Holding out for Heritage: Preserving Ottawa’s Alexandra Bridge in the name of sustainability and history.

Our built heritage is part of our culture. Few people would debate that we need to conserve, restore, and respect the cultural institutions that house our democracy, our collections of art, or our history. Our built environment is the place we learn about our past, forge our sense of community, and give hope to our future.

The federal government is keen to invest in sustainable infrastructure. Preservation of historic structures must be key to this initiative.

The 2018 publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Lifecycle Analysis proved that the most sustainable building is the one that already exists. In November, the National Capital Commission (NCC) proposed a bold vision for public transit, connecting Ottawa and Gatineau with tram lines that could connect two cities in the National Capital Region, creating an enormous public benefit.  A decarbonized transit vision would advance federal government goals for infrastructure spending, climate action, and support provincial and municipal objectives. The federal government has also moved to achieve a net zero emissions target by 2050.

It’s surprising, then, that Public Service and Procurement Canada (PSPC) is determined to demolish the Alexandra Bridge, planning to replace it with a new vehicle crossing.

Current public engagement on this process doesn’t disclose the rationale for the decision, simply saying that it is at the end of its service life. Little or no public information is made available as to how this decision was determined; replacement is offered as the only option. We know that bridges can last for centuries; its lifespan is affected by how well it is designed, maintained and cared for, along with the type of traffic it carries. Consider the Golden Gate Bridge: it is nearly as old, equally iconic and respected, and there is no debate about replacement.

The Alexandra Bridge, now in its 12th decade, was once the longest bridge of its kind in Canada. It was designated as a National Historic Site by the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering in 1995. Used for rail traffic for half its life, it was converted to carry cars as part of the mid-20th century removal of rail traffic from downtown Ottawa. Today, it carries less than 10% of the vehicle traffic crossing the Ottawa River but is the most heavily used pedestrian and cyclist river crossing in the area.

Interestingly, an internet search for images of Ottawa River Bridges calls up numerous, iconic, images of the Alexandra Bridge, the Prince of Wales Bridge, and Chaudière Bridge. All are similar steel truss bridges built before 1920, reflecting our industrial heritage. These crossings have survived and continue to be used and loved. They are integral parts of our cultural heritage and deserve respect, conservation and care.

Not only are the bridges frequently photographed, they also provide some of the best views of the City.

Demolishing the Alexandra Bridge would put millions of tonnes of steel and concrete to waste. Replacing the bridge with new structure in the same location would be a prohibitive, unbudgeted expense. It would take years, disrupt traffic in the core of the City, affect the views locals and tourists cherish, and erase the sense of history overlooking the Rideau Canal, National Gallery of Canada and Museum of History.

The NCC’s bold new vision for public transit in the Nation’s Capital is an aspirational vision for public transit. A tram route, connecting Gatineau and Ottawa, would remove car and bus traffic from Wellington Street, creating a sustainable transportation route and improving public safety in front of the some of the most secure offices in Canada. A view of the parliament buildings is typically obscured by diesel smoke belching buses, tour buses and gridlocked traffic. There are no cycling lanes and few public places.

The City of Gatineau has proposed to build a tram line, crossing the Ottawa River west of downtown, and ending at Elgin Street. It’s easy to imagine this proposal meshing neatly with the NCC’s vision and creating a positive connection in the capital for all residents, bringing a boost to tourism and enhancing the social objectives.

Conserving the Alexandra Bridge as an integral part of this tram line would be positive action on climate change. We need to make an investment in sustainable and active transportation that reduces landfill waste and conserves the millions of tons of CO2 that is embedded in the concrete and steel. That this can also show respect for our heritage and the innovative work of our predecessors is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Linking these bridges with sustainable transportation creates a network of conserved, respected heritage structures that show that Canada is serious about climate change. The Alexandra Bridge can be adapted to modern light rail transit needs and enhance cycling and pedestrian crossings. As the most immediately threatened crossing, the Alexandra Bridge deserves immediate action.

Yes, it may be a lot of work. In the same spirit of innovation that led to the design and construction of this bridge, we can come up with creative, 21st century solutions. Can its immediate threatened condition be alleviated by removing cars from the bridge altogether? The immediate effect would be increased safety for pedestrians and cyclists, while that marginal traffic load is shifted to adjacent crossings.

A new crossing is likely hundreds of millions of dollars. It makes little sense to tear down a heritage structure, to replace it and bring more traffic downtown. Recognizing and conserving our heritage sends the message that our built environment matters. Investing in sustainable transportation that enhances our quality of life is critical to achieving the social infrastructure we aspire to.

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Toon Dreessen, OAA, FRAIC is president of Architects DCA, an Ottawa based architecture practice. Toon served 6 years on OAA council, 2 years as president and received the Order of DaVinci in 2020. Toon is a noted public speaker, writer and advocate for architecture and serves on numerous regulatory and advocacy committees. 

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