An NHL rink in the heart of downtown Ottawa? Supporters say it’s an idea worth looking at

DND complex stock image
The Department of National Defence complex on Colonel By Drive is one of the most talked-about potential locations for a new downtown arena for the Senators.

With the Ottawa Senators’ ownership situation seemingly settled, speculation is turning to where the team’s next home rink might be located – and the concept of building a new arena in the heart of downtown is gaining steam.

In multiple media interviews since Toronto-based entrepreneur Michael Andlauer’s group was confirmed as the winning bidder for the Senators, Mayor Mark Sutcliffe has floated the idea of putting a rink closer to the core than LeBreton Flats, which is currently the front-runner to be the site of the Sens’ next home.

“If we decide the ideal is LeBreton, great,” Sutcliffe said in an interview with The Athletic’s Ian Mendes earlier this week. “But let’s keep our minds open.”

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The mayor mentioned a number of potential sites for a downtown rink, including the Department of National Defence complex at 101 Colonel By Dr. 

The five-acre site is owned by the federal government. Public Services and Procurement Canada, which manages the property, told The Athletic that DND expects to continue to occupy the building until 2035. 

In an email to OBJ on Wednesday, PSPC did not provide a timeline for how long DND plans to remain there.

“PSPC continues to work in close collaboration with client organizations to finalize their long-term accommodation plans, support them throughout their return to the workplace planning activities, and help them transition to a hybrid work model,” a department spokesperson said. “As such, it would be premature to comment on future plans for 101 Colonel By Drive.”

While the building’s footprint is smaller than the 6.3 acres currently on offer at LeBreton Flats, two prominent downtown business leaders told OBJ this week they believe it could be a feasible – and even preferable – alternative.

“It’s run its course,” real estate broker Darren Fleming said of the DND building, which houses more than 1,600 workers on a hybrid basis. “I think that would be an excellent site.”  

Fleming, CEO of Real Strategy Advisers, suggested a new rink at the property overlooking the Rideau Canal could even be connected to the 157,000 square feet of space that Nordstrom recently vacated at the Rideau Centre, across the Laurier Avenue Bridge.  

Bridging the canal?

“Is it possible to do something that bridges the canal? I don’t know,” he added, acknowledging that the National Capital Commission, which manages the waterway, would likely want to preserve the “iconic” view of the Chateau Laurier the canal now provides.

Fleming said that while the DND land doesn’t offer a lot of room for commercial development, building an arena right across the street from a major mall, on the doorstep of an LRT station and just a stone’s throw from major tourist attractions such as the ByWard Market and Parliament Hill would create a catalyst for economic growth in an area that’s been ravaged by the pandemic.

“I think it’s absolutely an exciting, necessary way to animate downtown,” he said. “It’s not just the hockey – it’s all the other events that go on. It will be a major tourist destination, which we sorely need.”

Kevin McHale, the executive director of the Sparks Street Business Improvement Area, agreed.

“We have a glut of commercial space, and there’s no clear plan about who can do what with it,” he said. “The closer you bring (a rink) to the core, the better. Other cities have big attractions in their downtown core. Museums are wonderful, but we’re lacking that big cultural attraction.”

However, aside from its small footprint, the DND site presents a number of other significant hurdles to anyone wishing to redevelop it.

For example, a prominent real estate insider who asked to remain anonymous told OBJ it would take a lot of “heavy lifting” to gain the necessary approvals to build an arena at the current DND site.

He said that even if the feds did agree to sell the property and expedite its transfer to another owner, the Rideau Canal’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site would require both the NCC and Parks Canada to sign off on any new construction there. That process wouldn’t happen overnight.

A couple of other potential sites for a downtown arena are often mentioned, but they have downsides as well.

One alternate location is practically next door to DND headquarters – Confederation Park. 

The 6.2-acre green space on Elgin Street between the National Arts Centre and Laurier Avenue West is situated in a bustling spot near bars, restaurants, retail and tourist attractions and offers a bit more room to manoeuvre than the Colonel By Drive property.

Fleming said it’s an intriguing idea.

“I would be sad about losing Confederation Park because it’s a beautiful little green space in the middle of the city, but we have Major’s Hill Park as sort of a central park, we have the (lawn) at city hall. Would I trade an arena for Confederation Park? In a heartbeat.” 

But the unnamed real estate expert threw cold water on the concept, noting that Confederation Park falls under the purview of the NCC and is one of the few expansive green spaces inside the core.  

l'esplanade laurier
Some business leaders say it’s worth examining the idea of demolishing L’Esplanade Laurier and building a new NHL rink on the site.

Then there’s the possibility of tearing down one or more of the federally owned office buildings that PSPC is trying to dispose of and putting a new sports complex in their place. 

With Ottawa’s downtown office vacancy rate at an all-time high, Fleming and McHale said it’s time to consider all options for making better use of hollowed-out commercial space – and that could include replacing some of it with an arena.

L’Esplanade Laurier, for example, is one of the office complexes on the feds’ disposal list. Fleming calls the pair of 23-storey towers, which were constructed nearly 50 years ago and are in dire need of major upgrades, “problem buildings” that could be razed to make room for new development. 

‘We’ve got to do something’

The same goes, he said, for the Jean Edmonds Towers, a pair of aging 20-storey federal office buildings on Slater Street and Laurier Avenue West.

“I don’t know if any one of those city-block type buildings are big enough to take an arena, but we’ve got to do something,” Fleming said.

McHale, who sits on a task force that is studying ways to revitalize Ottawa’s downtown core, agreed that all options for a new arena should be on the table – including ones as daring as demolishing L’Esplanade Laurier and connecting the site with other property nearby to create a footprint large enough to house an NHL rink.

“There’s a complex (that takes up) an entire city block,” he said of the marble-clad highrises at the corner of Bank Street and Laurier Avenue. “I don’t know the geography, but let’s be bold about something. Is there another block next door that could be combined with it?”

Another potential arena location that’s being bandied about in real estate circles is the former Ottawa Technical High School on Albert Street between Bay Street and Bronson Avenue. 

Now known as the Albert Street Education Centre, the five-acre property is owned by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and was once considered as a possible site for the new downtown branch of the Ottawa Public Library that is now being built at LeBreton Flats.

“In both cases, DND and that site, you’re relatively close to an LRT station,” Fleming said. “(That building), again, I think it’s kind of run its course. You’ll probably get some pushback from the folks doing community gardens on the Laurier side, but other than that, I think that’s another interesting spot.”

While a lack of parking could be an issue downtown, Fleming doesn’t see that as a major drawback.

“I think we need excuses to get people on the LRT,” he said. “I think we can manage it with the public transit infrastructure we’ve invested in.”

Finally, Fleming offered another, perhaps partly tongue-in-cheek, suggestion.

“We’re going to have some excess office space, so why not move city hall and put the arena right where city hall is?” he said with a smile. “To me, that would be a pretty interesting spot for it as well.”

While noting that the deal to sell the Senators isn’t even official yet, McHale said it’s never too early to start beating the drum for a project that could fundamentally change the landscape of downtown Ottawa.

“Maybe we’re putting the cart before the horse here a little bit, but I think it’s good to be having these conversations,” he said. “It’s part fun, but I think there’s a real opportunity here to be transformative in a positive way.”

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