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Wellington Street’s Waterloo? Post-protest debate over Canada’s ‘most important street’


Many believe it will never reopen to traffic given the risk of a repeat occupation — or something worse.

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While Wellington Street is again quiet and clear after three weeks of heavy-duty mayhem, it appears the city’s oldest, most storied street will never be the same.

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The street remains closed to traffic as politicians, security officials and city planners discuss the fate of its five lanes.

Mayor Jim Watson calls it “the most important street in the country,” but many believe it will never reopen to traffic given the risk of a repeat occupation — or something worse.

“I’d like to see Wellington stay closed to motor vehicles from here on in,” says Somerset Ward Coun. Catherine McKenney, who introduced a motion limiting access to the street between Bank and Elgin for the foreseeable future, at Ottawa city council this week.

Endorsed by council, the motion directs city staff to explore with federal officials the means to keep that section of Wellington closed, and to transfer ownership of the street to the senior level of government.

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Somerset Ward Coun. Catherine McKenney moved a motion at city council to keep Wellington Street closed for the foreseeable future.
Somerset Ward Coun. Catherine McKenney moved a motion at city council to keep Wellington Street closed for the foreseeable future. Photo by Errol McGihon /Postmedia

McKenney wants Wellington Street converted into a plaza — part of an extended Parliamentary precinct — that would offer space for people to walk, cycle and gather. “I think we’d gain a place for people,” she says.

It could spell the end of Wellington Street’s long history as a thoroughfare.

Wellington was one of the first two roads — the other was Rideau Street — added to the muddy village of Bytown almost two centuries ago.

Improbably, after Bytown became Ottawa and Ottawa became the nation’s capital, Wellington Street became the road that led to the country’s most powerful institutions: the Parliament of Canada, the Supreme Court of Canada, the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council.

But the future course of that street is now freighted with questions: Should it be closed to traffic permanently? Closed only to trucks? Made into a pedestrian mall? Should it be home to a streetcar that loops into Gatineau? Should the federal government be responsible for it rather than the city?

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Whatever its fate, author and former National Capital Commission board member Bob Plamondon says the remake of Wellington must be a nation-building exercise, not a security response.

“The images of Wellington during the occupation are likely to endure for decades to come: Anytime anyone traverses that street, they’ll be thinking about the trucks and the bouncy castles, and the pig on a spit, and the flags of hate,” he says.

By launching a nation-building project centred on Wellington Street, he says, the area can be transformed. “Let’s turn this into something dramatically different than it is,” he says, “and something that serves the country rather than what is now: a source of trauma.”

Plamondon is the leading proponent of a scheme to use one or two lanes of Wellington as part of a streetcar loop connecting Ottawa and Gatineau.

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The 2.7 kilometre “tramway,” he says, could take commuters and visitors to the Canadian War Museum, the Canadian Museum of History and Parliament Hill, along with downtown offices and restaurants on both sides of the Ottawa River.

“It would unify the national capital district,” Plamondon contends.

On Wellington Street, the Ottawa-Gatineau transit loop could become part of a mall used by pedestrians, cyclists and sightseers, he says. More than 1.5 million tourists visit Parliament Hill every year.

Author and former NCC board member Bob Plamondon envisions a streetcar on Wellington that would connect Ottawa and Gatineau.
Author and former NCC board member Bob Plamondon envisions a streetcar on Wellington that would connect Ottawa and Gatineau. Photo by Julie Oliver /Postmedia

“Now is the moment to change Wellington Street for good: You can completely reimagine it,” Plamondon says.

Supporters of the transit loop idea include former Ottawa mayors Jackie Holzman, Jim Durrell and Larry O’Brien, along with former Gatineau mayor Marc Bureau.

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Acclaimed urban designer and landscape architect George Dark says the transformation of Wellington Street should not be done in haste. “Don’t just go for a knee-jerk solution to what happened in the last three weeks,” he urges. “This is the civic main street of Canada so you have to decide, ‘What should it be?’”

Dark suggests planners should look at the street as a “civic space” rather than as a space primarily for cars.

Other cities, he notes, creatively manage their use of streets. The roads that traverse New York’s Central Park, for instance, are closed to vehicles every weekend, while Calgary regulates the hours that cars can use Stephen Avenue, a popular downtown destination.

The same could be done with Wellington Street, Dark says, adding: “Many important streets don’t just let one mode of travel take it over.”

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Dark also argues the city should expand its vision beyond Wellington Street and use this moment in history to reconsider how the Parliamentary precinct is embedded in Centretown. Among other things, Dark says, planners should consider closing Wellington Street to traffic and putting cars back on the “failed” Sparks Street mall.

“You could also get rid of all of the dumb one-way streets in Centretown, and open up the grid so it works the way a grid is supposed to work, with traffic in both directions. Then maybe you’ve found a way to make downtown a lot better all over the place.”

Coun. McKenney is open to the idea. “Absolutely, we have to rethink our downtown in terms of movement,” McKenney says. “We essentially have highways slicing through the downtown: Kent, Lyon, Albert, Slater.”

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Wellington Street, they add, isn’t the vital thoroughfare it once was in Ottawa. When the O-Train Confederation Line opened in 2019, most OC Transpo and Gatineau STO buses were rerouted from Wellington Street onto streets that connect with the LRT. (OC Transpo says Route 18 operates 35 trips a day during weekdays on Wellington Street between Elgin Street and O’Connor Street.)

Former NCC chairman Russell Mills is among those who believe security concerns must be front-and-centre when Wellington Street is redrawn.

Demonstrators sit in a hot tub on Wellington during a protest that shut down the street and much of the downtown for several weeks.
Demonstrators sit in a hot tub on Wellington during a protest that shut down the street and much of the downtown for several weeks. Photo by ED JONES /AFP via Getty Images

“What they need to do immediately is ban trucks from going on Wellington,” he argues. “There should never be another truck going past the Parliament Buildings or the Prime Minister’s Office … We have to learn some lessons from these things: We should prepare for a very unpredictable security environment in the future.”

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Wellington Street has been a conduit to trouble in the past.

On April 7, 1989, a hijacked Greyhound bus was taken to Parliament Hill and parked in front of the East Block. The Hill was then open to vehicles. The Parliament Buildings were evacuated and a five-hour standoff ensued during which armed hostage-taker Charles Yacoub fired three shots before surrendering. He was later sentenced to a six-year jail term.

On Feb. 7, 1997, a mentally-disturbed high school janitor took his Jeep to Parliament Hill, and drove up the front steps of Centre Block, stopping just short of the main entrance. He was tackled by security officers after storming into the foyer.

Cars and tour buses were officially barred from Parliament Hill on Sept. 1, 1997.

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That system proved ineffective at 5 a.m. on Aug. 28, 2003, when a 38-year-old Ottawa man drove beneath a heavy chain set across one Parliament Hill entrance in a car with deflated tires. He had two jerry cans of gasoline in his trunk, but was arrested near the Peace Tower. Concrete barriers were subsequently added to the entrance.

Heritage Ottawa board member John Zvonar, a retired federal landscape architect, says the security flaws revealed by the truckers’ protest offer good reason to repurpose Wellington.

“Some of us have long advocated for closing off Wellington Street to anything but authorized vehicles,” he says. “This is not a new idea: It has been kicking around for a long time. If this protest is the catalyst for positive change, so be it. Let’s go for it.”

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