By Tony Patterson
As choice as LeBreton Flats, Rockcliffe is many times the size of that historic neighbourhood, which was devastated by fire in 1900 and is still struggling to revive despite its recent acquisition of the swooping architectural masterpiece that encloses the Canadian War Museum.
Essentially undeveloped land running in a huge rectangle bordered by St. Laurent Boulevard on the west, the National Research Council Canada campus at Blair Road on the east, Montreal Road to the south and the Ottawa River, Rockcliffe is the site of a former Royal Canadian Air Force airbase.
The Department of National Defence declared the property surplus in 1984, though there were military families still living there a quarter-century later. Rockcliffe has been a question all that time. There were problems with property transfers and a land claim by an Algonquin First Nation that apparently has been settled with a payment of $10 million. Algonquins may still be involved since they retain a right of first refusal on parcels to be sold from Rockcliffe. But it’s yet to be seen how willing they are to trade cash-in-hand for ancestral land.
The owner-of-record today is the Canada Lands Company. CLC’s mandate is to develop or dispose of properties the government owns but doesn’t use. It’s a player in major cities, such as Montreal (Old Port area and the Benny Farm residential district) and Toronto (Downsview Park, also a disused airfield).
At Rockcliffe, a lead manager is to be named this month who will assemble a team of professionals to envision how this extraordinary landscape will be reshaped. Their starting mission is “to develop an exemplary diverse contemporary neighbourhood offering a choice in housing, employment, commercial, institutional and leisure activities, which will be defined by the site’s unique setting, along with a commitment to environmental sustainability and long-term economic viability.”
Now this will make a fine extension for Rockcliffe Park, one of the wealthiest enclaves in Canada, from which the airfield was carved nearly a century ago. After all, there are only 2,000 people living there now.
The airfield would essentially double the area of this ex-village where average salaries are twice what other Ottawa residents get paid. It’s a beautiful site. So it should go to the most beautiful people. No?
That’s almost certainly what’s going to happen on the present path to decision. If there are other ideas out there, now’s the time to bring them forward. Two that I’ve heard deserve at least to be exposed:
The main campus of NRC, Canada’s primary research agency, abuts Rockcliffe. How about a technology park to bring commercial and entrepreneurial talent close to scientific teams that have global reputations and have won awards from Nobel to Killam to Oscar?
The University of Ottawa is constrained for space. Located in the heart of the city, it has no way to grow physically to accommodate more students. Also, it occupies properties that the federal government could use as it grows to manage the nation that, last I heard, was heading for a population of a hundred million this century.
A previous U of O president talked of establishing a satellite campus at Rockcliffe for science faculties. The notion was dismissed by CLC, which didn’t have control then but knew it would some day. The current president has reportedly canvassed profs at the university and found no support for the idea. But it’s not altogether crazed. Université Laval moved from its three-century-old campus in downtown Quebec City to Sainte-Foy in the 1950s. The Université de Montréal is relocating science faculties to the old train yards in Outremont.
The clock is running on Rockcliffe. Municipal approvals will take two or three years at least. Public consultations are to start this fall, presenting what CLC calls “a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to discuss and address issues of urban reintegration, quality of life and factors important in designing the place where you live, work, learn and play.”
That’s once in our lifetime, Ottawa. Prête attention.
Tony Patterson is editor of SCAN (firstname.lastname@example.org)