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Downtown Defender to Retire
Councillor Diane Holmes Protected Ottawa Against 'Rape of Residential Communities'

WHEN Diane Holmes was first elected to Ottawa and regional councils in 1982, her mission was clear:  to make the city's downtown livable again.  "My mission was repairing the damage of the rape of downtown residential communities of the '60s," recalls the 17-year council veteran, who Tuesday announced that she'll retire at the end of this year.

"They took down all the trees, they widened all the roads, it was asphalt everywhere.  And so trying to recuperate from that savage attack I guess has really been my priority."

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She attacked it with vigour, pushing relentlessly for improved public transit, more trees and green space, better facilities for cyclists and pedestrians, and planning principles to make people and neighbourhoods the priority over roads and commercial development.  She also championed arts and culture, saying they bring a city vitality and visitors.

"That continues to be my passion: how do cities grow and prosper?  And how do you make them livable?  And how do you make people want to live in the city?"

She says the crowning achievement of her years on regional council is the latest Official Plan, the blueprint for future growth, which limits urban sprawl and gives priority to the needs of cyclists, pedestrians and public transit.

Over the years, Ms. Holmes has proved to be "a role model in terms of perseverance and persistence," says Alex Munter, who credits her with many improvements that have indeed made Ottawa's downtown vibrant. "She has been a tireless and eloquent advocate for her constituents and for a livable downtown," said Mr. Munter.  And has she made a difference?

"On every block," he insists, "whether it's traffic lights, pedestrian sidewalks, social services, housing, better public transit -- all the elements of what make the downtown a livable place, she has been involved in all of it," says Mr. Munter, a fellow regional councillor since 1997.

Alex Cullen, now executive director of the Council on Aging, is a former Ottawa and regional councillor and MPP. He said Ms. Holmes' retirement will mean the passing of a major figure in municipal politics.  "When I got on Ottawa Council in 1991, she was a nine-year member of city council," Mr. Cullen said.  "She has been a leading-edge politician when it comes to traffic calming and community safety.

"Diane had all the downtown issues from homelessness right on up.  She was a leader and no laisser faire politician. She has been very strong on public transit issues. Protecting Centretown from development has been one of her biggest accomplishments."

While Mr. Cullen and Mr. Munter saw Ms. Holmes as a political ally, there was also respect, yesterday, from people who didn't see eye to eye with her politically.  Like former regional chair Peter Clark.

"Diane has probably the purest ethics of anybody I worked with in the 15 years I was in municipal politics," said Mr. Clark last night.  "That's just the way she is.  Things like, when you had a meeting and made a decision, even if she didn't agree with it, she didn't spend time after the fact trying to undermine the group."

Regional councillor and former Ottawa councillor Peter Hume was also on the opposite side of many issues. But he praised Ms. Holmes's "focused, passionate dedication" to the downtown and its needs.  "Every council needs someone like that," said Mr. Hume.  Never satisfied with the status quo, "she was always pushing the outside of the envelope" to improve the lives of city-dwellers.

Ms. Holmes is planning to enjoy life more come December 2000, when her term ends on regional council.

"I've decided it's time to have a life. I'm going to travel and play sports and go to movies, and take time to spend with my husband and family."

Her husband has retired, she says, "so it's time while we still have our health, to go off and see the world."

Politics is "more than a full-time job," she noted. There are meetings almost every night, and many events on weekends to attend.  But she adds, "It's been fascinating. What an interesting thing to do, because every day is totally different."

She has no plans to enter the federal or provincial arena, she says, because her priority has always been urban life.  "Other levels -- when you look federally and provincially -- they don't like big cities, they don't understand them, they don't know that they're the catalysts of the economy.  They don't care how much they cut (their funding). They undermine them," she says.

The loss of federal and provincial funding for public transit and housing have dealt a major blow to cities, Ms. Holmes says.  "Every other country in the western world has a housing program and a transit program for their cities.  So it has been really very sad, for Ontario, to watch both levels of government underfunding and undermining the health of cities."

Copyright The Ottawa Citizen © 2000.  Reprinted with permission.