How Ottawa’s Rideau Centre Became the Catalyst for Civic Redevelopment

Formerly a hideous example of poor planning, a hub right in the city centre gets a long-awaited makeover


The intersection of Sussex Drive and Rideau St. is one of the most frequently crossed in Ottawa. A few hundred metres from the Parliament buildings, and steps from the Chateau Laurier and the Rideau Canal, the corner is the gateway to the Byward Market and the Rideau Centre. Yet pedestrians heading east on Rideau Street could be forgiven for missing the significance of the crossroads. Rather than an inviting entrée into key tourist and retail sectors, the streetscape along Rideau Street – with its imposing and ugly facades and crushing jumble of bus traffic – has historically been a bit of a hot mess.

Or at least, it was. These days, the main drag of Rideau east of Sussex is evolving from a concrete wind tunnel subservient to mass transit to an inviting retail promenade befitting the epicentre of tourism in the nation’s capital.

Part of the transformation comes from the city’s development of light rail transit. The Confederation Line, which will run along Rideau upon its completion in 2018, will take the passengers underground, ridding the surface of its burden as a transit mall. The other impetus for change comes thanks to the expansion and redevelopment of the CF (Cadillac Fairview) Rideau Centre. More than just a makeover to lure top retailers and customers alike (which it is), Cadillac Fairview’s reboot of the 33-year-old Rideau Centre has set in motion an entire rethink of the culture-rich district around it.


Courtesy B+H Architects

The addition of Ogilvy Square helped facilitate the City of Ottawa’s public realm plan.

To fully appreciate the future, a bit of background is required. Historically, Rideau Street was a key transit link with buses lined cheek-to-jowl the length of a city block. In the 1980s, the street was transformed into a bus mall, flanked with glass enclosures and completely cut off to regular traffic. While the idea of sheltering commuters (particularly with Ottawa’s biting winter cold) seemed sound, the plan was considered a failure overall. “That started presenting real challenges because those enclosures didn’t reflect the architecture. They were put in to try to redefine Rideau Street but I don’t think they ever succeeded, so they were all taken down,” says John Smit, the City of Ottawa’s manager of policy development and urban design.

While the glass arcades vanished only a few years after they were approved in 1980, the impact on the public space remained. The prime function of Rideau Street as a transit artery meant that when the Rideau Centre opened in 1983, it was designed to turn away from the unsightly traffic blight. “When the shopping centre was built it was intended to look inward; it was about keeping people inside as much as possible,” says Cindy VanBuskirk, general manager of CF Rideau Centre.

So when plans for a reimagined mall, one with plenty of street-access retail and a proposed pedestrian-only public square, were submitted by the developers for review, the city jumped on the opportunity to bring a more thorough public realm plan into place – particularly since the in-progress LRT project was already set to liberate the street from buses.

“[Cadillac Fairview’s plan] was the genesis for us moving forward with developing an overall public realm plan,” Smit says. The most notable part of the proposal was to close off Nicolas Street, a street that connects Rideau to Besserer Street, and transform it to a pedestrian zone. The prospect of Ogilvy Square, as the new space is named, laid the groundwork for a more connected and thoughtfully planned Arts Court precinct.

“That area has always been referred to in the official Ottawa plan as Rideau Centre Arts Court precinct. The policy direction for this area is that it become the cultural arts-type focus of the downtown,” say Smit, noting it’s always had that loose distinction but the current plan is making it more formal. Other development plans in the area tied to this public realm plan include redeveloping the National Arts Centre across the canal, notable for its imposing brutalist architecture, and better integrating it with Elgin Street, as well as a redevelopment of the Ottawa Art Gallery. To add to this artistic flair, the upper levels of the Rideau Centre along both Nicolas and Rideau Street have panels of art that change and reflect the different seasons.

While creating Ogilvy Square is the most significant change to the CF Rideau Centre, there’s certainly more to the $360 million development. The mall has added a number of anchor retailers, including Nordstrom and Simon’s (part of a strategy that VanBuskirk says involves attracting tenants that are “best in class, on all parts of the high-low spectrum”), and has expanded into the historical Ogilvy building to add 500,000 square feet to the facility. The façade along Rideau Street is no longer an unwelcoming concrete wall but instead boasts street-level retail access that livens up the corridor. The development also brings standalone restaurants and a much larger food hall, and the interior is bathed in light and soft, swooping lines.


Courtesy CF Rideau Centre

The new food court. It’s bright, it’s breezy, it has real plates!

VanBuskirk says the design of the new CF Rideau Centre reflects several trends within the retail development industry. “It’s an evolution of where shopping centre design has been and where it’s going, I think it’s a reflection of consumer tastes and expectations. We recognize now that the properties we operate have a connection to the wider community and need to have a connection to the streets, certainly with urban properties,” she says, noting features like street-level access, better dining options, and outdoor space are key trends. “Those are some of the principles our design team thought about on this project.”

And those design principles are used to good effect. Stephane Raymond, lead architect at B+H Architects says that the windows were by far the most transformative element of the facility’s redesign, noting that even the stores on the four floors above the main level have traded wall space for windows. “We also tried to create stronger links between the interior and exterior with our paving materials. We have granite that goes out onto the sidewalk and continues into the building. All of our entrances are like that, more permeable.” That, along with the widened sidewalks and more pedestrian friendly environment contribute to what he calls a high street feeling.


Courtesy CF Rideau Centre

Seasonal art installations flank the exterior of the CF Rideau Centre.

Smit believes a high street is just what the city is hoping for. There’s an overall trend in urban planning in favour of using public space to foster a sense of community, and its proponents take plenty of cues from European piazzas and squares.

“If you go to European cities, the places you remember and gravitate to are the ones you can walk around and are awestruck by the level of animation and activity,” he says. “We’re now getting to that point in North America where urban planning is shifting so it’s not so much focused on buildings and uses, it’s focused on mixed uses, on creating unique and dynamic urban environments, and how development can contribute to the public realm.”

With the new CF Rideau Centre, it seems downtown Ottawa is (finally) on its way to becoming the connected cultural district the city has long hoped for.

How Ottawa’s Rideau Centre Became the Catalyst for Civic Redevelopment
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