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LeBreton Flats: empty since the 1960s. Will the latest effort by the National Capital Commission finally produce a plan that will fill it?
A view of Lebreton Flats area.
National Capital Commission’s concept map of a new plan for rebuilding LeBreton Flats.
Over the past 10 years, we’ve faced floods and tornadoes, terror and fear and nightmares on our roads. Most importantly, this decade has given us heroes — people who inspire with their brilliance and courage. These stories helped shape the Ottawa we live in today. In our annual newsmakers series, we examine the decade’s biggest stories. Today, LeBreton Flats.
It takes little more than 10 minutes to walk from Bayview Road to Booth St. along the southern fringe of LeBreton Flats. Turn north and it’s just a few minutes more to the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway.
Astonishingly this prime, 53-acre site has lain mostly fallow since the 1960s despite, or maybe because of, its proximity to the Parliament Buildings. More than half a century ago, it was cleared of gritty, industrial buildings and single-family homes to make way for a community of government office buildings. In what was to become a theme, the plan was never realized.
Instead, LeBreton has been condemned to serve as a tabula rasa for several generations of politicians and developers, a place where dreams come to die.
The National Capital Commission — the owner of most of LeBreton — has mulled multiple proposals over the years. Museums, convention centres, a world exposition, rail terminal, aquarium, housing, retail developments, with the notable exception of the Canadian War Museum, all have been promoted and discarded.
“All the (Flats) has ever got was words — great heaps of them, in report after report, plan after plan, each erased to make way for a new one,” author Phil Jenkins wrote in his 2008 history of LeBreton, An Acre of Time . “More than 30 years’ worth of words, millions and millions of words, and not one serious building has been built there,” he concluded.
Indeed, this is where things stood as the 2010s began.
The NCC’s vision at the time was to encourage the formation of some 2,500 residential units, office buildings and a modest number of retail outlets. The ultimate goal was to create a community of 4,500 residents and 6,500 workers, all served by public transit.
But the only development of note was several hundred residential units built by Claridge on the eastern periphery.
All that changed a few years later when three catalysts converged:
- In February 2013, the city awarded the first phase of the light rail transit project to Rideau Transit Group, which would eventually lead to two new stations at either end of Lebreton.
- On Dec. 11, 2013, city council revised Ottawa’s official development plan to encourage more population density along the mass transit routes.
- Mark Kristmanson was appointed NCC chief in February 2014. Later that year, he invited the private sector to produce fresh ideas for remaking the entire LeBreton site.
When the NCC whittled down five contenders to just one on April 28, 2016, it seemed LeBreton’s long wait for redevelopment was finally over. RendezVous LeBreton, a joint venture between Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and Trinity Development founder John Ruddy, would fill the 53-acre site over the next two decades with houses, apartments, a hotel, office buildings and entertainment attractions. A $600-million National Hockey League stadium would be the centrepiece.
Unfortunately, the very catalysts that pushed LeBreton redevelopment to the starting line also worked at cross-purposes as the $4-billion project entered the crucial and ultimately futile financing stage.
The LRT project, combined with the new city policy of densification, created irresistible pressure for developers to propose massive new apartment or condominium towers. Ruddy did so at 900 Albert St., the site of LRT’s new Bayview station, located a few steps southwest of LeBreton.
Although the city had approved zoning changes to permit towers at 900 Albert in 2012 and Trinity had submitted a more ambitious planning rationale for the site in March 2016, Melnyk claimed in legal filings that he was not aware of the full extent of Ruddy’s plans until late 2017. Whatever the timing, Melnyk became convinced the marketing of apartments at 900 Albert would profoundly interfere with the economics of the LeBreton project, which depended heavily on the sale of residential and retail properties.
This commercial disagreement, among others, would erupt into $1.7-billion in claims and counterclaims late in 2018, with the RendezVous LeBreton partnership finally dissolving earlier this year.
While discordant personalities were significant influences in triggering the legal mess, the NCC appears to have significantly underplayed the commercial risk. Although remaking LeBreton would be nearly 10 times the cost and would take at least twice the time as the complicated Lansdowne redevelopment in south Ottawa, the NCC paid surprisingly little attention to the financial strength of the bidders or the stability of the winning partnership. Just 20 of a potential 140 points were awarded on the basis of ownership, management, financial capability and how the financial plan would be implemented.
The ability to work together was obviously vital. Yet it was clear from the beginning that the partnership was troubled. The day after the NCC picked RendezVous LeBreton as its preferred bidder, Melnyk threatened the team’s project manager, Graham Bird, with legal action and termination. When trying to arrange financing, Melnyk and Ruddy wound up calling the same people, sometimes with contradictory messages.
Melnyk, as his colleagues know well, prefers to be in charge. And, because the National Hockey League stadium and associated projects were to be developed early on, he faced more immediate financial risks than Ruddy, who could afford to spread his retail and residential projects over two decades.
The perspectives of the RendezVous LeBreton partners were also a study in contrast. Melnyk, the outsider and unpredictable pharmaceutical entrepreneur, kept his eye firmly on the commercial opportunity. Those close to him say he was also seeking recognition from a community that has not always greeted him warmly.
For Ruddy and Bird, the idea of LeBreton was epic. Hometown boys, they viewed the project as a historic opportunity to make a permanent imprint on the last large piece of open property in the nation’s capital.
Instead, they and Melnyk will spend part of January in Toronto providing evidence to support their lawsuits against each other.
Meantime, the NCC has launched yet another effort to redevelop LeBreton. The commission “is embarking on a process to create a renewed vision for a dynamic Capital destination and a complete community where people can live, work and play,” the crown corporation declares without evident enthusiasm on its website.
The fresh vision looks to be very much like the plan submitted originally by Melnyk and Ruddy, only the NCC intends to roll out this latest version one bit at a time.
Will it happen finally? Will LeBreton fill up?
Maybe. But consider this line from the LeBreton Flats Plan published by the NCC 23 years ago: “Driving the planning was an unwavering conviction shared by all that the time had come to bring life and activity back to the Flats.” That plan, too, proposed housing, office and retail development, cultural institutions and open spaces.
Sometimes, when you can do absolutely anything, it’s difficult to do something.
The most recent decade at LeBreton remained true to the experience of the previous four. Nothing happened. With any luck, the 2020s will finally break this pattern. We just shouldn’t count on it.
Ottawa’s newsmakers of the decade were selected by Postmedia editors and by newsroom voting.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019