Public Works punts NCC proposal for former train station

Ottawa’s historic former downtown train station appears destined to remain a private meeting place for bureaucrats and politicians after government officials shot down a National Capital Commission request to consider alternative uses, documents show.

The Crown corporation said Canada’s 150th anniversary could be used as an opportunity to redesignate the underused Government Conference Centre, located between tourist landmarks such as Parliament Hill, the National War Memorial and the Ottawa Convention Centre.

Over the years, different business and tourism groups have floated various visions for the property that never came to fruition, including turning it into a hub for startup tech firms and a terminal for a commuter rail system.

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In 2010, the NCC wrote a letter to the department responsible for the federal government’s property portfolio, Public Works, asking to engage in a “visioning exercise” for the conference centre.

The catalyst for the NCC’s idea was the city’s planned light-rail tunnel that would run beneath downtown Ottawa. The city talked in 2010 about a possible underground connection between the conference centre and a nearby station, documents say.

“From the NCC’s perspective, the potential value of this historic and significant building – particularly in light of its original role as a train station – in the heart of the nation’s capital cannot be overstated,” read a letter dated July 14, 2010, obtained by OBJ through an access-to-information request.

“The potential for some form of re-designation of the facility offers significant opportunities in the context of Canada’s forthcoming 150th anniversary celebrations in 2017,” the missive continued.

The letter bears the name of then-executive vice-president and current interim CEO Jean-François Trépanier at the bottom.

Senior Public Works officials appeared to be unswayed by the Crown corporation’s arguments.

John McBain, an assistant deputy minister in the department, made clear he had no plans to change the conference centre in separate correspondence with the city, dated Aug. 25, 2011.

“The estimated expense for this underground connection is not warranted at this time,” wrote Mr. McBain.

The documents don’t make clear whether Public Works had any other response to the NCC’s request for a redesignation, aside from the unwillingness to change the building’s usage.

The department’s media relations section, in an e-mailed response to questions from OBJ, declined to disclose how it handled the request.

A possible connection with the light-rail system is also no longer on the table.

Nancy Schepers, the municipality’s deputy city manager, formally requested between $3 million and $5 million for the extension in a letter sent to Public Works in June 2011.

However, the station has now been moved farther to the east and there are no plans for an underground connection, the city’s media relations department wrote in an e-mailed response to questions.

The Government Conference Centre is one of several downtown Crown-owned assets frustrating local tourism officials. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has been quoted as calling Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill “a ghost town” because of several large concurrent construction projects, as well as the long-vacant former U.S. embassy and adjacent lots.

One block south on Sparks Street, Public Works has recently come under fire for limiting retail leases to three years and stifling efforts to rejuvenate the pedestrian mall.

SIDEBAR: Last stop

Constructed in 1912, the building at 2 Rideau St. operated as Ottawa’s Union Station until 1966, when the tracks lining the Rideau Canal were replaced with a scenic driveway and the new train station on Tremblay Road opened.

Now used as a conference centre, the building contains nearly 79,500 square feet of space and is in “critical” condition, according to Treasury Board records. Both the soil and groundwater on the site are contaminated with heavy metals and petroleum hydrocarbons, according to the federal government.

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