The other day there was a house moving down the Queensway, west to east, going slow, as houses do. That was a good thing because not much damage was done when the top part of the house couldn’t get under an overpass.
Now, you might say: “What a foolish thing to drive a house down the Queensway without making sure about how tall it was and how high the overpasses were!”
And I might say: “Well, at least they were trying, and least they were making the effort to get from one place to another.”
Which brings us, inevitably, to how little the people who run this city are trying. There was a story last week about the central library. Library planners are proposing that there be a modernization, as opposed to a renovation — not a particularly big modernization, but one that will, in the inevitable words of someone, bring the library into the 21st century.
Plans for something more ambitious were rejected, and we know why. There is next to no chance that the city will pony up the money. The same goes for the thrilling idea, widely discussed a few years ago, of building a brand-new library downtown.
You’ll remember that this was seen as an exciting opportunity not only to re-energize the downtown but also to bring the library maybe even into the 22nd century. Proponents looked longingly at such examples as the Vancouver Public Library, which is a fine library, a great meeting place and an adornment to its downtown. We could have that here.
Alas, no. A low bridge was glimpsed in the distance, the bridge of tight budgets and grumpy voters. No way a new library was going to get under that one. And so, as with many projects that might benefit the city, the project never hit the road.
You may also remember that one of the sites considered for the new library was the Government Conference Centre, the old railway station or, as the government likes to call it, Building Number 054533. Since 1966, when it ceased being a railway station, the building has mainly just sat there, playing host to the occasional event. It had a brief brush with fame in the ‘70s and ‘80s as the site for federal provincial conferences, but since then, nothing.
To the federal government’s credit, it has not torn the building down and replaced it with a condo. Also to the government’s credit, has turned down proposals ranging from a sports hall of fame to an aquarium. But still, here’s a gorgeous historic building at the very heart of downtown Ottawa that simply demands to be put to some creative use and no one is doing it.
There are cities that would salivate at the opportunity to take advantage of such a building, such a site. Ottawa is not one of them.
This is why so little has happened here in recent years. Most development has been by default — the city saying yes to one condo builder after another. We will get a casino the same way — not because anybody particularly wants one but because not enough politicians have the heart to say no.
Many will say our inertia on things such as the library is due to an absence of money. In part, perhaps, but it is also due to an absence of political gumption. Politicians at all levels are convinced that they will be punished by voters for thinking big, if thinking big means spending money and spending money means not keeping taxes low.
Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. The idea hasn’t been tested for some time. Certainly people seem to be quite proud of the War Museum, Ottawa City Hall, the Shenkman Centre and other recent examples of thinking big. Wouldn’t it be worth a try again? The bridge may be higher than we think (measuring first).