A chance to reverse the NCC’s spotty redevelopment record

Michael Prentice
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Agency could transform Chaudière into an economic hub, if given the green light

One of the most desirable chunks of real estate in all of Canada is up for grabs, if only someone like the National Capital Commission had the vision – and money – to grab it.

The former Mill Restaurant. (Photo by Serge Vallieres)

Right now, Chaudière Island resembles a blighted Detroit neighbourhood, with old, neglected, vacant buildings falling increasingly into disrepair.

The area was once a beauty spot on the Ottawa River, site of the magnificent Chaudière Falls. For more than a century, the island throbbed with industrial life.

Now, the industry is gone. The island has been virtually left to the elements, although valuable electricity is still generated there.

Chaudière Island and nearby Victoria Island sit in the Ottawa River just west of the Parliament buildings. There is huge potential for development – cultural attractions, museums, shops, restaurants, perhaps residential apartments, in heritage buildings that were once factories.

Most of Chaudière Island is for sale. Its owner, Domtar, the Montreal-based paper manufacturing company, says it has no further use for it following the closure of its mill there in 2007.

The NCC, a federal government agency, says it would like to acquire much of Chaudière Island, and then decide what would be the best use of it. But Marie Lemay, the NCC’s chief executive officer, says the agency does not have the estimated $100 million required to buy the land, clean up more than a century’s industrial pollution, and stabilize the buildings.

The NCC gets a lot of criticism – some of it richly deserved – for timidity. It is funded by the taxpayers of Canada, essentially to make the nation’s capital a better place to live and to visit.

The NCC dilly-dallied for decades over what to do with LeBreton Flats, a former industrial area on the Ottawa River shoreline just west of Parliament Hill. Finally, it decided to turn over the land to private developers for apartment building construction.

Most recently, the NCC spent several years searching for a tenant for the former Mill Restaurant on the shoreline of the Ottawa River, just across from Chaudière Island. It eventually leased the property to Toronto’s Mill Street Brewery, which plans to open a brew pub there.

To some, that was a missed opportunity. Urban planner David Gordon, of the Queen’s University School of Urban and Regional Planning, had hoped the property would become part of a new home for the Canada Science and Technology Museum, which is currently located in an old bakery in the Ottawa suburbs.

But a decision to buy Domtar’s land holdings on Chaudière Island is far too big for the NCC alone to make. It’s a decision for the federal government of the day – which, for the next four years, is that of Conservative leader Stephen Harper.

So far, neither Mr. Harper nor his government has shown much, if any, enthusiasm for spending money to make Ottawa a nicer place to visit. Still, the NCC can dream.

For decades, the federal government agency has been doing occasional studies on what might become of Chaudière and Victoria islands. The most recent study, updated in 2008, embraced the idea of an Aboriginal centre on Victoria Island, celebrating the culture of Canada’s native peoples.

The NCC study also suggested the two islands could be connected by footbridges. It foresees “a vital mix of restaurants and shops, with adaptive reuse of existing buildings.” The study included no price tag or timeline.

Redevelopment of Chaudière Island could – and should – easily pay for itself. We’re talking here about a piece of hugely valuable real estate. Chaudière Island would be a wonderful place to live, in a heritage building with a “living-room window” view of the Parliament buildings, perched atop the cliffs of Parliament Hill.

And, if the federal government ever decides Canada should have a museum of science and technology of which we can be proud, this is the place to put it – either on LeBreton Flats or on Chaudière Island, where Canada’s industrial greatness began.

It’s believed Domtar gave the Canadian government the right of first refusal on whether to buy Chaudière Island. But would Domtar wait for ever for the government to make an offer? Probably not.

Pascal Bossé, Domtar’s vice-president of corporate communications, told me the company has received "expressions of interest" from various parties in its property around the Chaudière Falls. "Some are worth a further look, but we are far from closing any transaction."

That sounds like the ball is in the Harper government’s court. Tennis, anyone?

Organizations: NCC, Domtar, Mill Street Brewery University School of Urban and Regional Planning Canada Science and Technology Museum

Geographic location: Chaudière, Ottawa River, Canada Victoria Island Detroit Ottawa Toronto Victoria islands

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Recent comments

  • Paul Brennan
    June 08, 2011 - 15:39

    Shouldnt Domtar be required to clean up the property. before it can be sold....if there are polutants lurking there it would be years before it could be cleaned up.... In addition yes its a major eyesore ..the rest of us cant vacate properties and let them decay...why is that alowed in this case...