City council on Wednesday was poised to let Larco Investments forge ahead with a controversial, boxy design for a seven-storey addition to the Château Laurier, but after a pair of veteran councillors threatened to delay the issue through the summer, Mayor Jim Watson outmanoeuvred them and won support to end council’s involvement on the file at a special meeting Thursday.
It was clear that the majority of council wasn’t willing to revoke Larco’s heritage permit as requested by Coun. Mathieu Fleury. The permit allows Larco to carry through with the latest design of a $100-million addition planned for the north side of the historic hotel.
Councillors Diane Deans and Rick Chiarelli hatched a plan before the council meeting: if it looked like Fleury was going to lose, they would ask council to reconsider the matter at the next scheduled council meeting on Aug. 28.
But Watson must have been tipped off that Deans and Chiarelli would make a procedural power play, because he had a motion ready to call a special meeting for Thursday afternoon, rather than let the controversy linger over the summer. Most of council supported Watson’s call for the special meeting.
“The vast majority of people, even those on the other side, want some closure to this file,” Watson said after the council meeting.
Deans quipped the mayor probably doesn’t want to address the Château controversy on the “barbecue circuit” this summer.
Watson seems certain the controversy will end up in court anyway.
The upstart Friends of the Château Laurier retained a lawyer to opine on council’s decision this week, but the group hasn’t indicated if they would pursue court action to stop the design.
The initial vote on Fleury’s motion, before the call for reconsideration, was 14-9 against the proposal.
The 14 council members in opposition were Watson, Glen Gower, George Darouze, Jan Harder, Eli El-Chantiry, Rick Chiarelli, Matthew Luloff, Jean Cloutier, Allan Hubley, Jenna Sudds, Laura Dudas, Keith Egli, Scott Moffatt and Tim Tierney.
Voting to rescind the heritage permit were Fleury, Deans, Rawlson King, Shawn Menard, Theresa Kavanagh, Jeff Leiper, Catherine McKenney, Riley Brockington and Carol Anne Meehan.
Coun. Stephen Blais was absent from the meeting.
A vote to reconsider the matter at the next meeting required eight councillors in support and one councillor from the opposing side to move the motion at the next council meeting. That councillor is Chiarelli.
For Deans and Chiarelli, if their plan worked, it could have allowed an extra seven weeks for negotiations with Larco.
However, it appears Larco isn’t interested in more design work.
Watson said he called Larco owner Amin Lalji on Tuesday to see if the company would be willing to come up with a sixth iteration of the addition. According to Watson, Lalji was happy to come to Ottawa for a meeting, but the real estate magnate was clear that the company wouldn’t make any changes.
“After a very thorough discussion, it became clear to me they remain steadfast in their position and are not prepared to invest more time and money on a sixth design,” Watson said.
Larco believes it has met all the municipal and heritage requirements and has gone through the necessary consultations to carry on with its design, Watson said.
Watching a buildup of public opposition over the past two months, Fleury, using a meeting procedure to trigger a vote, forced council to make a ruling on whether the conditions set in June 2018 were satisfied in the latest concept. Fleury is the councillor for Rideau-Vanier ward, home of the Château Laurier.
The city’s legal department has warned council that Larco would likely file a court challenge if its heritage permit was revoked, saddling taxpayers with a six-figure legal bill.
There isn’t much love from council when it comes to the design, even for those who didn’t want to rescind the heritage permit. In fact, no councillor expressed support for the design.
Dudas, who was elected to council last October, said she hates the design — “I think it’s ghastly,” she said — but she couldn’t risk spending taxpayer money on a legal fight when the next design coming out of a legal challenge could be worse.
On the other hand, Leiper said council shouldn’t be scared by the prospect of the city going to court. “We are not beholden to accept the advice provided by our staff, otherwise there is no point to having a city council,” Leiper said. “It could be run by the bureaucrats.”
After the meeting, Dudas, Gower, Luloff and Sudds sent a letter to Larco asking the company to “do the right thing” and withdraw its development application.
“We have rules that we have to follow,” Watson said.
“While the popular thing for me to do would be to play to the crowd and say whatever the loudest person shouts at me gets, that’s not leadership. We have to understand this is a private piece of property. We have no ownership in it. We have a regulatory role to play and I was pleased that council took up that leadership role today.”
Council returns at 2 p.m. Thursday to vote again.
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