If you’ve been following this blog and the things I’ve written elsewhere, you’re no doubt familiar with my own interest in the rapid development of Ottawa since the Second World War. In spite of my own unshakable preference for Centretown living and complete rejection of a life dependent on driving (or even public transit), there are two midcentury developed areas of the city which hold a special spot in my mind. One of them is the Prince of Wales complex at Hog’s Back, the site of my first off-campus apartment in 2001.
The second is the Lincoln Heights area and more specifically, the Lincoln Fields mall. No real special reason: I had worked at the Wal-Mart outlet for three years (a surly stock room associate) and made some really great friends while there. My curiosity mixed with some nostalgia were piqued when, in dark corners of the upper portion of the stock room, I would find missed caches of Woolco price signs and flyers. To say nothing of the colleagues who had been absorbed into the Wal-Mart fold as Woolco employees.
Robert Magee Sows His Wild Oats
Charles A. Magee arrived in Carleton County in or around 1820 and settled the family farm, which is marked on the 1879 Belden map above. One of numerous Irish settlers in the area, the Magee name quickly rose to some prominence in Nepean Township. The Robert Magee, who is by 1879 in possession of the homestead, was the son of Charles Magee and the grandfather of the Robert Magee mentioned below. He passed away in 1916 at the age of 80. The grandson Robert continued to farm. The Topley photos below depict the cutting of oats on the family farm in 1911.
In February of 1949, the Ottawa Citizen reported that the Magee farm had been sold. The report was preliminary and short on concrete information, but the paper had learned that most of the 400 acre farm had been sold to a syndicate that Magee himself refused to identify. That autumn, Magee passed away, leaving a small remainder of his estate to his widow and two sisters. It either appears that Magee took the identity of the syndicate to his grave, that the Citizen could not get the information out of him, or that I simply could not locate it.
In actuality, the family farm was disposed of in a larger number of tracts than early reports suggested. The Federal District Commission (FDC, NCC) purchased three separate tracts which included that between the former CPR tracks and the river, a portion of that between the OTC tracks and the CPR tracks, and a third tract between the OTC tracks and Richmond road (ie. the east side of the property where the parkway runs today). The fourth main tract was that which went to the syndicate. This left 53 acres in two lots to his surviving family.
On January 27, 1953, the Ottawa Journal reported that the Magee family had been poised to sell the remaining 53 acres of land to the CBC. The breaking news may have broken a little too quickly, however. In the following days, it became clear that while the CBC was indeed interested in the remainder of the farm as a site for their new station, the public broadcaster and the Magee’s representatives remained far apart on the issue of price. Had that distance between the two parties not existed, there was still the issue of the city not wanting to pay to have water and sewer services out to the farm. At least, not solely for the CBC. While the Bingham property (at the head of Windermere) was the preferred place for seemingly everybody but the CBC, the studio and 500′ tower eventually settled on the lot between Scott Street and Lanark Avenue in Westboro.
By 1954, it was five years after the reported sale of the bulk of the farm to the still-unnamed syndicate and no proposal for development had yet been submitted. While the lands were sitting idle in a sea of rapid suburban development (Glabar Park, Ryan Farm, Britannia Heights, and perhaps most importantly, Queensway Terrace, were complete, under construction, or poised to begin), any number of uses were being dreamed up for the remaining parts of the Magee property. The Federal District Commission, for example, recommended two sites on the property be used for landfill and the site was even on the shortlist for then upcoming city hall project (fortunately, it was Green Island that won).
Note (2018/02/12): The paragraph below contains a few inaccuracies that have been corrected both in a comment below and in a great blog post by Mike Kaulbars. Please see his fantastic site Britannia: A History for more about the Britannia area.
With that much excitement, it was only a matter of time until the show commenced. I am uncertain whether the ‘syndicate’ disposed of the land or if they were the ultimate developers. The development of the immediate area was split between two main local interests: Glabar Realty (which began to develop the Britannia Heights subdivision in 1951, mostly on former Booth land) and Thomas C. Assaly. For the purposes of this part of the story, I’ll be focusing on Assaly’s Lincoln Heights subdivision, which covers a 51-acre portion of the former Magee Farm.
They Won’t See Assaly Waving from Such Great Lincoln Heights
Somewhat curiously (at least to me), the Journal did not cover Assaly’s announcement. This seems to have been their pattern during the late 1950s however. The paper appears to have been somewhat more focused on either larger stories or ones that were somewhat more proximate to their headquarters on Queen Street. Nevertheless, below is the sketch that the Citizen ran with on their front page.
Thomas Assaly’s vision for Lincoln Heights was grand. A twenty million dollar development for Ottawa (or anywhere for that matter) was noteworthy all on its own. In the article, penned by the Citizen’s Joe Finn, Assaly’s announcement was said to be expected to “outdo Toronto’s famed Thorncrest Model Village,” which is located in the former City of Etobicoke on Rathburn between Islington and Kipling. For the community design, Assaly retained the services of Belcourt & Blair, a local firm who would go on to design, among numerous other things, the successful Greenbelt Village Apartments in Don Mills. The development’s luxurious nature was communicated as well through its starting price for new homes being set at $35,000 (he later offered a small number $25,000 models). For comparison, the average price for a home that year was $15,564. Assaly was surely going for gold.
For its own part, the site was not only well-sought after for being in the midst of other developing sites within a white hot market. The Federal District Commission’s western parkway was expected to continue through the rear of the development ((It didn’t: stopping just short with a sharp right turn to meet with Carling. NCC maps until 1968 showed a planned route running behind Lincoln Heights, Britannia Heights and Bayshore to meet with the then planned 417 at Lakeview Park.)) and with a protected view of the Gatineau Hills. Aside from the setting of the new community, Assaly also promised a large number of amenities including lawn bowling greens, a swimming pool, playground, tennis court, and a “fully staffed nursery where younger children may be left safely while mothers go shopping.” Assaly expected construction to start within a matter of weeks.
“Come Down Now” They’ll Say
With the both rental duplexes along Regina and fully-detached homes well underway, Assaly sought to focus his energies on the development of the promised apartment towers. Much like with his subdivision project, Assaly decided to shoot for the moon. The moonshot, as it was, would take the form of a proposal that would see two of the most popular construction projects, combined. In December of 1960, Assaly submitted a proposal for three separate 17-storey apartment buildings (not entirely unlike the highly popular tri-wing design of that era) that were joined by their own mall. The vision, as pitched, held a small glass-domed mall containing a drug store, barber shop, beauty salon, laundry service, and nursery.
What made such an audacious proposal worthwhile was that it appeared that the Kenson Towers project at Somerset and Metcalfe was going to poke through the previous 110-foot height limit. Assaly decided to go for broke and propose a development that would exceed that limit “by at least 60 feet.” While the mall proposal was part gimmick and part innovation (their Lexington Apartments  on Riverdale was the first in Ottawa to have an indoor pool), they betrayed a level of confidence that Ottawa would soon be looking up. Waaaaay up.
As with so many construction proposals in the period, the dreams didn’t match with the demands of investors. Instead of the residential equivalent to the triforce, a perpendicular duo was constructed more than 10 years after the proposal. To boot, Assaly was forced to pay for improvements to Regina Lane, which he saw as both a service lane and ultimately a municipal responsibility. The Board of Control, however, saw it as a reasonable request, given the approval of the two 20-storey towers. Not to mention the increased traffic from the two. Together, the apartments were known as the Richmond Park Square. 1285 Richmond was constructed in 1973 and 1275 was constructed in 1975. While the buildings lacked a glass-domed mall (and glass-domed pool in the winter), the joining concourse was able to attract a hair salon, which was known as the Velvet Touch.
But Everything Looks Perfect From Far Away
Looking south across the street, other developers had other, more commercial, aspirations for this other section of the Magee Farm. In the spring of 1964, another announcement was made. Toronto-area commercial consultant cum developer John W. Combs (Bayview Village in North York was his development) announced that he would construct a mall on the lot to the south that was bounded by Carling, Richmond, and Croydon.
To stoke the fires of interest, Combs had partnered with 20th Century Theatres president Nat Taylor to announce that the new shopping mall would also contain a “Tri-Aud” (three screen) movie theatre. Nat Taylor was familiar enough an individual to Ottawa being the brains behind the first two-choice multiplex in the form of the Elgin Theatre. Though not yet decided upon, the tentative name for the mall was “Cinema City.” Construction was to begin that summer.
More than a year after ‘Cinema City’ was first introduced to the waiting Ottawa public, more details were released. It turns out that breaking ground in the summer of 1964 was probably somewhat hopeful. The longer that Combs waited, the more grand his announcements became. Above is the headline from the Ottawa Journal announcing the plan for Cinema City, then finally dubbed Lincoln Fields.
I will transcribe the article here as it does a better job of communicating the excitement and the sort of vision that was offered to the public.
A $25,000,000 shopping centre and apartment complex will be constructed in Ottawa’s west end next year, John Combs, of Willowdale, Ont., announced today.
The development will be bounded by Carling Avenue, on the south, Croydon Avenue on the west, Richmond Road to the north and the new Western Parkway, which will feed from the eastern end of the project.
Lincoln Field Centre, as the complex will be known, will cover a total of 616,000 square feet and will include:
80 retail stores on three levels;
A large department store;
A triple-auditorium movie house;
An enclosed mall;
A four-tower luxury apartment complex.
Opening date is set for March 1967.
Principal tenants of the shopping centre part of the development will be Charles Ogilvy Limited, which will occupy three levels; Loblaw’s, with its largest store in Ottawa; and 20th Century Theatres Limited, which will operate the first triple motion picture theatre in the world on the site, it was announced.
Underground and above-ground parking will be provided for shopping centre customers.
Turn to Page 5 – $25 MILLION.
Access to the shops and department store will be provided by the covered malls on ground and lower floor levels.
The motion picture theatre part of the development will include a lower ground floor theatre to accommodate 350, and two ground floor theatres accessible from a common lobby, seating audiences of 800 and 650.
Different attractions will play in each theatre, one of which will present the first showing of cinerama in Ottawa.
The apartment complex, scheduled for construction after the shopping centre has been completed, will be known as Lincoln Fields Towers.
It will provide 1,100 suites in four towers rising to 30, 25, 21, and 18 storeys.
Included in the apartment phase will be indoor and outdoor swimming pools, health club facilities including a sauna bath, service shops and underground parking for 1,100 cars.
Approval for the project already has been received from Ottawa’s Building Appearance Committee.
Architects are Webb Zerafa Menkes of Toronto.
Source: Ottawa Journal, November 15, 1965, Page 5.
There is quite a lot to digest, but $25,000,000 plugged into the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator winds up being roughly $186 million. The expansion for the Rideau Centre, which is currently underway, is said to be a $360 million project with $100 million going towards the renewal of the existing facility. The addition is to be 230,000 square feet. Also of interest is that Webb Zerafa Menkes is a firm which exists today (as WZMH) and has a tremendous portfolio, including the CN Tower. At the end of the month, the Journal’s Charles Lynch reported that tenders were expected to be called by the following February.
And then… nothing.
The mall was hotly anticipated, its neighbours were waiting with bated breath for the appearance of the “huge shopping centre”, and nothing happened. The ever watchful Charles Lynch (whose regular real-estate roll-up column appeared in the Journal between 1962 and 1973) tracked the progress. February 1966 came and went, and in March he noted that the apartment complex had shrunk considerably to four towers of 18 stories each. Spring, summer, and fall had passed, and by December, the reported size of the project returned to its original size. Lynch reported that Combs had added a central air conditioning plant to the project that would self-generate the complex’s power.
And then… nothing.
Perhaps as a measure of keeping the faith when ‘Lincoln Fields’ was clearly more a description than a name, the Journal reported on March 17, 1967 that the now $35,000,000 complex “could begin [construction] some time next month” and that the City was working on the approval of “a building permit.” In the summer, it was made clear that the City was as excited about the project as Combs when the Journal reported that the project had “been delayed by inadequate financing.” Then Mayor Don Reid hoped that the project Ottawa’s sagging Centennial-year construction pace and break the previous year’s record.
And then…. nothing.
By December of 1967, Ottawa’s Architect-in-Charge reported that the city had passed the $85,000,000 mark in construction, but remained behind the desired pace. Lincoln Fields remained the most hotly-anticipated project that would boost the city’s disappointing (albeit strong) numbers. Another year had passed and ribbons remained intact, ceremonial hard-hats were nowhere to be seen, and ceremonial spades remained in storage.
What didn’t remain in storage was John Combs’ towel, which he threw in during the Fall of 1968 when he sold the lot to Bridgenorth Investments, also of Toronto, for $1,700,000. Seemingly much to the pleasure of Ottawans, Bridgenorth seemed poised to pick up Combs’ torch and continue with the existing plan. They expressed confidence that construction would begin early in the new year. Curiously, two weeks following, Charles Lynch reported that Combs had shelved the project indefinitely. It wasn’t made clear if he was still involved in the project in some capacity or if the news simply out of date. As the snow melted, the Spring of 1969 bloomed, and shovels had yet to show up on the property, Bridgenorth reassured the R.U. Mahaffy, a Journal business columnist that the project is still a go, but that a firm date to begin has not yet been established.
At this point, Lincoln Heights had begun to be established as a quiet, suburban neighbourhood. Additionally, The Campeau Corporation’s Queensway Terrace (the frequently-delayed mall’s residential southern neighbour), which was also constructed beginning in 1958, had too become established as quiet, tranquil, and leafy.
Much like Carlingwood before it, the developers of Lincoln Fields were about to face a now-organized Community Association that was more than happy to keep it that way. Not only was the potential for traffic from Lincoln Fields threatening, but when Campeau’s plans for what would become the Pinecrest Mall were more fully appreciated, the community association was born in earnest. A little more on that later.
Playing for Keeps
1970 came and went with no more construction activity than there had been under Combs’ management. Bridgenorth was also unable to get the project underway. It does appear that investors largely felt that the size of the proposal may have been a little too much for the Ottawa market to absorb. While local demand was strong in the face of growth, it does not seem that all Bay Street investors were as interested. The next announcement relayed in Lynch’s March 6, 1971 column was much shorter and definitely much less exciting:
Lincoln Fields, Downsview, Ont., is having plans prepared for a $1,000,000 shopping centre at 2525 Carling Avenue.
The city almost immediately approved the permit and the more formal announcement noted that it was a $3,800,000 shopping centre. The new plans, considerably scaled back, still included the Ogilvy’s, Loblaw’s, and three storeys, but only contained 35 shops and two theatres. The Journal’s announcement was much more subdued. Perhaps they were a little hesitant and disappointed.
And then… shovels!
As the mall was about to become a reality, more details emerged. The development was lead by Ottawan Bernard Karp and was in association with Jerry Shefsky and Eddie Cogan of Greater York Developments. The mall was principally designed by the then relatively new firm Design International with an assist from the local (and very busy) firm of Ala-Kantti, Liff, and Stefaniszyn. The first phase of the mall promised a 147,000 square foot Woolco (replete with a 160-seat Red Grille Restaurant) and the long-awaited Loblaws. The mall was to open in the Spring of 1972.
Shortly after the Woolco announcement was made, it was also announced that Ogilvy’s (the last remaining independent, local department store in the city) was going in as well.
Not Everyone Followed Ogilvy’s Piper
As I touched on above, there was one group that wasn’t entirely enamoured with the breaking of ground. The Queensway Terrace Community Association circulated a questionnaire during the winter of 1970 which made it fairly plain that they were at least somewhat wary about the impending construction of both Lincoln Fields and Pinecrest. Once ground had been broken, opposition was generally mute and limited to grumbling about the mud that dump trucks were leaving caked on the roads.
As the mall’s construction was progressing and it appeared that the Spring projection was going to be met, the city began to study how Carling was to be changed in order to accommodate the expected traffic that the mall would attract. That is ultimately what ignited the Community Association’s ire. While most opinions differed somewhat, Queensway Terrace residents were all singing from the same sheet when it came to the cutting of the median in the middle of Carling: they were roundly opposed. As expected, the opposition came from them not wanting their neighbourhood to be subjected to through-traffic. The gap in the median was to be at Connaught Avenue.
Without going into the whole back-and-forth of the matter, in spite of vigorous community opposition that delayed it, Regional council proceeded with its original compromise position of cutting the median while disallowing through-traffic from Connaught. This is the arrangement which continues to exist today.
The Show Must Go On
And from there, Lincoln Fields has experienced the same ebbs and flows that any mall in a similar position in Canada has experienced. Retailers have come and gone (Loblaws left in 1986, Woolco was absorbed by Wal-Mart in the 1990s, Loblaw’s Super Save Drug Mart seems to have become the existing Pharma Plus, Ogilvy’s merged with Robinson’s, which did not survive the early 1990s), and the mall continues to serve the immediate area with a certain quiet that keeps the mall a useful venture.
Given the sky-high dreams and expectations that were expressed in Combs’ original plan, the real climb-down seems to have taken place in the Canadian retail shakeout of the 1990s. Only 30 years out from the original vision had things come to appear dramatically different in the area’s retailing situation.
A Place to Stand, A Place to Grow
Of course the shopping mall was just one part of the equation. Combs’ original vision also included four apartment buildings (from 18-30 storeys) and when Lincoln Fields mall opened in 1972. The eastern side of the lot remained uncultivated, let alone a great source of customers for the mall. Unlike the foregoing above, thanks to a variety of elements that have conveniently conspired to restrict the amount of information that is easily available, I’ll keep it short.
The first of the three buildings on the site to be constructed was the Lincoln Park Tower, at 1330 Richmond. As it was a project of the Shelter Corporation of Canada. The Shelter Corporation was (and is as the Shelter Canadian Corporation) an investment vehicle that served as a tax shelter. The name, something of a double-entendre. Lincoln Park Towers was constructed in 1978-79. At 12 storeys, it’s considerably less ambitious than the 1964 vision.
The second two, which were dubbed Britannia by the Bay, were constructed in 1983-84. I was not able to gather who constructed them, but they were managed, at least at first, but Fairfield Management. The softer market of the mid-1980s seemingly combined with stiff competition from decades of build-out leaving Britannia’s management to go to some pretty great lengths to attract tenants.
I suppose in the end, the dream was realized. While the developments that occupy the Magee Farm today may not have met the expectations and visions of its developers, it remains home to thousands of Ottawans. I know I’ve had many great experiences out there.