Ottawa·Analysis

Château Laurier debacle underscores gulf between public, city hall

Wednesday's 11th-hour vote to halt the unpopular hotel addition is unlikely to succeed, Joanne Chianello writes. When that happens, the will of the people will have been officially ignored.

11th-hour effort to halt unpopular hotel addition unlikely to succeed, Joanne Chianello writes

Innovation or eyesore? The latest design for the Château Laurier addition, as viewed from Mackenzie Avenue. (Provided by Larco Investments.)

There's no shortage of controversial issues bedevilling Ottawa city hall these days, but perhaps none so clearly lays bare the utter disconnect between the public and the powers that be than the debacle over the reviled Château Laurier addition.

Councillors will tell you they're constantly berated about the file at public events, and their inboxes are overflowing with complaints.

A hastily formed group of establishment types calling themselves Friends of the Château Laurier is working full out to halt the expansion.

Perhaps even more telling are the 7,100-plus signatures on a petition to block the project.

Rarely have we seen such thunderous — and largely unanimous — public outcry over a building addition.

Then again, the Château Laurier isn't just any building. It's a beloved heritage site that is an integral ingredient of the iconic views of our parliamentary precinct.

It's not a real castle, of course, but its importance to our local and national heritage was recognized as far back as 1981, when the federal government formally recognized the hotel as a national historic site.

The hotel is protected under both the Ontario Heritage Act and by Parks Canada's Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada, both of which are supposed to preserve the character of this special building.

So far, that hasn't happened.

Why not? Because the public institutions who are supposed to stand up for heritage issues let the side down.

Parks Canada gave green light

First, Parks Canada.

When a new addition to a historic site is proposed, Parks Canada is supposed to make sure the project conserves "the heritage value and character-defining elements" of the original.

The view of the latest Château Laurier design from the Rideau Canal. (Larco Investments)

The federal bureaucrats are also supposed to make sure any addition is "physically and visually compatible with, subordinate to, and distinguishable from the historic place."

While the boxy addition is certainly distinguishable from the romantic, Gothic Revival style of the original, it's open to question whether the seven-storey, 147-room addition is indeed subordinate.

 That's especially true when seen from Major's Hill Park and the Rideau Canal, the latter a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The proposed addition, as seen from Major's Hill Park, does not appear 'subordinate' to the heritage hotel. (Larco Investments)

But last year, Parks Canada wrote the city to say it was generally fine with the design for the expansion, which had recently been changed to reduce the height from 12 to seven storeys.

Although the addition will loom in the view of the hotel from the canal shore, the letter points out that "as one proceeds up through the flight of eight locks, the Château Laurier is revealed dominant in the landscape setting."

And that seemed enough for the federal department charged with protecting national historic sites.

Two architects share their thoughts on the plans for the hotel's new addition. 9:04

Council passed the buck

Then there's city council.

Our locally elected officials are responsible for any applications made to Ottawa buildings that are protected under the Ontario Heritage Act.

It's council that has the power to say yes or no to an addition. Until this week, council has opted to say yes.

Faced with a controversial design before last fall's election, both the city's built heritage subcommittee and the former city council unanimously approved the unpopular, boxy addition, though with caveats to alter the design.

And council left it to the planning staff to decide when those caveats were met.

Basically, council members unfairly saddled staff with making the politically explosive decision that they were unwilling to make themselves.

Mayor Jim Watson says the latest proposed design for the Château Laurier addition is still 'too boxy,' though the final say will be up to the planning committee. 0:41

It's no surprise, given the outcry over the past four versions of the Château addition, that the most recent rendition, approved by planning staff after 30 meetings with the hotel's team, has so enraged members of the public, many of whom hadn't realized that council had already sold their stake in the beloved local landmark down the river.

Members of council, including Mayor Jim Watson, who express disappointment at Larco's latest designs are being disingenuous.

After all, council gave its OK to the basic concept. If it had wanted major changes as the public was demanding, our elected officials should have rejected the proposal and ordered the architects to start over. 

They didn't, and here we are.

Mathieu Fleury: Councillor for Rideau-Vanier. 9:17

Desperate measures

In the month since the latest and possibly final design was made public, there has been a desperate flurry of activity to stop this thing from proceeding.

Coun. Mathieu Fleury, in whose ward the hotel sits and who voted in favour of the design last year, has tabled a motion to rescind the certificate issued to Larco that allows a heritage building to be altered. He and others will argue that the hotel did not meet the conditions set out by council last year.

Coun. Mathieu Fleury's motion to reverse the former councillor's decision on the Château Laurier addition appears unlikely to pass. (Radio-Canada)

Meanwhile, architect Barry Padolsky, an expert member of the heritage committee, has written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to ask him to intervene.

There's also been a furious exchange of memos at city hall over the past week, including one from the hotel's planners who hint at "costly litigation" for taxpayers if council changes course, and another from the city's own legal team advising council it has every right to rescind the city's approval.

Council will vote on Fleury's motion Wednesday. At this point, it appears unlikely to succeed.

And with that failure, the voice of the public will have been officially ignored, leaving them to wonder why they should spend the time and energy to care about our collective heritage at all.

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.