Ottawa architect prepares Chaudiere Island redevelopment vision

Imagine letting the Crown Jewels gather dust in an attic.

As far as Mark Brandt is concerned, that’s pretty much what’s happened to Chaudiere Island.

“It is an area of Canadian historical significance that cannot be overstated,” says Mr. Brandt, an Ottawa architect who heads a volunteer group called Vision Chaudiere that wants the site redeveloped.

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“It’s the glue between the two sides of the river. It’s an undiscovered paradise. Most people just sort of whiz by in their cars and don’t really see what’s there.”

With its spectacular views of Parliament Hill and its resplendent falls, Chaudiere Island and its surrounding lands along the Ottawa River have the potential to be visually stunning. But Mr. Brandt says it’s the site’s importance in the development of Canada that makes it truly stand out.

The lands were vital to the native Algonquins and were key to the early economy of the Ottawa area. The Chaudiere played an important role in the fur and lumber trades, was an early source of hydro power and was also the site of the first bridge between Upper and Lower Canada.

“It’s at the heart of why Canada exists as a country,” says Mr. Brandt, who first became intrigued by the Chaudiere lands more than 20 years ago when he helped create the National Capital Commission’s master plan for the islands.

Now, Mr. Brandt and his group of about 20 volunteers are preparing to launch an art competition and photography exhibits in the hope of spurring redevelopment of the lands, most of which are owned by Montreal-based paper manufacturer Domtar.

Domtar said this week it has a potential deal in place to sell its lands to an unnamed buyer who signed a letter of intent earlier this month. Mr. Brandt, who says he’s been contacted in the past by three local and two out-of-town developers about the property, hopes whoever buys it works with the various levels of government on a mixed-used plan that includes restaurants and other amenities.

“We have a vision, but we don’t have the kind of champions needed to make it happen,” he says. “I think the idea is that a public-private partnership is still the most viable business model if it’s done right.”

In the meantime, Mr. Brandt hopes to kickstart that process with the art and photography exhibits. His long-term vision includes video and light shows using Chaudiere Island as a backdrop and a network of public pathways linking Chaudiere and Victoria islands to the lands along the Ottawa River.

Mr. Brandt, who has spent more than a year on the plan, has assembled an advisory board including members of the Ottawa business community, artists, heritage activists and experts in aboriginal issues to help oversee the project. He’s also talked with the NCC, City of Ottawa officials and hydro companies about getting involved.

Finding seed funding is his top priority right now. “There’s a lot to be done,” he says. “There’s no funding yet.”

Still, he says he’s confident the project will succeed because it’s the gateway to a full-scale revitalization of the property. Once people start visiting the Chaudiere lands, their development potential will become much more evident, he says.

“It’s one of the ways that more and more people can understand the significance of the site,” Mr. Brandt explains. “Corporate sponsorship is highly likely for something like this.”

One day, he says, the Chaudiere lands could be the city’s own crown jewel, much like Vancouver has Granville Island and Montreal its old port.

“Here in the national capital, we’ve got probably the best property of all of those,” Mr. Brandt says with pride. “It has to be done right, but it’s so far from overdue it’s laughable.”

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