Redeveloping L’Esplanade Laurier a ‘critical priority’ for downtown Ottawa, task force report says

L'Esplanade Laurier rendering
The new report from the Downtown Ottawa Revitalization Task Force suggests L'Esplanade Laurier could be converted into a mixed-use residential complex.

Converting L’Esplanade Laurier into a mixed-use residential complex with a public park and an attraction such as an amphitheatre is among the suggestions in a new report that offers a blueprint for revitalizing Ottawa’s downtown.

In the 116-page report released Thursday, members of the Downtown Ottawa Revitalization Task Force said finding new uses for aging government buildings such as L’Esplanade Laurier, the nearby Jackson Building and the current main branch of the Ottawa Public Library will be a central plank in any campaign to breath new life into the city’s core.

“The (L’Esplanade Laurier) complex is a prime candidate for a project that can help define the transformed downtown,” the document prepared by EVOQ Strategies said. “Addressing its transformation is a critical priority. It is a key location for a significant new municipal green space, an attraction, and housing.”

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Built in the early 1970s, the two-tower office complex at the corner of Bank Street and Laurier Avenue is among 10 Ottawa properties the federal government says it plans to sell in a bid to downsize its real estate portfolio.

The concept proposed in the report would see the east tower preserved and converted into residential units from the second floor up. Retail outlets and other services would operate on the ground floor facing Gloucester and O’Connor streets and Laurier Avenue.

Meanwhile, the west tower and the two-storey podium facing Bank Street would be demolished, except for a portion of the west tower’s base. In their place would be a municipal park.

L’Esplanade Laurier’s current podium and west-tower base would be adapted to accommodate townhomes facing Gloucester Street, creating a half-block area that would be “essentially residential in character,” according to the report.

The proposal envisions stacked townhouses up to six storeys in height above the base, while part of the podium roof would be devoted to a “semi-private landscaped courtyard” that would feature amenities such as a playground, small amphitheatre and a communal garden.

Downtown Ottawa task force

The task force, struck by Ottawa Centre MP Yasir Naqvi and chaired by Cahdco president Graeme Hussey and Claridge Homes vice-president Neil Malhotra, recommends that a committee with representatives from the federal, municipal and not-for-profit sectors be created “to determine the next steps for the buildings that are to be released from the federal inventory.”

While the report singled out L’Esplanade Laurier as the No. 1 site for a “city-building initiative,” it also floated a proposal that would see the nearby Jackson Building, another federally owned office property slated to be put on the auction block, transformed into a “multi-functional building focusing on residential uses.”

Jackson Building rendering
Authors of the new downtown task force report say the Jackson Building could be a prime site for a market and artists’ studios.

The report suggested the building could be operated as a co-op and could include elements such as a ground-floor market, artists studios, a pop-up gallery and “greenhouses for urban agriculture.”

In a similar vein, the task force said the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library – which is scheduled to be vacated within the next five years when a new facility at LeBreton Flats is completed – could be converted into a “space for quality artistic and cultural events” featuring a multi-purpose theatre and studios, galleries and workshops run by individual owner-operators.

“The transformation of downtown will be successful through a combination of short-term actions and long-term investments,” the report said, adding the buildings were selected “based on the list of properties that the federal government intends to dispose of, the location of sizeable infrastructure whose long-term use is yet defined, the ability to apply one or more (policy) levers, and the potential contribution to city building and lifting the neighbourhood.”

The report made dozens of recommendations aimed at bringing more residents, workers, shoppers and visitors to Ottawa’s downtown, which is home to about 30,000 people and more than 600 businesses but has seen foot traffic decline dramatically in the wake of the pandemic.

“The federal, provincial, and municipal governments as well as the private sector, civil society and individual citizens need to work together to reinvent our collective relationship to downtown,” the document said.

Among its key recommendations are:

  • Encouraging “major cultural, sports, and entertainment events” to establish a presence downtown.
  • Establishing permanent outdoor staging locations for mid-size events to support local festivals.
  • Reducing municipal and federal fees levied at businesses for garbage removal, patios and hosting cultural events.
  • Encouraging temporary and short-term uses for vacant and public spaces by small and mid-size businesses.
  • Providing incentives for research and academic institutions “to establish a satellite presence downtown focused on innovation in the creative, life science, and engineering industries.”
  • Investing in programs aimed at alleviating homelessness and addressing mental-health issues.
  • Reviewing building codes and development charges to identify incentives that favour  the construction of family-oriented housing, supportive housing, affordable housing and “high-growth, innovative commercial activities.”

The task force also included business leaders such as Ottawa Board of Trade president and CEO Sueling Ching and Colonnade BridgePort CEO Hugh Gorman along with representatives from the Centretown Community Association, downtown BIAs, Indigenous groups, non-profit organizations and community housing advocates.

It said it spent nearly a year getting feedback from more than 900 local residents as well as business owners, landlords and other community members before issuing its report.

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