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Waiting on a train: How Ottawa's Confederation LRT Line is taking shape around us


Through a chain-link fence I watch as a ready-mix truck backs into place and lowers its trough. A river of wet concrete flows to the pump truck and up a large robotic arm, the boom, which extends high above a square section of earth. The workers barely say a word to each other. They’ve done this so many times before they could probably do it now with their eyes closed. 

I have stood on this side of the fence before, watching the Confederation LRT Line come to life.

I once walked the entire length of it, from Blair station to Tunney’s Pasture — and even swam across the Rideau River — for a series of stories dubbed Walk the Line. The goal was to see for myself all the neighbourhoods and nooks the LRT line will touch as it cuts an east-west path across the city centre once it opens in 2018.

A year later, I was curious about what had changed. How is the largest infrastructure project in Ottawa history taking shape? 

Only one way to find out.

The future Blair Station for Ottawa’s LRT.

All 13 stations are active construction sites, with those in the east end — where, once again, I begin the trek at Blair station — starting to look like the transit hubs they will soon become.

The steel roofs rise up and open where the entrances will be, then bend and twist in the direction riders will ultimately go to reach the train platform.

The architect who designed them, Ritchard Brisbin, explained last year the simple concept was intended to help riders intuitively understand where they need to go.

Brisbin or members of his bbb Architects team visit stations virtually every day. He passes by Pimisi every morning and monitors its progress like a proud father. But even the proudest parent knows every child has an awkward stage.

“There were days when we were doing the convention centre that I couldn’t look at it,” he said in a recent interview. “I would wake up in the morning thinking we’ve created the world’s largest golf ball and I’m going to have to close my shop and go somewhere else.”

“You just have to squint, and try to imagine.”

Another sign of progress I spot is a train parked on the tracks near Cyrville station.

Trains are currently tested on a 1.6-kilometre stretch of line between Blair and Cyrville stations, but this fall, the testing area will extend all the way to the University of Ottawa.

The goal is to ensure all the communication and electrical systems that operate and power the trains are talking to each other, and to troubleshoot in the event they aren’t, explained Steve Cripps, the director of O-Train Construction.

Come January, track work on the remainder of the 12.5-kilometre line should be done, he said, and track testing will extend accordingly.

There was, however, one thing missing — a giant berm designed to create a grassy ridge between the sprawling Belfast Road vehicle assembly and maintenance plant and the houses in nearby Eastway Gardens.

Proudly built by Carp-based Thunderbolt Contracting, the berm was flattened in recent weeks, with heavy trucks hauling it away one load at a time.

Neighbours were aghast earlier this year when they learned the Rideau Transit Group, the city’s LRT contractor, planned to replace it with a wall as part of a $100-million expansion of the assembly plant.

They were even more peeved after city officials arrived at a public meeting in May with scant details about what the wall would look like.

The brouhaha was settled last month when residents got to vote on options for the seven-metre wall. They picked stone laminate.

Neighbours from Eastway Gardens neighbourhood are upset about plans to remove the berm between the Via Rail track and the LRT yard behind it.

Neighbours from Eastway Gardens neighbourhood were upset about plans to remove the berm between the Via Rail track and the LRT yard behind it.

If you spend much time hanging around City Hall, you’re guaranteed to hear the acronym TOD. It stands for transit-oriented development plans. Essentially, these documents express a rather simple notion: We’re spending billions on the LRT line, so let’s make sure we build up — or “intensify,” to use planner speak — the land surrounding transit stations.

Case in point: What was once a largely vacant, single-storey retail plaza to the west of Gloucester Centre is now a buzzing construction site dwarfed by a giant crane.

RioCan has begun work on a redevelopment that will be built in phases, beginning with a 30-storey, 308-unit tower located just steps away from Blair station. Future plans include two more towers.

Near Cyrville station, Richcraft Homes has already built seven condo buildings and is wrapping up work on a fourth new rental property on a large tract of land between Cyrville and Ogilvie roads. Future plans envision more towers at either end.

To transform this collection of tidy buildings into a thriving community, the large field in the centre seems like the perfect place for a small grocery store, pharmacy, café and outdoor terrace.

Not in the cards, according to Kevin Yemm, Richcraft’s vice-president of land development.

“Currently our plans are strictly residential,” he tells the Citizen.

Perhaps some commercial or office space in a tower, but that’s about it. You don’t need amenities at every stop if there are stores and restaurants close to other stations, he said. “I don’t see demand right now for adding commercial and retail uses at that location, but I could easily be proven wrong as we see more and more people move to the area.”

At least Cyrville station will have some people actually living there, which is more than I can say for Tremblay station.

The lettered streets of Eastway Gardens are about a kilometre away, the southern part of Overbrook is more than a kilometre north (across the Queensway) and, though it’s due south, the nearest reaches of Alta Vista, along Coronation Avenue, are close to two kilometres away by foot because there’s no path through Ottawa Train Yards.

Tremblay station isn’t actually located on a city street — it’s on federal land and exists primarily as a connection to Ottawa’s train station (as did the Train Transitway stop that preceded it). That explains why OC Transpo bus riders from Vanier and Overbrook will connect to the Confederation Line at Hurdman and St. Laurent stations, even if Tremblay might seem closer.

As for a link between Tremblay and the shops at Train Yards, such a thing was contemplated in 2014’s TOD plan for Tremblay, explained Alta Vista Coun. Jean Cloutier.

Planners have looked at the feasibility of pedestrian-only connections between the train station and shopping area using an existing tunnel under the VIA tracks, as well as a pedestrian and cycling bridge over the train tracks that would land between the train and LRT stations, he said in an email.

Although Cloutier says Ottawa South MP David McGuinty, the folks at Train Yards and the local community association are all “aware of and supportive of the proposal for a connection,” there’s nothing on the table yet.

Elsewhere along the line, near Pimisi station — the Algonquin word for eel, which holds a sacred significance as a source of spirituality, medicine and food stretching back thousands of years — negotiations continue between the National Capital Commission and RendezVous LeBreton to develop 21-hectares of LeBreton Flats left vacant for more than 50 years.

East of there, Trinity Developments wants to build three towers of 59, 55 and 50 storeys, and create a retail, office and residential complex at Bayview station, when the east-west and north-south train lines meet.

Construction workers in front of the tunnel where the new LRT will come through at the Pimisi Station.

If you stand on the Booth Street overpass and look out over the vast construction site below, you can get a good look at the entrance to the 2.5-kilometre tunnel that runs underneath downtown.

Eastbound trains will descend into the tunnel just as the land rises to form a cliff where Queen Street ends. The line then does a straight shot underneath Queen, with stops at Lyon and Parliament stations, before curving slightly north, dipping underneath the Rideau Canal and arriving at Rideau station. After another curve, it runs underneath Waller Street and gradually emerges from the tunnel near the University of Ottawa.

Unless you work in it, the tunnel — and what goes on down there — remains something RTG and city leaders seem determined to keep under wraps (except for the new multimedia show, which I’ll get to).

After a heavy crane tipped over while lifting a small cement mixer into the eastern portal of the tunnel in April, reporters on scene watched as shaken tunnel workers were packed into a van and removed from the scene. An official from the city’s communications department was dispatched to make sure no one talked to us.

“Anything that does happen in the tunnel stays in the tunnel,” labour leader Sean McKenny said later that day.

The contractor forces workers to sign confidentiality agreements, which, in part, prevent them from speaking out about safety concerns, McKenny said.

The rush is on to make sure the $2.1-billion Confederation Line is completed next year, but city officials say safety will not be compromised to meet that deadline. (If RTG misses its May 2018 deadline for completion, the organization faces stiff financial penalties).

When I pass by on a sunny Tuesday at lunch-hour a few months after the crane kerfuffle, I chat up the worker managing traffic coming and going from the site.

The pace of work, he explains, is more manageable and controlled than it was a few months ago.

“It’s all good, not as crazy as it was,” he says with a smile and a nod.

I came to the conclusion last year that the city is doing a terrible job of telling this story of its coming of age. And my fear remains that if we don’t document who the tunnel workers are and what they have seen and felt down there, it will be lost forever.

At least now there’s Kontinuum, the $4-million, Moment Factory-produced multimedia show in the unfinished carcass of Lyon station. More than 15,000 people checked it out in the opening week and thousands more will see it before it closes in September.

And the reviews, at least judging by social media, have been enthusiastic.

“That, to me, is the best reward,” says multimedia director Yael Braha, who spent a month in Ottawa setting up the show.

As a way of showcasing the future LRT line in an original way, Kontinuum is a glittering, swirling spectacle you shouldn’t miss. Just being inside the tunnel and standing on the platform was cool enough, but when the train pulled into the station and my likeness flickered on the screen, I got a fleeting glimpse of my future self as passenger.

Kontinuum, a 45-minute interactive underground multimedia production, will run until Sept. 14 inside one of Ottawa’s future LRT stations.

Kontinuum, a 45-minute interactive underground multimedia production, will run until Sept. 14 inside one of Ottawa’s future LRT stations.

Writing about the ramifications of an LRT line that isn’t yet open inherently means writing about a future one can only speculate about.

How Ottawa will look and feel in a few years’ time is still coming into focus, though projects such as Zibi, the LeBreton Flats redevelopment and the new central library all suggest that what we think of as the city’s core will likely expand.

Between now and when the Confederation Line opens sometimes next year, there is much to be done on it, as well as the behind-the-scenes plans to make it smooth and reliable for thousands of OC Transpo passengers.

Yet even as Ottawans embrace the Confederation Line’s promised future, vestiges of the Transitway’s past will remain, perhaps none more visible than the pedestrian bridge over Highway 174, which connects to Blair station.

Curved roofs and red steel pipes dominate an aesthetic that hasn’t aged particularly well. But replacing the bridge — or even giving it a facelift — is not within the scope of the Confederation Line’s budget.

There’s nothing he can do about, admits Brisbin, the station architect. “Wherever possible, we’ve done our best to take it down or incorporate it or change it,” he said.

Future phases of Ottawa’s light-rail expansion may see the bridge replaced, but for now, it stands as a physical reminder of where the city has been — and where it is going.

mpearson@postmedia.com

twitter.com/mpearson78





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