I was about 10 years old when the former buildings on LeBreton Flats in Ottawa were expropriated and demolished. More than five decades later, we haven’t much to show for it other than one museum, a couple of unexciting condos and an LRT station that just opened 470 or so days late.
For those of you not familiar with the escapade that is LeBreton, this is a vast tract of former industrial land (about 210 acres) just west of Ottawa’s urban core. It’s home to the Canadian War Museum and long been the site of a signature music festival, Bluesfest.
And not much else.
Making some kind of productive use of LeBreton Flats should be a no-brainer, considering its prime location. But this has been a political and environmental football for years.
Part of the issue is who must foot the bill for the extensive brownfields remediation the site needs due to the industrial activity of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The other is that Ottawa is unique in Canada by having a “fourth level of government” calling the shots – the National Capital Commission (NCC).
The NCC is a “Crown corporation responsible for planning, as well as taking part in the development, conservation and improvement of Canada’s Capital Region. It administers many federally owned lands.”
Almost . . . but not quite
That includes LeBreton. Years of effort to come up with a viable plan to redevelop the site appeared to have finally paid off in 2016 when, after an extensive competitive process, a consortium called RendezVous LeBreton landed the job with a $3.5-billion plan.
Only for that to all fall apart last fall due to irreconcilable differences and lawsuits between the RendezVous LeBreton partners. This put everything back at square one.
The NCC is considering selling the site off piecemeal to developers to get something done. At the end of August, former political rivals John Manley and John Baird ignored party lines to decry the idea and called for a “comprehensive vision” that puts the emphasis on a world-class public space for all.
Columnist Mohammed Adam agreed, recently writing in the Ottawa Citizen that the “NCC, if left to its own devices, will turn LeBreton into a condo and office wasteland. And it will consider this a great achievement.”
It all seems like a uniquely Made in Ottawa conundrum. This is the same city, after all, that took years to get multiple stakeholders on board to redevelop its flagship conference centre.
It also pulled the plug, at great expense, to reboot its LRT plans.
A symptom of a broader malaise
In my view, LeBreton Flats is but one example of a paralysis I see manifesting in different ways across the country when it comes time to invest dollars, rally public support and get shovels in the ground to realize a brave new vision for the future.
The ability to develop such projects in this country is grinding to a halt.
Contrast this with the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s.
Now, I know, building that railway with the methods of the day was far from acceptable by today’s standards, from either an environmental or from a health and safety standpoint. (What big projects up until fairly recently were?)
But my point isn’t about excusing or forgiving those failings. It’s about how when the decision was made to get the job done, the leaders of the day got the resources, and the consensus, in place to see it done.
They didn’t allow egos or partisan concerns or the grind of bureaucracy to undermine that.
The result? A railway that stretched from just west of Ottawa to the West Coast was completed in five years, with construction basically taking place in the summers.
A healthy fear of China is warranted
Politics aside, this is the kind of can-do attitude we see today in a global economic powerhouse like China. Back in the mid-’90s, the average speed on China’s commercial train service was only 48 km/h.
Today, China has 31,000 km of high-speed rail lines with maximum speeds of up to 350 km/h, with nearly 32,000 kilometres of new lines under construction.
By comparison, the first discussion of a subway for Ottawa took place in 1915 and 104 years later we have just opened 12.5 kilometres of LRT.
I am not suggesting we adopt the decision-making process of China, but we need to ask ourselves: Are we setting ourselves up to suffer real economic disadvantages for no other reason than the time it takes to get a decision made?
Infrastructure drives mobility, mobility drives economic growth and economic growth drives real estate values. Surely we can start making some smart decisions in a time frame that protects the environment and keeps us from becoming economic laggards.
How do we regain what we’ve lost?
Consider the timing of the last major infrastructure projects in Canada that drove the economy to where it is today:
* Railways 19th and early 20th century;
* Airports 1930s to 1950s;
* St. Lawrence Seaway 1950s;
* Highway 401: First proposed in 1938 and constructed in stages between 1947 and 1968;
* Trans-Canada Highway Act of 1949: Construction started 1950 and completed in 1970.
I drove the almost-completed section of the Trans-Canada north of Lake Superior in 1968. Since then, we have grown economically on the backs of infrastructure projects that largely were completed 50 to 150 years ago.
Our Chinese competitors, meanwhile, have moved what looks like light-years in the last 30 years.
What do you think?
How we do match that kind of advancement, to remain competitive and relevant on the global economic stage, while holding to our core values around the environment, human rights, and health and safety?
Really – I want to know. Share your ideas (see my email address below).
LeBreton Flats has largely stood vacant for almost 60 years of my lifetime and I would hope that we are capable of making some reasonable decision on this real estate before my two-year-old grandson reaches my age.
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