Viewpoint (July 01, 2010)

On June 28th, Ottawa City Council voted in favour of proceeding with the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park. The plan includes the refurbishment of a crumbling stadium and an outdated civic centre, the establishment of a large urban park that is currently a sea of asphalt, and a mix of commercial, residential and retail functions. The proposal became highly controversial late last year, largely due to a political process severely lacking in transparency (see CA, December 2009, p. 8). To protect the interests of all stakeholders–private developers, the City of Ottawa, and community groups–a conservancy should have been established for Lansdowne Park from the very beginning. Instead, a series of potentially conflicting agreements and a lack of vision will likely threaten private- and public-sector interests over the long term.

When the controversial plan to develop everything except the urban park was unveiled last winter, the City of Ottawa undertook considerable damage control to repair its reputation as a municipality accused of disposing valuable public assets through uncompetitive, sole-source procurement processes. As the public grew increasingly distrustful of the proposal known as Lansdowne Live–a partnership between the City and a group of investors known as the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG)–the City stepped forward to minimize the public controversy.

Despite the City’s efforts, it is unlikely that the series of events over the past year will produce anything more than an expedient stadium refurbishment, a banal mixed-use retail development, and a lacklustre urban park whose future is uncertain, despite the honest attempt to hold a design competition. This competition was one of the outcomes of a City-established Strategic Design Review and Advisory Panel in which five teams were invited to compete for the urban park. The winning scheme, led by Vancouver landscape architecture firm Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, was announced in early June and–bound together with OSEG’s revised design for the stadium and mixed-use facility–sent off to City Council for approval.

The lack of a strong direction for the site is not the fault of the developers, but rather of the City’s failure to establish an overarching body politic to oversee the park’s redevelopment. Commissioning a transportation study and issuing a separate RFP for the design, construction, operation and financing of an exposition hall and trade show facility to be opened by September 2011 will only add to further conflict and confusion. Another reason for concern is that the City’s partnership with the National Capital Commission and the Parks Canada Agency for the creation of an urban park lacks clear phasing and financing strategies. With work on the stadium and mixed-use area to be completed as early as 2013, a disjuncture in the overall vision for Lansdowne Park seems inevitable.

Adding to the Lansdowne controversy, OSEG should be worried about strengthening support from the public and the City of Ottawa, instead of focusing on Ottawa Citizen journalist Maria Cook. Cook has devoted considerable energy to discussing the future of Lansdowne Park in the newspaper, as well as other urban design and planning issues. She even created and managed her own blog called Designing Ottawa. But after posting critical comments about Lansdowne Park, the Citizen unceremoniously shut her down by pulling her off the urban affairs beat and suspending her blog. The Citizen has since replaced Cook’s reporting with less-than-critical news coverage of the Lansdowne redevelopment. Vindication for Cook came in the form of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s 2010 President’s Award for Architectural Journalism this past June at their annual conference in Saskatoon. The annual award recognizes “excellence in the coverage of an architectural issue or idea.” At least the architectural profession values constructive and open criticism.

While much has been done to salvage the redevelopment proposal, a coherent vision for the site that adequately balances the interests of the City, OSEG and the general public is still lacking. Silencing journalistic and public dissent will not improve the future health of Lansdowne Park.

Ian Chodikoff