Callaghan: LeBreton bids offer two distinct visions

The anticipation building up to last week’s unveiling of the two proposals for the redevelopment of LeBreton was so high that some people couldn’t even wait to react.

Literally, some pundits, and even politicians (who should know better) were prejudging the bids based solely on cryptic detail-free leaks and a mountain of assumptions.

When the proposals were formally announced last Thursday, I think it’s fair to say the initial reaction was positive. Despite some reservations that the only two bids remaining in the process would be unimaginative and bland, we were presented with two compelling, yet subtly different, visions for LeBreton.

The Rendez Vous LeBreton bid, backed by the Ottawa Senators and Eugene Melnyk, seems focused on building a multi-functional, dynamic community. Although the centrepiece is clearly the arena, the plans lay out a vision of LeBreton as a 21st century community. The appeal of this model is clear; this is a plan for Ottawa, not so much for the ethereal concept of a “grand national vision”. Aside from the arena, the signature feature of the bid is the aqueduct. This neglected piece of Ottawa history is transformed into a promenade with shops and restaurants lining it. The aqueduct transforms into a skating rink in the winter to make the space a truly year-round attraction.

Rendez Vous LeBreton bid (now called IllumiNation) also features a location for the new Ottawa central library, a public square, and some small institutional installations showcasing the military, science and technology, and Governor General’s Award winners.

It’s clear that the Sens’ bid is directed precisely at winning community support. The inclusion of public housing, which has already won praise from the United Way, was clearly designed to position the bid as less of a destination and more of a community. While the bid features fewer potential attractions and destinations, it has the feel of a community that would help sustain activity even outside of tourist season.

In contrast, the DCDLS Group proposal (henceforth known as the unpronounceable Canadensis) is clearly positioned as a destination. In fact, there are so many museums and pavilions that it seems more like a World Fair than a community. The list of attractions is long, and at times disjointed: an automotive museum, communications centre, planetarium, aquarium, skatepark, and even a skydiving simulator.

While there are also community uses such as a proposed central library, an elementary school and a YMCA, Canadensis definitely feels more like the kind of grand tourist destination some had envisioned for LeBreton.

The problem is that despite the impressive number of options in the Canadensis plan, it feels like the DCDLS Group is simply trying to check as many boxes in their proposal as possible without any sense of whether not they are a fit for the site, or for Ottawa in general. An automotive museum feels like an odd fit for Ottawa, skydiving and skateparks pavilions strike me as a bit too theme park for such a location, and who exactly is going to fill the communications centre given the Hunger Games situation in the Canadian media these days? The aquarium seems like the only no-brainer of the attractions as a city with its fair share of stoic museums could use a more interactive, family-friendly destination.

It’s clear from the DCDLS Group proposal that they felt the need to swing for the fences with a grand vision for LeBreton in order to overcome the home ice advantage of Eugene Melnyk and the Ottawa Senators. In doing so, they have put forward a plan that is certainly more ambitious, but also less focused.

So what we have at LeBreton Flats are two very different visions for the site, despite concerns that the mere presence of an arena would render the options nearly indistinguishable.

The temptation in situations such as this is to go with the plan with the biggest wow factor, and in that light the DCDLS Group proposal has a clear advantage. However, it is important to remember that grand visions on paper often have difficulty translating to reality. The sheer volume of activities at in the Canadensis plan begs the question: can Ottawa support so many attractions, particularly during off-peak seasons?

IllumiNation LeBreton is by no means unimaginative, it simply sees the site as more an extension of Ottawa as a community as opposed to Ottawa the tourist destination. The Ottawa Senators-backed bid asks the city to see LeBreton as a new neighbourhood in the community, one with a modern feel and a work-live-play concept at its core.

Of course the real questions is: Does the DCDLS Group have enough to overcome the trump card in Eugene Melnyk’s hand – the Ottawa Senators.

While many in Ottawa see LeBreton Flats as a site of national importance (despite the fact that the NCC has let it sit fallow for half a century), it is important to remember that the location isn’t some abandoned battle field, it was once a working-class neighbourhood that was expropriated from this community.

LeBreton is at its core part of Ottawa’s history, not Canada’s.

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