Civic hospital process the worst way to get to a fine decision

Whether it’s a new hospital, central library, even a big playground, we can’t seem to stop ourselves from making what should be a good news story into something that ends in bad feelings.

'We are also lucky that the end result has turned out okay despite ourselves': Joanne Chianello

(National Capital Commission)

Russ Mills must certainly be the king of understatement.

After a week of being slapped around by a hospital board, former mayors and even current Mayor Jim Watson, after being accused of secrecy and for not consulting with hospital officials, the National Capital Commission chairman applauded the fact that a new Civic campus appeared destined for the former Sir John Carling site on the Central Experimental Farm.

"We're very pleased with the NCC's involvement in this," Mills told the CBC News, "even though it didn't unfold exactly as planned."

Six months ago, the NCC was given the unenviable task by its boss, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, to wade into the controversial debate over where to build a new Civic campus of the Ottawa Hospital by studying all available federal land in Ottawa's urban core. 

It formulated an open process, it held an open meeting, it consulted with thousands.

On Nov. 24, the NCC's review panel recommended Tunney's Pasture, a surprise choice that its board did not unanimously approve, but a choice that the NCC could certainly defend based on its publicly stated — and board-approved — criteria.

Then, all hell broke loose. Or as Mills puts it, events "didn't unfold exactly as planned."

Unprecedented public pressure campaign

In a move that appeared nothing less than imperious, the hospital's board of governors rejected the offer of free land at Tunney's a mere four days after it was announced. Proponents went on a media blitz arguing this site was terrible for patients and that the NCC didn't consult with them.
Sir John Carling was announced as the preferred site of a new Civic campus of the Ottawa Hospital. The news conference featured Ottawa city councillors, the mayor, as well as federal and provincial Liberals who represent Ottawa ridings. (CBC)

And, by the way, they mentioned they would be okay with the Sir John Carling site.

During this unprecedented public pressure campaign, no one from the hospital board took up the NCC's offer to meet to discuss the recommendation (which was just that — a recommendation, not a decision on where the Civic would be located).  Nor did the board ask to meet with Joly's office to make its case.

Instead, they chose a political route that worked very well indeed. 

On Friday, Kitts and hospital board chair James McCracken stood outside Watson's office flanked by a crowd of Liberal MPs, MPPs and various councillors, all proclaiming their support for the Sir John Carling site.

Shortly thereafter, Joly's office announced she had approved the new site.

NCC perplexed about Tunney's backlash

Of all the incredible things said in the last week, the most amazing is surely that the NCC didn't consult with the hospital.

After a few days of silence on the issue, Watson slammed the NCC for its secrecy and for having "precious little contact with the hospital."

Mills was stunned by that statement. The NCC met more than 20 times with the hospital, and the CEOs of both organizations had seven different discussions.
Russ Mills said he's proud of the NCC's role in selecting a site for a new Civic campus, 'even though it didn't unfold exactly as planned.' ((CBC))

"The hospital knew what we were doing," Mills said. "And if the hospital wanted to bring any concerns forward, we would have been very happy to hear them because we wanted to make the most informed decision we could."

But when hospital folks complained they weren't "consulted," what they're really complaining about was that they didn't get to weigh in on the Tunney's recommendation before the NCC finalized the report.

As for the immediate backlash against Tunney's, the NCC seems perplexed. 

Although Tunney's was never among the hospital's top choices in its previous reports, Mills said "they never made any negative comments about Tunney's at all" throughout the process.

At Friday's news conference, Kitts confirmed that, saying he believed Tunney's was off the table.

It's unclear why. Perhaps because there was already a long-term master plan for Tunney's Pasture, although this surely would not be the first time a plan-on-paper was changed. And considering the federal government earlier this year asked for Tunney's to be included in a land review for the hospital, it's hard to see why the hospital would assume the NCC wasn't seriously considering it.

NCC improved farm option

The Sir John Carling site, about 20 hectares of land on the farm that sits southwest of the intersection of Carling Avenue and Preston Street, is a decent location for a new hospital — although not without its challenges.

The property is irregularly shaped and terraced whereas the hospital preferred a square or rectangular piece of flat land (one reason Tunney's had scored higher with the NCC). There's a moderate-risk fault line there.

Part of the parcel of land within the boundaries of the Sir John Carling site, which includes existing buildings and original pathways for the Central Experimental Farm. (Roger Dubois/CBC News)

These challenges can be overcome, but may add costs to the construction.

And without the NCC's efforts, this site would not have worked for the hospital. 

In discussions with the hospital, the NCC redrew the property boundaries so that the Dominion Conservatory and many other heritage buildings are saved, leaving the hospital to deal with just one structure. 

To make up for lost land, the NCC will transfer its parking lot at Carling and Preston — the one we all use when skating at Dow's Lake or going to the Tulip Festival — to the hospital.

The fact that the NCC and hospital had discussions on shifting things around at the Sir John Carling site may have led some to assume that was the site the NCC would recommend.

In fact, the Sir John Carling site was the de facto second choice of the review panel, said NCC CEO Mark Kristmanson.

"The panel felt strongly you could build a beautiful hospital on this site," he said. "The terracing, the views, nestled into Arboretum, adjacent to the farm, to Dow's Lake — it has a great potential as a place of wellness."

Decent decision, terrible process

Kristmanson points out that Ottawa is lucky to have two such great options in the inner city for a new hospital. He should have added "free" to that description, something that the hospital board seems to gloss over in its demands for what it wants, when it wants it.

We are also lucky that the end result has turned out okay despite ourselves. Because this is surely the worst process to decide where to build a major hospital, a significant piece of infrastructure that will have implications on the city at large for generations to come.

This has been a controversial issue because the hospital negotiated for land in secret with the previous federal government. And it refused to have any public consultations until after the land — a contentious location on the farm that includes research fields — was already transferred.

That didn't work out so well.

If we had begun in 2010 with the public process that started six months ago, we might have landed in the same spot, but would be years ahead.

But then again, whether it's a new hospital, central library, even a big playground, we can't seem to stop ourselves from making what should be a good news story into something that ends in bad feelings. 


Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

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