Ottawa’s Merivale Road is, by definition, a “stroad”. With a speed limit of 60 km/h it carries high-speed traffic through central Nepean while hosting a flurry of driveways, parking lots, gas stations, and strip malls. But things are changing; in line with Ottawa’s intensification goals, new apartment towers are cropping up along this budding main street, adding new residents to the area and raising important questions about its future.
Interested in the future of this street, Ottawa bloggers Matt and Hans got together for a walk along Merivale Road, to experience the street fully and share ideas for improving it.
Matt: I had my first ever visit to Merivale Road last month (by car). What a crazy street – so many amazing businesses and some density coming but very car-oriented. Tell me how you ended up living in this area and how you feel about the street.
Hans: Somewhere soon after I moved to Ottawa in the late nineties, we ended up stuck in traffic in our car on Merivale Rd on a Saturday afternoon before Christmas. Then a year or so later, we moved to Fisher Heights around the corner of Merivale Rd. It is a crazy road indeed, and I have often thought about how it could be better. But this is a really difficult one. It is a bus route, a truck route and a commuter route as well as a destination. Narrow the road, and you only reroute traffic to Woodroffe, Fisher and Prince of Wales. Widening is the last thing you want. And that won’t happen anyway as they are starting to build really close to the road, leaving no space for more lanes. Or for wider sidewalks for that matter.
Matt: Right. So we have a street loaded with great destinations that’s awful for people on foot or by bike, and really not even that great to drive on either. It can’t be widened (which is a good thing, I agree), is set to host more and more new residents, and won’t be getting any LRT stops. Sounds like a real stumper.
Hans: But why don’t we take a walk Matt. Let’s start at the intersection of Baseline Rd and Merivale Rd with a side trip to the Merivale Lands and Clyde. You can leave your e-bike at my place.
Before we start, I have to point out that Merivale actually starts all the way at Carling, runs south along the Experimental Farm, crosses Baseline, veers southwest and then south again to past Fallowfield. I am going to suggest we start at the Clyde at Baseline intersection and then work our way south.
Matt: Sounds great! As you know, I’m a big fan of walking as a way to really learn about a place. You feel and notice things that wouldn’t be possible in a car (or even by bike!).
Hans: Here we are at this odd angled part of Merivale Rd, with not much going on and despite that, there are five lanes of traffic anyway. The area in the southeast corner of Baseline and Clyde is a triangle. It has two dozen property owners but just recently, Claridge bought a large chunk of empty land from the Thompson family (owners of the Globe and Mail) and is going to develop it.
We know Merivale over the next 20 years will see an increase of traffic due to the 2000+ housing units Claridge is going to build here inside the triangle but I am wondering, could this weird, wide part of Merivale Rd not be designed friendlier? Five lanes, really? Do planners expect eternal increases of traffic flows? How does that work?
Matt: Even for a transportation planner, it’s tough to stand here and imagine this empty lot becoming a giant new community. But because my focus is transportation, one of the first things I look for is whether the existing roads are built to support that shift. Walking along Merivale through this “triangle”, it’s clear to me that some big changes are needed. We’re walking on this narrow sidewalk right next to 60 km/h car traffic on a five-lane road that has limited crossings. If we were to add 2,000 residents here today without changing the road, anyone with a choice to drive a car certainly would do so.
Hans: Yes, I learned that you want to have your transit in place before you build up the area, so that people might consider transit rather than a (second) car. In the Ottawa official plan, this area will become a hub in the Bus Rapid Transit Corridor, if the money comes through from the provincial and federal government.
Matt: I’m really excited for the Baseline BRT project. Especially given the challenges Ottawa has had with rail recently, bus rapid transit offers great value for money, costing hundreds of millions instead of several billion to implement. I really hope Baseline BRT becomes Ottawa’s next “big” funded project, well before Stage 3 LRT.
Hans: So I guess Merivale can even go on a road diet here?
Matt: When it comes to Merivale Road, I think the critical question we must ask is, “what must this street look like in order to support the development of this community?”. If the desire is for walkable, dense, mixed use development then a walkable street design must be the lead priority. Right now it’s clear that the street is designed to carry high volumes of high-speed motor vehicle traffic, which is exactly what you don’t want on a walkable street. Placing 2,000 new residential units next to a high-speed “stroad” where narrow sidewalks are placed next to high-speed traffic will simply not convince people that walking is a good way to get around.
Hans: Across the street on Merivale Rd is another piece of land that was never developed until around 2006-2007, the “Merivale Market”. The Merivale Secondary secondary plan from around 1998 talks about malls with a courtyard and I guess this is an example of it.
I quote here: “Merivale Road should allow the evolution of a built form that contributes to creating a distinct mixed-use district. “Court” buildings should be organized to frame parking areas in a “U” shape, creating “shopping courts” and articulating the Merivale Corridor into definable areas versus a linear character”
It is not my idea of a courtyard though and I can’t say it enhanced the Corridor. What is it with that fetish of oversized parking lots and stores around it? Wouldn’t it be much nicer to have a large, continued wide sidewalk along Merivale Rd and a row of trees with stores along the sidewalks?
Matt: I don’t understand the desire for large fronting parkings lots either. Parking can and should be provided but why can’t it be placed behind the building or underneath, with the shops fronting the street? Take Loblaws Real Canadian Superstore in Westboro, for example. That store has an absolutely huge parking lot, but it’s entirely behind the building so that when you’re walking on Richmond Road, you experience a continuous, walkable street. These little queues are really important in nudging people towards other modes.
Hans: I remember that the Westboro area residents there worked really hard to convince Loblaws to move the parking to the back.
Let’s walk to the Bleeker Mall across the street. There used to be a building here that came up for sale in 1971, which Mr. Hans Bleeker bought. Gradually, he bought the other houses on the block and built the Bleeker Mall in 1982. I rarely see empty retail space here and it looks well maintained: there is proper space for pedestrians. The pavers along the store fronts make it feel a bit Dutch, which is not surprising as Mr. Bleeker was born in the Netherlands.
Since we are at the Bleeker Mall anyway, why don’t we pop into the Dutch Groceries store. It attracts people from as far as Cornwall and Montreal so it has a real regional function. I sometimes go there to get my fix of hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles) and stroopwafels. Have you ever tried stroopwafels, Matt?
Matt: I am a big fan of stroopwafels! I’ve been to the Netherlands three times, and on the most recent trip one of the first things I did was find an Albert Heijn (the Dutch version of Loblaws) and buy a couple packages of them. My wife has caught on too, and will buy me a package when she finds them at a store here.
Hans: Merivale Rd has tons of retail and I don’t see many empty storefronts. Another longtime store in one of the malls, a bit hidden, is Nicastro’s. This great Italian store is not facing Merivale and it doesn’t have to be as its target audience knows about it.
Why don’t we stop for a coffee? I’m not a fan of chains myself, but what about this very new-looking cafe we’ve just stumbled across called DAO cafe? It is advertised as “Asian-inspired flavours in a modern Japanese tea house-style café“. As a side note, I have been noticing more Asian retail coming to Merivale in the last 3-4 years.
Matt: Wow, if there was a single indicator of changing preferences and demographics along Merivale this is the one. I see lots of well-dressed millennials walking in and out of here – quite a contrast to the older Italian roots of the neighbourhood that you described.
Hans: You know what I find kind of odd: the street has interesting retail and yet the street itself is just beyond awful. There are entrances and exits everywhere. What went wrong here? Give me the planner’s perspective.
Matt: One of the worst things we’ve done in North America from a planning perspective is mixed high-speed roads with amenities. While roads are designed to carry lots of traffic over large distances, amenities are destinations and require lots of access points. Placing lots of amenities on a road results in what some people call “stroads” – a mix of a street and a road – where lots of conflicts occur and it’s miserable to travel on outside of a car. Ottawa has many of these – Carling, Bank, St. Laurent are also good examples.
We can fix this with better long-term planning. With all of these amenities, Merivale’s function as a street is clearly much more important than as a road. If I were the supreme ruler of this street the very first thing I would do is update the signal timings and speed limit to slow down the traffic to 30 or 40km/h. This sends a message to motorists that the street is not for through traffic. It also improves the safety and comfort of people walking, helping to make it more attractive to do so. In the short term, I’d start adding transit priority measures like “queue jumps” that allow buses to use right turn lanes to bypass traffic. I would also use every development proposal as an opportunity to “green” the street with new trees and build better sidewalks. This area is sorely lacking in both!
Hans: The Merivale Secondary Plan talks about mixed use. There are several new highrises across from the Merivale Mall on Grand Carman Rd. and there is more to come on Merivale. But with Merivale already so busy, are we not going to face a capacity problem? You can’t widen anymore. There are no dedicated bus lanes so how is this all going to work? I just can’t wrap my head around it.
And look at the Merivale Mall. Built in 1976, it feels like it is past its prime, despite the presence of Farmboy. There are plans to make serious changes here (think Lansdowne style) and the first step might be a new 12 storey building with condos/apartments on the corner of Merivale and Viewmount.
Matt: It is clear to me that even without the planned developments, this road is nearing capacity for car traffic. Here we are on an October Saturday afternoon and traffic is bottlenecked at some intersections. If a planner or traffic engineer sees accommodating car traffic growth as a “challenge” to “solve” with the new development then they’re approaching it from the wrong angle. When you lead the design with walkable streets supported by good transit, people will drive less, and your car travel “peaks” will get much lower. And if you design the street with less car capacity, people driving through the area will choose another route. Just two kilometres west you have Woodroffe Ave, a very wide, high-capacity arterial that’s much more suitable for through traffic.
Hans: What do you think Matt, there are several gas stations and garages here. Do you think they have a future on Merivale Rd?
Matt: I would expect these to phase out as time goes on. The new official plan has some stronger language about prohibiting car-centric uses like garages and gas stations along priority streets for mixed-use developments, so I wouldn’t expect any new ones to pop up going forward.
Matt: But how do you actually get to destinations on Merivale?
Hans: I mostly take a bike if I have to be around Merivale. I use the Nepean Trail exclusively that runs parallel to Merivale. Depending on where I have to be, I pop into one of the side streets closest to my destination. And I worked with Councillor Egli to build a missing bicycling link underneath the Beachburg sub railway tracks near Dow Honda. So cyclists never really have to be on Merivale anymore if they don’t want to. It is a bit harder on the west side to bike as there is no proper link to the underpass at the railway tracks.
Matt: Yes, I noticed those parallel and side streets too. More modern suburban developments don’t tend to have as many access points for people walking or cycling so I’m glad to see they exist here and clearly are being used!
Hans: From listening to you, some mistakes are reversible, but it sounds like the city really needs to think harder about what it wants with Merivale Road. With thousands upon thousands of people moving to this area, the city has to make hard choices. Am I right?
Matt: Absolutely. When my wife and I were looking for where to buy a house in Ottawa we completely overlooked Merivale because it wasn’t close to a planned LRT station. Seeing it now, I agree with you Hans – this area will be much harder to ignore as time goes on. With so many big developments on the horizon, it’s the street design that’s going to be playing catch-up if planners don’t start thinking about this soon.
Hans: This was fun, Matt. I usually don’t spend my Saturdays walking on Merivale but we should do this again somewhere. Any suggestions?
Matt: I’d love to return the offer and have you over to my neighbourhood sometime and walk through the South Keys Shopping Centre together. Kind of opposite to Merivale, it’s already well-served from a transit perspective and will only get better with the Trillium Extension, but the wave of development has not yet taken hold there.
Matt Pinder is an engineer who designs streets for people and the author of the blog Beyond the Automobile. He lives in Ottawa’s South Keys neighbourhood and recently took an interest in Merivale Road after driving through the area. Even well into the evening the street was alive with activity, clearly serving as a major community destination for shopping, groceries, or just hanging out with friends.
Hans Moor (better known as Hans on the Bike) is the author of the blog HansontheBike.com. He lives in Fisher Heights, just east of Merivale Road. Hans served as the President of Bike Ottawa for a number of years and worked with councillor Egli and others on safer cycling infrastructure to bypass Merivale, resulting in the Nepean Trail. As much as he avoids Merivale, he is also intrigued in how Merivale could become more attractive at the same time.
1500 Merivale Road (ottawa.ca) (traffic impact study for merivale lands with some data)
Bleeker Mall: Bleeker Stereo & TV to close doors after 56 years: https://obj.ca/article/bleeker-stereo-tv-close-doors-after-56-years