Plamondon: If we want to get Château Laurier right, look to 7 Clarence

Rendering of proposed Château Laurier addition, looking north on Mackenzie Avenue / Larco Investments

Saturday, June 8, 2019

OTTAWA CITIZEN | OPINION, By Bob Plamondon

"The building’s completely out of whack with what would be expected in a heritage district … It’s a ridiculous looking structure.”

These are not comments about the proposed addition to the Château Laurier but were made over a design pitched by the National Capital Commission in 2014 to replace a building at 7 Clarence St. that was demolished due to poor maintenance. For those with a sweet tooth, that’s the former ByWard Market location of the iconic restaurant Memories that specialized in exotic desserts.

The NCC proposed to replace the 135-year-old limestone building with a modern glass structure that was “reflective of the 21st century.” But that did not sit well with heritage activists and the ByWard Market community.

A year later, the NCC was praised for turning the project around. How the community went from anger to admiration may be instructive to the planning committee that meets Thursday to vote on the much-maligned 147-room addition proposed for the Château Laurier.

I was a member of the NCC board of directors when the design controversy around 7 Clarence St. was brewing. It did not take deep local roots or experience in urban design and architecture to realize that what was proposed by the NCC’s architect was seriously amiss. But by the time the project reached the level of the board, it had gone through a full professional gauntlet and had experienced several design revisions. Given a staff recommendation to proceed, some board members were hesitant to oppose architects who were following conventions that dictated that building additions or replacements must be “of their time.”

Yet, on this occasion, the board chose not to rubber stamp it. We did not ask for improvements but a completely new design that was architecturally respectful of the former building and that used noble materials that were consistent with the demolished structure and neighbouring properties. We also engaged with those who had expressed objections. The NCC ultimately delivered a building that unified the community and continues to be praised in all quarters.

Back to the Château Laurier. The 82-page staff report that accompanies the staff recommendation does not sugar-coat continuing community objections. These come from Heritage Ottawa, the Lowertown Community Association, the local councillor and most of the 2,400 citizens who offered comments.

What the community is saying is that despite the building owners’ attempts to meet three conditions set by city council a year ago, the redesigned building would stick out like a sore thumb — forever.

Councillors should pay more attention to what the public is saying than the reports from their staff and other experts. They should reject the design in its entirety and do what the mayor suggested a few years ago: “Go back to the drawing board.” That means not starting with an eraser and a different colour palette but to ask the hotel’s architects to work from a blank sheet of paper until they get the fundamentals correct.

For the grand dame of hotels in the national capital, we need something the community can embrace. What worked for 7 Clarence St. could work for the Château Laurier.

Bob Plamondon is an author and was an NCC board member from 2015-18.