National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

The long saga of “Battle Chateau” continues.

During an unprecedented virtual City of Ottawa Joint Meeting of Planning and Built Heritage held on February 5, local heritage architect and Built Heritage Sub-Committee member Barry Padolsky awarded the current Larco design proposal a C-minus to C-plus grade for architectural merit, saying authorities had failed to protect and enhance Canada’s capitol.

The meeting was comprised of three separate meetings; a joint meeting to hear delegate presentations, a Built Heritage Sub-Committee meeting to consider the Heritage Permit application, and a Planning Committee meeting to consider both the Heritage Permit and the Site Plan application.

Local heritage advocate Robin Collins delivered a presentation on behalf of the Protect the Chateau Laurier Group, making a case for rejection of the proposal on the grounds that it fails to conform to the intent of heritage standards and ignores public dislike for any modernist addition, “We believe the City staff reports, while acknowledging public opposition to the current addition to the Chateau Laurier, minimize or even dismiss the value of that public input. The public has repeatedly shown contempt for a neo-modernist hotel addition — by petition of nearly 14,000; also, through a City survey of 1700; and of all comments sent to city Council recently fewer than 5% supported the current proposal. All the data point in the same direction: The public says Do not build it.”

Collins also pointed out a reality ignored in the narrative to date, “… the Canadian and international standards themselves state: ‘new additions [to heritage buildings] should be avoided’ if at all possible.”

Councillor Riley Brockington (River Ward) asked the question that has puzzled many from day-one… why has Larco persisted with design proposals which clearly offend the Canadian public? It would be easy enough to produce a conforming design. Toronto condominium architect Peter Clewes didn’t really answer the question, saying that there were many stakeholders (unidentified by Clewes) who had to be satisfied.

Canadians are left wondering why Larco is so committed to an unpopular design.

“The proposed design that is in front of the built-heritage sub-committee today is not a great piece of architecture, and is not one that will be a destination for tourists when they decide to travel again. It’s not going to be a fashionably acclaimed destination, a must-see. Also, I think in terms of the process and the roles of government on this file…we have not covered ourselves with glory. I think that the response to the proposed addition… by the NCC, the City of Ottawa, Parks Canada, have shown the inadequacy of these authorities to protect and enhance the character of the core of Canada’s capitol. We, in some ways, failed to do this,” confessed Padolsky.

Padolsky went on to grade the architectural merit as poor, “The previous design, which others have referred to, the so-called ‘Radiator”, that was approved by city council, would have been an architectural eyesore, and an embarrassment to the pride of the national capitol…it would have been an ‘F’ in terms of its ranking. The current design that we have in front of us is not an A+, an A, or even a B…it’s probably in the C- to C+ ranking – which means that it is a pass…but just barely.”

The current design proposal represents a compromise settlement negotiated between Heritage Ottawa (HO) and building owner Larco Investments of Vancouver as a result of litigation by HO to kill the widely vilified “Radiator” design.

HO legal counsel Michael Polowin explained what many heritage advocates have puzzled over, “There was a general undertaking that, having signed the agreement, Heritage Ottawa would support, as needed, this proposal.”

Brockington commented, “It’s not good enough. I am likely to submit an enquiry when this comes to Council.”

Alternatives were discussed, including the need for engaging the federal government on heritage properties in the nation’s capitol.

Councillor Matthew Fleury (Vanier) said, “I have been working with Councillor McKenney on bringing forward a motion to Council with regards to legal protection for national sites.”

Padolsky brought up Bill S-203.

In December, 2019 Senator Serge Joyal introduced a private member’s bill into the Senate, Bill S-203 “An Act to amend the National Capital Act (buildings or works of national significance)” that would give the National Capital Commission (NCC) the authority to limit what can be built and demolished within 500 metres of a property of national significance.

In his presentation of the bill, Senator Joyal referred specifically to the then proposed addition to the Château Laurier Hotel.

Bill S-203 appears to have stalled in parliament.

Built Heritage ultimately tied 3-3 on approving the heritage permit.

Planning Committee Chair Jan Harder (Barrhaven) then began with a statement – which frankly bears further examination – advising members that they should not be influenced by the Built Heritage Sub-Committee.

Harder stated, “I would remind you that our responsibility with regard to the built heritage is to take their voices and their votes under consideration but, for the record, they don’t influence what we do.”

Full stop there.

The Built Heritage mandate is clear, “The mandate of the Built Heritage Sub-Committee is to advise and assist Council on matters relating to Parts IV and V of the Ontario Heritage Act, and such other heritage matters as Council may specify by by-law or as specified in the City’s Official Plan.”

If the Planning Committee is not influenced by Built Heritage, what is the purpose of having a Built Heritage Sub Committee?

Councillor Matthew Fleury (Lower Town – Sandy Hill – Vanier) called upon the Planning Committee to vote against the Heritage Permit, “Once more I would like to recommend to the Planning Committee to have a different position than last time, and not to allow the heritage permit to go forward (translation)”

Built Heritage Chair Rawlson King (Rideau-Rockcliffe) echoed the sentiments of many Canadians angered over the failure of the system to protect a national treasure, “While I agree this proposal meets the letter of the guidelines, I remain unconvinced…that it meets its spirit.”

Councillor Glenn Gower (Stittsville) explained the apparent disregard for public opinion with the jaw-dropping statement, “I guess I can’t believe we’re still debating over whether the design is historic enough. I don’t think we should be making our decisions based on the popular opinion.”

Stittsville voters take heed next municipal election.

King eloquently described the critical importance of the Chateau – which seems to elude many on Council – “Ottawa is an intriguing city, because of the delicate balance struck between its built form, both historical and contemporary, its streetscapes, neighbourhoods and landscapes. This delicate balance has defined Ottawa in its evolution over the past two centuries, and embodies a collective memory and meaning that is lacking in most cities today.”

Notwithstanding all, Planning approved the Heritage Permit 7 to 2, and the Site Plan by 9 to 1.

A consistent theme throughout the long Chateau battle has been the almost total lack of engagement by federal authorities on a National Historic Site in the heart of the nation’s capitol.

How is it that the federal government is not involved, and what form might that involvement take?

There are a number of possible options, from legislating meaningful protective measures on heritage properties, to land exchange, to nationalisation.

Padolsky recommended a post-mortem review of the Chateau file by authorities to extract lessons learned, which would include the questions, “Why did NCC abdicate its duty to review and approve the design to the City of Ottawa in 2017, and why did NCC not negotiate some wider land exchanges with Larco to allow an expansion of the Chateau Laurier on the McKenzie King side, thereby protecting the Chateau views?”

The Planning Committee decision goes to Council on February 24.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s landmark hotel deserves better than a “C-minus”.

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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