The 100 years' wrangle: How to revamp Wellington Street

A month after the last truck was towed off Wellington Street, all the major players are imagining what the road could look like without vehicles — the newest wrinkle among decades of visions for the street in front of Parliament Hill.

Past prime ministers wanted wide boulevards, but experts say that won't work with Parliament Hill

The General Post Office and Parliament Buildings seen from Union Station in 1927. (National Archives of Canada)

A month after the last truck was towed off Wellington Street, all the major players are imagining what the road could look like without vehicles — the newest wrinkle among decades of visions for the street in front of Parliament Hill.

Proponents of reinventing the area say the discussion about what to do has been going on for years, and yes, it's actually been more than 100 years of wrangling. 

At least three prime ministers have discussed monumental plans for how the approach to the Parliament Buildings could change.

Even before he became prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier wanted to see the city become "the Washington of the North," with a ceremonial circle — about where the Centennial Flame is now — leading out to a grand boulevard. 

For William Lyon Mackenzie King, Paris was the inspiration. He wanted Metcalfe Street to become Ottawa's Champs-Élysées, an idea Jean Chrétien briefly picked up, as well. 

In 1998 The Ottawa Citizen ran nearly a full page of opinion letters about the grand boulevard idea under the headline "Majestic or Moronic."

The Peace Tower is not well-lined up with any of the city's grid, so boulevards leading up to it would require blowing out most of one side of Metcalfe Street.

A view of Metcalfe Street looking towards the Canadian Museum of Nature building, then called the Victoria Memorial Museum, around 1912. (Submitted by Barry Padolsky)

While that's unlikely to happen, the area has the potential to look drastically different within the next decade. 

Public Works is currently reviewing design submissions for a revamp of what's referred to as Block 2 of the parliamentary precinct along Metcalfe Street. Two MPs in the National Capital Region have called for a review of the boundaries of the parliamentary precinct and city council has directed staff to study what it would look like if the city never reopened Wellington Street to vehicles

The National Capital Commission (NCC) has voiced its support for all of the current ideas and in an email to CBC, the commission said it desires more space for pedestrians, cyclists and celebrations. 

For this to happen, the city should learn from design plans that cycled through the hands of past governments, says David Gordon, a professor of geography and planning at Queen's University and author of Town and Crown: An Illustrated History of Canada's Capital.

Spurred by security concerns 

Barry Padolsky, an Ottawa architect specializing in heritage buildings, says more pedestrian space sounds great, but functionality needs to hold a seat at the table.

"People need a reason to go there," he said "[Or] it's just going to make more of a dead zone."

While added security remains top of mind for many after the truck protest, too much security could make the area feel like a fortress, similar to the White House security perimeter.

Padolsky wondered aloud whether "assembly spaces" outside Parliament Hill could "eliminate or minimize" the public right or invitation to visit, but he doubts that would prevent more pedestrian activity, especially with an expanded visitors centre that is part of the Centre Block restoration.

The NCC says it's been trying to get rid of truck traffic on Wellington Street since it was called the Federal District Commission pre-1958. 

A crowd cheers during the occupation of Wellington Street, in front of Parliament Hill, on Feb. 17. Security is top of mind for some looking to reinvent Wellington Street. (Robert Bumsted/AP)

Gordon doesn't think Ottawa should emulate Washington — per Laurier's suggestion — and doesn't think the city even can, but there's one thing he says can be learned from the U.S. capital. 

"After the 9/11 attack, Washington made some unfortunate changes to streets near the White House and the Capitol, which they're now looking to undo," he said. "They went overboard with the closing streets." 

Instead he suggested picking a closer city to copy. Montreal's shared-use streets still allow vehicles, but give pedestrians free rein. 

City of picturesque cliffs and rushing rivers

Gordon says you can't recreate the wide boulevards of Washington, D.C., in Ottawa because the cities aren't similar in their design and elevation.

Architect Frederick Todd included this warning in the 1903 city planning report submitted to the Ottawa Improvement Commission, a body that Laurier created at the tail end of the 1890s. 

The preliminary report described Ottawa as a city of cliffs broken by steep terraces and rushing rivers, whereas Washington is rather flat. 

"Ottawa had more in common with Edinburgh [in Scotland]. It's a big, picturesque landscape and gothic buildings and that kind of thing you view on a diagonal," Gordon said. 

Pillars and classical architecture should be viewed head-on, whereas Gordon said gothic buildings on a hill benefit from a more angled view. 

The opening of Centre Block on June 8, 1866. The Victoria Memorial Museum was built to mirror the Parliament Buildings, but in 1916 a fire destroyed all of them except for the Library of Parliament. (Library and Archives Canada)

Boulevards stretching to the south also don't work because Parliament is at a high point in the city.

"If you created a great wide avenue going south, then what you would get from an urban design perspective is a miniaturization of Parliament Hill," Podolsky said.

City and federal governments have to work together 

Ottawa does have that diagonal view from further down Wellington Street at the National War Memorial. 

The land for it was expropriated by the federal government after the Russell Hotel burned down in 1928, according to Paul Henry, the City of Ottawa archivist.

While the city and the federal government have worked together to manage land since Ottawa became the capital, it hasn't always gone smoothly. The skirmish over that particular plot lasted several years, Henry said. 

The dispute started the discussion for how the federal government compensates lower levels of government for land instead of paying property taxes, Henry said — a version of the cash in lieu agreement is still used today. 

Skaters cover the ice surface within sight of Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings on the Rideau Canal on Jan. 10, 1985. Architect Barry Podolsky says parliament, as a gothic structure, is best viewed from a diagonal. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press Images)

But even if everyone can agree, finding the money has always been challenging. The Holt Plan — built on some of Laurier's city planning ideas but actually commissioned under prime minister Robert Borden — was finished by Herbert S. Holt in 1915.

By then, Canada was well into the First World War and Henry says there wasn't any money for city design. As the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation, and Russia's invasion in Ukraine all affect Canada's economy, money remains tight.


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