Opinion: ‘Venice on the Ottawa’

Up to private sector to lead Chaudière Island redevelopment

The heart of the nation’s capital could see a dramatic transformation within a few years.

What is envisioned is a massive redevelopment of Chaudière Island, with shops, restaurants, entertainment, tourist attractions and perhaps condominiums in converted factory buildings.

Most of Chaudière Island has been for sale for several years as the property is no longer required by the landowner, Montreal-based paper manufacturer Domtar. The general belief has been that the federal government would be the most likely buyer of the island, which is located in the Ottawa River close to the Parliament Buildings.

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Now, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is actively encouraging private-sector involvement in Ottawa waterfront revitalization. And there seems little doubt this includes Chaudière Island.

A knowledgeable real estate source tells OBJ that at least one private-sector group is showing serious interest in buying all or part of the Domtar lands for mixed-use redevelopment.

The island, in the Ottawa River beside the once-spectacular, now mostly hidden, Chaudière Falls, is an industrial wasteland. For more than a century, the island was Ottawa’s industrial heart. Now it is mostly derelict, with industry long gone.

For years, Ottawans have looked – in vain – to federal governments, Liberal and Conservative, to lead the redevelopment of Chaudière Island and the smaller Victoria Island, which is even closer to Parliament Hill. The federal government owns most of Victoria Island, and has no current plans to develop it.

Any deal by Domtar to sell to private-sector buyers would almost certainly require federal approval, since Chaudière Island and the Ottawa River shoreline are in the immediate surroundings of Parliament Hill and are deemed to be land of “national interest.”

The National Capital Commission, a federal government agency, is guardian of these lands, which the commission describes as “symbolically meaningful to Canadians.”

Domtar owns 15 acres of Chaudière Island (about three-quarters of the island) and 22 acres of land nearby on the Gatineau shoreline of the Ottawa River. The Gatineau property was formerly owned by the E.B. Eddy Co. and is located beside the Chaudière Bridge.

Domtar confirmed to OBJ that the two pieces of land are for sale, but declined to put a price tag on the property or discuss the state of any negotiations.

In any event, real estate experts say the price tag would depend on cleanup costs for the properties and any conditions set by governments – federal, provincial or municipal – on use of the lands.

Even with Canada set to celebrate its 150th birthday in 2017, there seems little, if any, chance that the Harper government will splurge on any big new cultural or building project in the nation’s capital.

For at least 15 years, the NCC has had a “vision” for the Chaudière and Victoria Islands. This includes turning Chaudière Island into what some have called “Venice on the Ottawa,” with canals and canal-side boutiques, cafés, restaurants and other amenities.

The NCC’s vision for Victoria Island includes a grand new building that would celebrate Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples. Local NDP MP Paul Dewar – whose riding includes Victoria Island – says he’s heard cost estimates of such a project in the range of $80 million to $100 million.

But the NCC acknowledges it has no budget to turn its vision into reality, either on Victoria Island or on Chaudière Island.

Regarding the Domtar properties that are for sale, NCC spokesperson Jean Wolff said in a written statement to OBJ that there are no ongoing negotiations between the Crown corporation and Domtar to acquire these lands.

Foreign Minister John Baird is the Harper government’s senior representative from Ottawa, so I asked him to share his vision for Chaudière and Victoria Islands. He responded by noting the cleanup of the Ottawa River is his top local priority and that the federal government is facing budget constraints.

“We are in a time of fiscal austerity and will examine projects on that basis. We also welcome and encourage the private sector’s involvement in waterfront revitalization, as has happened with shoreline revitalization projects along the Rideau Canal.”

The message from Mayor Jim Watson’s office is similar: the city’s top waterfront infrastructure priority is eliminating sewage overflows into the Ottawa River.

At the same time, Mr. Watson says he’s interested in working with the NCC and the City of Gatineau to develop a shared vision for the Ottawa River waterfront.

Mauril Bélanger, Liberal MP for Ottawa-Vanier, says he would like to see the federal government acquire the Domtar lands on Chaudière Island and the Gatineau waterfront as a first step towards mixed-use redevelopment. But he does not expect this to happen.

“The biggest problem is that everybody who is not from Ottawa hates Ottawa,” says Mr. Bélanger, referring to reluctance by the national government of any party to spend funds to make the national capital a more exciting and attractive place.

Mr. Bélanger sees Chaudière Island becoming the new “hub” of the nation’s capital. Until now, the hub has been Parliament Hill. But the need for more and more security makes the Hill much less welcoming to Canadians, Mr. Bélanger says.

One potential challenge in redeveloping Chaudière Island is the difficulty and cost of cutting through rock to create underground parking.

This was one factor that apparently deterred proponents of a downtown casino from seriously considering Chaudière Island as a potential site. In any event, they must have known that the federal government (and maybe the city, too) would not allow a casino to be built a two-minute boat ride from Parliament Hill.

But Venice on the Ottawa – that would be something else. It would be a “people place” to rival the ByWard Market as the premier downtown destination in the nation’s capital.

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