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Collins' Capital

Steve Collins covers urban affairs and other issues facing the nation's capital.

Civilized civil discussion happens on Jane’s Walk

I wanted to sample local offerings for Jane’s Walk, the annual series of walking tours in honour of urbanist Jane Jacobs, but no expeditions were organized in my neighbourhood, with its scenic four lanes of traffic feeding into fast-food drive-ins (maybe next year).

Instead, I joined a group of about 60 for a tour of the courtyards between Sussex Drive and the ByWard Market. The National Capital Commission expropriated land along Sussex in the ’60s to create a “mile of history” and turned back parking lots into public areas where you can walk without dodging cars, loiter on a bench or a restaurant patio — people places.

“They were very much influenced by Jane Jacobs and you can almost see the signature of Jane in the courtyards,” said the tour’s guide, architect Barry Padolsky “The NCC’s vision was to create a pedestrian network all the way through from George St. right to the (Notre Dame) cathedral as a way of creating urban places in the found backyards behind the mile of history.”

It’s not all public art and tranquility. A distinct whiff of urine greeted us at the entrance to one courtyard, a predictable use of such “urban places” in the bar-packed district.

That didn’t bother the walkers as they explored the courtyards to Padolsky’s running architectural and historical commentary, delivered over a loudspeaker set to a genteel volume.

We emerged onto Clarence Street and crowded onto the sidewalk across from the crumbling and doomed former home of Memories restaurant. The NCC got city council’s permission last month to demolish the 1870s limestone building at 7 Clarence. The current plan is to replace it with a wider, taller building, featuring lots of modern glass.

Padolsky, who is also vice-chair of the city’s built heritage subcommittee, gave us his short history of the decision, from atop a traffic island on Clarence as the cars rolled between us. “Not to tell tales out of school — but I am, because I think we that need to understand how the city of Ottawa, how the NCC, how we treat our stock of heritage buildings in this heritage district,” Padolsky told us. “I think there was a little bit of ambition there among some of the personnel within the NCC to build themselves a brand new building.”

Then something unexpected happened: NCC staffer Christopher Dziwinski emerged from the crowd. Padolsky lent him the loudspeaker.

“That’s incorrect,” Dziwinski replied. “We tried for over a year. We studied this building with a team of the finest heritage architects as well as heritage structural engineers. We did everything we could to try to save this building.”

He took a few polite, thoughtful questions from the walkers, and the tour continued.

Afterwards, a few people approached Dziwinski and thanked him. Even though some don’t like what the NCC is doing, they appreciated hearing his explanation.

Unlike sometimes less civil discussions of this sort at city hall, there was no list of delegates registered to speak, no time limit on questions, no cautions from the city solicitor that this or that line of inquiry isn’t appropriate. Perhaps someday we could take council out for a walk and talk.

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