Ottawa·Analysis

Why RendezVous won — and why DevCore lost — the LeBreton bid

Too many question marks about financing — and some inferior planning decisions — landed DevCore Canderel's in second place.

NCC will likely be asking for some changes to the winning proposal

Eugene Melnyk, seen here speaking with CBC Ottawa news anchor Adrian Harewood, could soon move the Ottawa Senators downtown after the National Capital Commission announced his group's bid was the preferred choice. (CBC)

It was an exciting, if tense, moment Thursday afternoon in the Elgin Street boardroom of the National Capital Commission when we finally heard that the Senators-backed RendezVous Group earned a higher mark on the 140-point scorecard than Devcore Canderel DLS Group in their bids to redevelop LeBreton Flats.

But that fleeting thrill was quickly overcome by a seemingly unending list of questions: What happens now? (More secret talks.) When will this all happen? (Not for a long time.) How much will all this cost? (A lot — $3.5 billion, says Sens owner Eugene Melnyk.) And who's going to pay for it? (Stay tuned.)

And yet, the first question asked was how?

How did the Sens bid beat DCDLS?

More financial viability

When you re-listen to the presentation given at the NCC on Wednesday, or read the pros and cons highlights of both bids posted on the NCC's website, it appears the DCDLS Group didn't score as highly in the financial viability categories for their public-use anchors. They had proposed a number of attractions, such as a Canadian Broadcasting Centre, a brewery museum, a botanical garden walkway and a striking central library.

The problem was that DCDLS didn't appear to have any confirmed tenants. For example, while Molson's had privately told the consortium it was interested in a museum, the beer conglomerate told the media in no uncertain terms that it was not an official part of the bid. 

The DCDLS Group proposed an exhibition space to house antique and contemporary car collections, but many disliked the idea. (Image supplied by Devcore, Canderel and DLS Group)

The only anchor with a confirmed tenant was the automotive museum, which the public really seemed to dislike.

The selection committee would have liked to see "more supportive information on the financial viability of the public anchor uses."

Now, the jury used similar language for the RendezVous bid when it came to that group's public anchors of an Abilities Centre and SensPlex. But the Sens group also seemed to benefit from the fact that they have built SensPlexes before (although not on the scale proposed for LeBreton) and that an Abilities Centre has already been established in Whitby, Ont., showing that these are "proven models."

And RendezVous likely scored higher due to the fact the Sens was "an existing viable entity," which would be the major tenant of the arena.

So did RendezVous win because it was the Senators' team? In a sense, yes. But not because the five-member selection committee was bowing to some sort of public pressure. (In fact, it's not clear from the public consultation report that the public even liked the idea of an arena being the focal point of the site.)

But RendezVous scored higher because the Sens are a confirmed tenant for one of the three public anchors (and the other two sound doable).

Better planning, sustainability

Despite the fact RendezVous' plan for an arena in the centre of the site means it will be 500 metres from either Pimisi or Bayview LRT stations — while Devcore Canderel's group proposed connecting their arena directly to Bayview station — the jury preferred the placement in the RendezVous plan. The selection team believes the events centre (with a promised 170 events a year) and adjacent large public square could bring "civic life" back to the area.

The RendezVous LeBreton proposal moves the Ottawa Senators hockey franchise to a new downtown arena with a public space called LeBreton Square right outside. (RendezVous LeBreton Group)

The committee also liked the way RendezVous' build out was divided into distinct sections, with flow-through streets and a plan to cover the LRT tracks, all of which promise to make the flats more walkable and bicycle-friendly. The jury also applauded the proposal to certify large buildings LEED Gold, install a green roof on the arena, and, in particular, include affordable housing (with official bid partner Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corp.).

This all added to the "social sustainability" of the site.

On the other hand, the jury didn't like that all the public anchors in the DCDLS bid were grouped together apart from residences and shops. It criticized the plan's huge city blocks that would hinder the walkability of the area (although fewer streets would reduce the presence of cars).

The selection committee also noted the light-rail tracks act as a barrier to pedestrians travelling north-south. It liked DCDLS's non-anchor uses like a YMCA, student and senior housing, a grocery store and elementary school, but still felt "the proposal would have benefited from a firmer commitment to sustainability standards."

Changes likely to current proposal

For those of us who were surprised that RendezVous came out on top, the biggest question is how a proposal largely centred around an events centre fits the bill for "an anchor worthy of national significance," to quote the NCC's own request for proposals.

Kristmanson didn't exactly answer that when asked by CBC reporter Kate Porter, but acknowledged the public was divided on wanting something of a greater national stature than a hockey arena, or having LeBreton Flats re-integrated into the surrounding neighbourhood.

Mark Kristmanson, head of the National Capital Commission, says the RendezVous proposal can be "pushed" in negotiations to be more nationally significant. "I'll be looking for ways to lift that national prominence." (CBC)

"I think this proposal through negotiation can be pushed both ways — to raise its national importance and to make it ... a real part of the Centretown urban fabric," said Kristmanson.

"I'll be looking for ways to lift that national prominence."

Well, that'll be interesting. 

Kristmanson's comments give us an indication about just how difficult — and long — these negotiations will be. (The NCC board is expecting an update in November.)

Other changes the NCC will be asking for? Likely less housing and less retail, as the committee complained there was too much of each. But these are also the money-making parts of the plan, so it's far from clear how viable it is to reduce these elements.

Taxpayers on the hook?

There are still a lot of unanswered — unasked, even — questions about who will pay for what.

Social media is abuzz with folks worried (or warning) that we'll be shelling out money to the Sens for this project. It is unlikely there's political appetite for a direct handout to a professional sports organization. But what about some sort of property tax deal? Former Sens owner Rod Bryden negotiated one with the city back in 2000, so it has been done.

From right, Melnyk, Ottawa Senators alternate governor Ken Villazor and Sens president Cyril Leeder huddle before the NCC announced its evaluation committee's top choice for redeveloping LeBreton Flats. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

How about soil remediation? The city has a program that pays for half of dirty-soil clean-up costs. In fact, council just approved shelling out $15 million to remediate the former Oblates land in Old Ottawa East. Will we be on the hook for millions and millions for LeBreton?

The jury loved RendezVous's idea to cover the LRT tracks with a roadway. How will that work, considering that light rail is expected to be completed in 2018, well before this deal is even finalized? Would covering the LRT be technically feasible at that point? And would the city have to incur any costs? The same two questions apply to RendezVous' plans for the Heritage Aqueduct.

It appears the NCC was definitely right about at least one thing: this is just the beginning of a long, long process.

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.

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