What Chateau Laurier illustrates about city councils and geographic diversity.
For a time in early summer, the most intense political battle in Ottawa was taking place outside the House of Commons, 100 metres east of Parliament Hill. The site of the controversy was the neo-gothic Chateau Laurier hotel, a building that has been described as playing “a pivotal role in the visual composition of Canada’s Capital.” In 2016, the owner of the castle-like landmark first proposed a boxy 127-room addition at the back of the hotel, overlooking the Rideau Canal.
The proposal was immediately met with criticism. Some described the addition as a “giant air conditioner,” others called it “visual vandalism in the heart of our Capital.” Three years later, as the proposal reached a final vote in council, it had become a cause celebre, attracting the ire of prominent journalists, Members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers. A high-profile advocacy group, Friends of the Chateau Laurier, had formed featuring a “who’s who” of Ottawa, from the CEO of Heritage Ottawa to former ambassadors and Senators. They implored Parks Canada and the National Capital Commission and Heritage Canada to stop the addition.
There was even an attempt to get the Prime Minister to step in. In a letter urging Trudeau to intervene, prominent architect Barry Padolsky said the “architectural box, aptly named the ‘radiator’” has “horrified many Canadians.” Even comedian and Ottawa native Tom Green appeared before council to share his thoughts on the design. “It looks like a wall,” Green said without humour. “It looks like Donald Trump’s wall is being built to hide the Chateau Laurier from one of the most dramatic vistas in the world.” Some reports pegged opposition to the project at more than 90 per cent of downtown Ottawa residents.
And yet despite the size of the opposition, despite the strength of the opposition, and despite the high profile of the opposition, Ottawa city council voted down a motion 13-10 that would have voided a permit to build the addition to the century-old heritage building. The much-hated addition was a-go. It is an outcome that should give hope to developers facing opposition to their plans. Highly organized opposition groups can often kill a project — but not always.
There are many lessons to take away from this saga, but the most valuable lesson is on the dynamics of city councils, and how they can favour even the most controversial projects. In this lesson geography plays a starring role. The city of Ottawa is much more than the National Capital Region, which is home to the Chateau Laurier. It comprises large swathes of rural land and small towns like Cumberland, Munster and Constance Bay. At 2,976 square kilometres you could fit Toronto, Montréal, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver inside the boundaries of Ottawa’s city limits.
As one commentator put it, the councillors who voted for the renovation “represent people who have as much to do with the Chateau Laurier as people in Nova Scotia.” Sure enough, the 10 votes opposed to the project were those closest to the city centre; the 13 who were in favour were farthest away. While Ottawa is an extreme example, this type of geographic diversity is at the heart of every city council. No two wards will ever be affected by a project in the same way; an act of visual vandalism to one constituency is just another faraway building to another.
Developers forget this fact at their peril. At the first sign of opposition, many developers get tunnel vision. They focus their efforts almost exclusively on the flip-flopping councillor and their handful of angry constituents. Outside the fray, though, is where smart developers should focus their efforts. In council, the vote of an outlying ward counts just as much as that of the project site. And there are always more outlying wards than the host ward
In this vote-rich environment the passions are much lower, the constituents more sanguine, and the chances of a “yes” vote higher. The lesson from the Chateau Laurier is that council votes are a numbers game, and that if played right no amount of noise, no number of influencers can affect the simple math of a vote tally.
Kevin Powers is managing principal of Project Advocacy Inc., a subsidiary of Campbell Strategies, and is focused on helping project developers facing public and government opposition.