Op-ed: Is selling ‘air rights’ to public land such as Lansdowne Park the best we can do?

Lansdowne 2.0
A render of the proposed retail podium and mixed-use towers in the updated Lansdowne 2.0 proposal. (Supplied)

In 2007, Ottawa city council voted for a public design competition for Lansdowne Park. Initially, under the leadership of former mayor Larry O’Brien, local developers were to submit ideas. This instead became a design competition voted and approved by council. The foundation for this was laid by a report for development submissions. Creative solutions, focused on the public interest, design and public value, would take a back seat to development goals and profitability. 

A few months after completing the first phase of public consultations in 2008, the city abandoned this public process to sole-source with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG) in a public private partnership (P3). Less than a year later, the deal was completed and the city had incurred tens of millions of dollars in debt. 

According to sources, next to LRT, Lansdowne is the city’s largest debt. The city has seen no return on its investment to date. 

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Over a series of six position papers, from February 2008 to September 2009, the Ottawa Regional Society of Architects (ORSA) issued statements supporting a public focus on design principles that could be used to frame a positive redevelopment of the site. Reading those documents today is like reading an “I told you so” report. 

There is no doubt that what was built, what we see today, is better than before. It’s hard not to improve over asphalt parking and a chain-link fence; we need to set goals and expect better when it comes to our public infrastructure. 

The site lacks a focus on unique communities; the building facades are largely reflective of a generic retail experience with a mix of stores that wouldn’t be out of place in any North American mall. The site design predominantly caters to parking and, perhaps unintentionally, the dominance of cars. 

Notable exceptions are the relocated Horticulture Building and the Aberdeen Pavilion. Both serve community uses, hosting events that draw the public from far and wide. Unfortunately, like many of the city’s buildings, the Aberdeen Pavilion lacks maintenance and is in poor condition. 

Despite OSEG and city reviews of Frank Clair Stadium in 2008, the facility now is determined to be unsalvageable and in need of wholesale replacement, largely due to lack of maintenance and lifecycle investment. The decision to forgo regular maintenance and lifecycle investment is a policy choice that undermines the investments of previous generations.  

This brings us to the Phase 2 proposal. The proposal has increased in cost and would add $310 million to our debt obligation. The repayment plan is $16 million per year until 2070. That’s more than we budget annually for affordable housing. We’ve also lost the roof over the new north-side stands, as well as the green roof that would be a public park space and make seating for a game comfortable: who wants to sit in the blazing sun or in the rain, unsheltered? 

While the design is improved thanks to the feedback from the urban design review panel and the talent of Hobin Architecture, the local firm engaged by OSEG, fundamental questions remain about how the city should engage in this project. 

Lansdowne has been 40 acres of public land since its inception. For decades, it was the site of annual public events like the Central Canada Exhibition. The Aberdeen Pavilion has featured in our military history dating back to the Boer War, as well as hosting the Stanley Cup in 1904. 

The site is poorly served by transit. As recently as 1954, there were streetcars on Bank Street. There are no hotels near Lansdowne that can attract out-of-town visitors to games or events. Queen Elizabeth Drive is open to active transportation on a small stretch that ends at Fifth Avenue, leaving the Driveway open to cars accessing Lansdowne, as well as year-round from October to May and during games or major events. While dedicated transit, shuttles and incentives are offered for major events, they have to share road space with cars as drivers try to get to the site (and around the neighbourhood). There are few options for transit outside of event days.  

If we were planning our city today, we might not locate a site for a stadium here, or we wouldn’t deprive it of good transit. If we’re going to keep a team in Ottawa that needs a stadium for football or soccer, is Lansdowne the right location? 

Since this is public land, maybe we should be making a public investment and bring dedicated public transit to the site. Reinstating trams along Bank Street would serve not only the communities from Billings Bridge to downtown, but could also vastly improve access for small businesses along that route. 

The P3 that got us today’s Lansdowne resulted in infighting, lawsuits, unpaid contractors and bankruptcies. Every time you go to a game and see the wooden veil on the south-side stands, remember that it drove the contractor into bankruptcy. Is this something we should be rewarding and repeating? Does the city have a moral obligation to make good on these contractual failures before starting another project? 

As public land, we could offer this to non-profit and co-operative housing providers in collaboration with for-profit organizations to create a vibrant, mixed-use, affordable community. This would support locally made solutions like the work of Carolyn Whitzman and the coalition “Starts with Home.” 

We should be asking ourselves if selling the air rights to public land is the best we can do. We should be asking ourselves if spending hundreds of millions of dollars on another P3 project is the right choice. We should ask ourselves if creating hundreds of homes and a new stadium for tens of thousands of people without any dedicated transit is the right choice for a growing city. 

We should ask ourselves if, given all the alternatives, this is the right decision. 

Toon Dreessen is president of Architects DCA and past president of the Ontario Association of Architects. 

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