The station itself is surrounded by vacant land, a bus staging area and the back side of a clutch of condominium towers.
For those trying to kill time between connections, distractions include reading and re-reading OC Transpo’s system map, shuffling from shelter to shelter, or visiting the Gateway convenience store.
Lawrence Solomon believes cities building rail lines, like Ottawa, should be rethinking this last amenity. Making retail development a priority, he argues, can make transit stations more pleasant and efficient for passengers, and less costly to operate.
“I’d sell the stations,” the writer and founder of Energy Probe, an environmental agency, said in a recent interview.
“I’d put them up for auction and allow retailers to bid on them … Mall developers would be very interested (and) would figure out the best way to get people in and facilitate passenger (movement).”
In an article published in The Next City magazine, Mr. Solomon writes the problem with many subway and light-rail stations is that they were designed primarily by transit engineers.
Their goal is to move passengers into trains as quickly as possible, resulting in an esthetic comparable to a public washroom that’s easy to mop down. Retail activities are small in scale, and usually crammed into leftover space as an afterthought.
Mr. Solomon suggests transit operators look to modern airports for inspiration, where shopping areas and concourses are oriented to be part of a passenger’s experience, and generate large amounts of revenue for terminal operators.
Over at OC Transpo, officials say they’re open to increasing the number of retailers operating in Transitway stations.
“We’re always happy to consider opportunities for partnerships,” says Vincent Patterson, manager of marketing and strategic development at OC Transpo.
There are currently five convenience stores on the Transitway: Gateways at Place D’Orleans, Blair, Hurdman and Lincoln Fields, as well as a Quickie at Bayshore.
OC Transpo collects rent, plus a percentage of sales, which added up to $75,000 last year, according to Mr. Patterson. (The sum also includes revenues from ATM machines.)
But as the city constructed new bus rapid transit stations as part of the southwest Transitway extension, the commercial focus was on encouraging complementary land uses on adjacent private property, rather than inside stations, he says. While it’s still early, Mr. Patterson says he expects the philosophy will also be applied to LRT station development.
“If I were a convenience store, I’d rather set up shop right outside the station than be confined inside,” he says.
“In most of the planned stations, there are a number of opportunities right outside the station.”
But Mr. Solomon says it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
“There is a huge opportunity being missed right in the station. That is the most valuable retail space of all, and it is being used almost solely for turnstiles.”
Mr. Solomon was unable to provide any examples of cities where transit stations are owned and operated by the private sector. In the aftermath of the Lansdowne Park debate, where a vocal segment of the population articulated a deep distrust of private-sector involvement in redeveloping a public asset, Ottawa is unlikely to boldly break ground in this area.
But this city envisions extending LRT further and further from the core in the coming decades, once the 13-station line currently on the table is completed. With the finances of all levels of government expected to be strained for the foreseeable future, it would be prudent for councillors and OC Transpo officials to explore new and expanded revenue streams.
The city could experiment by inviting private-sector proposals to develop and operate one of the non-tunnel LRT stations, such as LeBreton Flats, under a long-term sale-leaseback agreement.
Requirements could be put in place to ensure bidders respect the city’s laudable commitment to integrate art in new public facilities, such as transit stations.
The lessons learned from the pilot project could then be used to reduce the capital and operating costs of future phases of Ottawa’s LRT line.
Inviting greater private-sector involvement could not only transform purely utilitarian facilities into places that are actually pleasant to visit, but also eventually turn transit stations into profit centres, rather than operating expenses, on OC Transpo’s books.