Nap time on LeBreton Flats


With all the hoopla about exciting new developments on the west side of downtown Ottawa, we’ve lost some focus on the ongoing work in progress. Yes, the Phase I project by the NCC-Claridge partnership. Recall that the NCC and City chose the heights and courtyard arrangements; the NCC chose the materials and colour scheme and modern style; Claridge came up with the buildable designs.

Not exactly beloved by drive-by architecture critics, there is now a substantial number of homes built and we are about 30% into the tripartite agreed-upon plan. But I gather it’s now nap time for Phase I of the Flats, and it may be four years before Claridge builds the next group of apartments and townhouses.


(above: two storey ground floor “townhouse units” actually got built at 300 Lett Street; unfinished stacked townhouses are shown running off to the right)

Why the delay?

I can speculate on several reasons:

  1. there is an inventory of about one year’s worth of sales yet to be absorbed by the market, so there’s no real reason to build more
  2. Claridge wants to focus buyers on its Icon project at Preston-Carling
  3. the Zibi project by Windmill on the Domtar site will bring some of the office and commercial projects on stream in the next two years, which will make the LeBreton site seem way less isolated and maybe even trendy
  4. the Zibi condos on the Ottawa Islands will be premium priced, and on the market in about four years, which will make the LeBreton project competitive (both will be similar in architectural style, and we may come to appreciate that Claridge builds with brick)
  5. the Pimisi LRT Station will be up and operating, making LeBreton seem much more central and well connected
  6. the proposed plan for the area of the Flats west of Booth will have been announced, adding sizzle to the area market
  7. the NCC may have finished its 3 million dollar  “bold, drive-by experience” temporary landscaping project at Wellington-Booth (kitty corner the War Museum), so the area will look less like Syria
  8. Claridge hopes that the remainder of Phase I planned build out can be changed to include taller buildings and higher density “because it is so close to a transit hub”

One of the above factors upsets me.  It’s the last one.  It seems sometimes that Ottawa, and especially the NCC, cannot stick to their plans.  Phase I of the Flats project had a variety of building sizes. The City went in wanting 5 stories mostly, with the occasional 8-10 storey tower, if I recall correctly. The NCC got 7 storey podiums with additional 7 storey towers on top (making 14 in total). Ground floor units were to be “townhouses” but mostly these became small apartments with walk-off balconies or patios instead of the child-friendly variety of housing types. The variety of heights got lost in the shuffle: the four storey apartment building became six, then built as eight, leaving a rather uniform skyline instead of a declining height gradient towards the pump house on the aqueduct.

The next blocks of buildings to be built  were to be mostly stacked townhouses in a modernist brownstone style, ie the lowest height and lowest density units in the plan. I don’t expect to see them to ever see the light of day. And this is a shame, because a number of tradeoffs get made by the stakeholders in creating the original plan. More density or height here, in trade off for townhouses here, for lower height along the path, viewlines, letting in light,  etc etc.

Being able to radically change a plan mid stream means that the concessions of some get ignored since the offsetting bits of the plan are thrown out.

It makes me wonder if we would be better off saying that plans – be they for the Flats, or Domtar, or a neighbourhood CDP or secondary plan, should be in place for 20 years minimum, so that everyone has certainty.  Not changing plans midstream adds some rigidity. It also adds some credibility to the Plan, which the previous Council was eager to toss overboard.

The City could still update its OP on a five or ten year cycle, but those component areas recently planned would have some ongoing fixed life expectancy. If Peter Hume comes back to City Hall in the bureaucracy, I expect a lot more plans to be jettisoned as so much meaningless paper.


above: the current view, to be frozen?

Note: a reader has pointed out the phase 1 plan for the Flats dates from 1997.


12 thoughts on “Nap time on LeBreton Flats

  1. I think your speculations are bang on. I also didn’t know about how much the NCC was involved in this project, thank you for shedding the light for me. Great article as always Eric.

  2. Oh, and let’s not hold on breath on the affordable housing requirements either. Squeak, squeak, squeak….
    Also, what happened to all the nice ped/bike/less car lanes stuff???

    1. Catherine: the bike – ped paths have been built behind & around the first yellow buildings; and will go in behind the brown brick ones this summer. Altho only bureaucrats think its a wonderful scheme to built a pathway network in little 100 foot segments. And the City has contributed zilch to the finishes.
      I look forward to the landscaping between the yellow and brown phases near Pooley’s ped bridge. I think if it is great quality, we will see a wonderful mews; if it is minimalist and cheap, it will be disappointing. I am not holding my breath.
      Many of the units do meet city affordability guidelines, which I know you dont like. However Claridge and others bid to build out the flats, CCOC did not; did CCOC go into partnerships with any of the proponents to build social housing??

      1. Hi Eric, sorry I just noticed your reply. Yes, CCOC did partner on Phase 1 of the Flats. With Minto. However, they and two other developers who were interested ended up bowing out because of all the requirements put in at the last minute by the NCC. So…. Claridge ended up being THE ONLY bid and, wadda ya know, they got it!

        And the City’s “affordability guidelines” only reach above the 40th income percentile, so leaves out a big chunk of Ottawans. So yes, I’m not happy with them. Not to revisit the whole long, boring process, but we had thought we were going to get something better when the plan of subdivision was approved, but that was then and now the planning dept. could care less.

  3. I think the real take-away is that if you want a high-visibility area like this built – quickly, nicely, and to plan – you don’t give the whole parcel away at once a-la suburban sprawl development models, to a giant developer who then has NO incentive to build or landscape the public areas. and lots of excuses for delays, bait-and-switch maneuvers, and shoddy design.

    This section should have been divided into a dozen smaller plots so multiple developers would compete to get their developments done more quickly and more attractively than the next one, while (a better-funded version of) the NCC would START by taking care of all the public realm amenities, paths, landscaping, etc.

    And while I think the ZIBI folks are better equipped to improve on this NCC/Claridge fiasco… not a very high bar, but still… the structure of the land “deal” is similar enough. So the danger is still there that 15 years from now we end up with only a small, dysfunctional portion of the promised island Utopia.

    1. Den: I agree that the parcels should have been awarded to several developers, so they could compete in design offerings. But that is the antithesis of bureaucrat-planners-know-best philosophy resident in the NCC and City. A multiple developer approach would have risked seeing no building built as no one developer might be able to get enough pre-sales to actually build if the market was divided up. Claridge is big enough to build with less regard to the presale thresholds. I concurr that the developer (NCC) should have prebuilt the major pathways and done tree planting so buyers can see an neighbourhood. Right now, it can only appeal to the car-oriented or downtown ped commuter. No neighbourhood !

  4. Ottawa needs to wake up, starting from the top down. That unfortunately includes the NCC. Just think of the fabulous mixed development that resulted on the site of Expo 86 in Vancouver, Similar mixed housing after the Olympics is also a positive addition to the urban fabric. If you check into the origins and control of these developments you will fin that the then city planning group was heavily involved, and developers had to follow approved concepts. The flats are one of the last large areas near down-town, crying for imaginative concepts. Local architectural schools could be asked for concepts through a design competition as part of their post-graduate programs.

    1. Vancouver developments have not been without controversy. The expo site redevelopment was granted to one (offshore, foreign !!) developer; the Olympics site is also controversial due to insider selling/buying. I havent been out to see the Olympic site yet but will next year.

  5. I have the original Lebreton Area Plan in this computer, the real problem is that, Eric is probably bang on when it comes to developers, city council and the public, in that order, willing to forget the old plans details. People in this city have a problem of wanting to constantly revisit and redesign already complete plans because they wanted something newer and more exciting. I remember being involved with the original planning process of the site and the biggest issue was that, Claridge was the only developer interested because of the very low density, and low building heights being forced on them by the NCC. I remember a representative of a certain developer, whom will remain nameless stating that, unless they were allowed to build 20-30 stories, at the minimum, no builder in his or her right mind would be willing to build there, LRT or not! About two days after this comment, Claridge was the only developer left in the process!

    My personal issue with these new village like communities is the sheer lack of USEFUL retail. The Flats desperately needs some, any retail especially some that isn’t boutique retail, please! I am an urban planner and if I could force any change on the existing design of this and or any gentrifying community’s plan it would be the requirement of useful retail. Limit the coffee houses, pubs and restaurants, if I could find a legal way to do it, I would. These types of developments unfortunately only seem to produce too many over priced restaurants and stores that really only visitors to the area or tourists are interested in. Residents may occasionally like to go to buy the odd trinket or nick-knack for a shelf or bookcase but folks really, every second store has some. How about a book for the bookcase? For example, I live in the Westboro/Hintonburg Area and find it distressing that, there are over 12 stores/showrooms that will sell me a new countertop for my kitchen (in my new condo) running the length of the area’s commercial strip but, there are only 3 maybe 4 stores that can sell me a light bulb and really only 1 that sells a hammer or drill (at extremely high prices). Forget about buying men’s clothing for someone beyond the age of 30, that is affordable for most people and does not involve camping or boating. How many cupcakes, yoga studios and overpriced hamburger joints does one neighborhood need?

    1. It would be helpful if the City (for LRT stations) and developers (for storefronts in not-yet-fully-developed locations) took a view beyond the make-a-buck charge city-wide-max rent. Claridge, for eg, should give away the space on his 200 Lett Street site until there are enough people to support the corner store or whatever. There is no way anyone can pay rent and survive on the limited clientèle from one or two buildings. As the population grows, and business grows,escalate the rent. Until then, consider the rent shortfall a marketing expense to make the location more attractive. Ditto for LRT stations, they should have had convenience stores in the more major stations, perhaps run by a social service agency, at cut rent, with the city charging more if they are viable. If we can recycle and shred paper as a sheltered job, we could vend chocolate bars and coffees and newspapers too.

    2. The problem is actually worse than that. There are NO grocery stores, or hardware stores, or any kind of useful retail in West Centretown since the Loeb on Booth shut down. live about as close to the new buildings as is posssible, and even though I live right in the middle of downtown Ottawa, I use my car far more than I would like because everything is out of walking distance.

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