Cover

Tidying up 'a mess'

JULIAN BELTRAME September 3 2001
Cover

Tidying up 'a mess'

JULIAN BELTRAME September 3 2001

Tidying up 'a mess'

Cover

JULIAN BELTRAME

in Ottawa

Paris has the splendour of the Champs-Elysées, the triumphal broad avenue at the heart of the City of Light. Washington features the Mall, a languorous stretch of greenery that offers an unobstructed sight line to the Capitol Dome. Ottawa has “a mess,” in the blunt words of Marcel Beaudry, chairman of Canadas National Capital Commission, the Crown corporation that oversees federal property in the capital. Elis harsh assessment of Sparks Street, a pedestrian mall that is a clutter of shops, fast-food eateries and airless offices, may exaggerate the matter. But few would argue that what now stands one block south of the gothicinspired Parliament Hill precinct serves only to block a magnificent creation. “The capital is a nations business card,” says Beaudry, “and right now ours looks like hell—so we have to do something.”

That something, Beaudry is determined, should be grand. The capital commission recently completed a round of public consultations on a 50-year plan to transform Canadas capital. It is the second time Ottawa has embarked on such an ambitious—some would say extravagant—program. In 1950, French urban planner Jacques Gréber laid out the longterm plan for the city. Many of his recommendations were adopted, including the ribbon of open green spaces that circles the city, a network of meandering walkways and bicycle paths, and the ban-

THE BIRD’S-EYE VIEW

O SPARKS STREET: The pedestrian mall is currently the NCC’s public enemy No. 1.

0 VICTORIA AND CHAUDIERE ISLANDS:

The biggest challenge facing the NCC.

0 LEBRETON FLATS: Despite its prominent riverfront site, the area is a wasteland.

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ishment of the train station from the core. “That’s done,” says Beaudry, a former Hull, Que., mayor and real estate developer. “Now we’re entering a new century and we need to think about the next 50 years.” Here’s what he has in mind. SPARKS STREET: The five-block, eastwest pedestrian mall and surrounding area is NCC’s public enemy No. 1. Of particular concern is its intersection with narrow Metcalfe Street, which offers the most direct view of Parliament Hill’s massive Centre Block and majestic Peace Tower. As the commission sees it, Metcalfe is too claustrophobic to properly showcase the seat of government—it must be aired out. Originally commission planners wanted to create a broad boulevard the full length of Metcalfe—a true Canadian Champs-Elysées. The price tag for buying up such a swath of property, however, was prohibitive, upwards of $500 million. Now, planners are setting their sights on what locals have dubbed Champs-Elysées Lite, a large piazza opening up a two-block vista of Parliament Hill. Beneath the square, the commission wants to put underground parking. On the southwest, it envisions private developers building a commercial-residential highrise. But opposition is stiff. Creating a square would mean levelling or moving five buildings on the north side of Sparks, including the heritage-designated old Montreal Telegraph site, which now houses an artifacts store. It also presupposes that private interests are lining up to redevelop the area.

LE BRETON FLATS: The former industrial site just west of Parliament Hill has been an urban wasteland for 35 years. Ideas for using the 65-hectare expanse of wild grass, stunted trees, roads and parking lots have come and gone. Then in May, Canadian Heritage Minister Sheila Copps announced the government will construct a new Canadian War Museum there.

With the museum as an anchor, the NCC wants to fill in the remaining space with a combination of parkland, residential and commercial units, and a large festival park. It also proposes rerouting the Ottawa River Parkway, which currently follows the river’s shoreline, south through the flats to allow public access to the river. The government has set aside $99 million to clean up the site. The museum is scheduled to open in 2004, although the design has yet to be chosen.

VICTORIA AND CHAUDIERE ISLANDS:

Located on the Ottawa River between the capital and Hull, the islands represent the NCC’s biggest challenge. The commission wants to connect the two islands and the mainland with several pedestrian bridges. On Victoria Island, the largest of the two, it would build an aboriginal centre. It would convert the former E. B. Eddy paper manufacturing plant on Chaudière into a museum dedicated to the region’s past as a lumber centre. There would also be extensive landscaping, along with construction of footbridges, boardwalks, piers and docking facilities to try to lure visitors.

But the NCC must convince Chaudières current owner, Domtar Inc., to depart. So far, the company has shown no inclination to do so. Since 1995, the company spent $100 million to modernize its operations and issued a statement in May, 1998, that it intends to stay put. Beaudry admits the NCC’s proposal for the islands is, at best, a vision for the distant future.

Ottawans won’t have to wait for other federal improvements. The old U.S. Embassy, directly in front of the Centre Block and abandoned when American diplomats moved into their new quarters in 1999, is being prepared for a national portrait gallery. A national sports hall of fame is slated to take up residence in the former railroad station, a highly praised neo-classical building across the street from the Château Laurier. In the midst of its continuous renovations to the Parliament buildings, the government is also considering a proposal for new office space on the Hill, including a new structure beside the West Block. That has raised fears of a modern steel-and-glass monstrosity set in the midst of the Hill’s gothic wonders, with their inspiring towers and distinctive copper peaks. But former House Speaker John Fraser, whose committee made the recommendation in May, insists “anything new will have to fit the surroundings.”

Will any of it really happen? As critics point out, the NCC has a long history of unrealized dreams. The commission does have an ace in the hole, however, in Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who is said to be anxious to leave his stamp on the capital. Insiders say Chrétien is no mere supporter of the plan but was in fact its catalyst, and

critics have begun referring to the Metcalfe and Sparks piazza proposal as Chrétiens “vanity project.” In a statement to Macleans, Chrétien praised the NCC’s “bold plan,” adding, “Canadians deserve a national capital that is nothing less than our showcase; one that reflects our creativity, our diversity and our extraordinary accomplishment.” But opposition is already building, particularly to the piazza. Elisabeth Arnold, the city councillor representing the downtown core, calls the concept “fantastic”— and she doesn’t mean wonderful. “The NCC is fixated on demolishing buildings,” she complains. Arnold adds that a vast, open square might not make such a cozy viewing platform in a city with six months of blustery, wintry weather. She is more amenable to the commission’s residential proposals on Sparks, saying it would revitalize the street. Merchants are also digging in their heels against the plan. Tony Fisher, whose family clothing store has been ensconced on Sparks since 1905, says he may agree to relocating down the street. “But I expect to stay on the block,” he told Macleans. “If anything else happened, there would be blood.”

Then there are the esthetic concerns over the piazza. Barry Padolsky, an Ottawa architect and heritage consultant, says the NCC confuses architectural concepts in trying to replicate Washington or Paris. Washington was planned in the neoclassical style to enshrine the idea of a great democracy; Paris is a neo-baroque city and the Champs-Elysées is meant to convey a sense of power and procession. But Parliament Hill recalls London’s gothic aspect, he says, with its vistas revealed obliquely and suddenly, almost as one steps around a corner. “You shouldn’t mix them up,” Padolsky argues, “and if the cost to the capital is erasing its heritage and history, it’s a cost not worth paying.”

To Beaudry, the carping betrays the sort of small-mindedness that has, in the past, stood in the way of making Ottawa a capital worthy of the greatness of Canada. “We have another opportunity now,” he says. “It’ll be costly, buildings will be demolished, but if you achieve something beneficial to the whole area, we must act.” With the plan’s powerful sponsor—the Prime Minister—expected to retire in the next two or three years, it may be the NCC’s best chance to see its vision realized. E3