago offer divergent outcomes of such a plan: Toronto's waterfront (between Front Street and the Gardiner Expressway in the core) was the Railway Lands, and it sat largely vacant for decades. Development began in earnest about ten years ago and now there is the aforementioned bunch of condo towers and a few Shoppers Drug Marts. The equivalent space in Chicago is Grant Park (just south of Millennium Park mentioned above), which every time I have been, is full of green space and festivals and cyclists and dogs playing. Halifax has also made great use of its waterfront, but I am not familiar enough with the development of the city to say what kind of work that took.

Incidentally, for those who do not know Ottawa, it is hard to overstate how empty LeBreton Flats is. Just where logic would suggest a busy neighbourhood, there is a whole lotta nothing. The area is just under one square kilometre, which for Central Ottawa should give it a population of around 10,000. The 2011 census has the neighbourhood's tally at 373; it was 50 ten years earlier.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:44 PM on September 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here are three examples, all from the city of Portland, OR.

There is the Pearl District in downtown Portland, which I think most people here would be considered a success.

On the other side of the situation in the same town, the South Waterfront district in Portland hasn't enjoyed as much success. I think that is somewhat because they started building it up right at at the beginning of the downturn in the middle of the 2000's. It seems to be doing a bit better these days.

Yet another example is the Emanuel Hospital Urban Renewal project, which tore through an old neighborhood in the 60's in order to build a huge health complex. The largely minority neighborhood was divided and scattered, and it left a lot of bad feelings and empty lots when the money to build the complex fell through. That neighborhood is only recently heading up, with many of the empty lots seeing high end grocery stores and condo/apartment developments (here is the city's development plan). The new development is also causing mixed emotions from people who have seen the neighborhood and lots as stagnant for years, yet are not looking for gentrification.
posted by montag2k at 1:44 PM on September 15, 2014

The 137-acre brownfield site of the former Atlantic Steel Mill in Atlanta was successfully developed into the neighborhood of Atlantic Station. Seems pretty nice to me.
posted by dondiego87 at 1:46 PM on September 15, 2014

Milwaukee Public Market is pretty nice too.
posted by goethean at 1:47 PM on September 15, 2014

Denver, CO has had a lot of infill projects going on for the past few decades, including some completed (Stapleton (airport closed) and Lowry (AFB closed)) some in progress ( CU medical school campus (moved), Gates Rubber factory (closed and being down)) and many smaller ones. You might find some good information at Denver Infill. Also at this link (pardon the boosterism, and scroll down).
posted by caryatid at 1:57 PM on September 15, 2014

Not site-specific, but the city of San Jose, CA has done a remarkable job transforming their downtown from what it was 30 years ago.
posted by humboldt32 at 2:02 PM on September 15, 2014

Toronto has Yonge-Dundas Square, which is the size of a very small city block. It has a stage and canopy at one end, fountains, and a seating area. It's a natural gathering spot for Torontonians- for instance, when Obama was elected, a crowd of people gravitated there to celebrate.

Some great things about the space:
- Some of the programming there is good- free films, festivals, etc.
- The fountains shoot out of flat pavement, so when they're off, that part of the square still used as pavement. The water is drinkable and kids love to play in it.
- The seating area has free-standing cafe tables and chairs that users can move around to customize the space, which is nicer than seating that's bolted down.
- The pavement is a dark colour, so the sun warms it up.
- The space is free to use for community groups.
- Free Wifi (I think? Never tried it)

Criticisms include:
- Huge advertising presence- billboards loom over the square on all sides. The square is across from a large mall, and it does kind of feel like it.
- Some say the square resembles a parking lot and the canopy looks like an offramp to a highway.
- There's not much green in the square- more trees or plants would be nice.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:12 PM on September 15, 2014

Calgary is developing a large section of land between City Hall and Fort Calgary that has been falling apart for years. It is currently home to about 1100 residents, many of whom live in local homeless shelters or in low-cost seniors housing. These residents will welcome something like 10,000 people over the next 10 years as a mixed-use community is built from the ground up. The CMCL (Calgary Municipal Land Corporation) has been managing this project, which includes the new Riverwalk system along the Bow River for pedestrians and bikes, as well as the new National Music Centre, the new Central Public Library and a culinary centre in the historic Simmons building. CMLC has been hosting events along the Riverwalk for a couple of years now including a summer opera and the just-finished Beakerhead. Several buildings are now under way with new projects coming on board all the time. It's going to be years before we can determine the success of this project, but it looks promising!
posted by jjonajason at 3:14 PM on September 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

St. Louis did this. Here's more about the design process.
posted by miss patrish at 3:19 PM on September 15, 2014

Seattle has Gas Works Park and Freeway Park, which actually straddles I-5. Each of those can get a little sketchy at night, Gas Works because it's hard to patrol from a car and Freeway park because it's hard to patrol from a car. Daytime they are great. Keep in mind though that the weather in Seattle is not nearly so cold in winter as it is in Ottowa.

Also they have recently added a human right museum at The Forks in Winnipeg.
posted by vapidave at 3:45 PM on September 15, 2014

Kenosha, a city south of Milwaukee in Wisconsin, has a redevelopment called HarborPark that is broadly regarded as having been mostly successful. A former auto plant and industrial/port area, it's now condos, parks, and some public facilities such as museums.

The Project for Public Spaces has a number of similar write-ups. Infill development, in this post-industrial era, is definitely a Thing and as you may imagine the really bad ones get most of the press, but the reality is a range of mostly middling to sometimes very good. The benefits are not always understood until completion and then some, with some taking a while to gain acceptance.

The key word here nowadays is placemaking. There are some guiding principles to keep in mind, but the basic idea is that a place should be built to be flexible and usable, not to look pretty or to encompass a merely aspirational concept. If you get on Twitter and start following a few sources like PPS and sources of ideas about New Urbanism, walkability/bikeability, shared spaces (for different types of access/uses), and some of the better city blogs like CityLab (formerly The Atlantic Cities), Guardian Cities, etc., you'll find a wealth of ideas from people who think really seriously about this and constantly critique implementations that fall short in one way or another (most, of course, do -- but this is because it's a learning process and larger developments are inherently political and have lots of money involved). The most important thing for Ottawa is going to be public input: What does the city lack? What would work best here? Is a megaproject like a stadium the only thing they can think of because it's a big space? How would residential uses or transit/road connections across this space help the city? Etc.
posted by dhartung at 4:00 PM on September 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

You need to look up New Urbanism. It would be terribly uncreative to throw yet another sports complex into the area. From the West Coast, for mixed use (residential and commercial uses) check out the Mission Bay area of San Francisco or the Bay Meadows development in San Mateo. People want to live moderately dense urban areas again. The city should plan for this accordingly. Note: I have never been to Ottawa and know nothing of the specifics of that town.
posted by quadog at 5:55 PM on September 15, 2014

The equivalent space in Chicago is Grant Park (just south of Millennium Park mentioned above), which every time I have been, is full of green space and festivals and cyclists and dogs playing.

They certainly filled up that empty space with wonderful stuff but keep in mind that they made it happen by pretty much stealing money from pensions and public schools.

So factor that into whether or not it was done 'right'. It is unlikely Ottawa can emulate that part of Chicago politics what with all the mounties around.
posted by srboisvert at 5:58 PM on September 15, 2014

Best answer: I think a big challenge here is what the focus of the area is. The plan could have a local scale, where the key goals are to produce a thriving neighbourhood, which will further enhance the civic life of central Ottawa; more residents means more services, more vital retail corridors, less traffic regionwide, etc. The plan could have more of a regional scale, taking advantage of the site's centrality to provide amenities for the Ottawa region at large - this is talk of where an arena comes in, perhaps with a retail/nightlife component and some residences as well so the place isn't dead when the Sens aren't playing. The plan could also, nearly uniquely, consider a national scale, to act as a national memorial / museum. One key positive of the site is that nearly every inch will be within 400m of an LRT station when the Confederation Line opens, which I think really strengthens the potential of the area to serve as a strong neighbourhood.

In terms of successful local projects, the Pearl District is a great one; a really nice neighbourhood at the edge of Portland's downtown. Yaletown in Vancouver is also a possibility, although its' urban form is denser than I would expect Ottawa to be able to attain. These can go wrong by becoming sterile Condos-n-Shoppers areas with little more. I think a key aspect here is the creation of cultural components - The Pearl lucked out I think a little with its' proximity to the amenities of downtown Portland, like Powell's. The other key aspect is, honestly, density. A neighbourhood of 10-15K people can support the grocery stores, cool restaurants and so on that the same neighbourhood with only 3-5K people in it cannot.

In terms of a regional look, downtown Baltimore has its' proponents. Camden Yards baseball and whatever football stadia are prototypes for inner-city arena projects, with the Inner Harbor area being considered a huge success for tourism. Personally, I think the whole place is too much a theme park aimed at tourists; it's great to being people in for a couple of days to go to Ripley's and whatever, but it doesn't seem like a great place for Baltimore. It should also be noted that the waterfront-and-aquarium formula has been repeated a dozen times since then, none with the success of the original.

For a national aspect, the Mall in Washington is a great example, but it was purpose-built (the whole city was purpose built to align to the mall). And it has the benefit of both enough space to really sprawl out and provide monumental scale monuments and of world-class museum institutions along it (which you know Harper ain't funding anytime soon). It's hard to see this really succeeding in a big way, despite the War Museum already there. (Which is a big obstacle - I assume the second they propose to build a 10 story condo across the street from the War Museum, there will be a huge outcry, but how the fuck else does the area get redeveloped?)

Calgary's East Village I think has the potential to be a major success - the revitalization district funds are funding a mix of local amenities, like improved street fixtures and sidewalks and a new road under the rail tracks, while at the same time helping to fund more regional amenities - the growing number of festivals in the area, the improved river pathway, the National Music Centre and the recent knockout New Central Library design. But these aren't the real focus; if they were replaced with condos, the area would still be doing well. It's not The Library District, it just happens to have the new library in it. It's worth noting that one part of the success of East Village is to build in the middle of a gigantic fuckin' boom; on the other hand, the previous inner city revitalization effort, The Bridges, was much more modest - and is much more mediocre. The area has yet to attract a grocery store, for instance. It's developed some character, but isn't a grand success.

I think that the danger in Ottawa is that a pick-em-all approach would be undertaken; sort of a national mall area with an arena with a handful of condos scattered at the edges. The problem with that is that it could easily be less than the sum of its' parts; enough hockey fans to make the condos annoying to live in, but not enough to support a vital shopping street; a handful of monuments and a modest museum or two but not enough to really be worth the time or effort and crowded on by the other aspects.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 8:26 PM on September 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Chicago also had a big empty space called Block 37 that turned into a big bankrupt and failing shopping mall.
posted by anotheraccount at 2:55 PM on September 16, 2014

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