Flats on the Flats

In the spring, ground will be broken for the first phase of construction of the LeBreton Flats redevelopment project, 860 dwelling units on 75 acres to the west of Parliament Hill. The site, a renegade egg-shaped landmass at the foot of a limestone cliff, extends northward into the Ottawa River. Until recently, it housed a campground, was used for snow storage, and has also hosted a variety of functions like festivals, protests, and in 1984, a papal mass.

LeBreton Flats’ textured built fabric comprised of row houses, small industrial buildings and rail yards was razed between 1962 and 1965 following expropriations, to make room for “Pentagon North,” an elaborate federal compound that was never built. 2,800 people were relocated to other parts of the city in the process. Phil Jenkins’ An Acre of Time tells the story of the Flats vividly.1

Except for a residential development south of Albert Street built in the late 1970s, the National Capital Commission (NCC) was unsuccessful at negotiating an agreement about what to do on the newly cleared 165 acres. Yves Gosselin, who directed the LeBreton project at the NCC from 1989 to 1996, managed to get the concerned parties–namely the Federal Government, the City of Ottawa, the Regional Municipality, and the public–to agree on a vision that resurrected the previous street grid, reweaving the fabric with a medium-density mixed-use neighbourhood and ceremonial and residential zones in place of the exclusively governmental compound initially proposed.2 In subsequent years, NCC Property Development Director Peter McCourt oversaw work on a detailed master plan and guideline document. In keeping with the preoccupation to make LeBreton more stately that caused it to be razed in the first place, the master plan strongly emphasized view corridors toward Parliament and the notion of a “gateway to the capital core.” Guided by “new urbanism,” the guidelines stated their aim of creating a homogeneous, pedestrian-oriented, densely implanted “family of buildings” engaged with the street. Their virtue lay in the density and urban qualities proposed.

The recent decision to locate a new building for the Canadian War Museum on LeBreton Flats made the rebuilding of a community there once again plausible. The process of implementing extensive and costly soil decontamination along with building new infrastructure to support the new museum will now be extended to support a new housing district for the area.3

In 2004, the NCC invited developer-architect teams to submit letters of interest. The project’s complexities were so great that after the NCC selected three finalists from a list of six submissions, only one team ultimately submitted a proposal. The collaborative submission by Montreal firms of Dan S. Hanganu Architects and Daoust Lestage Inc. with Claridge Homes Corporation of Ottawa, provided the first glimpses of domestic life to occur on the Flats in more than 40 years.

The master plan reiterates the site’s historical duality (humble in its worker vocation, yet noble in geographic position), dividing LeBreton into two distinct domains circumscribed by their respective topographical edges and a major six-lane axial boulevard. The northern sector, adjacent to the river, is a federal zone with public institutions and parks. The southern sector comprises a municipal zone for residential and commercial use. Here, the plan introduces to Ottawa the perimeter block courtyard formation of four to six storeys supplemented with elevated towers that rise an additional seven storeys. NCC guidelines specify such critical architectural controls as building volumes, setbacks, build-to lines, heights and materials. These deliberate restrictions–the NCC was determined that the process yield a buildable project–meant less innovation of site plan and apartment layouts. Dan Hanganu states that “it would have been preferable to develop the housing and master plan simultaneously.” This way, he explains, exterior space and landscape and the question of habitat–“poetry, spatial proportion, transparency, cross ventilation, orientation, and the manipulation of the square inch”–could have driven the project.

LeBreton Flats is a compromise, but one with many virtues. The Hanganu-Daoust Lestage collaborative scheme elegantly responds to the NCC’s mandate and to the site’s astounding topography. Worked out with Montreal panache, the scheme proposes a delicate play of transparency and solidity with more glass towards the green edges, and more masonry facing the streets. What is more, the scheme picks up on all the cues to public space built into the master plan, and expands upon them. Block 1, the easternmost cluster of dwellings, is a case in point. With 278 units, Block 1 declares its identity as a reconciliatory building asked to define a strong street edge (Lett Street) while also addressing the softer edge of the tailrace and forested ravine running along its eastern flank. The architects’ rendition of Block 1 reverses the NCC master plan by orienting the open edge of the perimeter block courtyard formation towards the park. The plan also widens this opening by eliminating ten units, to allow the public realm to extend slightly further into the Flats’ interior. Portes-cochre pierce the volumes so that courtyards can be glimpsed from the streets and bicycle paths. The developers’ choice to favour smaller apartments between 600 and 1,000 square feet in combination with the predetermined 20-metre-wide footprints have placed constraints on design possibilities for the units, explains Tom Schweitzer of Hanganu Architects. Despite this, Block 1 includes a number of interesting experiments in types and mixes of types. Two-storey units are proposed on the ground floor with double-loaded corridor apartments on the third through sixth floors.

The sensitivity of the designers is made evident in the site plan, which treats the landscape as an integral part of the scheme and proposes a dramatic ground-lighting pattern and a necklace of public art used to imbue a public character to the site. Rene Daoust of Daoust Lestage Inc., describes how she and her design team were struck by the site’s stratified topography and the presence of stone buildings around the site; industrial buildings like the Fleet Street pumping station (1888) still pumps water up the escarpment to the city of Ottawa to this day, and contrasts with the formality of the Parliament buildings. The architects interpreted the site as a game of tug-of-war between “mineral” and “vegetal” surfaces. The mineral surfaces are alternately the dominant material, consolidating into larger surfaces for the public areas (Canal Square, Pooley’s Bridge) or the receding material; in the semi-private courtyards and in the forested public park zones, indigenous plantings are given pre-eminence. Referencing LeBreton’s pre-industrial memory, the scheme requires the landscape narrative to handle transitions between residential and public areas.

Although it’s fair to ask whether a public park might not have been the only appropriate gesture given how the Flats made its way into the public domain, Ottawa undoubtedly needs well-considered urban residential neighbourhoods. The question becomes whether the new development can retain a public character that appropriately marks the site’s past significance and its public nature in the present, or will it simply install itself into the city as a well-behaved upscale insular district, of concern only to those who live there?

Past occupants like Baker and Dubinsky Barrels and Drums, Ottawa Boiler and Steel Works, or Duke’s Tavern will not find a place in this genteel environment. But the sensitively designed compact settlement with its considered private, semi-public and public gardens, provides a worthy commemoration of the lost neighbourhood in that it constitutes an attempt to create a responsible model for urban living at a time when no noticeable curtailment of suburban expansion is anywhere to be seen in this city. The best commemoration would be that LeBreton Flats, wi
th its housing, neighbouring park and museum (and another institution in the future), become a vital district in its own right. But under economic pressures (the affordable housing component, larger units for families, and the landscape scheme are all vulnerable to simplifications and cutbacks) will it, in the end, provide the template for a full urban life? Much now is left in the hands of the developers, their degree of commitment to the quality of the project’s execution, and to the NCC’s vigilant monitoring. If this first phase is realized in accordance with the NCC plan as refined by Hanganu-Daoust Lestage, the Flats could become a much-needed role model for urban development in Ottawa. The NCC might then be more open to the kinds of innovations that emerge from a less directive, and indeed more visionary approach in the project’s subsequent phases.

Janine Debann is Associate Professor at the Carleton University School of Architecture.

1 Jenkins, Phil. An Acre of Time: The Enduring Value of Place. Macfarlane Walter & Ross,1996, p. 185. Jenkins’ text includes the descriptive quote of Public Works Minister David J. Walker speaking to the LeBreton crowd in 1962: “It simply didn’t make sense that there should be Parliament Hill here and directly to the west, this incredible eyesore.”

2 At issue were the local and regional road right-of-ways from the previous street grid that criss-crossed the site. Gosselin directed several design charrettes in consultation with the public, and during those years, he explains, it was about “keeping everyone in the tent.”

3 The NCC has invested $40 million for soil decontamination for the first phase of LeBreton Flats (area north of the open aqueduct), and further spent $3 million on drainage, irrigation, service road, and landscaping for the festival park adjacent to the War Museum, and an additional $1.2 million on the 20-acre (8 hectares) Riverfront Park.