NCC Watch

Working to consign the NCC to oblivion

Search string: "rubin"

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The NCC's culture of secrecy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 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]

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

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]

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

NCC triumphs again!

NCC Watch received a bit of a shock reading The Citizen today:

The board of the National Capital Commission has given itself top marks in a performance evaluation for doing a terrific job overseeing the work of the federal agency.

In the January evaluation, NCC board members gave themselves a score of 4.67 out of five, or a little more than 93 per cent, for overall performance. The board says its assessment fits a group that "has served together under a very strong chairperson for quite some time" and "is doing its job well ... "

Meanwhile, according to access to information documents obtained for the Citizen by researcher Ken Rubin, senior managers are less glowing about how their bosses perform, giving them a 4.2 rating, or 84 per cent.

The board scores ranged from a high of 4.9 for having good working relations with senior managers, to a low of 3.4 for succession planning. The highest score from the managers was 4.7 for board collegiality, and a low of 3.8 for playing an "appropriate and effective" role in the development and approval of the corporate plan.

NCC Watch's reaction was, as you can understand, something along the lines of My god, what have we been doing? You see, in a similar performance evaluation, the NCC Watch 17 member Board of Directors (all positions on which, along with the Chairmanship, are currently held by the NCC Watch CEO and Managing Editor for tiresome reasons of governance we won't get into here) only gave itself 3.58463. That's right - a difference of, er, more than one compared to the NCC board. Well, the numbers don't lie - faced with this cold hard calculus, even NCC Watch must bow to the NCC's evident superiority. We will even grant them an extra 0.33 for humility in admitting they aren't perfect, which, let's face it, they probably are.

Citizen: NCC gives itself top marks for job well done [6 Dec 2006]
Citizen: The NCC dream world [7 Dec 2006]

Monday, June 12, 2006

A bankrupt NCC

From an editorial in The Citizen today:

Why are we just discovering now that contamination from Jacques Cartier Park is possibly flowing into the Ottawa River? Why does it take researcher Ken Rubin to find the documents (some of which date back to 1993) that reveal this and other environmental questions at the park? Why didn't the National Capital Commission tell the public about environmental issues on land the citizens of this country (not the NCC custodians of the property) own?

But then we could ask why the NCC last week found itself on the wrong end of a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision that ruled that the NCC discriminated against people with mobility disabilities in building the York Street Steps.

If private companies served the public this way, they would go bankrupt. And that's what we have at the NCC -- a transparency, efficiency and ethical bankruptcy. With so little oversight in the past, it appears responsible only unto itself.

Transportation Minister Lawrence Cannon's reform of the Crown corporation cannot come soon enough.

Citizen: A bankrupt NCC [12 Jun 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]

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, January 14, 2005

NCC's Scott Paper site oozes chemicals

The Citizen reports today that cleaning up the Scott Paper land could cost the NCC $34 million:

To fix environmental problems at the site, the consultants proposed two solutions, the less costly of which includes soil capping, a groundwater barrier and on-site groundwater treatment over five years. This measure would meet federal standards for an urban park and cost $3.8 million.

The other proposal is a full cleanup that involves digging up the site and clearing the contaminants, at a cost of $33.7 million. The land won't be developed for a park for at least 25 years and NCC spokeswoman Eva Schacherl said a decision would be made at that time.

The federal agency acquired the land in 2003 as part of its grand vision to transform the Ottawa River shoreline and beautify the nation's capital. The plan includes an aboriginal centre on the east end of Victoria Island and a string of waterfront shops and restaurants on the west end. An urban park, museum and federal office building on Chaudiere Island would round out the rebuilding.

The NCC bought the site "as is" for $36 million from George Weston Limited and leased it back to the company for $29 million over 25 years. According to documents obtained for the Citizen by researcher Ken Rubin under the Access to Information legislation, George Weston, in turn, leased the land back to Scott Paper for more than $70 million over 25 years.

The NCC also agreed to commemorate the role of the Weston family at the site, possibly with a plaque. In 2028, Scott Paper would have to demolish its buildings and hand over the site to the NCC. However, George Weston turned down an NCC request to guarantee that Scott Paper will leave the site as required, suggesting the agency might have to "enlist the assistance of the courts to obtain possession of the site."

Ms. Schacherl said the NCC considers the purchase of such an important urban site a good deal for taxpayers. She said Treasury Board and the auditor general approved the deal.

Citizen: NCC's Scott Paper site oozes chemicals [14 Jan 2005]

Thursday, November 4, 2004

NCC board circles the wagons

Citizen columnist Randall Denley reports on NCC Board meeting minutes obtained via access to information, showing the board's response to heat the NCC was taking in the media earlier this year:

The minutes of NCC meetings from earlier in the year show what our MPs are up against.

At the time, Beaudry was getting a lot of pressure from the media and from federal Liberal candidates, who were calling for NCC reform. He responded with an enthusiastic marshalling of his political supporters, including his board.

On Feb. 2, a 45-minute conference call meeting was held, led by board vice-chairwoman Heather Chiasson. She moved a motion of support, making direct reference to Citizen coverage "demanding that Marcel Beaudry either step down or be replaced ... claiming that under his leadership the organization has been mismanaged and remains secretive." The facts reveal the opposite, the motion asserted.

The meeting to discuss the secretiveness was, of course, closed.

Chiasson's motion referred to Beaudry's "numerous successes," then went on to enumerate 36 of his major ones, going back to 1992. Who could have prepared such a complete, and completely self- serving, list of his accomplishments? The motion noted that the list is not limited to these high points.

In fairness, we must add that the one-contender design competition at LeBreton Flats has since added yet another zircon to Beaudry's crown.

Simply reading the motion must have consumed all the time available for the 45-minute meeting. There is no record of any discussion, and the board adopted the motion unanimously.

The good news is that these meeting minutes, obtained under the Access to Information Act by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin, are probably the longest ever made public. A typical NCC minute says something like "the motion was approved."

Chiasson dutifully conveyed the board's support to the public in a Citizen letter to the editor. A similar motion at the NCC design committee led to a fawning opinion article by a committee member, who called for an extension of Beaudry's term.

The NCC board also approved a motion to consider open meetings and splitting the jobs of chairman and CEO at its next board meeting. That was perhaps a nod to the malcontents and ill-informed critics of Beaudry, who included then-defence minister David Pratt, Liberal candidate Richard Mahoney, NDP candidate Broadbent and NCC board member Eric Denhoff, who put forward the motion.

Subsequent events, also in NCC minutes, show there is a critical distinction between considering a matter, and actually doing something. Both open meetings and splitting the two top jobs were deferred. The board did instruct Beaudry to meet with his nominal boss, the heritage minister, and raise issues about open meetings. The NCC doesn't want to be treated differently than any other Crown corporation, the motion says, but it is prepared to work with the government. Translated, that means we don't want open meetings unless every other Crown corporation has them, but we might accept them if you make us. Denhoff dissented. Matter closed.

Don't let anyone say that the NCC board is unwilling to discuss open meetings.

NCC Watch: Area Liberals rally around NCC [6 Feb 2004]
Citizen: Beaudry, NCC top MPs' hit list [4 Nov 2004]

Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Arrogant NCC now targets key islands

Researcher Ken Rubin critiques the NCC's development projects in the Citizen:

As the luxury condo slab on the Daly Building site rises and the start of the LeBreton Freeway sends cars speeding on their way, we are being saddled with expensive developments that are neither balanced nor attractive.

They benefit a few, ignore the environment and cater to the well off.

Even the crazy car drive down Island Park Drive isn't good enough for the NCC, so it's putting roadway markers and a new traffic divider along the way to remind taxpayers that it can do as it pleases. Their power is evident too in their cutting several new roads in or through the Gatineau Park that will further carve up the capital's only wilderness park.

The recent NCC announcement that it is spending millions of dollars to acquire the Scott Paper land on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River (with the actual transfer date being 25 years from now), may, on the surface, seem out of character. But don't expect that riverside land to be developed as one big green space beyond 2028, or to be without significant development projects. They could include more of the same type of tacky sightseeing pavilions as the Canada and the World one spoiling the Ontario side of the river next to Rideau Falls.

Let's also not forget that it was the NCC that adamantly resolved to sell off a large chunk of riverside green space, the Moffatt Farm, along the Rideau River, so that now, despite opposition, a mundane housing development is proceeding.

Indeed, it's the NCC's penchant to plan intensive development for the capital's three tiny islands in the Ottawa River that symbolizes just how out of control the NCC now is. Declassified NCC documents that I've obtained under the Access to Information Act show how the natural environmental settings of these islands takes second place to seeing how many structures with commercial payoffs can be stuffed in.

Take the four-hectare Bates Island, located off the Champlain Bridge. The NCC is not content to enhance the island's focus point for strolling, kayaking and fishing. Instead, it has pre- development infrastructure plans that call for spending millions of dollars for building, with a private developer, a hotel of up to 60 rooms that will occupy both sides of the bridge roadway.

Filling in the island space would also cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring in cable and natural-gas lines. In addition, there would be increased traffic and up to 53 new parking spaces.

Similarly, Victoria and Chaudiere Islands, off the Chaudiere Bridge near Parliament Hill, would be overdeveloped.

The recent NCC studies there envisage not just a long-promised aboriginal centre, but possibly a hotel, government office space, recreation complex, and even a junior college. Again, there would be increased traffic flows and costly infrastructure installed, such as new water mains and sewage pipes. Even the proposed aboriginal centre would be a large structure and is slated to be more of an institutional social-service building than a meeting place.

Citizen: Arrogant NCC now targets key islands [8 Oct 2003]

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

An eyesore next to Parliament Hill

Researcher Ken Rubin assesses the NCC's Metcalfe Lite parking garage plan in the Citizen:

The above-ground "plaza" on Metcalfe will be sterile and foreboding if the existing drab area in front of the NCC's visitor centre is any guide. The plaza will entail the demolition of three heritage buildings and the moving of two other buildings, including the visitor centre. Far from being a lively, well-located town square, the plaza will essentially function as the concourse to the garage below, making it more like a mass-transit entrance -- lacking, of course, the mass transit.

[...]Documents show that more-distant parking-structure sites were rejected. Options such as park and ride or a tasteful light-rail transit link through the core area, stopping at the Hill, were not seriously considered. And the plans are not connected to a recent City of Ottawa report suggesting an expensive bus-only tunnel downtown.

The parking garage/plaza project, if proceeded with, seems destined to bring more downtown disruption. Bus and car pick-up and drop-off points will overly dominate area traffic and pour hundreds more visitors into a small area. Documents indicate that the project could mean reopening Sparks Street for some traffic, severely restricting Queen Street traffic, and more than occasional area road closings when bus and vehicle flows are unmanageable.

The cost estimates for this parking garage/plaza and related projects are still well hidden and not thought out, but no doubt will be exorbitant. For an initial idea of cost, turn to the already inflated millions of dollars the NCC spent on purchasing Sparks Street office buildings. And recall the high maintenance and repair bills associated with such downtown parking structures as the National Arts Centre underground lot for an idea of the future costs.

Such a parking garage/plaza configuration will not kick-start downtown revitalization, of Sparks Street in particular. Set against the magic of Parliament Hill, it just does not work. It's about as imaginative as the national "vista" created by putting up a 66-year leased condominium concrete tower on what was the promising Daly site nearby.

[...]It's too bad that the federal government has learned little from the controversy it faced over tearing down more of Metcalfe Street further south for a larger and equally questionable mall.

After all, these are the same folks who "renewed" the downtown core of the former Hull in the 1970s with massive federal buildings and parking complexes, and who now want to create a high-rise, high- traffic community in and through LeBreton Flats. They see nothing out of the ordinary or undesirable about plunking down a mega- parking garage opposite Parliament Hill.

Citizen: An eyesore next to Parliament Hill [11 Dec 2002]

Thursday, December 5, 2002

Sparks Street report recommends huge parking garage

A parking study by Delcan for the NCC recommends the parking garage that the NCC wants to build under Sparks Street should accommodate up to 1350 cars and 30 buses:

A downtown parking study commissioned by the NCC is recommending the construction of a huge underground garage for up to 1,350 cars and 30 tour buses in the shadow of Parliament Hill. The project is twice the size of a 650-car garage envisioned a few months ago by NCC chairman Marcel Beaudry.

[...]"The existing parking supply/demand conditions, compounded by the impending loss of short-term parking supply and an increase in parking demand, will result in a core-area parking supply shortage that could have adverse impact on downtown's vitality," says the report, obtained through an Access to Information request by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin.

It recommends that "a parking facility with capacity for between 1,000 and 1,350 parking spaces be provided in a location within a five- to 10-minute walk of Parliament Hill" and that the garage "have capacity and amenities for up to 30 tour buses and their passengers."

As usual, the report had to pried from the NCC through an access to information request. In response to the revelation, the NCC downplayed the report and claimed it was still working with its 650 car proposal.

Citizen: 1,350-car garage urged for Hill area [5 Dec 2002]

Wednesday, October 9, 2002

NCC builds $250,000 dollar washroom in Rockcliffe

The Citizen revealed that the NCC paid a cool quarter million for a public washroom in Rockcliffe park:

What will $252,701 buy in Rockcliffe Park these days? If you are the National Capital Commission, a seasonal washroom.

But not just any washroom. This is a structure that speaks the same "architectural language" as the historic pavilion the toilet serves, according to Julie Roy, of Griffiths Rankin Cook Architects. Ms. Roy's firm received a $10,365 contract for designing the washroom, which was built this summer.

Yesterday, however, tour bus drivers like David Carlisle used their own "language" to question the wisdom of the luxury facility.

"That's kind of dumb," said Mr. Carlisle, on a cigarette break from ushering a group of Japanese tourists around the capital. "The buses can't even park there."

[...]A document search by independent researcher Ken Rubin revealed the washroom cost $242,336 and was built by V-Par Limited Construction. That total didn't include the architectural fee, but did include the cost of parking, paths, landscaping and water and sewer hook-ups.

Ms. Roy said the cost was increased by using material and details for the washroom similar to those in the pavilion. "The detailing is not standard in today's world," Ms. Roy said.

The washroom, which is typically open from 8 a.m. to sunset in the summer, is now only open on the weekends, said NCC spokesman John Kane.

The quarter-million-dollar structure is closed over the winter months.

Looks like we have a new Tombstone of Waste.

Citizen: NCC spends $250,000 on spiffy Rockcliffe biffy [9 Oct 2002]
Halifax Herald: New federal loo 'no scary park washroom' [10 Oct 2002]

Wednesday, November 7, 2001

It's not too late to do it right

Citizen letter writer Ken Rubin takes the Chairman Beaudry to task for the NCC's public consultations on LeBreton Flats:

National Capital Commission Chairman Marcel Beaudry has missed the point. He erroneously claims widespread public consultations were done on the questionable parts of his plans for the site that I challenged.

There have many examples: the abrupt decision to locate the Canadian War Museum there; the development of environmental assessment arrangements for the serious, widespread contamination problems on the site, which include dumping contaminants on-site at the Nepean Bay Landfill near the Ottawa River; the lack of truthful public disclosure and debate about creating heavy traffic on up to a six-lane highway through the site; and the concept plans being developed behind closed doors for blocks labelled as X, W, O, U and T so that disposal and private-sector construction can begin next year. The NCC chairman takes wide liberty if he really believes the general public was consulted on such basics.

There is time to remedy and improve these LeBreton Flats plans with more than token public consultations. After all, Mr. Beaudry writes in his letter that the site is a national significant place to be "treasured by Canadians and residents of the capital for generations to come."

Citizen Letters: It's not too late to do it right [7 Nov 2001]

Wednesday, October 24, 2001

NCC, Chretien must slow their half-baked development plan

Researcher Ken Rubin argues in the Citizen that the NCC's plans for LeBreton Flats are muddled and rushed:

The arbitrary and autocratic nature of development became apparent earlier this year when the Prime Minister and NCC Chairman Marcel Beaudry, along with Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, abruptly announced that a new War Museum would be plonked down as a central part of the LeBreton Flats "plan." This happened even though there were already advanced plans and private fundraising in progress for the War Museum at a much more suitable location on the former Rockcliffe air base.

It also bumped the planning under way to use the same northern part of LeBreton Flats as the future home of a cultural complex with a combined National Library, National Archives and Science and Technology Museum.

The public was never asked which of these multimillion-dollar plans made more sense in helping establish a vibrant downtown. Nor were any alternate uses of this space raised.

The other part of the current LeBreton "plan" calls for the sale of the remaining larger southern section of the Flats for private residential and commercial development. Right now, the NCC is pushing for construction of a few blocks of highrises and lowrises, to begin as early as next year. This, too, is viewed as a fait accompli, with no regard for the public costs and before environmental cleanup plans are aired and developed.

The NCC's own secret polling of developers indicated that not all of those responding were convinced of the viability of proceeding now with such development, or the wisdom of a wholesale sell-off of the southern lands. Some developers also told the NCC that this massive project was beyond the NCC's ability, and that the likely result would be just another mundane suburbia project.

[...]"Urgent" top-down planning began in earnest on LeBreton Flats once the NCC, notorious for its unaccountable nature and with an unenviable track record as a developer, assumed prime ownership of the site a few years ago. About 40 years ago, it was a heavy-handed government-driven process that resulted in the wholesale destruction of many homes and businesses at that site.

Alternative plans for what could be an exciting downtown area, with ample open space that rehabilitates and reinvigorates the area's environment, have not been adequately debated and reviewed. Too much wheeling-dealing has gone on behind closed doors.

It's a one-sided, ad hoc, and highly political development "plan" that does not add up unless the public wishes to give the NCC and the PM a blank cheque to proceed. It's a Daly site project writ large, complete with on- and off-again plans, increasingly expensive costs and a relatively unimaginative and counter-productive design.

Citizen: NCC, Chretien must slow their half-baked development plan [24 Oct 2001]

Wednesday, August 8, 2001

Canada Day bought by Kodak

Access to information researcher Ken Rubin continues to dig up interesting items about the National Capital Commission: In exchange for paying for Canada Day fireworks (about $180,000), Kodak has bought advertising, exclusive rights to selling film and cameras at NCC events, and is guaranteed to be mentioned at least 25 times during the Canada Day show. Tip for the NCC: put the Kodak logo on all those flags people wave at the show as well -- that oughtta be worth a few grand.

Citizen: NCC deal with photo giant makes Canada Day a Kodak moment [7 Aug 2001]

Monday, October 2, 2000

Taxpayers stuck with fatter bill for NCC

Wondering what happened to consultant Glen Shortliffe's study of NCC? Randall Denley reports:

The study is expected sometime next month, only 3 1/2 months past the original deadline and more than double the cost.

Shortliffe's original $64,000 contract called for him to talk to the federal government and "key stakeholders" and produce a report with recommendations by June 30.

That consultation consisted primarily of talking to local politicians, Ottawa Liberal MPs and the NCC's own board members. Apparently these people couldn't answer the $64,000 question, so Shortliffe made a further request for a poll of 600 people in Ottawa-Carleton and the Outaouais and follow-up focus groups.

We don't know what questions the poll asked or what answers the public gave. That's proprietary information of Shortliffe's company, Sussex Circle. The public does get the bill, though, in the amount of $83,000. That includes $35,000 to Sussex Circle to act as a consultant to the consultants.

The only mildly substantial piece of information the NCC has released about the Shortliffe project is a status report delivered to a closed board meeting in April. We only have that thanks to a request by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin under the Access to Information Act.

Little more than a slide show, it still raises some interesting points. Board members at the closed meeting were given a sense of the problems the consultants had identified in their narrow-ranging research. Among them were "appear to be operating behind closed doors/secret."

Relationships with the quaint little democratic governments the locals elect aren't all they could be. The consultant notes "particular problems with the City of Ottawa under current mayor." This would be a reference to the now former mayor, Jim Watson, who was making a bit of a campaign to reform the NCC, suggesting things like opening their meetings. Troublesome chap.

Other Ontario municipalities also have problems with the NCC, ranging from "severe to very moderate." No examples are cited.

Unnamed persons had also observed some difficulties involving the NCC's grand plan for Metcalfe Boulevard, dog bylaws, the Champlain Bridge, unco-ordinated urban planning, lack of real consultation, slowness of response and absence of real partnerships.

The interim report describes a concern about the mayor of Ottawa and the regional chair of the Outaouais being on the NCC board because they might have an "agenda."

Media relations are naturally a concern for an organization looking to improve its image, and the good news is that the media are "generally quite fair" with one exception. That would be the Ottawa Citizen.

The report also notes that "some believe that other federal departments and agencies have also been the target of the Ottawa Citizen." That could be something to do with a fuss over a couple of bureaucratic oversights at Human Resources Development Canada.

The Citizen is clearly unfair to the NCC because we explain to people what the NCC actually does. This naturally casts the commission in a bad light. Fairer media coverage would ignore little blips like the latest failed Daly site plan. Or maybe we should have given the story a positive spin. Perhaps a headline like "Daly Park One Step Closer."

Citizen: Taxpayers stuck with fatter bill for NCC [2 Oct 2000]