Watson calls for 'grander' vision for LeBreton Flats

Mayor says he doesn't expect Sens owner Eugene Melnyk to be part of renewed development process
LeBreton Flats
(Image courtesy the National Capital Commission)

Mayor Jim Watson renewed his call for a “grander, bigger” vision for LeBreton Flats this week, telling a gathering of business leaders at Lansdowne Park that the next proposal to redevelop the prime parcel of land west of downtown must leave room for an NHL arena and should be based on a single, cohesive long-term plan.

“We can’t do it piecemeal,” Watson told broadcaster Mark Sutcliffe during a Q&A session at the City-Building Summit hosted by OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade on Wednesday.

“It has to be done on a grander, bigger scale than just a little parcel here or there, because there are a lot of common elements in the proposal that are going to need to get funded. That makes the most sense.”

Noting that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is “very committed” to putting his weight behind a downtown stadium for the Senators, the mayor said moving the team to LeBreton Flats would accelerate momentum for a light-rail transit link between Ottawa and Gatineau and breathe new life into the city’s central business district.

“This will take away the need for another (interprovincial) bridge if we can get people on transit across the river,” Watson said.

Earlier in the day, new National Capital Commission boss Tobi Nussbaum told the crowd at the Horticulture Building “there is nothing piecemeal” about the agency’s redevelopment strategy for the NCC-owned land. A phased-in approach makes sense, he said, because the NCC can’t rely on a “single actor” to spearhead such a massive project.

The NCC’s recent attempt to revitalize the long-vacant lands fell apart earlier this year when preferred proponent RendezVous LeBreton – a consortium led by Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and Trinity Development Group’s John Ruddy – failed to come to terms on the massive project, which included visions of condo towers and a new downtown arena for the Sens.

Ruddy and Melnyk’s partnership dissolved into litigation at the end of 2018 over unresolved issues concerning Trinity’s nearby residential development at 900 Albert St.

Watson told Sutcliffe he anticipates Ruddy will be part of the next tendering process but expects the Sens owner to stay on the sidelines.

“I don’t think Eugene Melnyk will put in a bid, but who knows?” he said, adding the NCC must ensure the winning proponents in the new LeBreton process have “the financial capacity” to build world-class amenities at the site.

Reiterating his disbelief at Melnyk’s suggestion during the NHL 100 Classic festivities in 2017 that he might consider relocating the team if the market conditions in Ottawa didn’t improve, Watson took another dig at the Sens owner on Wednesday.

“I have great confidence in John Ruddy, not so much in Eugene,” Watson said.

In a wide-ranging half-hour discussion, the mayor also touted the announcement that Ottawa will officially hit the one-million population mark on Friday, saying “it’s an opportunity for us to boast and brag a little bit” over reaching the seven-figure landmark.

He also joked he already knew who the city’s one-millionth resident will be.

“Erik Karlsson, I hope,” he deadpanned.

Watson conceded the city is facing its share of growing pains as it hits the magic million mark.

Traffic headaches

Traffic congestion has become a headache for everyone, the mayor admitted. He said the city scheduled major road construction projects on downtown arteries such as Elgin Street and Bronson Avenue to happen this year in the belief that the Confederation LRT line would already be up and running.

Instead, the trains are more than a year late and are not expected to start rolling until the end of August.

“We have a lot of projects on the go that normally would not have to compete with the construction of LRT,” Watson said.

Noting that the 12.5-kilometre Confederation Line is just the first step in a multi-phased process that’s expected to see light rail eventually extended to Kanata, the airport, Orleans and perhaps across the river to Gatineau, the mayor said he believes the short-term construction grief Ottawans are now facing will be worth it in the long run.

“My vision of Ottawa is one where we don’t have constant traffic jams … and we do that by investing heavily in infrastructure for transit,” he said. “Really, the biggest impact we can have in making our city more livable for the next two, three, four generations is to get the transit system right.”