Public opposition to a temporary parking lot on Lees Avenue is already sparking changes from the city: a construction staging area for the light rail system has been removed.
But plans for a 360-space paved parking lot remain and around 75 resident who came to a community meeting on Dec. 19 were not happy about it.
The parking lot is needed to fulfill the city’s obligation to replace parking it will take away from the University of Ottawa’s main and Lees campuses in order to construct the light-rail system, said Matt Eason, the community liaison for the city’s light-rail office.
He explained that the city has been listening to residents’ concerns since the plans came to light two weeks ago and they have shifted the proposed lot to the front of the property in order to retain the back of the field near Springhurst Park and the Rideau River.
Residents said they appreciated the gesture, but were still dismayed to learn their major green space will be taken up by a parking lot. The remaining space at the back of the lot isn’t well-kept or suitable for sports teams that use the area, such as the Ottawa Wolves Rugby Football Club and an ultimate Frisbee team.
“I’m concerned about the social justice aspect,” said Andrea Chandler. “I’m unsure of the impact and whether downtown kids’ opportunities to play outside are decreasing as opportunities for suburban kids are increasing.”
Others were concerned that the parking lot would be a stepping stone leading to construction of the controversial Alta Vista transportation corridor, which is slated to run through the site.
The city’s deputy manager of all infrastructure and planning projects, Nancy Schepers, said the city will be looking at rearranging its transportation priorities during the transportation master plan update next year and identifying which road projects need to remain on the books, or if new ones should be added. She wasn’t the only city official who hinted that the Alta Vista corridor may drop off the table next year.
Residents said Eason has not been clear on whether the site at 160 Lees Ave. was the only option considered.
“Really, this is the only viable option,” Eason said. He said staff looked at a few other sites in the area, but any other land is owned by other levels of government such as the National Capital Commission or Ministry of Transportation, making it complicated and unlikely that the city could get permission to use that land.
Although the plans for a parking lot from 2015 through 2018 have been in the works since August, residents who attended the Old Ottawa East Community Association-led meeting at the old town hall questioned why they and the councillor were only informed at the beginning of December.
“I was not happy to find out about this proposal and have so little time to respond,” said Capital Coun. David Chernushenko.
“This is the beginning of the consultation process,” Eason emphasized. “I recognize that it feels sudden … we have to move quickly. We do strongly see this as the beginning of the consultation.”
Residents didn’t share that impression and said the parking lot seems to be “fait accompli.” But Eason noted that a change has already been made to the suggested format of the parking lot and with the removal of the construction staging area, so that shows the city is listening, he said.
Eason said the information couldn’t be released any sooner because it was considered a confidential part of the bidding process before the city chose a preferred construction consortium: Rideau Transit Group. Once that decision was made, notice of the rezoning for the requested temporary lot was sent out immediately, he said.
Residents have until Jan. 4 to submit comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eason also fielded questions about why the city is providing 362 spaces when it is only taking 230 spaces away from the university. He said that number was arrived upon after negotiations with the university as a way to compensate them for premium spaces being removed from the heart of the downtown campus.
Local resident Rick Burrows was one of several people to ask if the city and university had discussed any opportunities for compensation, such as discounted transit passes for students and faculty as a way to incent them to take transit instead of driving.
“I’m surprised that as an institution of higher learning they couldn’t have a more innovative plan,” said resident Jamie Girard.
Others worried that students wouldn’t be interested in parking a 30-minute walk away from campus and waiting for a shuttle bus. Residents said they expect the lot to remain mostly empty and that Sandy Hill will be flooded with extra cars parking on the streets.
University officials were aware of the meeting but weren’t invited. Patrick Charette, refused to comment about other compensation options the university had considered and instead sent this statement by email:
“The University does not comment on negotiations, other than to say both sides have approved the resulting memorandum of understanding.”
Old Ottawa East Community Association president John Dance said light rail will be a huge boon for the community, but it will be important to retain green space through the process of building light rail.