Troubled Land

“It’s about time; what took you so long?” Versions of this question, directed at the hapless National Capital Commission (NCC), reverberated through Ottawa on January 26. And it had nothing to do with the unseasonably late opening of the much-beloved Rideau Canal skateway.  Rather, it came in response to the NCC finally making public two ambitious competing proposals to redevelop a major part of the remaining 19.4 hectares of LeBreton Flats, the barren and polluted riverside land west of and fully visible from Parliament Hill. Since 1962, when its mix of industrial, commercial and residential properties were summarily expropriated, its tightly knit community of working class citizens evicted and every building but one quickly razed, multiple proposals have blossomed, only to wilt away. Of three inventions that did make it past the planning phase, only the Canadian War Museum has enjoyed widespread admiration.

Each totalling $3.5 billion, the two private sector schemes are from Devcore Canderel DLS (DCDLS) Group, including Québec-based billionaires André Desmarais and Guy Laliberté of Cirque de Soleil fame; and RendezVous LeBreton, headed up by Eugene Melnyk, owner of the Ottawa Senators. The unveiling, however, took place under a shadow. Of four shortlisted teams invited to submit detailed proposals, only two came through. In December 2015, both Claridge Homes and Focus Equities withdrew, but cited no reasons.

“History repeats, first as tragedy…

LeBreton Flats lies next to the Ottawa River’s once impressive Chaudière Falls. For First Nations, the falls carried significant religious meaning, while the Flats served as a mayor meeting place for the Anishinaabe including Huron, Ojibwa, Iroquois, Huron, Odawa and other trader nations. But for European colonists in the 19th century this counted for little. So emerged tragedy number one that is still the subject of land claims.

In the second half of the 19th century, with the power offered by the falls and the shift from square timber to cut lumber, Hull, the islands below the falls and LeBreton Flats emerged as major industrial centres. Then on April 26, 1900, a Hull chimney fire, backed by strong winds, quickly spread through wood houses to the dense piles of riverside lumber before pushing the conflagration onto the Flats. Cue tragedy two. In the end, seven people died, followed by many more from disease in the resulting tent cities. 15,000, over 40 per cent and 12 per cent of Hull and Ottawa citizens respectively, were left homeless. The rich who previously built around their businesses absconded to the tonier community of Sandy Hill while the Flats was rebuilt with railyards and industry partially surrounding worker housing.

In 1937, Prime Minister McKenzie King settled on Jacque Gréber, a French architect and urban planner, to create a worthy national capital. Although delayed by the war, Gréber’s deeply flawed plan, a mix of pompous Beaux Art formalism and Le Corbusier’s misguided city-in-a-park but car-directed Modernism, was unveiled in 1950. In general, the plan wanted railways out and car routes in. Gréber saw Ottawa’s abundant river frontage as an asset to be ‘greened’ but also cut off access with benignly labelled car Parkways. In the process, he completely misunderstood the importance of animated urban life as part of these waterways. His treatment of LeBreton Flats reflected these principles. Get rid of the industry, railway tracks and the residents; cut the site with a four lane Parkway and add a major arterial down Preston Street to end at a huge traffic circle on the flats. Very Corb-like slabs in a park-like setting would stretch around a large crescent-shaped beach on Nepean Bay above the now dammed falls.

But it took 12 years before LeBreton’s third tragedy was unleashed. On May 12, 1962, over 2,800 residents were sent packing. Many, including the Ottawa Citizen, justified the brutal decision as welcome “slum” clearing. While it was a gritty neighbourhood it also constituted a tight knit working class community. Historic photographs document examples of substandard housing, but also show significant, even ornate, rows of brick buildings and churches as well as a striking Chateau-style train station. By 1964 it was all gone. Gone too was a large chunk of Nepean Bay, infilled with toxic waste from the demolition. 

…then as farce.”

Missing also was Gréber’s buildings-in-a-park, replaced by the Diefenbaker government’s plan for Pentagon North: three 30-plus storey towers for National Defense. To embrace the towers, the Ottawa-Hull Area 1965 Transportation Plan proposed obliterating the rest of LeBreton with a tangle of expressway lanes and interchanges. When both schemes mercifully died in 1969, two rather bizarre proposals were touted over the next five years. The first was a mammoth garbage incinerator while the second advocated a STOL airport. Meanwhile, the NCC slogged ahead with plans closer to Gréber but now with much higher towers, finalizing its proposal in 1975.

Wait a minute; change of plans. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) hired a young Jack Diamond, who with broad public consultations produced a dense plan of townhouses and low rises. In the end, however, only an enclave of social housing south of Scott Street, characterized by pavement and garage doors, was built along with the city’s bus-only transitway (converting to LRT by 2018). After 1980, the NCC, now working with the city (which retained jurisdiction over LeBreton’s Streets) plugged away for another 20 years, with the new millennium seeing New Urbanism-style mid-rise concept drawings.

With the 2005 completion of the much-admired riverside Canadian War Museum, along with a large but featureless grass “agora” opening out to the west, the NCC set about to develop the 4.4 hectares of land closest to Parliament Hill. One might have expected a major international design competition to ensure urban design and architecture worthy of a National Capital. But there was one big problem: the Mulroney government had quietly changed the rules back in the 1980s dictating the NCC had to receive the full market value for its properties. While this didn’t preclude a design competition followed by a private sector build (as was done by Calgary for its city-owned East Village), it opted to issue a two stage, design-build call for condos set in a semi-gated street plan. Only developers able to handle the full site were welcome, which excluded more creative boutique developers.

While the response was underwhelming, three consortiums were invited to submit detailed proposals. At the very last minute, two developers withdrew leaving only Claridge Homes, a three-time successful bidder on major NCC sites. In response to harsh criticism of the project’s designs, Larry Beasley, Chair of the NCC’s Advisory Committee on Planning, Design and Realty, promised the designs were more massing studies than completed designs. A decade later, he has been proven wrong, leading many to add the minimalist buildings to their “Worst List.”

Lessons not learned

One might have thought the condo debacle would have provided valuable lessons for the NCC.  As the CBC reported in early 2015, even John Baird, the Minister responsible for the NCC opined, “If we wanted to slap up some soulless ugly condominiums we could do that very quickly, but let’s take the time to get it right.” With this in mind, one of two processes might have come to mind. The first would have been, as Helsinki did in arriving at its celebrated Emerald Plan, to invite the best designers in the world to propose competing visions before moving on to a series of design competitions. The other would have been to engage in an intensive iterative process with the public and urban designers/architects to define the role and look of this key piece of the Nation’s Capital to ensure it was a showcase of Canadian urban development mingled with equally representative cultural infrastructure.

Instead, it set in motion an almost identical business investment process for the next 8.3 hectares (strangely including an “option” for proponents to include plans for another whopping 12.3 hectares). The one difference in the December 2014 Request for Qualifications was a weakly-defined requirement for “a particular emphasis on attracting a non-residential distinct anchor use, which may be a private, public/private, national or international-scale attraction or institution.” 

Although the size of the project was huge, interested parties where given only two months to produce submissions that demonstrated both their qualifications and their “vision.” Even after an extension, only five proposals were received. One failed to make the cut when the NCC’s shortlist was announced on February 18, 2015. These four, which again included Claridge Homes, were then provided with a Request for Proposals package, heavy on urban and architecture “design excellence” rhetoric but short on a well-defined Canadian vision other than to “leverage public lands to enhance the attractiveness of the National Capital by attracting a new public anchor use(s) and bringing lively civic life back to this historic capital district.” While LEED Gold was required for larger buildings, the emerging imperatives of the Smart City or references to the strong urban role in the emerging knowledge economy was absent.

Despite the surprising withdrawal of half the shortlist, the Commission proceeded to announce the two remaining proposals on January 26, 2016. Subsequent public consultations included public viewing of detailed design boards, the right to complete an NCC-drafted questionnaire and two well-attended evening sessions. At the last, proponents primarily extolled the virtues of their proposals with very limited time for questions. On February 8, a cone of silence dropped into place with the developers forbidden from talking any further about their submissions. With luck, Ottawans will find out the preferred option in winter 2016.

Problematic process but promising results?

Process complications aside, how strong are the two surviving projects? While they are quite different in several key ways, their two similar components immediately raise questions. The first and least significant is the inclusion of a City of Ottawa central library. Certainly a good idea given the city’s current library and both proposed designs have merit, particularly RenedezVous LeBreton’s animated design by Danish stars Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects (despite the proposed location being outside the NCC’s boundary). But neither proponent is expected to foot the bill and the City’s enthusiasm appears limited at best. Considerably more problematic, however, is the defining non-residential component. While few were surprised when Melnyk proposed a new hockey and performance venue, most were extremely surprised when the Canadensis project by the DCDLS Group also proposed the same after hinting earlier at including “multiple cultural institutions.”

Immediately, Melnyk emphatically stated that the Senators will not be sold nor will they play in anyone else’s arena. In other words, if the arena/performance venue is a must for DCDLS, we are back to the previous much criticized condo project… just a single contender. But, as we shall see, Canadensis includes a raft of other non-residential “attractions” and its arena, unlike RendezVous’ phase one timing, is pushed out to the third and last phase of development. But, with modifications, DCDLS could opt simply for a tailored large scale performance/entertainment venue potentially stripping the Senator’s existing arena in suburban Kanata of up to 200 lucrative nights of non-hockey bookings. Neither of these issues was dealt with substantively in public before the iron curtain of secrecy descended in February.

Illumination LeBreton

But the differences in the proposals are also significant. Illumination LeBreton (RendezVous Group) is much more about extending the urban core, albeit with much greater verve than has been the case in most of Ottawa’s downtown. It proposes five mixed-use neighbourhoods laid out in a series of traditional street grids, although some lack through vehicle circulation. Renderings unfortunately suggest generally boxy towers and mid-rises aligned with the grid. Intentionally or not, this rather classical layout includes the celebrated Roman urban planning preference for an east-west axis (decumanus maximus), here called Canada Way, and a north-south axis (decumanus maximus), rendered at LaBreton as a rather intimidating four-lane extension of Preston Street.

Reflecting its urban living focus, the built-out plan projects 4,400 residential units, with both local firms such as Mattamy Homes and national residential builders forming part of the partnership. This also includes Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation, a well-established social housing NGO. What is lacking is consideration of required social infrastructure such as schools, supermarkets, and so on.

Its mandated anchor is a Major Event Centre (arena) along with an accessible sports/wellness Abilities Centre Ottawa twined with a “Sensplex” containing two NHL-sized hockey rinks. A series of open public spaces (Melnyk reports the project is 50 per cent open space) supports partnerships such as with the extremely successful summer Bluesfest. Another partnership with the Canada Science and Technology Museum calls for the plan’s pedestrian concourse, dubbed the Public Art Axis, to “stage” Innovation Promenade, a “digital pathway… of discovery.” Taking advantage of the downward slope toward the north, Illumination LeBreton, unlike Canadensis, wisely proposes to build over Ottawa’s currently in-construction LRT line thus ensuring the delightful open aqueduct has both a raised terrace and a bankside pedestrian promenade on the south bank of the waterway.

Canadensis- LeBreton Re-imagined

Two major conceptual differences separate Canadenais from its rival. First, save for a single street loop serving a residential/office/retail mixed-use component, it envisages future city landscapes with limited car use. Second, its pedestrian-only decumanus maximus — Canadensis Walk augmented by the uncovered LRT guideway — divides its smaller city living component on the south from a much larger, car-less area hosting a raft of public “anchor” attractions of varying significance.

Its single urban village spanning between Scott Street on the south and the LRT line on the north is projected to have only 2,500 residential units in a series of towers and mid-rises. Space for a YMCA is touted as part of its intent to ensure affordable housing. DCDLS Group has also established partnerships with Canadian retailers such as Farm Boy supermarkets and RBC as well as the Ottawa French Catholic School Board. Near the eastern terminus of the south component is a large Innovation Centre with attached student housing, as a contribution to the knowledge economy.

To the north of the LRT, Canadenais proposes an undulating “Retail Follie,” anchored at both ends by hotel/condo towers, that stretches along the aqueduct. A promise to showcase the best Canadian brands is included. The problematic, if architecturally striking, arena is pushed to the west end next to the Bayview LRT.  But, it has been significantly augmented by an ambitious collection of venues designed to educate, entertain and inform. These include the Canadian Communication Centre; the (ironic) World Automobile Experience; the Air Pavilion sky diving simulator; SPIN Skateway Pavilion; Blue Planet Pavilion (aquarium); Science and Innovation Pavilion/Planetarium (with the science museum); Future Innovation Pavilion and two separate Future Pavilions. Not incidentally, a local swimming beach will be re-introduced in the small inlet that enters the site off Nepean Bay.

In this intriguing potpourri of high-end amusement park attractions and Worlds Fair-like pavilions, some, like the sky diving simulator are products of commercial partnerships. The financing, ownership and governance model of the “public anchors” like the Canadian Communication Centre, however, remain unclear.

One or the other

Setting aside the troubling arena controversy, with only two proposals, albeit with significantly different visions, selecting a preferred option is not easy. Illumination LeBreton is overly skewed to traditional commercial and residential real estate, if very well refined in terms of Ottawa’s historic development. Its only truly major alternate “anchor” is the event facility/Senators arena. Canadensis – LeBreton Re-imagined has included some questionable “public” elements like the car museum and overly segregated its two major functional areas. In terms of architectural representation, the latter’s BBB Architects-led team with Moriyama and Teshima Architects and Provencher Roy Associés Architectes, has produced accomplished, highly detailed, sometimes eye-popping designs. With the exception of the off-site library (designed by KPMB Architects and Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects) and the arena/performance centre, Illumination LeBreton’s team lead by Barry J. Hobin and Associates Architects with Daoust Lestage, Perkin+Will and KPMB are rather staid. This said, there is usually many a slip between lip and cup during concept realization, as Ottawa found out recently in its Lansdowne revitalization (Building, June- July 2014 / February-March 2013).

Many questions hang in the air and the answers will remain behind closed doors over the next nine months. Still, one can only wonder what one or more wonderful alternative visions might have emerged if LeBreton was conceived as a National Capital building exercise and not a business transaction.

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1 Comment
  1. Skip Hayden says

    I am quite perplexed by the author’s dismissal of “2 bizarre plans” of the 1970’s for Lebreton. The first, involving an exceptionally clean-burning energy-recovery incinerator, would have had a huge positive impact on greenhouse gases and fossil fuels, while promoting recycling at a time when this was a dirty word. The second, a STOL (short takeoff and landing) would have helped to obviate the loss of our downtown train station, and coupled with Toronto Island, made the extremely busy (and energy intensive) Ottawa-Toronto connection faster, more energy efficient and environmentally benign, while using world-class Canadian technology (deHavilland- now Bombardier) while still allowing enlightened mixed development on the site.

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