Which came first: the developer or the light-rail train system?
An artist's conception of Hurdman Station.
It may not be as old as the chicken-egg question, but as Ottawa marches closer to the unveiling of the first leg of its new rapid transit system, it’s going to be increasingly on the minds of those hoping to build around the city’s transit hubs.
While the city’s home and office builders are generally excited about the potential spike in demand for residential and commercial space around the new 12.5-kilometre, $2.1-billion system, they also realize they won’t know for sure how the system will be used until people are actually riding it.
“It’s not just as simple as ‘build it and they’re going to use it,’ ” said Neil Malhotra, vice-president of Claridge Homes, which is one of the biggest residential developers in central Ottawa, where the first part of the LRT system will be built.
“It depends what happens at the different spots along the train stations, what drives people to use it.”
Developers received a little bit of clarity last week, when Mayor Jim Watson announced plans to spend $2.5 billion to build out the city’s rail system by 2023. However there are still uncertainties about how riders are going to respond.
Is it just going to be a tool for getting people to work? Are people just going to use it to get to and from suburbs in Kanata and Orleans, once the next phases of the system are built out? Will it be used in off-peak hours by those going to restaurants, shopping malls and other recreational amenities?
These are the questions Mr. Malhotra is asking himself as he tries to determine the best way to take advantage of this unprecedented investment in Ottawa’s transit system.
But while he’s still optimistic that building around transit stations will be a fruitful investment, a lot is riding on convincing developers like Claridge that LRT will eventually become a major part of the daily lives of residents.
The city will need to guarantee plenty of residential, retail and office space exists around the transit hubs to make sure they are using it in the first place, said Peter Hume, the councillor who chairs the city’s planning committee.
“To the extent that we get no development along there, that will be a significant failure for light rail,” he said.
To alleviate that risk, the city is creating “transit-oriented development” plans that allow greater density on properties within approximately 800 metres of future LRT stations.
Mr. Hume is so intent on bringing in new buildings to the areas around the transit stations that he’d like to move beyond builders such as Claridge to others such as Tridel Condominiums, which is based in Toronto.
Which begs the question: if developers need riders to make planning decisions about where to build around LRT stations but the city needs developers to make the system a success, how do you get one without the other?
Claridge is planning projects that would be successful even if Ottawa residents decide against using the new system en masse, said Mr. Malhotra, since people are still generally intent on moving into the downtown core even as it stands now.
Others want to make sure they get in on the ground floor of a system they’re positive is going to be successful.
Morguard’s Bernie Myers, who manages the largest portfolio of office real estate in Ottawa, is trying to make sure the downtown buildings for which he is responsible have direct connections with the light-rail line.
“It’s proven in pretty much every city that if you can go straight from your office and get on a train or subway without going outside, that’s advantageous,” he said.
Mr. Malhotra, meanwhile, is eagerly waiting for the city to announce how it plans to build the system beyond the line that is currently under construction.
“The real value of the train is 20 years away still,” he said. “Until it’s running to every arm of the city and you can get back and forth to places, we’re not sure what the impact is.”