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In a 14-10 vote Wednesday, despite designation as a National Historic Site of Canada, Ottawa City Council approved the long-controversial Chateau Laurier Heritage Permit application described by heritage architect and Built Heritage Sub-Committee member Barry Padolsky as “not a great piece of architecture”.

Padolsky graded the latest Larco design a C-minus.

While City Councillors are elected to represent the public – the Municipal Act 2001 states, “It is the role of council, (a) to represent the public and to consider the well-being and interests of the municipality…” – Council ignored considerable public opposition in approving the neo-modernist addition.

If politicians live or die by public opinion, Ottawa voters will have a daily reminder that their voices were ignored by Council every time they travel past the architectural eyesore that expediency and indifference built.

Some councillors did vote their conscience.

Councillors Brockington, Chiarelli, Deans, Fleury, Kavanagh, King, Leiper, McKenney, Meehan and Menard listened to their electorate and voted with the public.

Some delivered insightful remarks.

Councillor Carol Ann Meehan said, “When I hear the term ‘meets the letter of the guidelines’, here in Ottawa that is certainly not a high bar. I am totally discouraged that so many agencies that could have protected this Crown-jewel here in the heart of Ottawa have abdicated their responsibilities, and I point to the NCC, and to Parks Canada, and yes… now to the City of Ottawa.”

She went on to say that just because there has been an immense amount of time spent on the Chateau addition, and that there have been five “design tweaks to the original design that so many people were disgusted with,” is not reason enough to approve the current design. “This design falls short of what the Chateau Laurier deserves, and certainly the citizens of Ottawa.”

Meehan also returned to a question asked by Brockington during the last Built Heritage Sub-Committee meeting, why Larco has refused to submit a design proposal that would not offend Canadians. It would be easy to do. She described an architectural design commissioned previously by CP Hotels from an architectural firm in Montreal that is “everything that the people of Ottawa are demanding for their Chateau Laurier,” and said that she intends to release the plans later in the week.

Interesting.

Referring to the previous five Larco design iterations, Councillor Diane Deans commented, “The best I have heard is ‘better’, and ‘better’, to me, is not good enough. I don’t think that we should accept second best when it comes to such an important building.”

Brockington agreed, “It’s depressing how many versions there have been, and we still can’t get it right. This is bland, it’s boring, and it’s benign. It’s typical of how boring our architecture is. Some improvements have been made, but it’s not good enough.”

Pro-Larco Councillor Jan Harder sarcastically criticized other members of Council for having opinions, “All of a sudden, we have colleagues who have become architects or served on planning committees their entire careers, which is not the case…” – Padolsky of course is actually an architect – praised City staff profusely (as though the burden placed upon them by the delays to date had been unreasonable), and mischaracterized the Protect the Chateau Laurier Group presentation by Robin Collins at the February 5 joint meeting as “one person”, failing to mention that Collins also represented 14,000 petitioners – more people than voted for Harder in the 2018 municipal election.

Harder cut to the real elephant in this particular room, thanking Larco as a “willing owner who is going to invest millions of dollars in our city. Thank you very much for that.”

The bottom-line has always been money, and Council sent a clear message to developers that Canada’s heritage is for sale in Ottawa.

As Padolsky said previously, “… in terms of the process and the roles of government on this file…we have not covered ourselves with glory…”

Mayor Jim Watson fell back on the support of Heritage Ottawa to justify the current proposal and characterized suggestions that the federal government should nationalize the Chateau as “ridiculous” (somehow because of COVID-19) – mentioning (with no evident tie-in to built-heritage) a couple he had met, one of whom was employed in the hospitality sector. If this seems confusing, well…

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the meeting – aside from the vote tally, which was closer than some had anticipated – was the unanimous adoption of a motion by Councillor Matthew Fleury that, “… the Mayor send a letter to the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, responsible for Parks Canada to formally request the federal government to strengthen the protection of National Historic Sites…”

Other cities with development-ripe built-heritage properties take heed for the future.

A theme throughout, and still an outstanding question, has been the lack of federal government involvement in protecting a National Historic Site in the heart of the nation’s capitol. Surprising to many, designation as a National Historic Site of Canada doesn’t carry any protection of itself, and the Ontario Heritage Act (OHA) devolves responsibility for permitting to individual municipalities.

Clearly, the City of Ottawa would have preferred that the NCC or Parks Canada take some of the heat on the Chateau file – and it would be right that they do so in the case of a national landmark adjacent the Rideau Canal (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Parliament Hill such as the Chateau Laurier.

As a result, the citizens of Canada are left alone to defend their treasured icons against commercial interests and their own municipal governments.

Next steps?

“Most importantly, people should not give up. They should remember who voted which way. I spoke with several councillors and no one actually liked the annex even though some voted for it. The exception might be Gower who seems to think the Clewes offering is bold and beautiful. There are some councillors who voted to pass the proposal who seemed genuinely of the belief that they had no choice. The mayor, on the hand, was quite dishonest in how he spun the story. He actually argued citizens having more important things to do, with the pandemic and unemployment, than be concerned about a high-end luxury hotel,” said Collins.

“Mayor Watson was the most disappointing of all.”

“Protect the Chateau Laurier” will continue on-going discussions with Ontario Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries Lisa MacLeod. Under Part IV of the OHA, the Minister may issue a “notice of intention to designate a property as property of cultural heritage value” and void any existing permits issued.

There may be further legal options as well.

Stay tuned as “Battle Chateau” continues.

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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