Re-building and re-shaping Centretown, the National Capital Commission way

By Jenny Weichenthal
As the core of the nation’s capital, Centretown has captured the attention of the National Capital Commission and is at the heart of its plans for redevelopment and revitalization.

There are a number of proposals, concepts and plans in the works for the future that Somerset City Coun. Elisabeth Arnold says will have a great effect on the city, and especially on Centretown.

But Arnold says the way the NCC makes decisions about what to do in the area is a problem.

She says the NCC needs to have more consultation with the public to find out what it wants to happen in the city.

Arnold says it also needs to work closer with the city and regional governments because the decisions the NCC make have an impact on the whole city. Especially when it is changing things the other governments are generally responsible for, such as parking lots and traffic.

Diane Dupuis, spokeswoman for the NCC, says it has always made decisions with extensive public consultation and is continuing to do so in deciding what to do with the downtown core.

She says they hold open houses and workshops, put surveys at Parliament Hill and make presentations to planners and special interest groups. A Web site with information on projects should also be running by the end of the month.

Dupuis says the input from the public has a lot of impact on what they do— public reaction was the reason why they cancelled the widening of Metcalfe Street last year, for example.

Dupuis says an open house about the proposed projects for the downtown core will be held in Ottawa on April 11 and in Quebec on April 12.

Marc Denhez, one of the NCC board members, says what the NCC will accomplish depends on what windows of opportunity become open in the future and deciding, “Which basket do we put the eggs in?”

“Sometimes where the NCC must go depends on where is the path of least resistance,” says Denhez.

He says one of the projects that will have a major impact on the face of Centretown is the proposed re-development of Lebreton Flats, the former industrial area just west of Parliament Hill that has become what he calls “a glorified snow dump.”

While the NCC has always been a major landowner there, development could not happen because the land was criss-crossed with roadways owned by three levels of government — federal, regional and municipal.

Dupuis says they have now consolidated the ownership of the northern part of the Flats and they expect to consolidate the southern part in the next few months.

Proposed developments, which Dupuis says the NCC would like to see begin in the next three to five years, would likely involve a mixture of residential, commercial and public buildings. There is also the possibility of making a large park where festivals could be held.

Dupuis says the NCC is also considering realigning the Ottawa River Parkway further south and leveling raised areas so the river could be seen from all parts of the Flats.

The NCC is involved in a proposal to develop an entire block between O’Connor and Queen Streets on the south side of Sparks Street.

It originally owned the parking lot on the corner of O’Connor and Queen and has been given $40 million federal dollars to buy the rest of the property on the block.

The NCC has now purchased two of the buildings and is dealing with the remaining three property owners. While the Ottawa Citizen reported the NCC spent $9.2 million on the first building it bought, Dupuis would not confirm the cost of the buildings.

Dupuis says they plan to demolish the entire block, except for the three heritage buildings, then redevelop it with a mixture of residential, commercial, office and open space. The new development might include an underground parking area between Queen and Sparks to accommodate visitors and tour buses.

“You have to do something really major to jump-start revitalization,” says Dupuis. “But we won’t go in demolishing buildings until we have someone from the private sector ready to take over the development.”

Dupuis says the NCC would like to see these changes by 2006, because she says it would be a much-needed boost to the vitality and activity in the area.

The NCC also recently announced plans to develop the northern side of Sparks Street. This would result in a two-block-long square beside Metcalfe Street, immediately south of Parliament Hill.

Francois Lapointe, director of planning for the NCC, says this would create more open space and would make the Sparks Street Mall more accessible to visitors on Parliament Hill.

Lapointe says this proposal has only been put forward as a concept and the priority is the south side of Sparks.

One of the problems with developing the north side is that it would mean moving two heritage buildings from the area.

Arnold says she is concerned about heritage buildings, as well as the feasibility of the project itself.

“It’s extremely ambitious and it’s a very long-range plan,” she says.

Arnold says she is worried that the NCC is buying buildings without commitments from the private sector for redevelopment. She fears the buildings they have purchased will sit unused like the former site of the Daly building.
The Daly building and surrounding land was transferred to the NCC from Public Works in 1985 and demolished by the NCC in the early 1990s. In the summer of 1998, the NCC announced it had selected a developer called Canadian Gateway to develop a new building.
Dupuis says they have proposed developing an underground parking lot with a large underground aquarium above it, with the next two floors being commercial and retail space and a hotel above. But the lot is still vacant and boarded up and she doesn’t know when anything will finally happen there.
“We had hoped (the developer) would be in a position to start sooner, but they are still trying to organize tenants,” says Dupuis.
Arnold is not sure an open square is the best way to make Sparks Street a livelier place, due to Ottawa’s climate.
But Arnold says she would like the NCC to progress with the development of Lebreton Flats.