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Château Laurier pile-on shows why bureaucracy can come in handy

The reaction to the proposed addition to the iconic Château Laurier was nuanced: some people despised it, while others merely hated it. So what happens now?

Developer will have to jump through many hoops to get any design approved

The proposed addition to the historic downtown Ottawa hotel would replace an existing five-storey parking garage, which would be moved underground. (Supplied)

The reaction to the proposed addition to the iconic Château Laurier was nuanced: some people despised it, while others merely hated it.

So what happens now?

Despite some suggestions on Twitter that Mayor Jim Watson veto the plan, that's not how these things (thankfully) work.

There's often frustration in this town about how projects proceed, and an impression — rightly or wrongly — that developers have too much power. But in the case of the Château Laurier proposed addition, our many layers of government that oversee what happens in the capital hold most of the cards.

For once, we may be grateful to live in a city of bureaucracy.

NCC involvement

Although the hotel itself is on private land, the National Capital Commission still has a role to play in approving any changes. Additions to the Château will impact federal lands, including Major's Hill Park and Confederation Boulevard along Mackenzie Avenue. In fact, the use of federal land along Mackenzie is required for the addition.

This gives the NCC an official say.

Hotel owner Larco Investments is well-aware of this, and already met several times with the NCC's advisory committee on planning, design and realty, which has made suggestions to the Vancouver-based company  for changes. In fact, the renderings that so enraged Ottawa residents were actually the fourth or fifth versions of the design.

Here's another view of the proposed expansion from the Rideau Canal, itself a UNESCO world heritage site. (Supplied)

"The NCC has been challenging the proponent to find design solutions that do not negatively impact the adjacent park and the views of the capital," according to an email from an NCC spokesman.

Following the submission of the final design — Larco is planning to file its formal application to the city in mid-October — the committee will make its recommendation to the full NCC board. 

The plan will likely come to the board for a final vote in 2017. There isn't a formal appeal process for a board vote, but cabinet can always overturn an NCC board decision.

City process

The city has its own, completely separate process.

The Château Laurier is formally designated a city heritage building under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act, which provides restrictions on what changes can be made.

The owners will have to make a heritage application that must be approved first by the built heritage sub-committee, a group made up of councillors and heritage experts, such as respected local architect Barry Padolsky who, among other things, was involved in designing the Queen's Lantern at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

The glass Queen's Lantern at the Canadian Museum of Nature is an example of a modern addition to older architecture that was embraced by the public.

The application then has to go to the planning committee and council. (For the planning geeks out there, the changes will also need a site plan approval, but not a rezoning.)

Changes to the heritage-designated hotel cannot go ahead without the green light from council. Should council eventually turn down the application, the owners can only appeal the decision to the provincial Conservation Review Board, a tribunal that works something like the Ontario Municipal Board.

More consultation

But there's more!

The city has its own design review panel that looks over projects of this magnitude. The panel has already met several times in private with Larco (developers are allowed to have confidential confabs with the powers-that-be before they officially file an application) and made some recommendations. Also, as part of the official application process, there will have to be a public meeting of the panel of this project.

And the company itself will be formally looking for feedback, although not until it files its final designs.

At that time, Larco will set up an online tool for comments, and is promising to have an in-person information session at — where else? — the Château Laurier.

The design of the Château Laurier addition done by Peter Clewes, a Toronto architect, has drawn a strong negative reaction from the public. (Supplied)

Experts may save us from ourselves

One last thought on why the reviews by the NCC, and the city's sub-heritage committee and design review panel are so important: maybe we don't know what we're talking about.

At the risk of sounding elitist, there's a long list of now-beloved buildings that were reviled in their day. The Louvre Pyramid comes to mind.

All these government bodies involved in this file? It's not their job to freeze structures in time. They'll be looking to protect the heritage character of the building and capital precinct — the very thing tourists come to Ottawa to enjoy — but not to mimic the architecture of another era, either.

Buildings must evolve to meet the needs of modern times, with modern designs.

This process is not about stopping an addition for the Château Laurier, an addition that would replace a crumbling parkade.

It's about making sure the addition is as beloved as the original historic hotel.

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

Journalist

Joanne Chianello is a journalist with CBC Ottawa. She came to the CBC after a 20-year career at the Ottawa Citizen, where she was city hall bureau chief, city affairs columnist and the city editor. But not all at the same time. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.