Opinion: Ottawa's boardwalk empire

Liberal MP floats Ottawa River revitalization idea as other waterfront areas start ‘coming to life’

Yet, for almost 150 years, there’s been scant effort to exploit the immediate surrounding area for the public interest.

The Gatineau waterfront has been despoiled by industrial buildings for almost all of Ottawa’s history as the nation’s capital. It still is, and part of it will probably remain so for at least another 15 years.

But it’s not just the Gatineau waterfront that’s a problem. Few Ottawa residents, and probably fewer tourists, find anything to attract them to the Ottawa waterfront just below Parliament Hill. There is almost nothing there except a modest recreational pathway.

John Jarvis, manager of the Westin Hotel in downtown Ottawa, struck a chord at an economic forecasting event last fall when he lamented the almost total absence of waterfront attractions, such as cafes and restaurants, in the capital.

“The single question most often asked of me is, ‘What happened to the waterfront in Ottawa?’ We need to fix that … we just don’t have any life along the river,” Mr. Jarvis said, drawing applause.

“We have very few restaurants, (and) there are just not a whole lot of economic generators along our waterfronts.”

As recently reported, there is hope that private developers will be found to take on the huge task of redeveloping Chaudiere Island in the Ottawa River just west of Parliament Hill. But even in a best-case scenario, progress is still years away.

So what can be done in the short term to enliven the Ottawa River waterfront?

Mauril Belanger, the Liberal MP for Ottawa-Vanier, believes he has just the idea. Mr. Belanger told OBJ he favours the construction of a wide boardwalk on the Ottawa side of the river. It would extend from the Rideau Canal entrance, just beneath the Parliament Buildings, westwards almost as far as the Portage Bridge. There would be places to buy food and drink.

The boardwalk could be large enough to support tens of thousands of people on big occasions, such as the Canada Day fireworks.

Mr. Belanger said he’s suggested the idea to the National Capital Commission, but does not know how likely it is to happen.

Mr. Belanger hopes that sound-and-light shows could be staged on the waterfront. He would also like to copy an idea he saw in Las Vegas – a sound-and-light show with illuminated water fountains spurting from the Ottawa River. It could work, if done stylishly.

The boardwalk is something that could be in place by 2017, when Canada celebrates its 150th birthday, Mr. Belanger said. He estimates it would cost $10 million or less, and suggests corporate sponsors could lower the cost to taxpayers.

On the Quebec side of the river, the industrial buildings directly across from Parliament Hill seem likely to be in operation for at least 15 more years. The plant is operated by Kruger, a company that makes paper products.

The 20-acre Kruger site is owned by the National Capital Commission, which leased it to Kruger in 2003 for 25 years. For that, blame the former Liberal government, which was in power at the time. What on earth were they thinking, leasing such a prime site – in this day and age – for continued use as a factory?

One of the very few success stories on the Ottawa River waterfront lately has been the opening of the Mill St. Brew Pub in a long-abandoned mill on the shoreline just across from Victoria Island.

“Being on the water is something that most establishments in Ottawa cannot offer,” said Peter Chase, the pub’s general manager.

“It lends to the ambience of dinner. The area seems to be coming to life.”

While there is extremely limited choice of dining and drinking spots on the waterfront in downtown Ottawa or Gatineau, the Rideau Canal is already quite well off in this regard. In summertime, there are the outdoor terraces of the Chateau Laurier and the National Arts Centre, as well as the Canal Ritz. Dow’s Lake is also a lively place, with three restaurants competing for business with a view of the lake.

The Rideau Canal is now also a livelier place in summertime thanks to a recent initiative by the National Capital Commission. Last summer, the commission invited suitable small businesses to set up shop temporarily beside the canal. The NCC said it was pleased with the results and that the program will operate again in 2013.

Among those that will be back this year is a licensed bistro, with its own beach, that did great business on sunny days last summer on the grass beside the canal near the University of Ottawa.

The business is called 8 Locks’ Flat, which was the name of this stretch of the canal in Ottawa’s pioneer days. The location got its name because this is a flat area just above the eight locks where the canal meets the Ottawa River.

Colin Goodfellow, who runs 8 Locks’ Flat, is president and CEO of Kemptville District Hospital. He said he didn’t make money with his bistro, but had fun. Actually, the bistro does not have a beach, but a large sandpit for sunbathing and building sand castles. Still, it proved a popular attraction in 2012, and it, too, will be back.

The governing Conservatives are currently under attack for reducing operating hours for Rideau Canal locks during the boating season. But otherwise, the government does a good job in making the canal an attractive and lively place.

The same cannot be said for the Ottawa River waterfront, where successive governments – Liberal and Conservative – have failed miserably to make the heart of the capital a place of pride for all Canadians.