NCC Watch

Working to consign the NCC to oblivion

Search string: "mandate"

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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]

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, 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]

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]

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.

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]

Friday, October 4, 2013

Dewar: NCC blindsided

NDP member for Ottawa Centre Paul Dewar feels the NCC been done wrong when the government transferred responsibility for national celebrations to Heritage. Meanwhile, the employees involved have made the move to Heritage while the NCC must now look for smaller digs. From the Citizen:

The significant shrinking of the NCC's role, revealed in a couple of lines deep in the federal budget, came without consultation or warning, Dewar says, something that speaks to the federal government's view of the agency and its relevance.

"The day the budget was announced was when people at the NCC became aware of this," Dewar said. "They can't tell you this, but I will: They blindsided the NCC."

The employees affected by that change - 81 full-time and 13 students - moved from the NCC headquarters in the Chambers Building on Confederation Square this week to begin work at the Department of Canadian Heritage offices in Gatineau. With a smaller staff and reduced responsibilities, as well as a shrinking budget, the NCC is planning to move out of the centrally-located heritage building it has occupied for nearly two decades.

When the employees - who make up about 18 per cent of the NCC's workforce - moved to Heritage, many of the NCC's responsibilities moved with them. Heritage will now take over responsibility for running Canada Day celebrations, Winterlude, the Christmas lights program, national commemorations "to be established in the capital region", public art commemorations and visitor services, among other things. A number of NCC employees working in communications, IT and finance also made the move, which leaves the NCC with responsibility for Gatineau Park, the pathways, parkways and property maintenance.

The Department of Canadian Heritage will create a Capital Experience Branch "to ensure a broad national experience is brought to all celebrations in the National Capital Region," said a department spokesman by email.

Meanwhile, a series of budget cuts have reduced the money the NCC gets from Parliament by about $9.5 million a year.

[...]Dewar said the move is hollowing out the NCC instead of reforming it and enlivening its mandate.

"What we are left with is (an organization) that is going to be a landlord taking care of mowing the lawn and washing the windows. Clearly that is not sufficient.

"They are hollowing out a resource, taking money away and putting it into Heritage without any real understanding as to what the effects will be."

A landlord taking care of mowing the lawn and washing the windows - sounds like a good match. Let the hollowing out continue!

Citizen: NCC 'blindsided' by cuts in federal budget: Dewar [4 October 2013]

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

From the Archives: Durrel, Pigott and Haydon have great plans

The Citizen has republished a blast from the past - the three heads of the over-governed metropolis reflect on Ottawa in 2000, from October 8, 1986:

About two kilometres from city hall, Pigott is in her downtown office talking about the NCC's mandate to plan Ottawa for all Canadians.

She is proud of the NCC's accomplishments, saying she doubts Canadians would have such a beautiful capital to boast about if there wasn't a federal commission overseeing planning of federal lands.

The NCC will continue to jealously guard its properties and parkland in order to develop or preserve them for the benefit of all Canadians, she says.

LeBreton Flats, one of the last vacant pieces of downtown property, will be developed with national and cultural themes in mind, she says. So would Victoria Island, Brewery Creek and Jacques Cartier Park in Hull.

One of her ideas for the LeBreton lands or perhaps Victoria Island is a series of pavilions representing the provinces. Here, history from all parts of the country would be on display, a project that Pigott says will be of great interest to children.

The federal Canlands property in the downtown core, eyed by Ottawa as the major solution to its parking woes, must also be planned with the attitude that only a project befitting the capital should be developed here.

Another NCC project is to develop a ceremonial route in time for the 1988 opening of the new National Gallery on Sussex and the Museum of Civilization in Hull.

The route would consist of Wellington Street, Sussex Drive, the Alexandra Bridge, Laurier Street in Hull and the Portage Bridge.

Pigott would also like to work with local government to see what can be done with Metcalfe Street, which she says has been ravaged by poor planning. She says if redeveloped properly, it could be turned into a "beautiful boulevard" that could serve as the gateway to Parliament Hill.

NCC plans also call for a new multi-million dollar headquarters that would incorporate three historic buildings facing Confederation Square. The three are the Central Chambers, Scottish Ontario Chambers and the small building in between.

Citizen: OTTAWA 2000: Durrel, Pigott and Haydon have great plans [4 September 2013]

Friday, March 22, 2013

NCC loses public programming to Heritage

Budget day, and the NCC has had all of its public programming and promotional activities handed over to Canadian Heritage. A few optimists are speculating that this could spell the beginning of the end for the NCC, but we remain skeptical. Nevertheless, from the Citizen:

As part of the federal budget unveiled by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, the government said Canadian Heritage will take over the promotion of the capital - a key function the NCC has performed for 25 years. The federal government said iconic functions that have defined the NCC since the days of former chairman Jean Pigott, such as Canada Day celebrations, the Winterlude festival, the sound and light show and tours of Parliament, will now be undertaken by a federal department reporting directly to a minister.

[...]Katharine Graham, professor of public policy at Carleton University, noted that with Canada Lands Corporation increasingly playing a bigger role in land development, and municipal governments on both sides of the river doing their own planning, she wonders how much "land-use planning" will be left for the NCC to do.

"This is a major cut of a couple limbs and it is a legitimate question to ask why we need the NCC," said Graham.

"We are approaching Canada's 150th birthday, and it seems the NCC will now not have a central role in the anniversary. I am pessimistic about the NCC's future. It does signal the beginning of the final days of the NCC."

Architecture critic Rhys Phillips, who has regularly criticized the NCC's performance in capital design, acknowledged the government decision "means the end of the NCC as we know it," but says that's a good thing because a smaller, more nimble NCC can focus on the more important job of designing a better capital.

"I hope it is the end of the NCC we've seen become bloated and dysfunctional for the last 20 to 25 years," Phillips said.

"We don't need the NCC organizing birthday parties. The NCC should be left as a very small design coordinating body led by urban design/architecture professionals. It should be the design overseer for the government."

[...]Baird said with the changes now in place the government will move "in very short order" to start the process of picking a new CEO to replace Marie Lemay who left the job last August to join the federal bureaucracy as associate deputy minister of infrastructure.

In 2006, the Conservative government asked University of Ottawa professor Gilles Paquet to lead a review of the NCC's mission. The panel said that its mandate should be strengthened to restore the NCC "to its former glory and importance." The report led to the creation of a separate post of chief executive officer, which Lemay filled.

Citizen: Department of Canadian Heritage to assume some National Capital Commission duties [22 March 2013]
Citizen: Experts worry about the future of the NCC after budget transfers key functions to Heritage [22 March 2013]
Citizen: Better LeBreton Flats key to downtown improvements, Baird says [23 March 2013]
CBC: Heritage to take over Canada Day, Winterlude from NCC [22 March 2013]
Radio Canada: Patrimoine canadien reprend à la CCN l'organisation d'événements phares à Ottawa [22 March 2013]

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Paquet takes another swipe at the NCC's timidity

Gilles Paquet, the Ottawa U academic in charge of the NCC mandate review a few years back, continues to criticize the NCC for its "timidity":

Gilles Paquet, an expert in public management and professor at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said he hopes the public brings transportation up at the NCC's annual public meeting where the organization is welcoming citizens to learn more about its initiatives and directly address its board members with ideas and comments.

"There has been very, very timid action taken by the NCC over the past few years on the key issue of transportation," he said. "They've had a number of interesting improvements in doing business by offering these public consultations, but the substance of what they've achieved is very minimal."

The hundreds of buses that clutter the bridges between Ottawa and Gatineau on a daily basis, Paquet said, are creating chaos on the roads and hindering the growth of the city.

"We still live in the chaos and nothing has been done to coordinate starting work on the both sides of the river," he said. "I would rather hear they're working on a light train that links Ottawa and Gatineau. Then we would have a real transportation hub."

Metro News: NCC's "timid" plans under fire from Ottawa U Prof [17 April 2012]

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

NCC risks irrelevance

Gilles Paquet, the Ottawa U academic in charge of the NCC mandate review a few years back, which led to some minor (albeit welcome) reforms but also gave the NCC more money, is apparently surprised to find the NCC is so useless today. From the Citizen:

He gave the National Capital Commission a new lease on life when many were calling for its head.

But five years after his review panel gave the NCC a strong vote of confidence, University of Ottawa professor Gilles Paquet has soured on the agency, saying it is in danger of becoming irrelevant.

"What we need at the NCC is leadership that is going to take the advantage of all the precedents that exist to be a champion for the federal capital region, rather than the timid operator they are now," said Paquet, senior fellow at the university's Centre on Governance.

"The fact that they are invisible or they indulge in evasive thinking is condemning them to become more and more irrelevant. To my mind this is the kiss of death."

[…]He says it has failed to live up to its "burden of office."

Instead of taking advantage of its strong mandate to be an active federal advocate in the region, he says the NCC has been something of a bystander on the big issues of the future. It has focused more on programming, not capital-building.

While the NCC has been travelling around the country seeking ideas for a new capital plan, Paquet says there are things it could be doing right now that would dramatically transform the capital.

"The city is going to be crippled because of decisions that are not being taken now. They will die of a slow death if they have nothing to show except that they are travelling around the country looking for ideas."

Paquet points to numerous proposals, including rail links to the Ottawa and Gatineau airports and loops around the capital, that have gone nowhere.

Waterfront development has been talked to death, but nothing has happened. He says the fact the nation's capital hasn't been able to create a modern, integrated transportation system is a testament to the NCC's failure.

"Transportation is the key element in this region. If you were able to deal with the transportation issue - not just railroads and bridges, but the river as well - this would be a different place," he said.

"The one magnificent dimension of this city is the river, but we don't know what to do with it. The timidity of the NCC is the reason things are not happening."

One wonders what it was about the NCC's incompetence of the last five years that so distinguished it from the 50 before that.

Citizen: 'Timid' NCC could become irrelevant, scholar warns [3 January 2012]

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Horizon 2067: no one cares

Citizen columnist Andrew Cohen lays into the NCC for its fecklessness in crisscrossing the country consulting Canadians about vague plans with interminable time horizons:

Yes, it was a nice idea to imagine Ottawa in 56 years. No matter that this will cost $650,000, that 2067 is an eternity from now, and that the NCC is discredited in reputation and limited in authority in this orphaned city.

But why should that stop the jumped-up nation-builders at the NCC, who thought this one up so that Canadians could pretend to care about Ottawa? Yes, vision and ambition are commendable in a city with little of either. That the NCC, under CEO Marie Lemay's spirited leadership, wants to lead a conversation on making a great capital is lovely. But you don't do it with an expensive road-show that is more an exercise in public rather than a public exercise. You don't do it to solicit motherhood prescriptions, as Chianello points out, such as "sustainable," "inclusive," and "culturally vibrant."

And you don't do it by commissioning self-aggrandizing polls suggesting how good people feel about Ottawa (why, 80 per cent have a "positive" view!). Honestly, what does that mean?

[…]If the NCC really wants to do something more enduring and more useful than a standing ovation at the National Arts Centre, here are some ways to take the discussion from the heavens to the plains:

Understand that Ottawa doesn't have 56 years to contemplate itself. It is already far behind other cities in mass transit, public architecture and institutions (like a central library). It has to rush into the future, not amble, which is its instinct.

Persuade the federal government to look at Ottawa more favourably. Little will happen in its realm until it does. Urge it to build great institutions - a science museum, a national portrait gallery, a history museum - as well as turning the old U.S. embassy into an exhibition hall displaying our founding documents.

Develop the shores of the Ottawa River, which the Aga Khan and his Global Centre for Pluralism and others are discussing privately, but slowly. Do the same with the banks of the Rideau Canal. The new chalets look good, even if they cost too much at $750,000 each. Now try some exhibits for Winterlude that don't date to 1985.

Lace the city with bicycle paths. Explore green energy. Encourage innovative street vendors and different street food. Build an aboriginal centre on Victoria Island, finally.

Mandate beauty in new buildings. Fill those that sit empty, such as the Canada and the World Pavilion on Sussex Drive, which could house the embassies of Scandinavia in one place, as in Berlin. Don't allow new construction on the greensward near Rideau Hall.

Do the little things: more outdoor chairs, more rental bikes, more nature trails, more public art.

Stop thinking about 2067. No one cares. Think about 2027 and announce a plan for the next 15 years. A horizon we can see.

Citizen: Canadians don't love Ottawa [29 December 2011]

Friday, March 4, 2011

NCC frets over Congress Centre sign

As the new Congress Centre nears completion, the NCC is concerned that a proposal for a large electronic display facing Mackenzie King bridge could disturb the universal drabness of the area. From the Citizen:

Called the Art Wall, the Convention Centre sees the massive screen overlooking Mackenzie King Bridge as an innovative platform to showcase Canadian art, connect Ottawa interactively with the rest of the country, and create a new buzz in the city. It would also show live video of events and could feature sponsorship advertising.

But the Citizen has learned that the NCC, which has responsibility for safeguarding the historic character of the capital, doesn't like the proposal. The new convention centre, which is on the main ceremonial route, across from the Rideau Canal, and within the sight lines of the War Memorial and Parliament Buildings, sits in a historic centre of the city. And because of the location, NCC officials apparently believe the visual representations on the screen might be incongruous. More importantly, they worry that the screen might be exploited for commercial purposes, and sooner or later, distasteful advertising might appear near hallowed downtown sites. The NCC has the power to approve the convention centre design under a covenant covering the site, which in the distant past, used to belong to the federal government, convention centre officials say.

[...]Graham Bird, project manager for the convention centre, says the cutting-edge design of the new building represents what Ottawa can do, and using new media for the south wall is designed to push the envelope and help the city banish its reputation as a joyless place.

[...]The NCC will not say publicly how it feels about the art wall because it won't comment on a proposal under consideration. All spokesman Jean Wolff would say is that the proposal would be reviewed with an eye on the commission's responsibility to protect the character of the capital. The Citizen however, has learned that the commission's advisory committee on planning and design is meeting in Ottawa Thursday and Friday and will review the proposal.

"The NCC has received an application for this project and there is a review underway. No timeline has been set to provide the final decision. We have to let the process take its course," Wolff said.

Except in this case, apparently, as NCC CEO Marie Lemay was talking to the Citizen the very next day defending the NCC's right to question the proposal:

The proposed LED screen on the south wall of the Ottawa Convention Centre has wider implications for the capital and the National Capital Commission has a responsibility to ask tough questions in order to make the right decision for the future, the commission's chief executive Marie Lemay said Thursday.

[...]Lemay said the NCC has a mandate to safeguard the "inner character of the capital," including scenic landscapes and views along the Rideau Canal, and any proposal that might affect the surrounding environment has to be vetted. She said the NCC hasn't made up its mind on the proposal, and at this stage its permanent staff don't know whether they would recommend the screen to their board for approval or not. But they have enough concerns to raise for a healthy discussion. Among the questions: Is this the right thing to do, is this the right time to do it, and is it a good fit?

[...]Convention Centre executives appeared before the NCC's advisory committee on planning and design Thursday to present their proposal to a panel of architects, planners and designers drawn from across the country. The panel's comments will go to NCC staff who will make a recommendation to the board for a decision. Lemay couldn't say when the board will take the issue up, even though the centre is hoping to set up the screen in time for Canada Day.

Whatever happens, Lemay said the proposal has opened up a serious discussion about what kind of capital Ottawa should be, and whether innovations like new media screens should be part of its future.

"I don't know where this is going to end, and at the end of the day I don't know if we would recommend to the board to go down that path or not. But it is important that we seriously look at this and maybe it will also help us take a good look at the future," she said.

Considering the new screen will face NDHQ, the most conspicuously ugly building in the entire city, put there by the design visionaries at the NCC, and the NCC is also in the process of developing the LeBreton Flats to a whole new standard of ordinariness, remind us again why anyone pays the NCC the slightest attention in matters of design?

Citizen: Convention centre, NCC argue over the big picture [2 March 2011]
Citizen: Bright lights, growing city [3 March 2011]
Citizen: NCC guarding capital's character by questioning big screen near the canal, CEO says [4 March 2011]
Citizen: Picture the potential [4 March 2011]

Monday, November 15, 2010

NCC landholdings revealed

The Citizen has obtained detailed information on the NCC's large landholdings in the capital. From the Citizen:

The National Capital Commission made $19 million last year from rents on its massive property portfolio to help defray the cost of operations and keep the agency in the black, documents obtained by the Citizen show.

The NCC owns about 10 per cent of land in the capital region, more than 1,400 properties, and the very idea of a Crown corporation owning such a big slice of the city is not sitting well with critics, many of whom believe that dabbling in real estate undermines the NCC's ability to do its job as capital-builder.

"They should not have a mandate to hold, lease or develop property in order to generate revenue," says Ottawa architecture and urban planning critic Rhys Phillips.

[...]The NCC is the guardian of federal land and buildings, including such landmarks as the prime minister's residence at 24 Sussex Drive and Rideau Hall, the Governor General's home. Beyond that however, it is the single largest property owner in the capital, with holdings ranging from buildings to land, parks, fields and rental homes. All told, it owns about 470 square kilometres of land, including the Greenbelt and Gatineau Park. The land owned by the agency is valued at $277 million, while the value of its buildings and infrastructure sits at $251 million.

[...]Owning so much commercial property has long been controversial. Some argue the only reason the NCC is constantly in need of money is that it spends vast amounts managing its properties. Records show the NCC does, indeed, spend the bulk of its budget on real-estate management. Of last year's $138-million annual budget, $79.8 million, or 73 per cent of the budget, went into "real asset management and stewardship." Only a little more than $4 million went into capital planning, design and land use.

Phillips argues the NCC can only become a real capital building authority if it gets out of the commercial property business and hands landlording over to the federal Public Works Department. It would keep only those properties that have a significant national importance, such as the Greenbelt, Gatineau Park and other valuable greenspace intrinsic to the capital's identity.

A slimmed-down NCC would then be able to focus on the design and beautification of the capital.

"The NCC operates like a real-estate agency, not a capital builder. What drives their development is a real estate interest. Look at the NCC record. The decisions made are not about the quality of the capital. They are about what's commercially viable," says Phillips. "If they own a corner lot in Barrhaven, or a warehouse that they are making 250 grand a year off of, how does that serve the mandate? Unless it (property) is going to become a major gateway to the national capital or it has some other significance, they should get rid of it."

Citizen: NCC took in $19M in rent, listings show [15 November 2010]

Saturday, November 13, 2010

NCC asks for help with Winterlude

NCC CEO Lemay claims the NCC can no longer afford to put on Winterlude. From the Citizen:

National Capital Commission CEO Marie Lemay warned Friday morning that the popular Winterlude festival is no longer sustainable -- unless private business moves in to take part.

[...]"We know that if we don't change, really, fundamentally, the way we look at our business, the only thing we'll end up doing at one point is having to cut an arm," Lemay said. "That's the only result at the end of the day if you're not able to reinvent yourself and make really good use of your funds."

From now until about 2013, Winterlude will become a testing ground for how to involve the private sector in future NCC events and plans, Lemay said following her talk.

The NCC has been the role of sole producer for Winterlude, but for 32 years of tradition to move forward, that has to end, she said.

"That forced us to really think outside the box, and to really look at, 'OK, so what do we do with this?' "

"If we want to continue to have a Winterlude and if we want to get it to where we think it should be -- better, vibrant, exciting -- then we need to have partners and we need to involve the private sector and we need to do it differently."

Lemay said the NCC has been approached by businesses in the past to become involved with programming events, but because of the commission's existing framework, it just wasn't feasible.

Now, the NCC is trying to spread the message that private business participation is not only wanted, it's needed.

At the same talk, Lemay also expanded on the NCC's plans roll out of their new slogan for the capital:

She also announced the NCC's upcoming National Capital Region branding platform. The winning idea?

"Canadian. Just like you."

That beat out two others that made the shortlist, including "Where Canadian stories live," and "The capital of being Canadian."

Lemay said that "by far," the winning slogan resonated with people most during research testing.

She said a firm has been hired to help the NCC in its openness mandate -- first begun in 2006 -- to spread that message and better involve, interest and engage Canadians with NCC planning, events and more.

Plenty of money for national campaigns promoting themselves, then.

Citizen: Winterlude needs private funding [13 November 2010]
Your Ottawa Region: Winterlude needs businesses' help to survive [18 November 2010]
CTV: NCC plans campaign to market Ottawa to the country [12 November 2010]

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A brand for all Canadians

There is no task that the NCC pursues with more zeal than their primary mandate: promoting themselves. And so it is that they are spending $2.5 million over the next five years to develop a brand for the Capital, for all Canadians. Apparently it is to be reflective, inspiring, and, uh, something to do with the environment. From the Citizen:

The National Capital Commission is working to develop a catchy yet dignified slogan, to be unveiled in June, that's meant to brand the capital region as a source of pride for all Canadians.

[...]"It's not just a phrase. It's about: Why does (the capital) matter to you as a Canadian?" said NCC chief executive Marie Lemay. "There are a number of things that are important to Canadians that are not, in their mind, reflected in the capital. Those had to do with the environment, with making it more reflective of the country, and inspiring. Working on those is really important. ... It's about the value of the capital to Canadians."

The slogan is to be part of a five-year $2.5-million branding and marketing project that the NCC began last year.

The values identified in the research are meant to infuse the NCC's corporate culture and operations, as well as the development of a new "Plan for Canada's Capital."

[...]In the efforts to come up with a branding and marketing strategy, the NCC commissioned Ipsos-Reid to conduct a survey of 3,500 Canadians on their attitudes toward the national capital.

The survey found that four out of five Canadians have a positive impression of the place. Most people saw the capital as historic, interesting, beautiful, welcoming, and culturally rich.

Fewer saw it as fun, dynamic, modern, cosmopolitan and innovative.

"It doesn't matter that much -- they don't expect you to be those things," said Ipsos-Reid vice-president Alexandra Evershed.

Obviously that's a good thing, being that this project is in the hands of the NCC.

Citizen: NCC to roll out hip (but not too hip) slogan for national capital region [22 Apr 2010]
Citizen: Slogans: keep it simple, stupid [25 Apr 2010]
Citizen: NCC banner needs approval to use Olympic rings [22 Apr 2010]
Citizen: Yes to self-promotion [27 Apr 2010]
Centretown News: Ottawa not just for Ottawans: NCC [21 Apr 2010]

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

More tinkering with the National Capital Act

The government today announced an "Action Plan for the National Capital Commission." This Plan of Action consists of a few mild proposals for changing the National Capital Act:

Highlights of the proposed legislation (Bill C-37):

  • The NCC's board be required to hold at least four meetings in public per year, and may hold parts of a meeting in camera if required;
  • The NCC be required to submit, at least once every ten years, a 50-year master plan for the National Capital Region, for approval by the Governor in Council and tabling in Parliament;
  • The NCC's existing responsibility for the six official residences and for certain elements of transportation planning in the National Capital Region be reflected in the Act;
  • The NCC may designate or remove designations of properties that are part of the National Interest Land Mass only if regulations setting out the criteria and process have been introduced;
  • The NCC must manage its properties in accordance with principles of responsible environmental stewardship;
  • The NCC be required to give due regard to maintaining the ecological integrity of Gatineau Park;
  • The boundaries of Gatineau Park are described in a schedule;
  • The NCC may make regulations prescribing user fees, which under this new legislation, would require Governor in Council approval;
  • New and enhanced regulatory authorities and enforcement provisions to enable the NCC to better protect its properties; and
  • The NCC no longer be required to seek Governor in Council approval through an Order in Council for individual real estate transactions such as acquisitions, disposals and leases.

This follows on from previous tinkering after the Mandate Review from a couple years back, and leaves the NCC to go about its business in much the same way they always have.

The NCC board meetings are already public - excepting those portions that aren't - so no real changes there. The NCC has never been short of plans, just worthwhile achievements, so requiring them to submit yet another plan every 10 years is something that, if we were in the government's shoes, we'd have kept to ourselves.

The government release does mention that "a transparent regulatory regime be established before properties can be designated as part of the National Interest Land Mass." So perhaps when the government is done, the mysterious and arbitrary process by which the NCC buys and sells land will become less mysterious, although probably no less arbitrary.

The release also includes vague language about "due regard for ecological integrity" and "principles of responsible environmental stewardship" - more specifics in due course, no doubt.

"Enhanced regulatory authorities" is, of course not something you want to hear about an already regulation-happy group like the NCC. And, lest they forget, they've put those elusive park boundaries in a schedule - well that should come in handy.

The legislation will be introduced in parliament this summer.

Citizen: New law would let NCC designate Gatineau Park lands [9 June 2009]
CBC: Gatineau Park gets more federal protection [10 June 2009]
Metro: Rules don't go far enough for park: NDP [10 June 2009]
Release: Government of Canada presents an action plan for the National Capital Commission [9 June 2009]

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Leave governance to elected officials

Michael Polowin, writing in the Citizen, believes the NCC should leave governance to elected bodies:

I have given this long thought, and reached the conclusion that the NCC in its present mandate has outlived its usefulness, and needs to be substantially cut back.

[...]There are thousands of ways that the NCC regulates life and business, and it does so without direct accountability to the public.

[...]First, we should consider limited development in the current greenbelt, combined with a provincially mandated greenbelt somewhere outside the city, one that cannot be leapt (as is now the case in southern Ontario). Let's preserve wetlands, recreational areas and agriculturally valuable lands, while allowing scrub lands that are otherwise lying fallow to be used to intensify development of our city. In other words, get the NCC out of the greenbelt business; it has failed miserably.

[...]Height limits were intended to protect views of Parliament, but seriously, can you see Parliament from anywhere on its south side? No, you can't. The real effect of height limits is that they create more buildings and thus more sprawl. They create less profit for developers, and less profit leads to cost-cutting, which leads to boring and banal buildings.

Artificially low height limits were an NCC thing. Taller buildings would promote a more vibrant downtown, better architecture and more taxes paid to the city on more valuable real property. We will constrain sprawl as fewer buildings accommodate more people.

Return the NCC to its previous mission of beautifying the city. Let it keep the parks and bikepaths. They can make my jogs and bike rides more pleasant, but not regulate life or business in the capital. Let those we elect do the governing, for good or for ill.

For more on the impact of height restrictions on the city's tax base, see Greber's legacy.

Citizen: Leave governance to elected officials [26 May 2009]

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bill granting protection for Gatineau Park expected

Debate on one bill to protect Gatineau Park has been adjourned because the government will introduce its own. From the Citizen:

After years of debate about proposals to protect Gatineau Park from development and overuse, the Conservative government is expected within the next several weeks to present its own bill giving legal protection to the park.

The Senate adjourned debate on a private member's bill by Senator Mira Spivak on Wednesday after Conservative Senator Pierre Claude Nolin told senators that a government bill to protect the park will be introduced soon.

[...]Speaking in the Senate, Nolin said unlike national parks, the boundaries of Gatineau Park can be changed, its land can be sold and roads can be built without parliamentary approval.

Catherine Loubier, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon who is also responsible for the NCC and Gatineau Park, said the government hopes to present a bill on the park and the role of the commission before the end of June.

"We are going to be more active in the coming weeks in the review of the NCC's mandate," Loubier said. "I can't confirm that we are tabling a bill today, but Minister Cannon is still living up to his commitment to provide more protection for Gatineau Park."

Various bills for protecting the park have come and gone over the years; the NCC has generally opposed the idea.

Citizen: Gatineau Park nears national status [7 May 2009]
CBC: Gatineau Park could get national protection [9 May 2009]
Citizen: Manitoba senator emerges as saviour of Gatineau Park [18 May 2009]
NCC Watch: Gatineau Park

Thursday, April 9, 2009

NCC ombudsman office now open

The NCC ombudsman, a position recommended by the NCC Mandate Review some time ago, is finally operational. From the Citizen:

The National Capital Commission's ombudsman is open for business, ready to take complaints about the federal agency.

Lawyer Laura Bruneau, appointed to the part-time post by the NCC's board, said Wednesday that she will have a two-track approach to complaints. She will intervene and try to resolve a complaint, but if that doesn't work, she will start an investigation and present a formal report.

[...] Ken Rubin, one of the commission's longstanding critics, said he would not likely use the ombudsman's office. He said that if he wanted something changed at the commission, a more effective way is to go to the chairman, the minister responsible, a parliamentary committee or the press to raise the issue.

He said an ombudsman should be able to probe the organization on his or her own, without any specific complaints.

The ombudsman also has a website.

Citizen: New NCC ombudsman set to solve problems [9 April 2009]
Release: NCC's First Ombudsman Now Open for Business

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Openness and Transparency roundup

Well, the NCC announced their latest openness initiative, and, what do you know, just like that, they are opening board meetings to the public. For old times' sake, let's go back a few months to a Citizen article on Marcel Beaudry's response to the NCC Mandate Review's report on the NCC:

Beaudry said at least one of the recommendations has already been well discussed by the NCC's board. The report asks the NCC to open its meetings to the public, a move already considered twice in the past 14 years, Beaudry said. He added that Treasury Board guidelines recommend Crown corporation meetings be held in private.

Chairman Beaudry, so characteristically stonewalling to the bitter end. In this context, the NCC's Damascene conversion to open meetings cannot be underestimated. (And check out this classic from the Citizen, the board's ideas on privacy from 1998.) On the other hand, considering the NCC's low standing with the press and the Mandate Review panel recommendations for openness, open meetings had become the very least the NCC could get away with to ensure its own survival. And no doubt current interim CEO Micheline Dubé, who by all accounts just can't wait to be open and accessible, would like to avoid being raked over the coals like her predecessor, as in this fav from March 2006:

Everything you need to know about the National Capital Commission is summed up by the way a five-year initiative to dispel the idea that the NCC is secretive and unaccountable was revealed. It was obtained through access to information. Rather than produce a five-year plan to appear open and transparent, why not just be open and transparent?

The NCC, a creaky, out-of-touch bureaucracy, hunkers down behind the walls of the Chambers Building, fearing controversy and debate. On his castle throne, the woefully inaccessible Marcel Beaudry ponders the end of his 14-year reign. His tired, confused term concludes in September.

So, open meetings it is. And the first, mostly open meeting is scheduled for November 7. Also on the Openness and Transparency agenda, the NCC will establish "public standing committees" of as yet vague standing, get an external ombudsman, and introduce an annual open house. There's also a survey on the always amusing NCC website, but only until October 12.

NCC: NCC Announces New Initiatives to Enhance Openness and Transparency [12 Sep 2007]
CBC: NCC unveils reforms for greater openness [12 Sep 2007]
Radio-Canada: Opération transparence [12 Sep 2007]
City Journal: NCC to open board meetings [12 Sep 2007]
NCC: Share Your Ideas! (until October 12)
Citizen: The public makes more noise than they should [24 Aug 1998]

Friday, May 11, 2007

The NCC's bright, shining moment

Over at the Citizen, city editorial page editor Ken Gray is optimistic about the Mills appointment (link, expires 30 days):

To name one of the chief critics of the Crown agency, through his newspaper days, to run it speaks volumes. His appointment is a stroke of political genius by Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, no doubt aided by Environment Minister John Baird, the political minister for Ottawa. The best way to defuse your critics is to appoint one to the top job. It is a rare bit of political insight on the Conservative government's horrid local file, but you take your genius where you can get it.

The fly in the ointment is just how much power Mr. Mills will have. For at the new NCC, there will also be a chief executive officer. Will that person be the straw that stirs the drink.

[...]Recently, Mr. Cannon, who is responsible for the NCC, said he is impressed with the open processes at Ottawa City Hall (too bad the city is becoming more secretive). That might be the tip that the mandate review's position on openness would be adopted in future reform. Let's hope so.

This public process would build trust if handled well. No doubt, old-time NCC administrators would strive to keep the process secret, as has been their wont. That's where Mr. Mills would come in with his well-honed journalist's instincts. He should question, as he certainly will, NCC staff attempts to keep information private. Withholding information should be the exception rather than the norm.

Beyond this, Mr. Mills must establish what the role of the NCC is in the capital. Prior to municipal amalgamation on both sides of the provincial border, the NCC needed to be an overseer of the national interest in the face of the conflicting positions from myriad cities.

Now with amalgamation, two formidable municipalities have been created, often with expertise, particularly in planning, that far exceeds that of the NCC. In terms of consultation, implementation and creating area-wide blueprints such as the official plans, the cities have not only grown up, they have left the NCC in their dust. The Crown corporation has become a ponderous, bureaucratic body that dallied for years over impractical schemes for such sites as the city core, the Daly site and LeBreton Flats.

The review panel would like to see a reinvigorated planning and heritage function for the NCC. But the experience of the past decade and more show that the Crown corporation is out of touch with modern planning principles and basic efficiencies.

Rather than being the leader in planning in the community, perhaps the NCC would do well to try to mediate solutions to cross-border transportation problems between governments and become an adjunct to the vastly superior municipal planning process. Perhaps the Crown corporation should approach municipalities with its projects in such a way that they build better cities rather than just being one-off grandiose projects.

Mr. Mills enters the NCC with an enormous task in front of him at a critical time. Never has the Crown corporation's stock been so low. He must build an organization that is open and that residents can trust. As well, the new chairman must revolutionize from within so that it produces projects that result in improved cities. In that way, it can be a force to create a better capital to benefit all Canadians.

The NCC must think local to produce a stronger Ottawa-Gatineau that will be an inspiration to the rest of the country, not only culturally but from an urban-planning perspective.

Mr. Mills's appointment is an enormous opportunity to create an invigorated, useful, trustworthy NCC. It should not be lost.

Citizen: The NCC's bright, shining moment [11 May 2007]

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Russell Mills roundup

Lawrence Cannon made Russell Mills' appointment as chair of the NCC official at a little ceremony today, taking the opportunity to appoint some chap called Jason Sordi to the board at the same time. According to the Transport Canada news release, Sordi is a "senior account manager, commercial financial services, for RBC Financial Group. He has also worked as an event planner, regional project manager and representative for the Canadian Unity Council" - whoever they are.

At the press gathering, Mills declared his commitment to greater transparency at the tired organization. From the CBC:

Mills said he will focus on a recommendation by an external review panel to bring more accountability and openness to the agency that manages federal properties in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, which has often been criticized for its secrecy.

"I believe that transparency is the greatest promoter of accountability in public institutions," Mills said.

He told reporters that he fought for public openness during his own 35 years as a journalist.

"The fact that the government chose someone like me to be the chair is a pretty strong signal that that's what they want, too."

Several more local grandees have also had the opportunity to weigh in on the appointment, with largely positive comments. From the Citizen:

Jim Watson, a former mayor of Ottawa and current Ontario cabinet minister, who has been one of the NCC's toughest critics, said putting Mr. Mills in charge of the board spells the end of the Beaudry-era closed meetings.

"It's a great appointment. His appointment sends a pretty clear signal that the government expects the NCC to be much more open," said Mr. Watson. "Russ is well known for being a great advocate of openness and transparency. I'm very optimistic about the future of the NCC under his guidance.

"It's an appointment that will be well received by us who have been fighting to make sure the NCC is more accountable, more open, and really more a part of the community," said Mr. Watson.

"He's a true community advocate and that's the kind of person that you like to see in an organization like the NCC."

"It's an excellent appointment," said Jacquelin Holzman, a former mayor of Ottawa.

She hopes Mr. Mills will lead a revival of pride in the capital. She said Ottawa should be as revered by Canadians as Washington is by Americans, but that's not the case and it needs to be turned around.

Ms. Holzman said Mr. Mills' experience with a wide number of boards in the corporate and charitable sectors means he understands that the board of directors gives overall direction, rather than micromanaging the organization.

Ottawa Centre MP Paul Dewar, one of the most knowledgeable critics on the NCC, said the appointment of Mr. Mills is "an interesting choice" for the government, and he views Mr. Mills as "a decent person." He says "any change, to some respect, is welcome."

Randall Denley, meanwhile, notes that the CEO position will likely be far more important than the chair, which is after all a part-time position. From the Citizen:

The former Citizen publisher has always been a champion of openness at the NCC, and so his selection sends a positive message about the direction of the organization. The problem is, the new chairman won't be running the organization day to day, and his role might be more ceremonial than consequential. In every organization, someone has to lead and it's not likely to be a part-time board chairman.

Given his stance in the past, Mills certainly has to open the organization's board meetings, but the NCC's secretiveness is just a small part of its problem. Despite a recent mandate review, it's far from clear what value the NCC really adds. Finding a useful role is the real challenge for the new chairman and the yet-to-be-appointed CEO who will actually run the NCC.

The board meets only four or five times a year, essentially rubber-stamping the work of the bureaucracy. The public ought to expect more, and one value of opening the meetings might be to show us if the board members are making a real contribution or are just in town for the free lunch.

The NCC could gain more ground on openness by releasing every possible document -- not making people chase them under access-to-information rules, then treating the contents of the reports like state secrets.What the NCC really needs is a visionary with a tremendous grasp of urban planning, but there is nothing in Mills' past to indicate he's that sort of person. In choosing Mills, the government has at least recognized that the board chairman needs to know this community, not just be the "person of significant national stature" envisioned by the group that reviewed the NCC mandate.

NCC critics would have been happy if the federal government had shut the organization down, but the truth is, the federal government likes the NCC because it gives it a tool to do as it pleases in Ottawa. For that reason, the NCC is not going away any time soon. At least in Russ Mills, we have an NCC chairman who won't confuse his role with that of a divine right king.

Transport Canada release: Appointments to National Capital Commission [3 May 2007]
Citizen: Former Citizen publisher to be new NCC chairman (expires 30 days) [3 May 2007]
Citizen: Door opens at the NCC (expires 30 days) [3 May 2007]
Citizen: Positive move at the NCC (expires 30 days) [3 May 2007]
CBC: Greater transparency a priority for new NCC chair [3 May 2007]
Radio-Canada: La nomination de Russell Mills confirmée [3 May 2007]

Thursday, March 29, 2007

NCC claims opening meetings costs too much

Briefing papers prepared by NCC staff, obtained by access to information researcher Ken Rubin, claim that opening NCC board meetings to the public will cost $23,000 per meeting and still leave the public bitter and frustrated (no doubt -- ed.). From the Citizen:

In an interview Thursday, NCC spokeswoman Lucie Caron said that translation and meeting room costs would also be included in the estimate provided. Ms. Caron said the estimate was a ballpark figure and she didn't have a detailed breakdown of the different costs.

The commission also argues in the internal report on the issue that the public might be frustrated by the large number of confidential items at board meetings. The commission says that in the previous year, only about three of the 20 items before the board of directors would have been aired in public.

The commission argues that Treasury Board submissions, contracts, third-party information, cabinet confidences, security and compensation matters, as well as performance evaluations, are all confidential matters that would be held in camera, regardless.

[...] The federal government held a review of the NCC last year, led by professor Gilles Paquet, who concluded there is "a culture of secrecy" at the commission and it needs "a cultural revolution."

The panel, which reported on time and under budget, found that there have been "a series of flawed initiatives and public relations problems," and that it is increasingly viewed with suspicion because of recent sales of land for development to balance the books.

The panel concluded that two ways to improve the public's regard for the commission are to give it more money so it can pay the bills without selling land, and to improve corporate sensitivity and communications by having advisory committees held in public with full public input. The four meetings of the NCC's board each year should be held in public, with members of the public able to observe, but not comment on the proceedings, the panel said.

The minister responsible for the NCC, Transport Minister and Pontiac MP Lawrence Cannon, called the panel report "a refreshing direction" and "a good initiative," noting that lack of transparency at the NCC had been "an irritant for many years." A first response of the government came last week in the federal budget when the NCC got an additional $30 million over two years. Ms. Caron said Thursday that the NCC is awaiting the government's directions in response to the mandate review.

"We're open to having open meetings," said Ms. Caron.

Former mayor Jim Watson also points out that the NAC opened its meetings and somehow, they coped:

MPP Jim Watson, who urged the NCC to open its meetings and is one of the former NAC board members who pushed for the NAC's openness policy, said the NAC experience showed that predicted "chaos and anarchy" never happened.

[...] Mr. Watson said the NCC's current annual meeting held in public is little more than a "dog and pony show," and "a chance for the NCC to boast and brag." He said the NCC has thrown out many arguments over the years to keep the board doors closed. But he argues the commission is really something close to a municipal government, with planning issues that are best dealt with in public. "They're looking for any feeble excuse not to shine the light on their activities," he said. But he said the commission will find out that, if it does open meetings, "the sky doesn't fall down."

Citizen: Open NCC meetings to be costly, agency says [29 Mar 2007]

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

NCC gets $30 million

Buried in the orgy of spending in budget 2007 is $30 million for the NCC. From the Citizen:

When the government set up a panel to review the mandate of the NCC, one of the biggest criticisms presented was that the commission had turned from a protector of heritage and greenspace in the capital, into more of a developer-type force in the community. The panel, led by University of Ottawa professor Gilles Paquet, urged the government to boost funding by as much as $25 million per year.

The budget infusion, if approved by Parliament, will add $5 million to the operating budget in each of the next two years. This will bring the operating budget to about $79 million, a figure that includes payments in lieu of property taxes to other governments.

On the capital budget side, the commission will get an additional $10 million a year for the next two years, bringing the capital budget to about $26 million a year.

Operating budgets cover day-to-day costs, while capital budgets cover expenses such as buildings and equipment. The commission has seen some additional funds in the last decade but they were always tied to specific projects, such as the cleanup of LeBreton Flats.

The extra money means the NCC won't have to generate funds through land sales to keep operating, said Ms. Caron. But she said, in accordance with Treasury Board guidelines, the commission might still sell property that's judged to be not "national interest" lands.

While it's too early to say what the immediate impact of the money will be, Ms. Caron said it will speed up the commission's work such as preserving cultural landmarks, building and maintaining roads and pathways.

Actually, we know exactly what the immediate impact will be - the NCC will have even more freedom to do what they do best: screw up at our expense, with little accountability or oversight.

Citizen: NCC get $30 million from budget [29 Mar 2007]

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

NCC interest group meeting

While nothing's been heard from the government since the NCC Mandate Review Panel submitted its report last year, the NCC is suddenly interested in "Openness and communication with the public; Increased representation of Canada and Canadians in the Capital; and Use of new technologies to better communicate the Capital to Canadians." These topics will apparently be the focus of their occasional meeting with interest groups, this year to be held Wednesday, May 2, 2007, 6 pm at the Best Western Cartier Hotel, 131 Laurier Street in Gatineau. To be able to present your suggestions, you have to register and submit a written brief no later than Friday, March 23, 2007.

NCC: Meeting with Interest Groups and the Public - 2007 Edition

Friday, January 12, 2007

NCC's boorish behaviour

Citizen City editorial page editor Ken Gray continues his (somewhat optimistic) look at the NCC Mandate Review recommendations:

All this talk of bad behaviour brings to mind the National Capital Commission, the custodian of federal activities and lands in the capital. It has been boorish in the past, alienating the citizens of Ottawa and Gatineau in the process. For example, with its misguided plan to add a third lane to Champlain Bridge, it plugged a residential area of Ottawa with traffic - in the process destroying one of the NCC's own scenic driveways along Island Park Drive.

Community groups across the north end of Ottawa fought this bad planning, taking the NCC to Federal Court and bankrupting themselves in the process. As a result, the NCC caused many across the city to consider the Crown corporation boorish.

[...]After a while, the citizens, critics and politicians ganged up on the NCC and forced the federal government to create the NCC Mandate Review to investigate reforming the Crown corporation. Last week this column looked at the panel's misguided recommendations to give this dysfunctional operation more power. Given its chequered past, it would be foolhardy to allow the NCC a stronger mandate. Instead, when the people of this community feel they can trust the NCC, perhaps then it will be time to bolster its mandate. In the meantime, it is best to leave such fields as transportation and planning (as suggested by the panel to be moved to the NCC) to the cities, where there is accountability and skill in such matters.

[...]It is through transparency and recognition of local needs that the NCC will regain its long-lost trust and stature. It doesn't need more power. The NCC must warm to the community and, in turn, the community will return that goodwill. But it will take time to repair the damage done over the past decade or more.

[...]It is with transparency and local participation that the NCC will flourish. The review panel report, though flawed, is at least a start to the end of the boorishness of the NCC

Citizen: Toward an Open and Caring NCC [12 Jan 2007]

Friday, January 5, 2007

The good, the bad, and the NCC

Citizen City editorial page editor Ken Gray notes a few minor problems with the mandate review panel report recommendations:

Giving more power to an organization that has botched its planning role so badly is like expecting your teenager, who just totalled the family Toyota, to drive better by giving the youngster a Porsche.

For example, the NCC would have a "new focus" on heritage, according to the report. Odd that recommendation, given that the NCC and its forerunners put the word flats in LeBreton Flats when it demolished that neighbourhood and left it empty for half a century. And then there were its plans to move or dismantle buildings of historical significance on Sparks Street.

The panel, chaired by Gilles Paquet, would see a NCC that would put "new focus on the core of the capital," a core it almost destroyed with its plans to remove a large number of vibrant businesses and institutions for an ill-considered plan to widen Metcalfe Street.

As well, the report recommends "a renewed emphasis on the planning function." Over the past few decades, the NCC has not planned well. Now, if the panel has its way, we would see more of this.

In a move that could result in inefficient area job and economic growth, the report suggests giving the NCC the power to co-ordinate the 75/25-per-cent split in the allocation of federal government development between Ottawa and Gatineau. Imagine waiting at LeBreton Flats-development speed for approval of a new home, for say, the RCMP. And furthermore, why should federal investment be confined to a cross-border quota? Perhaps it would be better for the feds to simply build where it makes the best economic and planning sense.

And this proposed mandate is far beyond the capability of the NCC when you look back at its slow planning and approval processes. The NCC could paralyse federal government growth in the area.

The panel perpetuates the myth that the rest of the country cares about the activities of the NCC. "Both the national and local communities have to be kept informed of how the national capital coordinating agency is carrying out its tasks," the report says. "The capital city has to speak to the country," the report says in another nose-stretcher. In fact, the rest of the country doesn't spend much time thinking about the capital, and few Canadians outside the Ottawa area have even heard of the NCC.

Realistically, the Crown corporation is another form of area government and thus needs to address regional issues effectively. If it does that, the NCC, in conjunction with the only Canadians preoccupied with health of the capital -- the residents of the region itself -- will help build a city that will attract Canadian visitors.

The panel suggests the NCC play a bigger role in regional transportation, but the Crown corporation has consistently failed in that function. The third lane built on the NCC's Champlain Bridge pours traffic into residential areas; the NCC has so far failed to develop a plan for interprovincial bridges; and the NCC was so slow off the mark that the City of Ottawa had to purchase the Prince of Wales railroad bridge across the Ottawa River to preserve it for transit.

Citizen: The good, the bad, and the NCC [5 Jan 2007]

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Meaningless language that protects the status quo

Citizen editorial board member Kate Heartfield takes a look at the mandate review panel report and finds it wanting:

The report gives the NCC much advice in the form of glossy phrases that don't mean anything.

The NCC is "the main instrument of the federal government charged with the coordination of all activities pertaining to the ongoing planning, stewardship, and celebration of the capital of Canada."

Further, the NCC must "pay particular attention to the local partners, who must be mobilized to produce a true 'national capital experience.' " (The unnecessary and bewildering quotation marks are in the report.)

If my editor called me into his office to talk to me about sharpening my focus, then told me I must plan, steward and celebrate the editorial pages and mobilize sources to produce a true newspaper experience, I wouldn't know where to begin. The panel is asking the NCC to do everything and nothing, which is how the NCC got in the position of needing a review in the first place.

The panel all but ignored its first and most important task. It didn't ask the question: Does the capital region need the NCC?

[...] Then it bewailed the poor public image of the NCC, noting the calls for the organization's reform or elimination. It called that an "unfortunate situation" and blamed the image problem on misunderstanding. Sure, it's unfortunate if you're a supporter of the NCC. If you're a disinterested observer -- as a review panel should be -- it's not unfortunate that many people dislike the NCC. It's merely a fact.

[...] Apparently, there are "opportunities and potential that it can leverage in pursuing the important national undertaking," the "progress and development of Canada's capital."

So it would be useful to know what progress will mean to the revamped NCC. Will it look anything like the City of Ottawa's definition of progress? Will it be limited to useful interprovincial projects, such as a new bridge over the Ottawa River? Or will it be similar to the beautification plans of the old NCC? Are there statues involved? Ceremonial boulevards? Is my neighbourhood likely to be razed? Who knows?

[...] Still, let's be optimistic for a moment. It's a new year, and a good time for optimism. It would be wonderful to end up with an open, accountable NCC that did not do anything any other agency could do. It would be wonderful to end up with an NCC that could make the municipal, provincial and federal governments co-operate effectively on projects.

That isn't what the review panel has given us. It's given us an Ottawa special: meaningless language that protects the status quo.

Citizen: Your NCC: leveraging potential [2 Jan 2007]


Sunday, December 31, 2006

Give them three years

Citizen columnist Randall Denley thinks the NCC should be given at most three years to prove its worth in the wake of the mandate review:

The federal agency has a potentially useful role as the point of connection between Ottawa, Gatineau and the federal government, but it needs to come down from the mountain top where it has resided for more than a decade. If the NCC wants to actively engage in the process of city building, it's welcome, but the NCC's history is one of planning to do, not doing.

How many years has the NCC been talking about improving access to the Ottawa River, for example? The reformed NCC should be given three years, at most, to prove its worth.

Citizen: 2007 is a crucial year for the 'city that can't' [31 Dec 2006]

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Missing: real accountability

Citizen letter writer Katie Paris sums up what's missing from the Mandate Review recommendations:

Something is missing in the report on reforming the National Capital Commission: real accountability. The NCC is guilty not of small miscues but of blunders: Letting LeBreton Flats sit undeveloped for 40 years is an unpunished failure, and so is choosing a development with as little spark and innovation as what is now being built.

The NCC needs to be held accountable when it makes lousy decisions, and electoral accountability is the only mechanism where leaders will lose their jobs if they ignore the public good. Citizens of Ottawa and Gatineau should be able to vote for the CEO and chair of the NCC.

Unless there is direct accountability to voters, the NCC will continue to act in an arrogant and unresponsive manner. The proposed public meetings and ombudsman are progress, but they will do little to change the fundamental incentives faced by those who run the NCC.

Citizen: Elect NCC head [28 Dec 2006]

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Mandate Review submits report

As expected, the Mandate Review's report recommends giving the NCC more money ($25 million per year) and more power to do what it wants, in exchange for opening some board meetings and other minor tinkering, all passed off as "a major transformation." The Citizen sums up:

The review of the NCC's mission, run by a three-person panel led by Gilles Paquet, said the commission should be strengthened, rather than scrapped, which was one of the suggestions that had been floated by Pontiac MP Lawrence Cannon.

Mr. Paquet said the panel's look at the NCC found the Crown corporation is important to the region to fulfil its role as a capital and a functioning urban area. But he said the increasing criticism faced by the commission -- dismissed by outgoing NCC chairman Marcel Beaudry at a public hearing in Ottawa this fall -- has foundation.

"The NCC has, at times, seemingly lost its way," said Mr. Paquet. He said the commission has developed a "culture of secrecy" in recent years that has fed public mistrust.

The panel found that since the 1990s, there have been a series of "flawed initiatives and public relations problems," often involving plans to sell land or take down buildings, such as those on Metcalfe Street. The commission courted conflict with "cavalier relationship management," and was indifferent to Ottawa history and the attachment of residents to greenspace.

And yet, Mr. Paquet said the commission -- which runs Winterlude and Canada Day festivities, plans federal government projects and land use, and maintains the capital's most scenic public spaces -- would be sorely missed if it were not there. He likened the NCC to the human digestive system: little understood, but essential to a good life.

[...]The panel wants the federal government to instruct the commission not to sell land to generate operating funds. To make up the difference, the government would increase its taxpayer-funded contribution by about $25 million each year. The NCC has an annual budget of about $131 million.

The report is available from the Mandate Review website.

Meanwhile, Chairman Beaudry was trying to put the best spin possible on the review, claiming that the mandate review panel report's call to revamp the NCC is "not an indictment" of the NCC, but "an acknowledgment of the [the NCC's] exceptional work," not realizing, perhaps, that by making the claim he was pretty much proving the point. Ever clueless, he then took the opportunity to take a shot at the whole tiresome business of opening NCC board meetings:

Beaudry said at least one of the recommendations has already been well discussed by the NCC's board. The report asks the NCC to open its meetings to the public, a move already considered twice in the past 14 years, Beaudry said. He added that Treasury Board guidelines recommend Crown corporation meetings be held in private.

Hear that? The NCC board considered opening its meetings twice - twice! - in the past 14 years, and found it to be impractical. Enough already!

CBC: Capital commission should quit selling public lands [21 Dec 2006]
CBC: Call for NCC revamp not an 'indictment': chair [22 Dec 2006]
Citizen: Bolster NCC, don't scrap it [22 Dec 2006]
Citizen: Some juicy bits; some no-brainers [22 Dec 2006]
Radio-Canada: On recommande une transformation majeure [21 Dec 2006]
New Edinburgh Community Alliance: NCC Mandate Review Committee Report [6 Feb 2007]
Citizen: The public makes more noise than they should [24 Aug 1998]

Friday, December 15, 2006

NCC needs cultural revolution

Over at The Citizen, city editorial page editor Ken Gray notes some of the differences between dealing with the NCC as opposed to the city:

During the last 10 years at the Citizen, I've written 141 stories and columns that have mentioned the National Capital Commission. It took me months of trying to get my first phone interview with NCC Chairman Marcel Beaudry.

"Mr. Beaudry," I said, "you're a very hard man to reach."

"Well, maybe this is the beginning of a new relationship," the elusive chairman said.

I never heard from him again.

Conversely, former mayor Bob Chiarelli was mentioned 533 times in my stories but he was almost always available for interviews. You could call him, walk with him to meetings, ambush him on the way back from the washroom, he'd call you down to the mayor's boardroom, and sometimes knock on your office door.

Former regional government chief administrative officer Merv Beckstead was so accessible he would apologize if he took too long to answer your phone call. I was just happy to get a call at all.

People such as Mr. Chiarelli and Mr. Beckstead realized that nature and newspapers abhor a vacuum, so if they didn't get their side of the story out, someone else would fill that space. And it might be something they wouldn't like to see in print.

This is by way of saying that the NCC is not only out of touch with the community, it doesn't even make the effort to be in touch.

[...] The decline at the NCC has been precipitous. So much so that officials at the Crown corporation don't understand that by placing two prominent NCC employees on the four-member secretariat that advises the review panel, the NCC jeopardizes the integrity of the mandate review and the Crown corporation itself. No self-respecting organization would allow its members to be working on a supposedly independent review of itself. But then, that's the NCC. If that is what we see of this closed organization from the outside, what's going on inside?

Citizen: NCC needs cultural revolution [15 Dec 2006]

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

NCC to have "new, stronger mandate"

Little over a week before the expected report from the NCC Mandate Review, and Treasury Board pres John Baird is already crowing about a "new, stronger mandate" for the clapped out organization:

"Lawrence Cannon has been working on this hard, and we've got a phenomenal opportunity to protect the Greenbelt, increase accountability and transparency, and a new, stronger mandate for the NCC," Mr. Baird said in an interview.

"It has the potential to be a big win for environmentalists, for people who want more accountability and for people who want vision. It can be a real accomplishment of this minority Parliament. It is exciting."

Ah yes, the Vision thing - not all that long ago, the NCC's vision included the Metcalfe Grand Boulevard and the Canada and the World Pavilion.

Nevertheless, "most observers believe the NCC's mandate will be expanded to include, at least, transportation planning and a new funding model will be put in place to prevent it from being forced to sell land to fund and sustain its activities." Transportation planning - much like that freeway they're building through Gatineau Park? Another "big win" for the environmentalists. Oh yeah, and the new NCC will be "more open."

It's a curious end to a process that started a few short months ago with Lawrence Cannon wondering if the NCC was even necessary. Since then, the NCC performed a reverse takeover of the review to the point where NCC flak Laurie Peters now runs interference for the panel and the NCC gets everything it ever asked for, all in exchange for maybe opening up a few board meetings. Looks like a "big win" alright - for the NCC.

Citizen: More open NCC to have stronger mandate: Baird [13 Dec 2006]

Thursday, November 16, 2006

NCC panel rejects secrecy beefs

The Ottawa Sun follows up on the secret meetings conducted by the NCC Mandate Review:

A panel studying the future of the National Capital Commission continues to refuse to reveal the participants and content of secret meetings it held over two months to discuss the federal agency that has long been derided for its lack of transparency.

The panel is unmoved by the heavy criticism it has received from local politicians and the public for its decision to keep the meetings under wraps.

Bloc Quebecois Gatineau MP Richard Nadeau said the secret meetings have thrown the legitimacy of the panel's public meetings into doubt.

"Are they putting more importance on their secret meetings than the public meetings?" asked Nadeau, who made a presentation to the panel last night during a public hearing in Gatineau. "When you hide things, it smells bad."

The panel's secrecy is being defended by the minister who created it.

"These people have to deliberate and they conduct consultations at the same time," Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon said Friday while responding to a question from Nadeau during Question Period. "In order to prepare the work and the recommendations, they need to work together."

The panel says it will release a list of people and organizations that had private meetings with the panel once the report is released. The transcripts won't be released.

Sun: NCC rejects secrecy beefs [16 Nov 2006]

Friday, November 10, 2006

NCC Mandate Review public consultation meeting, take 1

The first NCC Mandate Review public consultation meeting went down in predictable fashion last night, with Chairman Beaudry denying that anything is wrong and demanding more power for the NCC. Area politicians Jim Watson and Paul Dewar took the opportunity to ask for more openness from the NCC. A parade of well meaning groups also offered a variety of ideas for tinkering with the NCC's funding and governance, or presented plans for various projects, believing somehow that if only the NCC could be renewed or subverted to their ends, all would be well. Some former NCC employees were also on hand to offer their support.

NCC Watch's position remains that "NCC renewal" is a contradiction in terms, and any renewed NCC will ultimately be subject to the same issues of empire building and corporate arrogance that currently plague the NCC.

Citizen: Give NCC more power, chairman says [10 Nov 2006]
Citizen: Jim Watson - Let there be light [9 Nov 2006]
Radio Canada: Début des audiences sur son mandat [9 Nov 2006]
NCC Mandate Review: Submissions received [10 Nov 2006]
Citizen: No new power for the NCC [15 Nov 2006]

Friday, November 10, 2006

NCC Mandate Review won't disclose secret meeting transcripts

The Ottawa Sun reports that the NCC Mandate Review panel is refusing to release a list of individuals and organizations it has met with in secret, let alone the transcripts of the meetings. Evidently oblivious of the irony of conducting secret meetings to review an organization criticized for secretiveness, the review panel's executive director claims all is well:

Gilles Dery, the panel's executive director, says it's normal practice to hold secret meetings. Some of the individuals and groups with opinions on the NCC do not want their views known publicly, he says. Dery says a list of everyone who was consulted will be included in the final report, but the contents of the secret meetings will never be released to the public.

This should prompt further calls to review the review panel. Meanwhile, Chairman Beaudry took the opportunity to once again blame the media "for creating the perception of secrecy at the agency," all the while insisting, without a hint of irony, that there's no reason to open up NCC board meetings as federal guidelines do not require it.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Dewar crafting bill to crack open NCC

Ottawa-Centre MP Paul Dewar will introduce a private members' bill in Parliament intended to open the NCC, establish "merit-based" appointments, clearly define the roles of NCC members, and mandate elected representatives on the NCC board. Dewar criticized the NCC Mandate Review as "a regrettable reflection of how the NCC already operates," stating that "It's sadly mirroring the behaviour of the NCC, which is not the whole problem but a good part of the problem." He also describes the NCC's process for developing the LeBreton Flats, which resulted in only one bidder for the project, as a "fiasco."

City Journal: Dewar crafting bill to crack open NCC [1 Nov 2006]

Monday, October 30, 2006

Review the NCC review

An editorial in The Citizen today highlights the latest absurdities of the NCC Mandate Review:

So what has happened since the current review started? Well, two of the major players in the secretariat that helps and advises the three-person panel are major players at the NCC. That's a problem.

Now the way the panel has set up the consultation on the review smacks of the way the NCC holds its meetings.

To speak at these consultations, you had to register by Oct. 15 and provide a written submission last week. As well, the panel will accept submissions but isn't compelled to make them public.

Now not only does the NCC need review, the review of the NCC needs review. How much longer can this mess be allowed to continue?

Citizen: Review the NCC review [30 Oct 2006]

Friday, October 27, 2006

MP launches alternate review

With the NCC mandate review now more or less serving the NCC's own agenda, Ottawa Centre MP Paul Dewar has decided to organize and host an open forum on the NCC's future Saturday, November 4 from 2-4 pm at the Old Firehall on Sunnyside Avenue. The forum will feature as yet unnamed "progressive thinkers" and "land use experts." In explaining his reasons, he cites the overly restrictive nature of the comment submission process and widespread cynicism in his constituency. "This is the wrong process, run by the wrong people, and it is costing far too much," he said.

Minister Cannon responded by praising Chairman Beaudry, the NCC, and the mandate review panel.

Radio-Canada: Un député conteste le processus de révision [26 Oct 2006]
Paul Dewar Press Release [26 Oct 2006]

Friday, October 13, 2006

Mandate review fatally undermined

In his Citizen column today, Ken Gray points out something pretty obvious, once you're looking for it, about the NCC Mandate Review Panel: two of four members (not including two support workers) of the mandate review secretariat are NCC employees. Listed on the mandate review contacts web page are Laurie Peters, NCC spokesperson, and Francois Lapointe, NCC planning director. Amazingly, Ms. Peters is responsible for telling the panel what areas of NCC operations the public has had concerns about.

From the article:

The secretariat supports the panel's work and gives contract and project management advice on financial matters. Certainly other people could have been found to provide communications or financial advice in political affairs in the national capital of consultation. People like this grow on trees in this community. Why go to the NCC for it?

Mr. Drery [the secretariat executive director] said he knew the optics of having NCC people on the NCC review weren't good, but he felt the short time frame for the panel to report to government meant the Crown corporation's people had to be brought on board.

In reality, the appearances are terrible. Are these two people likely to recommend or support or mention, say, eliminating their jobs? The appointment of half the secretariat from the NCC is the kind of trust and transparency complaint that has dogged the NCC for years.

Many residents of the national capital already distrust the NCC. Why? Well, there was the matter of just missing destroying Ottawa's downtown by bulldozing a ceremonial boulevard through millions of dollars worth of good businesses on Metcalfe Street so the Peace Tower's view would be centred on the street.

Then, of course, there was the botched development of the Daly site, a location of national importance occupied by a condominium. Or placing a series of post-Stalinist apartment buildings on LeBreton Flats. Or just leaving the Flats sit idle for about half a century.

[...] In fact, from a public relations and governance view, the panel has already failed because residents can't trust its findings. As a result, don't be optimistic that a new NCC will come out of the study to be revealed in December.

So, after a promising start, the Mandate Review appears to be just one more botched attempt at reforming the NCC.

Citizen: NCC employees working on review of agency [13 Oct 2006]

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Last chance to register for mandate review consultations

The NCC Mandate Review Panel would like to remind everybody that this is the last week to register for the NCC Mandate Review Panel Public Consultations.

Visit the NCC Mandate Review website for details.

NCC Mandate Review

Monday, September 18, 2006

Public consultation period underway for NCC review

Having dismissed the only rational course of action for dealing with the NCC problem, the recently appointed three-member NCC Mandate Review Panel is opening the floor to the public to solicit, oh, whatever other ideas they can come up with. Public meetings will be held November 8, 2006 at the University of Quebec in Gatineau and November 9, 2006 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. "Interested individuals and groups" who want some time should register by October 16 and send a written brief of their presentation to the panel no later than October 27. Not quite so interested people have until November 15, 2006 to submit written comments.

The NCC Mandate Review now has its very own website as well.

NCC Mandate Review: Release [18 Sep 2006]

Friday, August 11, 2006

Don't expect any big changes at NCC

Citizen columnist Kelly Egan takes a look at the NCC Mandate Review, and has understandably low expectations:

In April, Lawrence Cannon, the federal minister responsible, announced a review of the NCC's mandate. Here was point one, verbatim:

"Is the National Capital Commission still important? Is it even necessary?"

By early August, a miraculous conversion occurred. When Mr. Cannon announced the makeup of the review panel, abolition was off the table. A new first point appeared, verbatim:

"Assess the various functions of the NCC."

The second task focused on "governance structures" and the third on funding and "cost-effectiveness."

Wow. Score one for the commish.

[...]The review panel chairman, University of Ottawa's Gilles Paquet, has already expressed the view that the NCC isn't funded properly. So in four months, the entire framing of the question has changed, from "do you need to exist?" to "how can we get you more money?"

Hardly a bold prediction but, at the end of the day, the NCC will survive, albeit with doo-dads attached.

[...]If we could sell 10 per cent of the greenspace, or 2,000 hectares, and use those funds to build a new science museum or a subway, or bring to life the Ottawa River islands, or rescue the Sparks Street Mall, would you make the deal?

This is the kind of big proposal, I think, that is worth thinking about in terms of building a great capital.

Instead, we have a farm being restored in Gatineau and talk of an equestrian park. We have the NCC fussing over pine cone pickers along the Rideau Canal, or fending off dog owners, or negotiating leases for hospital land.

How does it get so regularly side-tracked from its core function?

The NCC, if anything, suffers from a lack of grandeur in its vision, not an overabundance, as some would have you believe.

It has many pretty plans locked in brochures and, forever and a day, nothing seems to happen on the ground. Its biggest problem is not open-versus-closed board meetings, it's inertia.

Citizen: Don't expect any big changes at NCC [11 Aug 2006]

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

NCC mandate review panel announced

The panel tasked with reviewing the NCC is already off on the wrong foot by declaring that they will not be abolishing the NCC. And things look set to go downhill from there. According to The Citizen, panel Chairman Gilles Paquette "sees the NCC's problem as fundamentally a 'governance' issue that needs an appropriate solution. 'I see it as a design problem. It is like an architect, and the challenge is, can we manage to design the building in such a way that it fits everyone?' he said. 'We are going to work hard at it, and then the challenge will be to put together a design that for that house that will work for everyone.'" You know, sort of like an episode of Debbie Travis' Facelift, but with bureaucrats. Our prediction for the big reveal: lots of neutral colours.

Marcel Beaudry has once again confirmed his willingness to not obstruct or undermine the review, and no doubt looks forward to subverting the review panel to the NCC's ends.

CBC: Professor appointed to NCC review panel [2 Aug 2006]
Radio-Canada: Mandat à revoir [3 Aug 2006]
Citizen: We are not abolishing the NCC [2 Aug 2006]
NCC: NCC responds to announcement of review panel [3 Aug 2006]

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Abolish the NCC? Not likely

Ken Rubin points out in the Citizen today that, despite questioning the NCC's purpose, the Conservative government looks more like it wants to continue, and even expand the NCC:

  • Minister Cannon has stated rather brazenly that he wants to move the Science and Technology Museum to the NCC's Jacques Cartier Park.
  • The government has confirmed that it is splitting the positions of CEO and Chairman, and both the CEO and the chair will have indefinite terms and be appointed by the government.
  • Treasury Board President John Baird said that the NCC should get $6-7 million more annually for financing capital projects instead of selling off its lands. But the fact that the NCC must sell lands to finance its projects is one of the few real, if clumsy, impediments to the NCC doing any old crazy thing it wants.
  • Both ministers have said they want to make the NCC's Ottawa River waterfront plans a priority for the "new" NCC.

As Rubin says, "it sounds like not only is the NCC staying around, but that it is going to continue to have a big-time developer role, however secretly and badly it has performed that role in the past."

Minister Cannon announced a mandate review of the NCC last week.

Citizen: The Tories don't really want a reformed NCC [20 Apr 2006]
Transport Canada Release: Review of NCC Announced [13 Apr 2006]

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Cannon questions role of NCC

In a speech today, minister of transport, infrastructure and communities Lawrence Cannon raised questions on the role of the NCC, including whether it was still pertinent. But questions were all he had, falling short of revealing any concrete plans for reform and insisting that changes would only come about after a "full and frank discussion."

One concrete change that has come about is separating the roles of Chairman and CEO - but only after Chairman Beaudry retires in the fall.

The NCC, meanwhile, was quick to ingratiate themselves with their new overlords in their usual self-serving way. Still, how reassuring to learn that the federal agency is committed to fully cooperating with the federal government.

Citizen: Is the NCC necessary? [14 Apr 2006]
CBC: Feds seek review of NCC [13 Apr 2006]
NCC Release: NCC responds to call for mandate review [13 Apr 2006]

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Good riddance to a white elephant

Randall Denley sums up the legacy of the Canada and the World Pavilion in today's Citizen:

If you believe the NCC's public utterances, the quasi-museum next to Rideau Falls closed strictly because of a budget squeeze at the commission. The real story, an internal NCC document reveals, is that the museum was closed because it was an expensive attendance flop that was outside the commission's mandate.

In letters to the private sector company and government departments that gave money to the pavilion, NCC chairman Marcel Beaudry said "the difficult decision to close the pavilion was motivated solely by financial considerations, and by the complexity of sustaining a museum-type infrastructure when faced with financial constraints."

That's still the official word, according to NCC vice-president Gilles Lalonde.

Funny, though, that's not quite the story revealed in the NCC report released to Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin as the result of an access to information request. According to that report, "Visitation levels at the pavilion are low and the facility is operated on a seasonal basis. As a result, this use of funds is not the best value for Canadians."

The report notes "operation of this facility is not central to the corporation's mandate." No kidding. Even though the NCC has a broad and vague mandate, being in the quasi-museum business isn't part of it.

You have to appreciate the droll language. "Interest and visitation have been somewhat disappointing, notwithstanding that there is no entrance fee charged for individuals." Translated, this means "we can't give the thing away."

The pavilion was projected to have annual attendance of 120,000, although it has mostly fallen well short of that. In 2001, it's opening year, it drew only 62,131 visitors. That crept up in 2002, then fell back again in 2003. The NCC says 125,211 visited last year, which would seem to indicate a record level of success. The problem with the numbers, though, is that they include all visitors to the site, even those who only attended outdoor events. No admission is charged, so the numbers are based on visual estimates. Guesses, in other words.

The NCC report suggested that each free visit actually cost the NCC $10 in operating costs.

[...]The NCC has dribbled away some millions in operating money, plus the $5.7-million cost to build and outfit the pavilion, but the bigger problem is in the long term. The commission's misguided dabbling in the museum business has created a white elephant, and a particularly awkward one. [...] the NCC will continue to bear the costs of heating and maintaining the building. The commission estimates that it will cost $75,000 to decommission the pavilion and return the contents. The staff report earlier said the figure would run to the hundreds of thousand of dollars.

Citizen: Good riddance to white elephant [18 Oct 2005]

Friday, November 19, 2004

NCC ignores its park policy

Andrew McDermott of the New Woodlands Preservation League writes in the Citizen:

The Gatineau Park Master Plan review process is an exercise in smoke and mirrors designed to cloud the real issue, which is the National Capital Commission's failure to administer its own land- management policy for the park.

While the NCC raises the ire of local citizens by talking about restricting access to Gatineau Park and charging user fees, it sells off chunks of the park and abets the proliferation of new residences within it.

The NCC's 1990 Gatineau Park Master Plan claimed that private properties and residences are inconsistent with the park's zoning and mandate, and that a long-term program for purchasing them should be set up. However, between 1992 and 2002, the agency sold 372.37 acres of land in the park and allowed the construction of 65 new residences within its boundaries -- in the municipality of Chelsea alone.

Since the NCC has flouted its own 1990 policy, how can we trust it to honour its 2004 Gatineau Park Master Plan, which advocates the gradual purchase of private properties?

Citizen: NCC ignores its park policy [19 Nov 2004]

Monday, December 8, 2003

Gatineau Park's forgotten founder

Vice president of the New Woodlands Preservation League Jean-Paul Murray writes in the Citizen that the National Capital Commission has misrepresented the story of Gatineau Park, and failed in its mandate to "communicate the capital to Canadians":

Though the NCC attempts to portray Mackenzie King and Jacques Greber as the park's founders, the facts tell us that title rightly belongs to Roderick Percy Sparks.

For instance, the Ottawa Journal of March 30, 1959 credits Sparks with being the "father of the Gatineau Park," adding that as chairman of the Federal Woodlands Preservation League, he "brought about the first purchase by the Dominion government of what is now [...] the Gatineau Park."

[...]Yet in the reams of documents the NCC has produced on this subject, not one mention is made of Sparks or the process that led to the park's creation. Supporting the claim that Sparks led the charge on this issue, however, are seven key documents, most of which he wrote or co-wrote.

[...]As the NCC proceeds with drafting a new master plan for the park, it should consider the facts presented in this article. Although I've brought this matter to its attention several times over the last two years, it has yet to acknowledge Sparks's contribution.

Perhaps the best method to recognize Sparks and complete his work would be to make Gatineau Park into the truly national and public park he envisioned.

Citizen: Gatineau Park's forgotten founder [8 Dec 2003]

Saturday, May 10, 2003

Group to present case to give Gatineau national park status

The recently formed Coalition for the Survival of Gatineau Park will present Parks Canada with a formal written proposal next week to give national park status to Gatineau Park:

The Coalition [...] says that under the current management by the National Capital Commission, a federal agency, the mandate to protect the park is unclear. National park status would lay out in detail how the park can be protected, the group says.

The coalition is concerned about projects such as the new access road for the Mackenzie King Estate, the McConnell-Laramee Highway linking Aylmer and Hull, and increased human traffic into the park which the coalition believes will degrade the environment in and around the park, said Nicole Desroches of the Council on the Environment and Sustainable Development of the Outaouais.

'If you make it easier for cars, therefore you will have more cars and then you are going to need another parking lot," said Ms. Desroches.

Citizen: Group to present case to give Gatineau national park status [10 May 2003]

Sunday, September 29, 2002

NCC has cyclists on a road to nowhere

Road to nowhereThe Ottawa Cycling Advisory Committee (OCAC), who have been tracking the NCC's performance from a cycling perspective, has some pointed criticisms. From the Citizen:

"The NCC treats bicycles as toys for tourists," Brett Delmage said. "They say they don't have a mandate for transportation, but the decisions they make affect transportation for people all the time. They think about roads, but they don't think about commuters on bicycles."

At the south end of the newly renovated Champlain Bridge, for instance, a bike path runs straight into a traffic sign.

"It's a new project," said John Kane, an NCC spokesman. "There are going to be things that have to be worked out."

Mr. Kane said he didn't know who would have been responsible for painting lines that, if cyclists were to obey them, would cause serious injuries.

When the Champlain Bridge was closed for construction, Mr. Delmage said, the commission suggested cyclists use the next one over -- a six-kilometre detour.

The NCC, he said, considers its pathways recreational and thinks nothing of closing them or creating detours without warning, and doesn't consider the safety of cyclists who might be on the paths after dark.

According to the committee, cyclists have been badly hurt when they've run into barriers the commission has placed to stop cars from running into its paths -- which are painted black.

The OCAC recently got the NCC to change its plans for a proposed biking detour to accommodate the LeBreton Flats construction. The NCC was going to have cyclists crossing Booth Street walk or ride their bikes through crowds of people waiting for buses at the LeBreton Transitway station. OCAC has assembled a list of the NCC's more notable blunders:

  • Leaving marker lines unchanged during construction projects: During a construction project at Britannia in the mid-1990s, a cyclist was led into a snow fence by path lines that didn't change to indicate a detour.
  • Portage Bridge: Closed to cyclists during construction in 1998; reopened with a poorly designed bike path.
  • Champlain Bridge: When the Champlain Bridge was closed for construction, the NCC suggested cyclists use the next one over -- a six-kilometre detour. Cyclists had to use a 1.5-metre-wide, 1.7-kilometre-long sidewalk during a three-year reconstruction. And when finally reopened, it had wide bike paths, but multiple obstacles when exiting the bridge, and a bike path that runs straight into a traffic sign (see photo).
  • Alexandra Bridge: Vendors' booths were placed across the marked bike path during the Francophonie Games in 2001, while the existing bike path leads cyclists onto a pedestrian sidewalk.
  • Wellington Street: During reconstruction of Wellington Street in 1998, the NCC placed a sign to car drivers across a nearby bike path.
  • Ottawa River Parkway: Cyclists ordered off the road during reconstruction in the early 1990s.
  • Black bollards: Low poles to keep car drivers off bike paths are black and nearly invisible in the dark.

Citizen: Advisory committee says NCC is oblivious to city's cyclists [29 Sep 2002]
Ottawa Cycling Advisory Committee
Champlain bridge cycling hazards

Friday, September 27, 2002

For all Canadians

The NCC and its defenders claim that critics don't really understand the NCC's role, that it serves a far grander purpose than serving the necessarily parochial interests of the residents of the national capital region. It is an insidious argument, as it allows the NCC to dismiss criticism out of hand as the time wasting provincialism of an idle and feckless citizenry, while granting themselves a mandate so vague that it allows them to justify anything.

Suppose then that the NCC proposed, in the interest of all Canadians, to explode a neutron bomb over the city. Is there some point at which one could stand up and say "I disagree" without being dismissed as a yokel? An absurd example, perhaps, but that's more or less what the NCC did to the LeBreton Flats in 1963. Now I don't care if the NCC demolished the flats for all Canadians, for their mothers, or for baby Jesus -- whether I lived in Vancouver or Wawa, given the salient facts I would conclude that that was a monumentally boneheaded thing to do.

Of course, chances are that if I lived in Vancouver or Wawa, I wouldn't be aware of the NCC, because while the NCC may be doing whatever it does for all Canadians, most Canadians just aren't paying attention. It therefore falls to those Canadians who are paying attention (not improbably, largely residents of the NCR) to hold the NCC to account for its actions. Why, you could even say we are criticizing the NCC on behalf of all Canadians. We judge the NCC's behaviour on its merits -- and the NCC has no one but themselves to blame if it is so often found wanting.

Monday, May 13, 2002

Senate continues to hammer the NCC

The Senate's debate concerning the NCC's proposal for Moffatt Farm, initiated by Senator Cools, has widened into something broader, questioning the NCC's methods and very mandate. On May 8, Senator Kinsella raised the following points:

  • All Canadians have a direct interest in the open lands and assets of the National Capital. The NCC holds these properties in trust and on a fiduciary basis on behalf of all Canadians from coast to coast.
  • The National Capital Act was brought in by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1958; after 44 years the time has come for Parliament to review the adequacy of this model of legislation.
  • The social, economic and mobility dynamics in the year 2002 sees Canadians being stakeholders in the use of all public lands in the National Capital in far greater numbers than 50 years ago. Therefore decisions of the NCC relating to the disposition of these public lands affect all Canadians across the country in new ways.
  • The Section in the National Capital Act dealing with the sale of public lands held in trust for all Canadians needs to be revised to provide for a recall mechanism. Section 10(2) of the Act, which gives the power to the NCC to sell lands held in trust, could be amended to provide for a review mechanism by a Parliamentary Committee upon the receipt of 1,000 signatures. As well, the Section of the Act that gives the authority to Cabinet to overturn any decision by the NCC to not sell land should also apply to any decision to sell land.
  • The National Capital Commission should not be selling assets to private developers to offset ongoing costs of the Commission. If the NCC needs money they should bring their case to Parliament.
  • The NCC should withdraw its application before the Ontario Municipal Board to appeal the decision of the City of Ottawa to deny re-zoning of Moffatt Farm.

Now that's what we call sober second thought.

Senate Debate May 8, 2002
Senate Debate April 23, 2002

Friday, April 6, 2002

Urban blight a fitting symbol of NCC decay

The Toronto Star ripped into the NCC today in an editorial:

By any measure, it is the capital's - perhaps the country's - most conflicted, revealing and evocative empty lot. A two-minute stroll from Parliament Hill, next door to the faintly lugubrious Chateau Laurier and across the street from the conference centre where the deal to bring home the Constitution was cut, the Daly site is spectacularly located at Canada's symbolic epicentre.

Sadly, it is equally well-located at the heart of bureaucratic bungling by another symbol: the starkly undemocratic National Capital Commission. After dithering over the Daly site since 1978, the commission is finally doing something. If all goes well - and it rarely does when the NCC puts on its developer overalls - nine floors of luxury condominiums will rise over street level shops on a historic, prime piece of property that belongs to all Canadians.

It wasn't supposed to end this way. At one time, the NCC was so committed to integrating the original home of Ottawa's first department store into grand - some say grandiose - plans for the national capital that it snubbed public demands for a temporary park that citizens, in a fit of civic pride, offered to build with their own hands.

Instead, the NCC, claiming to act in the national interest, built hoardings, dumped some benches, ran up a few flags and for more than a decade allowed a site with stunning potential to become an eyesore. True, the commission and Marcel Beaudry, a well-connected former developer who is now its reclusive chairman, were hardly idle. There was bold talk about a people place that would attract tourists while connecting a political sector that is silent after dark to the city's bustling Market. A 1997 shortlist of proposals led to a bizarre, fatally flawed plan to turn a quintessentially Canadian asset into an overflow hotel for the Chateau Laurier and, wait for it, an aquarium.

In contrast, the deal that will see a private developer build some 70 condominiums seems positively inspired. Artist drawings promise an appropriately handsome building and the units, ranging from just over $300,000 to just under $1 million, will bring more people and energy into the city core.

But what the NCC and Canadians get out of this is surprisingly small and out of sync with national interests. Leasing the land will cost the developer a modest $100,000 annually, money the NCC will use to fulfill its mandate of "Creating Pride and Unity Through Canada's Capital."

Again according to the NCC, the three tenets - that's tenets, not tenants - of that mandate are to "communicate Canada to Canadians, to create a meeting place for Canadians and to preserve national treasures and lands." How building condominiums fits that objective is a mystery at the heart of the NCC enigma. A crown corporation created in 1959 to safeguard federal buildings, monuments and parks, the NCC is much more. It is a mini-municipality that controls 10 per cent of the land in the sprawling National Capital Region. And, horrifying its many critics, it is often a developer, one with a nasty record of costly projects that regularly inflame a local population that has no control over an essentially unaccountable political institution.

Officially, Beaudry and 15 directors from across Canada are ultimately responsible to Parliament through Heritage Minister Sheila Copps. Reality is a little different. Too often, key decisions are made in private with mandarins or the Prime Minister.

That process can put the capital on a convoluted course. Last year, Beaudry and Jean Chrétien abruptly relocated the planned new military museum from a superior site on the Ottawa River to the downtown wasteland of LeBreton Flats as part of the search for the Prime Minister's missing legacy. And then there was the lunatic notion that a significant part of Ottawa's centre should be gutted to open a panoramic view to the Peace Tower.

Much less flamboyant, if almost as damaging, is the NCC's inept management of the Daly site. In less than 25 years, this deformed public-and-private-sector hybrid has levelled the last Canadian example of the Chicago school of architecture and created urban blight, only to build condominiums.

There were alternatives. The park, a public place capturing the spirited openness of Rome's Spanish Steps, a plaza of the provinces and a lasting tribute to the contribution of aboriginal peoples were all discarded.

A price should be paid for such wanton disregard of the public interest. Despite recent NCC efforts to let taxpayers occasionally peep inside its meetings, despite good works more in keeping with its mandate, it's far past the time for an autocratic, anachronistic institution to close its doors. Turn public lands over to Parks Canada, let Beaudry the developer return to development and let elected politicians, federal and local, shape and implement a national capital vision in the full glare of daylight

Friday, July 13, 2001

The National Capital Commission's planning disasters through time

The NCC has redone its web site ( Fear not, the site is still rich with irony, and apparently they still can't get enough of themselves, particularly their own special brand of planning genius. In a new section Planning Canada's Capital Region, they go on at length about their perceived planning victories. As a public service, NCC Watch offers this alternate planning time line:

"Stalinist Planning Writ Small: A people's history of the NCC"


First settlement on the north side of the Ottawa River. Notably, this was done without the aid of NCC planners.


A town is founded on the south side of the river when the building of the Rideau Canal begins. Incredibly, this too was done without any advice from the NCC.


Ottawa is chosen as Capital of the newly formed Province of Canada (created from Upper and Lower Canada, parts of today's Ontario and Quebec). The NCC regrets that it wasn't around at the time so that it could come up with this idea first. But if they had been, they would have, you bet.


Formation of the Ottawa Improvement Commission "to beautify" Ottawa. It clears industry from around the Rideau Canal and creates parks and Ottawa's first scenic parkway. It then snubs the remaining industry by spreading vicious rumours about it and never inviting it to dinner.


Todd Plan: Expresses the idea of a Capital region framed in a network of parks. Pushes for a boulevard to link the Parliament Buildings to Rideau Hall. The story behind this is classic Federal Government planning in action: Sussex was one of Ottawa's first and most successful commercial streets, but Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Governor General, wanted to enjoy a "beautiful ride on her way from Rideau Hall". She eventually got the government to expropriate the entire west side of Sussex, except for the Daly Building (that would be taken care of later). The Connaught Building was built between 1913-1915, but then the rest of the land stayed vacant. It was used as a parking space for decades. The U.S. Embassy was finally built there in the 90s.


Holt Report: Recommends establishment of a federal district planning authority and extension of the park system.


Yet Another Report: Boldly supports the idea of a new planning authority, recommends removal of rail lines from the centre, building of highways, extension of the park system, general tidying up.


The Federal District Commission is formed with the authority and budget to enact past recommendations. And, according to this time line anyway, promptly does nothing for the next 20 years. This period is now looked back on as something of a Golden Age.


Greber Plan rather imaginatively recommends emasculating Ottawa's rail network and building roads, decentralizing government offices (resulting in those triumphs, Place du Portage, Les Terraces de la Chaudiere, Confederation Heights, etc.), and expropriating vast amounts of land for the Greenbelt.


The National Capital Act sets the mandate for a new kind of planning authority (just like the old planning authority).


The NCC expropriates land for the Greenbelt from people like the Woodburns.


The National Capital Commission (NCC) is formed to carry out recommendations of the Greber Plan. Of course, they've no intention of stopping there.


True to their ideals, the NCC expropriates and demolishes the LeBreton Flats. Incredibly, this was planned without consulting the people who actually lived there. The land remains vacant.


The NCC generously decides to not demolish Ottawa Union Station, figuring a vacant lot might not look so good during the Centennial. The train station was however moved to the suburbs, guaranteeing its irrelevance. The rail lines were replaced with roads such as the Nicholas Expressway.


The Federal Government expropriates the north side of Sparks Street, essentially freezing development and accelerating its decline.


Fearing its budget isn't growing fast enough, the NCC persuades the government to expand its mandate to include public programming, because the public need programming.


After neglecting the building for a decade, the NCC demolishes the Daly Building in the heart of Ottawa, quashing plans for its restoration. The land remains vacant.


The NCC conceive a Vision for the Core Area (complete with a plan to demolish Metcalfe Street), approve a Plan for Canada's Capital, prepare a Core Area Concept of Canada's Capital, and develop a Core Area Sector Plan. That's two plans, a vision, and a concept. On the practical side, the development of the Daly site flounders.

NCC: Planning chronology

Tuesday, January 30, 2001

Sneaking a peek into the NCC

An article in today's Citizen looks at the possible repercussions of the changes implemented as a result of Glen Shortliffe's tepid recommendations for reform at the NCC:

In recent years, the NCC's culture of secrecy has exploded in its face, as leaked plans for projects such as a grandiose boulevard on Metcalfe Street and secret decisions on matters of broad public interest, such as widening the Champlain Bridge and banning unleashed dogs from NCC land, provoked widespread public anger.

The communications nightmare, as well as Ottawa's amalgamation and a pending merger in the Outaouais next year, prompted Mr. Beaudry to commission Mr. Shortliffe's report, which proposed 11 changes. All were immediately adopted by the NCC board. But it will cost $1.2 million to implement them, Mr. Beaudry said, adding that a request has been made to Treasury Board for the funds. If that money isn't forthcoming, some reforms might have to be scaled back, he said.

But implementation is already proceeding in some areas: Work is under way on the Web site, Mr. Beaudry said, and a new vice- president of communications, the Hull Casino's Guy Laflamme, has been hired.

Largely ignored in December when they were adopted, the changes fall far short of what 90 per cent of area residents, polled by Decima for the Shortliffe report, said they desire. They wanted open board meetings, and 76 per cent called for seats on the board for the mayor of Ottawa and the chairman of the Outaouais Urban Community. But Mr. Shortliffe opted instead for a compromise involving an advisory committee.

Mr. Beaudry and area MPs Mac Harb, Mark Assad, Mauril Belanger and David Pratt believe the NCC should not hold fully open meetings because of the many issues it deals with that could affect land values, for example, and hinder the complex negotiations required to pull together many NCC projects.

Mr. Chiarelli argued that it would be appropriate to have meetings with a "divided agenda": an open portion for regular issues and a closed portion for confidential matters such as contracts, real estate, legal and personnel matters. Several others pointed out that land transactions, legal and personnel matters are the bulk of the NCC's work.

Mr. Beaudry and Mr. Harb argued that the mayors would be in a conflict of interest if they sat on the board, torn between their duties to area residents and the NCC's mandate to provide a capital for all Canadians.

That argument drew agreement from Mr. Croteau, who said mayors are "political animals" whose loyalties lie with the voters who elect them. But Mr. Chiarelli disagreed.

"I don't believe it would be a conflict of interest any more than it would be a conflict of interest for us to sit on a committee, as has been recommended. I think it would be extremely helpful," the Ottawa mayor said. "The mayors used to be on the board a number of years ago." The NCC board also includes, by law, several members from the capital area, he noted.

"They're no more or less in conflict of interest than a mayor would be, because they're designated to be from a geographical area," said Mr. Chiarelli.

Indeed, when asked to whom she feels accountable in her role as a board member, Ottawa resident Norma Lamont said it was primarily area residents.

Despite falling short of the general public's expectations, the Shortliffe changes are not to be shrugged off, observers say. They have a subtle prevalence that some believe will, in fact, change the way the NCC does business.

"This is an extremely important step forward," said NCC board member Marc Denhez, an Ottawa lawyer, urban planning expert and longtime NCC watcher, particularly during his time as president of Heritage Ottawa. "This is the most significant change in the way the NCC does business since it was set up in 1958."

"I certainly think it's making the board more accessible," said Ms. Lamont, a five-year board member, who is director of special projects for the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Foundation.

That Shortliffe's tepid and widely criticized reforms are "the most significant change in the way the NCC does business since it was set up in 1958" says pretty much everything that needs saying about the NCC's dinosaur mentality.

Citizen: Sneaking a peek into the NCC [30 Jan 2001]

Wednesday, December 13, 2000

Local Liberal MPs content with NCC

No surprise here, the Citizen asked Ottawa area MPs what they thought of the recently released report on the NCC and found overwhelming apathy:

A major report from the National Capital Commission on how to improve its relations with local governments and citizens has been available for almost a week now, yet most Ottawa-area members of Parliament have been slow to find out what's in it. The few who have read the report seem strangely content with the idea of the NCC safeguarding its habit of secrecy.

Ottawa Centre MP Mac Harb, whose constituency includes Sparks Street and LeBreton Flats, insists that opening NCC meetings to the public would politicize its work and make it impossible to carry out the NCC's mandate on behalf of all Canadians. If some of its decisions anger his constituents, well, Mr. Harb considers that a small price to pay for all the NCC's good work in the region.

Eugene Bellemare (Ottawa-Orleans) agrees. He says the report means there will be more openness at the NCC than before, although people with "extreme views" will complain.We disagree with these MPs' analysis. But at least they were willing to share their views when we asked.

The Ottawa-area's 10 Liberal MPs (Scott Reid, Lanark-Carleton's Canadian Alliance rookie, gets left out here) will gather today for their weekly regional caucus meeting. We hope that they have all, at last, found time to review the $250,000 NCC report so they can discuss it with intelligence and even suggest improvements.

Take Ottawa West-Nepean's Marlene Catterall, who told the Citizen during the recent election campaign that "no one has worked harder" than she to pry open the secrecy surrounding the NCC. Fine, then what does she think about the recommendation that the NCC establish a Planning Advisory Committee with the mayor of the new City of Ottawa and the chairman of the Outaouais Urban Community? Do the suggestions that the NCC hold an annual general meeting open to the public, as well as semi-annual public consultations with local interest groups, satisfy her?

Quite frankly, we don't know; Ms. Catterall never bothered to get back to us. Nor did Marcel Proulx (Hull-Aylmer) or Robert Bertrand (Pontiac-Gatineau-Labelle). Gatineau MP Mark Assad did return our call -- to advise us that he wanted to consult with his Liberal colleagues today before giving his opinion. (Whatever happened to independent thinking?)

Ottawa-Vanier's Mauril Belanger also called back, to tell us he was still in the process of reading the 86-page report and probably wouldn't be ready to comment until the end of the week.

That's better than Government House Leader Don Boudria, the long- time MP for Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, whose office informed us that the minister would not comment because the NCC comes within the mandate of his cabinet colleague, Canadian Heritage Minister Sheila Copps. But fellow cabinet minister John Manley (Ottawa South) doesn't share Mr. Boudria's qualms about jurisdiction. The foreign minister's office told us he was encouraged the NCC board had accepted all 11 recommendations, which suggested the NCC was "moving towards enhancing openness and the consultative process."

That view was shared by Nepean-Carleton's David Pratt, who wants to give the NCC a couple of years to see whether the recommended changes work in practice.

The NCC's impact on the Ottawa area is too important for so many local MPs to be so passive about a major report on its future. If the local Liberal caucus doesn't care about pressing NCC accountability to the public, neither will the agency itself.

The regional Liberal caucus has a history of parroting the NCC line instead of representing their constituents' concerns.

Citizen: Ottawa's passive majority [13 Dec 2000]