Your National Capital Commission at Work
With no one allowed to watch and listen, members of the National Capital Commission ponder making deals with Nortel, battling El Nino and buying the Experimental Farm for $1.
Back in 1998, after a protracted access to information process, researcher Ken Rubin obtained full transcripts to two NCC board meetings, providing a rare glimpse behind the scenes. Board meetings were finally made public after the mandate review in 2006.
The Ottawa Citizen -- Final City Section, August 24, 1998 Tom Spears. Four Thursday mornings a year, 14 of this region's most powerful landlords and developers file into a nondescript meeting room in central Ottawa, ready to shape your community. The members of the National Capital Commission, which owns everything from Gatineau Park to the Greenbelt to boutique and restaurant buildings in the Byward Market, come from across Canada. They make crucial decisions -- widening the Champlain Bridge or approving the "vision" for the capital's next half-century -- and deal with minor housekeeping such as fixing a road in Chelsea. It's public land, public buildings, run with public money. But these meetings, unlike the business dealings of city and regional councils or even Parliament, are closed-door affairs. You can't see in. Until now. Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin has obtained nearly full transcripts of two taped meetings held within the past year. While the NCC board meetings continue to be closed to the public, the 200 pages of transcripts open a window into the leadership of one of the most powerful institutions in the capital. They show a commission preoccupied with the complex business of property maintenance, leases and development projects. It loves Nortel's new development, but isn't keen on the Newbridge Networks campus. It debates the esthetics of lighting on the rebuilt Champlain Bridge. It worries about the thinning ozone layer, the Year 2000 computer troubles, corporate sponsorships, and critical media coverage. And it touches briefly on the "green" side of the NCC: the wonders of Gatineau Park, the historic Ottawa River, and the remaining natural and wooded areas of the Greenbelt. "This is the only inside, fly-on-the-wall look I'm ever likely to get" showing the NCC's highest workings, said Mr. Rubin. He fought a long battle with the NCC for release of the documents. Now that he has read them he says: "It makes me a much stronger advocate for opening up the agency." Now that the NCC has stopped taping current meetings and destroyed tapes of old ones, the public is "cut off" from learning how and why they decide things. For instance, the transcripts take 18 pages to record the discussion on Northern Telecom's expansion on NCC land in the Greenbelt. But the minutes -- all that is normally made public -- boil that down to just two sentences: The motion to approve the plans, and the fact that the motion carried. Mr. Rubin calls the tone of the meetings "very development-oriented, very revenue-oriented ... I didn't think much of the way they treat the trees." --- They gather three storeys up at 40 Elgin Street in a room without a view, where the only window opens onto an atrium. The only scenery comes from maps, aerial photographs, and slides projected on a screen. The time is usually about 9 a.m. There's coffee ready for them, often muffins, sometimes a hot breakfast. Half the 14 are locals; the others come from Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, the Northwest Territories, southern Ontario and central Quebec. The group gathers around a long, curving wooden table. Along one wall, their senior staff sits to listen or answer questions. Translators in a booth provide a steady murmur just audible from their booth at the end of the room. Nortel Expansion Plans Chairman Marcel Beaudry does most of the talking, and he begins the meeting of last Oct. 2 by praising the Greenbelt expansion plans of Nortel: "... As you come over into the National Capital on Highway 417 through the Greenbelt gateway, you've got the prospect over the entire National Capital Region, the Gatineau Hills in the background," he says. "And it was specifically for that reason that BNR, back in 1991, with their master plan, was permitted to go up somewhat higher than normal in the Greenbelt, up to even six storeys, to act as something of a symbol of high tech within the national capital region." The former Bell Northern Research, or BNR, is now part of Northern Telecom, or Nortel. The building in question is a prominent, green-roofed structure just off Carling Avenue West. Now Nortel plans to double its size, adding a million square feet, and its work force, up to 8,000 employees, Mr. Beaudry tells the board. He shows aerial photos and names the streets as he goes. Herons have started to nest recently in the wetland near Nortel, he says, and the wetland will be protected. "They've been managing that area very well," he says. "The quality of the wetland has improved." The NCC planners want to limit Nortel to 5,500 parking spaces. The company wants 900 more, but the NCC says no, at least in the short term. Mr. Beaudry talks about the pluses of the project: It will shelter the wetland from runoff of water and road salt, and the company will plant new trees. The NCC has held back Nortel somewhat, when the company wanted to rush the plans through approval "a little too fast," he said. "But at the same time we have to recognize that they're creating 5,000 new jobs and we don't want to be seen as saying, well, you can just go and install your facility somewhere else." It's unlikely, he says, that anyone will object to the development enough to call for a full environmental assessment: "The NCC has had very few calls indeed." He adds: "I think we are going to see quite a difference, frankly, between the quality of this development and maybe the quality of the Newbridge development on the western edge outside the Greenbelt. They're doing a very good job, Nortel." Tin House Court The board approves the Nortel design, and Mr. Beaudry moves on to the Tin House Court. This is a seniors' development that will house people who need some assistance but don't need full nursing home care. The development of an 80-unit complex was approved already, but now new owners of the land want to increase that to 121 units and add more parking spaces. He calls the Tin House Court itself "one of the nicest courtyards in the whole linear system" that runs north from George Street. The other board members have a lot of questions: about the quality of the flat roof, the location of the underground parking entrance, the survival of a grove of trees. There's some minor banter about aging. "Should we get you on the list (to rent a senior's apartment) now?" wonders an unnamed board member. "You're a party guy, so you'd like to be there," says another. They discuss the roof further and finally approve it. Riverbank land On the east bank of the Rideau River near Revelstoke Drive, the NCC has a dilemma: It owns land that it can't reach because access is cut off by private homes. What to do? Now the owners of 21 neighbouring homes want to buy it, giving themselves full access to the river. An appraiser says it's worth between $650,000 and $720,000, so the NCC is offering to sell for the higher price. The property owners have leased it for 35 years at $17,000 a year and built some docks. But Mr. Beaudry says the property owners have stopped making their lease payments, and can't be sued because the payments technically came from a property owners' association, which has no assets. Sell, say the board members. The land floods, so it can't be sold to anyone for building. And one of them says the $17,000 annual lease revenue is far less than they would earn in interest if they had a $720,000 lump sum. "Money-wise, I think it's a good transaction," says one board member, unidentified in the transcript. "Now it's a question whether we want to sell a piece of land along side the Rideau River. That's the question. But don't own all of the land around the Rideau River. We own some parts, and that's one. We own other parts where we have access to. This one we don't have access to." There's not even enough access for an NCC footpath, the board members learn. They agree to sell. "That will make these people happy. They may even like the NCC and write nice letters in the paper," one says. Donations There's small stuff to deal with, too. This includes a cash donation to the Village of Chelsea to help fix a road; one of the board members is surprised to learn that Chelsea is in Quebec. And they pore over a list of corporate donors to events such as Winterlude. "There's a lot of money in chickens," one board member says, reading a list of who has given what. (The donor isn't identified.) "Why isn't Newbridge on there?" asks another. "I see Corel are (sic)." "Newbridge has a different approach to sponsorship," says a board member (likely Mr. Beaudry, based on the context). "I don't think they've been involved very much in that area. He (founder/chairman Terry Matthews, presumably) sells 90 per cent of his stuff outside the country. "I'm not saying that he's not contributing to anything, but he's much, much less visible than Corel is. Now Corel may slow down a bit, though, in sponsorship too, because he (Corel chief executive Michael Cowpland, presumably) has been having his problems ..." The meeting ends as the board members go to their employees' pot luck meal launching the United Way drive. Millennium party They return Jan. 22, as the region tries to shake off the last of the ice storm. And the millennium is on the agenda -- twice. First, somebody has to throw a party. A big, big millennium party. But it's uncertain how big is big enough. "If you have $1 million to spend, then you make a show for $1 million," Mr. Beaudry says. "But if the federal government says it should be a show of $10 million, then ... you move in a different direction." He says the NCC will meet with representatives of MP Herb Gray's task force on the millennium celebrations. But there's a second Year 2000 issue -- the computer glitch in which computers that count years in two-digit numbers have trouble moving from 99 to 00. "We're pretty much ahead of the game," the board members are told. The NCC computer experts will complete the testing of NCC software by the fall of 1999 -- the final few months before it has to work or the computers will crash. It is, a board member notes, "getting pretty close." Ice Storm And then there's the ice storm. Disaster everywhere. NCC planner Yves Gosselin leads the board through the trouble with a series of photos. Half the NCC board comes from regions outside the storm area, and it's their first close-up look at the damage. He shows them broken trees at Stornoway ("un desastre"), Harrington Lake, Kingsmere and Rideau Hall; the rare elms broken along Island Park Drive; and Gatineau Park, where "certain trails have been closed" and the deer may break their legs in the ice. "It may take 10 to 15 years to get back the countryside we had before," he says. He also outlines the work the NCC crews have to done repair the damage of the storm, and a board member tells Mr. Beaudry that this message should get out to the public. Mr. Beaudry bristles. "I did pass on the message to the media, but they choose not to publish it," he says. "But if you break a bicycle pole, then you're going to make the headline on eight columns on the Citizen." (In fact a check of the Citizen's library shows more than a dozen stories on ice storm relief by the NCC. The reference to a "bicycle pole" remains somewhat obscure.) Just as obscure is what follows. A board member, unnamed as always in the transcripts, advances the theory that the ice storm, El Nino and the Red River flood in Winnipeg are somehow connected to the thinning ozone layer. And he or she wants the NCC to tell the public about this. What if the Ottawa River floods the city the way southern Manitoba flooded, the member wonders -- an unlikely prospect, since Manitoba's flood ran across flat land and the Ottawa Valley has much steeper sides. "I don't know if the river can flood everybody on both sides or whatever, but I do know somebody should be saying, if this was to happen, what precautions should we be taking? "Is there sand stored somewhere in bags? Can volunteers be called in a second and can things be organized? Not just in Ottawa ... but all over Canada? "El Nino is just in its final stages right now and I think it's a beginning. And I believe we, if it's part of our mandate, (should) get Ottawa ready for all kinds of weather changes and get an awareness out there. We talked about it this morning. "And it's been happening for so long, we've always been prepared for this ... It's the snap of the poles, it shoveled us down, we weren't ready for it." But no one else picks up the theme, and the group moves on. Experimental Farm There's new information that the NCC may be able to acquire Agriculture Canada's Experimental Farm in Nepean for inclusion in the Greenbelt -- and for only $1. The farm, they say, makes up 15 to 20 per cent of the 45,000-acre Greenbelt. "Yeah!" says one board member. "My kind of land price," says another. And here's more on Nortel: Still in favour of the development, though one NCC member thinks it's time to build homes near workplaces so that workers won't have to commute long distances. If that happens, he says, "you're not seeing three quarters of the site devoted to the automobile and ... it actually becomes a town." By the time of this meeting, the controversial Champlain Bridge widening had already been approved. But there are still details of design to consider. The 1.3-kilometres bridge will have "soft" lines, Mr. Gosselin tells his bosses, and there will be platforms jutting out from the sidewalk to let people fish from the bridge. The style, depending on who is talking, is baroque, gothic or modern. Everybody kibbitzes about the 34 pairs of lamps, and one board member grumbles that it isn't like "the very elegant bridge designs in Europe." They approve it in the end, subject to someone redesigning the lighting. --- Mr. Rubin says the regular NCC minutes, although they are available to the public, are too "sanitized" to provide insight into how the NCC makes its decisions. The transcripts of the two meetings that were the subject of Mr. Rubin's access to information request are now in the NCC library, where they will be publicly available. Copyright 1998 The Citizen