NCC Blunders

Metcalfe Grand Boulevard

NCC's vision for capital sadly myopic

The Ottawa Citizen -- Final
City June 15, 1998

NCC's vision for capital sadly myopic
Ken Rubin

The National Capital Commission must believe that El Nino is going to bring about a drastic improvement in Ottawa's weather.

How else do you explain the emphasis put on water taxis crossing the Ottawa River, pictures of people strolling down the sunny, widened Metcalfe Street and the presumed conversion to green grass of all E.B. Eddy Ltd.'s river shoreline? Call it planning for a sunny day.

Regardless of heritage building obstacles, environmental insensitivities, costs and a few troublesome critics, the NCC wants, through its core plan, another 50-year mandate to enhance very selective parts of the downtown of Ottawa and Hull for the limited purpose of artificially creating a type of national "meeting place."

NCC Chairman Marcel Beaudry seems puzzled by the commotion stirred up by his planners' longstanding dream plans. Did he really expect La Grande Metcalfe Boulevard, where even the Ottawa Public Library gets tossed aside, to be widely applauded?

The NCC chairman wants the NCC core plan, much of which has been on the NCC agenda for years and worked out behind closed doors, to be given a chance. Yet consultations with the public consist of a few token information open-house sessions.

From the confines of their expensive Chambers Building offices, Mr. Beaudry and his planning officials have made it clear they do not want openness in developing capital plans. The NCC now even refuses to continue verbatim recording of their meeting deliberations on planning and development matters.

It's a telling sign that the NCC recently decided in secret to pay thousands of dollars for a permanent display enshrining their own capital builder idols such as Jacques Greber, whose ideas they now claim to be resurrecting in the core plan. It just so happens to coincide with their self-promotion efforts to celebrate their own survival as an agency over the last 100 years.

The main problem in all of this is that the NCC no longer has any planning vision for the total capital area. It has forgotten its role to protect and enhance the region from the follies of others. The list of abandoned areas includes pivotal capital sites such as Confederation Heights, Lansdowne Park and downtown Hull. It also stopped aiding area public transit.

In downtown Ottawa, the NCC has played a mixed role that has hardly encouraged a revitalized downtown area. It has in recent years dumped the Canlands and other lands near Parliament Hill onto the marketplace while redoing, at public expense, buildings like its Info Centre which it now proposes to tear down as part of the Metcalfe Boulevard vista to Parliament Hill.

In recent years the NCC has never been consistent in its planning objectives. In the core plan just released, for instance, it is prepared to override Gatineau Park planning and proposes building a road to (and maybe eventually through) Gatineau Park. Greenbelt preservation goals are compromised by permitting high-tech campuses to be built on the Greenbelt. Approval of widening Champlain Bridge for car traffic affects transportation priorities and the environment.

Planning priorities keep fluctuating, too. One day the Chaudiere Falls lookout project is out front, looking promising, the next day it's embarrassingly shifted to the back burner.

Further, when it comes to implementing plans itself, the NCC has a long record as a failed developer that cannot even get a small and imaginative project under way at the Daly site.

The truth is that Mr. Beaudry, as the NCC's appointed chairman for nearly six years, has been more a dismantler than a capital builder and planner. He has presided over selling off area green space and properties to private buyers and for public trade-offs, and been instrumental in staff cutbacks and the contracting out of jobs. There is both a proud and sorrowful past to national capital planning. On the positive side, recreational spaces of all kinds have been made possible. The downside is reflected in support for the federal government's destruction of the community of LeBreton Flats, which has been vacant for years.

LeBreton Flats demonstrated planners can be as destructive as a sudden hurricane. Metcalfe Boulevard would be another example of the awesome destructive power of the NCC. If common sense rules, Mr. Beaudry's plan will be no more likely to happen than a tornado in Ottawa in January, El Nino notwithstanding.

(Copyright The Ottawa Citizen 1998)