Egan: Château rescue plan dies in knots of our own making

Mayor Jim Watson answers questions from the media following Wednesday's council meeting. Photo: Errol McGihon/Postmedia

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

THE PROVINCE, By Kelly Egan

There was something sad and circus-like about how the Château Laurier saga unfolded on Wednesday, strangled in procedural knots — with a touch of poison — to its last breath.

Ottawa city council, as so many suspected, would not give the grand dame of Rideau Street “one more fighting chance”, as Coun. Shawn Menard passionately argued, at keeping her graceful figure.

Instead, we were repeatedly reminded rules are rules — the very ones city hall foolishly imposed — and it was all by the book for three years. In other words, the surgery went wonderfully but the patient is dead.

Despite several emotional appeals, councillors voted not to revisit the approval of a seven-storey addition that will add 147 rooms but leave a boxlike building at the rear, giving those in Major’s Hill Park a look at — take your pick — a giant radiator, a steamship container or a glorious example of modern architecture.

Early on, Mayor Jim Watson set a tone that suggested this would be all business, with no Hail Mary shenanigans to be entertained. He first tried to limit the speaking time of Coun. Mathieu Fleury, who was behind the motion to revisit the heritage permit for the $100-million project.

And he regularly reminded the packed gallery not to applaud, cheer, clap or make noise — no signs of life, people! — like a schoolmarm running out of patience.

It was not, honestly, his finest hour, a point undermined with a final piece of political cunning — outfoxing councillors by shutting down an attempt to keep the Château debate alive until a meeting in late August.

Several councillors made the point that — legal threats aside — the revocation of the permit would send a signal to Larco Investments, the hotel owner, that a restart is needed, that the condo-looking box is not good enough for an iconic hotel built in 1912.

“No one around this table has told me that they like it,” said Fleury. Added Coun. Theresa Kavanagh: “I think Larco has to be sent a message that you have to start again.”

Both Councillors Diane Deans and Jeff Leiper made the case that, as elected officials, they had an obligation to step up and act as custodians for one of the city’s most historic structures and not accept a design that would detract from its heritage.

“Ghastly,” it was called by Coun. Laura Dudas who, weirdly, did not support the motion to revisit the permit, for fear Larco would come back with an earlier 12-storey version she called a monstrosity. Even the mayor doesn’t like the design. Nor did well-heeled members of the gallery, like Maureen McTeer or Thomas d’Aquino or David Collenette.

And yet here we find ourselves, some 1,200 days after Larco began making the pitch, with a plan widely loathed. The majority of council felt it could not ask Larco for a sixth version of its plan, not after 16 direct meetings with the applicant, a full-day Toronto workshop, 200 internal meetings and approvals from various subcommittees.

Councillors delegated all that work to staff. Several said they now regretted it.

Watson made the surprising admission that, only Tuesday evening, he had spoken to Larco principal Amin Lalji by telephone and was left convinced that the company was not interested in changing architects or fundamentally altering its vision.

The mayor said Lalji made the point that Larco had done everything that city staff and various committees had asked in terms of adjusting the design, including adding more Château-like limestone.

“We both agreed it would be a waste of time to sit down when he was not going to move on that particular file.”

Deans, meanwhile, said there has been “a dearth” of leadership” on the issue, adding that her motion to reconsider the review was a way of buying time until the end of August. No dice, answered the mayor.

“Today what you saw was a divided council and a community that will be very unhappy with the outcome.”

What seemed to carry the day was the idea that the Château, however publicly beloved, is private property and any addition must be subject to the planning and heritage regimes, not the esthetic taste of elected councillors or a thousand emailers.

After the meeting ended, four councillors released a letter they’ve sent to Larco asking the company to listen to the outcry and withdraw the application in the public interest, because the Château is one of our most treasured buildings.

It’s what you do when all else fails: you beg.

With a National Capital Commission, with a local federal minister (Catherine McKenna) with a stake in the debate, with Ontario and national heritage protection, how on earth did it come to this?