With city council’s planning committee approving the plan to pave a park and put up a (hospital) parking lot, it’s time to face facts. Ottawa chooses sites for public projects less to benefit residents and more to enrich private developers.
The rot runs deeper than this latest council decision, which will see a portion of the Experimental Farm and adjoining Queen Juliana Park paved over for a new Civic Hospital project — which will include a large parking lot and residential towers — instead of the NCC-recommended site at Tunney’s Pasture. No, the appropriation of greenspace and public land for real estate developers goes back decades. It seems to have been well-coordinated with the build-out of Ottawa’s light-rail train system. In fact, the development of the LRT line intersects in interesting ways with the hospital project, as well as with all kinds of other private developments on public lands in Ottawa. So take a ride with me back to the heady days of the early 2000s, when a newly-amalgamated city of Ottawa was starting to dream big about a new transit system.
Since the early 2000s, people like ex-councillor and candidate for mayor Clive Doucet have been pointing out that light rail was the best and most environmentally-friendly option for mass transit development in Ottawa. Since that time, the most obvious, commonsense place to build light rail was along Carling Avenue. After all, this is where people already lived and worked. Such a route would serve “hospitals, shopping malls and about a third of the city’s population,” as Doucet argued again in the Glebe Report just a couple years ago.
This route also would have supplemented rather than replaced the city’s existing rapid transit corridor for buses — which worked reasonably well. At this point in the early 2000s, there was no serious talk of replacing the bus transitway with light rail. After all, the goal was to add transit capacity rather than rebuild it. Running light rail down Carling would presumably see trains replace cars on a congested street, instead of replacing relatively fast-moving buses who already had dedicated lanes and roads all to themselves.
By building the transit line along this route, the city has essentially gifted developers billions of dollars worth of value.
But this route would leave few opportunities for huge, new, highly-profitable developments. The area along Carling was already densely built up. So, somehow, the city settled on a plan in 2004 to run trains out to Barrhaven — a suburban neighbourhood that had just started to take off. It would also serve other suburban developments south of the airport that hadn’t yet been built. And, though it would run near the airport, it wouldn’t actually go there.
This kooky plan to build trains where people didn’t live was based on city forecasts for a “population explosion over the next decade,” numbers that were eventually called into question. (This is catalogued in detail in an academic article whose 2007 title — “Dreams, Deception and Delusion: The Derailing of Ottawa’s Light Rail Transit Plans” — sounds like it could have been ripped from the headlines last year.)
Eventually the public caught on to how ridiculous it was to build light rail mostly for riders and developments that didn’t yet exist. A self-described “dick-swinging” mayor came to power who was just wacky enough to cancel the plan and hit reset in 2006, contracts be damned. (That would be Ottawa’s own Ford before Ford, Trump before Trump, Larry O’Brien. )
When the LRT’s current route was settled in 2012, after years of studies and arguments, it was more where people already lived and worked. Well, sorta, kinda. Despite objections from the National Capital Commission (NCC) and several progressive candidates for mayor, it also ran along a broad river and extensive greenspace. (Believe it or not, trees and rivers don’t need transit.) People lived and worked on the other side, but mostly in low-density neighborhoods like Hintonburg and Westboro.
For developers, this wasn’t a bug but a feature. With transit on the way, these neighbourhoods were ripe for high-scale developments. And all that green and “underused” public space would come in handy too. Any knowledgeable person could see a number of sites near the LRT route would likely be up for development in the next decade. In particular this involved Lebreton Flats, Tunney’s Pasture, and the islands around the Chaudière Falls (AKA Akikodjiwan and Akikpautik, a Algonquin sacred place that has been desecrated by centuries of industrial activity and government complicity.)
By building the transit line along this route, the city has essentially gifted developers billions of dollars worth of value. After all, being near transit automatically and significantly raises the value of a property.
This is also why the site for the new civic hospital has been so tortured. Under the federal Conservative government of Stephen Harper — and infrastructure minister John Baird, a then-prominent Ottawa MP — a part of the Experimental Farm was selected for the new Civic Hospital in 2014. But this plan to destroy public greenspace ran into significant public resistance and a change of government.
Under Trudeau’s fresh-faced Liberals, the NCC then did a study of federally-owned properties that could serve as a new hospital site. After significant consultation with the public and stakeholders, the NCC recommended Tunney’s Pasture in 2016. This aging complex of federal government buildings was slated for redevelopment and next to the western terminus of the light-rail system.
So naturally, a week after the NCC’s recommendation, a grinning group of hospital executives, municipal politicians, and federal MPs announced that the new hospital would be built… on a different part of the Experimental Farm.
See, poaching Tunney’s Pasture for the hospital would hurt developers’ plans and profits. So Ottawa power-brokers needed to find a new site they never could have used for condos — the Experimental Farm. A hospital sounds beneficial enough that destroying greenspace and centuries-old trees might just seem worth it to the public, right?
It remains to be seen whether the public will swallow this pill the second time they have someone shoving it down their throat. Look at the growing resistance to the project, exemplified by the Tree Songs event we’ve covered elsewhere in the pages of The Leveller. Look at the number of organizations pushing back against developer influence, most of which didn’t exist during the last municipal election — Horizon Ottawa, Reimagine Ottawa, the Herongate Tenant Coalition, and Ottawa and Gatineau ACORN. Look at the disgust at a constantly-failing and widely-derided LRT system. Look at the still-simmering rage at leaders’ non-response to the “Freedom” Convoy’s siege of downtown. With an upcoming municipal election that is already guaranteed to give us a new mayor and several new councillors due to incumbents withdrawing, this may not be a done deal after all.