Ottawa’s Château Laurier renovation really has the town talking

Rendering: Larco Investments

Monday, July 8, 2019

THE STAR, By Susan Delacourt

The most fervent political fight in Canada’s capital this week has absolutely nothing to do with the coming federal election.

It revolves around the Fairmont Château Laurier, the castle-like hotel that stands next door to Parliament Hill, and a planned, boxy building extension that seems to have turned the entire city into architecture critics.

But the battle has stretched beyond architecture and contemporary debates about how to mix old and new. At issue are questions of when private property becomes public domain — at least in the public’s mind — as well as debates over what’s national and local, and even a fascinating blend of elite activism and populist cultural dissent.

All eyes will be on Ottawa city hall this Wednesday, when councillors will be under pressure to revoke the heritage permit that’s been already granted to the proposed building addition.

The owners of the Château Laurier, Larco Investments, have threatened costly legal action if council takes that step. What councillors will have to weigh is whether that legal threat counts more than the backlash almost inevitably to ensue if the city moves farther in the direction of this would-be construction. I haven’t done a scientific survey, but most people with whom I have spoken, on the Hill and off it, seem to hate the design. Certainly I’m in that camp.

Public aversion to this project has been building since 2016, when the drawings of the proposed design were first unveiled to an incredulous reaction in Ottawa. Nothing about the new, rectangular boxes — to be tacked on to the back of the hotel— matched the curving French Gothic Revival lines of the old Château Laurier. “Um, no, try again,” council told the Château owners.

The architects have been going back to the drawing board ever since, but modifications have been slight — too slight in the eyes of many in the public. But the changes were enough to secure technical, conditional approval from the city last month, and now the prospect of the Château actually gaining this addition have galvanized serious opposition.

There is a sense that this is a straw that is breaking the back of Ottawa’s patience. Mega-construction projects downtown and a much-delayed launch of light-rail transit across the city have clogged the streets and made Ottawa commuters cranky. Parliament Hill’s Centre Block has been shut for at least 10 years for renovation.

An advocacy group, Friends of the Château Laurier, has sprung up. It’s very Ottawa — a grassroots protest group filled with academics, heritage experts and big political players around town. One of the members of the group, also one of the city’s leading architects, Barry Padolsky, has written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asking him to wade into the dispute and stop the addition.

Trudeau’s government is sitting this one out, though. I asked Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez’s office on Tuesday for its stand on the controversy and here’s what Simon Ross, the minister’s spokesman, sent back by way of reply:

“We have heard from residents of Ottawa and many Canadians that they have concerns about the proposed addition to the Château Laurier. It is important to note that the National Capital Commission has no responsibility or authority over the use of private lands, and that it operates as an independent Crown Corporation. The approval of the addition is a primarily municipal matter that should be addressed at the municipal level.”

I also sent a little note to local provincial minister, Lisa MacLeod, who’s been in the news most lately for a “blunt” exchange with Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. MacLeod is now in charge of tourism for the Ontario government and one would assume that the Château’s status as a heritage property and tourist destination would fall under her scope of responsibility. MacLeod opted for no bluntness in this matter; I didn’t hear back by the time I had to file this column.

I did hear, however, from one newly elected Ottawa councillor, Matt Luloff, an Afghanistan vet and former Hill staffer, who explained to me why the city may end up with this unsightly addition to the Château Laurier, no matter how much it is loathed by so many people. Simply put, Luloff said in a lengthy note, it’s too late and potentially too costly to stop it now.

“I hate the proposed Château Laurier addition. It’s ugly, boxy and far too modern to be unceremoniously affixed to a building with such a storied heritage and privileged distinction in our skyline,” Luloff wrote.

But revoking the heritage permit, in Luloff’s eyes, would amount to little more than a delaying stunt by the councillors, some of whom should have put a firmer stop to this project years ago.

“Do I vote with my head and reject this meaningless and costly motion, or do I vote with my heart and delay the project for a year? Either way, we end up with a modern addition to the Château that looks no different than the proposal,” he wrote. “I wish I didn’t have to choose between the two… Wishes and nostalgia won’t change anything this late in the game, and to put a fine point on it, neither will this motion.”

The Château Laurier has often been compared to a fairy-tale, Disney castle. The saga of this ugly addition, if Luloff is correct, is not headed to a fairy-tale ending.

Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics.

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YOUR VOICE MATTERS!

Contact the Mayor and Ottawa City Councillors before July 10, 2019.

Click here for details: https://heritageottawa.org/chateau-laurier-addition