National Capital Commission board feeling greater control over LeBreton Flats file

LeBreton
LeBreton Flats. Photo via NCC

The phased approach to developing LeBreton Flats has members of the National Capital Commission’s board of directors feeling more in control of the long-vacant land in downtown Ottawa as compared to the previous setup with RendezVous LeBreton.

The NCC, which owns the 55 acres of prime development land just west of the downtown core, outlined its planning rationale for the LeBreton Flats project at a public board meeting held Tuesday morning.

The Crown corporation cancelled its procurement process to redevelop the Flats earlier this year after talks fell through with preferred proponent RendezVous LeBreton and announced that it would instead opt for a “phased” approach to develop the site in sections rather than handing it over to a single development consortium.

Katie Paris, the NCC’s director of major real estate development, pushed back Tuesday against critics – including Mayor Jim Watson and the Ottawa Board of Trade – who have characterized the new approach as “piecemeal” and lacking the substantial vision necessary to build a marquee development on the site.

“We see this integrative and cohesive plan being implemented in phases – phases that are frankly anything but hodgepodge or piecemeal or any of these other things that we’ve been hearing,” Paris said in a presentation to the board. She noted that the phased process is being implemented “hand-in-glove” with overall site planning.

The phased approach will allow the NCC to open requests for proposals to develop LeBreton one piece of land at a time, beginning with a 2.9-acre swath of land next to Ottawa’s future central library. This tact takes the LeBreton eggs out of one basket; it’s an attempt to avoid further incidents like the collapse of the RendezVous LeBreton partnership, which dissolved earlier this year after Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and partner John Ruddy of Trinity Development Group were unable to resolve internal issues and fell into litigation with one another.

This approach also puts more control back into the hands of the NCC itself, numerous board members pointed out Tuesday.

Toronto-based lawyer Michael Foderick said he was “heartened” by what he heard from Paris and Chris Hardwicke, a representative from O2 Planning + Design, the company tasked with developing a master plan for the LeBreton project.

Foderick said this is the first time he has felt the LeBreton file is “on track” since joining the NCC board in 2017. He said the concept of selling the LeBreton land off for a “modest sum” to a private developer to build at its own pace was a mistake. While RendezVous LeBreton had the benefit of “flashy renderings” to capture public support, he said those designs amounted to “smoke and mirrors.”

“That was not the right approach. I never felt that was the right approach. This is the opposite of that in so many ways,” Foderick said.

He added that the NCC’s approach was “real,” and reflected proper planning procedures for a project of this magnitude. Other NCC directors echoed Foderick’s excitement about the opportunity to exert greater influence on the final LeBreton vision.

Foderick also said he believed the new approach will result in not only better returns on public dollars, but also a faster build-out of the LeBreton project. He wasn’t able to provide details on the NCC’s new financial plan, nor information on how the RendezVous LeBreton timelines would have compared to the NCC’s approach, citing commercially sensitive information not available to the public at this time.

NCC chief executive Tobi Nussbaum later clarified at a news conference that the two projects would have potentially progressed in a similar timeframe.

In general terms, however, Foderick reiterated his confidence in the NCC’s new approach as it compares to RendezVous LeBreton’s proposal.

“Big picture vision, again, compare the two: We are in much better shape than we were.”

The public will be invited to give feedback on initial concepts for the LeBreton project this November, with the NCC expecting to give board approval on a master plan in January. RFPs to develop the land adjacent to the library are expected to be opened by the end of the year or early 2020.