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ANALYSIS: Long-term LeBreton Flats plan has 'early phase' target that includes decision on new major facility

Jon Willing, Ottawa Citizen
Apr 26, 2021
 
LeBreton Flats, looking east over Bayview Station.
 

Ottawa residents won’t see a fully transformed LeBreton Flats for at least another 35 years, which sounds down-right depressing for anyone eager to see something, anything, pop up that would bring people to the now-barren site.

In one way, people have waited this long for the land to be developed, so what’s another three decades?

The final concept plan for the evolution of LeBreton Flats received a glowing endorsement from the National Capital Commission board of directors last week as the agency begins the revamped process to build on the 29-hectare site.

Although there are so many variables that can shift the timelines — government funding for major infrastructure work and residential market conditions being two strong factors — the NCC is charting sustainable development over short, medium and long-term priorities.

Lebreton Flats in Ottawa, property owned by the NCC, is slated for redevelopment over the coming years.

The short-term priorities could bring antsy residents some satisfaction that construction could start sweeping across the land at a steady pace over the next 10 years.

 

For one, the NCC is expected to release a request for proposals next month to develop the property at Albert and Booth streets, next to the future super library and Pimisi Station, with homes and commercial space in high-rises. The winning development team will be selected next January from a shortlist of three bidders.

Even before that, residents should see construction activity at LeBreton Flats this year as the NCC builds new pathways connecting Bayview and Pimisi LRT stations with the Ottawa River pathway.

Perhaps more importantly, NCC CEO Tobi Nussbaum last Thursday suggested the agency was pressing for another project, what he vaguely called “procurement elements,” within the next 12 months.

It’s an important window into the current thinking at the NCC — maybe the “modern” NCC that board chair Marc Seaman has often described — an agency that has battled a long-standing public perception that it spends more time studying than doing.

In an interview, Katie Paris, the NCC’s director of the Building LeBreton project, said a major priority of the agency is to show the public that something is happening at LeBreton Flats, especially after hearing the public say bluntly “get going” during the public consultations.

It has become a guiding principle of the project and Paris said her personal measure of success isn’t coming up with a plan, but executing the plan.

Lebreton Flats

Paris said that although there has been gradual development of LeBreton Flats, including the residential development at the easternmost part of the property and the city’s LRT system cutting through the land, people are impatient to see progress in other areas.

 

There are residential development parcels scheduled for the early phase of development across the street from the Canadian War Museum and near Bayview Station.

However, two of the more interesting projects slotted into the early phase are a municipal park and a possible major event centre.

The prospect of an event centre, like a sports facility or another attraction, eyed in the first of three development phases might be good news for people anxious for a major destination at LeBreton Flats, including those still wishing for a downtown NHL arena.

“We can only hold on to this site for so long,” Paris said, explaining that there’s time for the private sector to explore a business case for establishing a sports facility.

But, Paris added, “We can hold it, but not indefinitely.”

By the end of the decade, the NCC could go ahead with its alternative scenario for the site, essentially extending the mixed-use neighbourhood west and removing the event centre from the plan.

“We’ve included it in the early phase as we think we ought to know what the kind of fate of the site is before too long passes so we can really make the right decisions in the other adjacent sites,” Paris said.

That said, there’s not a strict deadline on deciding the future of the parcel, especially since COVID-19 is a variable. The NCC wants to see what a return to sports and entertainment looks like after the pandemic.

Paris said there are no active discussions about the parcel of land reserved for an event centre, which doesn’t necessarily have to be a sport-focused facility. At the same time, Paris said the parcel likely won’t be for a national museum since the NCC has long-term planning work that can identify other sites for museums.

A large municipal park is also in the cards for the first decade of development, along with other zones that will become part of the public realm. That includes an adult “urban playground,” such as a fitness area, and a multi-use pathway from Preston Street built over the LRT line to connect the municipal park.

Paris said the NCC is discussing the planning of the municipal park with city hall.

The park slated for the early phase would be part of a swath of parkland extending west to the Bayview Station and the Trillium Line pathway, but the westernmost “capital park” would come later.

Paris said large projects around the world show that establishing the public realm, like parks and pathways, sends a signal to the private sector that authorities are serious about supporting future residential and commercial development.

https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/analysis-long-term-lebreton-flats-plan-has-early-phase-target-that-includes-decision-on-new-major-facility

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My thoughts on the arena.

The only way I could see an NHL rink built at LeBreton is if the City and OSEG team-up on the project. 

At this time, they are looking into what to do with the Civic Centre and the north side stands of TD Place Stadium. The preferred option would be to add residential and possibly a hotel to the site in order to increase critical mass. Any new arena would have less capacity than the Civic Centre, but new building codes and general societal standards would likely require a concourse, public areas and back-of-house of similar size, which would limit what can be built on top. 

Since the Mayor has expressed support for LeBreton arena, Trinity was involved in the previous NHL arena scheme and continues to work on LeBreton opportunities, and the NCC is clearly still open to work with Trinity and does not oppose an arena (as per the plans), we have many of the ingredients to make this project... plausible. It would also be easier for the NCC to hand over the land to the City and OSEG for a "public good" over sole-sourcing to an entirely private developer. 

What about Lansdowne?

The loss of the arena would have an impact on the overall viability by removing 60-80 events from the Park however, there are a few key considerations:

  • New residential and a hotel would partially compensate;
  • A smaller arena would impact the overall visits to the Park anyway;
  • A smaller arena would be less competitive with the CTC. Yes it would continue to have the geographical advantage, but it may not make sense financially due to the lower number of tickets available to sell for the performers, so the number of annual events would go down;
  • OSEG and the City could come up with a new, smaller attraction to compensate, possibly something that would be used on a more regular basis than the arena (new home for the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame, a small performance space...)

The advantage of the LeBreton area for the City, OSEG and the general population.

A LeBreton arena has some major advantages for everyone in the city, transit access being the most obvious. At the very centre of urban Ottawa, it's served by three O-Train Lines and near the future Gatineau Tram Line. Its walking distance from tens of thousands of jobs and residents. Plenty of parking is available nearby in buildings that sit empty after 5pm. There are countless entertainment and restaurant options nearby, either on foot (at the future LeBreton development) or a short O-Train ride away.

For the City, it would mean a huge increase in transit ridership. Already the ridership will take a hit during on-peak hours due to the emergence of wfh. so an arena at LeBreton could partly compensate by offering a ride to millions of people per year. It would also help to attract more events as many pass us over because the options are a large arena way outside the city or a medium sized arena with poor transit access. 

For OSEG, it would similarly mean more events. More residential and retail to prop-up their business. A synergy with Trinity Centre and any other parts of LeBreton they may develop. It also means more flexibility (and this goes for the City as well) at Lansdowne. 

What about the Sens?

A LeBreton arena would compete directly with the CTC for events. It would have a clear advantage on all fronts. Eventually, it would bleed-out Melnyk, forcing him to move to LeBreton or sell. The NHL has a clear policy of doing everything possible to keep a team in its current city, so they would push for a move to downtown Ottawa over a move to a new city. 

Should taxpayers contribute?

Yes. As we've seen in Edmonton, a new downtown arena can be a major boon for the city. Higher transit ridership, new revenue streams and a boost in the city's notoriety. With the right deal, possibly a 50/50 split on capital costs and a good revenue sharing scheme, it would be largely beneficial to all involved. The City has said they would not contribute to a sports facility, while doing that exact thing at Lansdowne and surely again with the Civic Centre if/when it's replaced, wherever it goes. 

People often point to the disastrous tax funded stadiums in the U.S. This is often an NFL thing. The NFL blackmails the City or State into a new multi billion dollar stadium to replace one that's only 10-20 years old, and the City/State has to either give-in or lose their NFL team. If they give in, they end up with a massive debt for a stadium that's only used 10-20 times a year, at best. In the NHL, teams often work in partnership with Municipal/State/Provincial governments to replace far older buildings (30-40+ years) with a new building. The new arena, which is far cheaper than an NFL stadium, is used 100+ times per year. So it's not the same situation. No bully tactics (or in some cases, yes, empty threats including by Melnyk, the Flames and the Oilers), just a partnership to achieve a mutually beneficial goal. 

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