A prime piece of land that sat vacant for 40 years on the banks of the Ottawa River is undergoing a rebirth, with a federal agency at the helm. The historic LeBreton Flats, on the fringes of downtown, is being redeveloped into a master-planned neighbourhood that is already becoming a sought-after address in the capital city. 'I’m five minutes to everywhere I want to be,' says Jennifer Blake, one of the first residents to move into the development's first condo towers, shown at left side of photo. 'I work from home, so any time during the day I can stop, take a break and go take a look at my beautiful view.' (Photo courtesy National Capital Commission)

Historic slice of Ottawa River waterfront is home again
as National Capital Commission guides LeBreton Flats rebirth

News Archive BY GARY MAY
An agency of the federal government is being hailed for setting the standard for urban renewal in Canada with a project that is slowly turning once-heavily contaminated fields into a much sought-after, mixed-use waterfront community, not far from the nation’s nerve centre.  

LeBreton Flats stood empty for 40 years on the banks of the Ottawa River just west of Parliament Hill. And while the 140-acre redevelopment project has not been without its critics, the vision for a neighbourhood that combines the elements of new urbanism with public institutions, and which links up with the city’s historic waterfront, has begun to take shape.  

Recently, an Ottawa newspaper columnist lamented that “we hide our rivers and canals like state secrets.” Rather than celebrating the city’s prime waterfront location, he wrote, planners have forced people to make a special effort to get to the Ottawa River.  

The National Capital Commission, the Crown corporation responsible for overseeing federal lands and buildings in the Ottawa region, is helping to change all of that as it reinvents the city’s historic LeBreton Flats.  

It moved a scenic roadway back away from the river to allow for construction of the stylish new Canadian War Museum and green space, giving people a chance to get close to the water. And, after holding a design competition, it selected a plan for a mixed-use, neighbourhood on the river that includes affordable housing and retail and commercial space, all on the fringe of the city’s downtown.  

The downtown will be linked to the Flats through “the new Wellington Street,” a four-lane boulevard that will feature ample room for cyclists, wide sidewalks, trees and benches.  

After studying the design, a blogging architect wrote this about LeBreton Flats: “Any city in Canada looking at brownfields redevelopment should really look at this plan carefully. This project is an excellent example of Canadian re-urbanism, and will probably do a lot to define how future infill and brownfield projects are dealt with in this country.”  

Echoes of coureurs des bois

Already, as part of the redevelopment plan, the NCC has created Riverside Park, featuring a recreational and interpretive pathway running north and west from the war museum along the Ottawa River. The pathway offers magnificent views of the storied waterway, which was instrumental in opening up Canada’s interior to the fur trade. Generations of coureurs des bois have plied its waters and portaged its many rapids.  

The interpretive displays spread along the pathway recount the role of the Ottawa River and the lumber industry in developing the Flats. Another display describes the landscape within which the museum is set.   Future displays are planned along a pathway that will loop the entire Flats neighbourhood. In unveiling the project, the NCC said: “This project … will enhance the redevelopment vision of creating an urban community in the core of the capital, where people can live, work, learn and play. This new interpretive exhibit … takes visitors through history, using three-dimensional sculptural elements, images of the 19th and 20th centuries and text.”  

The first new residents began moving in to the new LeBreton Flats in the summer of 2008. The developer that won the contract to work with the NCC is Claridge Homes, which has completed 130 apartment condos and many are already occupied. Claridge has applied for permits to begin construction of another 166 units, which will complete Phase 1 of the project.  

Future housing will be built around courtyards and along a grid of streets that will spread out west and south of Block 1. Ultimately, long-term plans are for the construction of 2,500 housing units.  

One of the early arrivals, in November 2008, was Jennifer Blake, who enjoys a spectacular view from her eighth-floor condo of the city’s downtown, the river, the parkway, museum and Gatineau Hills across the river in Quebec.  

Blake was born in Ottawa’s Centretown and says she wanted to get “reconnected” with the city that has always been her home. “I’m five minutes to everywhere I want to be,” she tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “I work from home, so any time during the day I can stop, take a break and go take a look at my beautiful view.  

“I like to walk, to be outside. I ride my bike everywhere. I’m close to Chinatown, the Byward Market, the NAC (National Arts Centre). I see lots of people walking along the parkway, lots of cyclists.”  

Earlier in the day that Blake spoke to MyNewWaterfrontHome.com, she looked out her window and watched a “stunning” ceremony taking place at the war museum. Cannon were fired; participants were dressed in colourful uniforms.  

“It was all happening right outside my floor-to-ceiling windows,” she says.   Down four floors lives Peter Davison, who moved to Ottawa from Quebec City and, while searching around for the ideal location, quickly fell for LeBreton Flats. He, too, moved into his new condo in November 2008.  

“I was attracted to being close to downtown, with views to the north (over the Ottawa River and Gatineau Hills) and over the city to the east,” he says.  

Davison has become fascinated by the kayakers who have a club along the river and who are planning to build a new clubhouse near the water pumping station located near his home. In fact, he’s thinking of joining. “I’d love to get out onto the river,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com.  

He can walk to his job with the federal government in 20 minutes and says he loves the proximity of the festivals that are held in the Flats green space. And he’s finding his new place is a popular one with out-of-town visitors, who are equally entranced by his fabulous new location.  

Neighbourhood rebuilt after Great Fire of 1900

While things are looking rosy for LeBreton Flats now, the neighbourhood has endured a checkered past. Named for Capt. John LeBreton, who bought the land in the hopes of making a quick profit from the Rideau Canal construction — he lost out when the canal went farther east — it grew up in the latter days of the 19th century as a rag-tag amalgam of lumber mills, railway tracks, warehouses, taverns and hotels, lumber barons’ mansions, modest working-class homes and boarding houses.  

When the Great Fire of 1900 jumped the Ottawa River from its genesis in Hull, Quebec, it levelled the frame buildings of LeBreton Flats before burning itself out against the limestone cliffs of Nanny Goat Hill, south of Wellington Street. (History has it that the cliffs were so named because the priests of nearby St. Jean Baptiste Church let their goats loose to graze on its steep slopes.)  

A newspaper story of the day claimed that the cliff was “the only thing which stopped the whole city of Ottawa from becoming a prey to the fire.”  

After the fire, the lumber barons relocated above the escarpment and built some of the city’s finest early mansions in what is now known as Centretown, while the taverns, warehouses and middle-class rowhouses were rebuilt of brick.  

A smattering of those early-20th century brick rowhouses in the region of Lower Lorne Avenue offer a glimpse of what that rebuilt community looked like. But most of the property was expropriated in the early 1960s when the federal government went looking for space to grow. Nearly 3,000 people were relocated as their homes were bought and torn down.  

Then, faced with the gargantuan task of cleaning up the soil contaminated by years of industrial use, the government changed its mind about building there and the land sat, little used, for the next four decades. Over that time, a campground occupied a small portion of the property, while the occasional large outdoor event was held on its grounds, including the 1984 mass celebrated by then-pope John Paul II.  

During its 40 years in purgatory, snow scraped from city streets was hauled to the Flats, runoff from which every spring and summer contributed to soil contamination. Much of the topsoil had to be trucked away and replaced before reconstruction could begin.  

Plans for redeveloping the flats were complicated by the number of property holders, which included the federal government, the former regional municipality of Ottawa-Carleton and the pre-amalgamation city of Ottawa. To accommodate a unified plan of action, it was decided to consolidate title for all the lands in the hands of the National Capital Commission.  

The lands were cleaned up and finally, by 2005, LeBreton was ready to be built upon once more.   The new LeBreton Flats plan incorporates many elements of the new urbanism concept: a walkable community that marries mid-density housing with courtyards and rooftop gardens, bicycle paths, public transit, parks, nearby commercial and retail space and public institutions.  

Landscaping elements such as trees, hedges and grade changes buffer different uses from one another and will provide a sense of privacy for those who will live in the rowhouses that will be built over the course of years. While only the first block has been built, also planned are a series of mid-rise apartments and condo apartments, featuring floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the river and the Gatineau Hills beyond, and boasting eco-friendly, LEED-certified construction.  

The city’s planned light-rail route will pass through the Flats.   Public meeting places in the Flats already offer a fine venue for Ottawa’s signature Bluesfest and smaller gatherings and festivals. A national firefighters memorial, designed by Vancouver artist Douglas Coupland, has been commissioned and will be unveiled in September 2012.  

Parliament, downtown shops, restaurants at your doorstep

LeBreton Flats is not a grand, exclusive residential enclave, but rather an attractive, democratic address that is quickly turning into one of Ottawa’s most sought-after middle-class neighbourhoods, according to real estate agents. Not only does it sport a waterfront location, it’s close to Parliament Hill, the shopping and entertainment of Bank, Elgin and Sparks streets and the famous Byward Market.  

Recent resale condo prices started in the $400,000s. That might seem high by the standards of smaller Ontario communities, but remember, they are influenced by a combination of the robust Ottawa market and their waterfront location.  

There’s plenty of opportunity to savour public space in The Flats. The Canadian War Museum stands as an anchor overlooking the river, its avant-garde design providing an attractive spot to which to walk and bicycle. During the warm months, part of the Ottawa River Parkway, which runs through LeBreton Flats, is shut down on Sunday mornings to become the exclusive domain of pedestrians and dog-walkers, cyclists and in-line skaters.  

Also, Victoria and Chaudière islands, situated off LeBreton Flats in the Ottawa River, are historically significant. The NCC hopes some day to integrate them into the overall concept and take advantage of their mixed historical, recreational and commercial opportunities.  

The islands have long been coveted, starting back in the time of French planner Jacques Gréber, who in the 1930s was hired by the federal government to create a master plan that would help turn Ottawa into a world-class capital city. The islands have been identified in the NCC long-term plan as a link from LeBreton to the Quebec city of Gatineau.  

“The NCC does not own the islands,” says commission spokesman Mario Tremblay, and it doesn’t have the funding to acquire them. The NCC still does not have firm plans for the sites but, in concept, Tremblay says it envisions giving residents and visitors access to the islands and creating a link from the south shore to the north shore of the river.  

“Walkways on the islands, elevated viewing areas for the falls, interpretation centre, a renovated mill, lookouts, footbridges and a floating dock (are) envisioned,” he says.  

Further details are expected as part of the NCC’s upcoming Horizon 2067 exercise, which is to be launched in the next few months.      

The Flats’ riverfront was once the site of the E.B. Eddy paper mill, land later taken over by Domtar. With industry moving out, the hope is that the Chaudière Falls, which has been all but hidden from view by industrial buildings, will be opened up to the public, adding a dramatic flair to the landscape.  

A work in progress

The hope also is that the old buildings that sit on the islands, and the falls, will be transformed into a major tourist attraction. Its potential has been compared to that of Vancouver’s Granville Island. Victoria Island is said to be the ideal spot for an aboriginal centre, lookouts, footbridges and a floating quay. The islands’ industrial buildings could be used as an interpretive centre.  

The area is steeped in history. After it was a First Nations campground and portage, Philemon Wright, the American who founded the former city of Hull, Que., built a mill at the falls in the early 1800s.  

Progress at The Flats is occurring a little slower than many would wish. “We are still in Phase 1,” says Tremblay. That includes cleanup of the contaminated soil, the war museum and the infrastructure to accommodate the first part of the mixed-use community, he says. It has also included the new Riverside Park and interpretive pathway, as well as LeBreton Park on the south lawn of the museum.  

As well, Wellington and Fleet streets have been built.  

The big disappointment for residents is that the promised street-level activities are still to be developed, and none too soon for resident Peter Davison. “I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “What we need now is those shops and bars and restaurants they’ve been talking about.”  

LeBreton Flats is a work in progress and officials admit it will be a while yet before there’s a critical mass of retail, commercial and entertainment activities there. The NCC’s Tremblay says those services will come once the population increase warrants them.  

But the work has begun and, after years of indecision and quarrelling, LeBreton Flats is set to take its place as Ottawa’s most special waterfront feature.  

MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — October 2010