In September 2016, the owners of the Chateau Laurier, Larco Investments, unveiled an expansion plan for the historic hotel. The parking garage addition at the rear of the property was crumbling and their proposal was to replace it with a 12-storey addition featuring 200 new hotel rooms. This proposal was heavily criticized and the architect revised the plan and came back in November of the same year. The new design was 8% smaller but still significantly controversial. They tried to improve the sightlines but the proposed expansion still towered behind the existing hotel.
A year later, Larco returned to the community with a third design. This one was likened to a glass box using none of the architectural features of the Chateau Laurier although it was shorter and preserved the roofline of the existing hotel. May 2018 brought a fourth design and that is where we need to begin to understand how we got to where we are today.
When the fourth design came to Built Heritage Sub-Committee in June 2018, a committee that I have been a member of since 2012, we sought to create a compromise that would resolve the design issues. We also, admittedly, had the intention to allow Larco to move forward with what was felt to be a much-needed expansion with additional rooms in the downtown core, not to mention the reinstatement of their missing parking garage. In addition to all of the normal heritage guidelines and policies Larco needed to meet, we added three conditions of approval. They were all aimed to have the addition, which at this time was a box, to take more elements from the Chateau Laurier, including an increase in Indiana Limestone and the copper that is synonymous with the roof. This compromise motion was drafted by Councillors Tobi Nussbaum and Mathieu Fleury as well as Committee Vice Chair Barry Padolsky. Council then passed it unanimously. Admittedly, this is something that I helped achieve.
To summarize, we entered 2019 knowing we had approved a bar shaped building in the spirit of the buildings that surrounded Major’s Hill Park, namely the American Embassy, the Connaught Building and the National Art Gallery. What we expected was a more sympathetic design using more of the materials from the original hotel. Of note, however, is that no matter what design was before us, the interaction between the building and the park was actually an improvement to the solid wall that was the former parking garage.
The final design was unveiled in May of this year. According to the applicant, and confirmed by our Heritage Planners, Larco met all of the necessary criteria and the conditions imposed by Council a year earlier. The new design was lowered to seven storeys and the room count dropped to 147. More limestone was added and vertical bronze elements were added to the roofline on the west and east portions of the expansion. Nevertheless, Built Heritage Sub-Committee felt the conditions were not met but no longer had jurisdiction to render a decision due to the approval of their heritage permit in 2018.
Staying on the subject of design, I just want to be clear that an exact replica was and never will be an option for the Chateau Laurier. I have heard some people suggest this. An exact replica actually goes against most heritage guidelines and it certainly goes against Parks Canada’s heritage building guidelines. The only designs Council can deal with are the ones that are presented to us. We cannot dictate a design and we cannot force an applicant to get a new architect.
Fast forward to June 13 at Planning Committee. This was the final vote of substance on the Chateau Laurier. It was the Site Plan application. Site Plan does not rise to Council. While several members of the public and the heritage community came out to speak against the expansion, Planning Committee passed the site plan by a vote of 8-3. I was one of the three to vote against the application. Important to note that up until after this final vote on the Chateau Laurier, the opposition from the general public and from members of Council was not vocal.
Everything from that point until today has been political theatre. Councillors, especially those who are beyond their first term, understand process. We understand policy. We know what our votes mean and we know what happens to files from that point forward. What we don’t always know is how the public will react. Needless to say, the reaction in recent weeks has been boisterous.
In an effort to sway the public to believe we could actually stop the addition, the motion was introduced to “revoke” the heritage permit. The reality is that Council has no ability to revoke the permit so what the motion really attempted to do was set up road blocks forcing Larco to either challenge us in court or redesign. We already knew they were not interested in a sixth design. I confirmed this personally before I voted against the site plan application. Therefore, the motion to halt the expansion was misleading. These are the types of votes I consider to be built on political posturing. It is about telling the public what they want to hear knowing full well they will not get what they want. It is the “well, we tried” approach. I do not operate that way so I did not support the motion.
The court option is an interesting one and it is not dissimilar from the Minto Mahogany proposal from 2008. The City’s record of defending Council opposition to Council approved policy is poor. If you are the one being taken to court, you merely use our own policies against us and we have no supporting arguments. On the other hand, when the community takes the City and the applicant to court together, it actually has a higher likelihood of success. Therefore, I believe those opposed and willing to challenge are on better footing today than they would have been if the motion to “revoke” the permit had succeeded.
This issue is not over. We will continue to hear about it in the weeks and months ahead. As convoluted as the entire process has been, I hope I have been able to adequately explain how we got from September 2016 to today. I also hope that you can understand the reasons for my vote at the most recent Council meeting. It was NOT a vote for or against the design. I will leave it at that.
In two weeks, I will dive into the Solid Waste Master Plan review.
If you have any comments, questions or concerns, please feel free to email me at Scott.Moffatt@ottawa.ca or contact me by phone at 613-580-2491. For information on Rideau-Goulbourn issues, please visit RideauGoulbourn.ca.