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Sutcliffe: A chance to fix at least two of Ottawa's mistakes

"Not so long ago, federal Conservative disdain for the capital was so high, the government was taking bids on moving the national portrait gallery out of the capital, with the most likely destination an energy company skyscraper in Calgary. While local MP John Baird has been a champion for Ottawa and has spearheaded investments in projects like the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre, the prime minister and most of cabinet seemed to cringe at every cost associated with the capital. Ottawa was a political liability rather than an opportunity to showcase the best of the nation.

This fall, however, the National Capital Commission has, at last, begun fielding proposals for new development on LeBreton Flats. And Wednesday the government announced plans for a dramatic modernization of the National Arts Centre. The result is an opportunity to bring more culture and activity to the city centre, and to fix two historic errors that have held back the city from its potential for years.

The first, and most straightforward, is turning the NAC from a concrete fortress with its back to the city into a spectacular new facility that draws people from the downtown core and puts the best of the city on display from within.

The exterior of the original NAC is an example of the Brutalist style, and the unintended result is that it lived up to the name. The almost windowless bunker does nothing to suggest the remarkable art and culture available inside and the decision to turn a cold shoulder to Elgin Street was a major blunder (apparently connected to some ill-conceived and never-executed plan to put a lagoon along the Rideau Canal).

Some of the best views of the city are from the NAC site, but you wouldn’t know it unless you received special permission to stand on the roof of the building. In a few years, the lobby and halls of the arts centre will present magnificent vistas of Confederation Square, the National War Memorial and the Parliament Buildings, not unlike the transformation that happened at the Shaw Centre (the former Ottawa Convention Centre).

More audacious and potentially transformative is the prospect of a new hockey arena at LeBreton Flats. It says a lot about how much time has been wasted that we actually get a second opportunity to consider this site for a hockey arena, 20 years after the first. In most cities, vacant downtown land adjacent to public transit would be put to use quickly; thankfully, the NCC has sat on its hands for a generation, giving the city another chance at a central rink on the only significant piece of undeveloped land in the core.

A downtown stadium wasn’t possible in the 1990s, nor was a meaningful partnership with government. The viability of the fledgling Senators was in question and the only way an arena could be built was to use land owned by the team. Even that project came perilously close to failing.

Now we have the opportunity to correct the planning mistake of a suburban destination. The bidding process is crucial. What other ideas will be presented? What other development and attractions will the Senators and their partners propose? Will any public investment be required?

But the opportunity to have a downtown arena is too significant to be ignored. Relocating the Senators would give access to tens of thousands of fans who now live too far away from Kanata for a hockey game to be a feasible family activity on a weekday evening, especially those in Gatineau and Orleans. The proximity to downtown and the connections to transit would be ideal.

The process has only just begun and there are many details to be considered. But the stars seem to have aligned, including an approaching election, new leadership at the NCC and a promise from Baird and Mayor Jim Watson to work more closely together. And time is on our side. If we get it right, one of the city’s most important gathering places will be perfectly situated and, especially when combined with the planned development on the nearby Domtar site, LeBreton Flats will become a vibrant and energetic new downtown neighbourhood. If we fail, a rare window of opportunity could stay closed for another generation.

More importantly, the sudden progress on two fronts opens the door to further discussion about the future of Canada’s capital. What else can we fix?"

Source: Mark Sutcliffe, Ottawa Citizen. December 10, 2014.