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Ottawa's own backyard a land of missed development opportunities

Hear ye, Hear ye.

The National Capital Commission, much-maligned steward of federal lands in the Ottawa region, is calling on the "world's best" to transform one of the last patches of undeveloped downtown real estate into a new signature destination for Canada.

"We envisage a bold, new anchor institution that will welcome the public, serve as an economic driver, feature innovative use of the land, and bring design excellence, animation and a unique public experience to the nation's capital," according to an invitation for redevelopment proposals on the agency's website.

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Good luck with that.

LeBreton Flats – just west and down the slope from Parliament Hill – was a bustling industrial neighbourhood until the NCC expropriated it in 1962. The Crown Corporation promptly evicted residents, and flattened homes, factories and warehouses to make way for what was to be a massive government complex.

It never happened. Instead, LeBreton Flats became a sad monument to bungled urban planning, missed opportunity and shrunken ambition.

For the next 40-plus years, the 200-acre site sat vacant, a grassy field of broken dreams.

There was a glimmer of hope in 2005 when part of the site became the Canadian War Museum and a park along the banks of the Ottawa River. The NCC later selected Claridge Homes to create a new housing community nearby. A decade later, fewer than 400 people live in two small condo towers, even as the city of nearly one million has sprawled out in every other direction.

Now, the NCC wants the private sector to dream big about the largest parcels of remaining LeBreton Flats land, covering as much as 22 hectares.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who is also responsible for the NCC, insists the time is ripe to turn LeBreton Flats into "a place that will make all Canadians proud of their capital."

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Kudos to Mr. Baird and the NCC for trying to make up for half a century of neglect. But it's not at all clear LeBreton Flats' time has arrived. Yes, the area, now mostly cleared of contaminated soil, is prime urban real estate. And the site will be served by Ottawa's $2-billion LRT line, expected to open in 2017.

It's hard to imagine a successful anchor for the site, which is traversed by busy arteries that whisk office workers to their homes in distant Ottawa and Gatineau suburbs.

The NCC has missed the building boom of the past decade.

But that's nothing new. The NCC also missed the booms of the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties. Since the late 1980s, it has watched a long list of potential anchor tenants go elsewhere, including an NHL hockey venue, a CFL football stadium, a casino, a convention centre, the National Gallery, the Canadian Museum of History and shopping malls, as well as new headquarters for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Communications Security Establishment, the Department of National Defence and various other departments and agencies.

The government is also competing against itself. Just a few miles west of LeBreton Flats, the government is hoping to entice developers to help it revitalize a Soviet-style compound of drab government buildings known as Tunney's Pasture. There is only so much private-sector investment available in a city of Ottawa's size.

It's not clear what Mr. Baird and the NCC have in mind. But the use of terms such as "anchor" and "economic driver" suggest retail or hotels. Sea World or a Six Flags amusement park would seem out of the question, with the War Museum and Parliament Hill nearby. But who knows?

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New football, baseball and hockey venues have successfully rejuvenated other North American downtowns.

But this too is an unlikely option. A move downtown by the Ottawa Senators, which is heavily invested in the suburban Canadian Tire Centre, would seem improbable in the short-term. The renovated TD Place, home of the CFL RedBlacks, is barely two months old. A city-built baseball stadium has been without a team for much of the past decade.

And the current federal government doesn't have a great track record when it comes to thinking big about its hometown. A prime site near the Supreme Court of Canada has long been tapped to become a permanent home for the Federal Court, now scattered about in various buildings.

The government instead wants to erect a memorial to victims of communism.

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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