The four-year battle between concerned citizens and Chateau Laurier owner Larco Investments Ltd. of Vancouver – over a proposed controversial neo-modernist addition to the landmark Chateauesque style hotel – reached another milestone on February 24, as City of Ottawa Council ignored public opposition and voted 14-10 to approve Larco’s Heritage Permit application.
The saga began in December 2016 when Larco affiliate Capital Hotel Limited Partnership submitted a Site Plan Control application to the City planning department. Public outcry against the proposal subsequently resulted in six design iterations, one of which was widely vilified as “The Radiator”, and culminated with local heritage advocacy group Heritage Ottawa (HO) taking legal action against Larco. HO and Larco announced a negotiated settlement in August 2020. The resultant compromise design, described by Ottawa heritage architect and Ottawa Built Heritage Sub-Committee member Barry Padolsky as “not a great piece of architecture” and a “C-minus grade”, was that approved by Council.
This architectural meeting of the minds between HO and Larco created an unusual dynamic within the heritage advocacy community in Ottawa.
Normally the “good guys”, HO had earned a well-deserved reputation over time as the watch-dog champion of heritage protection – however, the compromise design still failed to meet public expectations. 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.”
The settlement between HO and Larco stifled criticism and (as it came out) required HO to publicly support the latest design – and many within the heritage community now found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being opposed to Ottawa’s premier heritage advocacy group.
In response, the “Protect the Chateau Laurier Group” was formed by former City of Ottawa Councillor Peter Harris and local heritage advocate Robin Collins, to take up the fight where HO had left off.
Originally owned by the Crown, the Chateau Laurier is an iconic national treasure – a National Historic Site located adjacent the Rideau Canal (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Parliament Hill, across the street from (and connected by tunnel to) the historic UN Station (currently serving as temporary home of the Senate of Canada), adjoining Majors Hill Park (NCC), and a key tourist attraction in the nation’s capital.
Heritage advocates take note – if it can happen in Ottawa, to the Chateau Laurier – it can happen anywhere, to any heritage building.
Picture a water theme-park surrounding the Empress Hotel in Victoria, or a gleaming high-rise jutting out of the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec.
An enduring theme throughout the Chateau battle has been the lack of federal government involvement.
How is it that Parks Canada and the NCC (other than a heritage overlay issue regarding adjacent Major’s Hill Park) are not involved in the future of a National Historic Site in the heart of Canada’s Capital Core Area?
Addressing this issue, Council unanimously passed 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…”
As CNN would put it, “Good idea, or bad idea?”
In fact, this forward-thinking action by the City of Ottawa should be a clarion call to all municipalities across Canada with developer-ripe built heritage properties – to follow suit and write their own letters.
The sad truth is, existing legislation (at every level) affords little real protection for built heritage properties whenever committed, cash-rich developers meet short-sighted growth-focused local governments.
The many long-term socio-economic benefits of heritage development are often overlooked at the municipal level in the immediate grasp for more jobs and increased tax revenues.
How does Canada stand amongst other developed nations in terms of federal heritage protection?
Poorly, as it turns out.
The Parks Canada publication “Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada” provides only (as the title suggests) standards and guidelines. While it informs the OHA and other provincial heritage acts, it does not provide protection.
Canada’s Historic Sites & Monuments Act is strictly commemorative. It also does not provide protection. Hence, a National Historic Site like the Rideau Street Convent can be demolished – notwithstanding public outcry against.
While there are four individual categories of property that do have their own various statutes; transportation, broadcast facilities, banks and federal properties – there is no broad category legislation protecting built heritage in general.
National Historic Site designation carries no protection, and the Ontario Heritage Act (OHA) devolves permitting responsibilities to individual municipalities. Any municipal council may well prioritize economic development above heritage protection… as happened in Ottawa on February 24.
Other countries do much better.
The US, for example. During the 1960’s, Congress adopted the “National Historic Preservation Act” – which created a “National Register” of important properties (coordinated with state and local registers). It enacted controls on federal spending which might adversely affect heritage properties, and (most importantly perhaps) tax measures designed to assist the preservation of built heritage properties. There is also the “Public Buildings Cooperative Uses Act”, which directs federal departments to prioritize use of historic buildings above newer buildings.
In the UK, protection of “Listed Buildings” is fully integrated into federal planning statutes.
The need for comprehensive federal legislation to protect heritage properties, both publicly and privately owned, is urgent. Canada stands alone in the G7 as the only nation without.
Currently, under Section 34 (1) 2. Of the OHA, owners may demolish heritage buildings with municipal approval… say an aging low-rise hotel like the Chateau Laurier…