City council could neuter itself on Wednesday as Ottawa’s watchdog for heritage properties when it considers kicking the final design responsibility for the Château Laurier’s controversial addition to municipal bureaucrats.
Planning committee on Tuesday didn’t make much fuss about the application to build a seven-storey contemporary addition on the back of the historic hotel.
Maybe it’s because the built-heritage subcommittee gave councillors a political gift last week by recommending city staff and Larco Investments, the hotel owner, have another crack at the design before sending the final concept to the city’s planning general manager for approval.
In a municipal election year, no one on the planning committee was complaining about a move to let city staff make the ultimate decision on one of the hottest development files in the past two years.
One person who addressed the planning committee raised a concern with the sign-off approach.
“It’s our firm belief that Ottawa city council should exercise its full authority under the Ontario Heritage Act by considering all iterations of this significant and historic application,” Heritage Ottawa’s David Jeanes said.
But nothing changed in the recommendation going to council Wednesday, and no one on the planning committee had questions for Larco’s design team, which was in the gallery waiting to be called upon if necessary.
Even the number of delegates who presented to planning committee — a grand total of five — could be an indication of where a hotel addition in a tourist district fits in the priorities of the average Ottawa resident. Many people might have an opinion on aesthetics, but it doesn’t matter so much that it requires attendance at city hall during a work day.
There’s a good chance that Larco was on an easy track to having its latest design approved up until the built-heritage subcommittee meeting on June 18. Sensing that the application could breeze through city hall, Coun. Tobi Nussbaum and Barry Padolsky — the chair and vice-chair of the built-heritage subcommittee, respectively — crafted the recommendation that will be in front of council Wednesday.
The recommendation calls for the approval of the application as long as city staff work with Larco on giving more Château-like features to the addition, such as more limestone and similar geometric proportions, and breaking up the north-facing wall to make it less imposing when viewed from Major’s Hill Park.
If that’s undertaken to the satisfaction of planning general manager Stephen Willis, the design will be final.
There’s no requirement in the recommendation to open the fifth, and possibly final, concept to consultation. To this point, the public has been heavily involved in the design process, with open houses and websites collecting feedback on the versions, forcing Larco and the city to hold off on bringing a final application to council.
A site plan, which will explain how the building would be situated on the property and how it would function, would be reviewed by the built-heritage subcommittee and planning committee at a later time, when Larco is ready [but city staff will have final approval, so the review would give committee members an opportunity only to comment on any resulting revisions to the current design].
City staff, of course, have backed the latest iteration of the addition.
However, councillors have heard strong objections from heritage groups like Heritage Ottawa and National Historic Sites Alliance, plus the commentary from average citizens about how the proposed addition just doesn’t fit with the historic hotel.
On the other hand, Parks Canada, the steward of the Rideau Canal and waterway’s vistas, doesn’t find the latest concept offensive. The National Capital Commission hasn’t made a peep.
What council won’t know is how the design work will play out behind closed doors after Wednesday.
Larco’s architects have a design they firmly believe would set a contemporary addition in modern time — one that includes subtle nods to the historic parent building — without detracting from the castle-like hotel. They won over the city bureaucracy, which, if council has an affirmative vote Wednesday, would be tasked with pushing the architects to add more of what politicians want.
The latest design for the addition includes 164 long-stay rooms and meeting rooms, with public access to a courtyard from a terrace overlooking the Rideau Canal, taking the place of a parking structure currently under demolition. Hotel parking would be built underground. Nothing would change with the current 426-room hotel, which was built between 1908 and 1912.