A bridge too old: Harmer Avenue pedestrian bridge slated for demolition

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  2. After crossing the Harmer Avenue pedestrian bridge from her home on the south side of the Queensway, Tiana Benoit stops at the north end of the bridge and waits. It’s just before 8:30 on a bright Monday morning, and close to 20 minutes remain before the final morning bell at Fisher Park Public School will call her inside.

    Moments later, Sammy Siscoe comes bounding up the bridge’s decrepit concrete steps from Helena Street and greets Tiana. The two 12-year-olds are best friends and schoolmates at Fisher Park, but they’re not in the same class, so they meet on the bridge every morning and walk the remaining hundred metres or so together, chatting before their school day begins.

    “On our first day of school,” recalls Sammy, “we were nervous to go to Fisher Park because it was our first year there, so we walked to school together.”

    “And we decided to walk to school together every day from then on,” adds Tiana.

    [​IMG]
    Sammy Siscoe and Tiana Benoit, both 12, attend Fisher Park school and meet on the Harmer Avenue pedestrian bridge each school day to walk to school together.


    *​

    Opened in 1963, the Harmer Avenue pedestrian bridge over the Queensway has for more than 50 years been a popular thoroughfare for pedestrians and cyclists travelling between the Wellington West, Fisher Park and Hampton Park neighbourhoods and the Civic Hospital area. More than simply a timesaving shortcut for the estimated 500 people who use it each day, the bridge is a safer, more human and pastoral way to span eight lanes of highway traffic.

    But the bridge, chipped away by time, wind, rain and snow, and wrapped in a makeshift metal safety truss, is nearing the end of its lifespan and is slated to be torn down, likely later this month or in June. Over the summer, an enclosed replacement span and footings will be put in place. New access ramps and stairs will be installed in 2019, and rails, lighting and landscaping completing the $13.5 million project by June 2020. With a finished replacement still two years away, however, Sammy and Tiana, and many others, will be forced to find alternate routes.

    Taking the bridge actually adds about five minutes to Tiana’s walk to school — she could get there much more quickly if she simply walked along Holland Avenue. “I live really close and could walk down the hill,” she says, “but I walk with Sammy because I want somebody to walk with.”

    She admits that the Holland Avenue route she’ll have to take next year isn’t the end of her world. It is closer, after all. “But I’ll be lonely,” she laments.

    The Harmer Avenue bridge helps link together people and communities that are separated by the Queensway, the busiest autoroute through Ottawa. Prior to the Queensway’s construction, narrow railroad tracks, divisive but much less so, passed through.

    The bridge’s pending demolition, meanwhile, is already creating waves in the community. Elise Merrill and her young son, Edgar, are crossing the bridge from her home on the north side to visit a prospective day care on the south side. “I’m already concerned about the bridge closing,” she says. “This daycare is a good candidate, but knowing that the bridge is closing is impacting our decision. It’s like closing another door, which is upsetting.”

    [​IMG]
    Elise Merrill and her son, Edgar, were crossing the Harmer Avenue pedestrian bridge to check out a daycare.


    Plans to add temporary painted bike lanes to Holland Avenue — the nearest underpass — has upset a number of residents in the area who cite safety issues and lost parking spaces among their concerns, as well as skepticism over the word “temporary.”

    City councillor Jeff Leiper, in whose Kitchissippi ward the Harmer bridge sits, says that such connections are critical to the health of a city and its neighbourhoods. “With the building of the Queensway, you really severed neighbourhoods. I live on Hamilton North, and there’s also a Hamilton South. That was once one street. Harmer Avenue … all those streets used to go through. The Queensway severed those neighbourhoods so that today they are distinct communities, and that is artificial — the result of the Queensway being there.”

    On the south side, he notes, there are few parks or schools, and no traditional main street. “There’s no place where you can just walk up and down in shops where there are people you know with services you want to buy. All of that is on the north, and the south side has been cut from that.

    He points to the Civic Hospital Neighbourhood Association, a 2,000-household group whose borders go from Island Park in the west to the O-train in the east, and from Carling Avenue to the Queensway. “That community doesn’t have a community centre,” Leiper says. “They use the Hintonburg Community Centre, on the north side.”

    The Queensway, Leiper adds, is a barrier that prevents the community to the south of the Harmer bridge from being whole on its own. Apart from the bridge, underpasses connect the two sides, but most of them — Island Park Drive and Holland and Parkdale avenues in particular — are not, in Leiper’s words, “kind environments” for pedestrians or cyclists.

    “So how do people get from that community that was cut off by the Queensway, to all these amenities of the community to the north? I would suggest that the Harmer Avenue pedestrian bridge is one of the few attractive ways to do that. It’s one of the few ways that you can meander. It’s one of the few safe cycling ways to do that. It’s a connection that is geared towards a more human mode of travel.

    “I think the bridge occupies a really centrally important role, and unfortunately it is too unique — we should have more of them.”

    *​

    There’s an almost measurable cadence to the ebb and flow of life on the bridge. The dog-walkers and joggers who make up most of its pre-dawn traffic are eventually augmented by people going to and from work — at Tunney’s Pasture, Agriculture Canada, the Experimental Farm, the Civic campus of the Ottawa Hospital and points elsewhere.

    [​IMG]
    Nate Keen lives south of Carling Avenue, and uses the Harmer Avenue pedestrian bridge at least twice a day, for traveling to and from work, getting groceries and kids’ activities.


    Nate Keen, a south-sider who for a decade now has used the bridge to get to and from work, for grocery shopping and various activities with his children, isn’t sure what he’ll do when the bridge comes down. “It’s one of the nicer walks,” he says. “I walk all winter and bike through the summer. I guess my alternative is Holland (Avenue), which is not nearly as nice a walk or bike ride — it’s a terrible bike ride.”

    Keen lives south of Carling Avenue, in River Ward, and wishes there had been more public consultation in his neighbourhood about the bridge’s closure. “There are a ton of people from my neighbourhood who use this bridge. Fisher Park softball starts next week, and there’s going to be tons of parents coming here to go to Fisher Park for day camp, for going to school here.”

    Catherine Walsh has used the bridge to get to and from work every day for the past 22 years. On her way home each day, she looks at the gridlocked traffic on the Queensway below, and thinks, “God, I love living here.”

    On the heels of Keen and Walsh come the school children, headed to Fisher Park, St. George or Elmdale schools, some crossing the bridge four times a day. Throughout the day, a parade of people use the bridge for any number of reasons: appointments or visits at the Civic, or lunchtime exercise. For some, the bridge is their destination; they come just to watch the traffic below.

    [​IMG]
    Catherine Walsh has crossed the Harmer Avenue pedestrian bridge every day for the last 22 years.


    “There’s definitely a rhythm to people using the bridge,” says Jane Snider, a Helena Street resident who has lived in the shadow of the bridge for 17 years and confesses to having mixed feelings about the structure. “I know exactly when it’s time to go back to school; at 1:35 it gets busy with kids up here. You sort of follow the rhythm of the day by how many people are on the bridge.

    “But we wouldn’t miss it if it weren’t here,” she admits. “It’d be nice not to have all the foot traffic right in front of our house. I can’t say I love having the bridge here, but I understand that it’s used a lot. And if it’s deemed that it’s necessary, I’d rather have a bridge that is solid and secure, with nice landscaping, than what’s here right now.”

    Another Helena Street resident, Arlene Drake, admits she’s not thrilled to see her street turned into a construction site for two years, but is happy the bridge is being replaced. She uses it to get to her work at Natural Resources Canada on Booth Street, as well as regular dog-walking duties. “Do you want a new bridge or not?” she asks. “So you have to make some concessions.”

    [​IMG]
    Arlene Drake has lived three doors from the Harmer Avenue pedestrian bridge for 12 years and loves the access it provides.


    While some feel that two years seems like a long time to replace the bridge, few pedestrians or cyclists argue against the project. Exposed rebar is visible under crumbling concrete, and the existing approach ramps don’t come close to conforming to current accessibility standards.

    “Things obviously need to be fixed,” says Mary Wadland, who has lived by the Civic for seven years and, without a car, walks everywhere. “After I heard the story of the bridge collapsing in the States, I walked across here and thought about the stairs that were crumbling, and I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe I should be walking a different way for a while, just on the off-chance that this one might be going, too.”

    Meanwhile, 17-year-old Finn Duncan was crossing in the opposite direction, returning home from his early-morning workout at the Ottawa Rowing Club. He grew up on the south side, but attended Elmdale, St. George and Fisher Park schools — all on the north side.

    “My whole life has been on this bridge,” he says. “I literally grew up on it. I remember trying to make trucks honk when I walked across when I was little — me and my two brothers — and our parents would know we were coming home soon if they heard the trucks honking. So it’s a nostalgic bridge, I guess.”

    bdeachman@postmedia.com

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