Decoding Five Comments from Council's Château Laurier debate

Thursday, July 11, 2019

CBC NEWS, By Joanne Chianello

The three-year debacle over the controversial addition to the Château Laurier hotel came to a quasi-end late Wednesday afternoon in a split vote, though procedural wrangling means the official finale happens at a special council meeting this afternoon.

During yesterday's two-hour debate, members of council made emotional pleas to stop the project or laid out their reasons why it should go ahead, even though all councillors profess not to like it.

But some of what they said needs a little more explanation — and a touch of fact-checking.

Mayor Jim Watson

"We can't change the rules because we do not agree with the design choice."

The mayor is correct when he says that council can't dictate design, or order owners to change architects — an argument he and others have made numerous times.

However, in the case of a heritage building like the Château, council does have the final say over a design.

Owners of heritage buildings designated under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act must apply to the city for permission to alter their buildings.

It's council that decides whether the changes are allowed to go ahead — it can reject the application, which can ultimately influence the design.

As for the mayor's argument about not changing the rules, a city lawyer did confirm council is legally allowed to change its mind about this approval.

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury

"We gave a political direction to a staff report and it's hard for staff to interpret that political direction. That's why I believe this body is the right one to make the decision on [whether] the intent of the motion passed."

Fleury is referring to last year's ill-fated motion to approve the Château Laurier addition with three caveats, giving the authority to city staff to decide whether those caveats were met.

City staff did what they were explicitly asked to do — they followed the written instructions, which in this case were pretty clear.

They did not try to interpret some sort of secret political meaning imbued in the motion.

The councillor leading the charge to halt the addition — a project he originally and briefly supported — likely meant that council, not staff, should have decided whether the conditions of the original approval were met.

In that case, he would have been better off echoing his colleague Coun. Catherine McKenney's admission that the previous council had "made a mistake," adding: "Do two wrongs make a right? They don't."

Innes Coun. Laura Dudas

"We could end up with a much worse design than what is what is before us today …  As much as I hate the current seven-storey design, I hated the 12-storey box even more."

This scenario is alarming. Except it really isn't true.

If council were to revoke Larco's heritage permit for the extension, the company would likely appeal the decision and win, according to Tim Marc, the city's own planning lawyer.

That potential legal battle could cost taxpayers between $100,000 and $200,000.

At that point, Larco would have to reapply to the city for any new addition, with all the municipal processes that entails.

So sure, the hotel owners could ask for 12 storeys, or even 25, but that application would have to be approved by the built-heritage subcommittee, the planning committee and council.

So if the hotel did manage to get a 12-storey addition, it would be because councillors voted in favour of it.

Orléans Coun. Matthew Luloff

"Who is the authority that issues a heritage permit?"

City staff: Council.

"Under what higher authority?"

City staff: Under the Ontario Heritage Act.

"Could the provincial minister responsible for that piece of legislation revoke a heritage permit?"

City staff: Short answer, no.

"This is an interesting new piece of information."

In one of Wednesday's more puzzling exchanges, Luloff appeared to be trying to get staff to agree that local MPP Lisa MacLeod — the minister responsible for the heritage act — could revoke the Château's heritage certificate, leaving council off the hook.

It's an idea he floated around earlier this week on Twitter, but has since deleted.

He likely should have done a little more research before going down this path publicly.

To be fair, MacLeod could theoretically get involved in the file in other ways, but it would be complex, take a long time and be a highly unusual move that would need to be supported by the premier's office.

Stittsville Coun. Glen Gower

"We've all heard loud and clear from residents that the outcome they want is to stop this addition to the Château Laurier. And I really can't believe some of my colleagues who are continuing to peddle this motion [think it] actually achieves that. It doesn't. At best, we delay construction a few months while Larco goes through an appeals process."

Gower is right on a number of fronts.

The public wants this stopped, and revoking the heritage certificate — something no other municipality appears to have ever done — may not do that.

But the move would delay Larco more than just "a few months."  A court challenge would likely drag on for many months, possibly years.

If the owners were successful, they'd still have to go through the city's planning process again for another addition.

And during this time, perhaps Larco and the city could come up with a new plan that, while unlikely to please everyone, at least doesn't infuriate across the board.

Or at least that's what Coun. Shawn Menard argued to his council colleagues: reject the motion to revoke the Château approval, and it's clear what we'll get.

But we don't know what will happen if council votes for the motion.

"The question around the table is very simply, do you want another fighting chance to make sure that this represents what the residents of Ottawa want, or do you not?"

But it appears that this city council is done fighting for the Château Laurier.