Gatineau council’s decision to put a heritage designation on the downtown Museum District has effectively slammed the door on a controversial plan to build a $400-million mixed-use highrise complex in the city, the developer behind the proposal says.
Gatineau-based Brigil had been hoping to construct a 35-storey and a 55-storey tower with a total of more than 400 condos and 320 hotel rooms across from the Canadian Museum of History. But in a 12-7 vote on Tuesday night, city council chose to designate the area a heritage district with a three-storey limit on all new development.
Calling the vote a “setback,” Brigil special adviser Yves Ducharme said the developer had considered other potential sites for the massive mixed-use project, but determined the property on the north side of rue Laurier made the most economic sense.
“We looked at different locations, but the best location, the prime location is right in front of the Canadian Museum of History,” he told OBJ on Wednesday. “That’s why the Canadian Museum of History was located there, overlooking the Parliament (Buildings) and the river.”
Brigil first proposed the project, dubbed Place du Peuples, nearly three years ago. It estimated the development would generate $8 million in tax revenue annually and create up to 1,000 new jobs.
Mayor supports heritage designation
From the start, the plan – which called for a five-star hotel along with a smaller boutique lodging, as well as a 120,000-square-foot commercial component and a rooftop observation deck – sparked passionate debate among both supporters and detractors.
Heritage advocates argued the soaring towers designed by renowned architect Douglas Cardinal, who also designed the museum of history, would undermine the historic character of the neighbourhood. In May, ward councillor Cedric Tessier launched a process to give the area a special heritage designation.
Tessier said the area bordered by Laurier, Victoria and Papineau streets and des Allumettieres boulevard includes historic buildings that date back to the 19th century such as College St-Joseph, the oldest school in Gatineau.
“That’s the history of the city, the region, and I would say even it reflects Canadian history,” he said. “We think the preservation of this side of the street was important.”
The designation allows for existing structures to be demolished and replaced with new buildings that fit specific criteria, he added. But Tessier said the highrises in Brigil’s plan are too tall and their design is out of character for the street.
“A project like Brigil’s towers can’t be done in a heritage district,” said Tessier. “We don’t say we don’t want towers. We don’t talk about the colours, we don’t talk about the shape. What we say is you have to respect the architecture, the volume of the buildings that are already inside the district.”
Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin supported the heritage designation, calling the neighbourhood “very precious.” He said builders of other nearby developments are playing by the city’s zoning rules and Brigil is expected to as well.
“That neighbourhood had to be preserved,” he said. “We cannot say yes to a project like Brigil’s project that doesn’t respect any of our regulations and expect all the other (developers) to keep respecting our plan.”
Location, location, location
Tessier said he would consider supporting the project if it were built in another part of downtown.
“This project elsewhere would be great,” Tessier said.
But Ducharme said resurrecting the proposal in a different neighbourhood “is not in the forecast” for Brigil.
"It's easy when it's not your money to say, 'Why not elsewhere?'"
“It’s easy when it’s not your money to say, ‘Why not elsewhere?’” he said. “But we all know location, location, location are the three main components of success in real estate. The lots located in the front of the Canadian Museum of History are the best location for a five-star hotel, condo and commercial development.”
While the builder could ask council to hold a referendum on a zoning amendment to allow the towers, Ducharme said the chances of it passing would be slim. He said Brigil will now turn its attention to other developments on both sides of the river, including a 32-storey condo tower now under construction on Parkdale Avenue in Ottawa.
“For now, we will just let the dust settle and concentrate all our efforts on all the other projects that are on the table,” he said. “We foresee an excellent future.”
Ducharme said Brigil, which owns several lots at the rue Laurier site and has options on others, is in no rush to figure out what to do with the properties.
“We’re weighing our options for now,” he said. “We will have plenty of time to think about that.”