Launched in 2016, urbform is a collection of posts about architecture and planning in Ottawa. From time to time, sites in Montreal and other favourite places experienced through travels are likely to pop-up.
As an observer and champion of interesting places and quality design, my aim is to share some photos and information about places that inspire or intrigue. At times, I may offer an idea or two on possible enhancements to a place, or explore buildings / ideas lost to time.
Each post examines a building, a site, a theme, or a district. Some are short and some will be lengthy. Briefs looking back at lost buildings or unrealized plans tend to be organized in a timeline of oldest to most recent events, while places that continue to exist / evolve are usually arranged from most recent to oldest activity. If new developments occur or research reveals something of interest, a brief may be updated with the info inserted at the appropriate place in the timeline.
If you have research or photos to contribute, I encourage you to send me a note; if your info fits into the narrative I'm trying to tell, I'll be most thankful and will eagerly credit you as the source of your contribution.
Born in western Canada and raised in eastern Canada, I've lived in Ottawa since 2000. My studies in architectural theory and history led me to a multi-year stint on the Ottawa Built Heritage Advisory Committee. My passions include design and photography, and I do a some small-scale web design as time permits.
Finally, if you enjoy something you find on this site, please consider donating to the Ottawa Food Bank.
Similar to the site itself, this brief is evolving. Come back soon for more description here, a review of the just-released proposals for development of the western portion of Lebreton, and a few more items inserted in the timeline below.
The National Capital Commission announces a process to select a private sector partner to develop Lebreton parcels immediately to the west of Booth Street, with the possibility of including option parcels further to the west. Four proponents advance through the Request for Qualifications stage, and ultimately two proponents submit full proposals for review by a NCC evaluation committee. If a successful proponent is recommended and approved, the timeline anticipates announcement of a successful proponent in early 2017.
The City of Ottawa announces selection of a consortium to build the city's $2.1 billion Confederation Line, a LRT system of 13 stations - two of which will service Lebreton when the line opens in spring 2018. The promise of mass transit realizes longstanding goals to service the area with modern transit infrastructure, and broadens to scope of possibilities on Lebreton.
In early 2004, the NCC announces a request for proposal process for a first phase of mixed-use development on the eastern portion of the district, 4.4 hectares to the east of Booth Street. Six developers vie for the opportunity, and Claridge Homes is announced as the ultimate victor for the construction of some 850 homes. As reported in the Ottawa Business Journal, the build-out is expected to take some six to eight years.
Between 2006 and 2016, Claridge builds 432 residential units on about a third of the 4.4 hectares, leaving around half of all planned units yet to come on the remaining 66% of the site per the agreement and design controls put in place in 2004.
In 2001, the federal government announces that a new building for the Canadian Museum of War will be constructed on the northwest section of Lebreton, bringing the first new permanent structure to the district. The building is designed by Moriyama & Teshima / Griffiths Rankin Cook, and in 2002 a final design is arrived at that aims to commemorate war without celebrating it. A primary design generator evident in the building is the notion of healing and regeneration. The design team states:
Nature may be ravished by human acts of war, but inevitable it hybridizes, regenerates, and prevails. From the healing process, hope emerges.
For this reason, the building appears to emerge from the landscape, using extensive terraforming to achieve the feat.
The bulk of construction takes place from 2003 to 2004, and the new Canadian War Museum opens on 8 May 2005. The Ottawa River Parkway had previously hugged the shoreline, but by the time the museum opens has been relocation to run though the centre of the district, separated from the museum by the new wedge-shaped Lebreton Flats Park.
Work is commenced by the NCC for a $99 million remediation of generations of industrial use, pollution from the great fire of 1900, demolition rubble, and further run-off contamination that had accrued from the side being used as piling area for snow removed from Ottawa's streets during winter.
From the 1964 start of demolition work by the NCC, Lebreton lies cleared and bare for over 40 years. While the need and cost to remediate contaminated soil and groundwater plays a part, it seems that the vast scale of 'opportunity' the site provides is its achilles heel. Different plans come and go, from government complexes to mix-used neighbourhoods - none are built. Perhaps this is the challenge stemming from organic change being upended for planned cataclysmic change in one fell swoop. Especially when governments change though democratic process, old political prerogatives are replaced with new ones, and fund allocations follow suit.
Urbsite provides a summary of plans over the decades.
Commissioned by the NCC and in consultation with the City of Ottawa, Barry J. Hobin & Associates Architects Inc. pen urban design guidelines for Lebreton. On descriding the purpose of the guidelines:
The vision for the community of LeBreton Flats is unique. The various components from which it is assembled are not. What makes a community unique is how these components are brought together and the vitality of living which occurs within.
Ordinances and bylaws define basic aspects of land development. This guideline serves to direct designers and builders towards the vision without restricting design freedom within that vision.
The wedge-shapped 'Celebration Plaza' appears in this plan accompanying these guidelines, the form that materializes as Lebreton Flats Park when the Canadian War Museum is constructed between 2003-2005.
In the aftermath of World War II, National Defence is seeking to consolidate its operations. Throughout wartime, the department has operated in mostly temporary and makeshift facilities scattered across the national capital region.
With the demolition of Lebreton all but complete, the 1962 redevelopment plan announced by the federal government is re-composed for a new headquarters for National Defence.
As a cousin to Montreal's Turcot interchange, planners vie to develop a new transportation artery to connect the western parts of the city to downtown. The empty Flats provide all the room imagineable for weaving sections of roadway.
Perhaps one of the last aerial photos taken before demolition of Lebreton begins in 1964, this colour image shows the intact community embraced by industry.
And for texture, this back and white photo gives a good sense of the neighbourhood's texture.
An very cute photo showing a life moment, with boarded-up and broken windows in the background denoting the emptying out of the district.
For the demolition, first to go are the residential structures followed by commerce and industry. Later in 1964, Clark, the NCC Chairman, writes:
... when about 40% of the properties are vacated, the occupants of the balance of the housing leave voluntarily. This seems to be caused by the break-up of the social community and the remaining homes, due to their proximity to vacated housing which is subject to vandalism and other annoyances.
This model depicts the development plan announced by the federal government in April 1962. The traffic alignment does differ from Jacque Gréber's 1950 plan, but it faithfully materializes his vision to eradicate the fine-grained built form that evolved between 1900 (post-fire) and the early 1960s, replacing it with curvilinear expressways and modernist architecture in a 'naturalized' setting. Everything is going to be up-to-date in Ottawa city.
The reported "eye sore" of a community is made up of vernacular residential, commercial, and industrial buildings. If some of this fabric had endured into the 21st century, it could have been readily adapted into the kind of place that urban enthusiasts embrace in 2016. The photos below are from the City of Ottawa Archives and are sourced via Past Ottawa.
Phillis Wilson writes of the community's reaction to the expropriation, "[t]he general reaction appeared to be gladness."
Interviews with residents reveal a certain optimism for the expropriation, many considering it a stepping-stone to better living conditions. Some, like Mrs. Cora Albert, are not so keen to move since they are perfectly content living on the Flats:
Mrs. Cora Albert, 57, moved to the flats 36 years ago and has lived at 119 Sherwood St. for 26 years. Two daughters and a son live in the other three houses of an attractive [...} four-row house she owns.
"I'm not happy to move because this is my home and my family is all happily settled here. I'll have to start house-hunting but I'll need the settlement before I can buy anything," she said.
What disturbed Mrs. Albert was the fact she had installed a new furnace, rewired, installed copper piping, new bathroom fixtures, reroofed and added new veranda's in the row.
Many expressed concern about the expropriation process (the compensation framework) and the status of their insurance coverage. A man, living in a three bedroom flat with his wife and eight children for $45 a month, was happy to hear about the razing of the old homes; he commented about the difficulty in finding housing for a family as large as his. but he thought that this urban renewal would better his family's quality of life:
"I think it's a good idea to get ride of these old houses for the sake of the children," said Mr. Mayer. "I've tried to find another place to live but any place you phone and say you have eight children you are automatically out."
Richard Jackson, writing for the Journal, conveys the news of the 150-acre exporpriation with much enthusiasm:
This is urban renewal on the grand scale . . . for the entire area is one of rail yards, junk and scrap piles, garages, tractor-trailer sheds and largely down-at-the heel row-housing.
Jackson notes the great secrecy of the project before being made public, and points points to the three million square feet of office space that will be built, hopefully before the Centennial year in 1967. The Public Works Minister Walker is quoted at length:
"Our target date," said Mr. Walker, "is the Centennial year . . . and we're going to get as much accomplished as we possibly can."
There would be dislocation for the families, but when it was over, Mr. Walker felt they would regard the move as "a Godsend."
"It's amazing what Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation can do to put people in new and better surroundings . . . I've seen CMHC do it at Regent's Park and in Montreal."
"This project was a 'must' in the development and beautification of the capital."
"It simply didn't make sense that there should be Parliament Hill here . . . and directly to the west, this incredible eyesore."
"Something had to be done . . . and we're doing it. It is the translation into steel and stone of the Prime Minister's vision of Ottawa as a great and beautiful world capital."
For the record, John Diefenbaker is Prime Minister in 1962.
Writing for the Ottawa Citizen, J.A. Hume announces:
A spectacular government development of 151 acres of land known as LeBreton Flats just west of Parliament Hill was announced by Public Works Minister Walker today.
Ultimately, the government will spend more than $70,000,000 on about 10 government buildings in the area with the first of the to be completed by Canada's 1967 centennial.
Consideration will be given also to the erection of some private office buildings in the area.
Mr. Walker said he was "very proud" to make the announcement, since the project would beautify the capital and do away with "a real eyesore" in central Ottawa.
The government acted yesterday he disclosed to expropriate 53 acres from 240 owners in the area, embracing a mixture of industrial plants, commercial buildings, and low standard housing. This expropriation will cost $17,000,000.
Side note: In 2015 money, the expropriation cost equates to $134 million, with the total projected cost exceeding $550 million.
As Jacques Gréber mentions in the introduction of his final report, he receives on 22 August 1945 a cablegram from the Minister of Public Works, the Honourable Alphonse Fournier:
IN LIEU OF ANY OTHER MEMORIAL OF THE WAR JUST ENDED THE GOVERNMENT HAS APPROVED OF FURTHER DEVELOPMENT OF CANADA'S NATIONAL CAPITAL AND ITS ENVIRONMENT ON BOTH SIDES OF THE OTTAWA RIVER STOP WE ARE DESIROUS THAT BASIC PLAN AS LAID BY YOU AND PARTIALLY CARRIED OUT SHOULD BE FURTHER EXPANDED TO INCORPORATE NEWLY DEFINED AND CONSIDERABLY ENLARGED LIMITS STOP THE PRIME MINISTER HAS ASKED ME TO ASCERTAIN FROM YOU IF YOU WOULD BE PREPARED TO UNDERTAKE SUCH A COMMISSION STOP PLEASE ADVISE IF YOU CAN COME IMMEDIATELY.
In the opening paragraphs of the report, Gréber make his intentions explicit:
The duty rests on the Capital to set the example for other Canadian cities, in their adoption of planning procedures suited to the needs of modern living.
Under Gréber's steerage, the capital is to become a showcase for new urban modes of living enabling healthful lifestyles. Gréber writes of the regenerative function of open green spaces, incorporated in a functional manner to improve the health and welfare of inhabitants. This is a key aspect of Gréber's functionalist city, paralleling the design models of his contemporaries, other Modernist architects and planners resolving to improve social-welfare through the built environment.
Per Gréber's planning doctrine, Ottawa is to become a modern city befitting a progressive nation.
While expropriation is not announced until April 1962, the clearing of Lebreton is a fait-accompli in the plans and models that Gréber
submitted in 1950 to the National Capital Planning Committee.
Jacques Gréber is commissioned by the federal government between 1937 to 1939 to consult on the development of federally-owned land in central Ottawa. As Gréber wrote in his 1950 report, "[w]ith the view of suppressing the disorder and congestion resulting from the lack of a rational and functional system of public thoroughfares within the Capital Region, the reorganization of traffic circulation necessitates the readjustment of transport generally in keeping with physical developments and the relationships and needs to existing and developing communities, and taking advantage of new main traffic arteries."
As seen in the centre-left of the following image, a portion of the Lebreton flats is planned for extensive reconfiguration with a sweeping roadway connecting Ottaw to Gatineau, in service of Greber's first principles. While this late 1930s planning is not fully articulated (Gréber himself characterizes it as interrupted for the War), it sets the stage for a complete rebuilding of the Lebreton district . . . tabula-rasa style.
Home to a community of merchants and dwellers, wealthy and poor, the Flats are depopulated on 26 April 1900 when a chimney fire starts in Hull and spreads to Ottawa. Disaster relief pours into Ottawa to the tune of $10 million from all ends of the world. The community is resurrected, allowed another lease on life. In the post-fire aftermath, the rich relocate themselves to more auspicious grounds in the upper-town. Industry, merchants, and lower-income residents fashion a new urban fabric that responds to their needs. A close-knit, workingclass community that rises from adversity to persevere.
As depicted in the lower-right of this map, Lebreton is teaming with industry some 20-years after Queen Victoria proclaims Ottawa as the capital of Canada. In the early days of colonial development, Lebreton is integrated into the fabric of the city, and becomes home to the first passenger rail terminal while also servicing logging and other industries around the Chaudière Falls.
Before arrival and settlment by Europeans, the lands including Ottawa and Lebreton are part of the traditional territory of the Algonquin First Nation, as depicted in this map of 1718 (look for Montreal at the far right, and then follow the "R. des Outaouaes" westward).
When Samuel de Champlain is escorted up the Ottawa River by an Algonquin tribe in the early 1600s, the exploration party crosses on the Quebec flank of the Chaudière Falls, a short distance from what would become the Lebreton flats some two hundred and fifty years later. However, the land being explored by Champlain for European exploitation is not free for the taking. The land flanking the Ottawa River forms an integral part of the Algonquin way of life, serving as ancestral hunting ground for a people seeking to coexist with nature. Unlike the Europeans, they do not value the land as a purely exploitable surface, but as a sensitive ecosystem that enables the regeneration of life.
For anyone interested in tracing development of the area from the dawn of time, Phil Jenkin's book An Acre of Time is essential reading. From the onset, Jenkins reveals his ambition to "unearth a story, a rolling tale of lava and glaciers, of tropical seas and waterfalls, of whales and white-tailed deer, of Indians and pioneers, millionaires and paupers, firestorms and bulldozers, railways and lumber mills, facts and gossip."
In the same work, Jenkin's pens the perfect description of change within cities over time:
Cities have always been cannibalistic. They eat up large chunks of their own pasts, chewing up landscapes and buildings and regurgitating them. This municipal mastication implies a kind of hunger. the hunger to replace then with now, to recycle stale visions of a city with fresh ones.