Posted by: Leo Doyle
It’s no secret that Old Ottawa South is an attractive neighborhood. As Ottawa City magazine notes in its April/May 2001 real-estate edition, ours is a desirable community with many virtues. “The homes have capital-C character , the kind that comes with age and a history of loving owners.”
Unfortunately, the magazine goes on to state, “The exception is the stretch of Sunnyside between Bank and Bronson, where many a vintage manor has gone to seed”. This negative description of Sunnyside housing is neither accurate nor fair. Some houses on Sunnyside could use some attention and we should be trying to preserve all of our housing stock. But the truth is that most home owners on Sunnyside make a conscientious effort to look after their properties.
Nevertheless, what is most alarming about Ottawa City magazine’s observations on the state of housing on Sunnyside is how much they differ from observations published in the January/February 1965 edition of Habitat magazine.
In an article on Ottawa South, housing expert Eric Minton wrote that the housing stock on Sunnyside Ave., one of the neighborhood’s main streets, is “in excellent condition though built more than forty years ago.” The article includes a picture of the streetscape of Sunnyside Ave. at Rosedale.
So what changed over the course of 35 years to undermine the condition of housing on Sunnyside, and the street itself? Ottawa City magazine blames it on the abuse of “too many Carleton students over the years.” But that’s an oversimplification. Carleton students have lived on every street in Old Ottawa South and both the streetscape and housing have endured and even thrived.
A more accurate explanation of why the street’s housing stock has deteriorated is complicated. It lies in understanding the complex, uncoordinated system of governance that resulted when the Ottawa-Carleton Regional Government was created in 1968. It lies in understanding the negative impact increasing automobile usage has had on older urban neighborhoods.
It lies in understanding how, in the early 1970s, Old Ottawa South was a community in transition. The flight to new homes in suburbia was underway. A high percentage of OOS residents were seniors, new arrivals and transient university students. They were not in a position to rock the boat and to resist the desire of politicians and engineers to build wider roads. At the time, OOS did not have a community newspaper or association that could defend it from the excesses of a rapidly growing city.
When the Regional Government was created in 1968, one of its first acts was to initiate an engineering study of Ottawa-Carleton’s transportation needs. Without consulting residents, the engineers wrongly concluded that transportation and land use problems could be solved by building newer, bigger and wider roads.
In 1971, their engineering report recommended that Sunnyside Avenue, a one-way, west-bound street, be converted to two-way traffic and widened from 29 ft. to 35 ft. Indeed, in some sections it was widened to as much as 56 ft. (Hopewell, at 28 ft. was also converted to two-way traffic but it escaped the tyranny of widening).
In the summer of 1971, Sunnyside Ave, an old tree-lined residential street that had been laid out in 1891 to accommodate the scale and traffic of horses, wagons and street cars, was brutally ripped-up between Bank and Bronson. On this 940-metre stretch of the street’s north side, the stately linden and elm trees were uprooted and destroyed. And residents had large portions of their front yards expropriated to make way for more pavement and more cars.
The newly widened street allowed automobiles travelling from Bank to Bronson to save about ten seconds on their journey. But the street’s safety and livability was severely diminished. Many residents, especially those with young children, chose sell their homes and move. The percentage of owner-occupied homes declined sharply. This factor — more than any other — contributed to the deterioration of Sunnyside’s housing stock.
Sunnyside remains a key route for children walking and biking to Hopewell and students attending Carleton. However, the street’s wide-open design makes it unsafe. It induces cars to speed and makes pedestrians uncomfortable. Sunnyside is still a residential street, but its design-speed would suggest that its only purpose is to move traffic through the neighborhood as quickly as possible.
Measures have been taken to make the street safer. The 1980 Ottawa South Neighborhood Plan resulted in narrower intersections and new stop signs. The 1996 Ottawa South traffic study saw the implementation of a raised intersection at Grosvenor and additional stop signs. But more work needs to be done to beautify the street and to restore it to its proper proportions.
In the meantime, thanks to the recent new and resale housing boom, a much higher percentage of the homes on Sunnyside are now owner-occupied. And these residents want to take back their street. They believe that it is reasonable to expect that Sunnyside can be improved to accommodate and reflect the needs of all of the divers people who use this street. As residents of Old Ottawa South, they wish to enjoy a fuller measure of the pleasures of living in this residential community.
Thirty years ago, the newly created Ottawa-Carleton regional government began a road “improvement” project on Sunnyside Avenue that has had many negative, unintended consequences.
On June 15, 1971, a regional construction crew proceeded to improve Sunnyside by destroying 21 mature elm and maple trees along a 940 metre stretch of road between Bank and Bronson. (see June 16, 1971 , Ottawa Journal; June 17, 1971, Ottawa Citizen)
At the time, Sunnyside was a “regional road,” and the decision to widen it from 29 ft to a minimum of 34 ft. was intended to aid its conversion from a one-way to a two-way street.
The City of Ottawa consented to Sunnyside’s widening, but not to the destruction of its stately old trees. When the cutting began, a resident phoned then City Controller, Lorry Greenberg, to complain. He rushed to the scene to put a stop to it, but by the time he arrived, most of the damage had been done.
Mr. Greenberg vowed this would not happen again. He explained that when city council approved the region’s plan it “had no idea it would be like this”. Sunnyside was one of the region’s first road improvement projects and Mr. Greenberg, who later became mayor, said that: “In the future, all plans will have to clearly mark every shrub and tree.” He lamented that a pretty residential area had been sacrificed for the sake of moving traffic faster.
In the early 1970s, like today, many urban residential communities were engaged in a battle to preserve their quality of life. As the suburbs grew, residents in these automobile-dependent areas demanded that newer, wider roads be cut through urban neighborhoods to reduce commuting times.
Well-organized neighborhoods and influential residents used all of their resources to fight back and defeat such plans. In the summer of 1971, NCC Chairman Douglas Fullerton, a resident of Clemow Ave., used his position to have barricades erected on Clemow to keep out traffic.
The Glebe blocked proposals for a wider Pretoria Bridge and extension of the Carling Avenue arterial to Bank Street. New Edinburgh stopped the region’s 1971 plan to run the Vanier Parkway through their neighborhood to Sussex Drive. Similarly, in Toronto, community activists such as Jane Jacobs helped to block construction of the $140 million Spadina Expressway.
But not all urban neighborhoods had the same capacity to defend themselves. In 1971, Old Ottawa South did not have a community newspaper or a strong, effective community association that could voice its concerns.
In a May 1, 1971, interview Wayne Carroll, co-founder of the Glebe News said that one of the paper’s key roles was to defend the Glebe’s interests and to “warn people of changes.” Indeed, the very establishment of the Glebe News had been initiated and backed by the Glebe Community Association and Glebe Business Development Association.
Ottawa South had not yet developed these resources. And so the ill-conceived widening of Sunnyside proceeded without any consultation or input from local residents.
Not surprisingly, it was an immediate and complete failure. While the road allowed motorists to save a few seconds on their journey, the destruction of its mature trees blighted the streetscape. And the wide design induced motorists to speed, diminishing the street’s safety and livability.
As early as the late 1970s, residents sought measures to address the problem of speeding motorists on Sunnyside. New stop signs and two bulb-outs were added, but the results are mixed. At best, the stop signs do slow down traffic. But in the context of a treeless, open road, they serve only to frustrate drivers who view them as unnecessary and roll-on through.
At worst the stop signs encourage motorists to accelerate aggressively between stops, undermining safety and creating additional noise and air pollution. The stop signs do not overcome the negative impact of the street’s bad design.
Sunnyside residents are now seeking much needed and substantial improvements. They want to restore greater equity between the vehicular and pedestrian traffic that uses Sunnyside. After all, the street is a major pedestrian route for children attending Hopewell and Margaret Mary schools and events at the Old Fire Hall. It is one of only two streets that give OOS pedestrians access to Carleton University and the new Light Rail Transit Station.
Accordingly, Sunnyside residents have engaged the community association in their efforts. At its May 15, 2001 meeting, OSCA adopted a motion asking the City of Ottawa to take steps to improve pedestrian safety on Sunnyside Ave. As a first step, the motion asks the City to permit on-street parking on both sides of Sunnyside in certain sections. This measure is a proven, low-cost means of slowing down vehicular traffic.
The OSCA motion also calls for the development of a long-term strategy for improved pedestrian safety throughout all of Old Ottawa South. Clive Doucet, City Councillor for Capital Ward, has already indicated his support for streetscaping and safety improvements to Sunnyside.
In the fall, Sunnyside residents will organize a design “charette”. A charette is a planning and visioning exercise that brings together community representatives and planning professionals. It is an opportunity for all stakeholders to map out what a revitalized street might look like. The results of the charette will then be presented to city officials for their consideration.
After 30 years, it is time to begin the renewal of Sunnyside and to consider substantive improvements.