NCC plan for 'embassy row' in Mechanicsville nixed by city council

Ottawa city council overwhelmingly voted against the National Capital Commission plan to allow up to five embassies to be built in the Mechanicsville area, taking the rare step of overturning a previous decision at the planning committee.

NCC says city failed to follow planning rules, and it will consider all of its legal options

A sign that says "trees not embassies" is posted on a tree above a metal fence.
A sign protests a plan to build embassies on a stretch of greenspace along the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway. City council voted that plan down on Wednesday. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Ottawa city council overwhelmingly voted against the National Capital Commission plan to allow up to five embassies to be built in the Mechanicsville area, taking the rare step of overturning a previous decision at the planning committee.

The surprise was sparked by five planning committee members who changed their minds since their initial vote in September.

Although the National Capital Commission (NCC) owns the land, the city would have to rezone the property to allow buildings to be constructed there. The community and area councillor Jeff Leiper had opposed the project because the wooded lot is some of the only open space in the area.

"I am asking that we be sensitive to the climate crisis that we've declared and preserve this land as greenspace," Leiper told his council colleagues.

"Our official plan calls for us to provide greenspace for rapidly intensifying neighbourhoods like Mechanicsville. It would be inappropriate to allow this embassy row proposal to move forward."

The vast majority of council agreed with him, which was unexpected because council rarely overturns decisions at the committee level.

It appears the east-end councillors voted against the NCC's embassy approval due to frustration over a separate decision. As they wrote in an open letter published shortly before council began, councillors aren't happy the NCC has refused to approve the extension of Brian Coburn Boulevard.

That street extension would have included a rapid transit path for buses in the southern parts of Orléans and Cumberland through the nationally owned greenbelt.

"The NCC speaks out of both sides of its mouth when it comes to greenspace and protecting greenspace," said Coun. Matthew Luloff, who represents Orléans ward.

"I would also encourage my colleagues not to vote for this. It's time to send a strong message to the NCC that if they're going to be good partners with the city, they have to come down to the table and speak with us about things like this."

This rationale led five councillors who sit on planning and voted in favour — Luloff, Laura Dudas, Catherine Kitts, Jean Cloutier and planning co-chair Glen Gower — to flip their support for their proposal. 

Warning over message to NCC

Planning committee co-chair, Coun. Scott Moffatt, did warn his colleagues against a tit-for-tat rationale when making planning decisions.

"If you want to vote against this because you want an infrastructure file somewhere else in the city, and you feel this is the way to get it, the Ontario Land Tribunal is going to disagree with you," said Moffatt, who did say he understood the frustration behind the vote.

"There is no such thing as that type of leverage, and I don't think that we want to start evaluating planning files based on other positions we have on the other files in the city."

Moffatt and Coun. Rick Chiarelli were the only two councillors to vote in favour of the NCC property rezoning.

NCC reacts

The NCC is reacting to the unexpected council decision much as Moffatt predicted, and says by linking the two unrelated files city council has contravened planning principles. 

"The NCC will now be considering all of its legal options," wrote NCC spokesperson Valérie Dufour in an email to CBC News.

Dufour also added context to the dispute over a proposed Cumberland transitway.

She said the NCC worked extensively with the city on the proposed bus transitway to the east end, and agreed on a route in 2013 next to the current Blackburn Hamlet bypass. The city then studied other routes instead, Dufour wrote, and selected one that travels through NCC lands — without its agreement.