NCC Watch

Working to consign the NCC to oblivion

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The NCC's culture of secrecy

In the Citizen, Longstanding access to information researcher Ken Rubin provides a timely reminder that the NCC has never been a friend to transparency in government:

Even though in November, 2007, the NCC was finally forced to open up parts of their meetings to the public, key matters are still reviewed in in-camera sessions, with sanitized summaries being released months late ­­- and only because I file requests.

Sanitized as their records are, the value of uncovering matters of local interest can be found in the following items that resulted in Citizen stories:

  • 1988 consultant plans proposed for the parliamentary and judicial precinct were released after months of delays and an Information Commissioner complaint
  • secret 1989 discussions about introducing user fees at Gatineau Park
  • 1990 documents on delays and cost overruns associated with building a museum of photography next to the Chateau Laurier
  • 1992 records on the NCC's opposition to a popular idea of a park at the site of the former Daly building (the space now houses a luxury condominium, from which the NCC receives revenues)
  • 1988 to 1994 data that revealed the NCC was selling off chunks of its public greenbelt space to private developers
  • 1991 data on spending $10,000 for the installation of condom dispensing machines at NCC public washrooms
  • 2002 records that revealed that the NCC had spent $250,000 renovating an outdoor bathroom in Rockcliffe Park
  • a 1995 report by one Ottawa experienced appraisal firm that said the used sales value of furniture, furnishing, built-in closets and wallpaper left behind after the Mulroneys departing 24 Sussex Drive and Harrington Lake was only worth $39,050 despite the NCC having paid the Mulroneys $150,000 for these items in 1993
  • a 2003 investigation that mapped the incredibly vast capital area financial land holdings of NCC Chairman Marcel Beaudry and family and friends
  • 2004 NCC data that showed the NCC's "competition" for developing phase one of the publicly owned LeBreton Flats space ended with Claridge Homes getting the project, even though they "qualified" in last place in the ratings.

These are examples of finding out what the NCC was none too keen to have made public. Yet the NCC still likes to decide key community matters behind closed doors, exempt matters it would prefer to keep hidden and delay others from early public input.

The continuation of its secrecy practices is once again demonstrated in its provision of minimal information about the four consortiums' January 2015 proposals for a large scale redevelopment anchor project at LeBreton Flats. My access request on this and other queries made by the Citizen remain unanswered.

Rubin also memorably obtained transcripts of some NCC board meetings via access to information and published an article in the Citizen about the contents. The NCC's response? They promptly stopped recording their meetings.

Citizen: The NCC's culture of secrecy [26 August 2015]
Citizen: Behind Closed Doors [24 August 1998]
Citizen: What the NCC views as secret [3 February 2000]
NCC Watch Archive: Ken Rubin
Ken Rubin: Website

Monday, April 24, 2015

The NCC's a problem again

Again? Kate Heartfield argues that the NCC, having been pulled back from the brink in the early 2000s with the welcome albeit tepid reforms brought in by the current government, is once again stumbling toward irrelevance. From the Citizen:

The struggle to make the snooty, defensive NCC more transparent and accountable goes back decades. The argument, in the early 2000s, was that public board meetings would "politicize" the NCC's work.

Its board chair and CEO were combined in one powerful person. Its land speculation was difficult to fathom. It occupied itself with cockamamie schemes for improving Ottawa whether Ottawa liked it or not, the most notorious of which was the plan to move Metcalfe Street (bulldozing as needed) to create a nice view. Meanwhile, LeBreton Flats sat empty in the heart of the city, the result of an NCC razing decades before. The Flats encapsulated the sterile NCC view: Better to have nothing at all in downtown Ottawa than a neighbourhood with poor people living in it.

[...]In 2007, the government split the roles of chair and CEO. Later that year, the NCC announced that regular board meetings would be open to the public, with agendas posted online in advance. Revolution!

[...]The 2013 federal budget took responsibility for Winterlude and Canada Day away from the NCC, giving it to the Canadian Heritage department. That was one of the suggestions I'd made in my 2006 column, and indeed many in Ottawa saw it as a sign the NCC was on the way to oblivion. But the NCC refocused its mandate and found new life in 2014 under the creative and personable CEO, Mark Kristmanson.

No longer reviled and mistrusted, the NCC has done a great job lately at seeking ideas and input. The few political fights in recent years have been a symptom of the still-unresolved contradiction at the heart of the very idea of the NCC. It's supposed to be a check on politicians (and the people who elect them). But there is a limit, or should be, to what an unelected body can do with any legitimacy.

That contradiction might have evolved into a healthy tension, steering the NCC into a role of wise, independent counsel.

Instead, as with another chamber of sober second thought, the Conservative government chose to manipulate the NCC into doing the government's bidding. So we have the worst of both worlds: an unelected body doing the bidding of (certain) politicians.

An email from chairman Russell Mills to Kristmanson (released under access to information) shows the NCC felt it didn't have a say in the new location of the memorial to the victims of communism, because two Tory ministers had already announced it. "There was really no choice but to approve what had already been announced," Mills wrote.

[...]This news led my colleague, Kelly Egan, to wonder, "isn't it wonderful to know we fly in these esteemed thinkers from across Canada so they can rubber-stamp stupid ideas, cooked up in a partisan kitchen?"

In the Board's defence, we can only point out that they have always been flown in to rubber-stamp stupid ideas.

Citizen: And just like that, the NCC's a problem again [24 August 2015]

Thursday, July 23, 2015

NCC begins work on lighting plan

The NCC is once again about to "transform the Capital" with a $170 000 lighting study. From the Citizen:

The NCC awarded a $168,765 contract to an international consortium of experts June 30. The members of the consortium are now in the capital to start sketching out initial concepts for a lighting master plan.

The team includes Ottawa building services firm MMM Group, Quebec City-based Lumipraxis, which has worked on the illumination of the Quebec capital, and Alain Guilhot, an internationally renowned lighting designer from Lyon, France.

"He has lit Quebec City, Lyon, Constantinople, Beijing and Madrid," Kristmanson said. "At one point, he lit the Eiffel Tower. He's a great expert in this field, so we'll be listening to him."

Over the next two-and-a-half days, team members and the NCC will begin to map out the project, lay out the NCC's expectations and learn from the consultants' experience illuminating other capitals, Kristmanson said.

"We've got to familiarize this team with our capital and our needs. And we’ve got to understand from them what potential they see and what they can bring that we may not have thought of."

While here, the team will make site visits to five viewpoints on both sides of the Ottawa River. The areas include the Rideau Canal, Wellington and Sparks streets, the ByWard Market, Dow's Lake and major bridges.

The group will first visit the areas in daylight, then return at night "to see it in its nocturnal state," Kristmanson said. "This will start developing the thinking."

Though it will take a decade to fully implement the lighting plan, the NCC plans to share initial concepts with the public this fall.

"What I would expect to see is some further developed maps and viewlines and more detail on under-lit assets, and maybe some that are over-lit," Kristmanson said. There should also be suggestions on how the illumination balance and hierarchy would work.

"We want the capital to be very distinctive at night, and we want to bring out the best in our architecture," Kristmanson said. The NCC also expects the plan to reduce electricity use, perhaps quite substantially, and curb light pollution.

Ah yes, those troublesome 'over-lit' buildings and, even worse, the ones that shouldn't be lit at all. Forget about bringing out the best in our architecture, how to hide the more common worst in our architecture, like Place du Portage? For the next 170 grand in their consultation budget, maybe the NCC should hire David Copperfield to advise them on how to make that sucker disappear altogether.

Citizen: NCC begins work on lighting plan that will 'transform' capital at night [23 July 2015]

Saturday, April 11, 2015

LeBreton Flats renewal 1965-2014

Via LeBreton Flats Remembered, here's a video by Jean Ouellette showing the NCC's progress on the Flats. As a bonus, you can also see downtown Hull's transformation into a parking lot.

He has also created a website showing the results of urban renewal on Lowertown East.

YouTube: 1965 vs 2014 LeBreton Flats [11 April 2015]
Lowertown East 1965 vs 2014 [11 April 2015]

Monday, April 6, 2015

NCC reveals plans for THE FUTURE

Well, not reveal exactly. But the NCC has big ideas, apparently. 17, in fact. One of them is to refit the War Memorial by the year 2039. So that's something for us all to look forward to. But what will they actually be doing? Possibly finishing a plan with those 17 ideas - a plan they have been working on for more than four years - by fall. The Citizen has the "scoop":

The National War Memorial will celebrate its centennial in 2039. And Kristmanson, chief executive of the National Capital Commission, thinks that provides a splendid opportunity to "redo" Confederation Square to give it the amenities and sight lines to accommodate as many as 30,000 people during national ceremonies.

"That would seem to me to be a major idea that could happen on a major anniversary in the future," Kristmanson said in an interview.

The Confederation Square makeover is one of 17 "big ideas" the NCC expects to include in its long-term Plan for Canada's Capital - the document that will chart the future of the capital region between 2017 and Canada's 200th birthday in 2067.

The plan has been in the works for four years, but has "evolved" since the NCC's programming role migrated to the Department of Canadian Heritage in 2013, Kristmanson said.

It's now focused on the lands for which the NCC is responsible. Kristmanson hopes the 17 big ideas - the number is a reference to 2017, when Canada will celebrate its 150th birthday - will "complete the transformation of the capital into an international-level G7 capital."

The NCC already has a list of about 25 ideas, Kristmanson said, many from the public during nationwide consultations on the Plan for Canada's Capital.

He won't talk about the others yet, but said NCC staff will take the plan to the board of directors in June, looking for authorization to conduct public consultations. If all goes well, the plan could be finalized by the fall.

So, having failed to build to build an international-level G7 capital in the last 50 years, the NCC will finish the job by 2067.

The "nationwide consultations" refer to the NCC Roadshow, which crossed the nation back in 2011.

Citizen: Confederation Square makeover one of 17 'big ideas' in NCC's 50-year capital plan [6 April 2015]
NCC Watch Archive: NCC Roadshow

Monday, March 23, 2015

NCC too secretive on LeBreton plans

Long time NCC critic and columnist Ken Rubin had some pointed criticism of the NCC's typically secretive approach to its latest LeBreton plans. From the Hill Times:

The federal National Capital Commission always has been its own worst enemy when it acts as a developer with private partners. Nor has it ever been a great or responsive capital planner inspiring imaginative world-class projects.

Now the arrogant and uninspiring style the NCC possesses faces its biggest ever challenge: how will it finally facilitate developing one of the last large chunks of capital prime real estate at LeBreton Flats near Parliament Hill?

Its recent announcement does not bode well. The NCC provided little information on its short list of four developers for the anchor project at LeBreton Flats. The announcement did not bother to publicly or fully identify each consortium's business partners and only vaguely in one-liners referred to each short-listed developer's plan proposals.

One thing the NCC did reveal was that it's using $300,000 of federal taxpayers' money for the consortiums over the next several months to more fully put together their plans. But in accepting the monies, this meant that candidates were expected to keep quiet about their developing plans. While this secretive approach may change, given some media and public outrage, the NCC explicitly forbade developer proponents from publicly talking or consulting with the community or public partners. No monies have been allocated for public debate on the four proponents' plans.

[...]In the past, the NCC has allowed some LeBreton Flats planning and design guidelines to be publicly known in its redevelopment plans. But this time around, the NCC wants little or no sharing with the public of the rules for design and the criteria for judging developers. They have set up little in the way of an independent transparent process to verify the accuracy, cost, and effectiveness of the four developers’ plans for LeBreton Flats, let alone any reassurances that the plans will not be uninspiring and mediocre.

Last time, in 2004, the NCC held a secretive "competition" for developing another part of the publicly-owned LeBreton Flats space, the sole private sector company that qualified, Claridge Homes, built some of the most ugly buildings in Ottawa.

Access records obtained show that construction of the LeBreton Flats residential building was delayed over concerns the NCC had with a number of design changes to the project proposed by Claridge. Yet, Claridge is now one of the four bidders for the phase two anchor pivotal premier LeBreton project.

[...]Access records note that by 2012 the NCC had already spent more than $70-million of public funds on partly cleaning up the LeBreton Flats area (albeit with lax environmental screening and monitoring in place). More publicly paid for infrastructure funds will be needed too to service any further developments at LeBreton Flats and more funds spent for further cleanup.

Its confidential "competition" process for an anchor project at LeBreton Flats cannot be left in place any longer.

We need a better process and a transparent agency where the public gets an in-depth chance to see the details of plans presented, see the lobbying efforts of developers to date, and add their voice to help decide on what's built.

The NCC's unsuitability for such a developer mandate has a long past that includes bungled developments at the Daly, the Rideau Centre and Chambers sites. Selling off or leasing under favourable terms prime public lands to large developers for so-so unimaginative development seems to be one of its specialities.

[...]Parliament must come up with a less secretive and accountable arm's-length agency with the appropriate amendments to the National Capital Act. Too much past secrecy and too many private pitches have not made for a desirable capital, nor will blatant political interference.

Fresh CEO Kristmansson replied that, no, no, it's all good, the public will get a look in - in the fullness of time:

Early in 2016, the public will be invited to view the detailed proposals and their comments will inform the selection committee's recommendation to the NCC's Board of Directors.

An external fairness monitor is overseeing this process at every step to ensure it is conducted with visible integrity. It is important to note that the fairness monitor approves the public release of all information regarding the competition.

I am encouraged by the progress to date in this important capital building initiative, and we look forward to receiving the final proposals from the qualified proponents and sharing these with the public early next year.

Rubin replied in the Times:

The NCC refuses to divulge to the public what initial proposals the four contending private sector consortiums submitted to qualify as candidates.

The four consortium teams are not fully identified with their backers nor are their financial assets revealed. But each will get $75,000 to develop their plans over the next few months in total secrecy, including which public sector partners they may consult or look to for funds. So the four - Claridge Homes, Devcore Group, Focus Equities, and Rendez Vous LeBreton Group - have the go-ahead from the NCC not to talk to the media or the public, but to hold secret talks with governments and institutions about their prospective plans.

As for the "public" involvement, what Mr. Kristmanson wants the public to do is wait several months to then "view" the detailed plans so that they can merely offer "comments" that may help "inform" the unaccountable "selection committee's" recommendation to the unelected NCC board of directors. In turn, that limited public involvement invitation process could well be superseded by the government of the day making key project decisions, as has been done in the cases of the War Museum and Victims of Communism memorial projects.

Moreover, the NCC is telling the public to blindly trust the "process" because some "fairness monitor" will be watching the integrity of process.

But here we are dealing with a key national capital community development where the NCC's immediate past flawed process for phase one "competition" at LeBreton Flats development left the public with uninspiring buildings on prime land.

[...]Why can’t the NCC or the government share the information it already has about LeBreton Flats redevelopment? Why wait to release bits and parts of what will be known in the spring and late fall when the process is well advanced? And why doesn’t the NCC disclose its expected revenues from such a valuable redevelopment at the Flats? Let the public in on the ground floor and allow us to have more than token input.

Hill Times: Hush-hush about LeBreton Flats anchor project plans [9 March 2015]
Hill Times: LeBreton redevelopment competition: rules are public, process supervised [16 March 2015]
Hill Times: NCC still too secretive on LeBreton Flats anchor project [23 March 2015]

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

NCC gets five proposals for the Flats

Last September, the NCC, embarrassed by the ordinariness of the current development, once again asked for proposals to develop what remains to be developed of the LeBreton Flats. And now it appears they have five. If memory serves, that's two more than last time (well, before two proponents ran away leaving Claridge with the prize). From the Citizen:

The National Capital Commission has received five proposals for the development of LeBreton Flats, by far the largest and most significant development site in Ottawa's core.

The number of proposals received by Wednesday's deadline was surprisingly modest. The NCC raised expectations when it extended the original deadline for submissions by one month due to "greater expression of interest than expected."

The NCC, whose officials weren't talking Wednesday, revealed the number in a news release, but declined to provide any details about the proposals or identify the proponents.

[...]Last September, the NCC invited the private sector to submit proposals to develop a 9.3-hectare section of the Flats. Another 12.1-hectare parcel farther west could potentially be made available, as well.

[...]A committee, composed of three NCC executive staff members, architect A.J. Diamond and Mark Conway, a planner and land economist, will evaluate the five submissions for completeness and compliance with the evaluation criteria.

The NCC said the solicitation process is intended to pre-qualify two to five proponents, whose names will be revealed in March following ratification by the NCC board.

The pre-qualified proponents will then have until August 2015 to submit detailed design and financial proposals, which will be displayed publicly to get feedback.

The current timetable calls for the recommended proposal to go to the NCC's board for approval in November, with cabinet sign-off in early 2016.

Late last year the Ottawa Senators revealed that they are one of the proponents, and have submitted a proposal for an arena, which is second only to a casino as the planning equivalent of having no ideas at all.

Citizen: NCC gets five proposals to develop LeBreton Flats [7 January 2015]

Wednesday, December 9, 2014

LeBreton development reviewed

West Side Action begins an exhaustive review of the NCC's LeBreton Flats development. In short, not as bad as all that but still deficient.

West Side Action: LeBetter Flats (part 1) [9 December 2014]

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

No plans to rip up Parkway

Ottawa commuters can rest easy, any idea of ripping up the freeway is simply crazy talk, NCC CEO Kristmanson was quick to reassure an anxious public:

Some have suggested that Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway, a key route downtown for commuters from Ottawa's west end and West Quebec, is incompatible with the linear park concept.

Asked by the Citizen on Wednesday whether removing the existing roadway was being considered, Kristmanson replied: "The short answer is no."

During a public consultation in May, Kristmanson said, some participants told planners they would like the NCC to reduce the four-lane parkway to a two-lane road, similar to other scenic parkways in the capital.

But Kristmanson said he didn't want to "jump to that conclusion. I'd hate to make commuters worry that we're somehow going to make their lives more difficult in the short term by changing anything.

"Maybe some day car use will change. Maybe traffic patterns can be looked at," he said. "But the initial phase is really to study this renewed vision for shorelines and rivers for the long term."

[...]The NCC chief executive stressed that developing the linear park will take many years. "There's no funding assigned for this yet."

The NCC is developing a new master plan for the capital, which will include a chapter on shorelines and rivers. Once it is finished in the next year or two, the plan "will guide future decisions and development," Kristmanson said.

And so the NCC pursues its national mandate, on behalf of all Canadians, to develop yet another master plan for the capital to guide future decisions and protect the Ottawa commuting public, according to the NCC's guiding principle laid down more than half a century ago: roads, not trains.

Citizen: No plans to rip up Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway, NCC's Kristmanson says [26 November 2014]
Citizen: Explaining Ottawa's western LRT debate — what you should know [28 November 2014]

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

NCC, city continue their "public conversation"

First up, Mayor Watson. From the Citizen:

No other Canadian city faces the kind of federal interference that Ottawa does at the hands of the National Capital Commission, a frustrated Mayor Jim Watson said Monday.

The Ottawa mayor's comments come just days after the NCC announced that its board of directors believes Rochester Field on Richmond Road in Westboro, which it owns, is a better option for light rail than along the Ottawa River, unless the city is prepared to dig a deep tunnel for the trains in order to preserve its proposed route along the river.

"No other city in the country has an organization like the NCC who micromanages and meddles. You can't give me one example of any other city that has that kind of duplication of activity and meddlesome behaviour," Watson said.

He added that most NCC board members don't live in Ottawa and "don't have to live with the consequences" of their decisions.

"No one holds them accountable, so I think the public should be outraged at this kind of behaviour by a group that is constantly poking a stick in our plans to improve transit for the future of our city," he said.

Nothing revelatory here, but it is nice to have it said out loud now and then.

In an op-ed in the Citizen, meanwhile, CEO Kristmanson styles the NCC's "meddling" as "expanding the options":

Following a detailed review of documents and data provided by the city, the NCC's experts concluded that the only way our shoreline objectives can be achieved is if the transit line is constructed as a tunnel.

Last week, when the NCC's Board examined the latest evidence [at an in camera meeting], it concluded that the public and the city should be informed right away of its conclusions. The sooner the city is made aware of our analysis the better able it will be to complete its environmental assessment.

Preserving access to the extraordinary beauty of the riverfront has significance for our children and grandchildren. Its ecological and recreational potential cannot be readily reclaimed if an imposing infrastructure is given priority [and they should know - ed.].

As the city densifies and grows, protecting the best of our capital becomes all the more important. In fact, hundreds of residents and experts have joined us to envision a waterfront linear park extending from the Canadian War Museum to Britannia. Enhancing this world-class gem can only unfold in harmony with light rail submerged in a tunnel configuration.

The city has other options. This includes moving light rail away from the shoreline by turning into Rochester Field. This crucial open area is owned by the NCC, which will make the land available.

If the line moves inland, the city can determine a route that best meets its overall objectives, including the opportunity to place transit stops close to where people live. It would be up to the city to determine if a transit line that extends up from Rochester Field would be a tunnel, buried below grade, or run on grade.

By making Rochester Field available to the city the NCC is expanding the options, which we ask be fully compared in the ongoing environmental assessment.

Studying only the shoreline option, with partially buried configurations, as the city is doing today, will not move an effective light rail solution closer to reality.

In short, forget the waterfront, we've already done enough on that score.

And we leave you with this audacious thought from Peter Raaymakers at Public Transit in Ottawa: what if Kristmanson's offhand reference to the NCC's blue sky plans for a grand linear park along the waterfront involve actually taking out their freeway?

In an opinion article in the Citizen explaining the NCC's position, Kristmanson mentioned - almost in passing - the possibility of establishing a waterfront linear park where the Parkway currently runs. The "Sir John A. Macdonald waterfront park," as Kristmanson called it, would run from the War Museum on Lebreton Flats to Britannia Beach, incorporating the many existing beaches, rapids, and lookouts along the way.

In order to make it a waterfront park in any meaningful way, the parkway itself would have to be removed. Jacquelin Holzman, the former mayor of Ottawa and current member of the NCC Board of Directors, told me that the park "is front and centre in the vision of the NCC and the Board" and said that the NCC has engaged stakeholders and neighbours on the subject.

The fact that the NCC didn't explicitly outline these plans while explaining their position to the city is a massive failure of communications on their part. Refusing to allow public transit parallel to their existing freeway is a nonsensical decision, but if they are actively considering the removal of, or major changes to, that freeway then it makes more sense. A waterfront parkway is no place for a light-rail line - even if it's a segment of only 1.2 kilometres, and even if it's partially buried.

Establishing the Sir John A. Macdonald Park could be the most ambitious conservation project of the National Capital Commission since Gatineau Park was created in 1938. The NCC's mandate is to take part in projects like this one, conserving key lands for uses that couldn't otherwise be envisioned in order to improve quality of life in the National Capital Region. They've wasted these waterfront lands for over 50 years by turning them into a commuter corridor, but at least they are finally making larger plans for them.

But does it count if we have to wait for flying cars before it happens?

Citizen: Ottawa mayor bemoans NCC's 'meddlesome behaviour' [24 November 2014]
Citizen: Mark Kristmanson: The NCC is expanding the options for light rail [25 November 2014]
Sun: Watson vs. NCC round two [25 November 2014]
Citizen: Peter Raaymakers: The NCC finally has a vision for the waterfront [25 November 2014]
Citizen: No plans to rip up Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway, NCC's Kristmanson says [26 November 2014]

Saturday, November 22, 2014

NCC pisses off mayor, city

The NCC, still holding out for "unimpeded, continuous access" to the freeway that runs by the river, has demanded changes to the city's LRT plan at a news conference that seems to have caught everyone else off guard. Joanne Chianello in the Citizen:

NCC officials phoned Mayor Jim Watson and city manager Kent Kirkpatrick a mere half hour before the news conference to tell them what was happening. Not only were city officials not invited, the city's manager of media relations was actively stopped from simply sitting in on the event to take notes.

[...]The NCC demanded two things: that the city reconsider running light rail across (or perhaps under) Rochester Field in Westboro instead of along the parkway; and that the city provide a proper estimate for fully burying that 1.2-kilometre stretch along the parkway.

These sounds like reasonable requests, until you realize they are not.

Let's take the last request first. City staff was already working on an estimate for the tunnel - which will surely run in the hundreds of millions - and planning to report the findings to the NCC at the board's January meeting. Why should the NCC make this demand now when it knows full well it will get an answer in two months' time?

As for the Rochester Field option, the NCC claims it wouldn't cost any more than the city's current budget of $980 million for the western LRT extension. But that can only be the case if the city runs light rail along the surface of Richmond Road or the Byron Linear Park, both of which are complete non-starters in the Westboro community. Burying the train underground would have almost doubled the price of the western extension to $1.7 billion, according to city estimates.

It's nice to know that the NCC is worried about "impeding" the sightlines along its own roads, with apparent disregard for the sightlines along city streets in established neighbourhoods.

The NCC is also being somewhat disingenuous with its demands for "unimpeded public access to the shoreline" of the Ottawa River. What is a four-lane freeway - known as the parkway - if not an impediment to shoreline access? In fact, the city is planning to partially bury 700 metres of the planned 1.2-kilometre stretch near the parkway, with the aim of having only one metre of the train be above ground. And that will be covered by a grassy berm over which people could walk. Indeed, according to city officials who say they've been meeting regularly with NCC staff, there was talk of partially burying more of the track.

The oddest thing about Friday's announcement is the timing. The NCC and the city had agreed to review the options and additional data at its January meeting. Why this hastily planned, poorly executed news conference?

Not surprisingly, the Mayor had a few choice words for the NCC. From the CBC:

Ottawa's mayor says an "unaccountable, unelected" National Capital Commission shouldn't be discussing important city issues at "secret" meetings, after the NCC announced Friday that a partially buried stretch of the western LRT line is not an option.

The city hasn't received analysis from the NCC about its decision to reject a proposal for a partial burial of the line along the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway, Mayor Jim Watson said in an emailed statement late Friday.

"I am disappointed the NCC would not even permit a city staff member into their building to listen to their announcement," Watson is quoted saying in the statement.

"We were promised a chance to appear before the NCC board in early 2015 to present a progress report. The NCC simply ignored their commitment to this and held a closed-door meeting, jeopardizing our city's transit plans."

Meanwhile, the Public Transit In Ottawa blog takes the unusual tack of actually considering the people riding transit:

The city's preferred plan involves a partially buried line along the Parkway, and it takes our transit vehicles - and the people within them - and pushes them underground. The NCC's two options would take it one step further, forcing them even deeper underground and out of sight.

One of the NCC's conditions was that the city achieve "minimal visual impact" and maintain the "user experience" of the Parkway corridor. Their recommendations fail to acknowledge that OC Transpo riders are also users of the corridor, and they should be allowed to enjoy it as well. Although it's easy to forget, there are people inside the OC Transpo vehicles. They are at least as entitled to the Parkway's scenery as private automobiles that also use it-and perhaps more entitled, since drivers must remain focused on the road while riders are free to take in the sights.

Citizen: Mayor Watson slams NCC over LRT demands [21 November 2014]
Citizen: NCC's bizarre LRT grandstanding smacks of politics [22 November 2014]
Sun: Watson slams NCC's secrecy [22 November 2014]
CBC: Mayor 'disappointed' by 'secret' NCC meeting on west LRT burial [21 November 2014]
PTIO: Burying transit, and the people who use it [21 November 2014]

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Let's hope LeBreton goes better this time

Mohammed Adam at the Citizen hopes that somehow, the NCC won't screw up the Flats again. From the Citizen:

When the National Capital Commission first engaged the private sector in 2004 to develop LeBreton Flats, it ended in disaster, and going back to the same source a second time could end in tears again.

[...]Of the original acquisition, the NCC says 17.8 hectares, or 31 per cent of the land, has been developed for various uses. This is made up of 7.5 hectares for the War Museum, the Bluesfest site, parkways and open space for future public uses. Another 4.5 hectares was sold to Claridge Homes for its condo development, and 5.8 hectares went to the City of Ottawa for such things as LRT and roads. So, 50 years on, about 40 hectares remain undeveloped.

[...]But if the NCC really wants architectural excellence, the board should have gone with an international design competition. The NCC should have clearly defined its vision for what's left of LeBreton Flats, then broken it down into phases as necessary, and thrown it to the great architects and urban designers around the world to show what's possible.

Leaving it to developers won't work because they are, by nature, not practitioners of great design - certainly not in Ottawa. Developers are concerned primarily with the bottom line, and that's why they put up basic, no-drama buildings they can sell quickly and make money from. And there's nothing wrong with that. Whether it is LeBreton, Lansdowne or the Daly site, what you get from developers are standard commercial buildings - not dazzling design.

[...]So what would qualify as a signature development? The NCC has really not defined it beyond "a bold new anchor that will welcome the public, serve as an economic driver, feature innovative use of land and bring design excellence, animation and a unique public experience" to the capital. You could fit anything and everything into that mouthful, so let's speculate: The mother of all shopping malls perhaps? With the city's newfound love for height, maybe a village of skyscrapers? A compound for technology-start-ups that don't want to locate in suburbia? It is anybody's guess.

The big question is whether, in this current market, enough of the innovative developers would care enough to put in proposals. No one really knows. The last time, the NCC didn't get many bids and ended up with three shortlisted companies and a bizarre situation in which the two top-scoring firms in the evaluation withdrew, handing the development to the one with the lowest score.

It is good to be excited about a landmark development at LeBreton Flats, and one hopes Kristmanson can pull it off. But don't be surprised if we end up with standard fare that's dressed up Ottawa-style as signature development.

Citizen: Let's hope LeBreton goes better this time [15 October 2014]

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Flats: 'Good luck with that'

Every few years, the NCC makes some announcement grandiose enough to rouse the national media to have a laugh at the NCC's expense. And so it is with the NCC's latest call for help with building something truly grand on the Flats. From the Globe and Mail:

Hear ye, Hear ye.

The National Capital Commission, much-maligned steward of federal lands in the Ottawa region, is calling on the "world's best" to transform one of the last patches of undeveloped downtown real estate into a new signature destination for Canada.

"We envisage a bold, new anchor institution that will welcome the public, serve as an economic driver, feature innovative use of the land, and bring design excellence, animation and a unique public experience to the nation's capital," according to an invitation for redevelopment proposals on the agency's website.

Good luck with that.

LeBreton Flats - just west and down the slope from Parliament Hill - was a bustling industrial neighbourhood until the NCC expropriated it in 1962. The Crown Corporation promptly evicted residents, and flattened homes, factories and warehouses to make way for what was to be a massive government complex.

It never happened. Instead, LeBreton Flats became a sad monument to bungled urban planning, missed opportunity and shrunken ambition.

[...]There was a glimmer of hope in 2005 when part of the site became the Canadian War Museum and a park along the banks of the Ottawa River. The NCC later selected Claridge Homes to create a new housing community nearby. A decade later, fewer than 400 people live in two small condo towers, even as the city of nearly one million has sprawled out in every other direction.

[...]The NCC has missed the building boom of the past decade.

But that's nothing new. The NCC also missed the booms of the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties. Since the late 1980s, it has watched a long list of potential anchor tenants go elsewhere, including an NHL hockey venue, a CFL football stadium, a casino, a convention centre, the National Gallery, the Canadian Museum of History and shopping malls, as well as new headquarters for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Communications Security Establishment, the Department of National Defence and various other departments and agencies.

The government is also competing against itself. Just a few miles west of LeBreton Flats, the government is hoping to entice developers to help it revitalize a Soviet-style compound of drab government buildings known as Tunney's Pasture. There is only so much private-sector investment available in a city of Ottawa's size.

It's not clear what Mr. Baird and the NCC have in mind. But the use of terms such as "anchor" and "economic driver" suggest retail or hotels. Sea World or a Six Flags amusement park would seem out of the question, with the War Museum and Parliament Hill nearby. But who knows?

Globe and Mail: Ottawa's own backyard a land of missed development opportunities [5 October 2014]

Thursday, September 11, 2014

NCC wants to pay off its 'ethical debt'

Another ten years, and another call for a 'signature development' of 'national significance' for the LeBreton Flats from the NCC. Considering the last fiasco, could anyone possibly be interested? From the Citizen:

The National Capital Commission wants the private sector to come up with some ideas for developing the long-empty lands on LeBreton Flats - anchoring those suggestions with a new "landmark" building of national significance.

Mark Kristmanson, the NCC's chief executive officer, spoke about the plan during a breakfast address to the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce on Thursday.

Creating a new "signature development" on LeBreton Flats, he told the business audience, is a top priority for the NCC's board of directors and for the commission's political minister, Ottawa West-Nepean MP John Baird.

Kristmanson said staff will present a recommendation to the NCC's board at its meeting next Tuesday to seek proposals "based on a major public institution or an attraction of regional or national significance, supported by a complementary development scheme."

In an interview with the Citizen, Kristmanson said the NCC needs to move ahead with development on LeBreton Flats, still largely vacant since the federal government expropriated and demolished homes there as part of a stillborn redevelopment project more than half a century ago.

"The NCC has a kind of ethical debt to the city to get this done," he said. "It has sat there for a long time."

While he declined to assign blame for LeBreton's lengthy tenure as the city's most valuable vacant lot, he said the property is "under the NCC's watch. It's our responsibility, and I really want to see it done."

[...]Kristmanson cited the "evolution" of the surrounding area - particularly Windmill Development's plans for the former Domtar lands and Chaudiere Island - as one key reason for a major new building on LeBreton.

"With the Windmill development bringing in about three million square feet, mostly residential, to the north of the site, it makes a lot of sense to bring in some major attraction or institution to balance the War Museum," he said.

Such a building would also create "an attractive place" for people arriving at the city's future Pimisi light rail transit station at LeBreton Flats, he said. "It makes a lot of sense to do that rather than just let the whole thing go as a mixed-use development."

Kristmanson, who called LeBreton Flats "immensely valuable," said he's had numerous meetings with private sector developers "to get their advice on how to do this - what was done right in the past, what was done wrong. So we're going forward on that basis."

Diane Holmes, the outgoing councillor for Somerset ward, which includes LeBreton Flats, said the most important thing the NCC should do with the LeBreton redevelopment is to break up the land into smaller parcels, each with its own architect and developer.

The condos on the eastern part of LeBreton built by Claridge Homes have "resulted in a development that looks institutional, like a hospital, instead of a mixed-used residential community," Holmes said.

So it's back to the submitting recommendations to seek proposals stage. Letting the whole thing go for mixed use development is exactly what they should do. But the new CEO does admit the NCC has some sort of debt to the city for screwing the Flats up so egregiously for the past 60 years, which is sort of unprecedented.

At the same talk, the new CEO also trotted out some numbers related to the NCC's 'footprint' - 53 millions of dollars in contracts awarded every year, 1600 properties owned, that sort of thing - as though without the dead hand of the NCC doling out money on ridiculous pet projects and stifling development, the city would somehow be worse off.

Citizen: NCC eyeing major new capital landmark on LeBreton Flats [11 September 2014]
Citizen: By the numbers: The NCC's economic footprint [11 September 2014]
Citizen: Imagining what Ottawa's prime real estate could look like [12 September 2014]

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

OK, that's enough animation

The popup bistro on the Canal is learning what a pain it is to have the NCC for a landlord. From the Sun:

8 Locks Flat is located on the east side of the canal across from the University of Ottawa, just north of the Corktown Bridge. It was allowed to open under a three-year trial by the NCC starting in 2012.

Bistro owner Colin Goodfellow said by e-mail Monday the two sides started lease negotiations but the NCC recently withdrew. According to Goodfellow, he has to remove everything from the site by the end of October.

The NCC e-mailed a statement to the Sun suggesting talks for the 2015 season are still happening.

"NCC remains committed to animating the shorelines. Discussions with the proponent of 8 Locks Flat are ongoing but the NCC cannot discuss negotiations in public by respect for all the parties involved, as per our usual practice," the agency says.

[...]8 Locks Flat has operated on a red cedar deck overlooking the canal. It has been a new site for live music and other events. In many ways, it has been an answer to calls for more food-and-beverage attractions on the canal, as an addition to places like Canal Ritz and the Dows Lake pavilion.

Sun: Future of canal bistro up in the air [8 July 2014]

Saturday, June 28, 2014

NCC wants city to bury western LRT

The NCC has passed a motion demanding "unimpeded, continuous access" to the river - a bizarre request considering the four-lane commuter expressway residing there now. From the CBC:

The National Capital Commission is demanding the City of Ottawa bury the entire stretch of its western light rail extension that would run alongside the Sir John A. MacDonald Parkway.

The city wants to use a 1.2 kilometre stretch of NCC land for the future westward expansion of light rail, with a plan to bury a portion of the line between Skead Street and Cleary Station earlier this month.

The NCC's board unanimously approved a motion on Friday calling for "unimpeded, continuous access" to the Parkway corridor and Ottawa River shoreline.

"The city's last proposal was 700 metres are covered, why not cover the whole thing?" said board chair Russell Mills.

"We've never seen a plan like that, the board feels strongly it should see a plan from the city to do that. This land belongs to all the people of Canada, we have to be very careful about how we give it up for local use."

The NCC is asking the city for a revised plan before September, when it will approve its transportation master plan.

Impeding access to the Ottawa River is, evidently, the exclusive purview of the NCC.

CBC: NCC wants city to bury western LRT on Parkway land [28 June 2014]

Friday, June 20, 2014

Smaller is better

The Citizen approves of the NCC's new CEO and contracted mandate:

The question of whether we even need a National Capital Commission has always been arguable. By refocusing the agency, the federal government wisely encouraged it to find its niche. There are many departments and agencies who can manage public property or put on events. There is only one agency occupied with the aesthetics and significance of the national capital, as a capital.

That contraction should continue, gently, in the coming years. If there are lands or buildings that some other department could manage, or that would be better off in the private sector, the NCC should be open to that evolution. The NCC has accumulated many responsibilities over its long history, and it must consider the repercussions of any changes. But the agency should focus on being a lean, efficient advocate and facilitator to help all levels of government keep the capital's cultural significance in mind.

Citizen: A smaller, better NCC [20 June 2014]

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Drive-by beautification on the Flats

WestSideAction reports on the various non-goings-on on the Flats from a recent open house. Apparently the NCC is planning some temporary beautification while they wait around for themselves to get around to some sort of permanent beautification.

It has long been a puzzle to WSA regulars as to why bureaucrats think people would rush to buy homes with such dismal surroundings. So the new NCC, with new Leadership, responding to criticism (not least of which came from their bosses up on the Hill) of the desolate lands, announced a few weeks ago that they were interested in public consultation and quickie landscaping.

[...]The budget, I gather, is about $3million, with construction to begin in 2015 and be complete for the sesquicentennial celebrations in 2017. Eventually the landscaping installations would be replaced by buildings as the whole Flats is built out.

There was no alternative presented that might have just planted a boulevard of trees and shrubs along the roadsides and street frontages, which could have been permanent, and offered mature greenery when, someday in the far distant future, more people move in.

Nor was there any mention of accelerating the development of the Flats, maybe by inviting in some other developers or building a hotel or something to attract a variety of users.

WestSideAction: Three temporary landscapes on the Flats [5 June 2014]
NCC: Interim improvement of parts of LeBreton Flats [4 June 2014]

Thursday, April 17, 2014

NCC gets out of bike share

The NCC has managed to sell its money-losing bike share operation, formerly operated by now bankrupt Bixi:

US-based CycleHop will run Ottawa's bike-share service as it takes over from the National Capital Commission, the NCC announced Thursday.

The sale by the NCC to CycleHop took effect Thursday and CycleHop, as the new owner and operator, has promised to double the program within the next few years.

The bike-share service currently has 250 bicycles at 25 different locations.

CBC: NCC sells Ottawa bike-share service to US-based CycleHop [17 April 2014]
OBJ: Bixi bike share service to double in size after sale [22 April 2014]

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

LeBreton Flats Remembered

A recently established Facebook page LeBreton Flats Remembered has already assembled an impressive collection of photos of the Flats before they were demolished by the NCC.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

NCC survey: terrible, horrible, or worst-ever?

The Citizen's David Reevely has fun picking apart the NCC's "capital urban lands" survey:

It's a combination of questions asking you to agree with motherhood statements and asking for your input on profoundly fine-grained subjects that you only get 500 characters - not words, characters - to say your piece on.

For instance, do you agree with the NCC's proposal that its urban planning should be driven by three principles:

  1. Contact with nature
  2. Expression and experience
  3. Urban and regional viability

You're invited to agree or disagree with each of those three.

[...]And then what's your vision for the future of the capital's parkways? We've written a 24-page draft policy book whose key section has 52 bullet points; you have 500 characters.

The second of those 52 bullet-point policies about parkways goes like this:

In the context of sustainable mobility, while recognizing commuter use by automobile, it is not the primary obligation of parkways to accommodate regional commuting demands and not be considered as part of the local transportation network through unilateral designation by local municipal official plans for transportation or transit purposes.

That's 343 characters, by the way. Three hundred and forty three characters of rebuke to the city government's transit plans, the dead giveaway that the point of this whole exercise is to provide a simulacrum of popular support for what the NCC wants to do already, like a Crimean referendum question.

Finally, it seems like little enough to ask, reading the documents, that an institution so concerned with its role in preserving the capital's federal features for all Canadians would know how to spell them. The NCC doesn't know how to spell the name of our first prime minister, consistently capitalizing the "d" in "Macdonald" and wrongly referring to "Queen Elisabeth Drive."

Citizen: The NCC's survey on its land uses: terrible, horrible, or worst-ever? [20 March 2014]

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

NCC to demolish heritage building

The NCC is once again under fire from heritage types, this time for a plan to replace a heritage building in the market. The building has been in the care of the NCC, protectors of heritage on behalf of all Canadians, for decades and so naturally cannot now be saved. From the Citizen:

The NCC, which owns the building, says the structure is at the end of its life cycle and demolition is the best option for the site. Memories was forced to vacate the building about a year ago. Now, the NCC has officially applied to the city for permission to demolish it and rebuild on the site.

"We've done what we could to salvage the building. It's really at the end of its life cycle," said Sandra Pecek, the NCC's director of communications. She added that the proposed replacement is "very conceptual at this point," and far from final.

The historic building, believed to date to the 1860s or 1870s, is part of Tin House Court, one of the courtyards behind the buildings that line Sussex Drive.

Originally built as a warehouse, it's designated under the Ontario Heritage Act because of its location in the ByWard Market heritage conservation district. On the city's Heritage Reference List, it's listed as a Category 1 priority, the highest rating for buildings of historic interest.

An independent analysis commissioned by the city concluded that the building is in poor condition and repair might not be practicable.

The proposed new structure features a clear glazed wall on the ground floor and largely patterned glass on the upper facade.

The community association is drafting a letter to the city opposing the new structure, which is wider and taller than the current one. [Lowertown Community Association president Marc] Aubin says the NCC has been negligent in managing the property, and should follow their previous practice of building replica replacements of decrepit heritage buildings.

Citizen: Plan to replace Clarence Street heritage building draws fire from community [19 February 2014]

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

NCC finally gets a CEO

A CEO has finally been appointed - a former NCC bureaucrat. From the Citizen:

Kristmanson, a largely unknown NCC bureaucrat for the past decade, was on Monday named to the top job by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

Kristmanson succeeds former CEO, Marie Lemay, who left 18 months ago to become a deputy minister in the federal bureaucracy. The job had been unfilled since then, though Jean-François Trépanier, the Crown corporation's executive vice-president, had been interim chief executive.

Kristmanson's appointment, which followed what Baird called a "lengthy, rigorous and non-partisan process," came as a surprise to just about everyone.

[...]At the NCC, Kristmanson was once director of public programming, overseeing events such as Canada Day and Winterlude. That programming role migrated to the Department of Canadian Heritage last year when the NCC's mandate was narrowed to land-use planning and maintaining official residences.

[...]University of Ottawa professor emeritus Gilles Paquet, who chaired a panel that reviewed the NCC's mandate in 2006, said it appears the government has "chosen a technocrat rather than a political animal" to head the NCC.

That could be a problem if Kristmanson has been "totally captured" by the technocracy that has dominated the NCC for years, Paquet said.

"When you live in an organization for 10 years, you become part of that culture. The culture has been a technocratic culture - top down, very little attention paid to the communities out there. The will to co-operate is not there to begin with."

The role of the NCC's chief executive is political in some ways, Paquet said. "There's an extraordinary need, if you want a renaissance of this region, for people to come together, to rally, to conciliate."

The head of the NCC needs to be willing to "persuade, bribe, do anything he needs to for the city," Paquet said. "These are political skills rather than technical skills."

In an interview with Joanne Chianello in the Citizen, Kristmanson predictably played his cards close to his chest, but he did allow that the birdfeeders, recently removed from Gatineau Park for reasons that amounted to 'just in case', would return. So hold on to your hats, it's gonna be a wild ride.

Watson remains positive

Jim Watson, meanwhile, says he welcomes the appointment, and claims broad support for his position on local representation on the NCC board. From the Orleans Star:

[Watson] welcomes the entry into office of the new Chief Executive Mark Kristmanson to the federal agency, an appointment that was announced, Monday.

[...]Watson also said he "did not want to give up" on the open dialogue, while welcoming the support he's received in recent days to his letter sent, last week, to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to require representation of a local elected from each municipality on the board of the NCC.

[...]"We have a lot of support and this is positive," said Watson. "In addition, support is being lent from those with a lot of credibility."

Monday morning, five Liberals in the Outaouais region - Stéphanie Vallée, Maryse Gaudreault, Charlotte L'Écuyer, Marc Carrière and Alexandre Iracà - had also written jointly to Mr. Harper to ask for a modernization of the NCC.

Back when the Liberals were in power, of course, Chairman Beaudry carried local Liberal MPs around in his pocket like so many dimes and nickels, but it's good to see them onboard the change train now that they are all but powerless.

Citizen: NCC's new CEO, Mark Kristmanson, brings diplomatic skills to job [3 February 2014]
Citizen: Q&A with NCC chief executive Mark Kristmanson [4 February 2014]
CBC: Mark Kristmanson named CEO of National Capital Commission [3 February 2014]
OBJ: Veteran staffer to take over at the NCC as fight with city heats up [3 February 2014]
Orleans Star: We have a lot of positive support [4 February 2014]

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Mayors not ready to give up on NCC yet

The Ottawa and Gatineau mayors have joined forces to criticize the NCC and demand a seat at the table. The Citizen's David Reevely reports:

The National Capital Commission doesn't know enough about local affairs and is getting in the way of progress, the mayors of Ottawa and Gatineau charged Wednesday, and putting them on its board is their solution.

After their first formal meeting since Gatineau's Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin was elected last fall, he and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson emerged with a list of grievances, from "relentless obstruction in the City of Ottawa's efforts to create a world-class transit system for the National Capital Region" to the "unilateral decision to close Rue Gamelin" in Gatineau. They signed it and sent it to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, demanding reforms that should start with adding an elected official from each city council to the 15-member NCC board.

[...]The commission's refusal to accept Ottawa's plans for running a light-rail line along the Ottawa River near Highland Park clearly angered Watson the most. The board's constant demands for the city to spend more on the project, which is already estimated to cost $980 million, are just unreasonable, he said, calling them "micromanagement and second-guessing." He scorned the commission's demands in the first stage of the rail line, now under construction - which went as far as approving the shrubs the city intends to plant around its new stations.

Watson also complained about the state of Sparks Street, where the NCC is a major landlord and famously indifferent to the needs of small businesses. Few restaurateurs want to invest in outfitting kitchens if they can only get the short-term leases the NCC insists on, for instance.

[...]The fact the NCC board had an open meeting last week, where member Robert Tennant got involved in the debate on the city's rail plans, helped expose that Tennant's private urban-planning firm also works for a client whose development plans are directly implicated in the rail project, Watson pointed out. More openness and accountability is always a good thing, he argued.

The mayor said he's not worried that an attack on the commission will make getting its co-operation on things like the rail project more difficult.

"Are you suggesting there's going to be retributions because we dared to offer a way to open up and make the NCC more accountable?" he shot back in response to a reporter's question. "I think that would backfire on the federal government, if they're going to all of a sudden start saying, 'These mayors are asking too much and we're going to take out on them, charging more for parking in Gatineau Park and we're going to make it more difficult for light rail.' I hope they don't go down that path because I don't think the public would be too pleased and impressed with that.'

Chairman Mills, however, fired right back, sticking to the tiresomely familiar 'we're doing it for all of Canada' line. From the CBC:

The chair and interim CEO of the National Capital Commission brushed off suggestions the organization meddles in local affairs and said they do not support the idea of having municipal representation on the commission's board.

[...]He said as the caretaker of the 10 per cent of land in the region owned by the federal government, the NCC should have that authority. While Mills said the current negotiations with the city are progressing well, in the past he said they have had to fight to keep rail lines from going up along the Ottawa River.

"The NCC needs to retain the authority to stop bad ideas for federal land like a railroad on the riverfront," he said.

Ah yes, the railway on the riverfront. Well, he's got a point - it could impede access to the freeway.

Citizen: Ottawa, Gatineau mayors demand seats on NCC board [29 January 2014]
CBC: Jim Watson, Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin call on PM to change NCC [29 January 2014]
Mayors' Joint Letter [29 January 2014]
CBC: NCC rebuffs call from mayors for more local voice [30 January 2014]
OBJ: Mayor Watson demands more local representation on the NCC board [30 January 2014]
Statement from NCC Chair Russell Mills [30 January 2014]
Sun: City of Ottawa is being hijacked by NCC without regard to cost or consequences [31 January 2014]

Friday, January 24, 2014

NCC board member recuses

The Citizen's David Reevely reports on conflicts of interest on the NCC board:

A National Capital Commission board member didn't know his private consulting firm worked for a landowner who stands to benefit from the city's western extension of its first light-rail line when he joined commission debates on it, NCC chairman Russell Mills said Friday.

Robert Tennant, co-founder of urban-planning firm FoTenn Consultants, should have known he had a conflict of interest between his private business and his public trust as an NCC board member, Mills said.

FoTenn, the city's largest urban-planning firm, works for numerous property developers, including a Toronto company that owns a strip mall right next to a place the city wants to put a new LRT station, near Richmond Road and Cleary Avenue. It needs the National Capital Commission's permission to use a strip of land near the Ottawa River for the billion-dollar project; the NCC board has been skeptical, demanding expensive changes to make the proposed line less intrusive on nearby property owners.

Tennant, a distinguished figure in Ottawa's development industry, was too busy to talk to the Citizen Thursday and cancelled an interview scheduled for Friday morning. Mills spoke on his behalf. He'd previously said that FoTenn's work for practically every large property developer in the city posed obvious challenges when Tennant was appointed to the NCC board in 2007, but he'd pledged to have nothing to do with any matter that came before the NCC that involved a FoTenn client.

The strip mall's owner, Torgan Group, is planning a redevelopment there and a FoTenn consultant, Brian Casagrande, lobbied city planners and spoke to a city council committee meeting in July about integrating Torgan's building with the potential new station. FoTenn also has working relationships with landowners near other potential stations and alternative routes.

The commission's board met in public on Wednesday and got an update on the city's western rail planning from deputy city manager Nancy Schepers. Tennant warned her not to skimp on the plans to pay for a further extension west to Bayshore mall that the city’s added to the plans in the last few months. Tennant quizzed deputy city manager Nancy Schepers about aspects of the city's plan but particularly praised some changes to the Cleary station, abutting FoTenn's client's property.

[...]because of the perception created by the Citizen's reporting, Mills said, "he will recuse himself from participation in any discussion or votes on the western LRT route."

Reevely "created the perception" the day before, when he highlighted FoTenn's connection to the LRT project:

NCC board members have repeatedly insisted the city spend more money to make the western rail extension more attractive and less intrusive on nearby landowners. A $900-million price estimate has risen to $980 million already, thanks to attempts to get the NCC's favour by partly burying the line on its property and sprucing up the line's new stations.

[...]Tennant's personal dealings were a concern when he was appointed, Mills acknowledged. After an exhaustive examination that included the federal government's ethics commissioner, it was decided he'd bow out when the commission's board took up an issue where FoTenn was directly involved, such as a proposed redevelopment of the islands in the Ottawa River. "He's been scrupulous about doing that," Mills said. But "I don't see any conflict here with western light rail. He doesn't have any clients dealing with that."

FoTenn actually has represented clients with projects around the planned western rail line, including right next to a proposed new station at Cleary Avenue and Richmond Road. FoTenn consultant Brian Casagrande addressed a city council meeting about it in July on behalf of a Toronto developer called Torgan Group, specifically about the site's connection to the train station. Casagrande also lobbied three senior city planners who report to Schepers, according to the city's lobbying registry.

At Wednesday's NCC meeting, Tennant praised tweaks the city has made to the design of that Cleary station.

FoTenn shepherded an application to redevelop land at Scott Street and McRae Avenue, steps from the Westboro transit station, for Bridgeport Realty. Under the city's plan, Westboro station is to get rail service to replace the Transitway.

FoTenn also works for Arnon Corp., whose holdings include a big property where the O-Train tracks cross Carling Avenue. A piece of that land, which Arnon wants to build on, is off limits in case the city needs it for an alternative rail route west. Tennant's fellow founding partner, Ted Fobert, has lobbied the city on that.

Citizen: NCC board member didn't know about firm's LRT-related work: Mills [24 January 2014]
Citizen: NCC board member has firm whose private clients stand to benefit from LRT route [23 January 2014]
Citizen: Tribal mentality breeds contempt for rules rest of us must obey [29 January 2014]

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Bixi files, NCC vows to continue

Insolvent bike share operation Bixi has filed for bankruptcy, but the NCC insists its capital operation will continue to operate. From the Sun:

Capital Bixi is getting ready to roll again this spring even though the company that runs Ottawa-Gatineau's bike-share fleet is filing for bankruptcy protection, the National Capital Commission said Tuesday.

"It is too early to tell if or what or how there will be impacts on Capital Bixi," NCC spokesman Jean Wolff said. "One thing is clear for us, that there is a contract in place to provide the operation and management of the service. We are carrying on with our work towards the season opening April 15."

The NCC owns the 250 bikes at 25 stations but they're operated by Public Bike System Company. It filed a notice of intention to file for bankruptcy protection so it can restructure while promising to continue operations and services.

[...]Meanwhile, the NCC is trying sell the system before the service contract expires in 2015 - a move planned when it launched 100 bikes and 10 stations in 2011.

In the Post, Tasha Kheiriddin points out some of the flaws in the bike sharing utopia:

It's hard to make a business case for bike sharing. Car sharing, yes: An automobile is expensive to purchase and maintain, and not everyone uses it enough to justify the cost. But bicycles are the cheapest form of wheeled transportation you can buy. Can't afford new? Pick one up second-hand: As of writing this column, the website Kijiji listed hundreds of bikes for sale in Toronto, for as little as $25. For the amount of money Bixi has cycled through, the company could have bought a set of wheels for every user in its target markets.

Capital Bixi has all the appearances of a white elephant - if the NCC manages to unload it on someone, so much the better and none too soon. The whole operation could be replaced by a kiosk by the canal to rent bikes to tourists. If the NCC really wants to encourage cycling in the capital, they'd do better by improving the existing path network, or extending 'Sunday Bikedays' to - what the hell - the whole freaking day.

Sun: Bixi bikes to keep rolling, says NCC [21 January 2014]
Citizen: Bixi bike-sharing operator files for bankruptcy protection [20 January 2014]
Post: The Bixi bubble bursts [21 January 2014]
CBC: Ottawa Bixi program still a go despite bankruptcy protection [21 January 2014]
CBC: Bixi struggles raise concerns about Ottawa bike share's future [24 September 2013]

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Calling Dr. Phil

With the recent move of their public programming arm (Winterlude, Canada Day, etc.) to Heritage, the NCC is looking at ways to cope with change. Naturally, this requires consultants. From the Citizen:

According to a tender posted Wednesday, the NCC wants to hire a consultant to develop a "change management" training program for its 420 employees.

The tender document explains that the NCC is "currently in a transition period" following a staff reduction and changes to its mandate.

"We wish to offer tools to our employees and managers in order to minimize the impact of this transition period on our personnel and day-to-day operations," the NCC says.

The commission needs such tools, it adds, "to ensure a certain stability in order to continue to provide its services in this important transition period.

"We attach great importance to knowledge- and research-based creation and innovation, and we endeavour to provide an enriching, stimulating workplace that encourages employees to put forward new ideas for streamlining and improving what we do," the NCC document says.

[...]Given the amount of change the NCC has endured, spokesman Jean Wolff said, "it only makes sense that NCC management wants to equip staff with appropriate training, knowledge, tools and ways to deal with change successfully."

Citizen: National Capital Commission seeks help to cope with change [16 January 2014]

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Still no CEO

David Reevely recaps the continuing mystery of the missing NCC CEO and reviews some of the challenges facing the clapped out organization in the coming year. From the Citizen:

The next chief executive of the National Capital Commission will take over a beleaguered Crown corporation, one that's been operating without a permanent top manager for nearly a year and a half.

In that time, the commission has battled with the City of Ottawa over light-rail routes, presented two studies on transportation across the Ottawa River (one on transit, one on a new east-end bridge) that promptly sank, absorbed budget cuts and, toughest of all, seen its festival-planning responsibilities amputated and grafted onto the Department of Canadian Heritage, with dozens of staff going with them.

All the while, its people have waited for a new chief executive to take the place of Marie Lemay, the cheerful administrator and engineer who departed for the bureaucracy in the federal infrastructure department at the end of the summer in 2012. A replacement has been on the verge of being named for months, according to the minister in charge of the NCC, John Baird.

[...]The NCC's main job now is land management: acquiring and maintaining property in the national interest, from the Greenbelt to Gatineau Park to the capital's official residences. Will it become primarily a janitorial service? Or will the new boss take up some of the causes Lemay championed, such as making the capital bike-friendly and encouraging, in at least a limited way, new life along the NCC-controlled banks of the capital's major waterways?

[...]Whether the new chief executive is a dreamer or an administrator or something else, he or she will need to help the commission's people up, dust them off and give them new direction. This will also mean working out how the NCC co-operates with other federal agencies, from Canadian Heritage to Parks Canada.

[...]Part of the National Capital Commission's job is to co-ordinate between the cities on either side of the Ottawa River, particularly when it comes to transportation. The NCC has tried and had two major recent failures.

It spent years on a study that recommended ways of integrating Ottawa's and the Outaouais's transit systems. Start small, it suggested, by changing duplicate route numbers. Eventually, over time, let's move toward one combined system, with commuter trains crossing the river and one joint system for planning service. The report came out. The politicians in charge of transit on each side of the river panned it. Nobody has talked about it since. It wasn't even presented to Ottawa's transit commission as an item of interest, let alone something to act on.

Much the same thing happened to an even more detailed study in support of an east-side bridge to get truck traffic off downtown Ottawa's streets. The study concluded, as practically every study of the subject has, that using the Aviation Parkway to get to a new bridge across Kettle Island makes the most sense. The politicians who'd have to vote to pay for it promptly denounced the proposal and the study ended; even its website was scrubbed from the Internet.

Citizen: The four big challenges that await the new NCC boss, whoever it is [4 January 2014]
Citizen: No new CEO in sight for National Capital Commission [2 January 2014]