Denley: Keep it simple, Ottawa Council – vote against the current Château Laurier addition

Photo via Ottawa Citizen

Tuesday, July 9, 2019


For members of Ottawa Council, Wednesday’s vote on the much-maligned addition to the Château Laurier is not about architecture, or process or lawsuits; it’s about their own credibility.

Just over a year ago, the last city council made a stupid decision, and did it unanimously. Even though the proposed modern addition to the château had already been a hot topic and had been rejected multiple times, councillors decided the perfect solution would be to approve the next version sight unseen, subject to a few vague conditions. They delegated the job of making sure those conditions had been met to city planning staff.

What could go wrong? As we now know, pretty much everything. The latest version of the addition clearly doesn’t pass the critical “Is it ugly?” test in the eyes of the public, although some architects say they like it. God bless them.

Now, councillors find themselves in a box and the fact that most of them put themselves there doesn’t make it any better. Their choice is to fix their mistake, or pretend they haven’t made it.

There is a possible way out. Coun. Mathieu Fleury is leading the charge to have the heritage permit for the addition revoked. To accomplish that, he will require the support of a majority of council and the vote is going to be close.

Before they vote, councillors need to remember the context of their decision. There is a strong perception in the community that when it comes to developers, our watchdogs on council tend to roll over and ask to have their bellies rubbed. That’s not entirely fair, but what a great chance to prove that it isn’t so.

City councillors have a legal responsibility to say yes or no to changes to heritage buildings. What good is having that responsibility if the owners can staple something this incongruent onto the building? If this ugly carbuncle gets approved by council, clearly they would approve anything.

The argument that city staff have tied their bosses’ hands when it comes to the château addition is pathetically weak. If councillors robotically accepted staff’s advice on everything, then we wouldn’t need councillors. Besides, why would they have asked planning staff to decide on esthetic matter? That’s not their zone.

The primary perceived impediment to cancelling the heritage approval is staff legal advice saying that overturning the decision and going to court would be a likely loser than could cost $100,000 in legal fees. Some councillors are taking shelter behind that opinion, but they need to remember that saying no to this latest Château Laurier plan is not about winning a fight in court later. It’s about creating space for negotiations now.

Sure, Larco Investments, the company that owns the château, could go to court, but that will take time and time is money in the development business. Creating a delay also creates the opportunity for councillors to make a last-ditch effort to find some acceptable compromise. Surely there is ample ground between a copy of the old building and the irredeemably ugly modern addition the hotel ownership is proposing.

The natural person to lead such a diplomatic mission would be Mayor Jim Watson, who needs to redeem himself on this file. He has come down on both sides of the issue. Watson has said Larco has been “tone deaf” in not recognizing community opposition and that the addition looks like “a shipping container,” but he has also said that it’s time to get on with it and that the issue is “divisive.”

Why would the mayor vote for an eyesore in one of the most important locations downtown? If this thing goes ahead, it should be dubbed Watson’s Folly.

There is no downside to supporting Fleury’s motion. Keep it simple, councillors. Just say no to this inadequate addition. Those on council last year made a big mistake. The least you can do is try to fix it.



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