On Embassies, Bridges and Bureaucratic Neuroses
Report and analysis by Daniel Buckles (Champlain Park) and Pat Turk (Mechanicsville)
On 26 July 2021 Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna, Chief Whiteduck from Kitigan Zibi, the mayors of Ottawa and Gatineau, NCC’s Chief Executive Officer, and the Councilor for Kitchissippi were on hand for an infrastructure funding announcement for the Chief William Commanda Bridge (formerly Prince of Wales Bridge). The bridge will be transformed into an active transportation corridor for walking, biking and cross-country skiing between Ottawa and Gatineau. This is a good idea, as are efforts to make public history with the indigenous legacy of protecting the Kitchissippi (Great River). Connecting Bayview Station by rail to Gatineau and both the Confederation and Trillium lines of Ottawa’s transit system, considered a few years ago, would have taken more cars off the road but an active transportation corridor is a good second choice. Exuberant political speeches during the announcement of $22.6 million to make it happen suggested it would attract tourist dollars to both Ottawa and Gatineau. The Mayor of Gatineau was happy, noting too that the project involved no dollars from his city because the funding will come entirely from the City of Ottawa and the Federal Government.
The announcement took place at the river’s edge where Parkway X meets the entrance to the Lemieux Island water treatment plant. This is a stone’s throw from the proposed NCC site for an Embassy Precinct, a new development on the river that will pave over much of a 3.7 hectare treed and open grassland that hosts Great Horned Owls and provides Mechanicsville with much needed greenspace. Residents opposed to the Embassy plan mobilized on short notice to carry our message to the dignitaries and press assembled at the riverside, carrying signs saying “Yes to Trees – No to Embassies.” The politicians spoke to us briefly, but offered no sign of engaging with the issues.
The Embassy Precinct will not only destroy more than 200 mature trees and build on open space needed by Mechanicsville, it will also transform the experience of the thousands of Canadians that currently drive, bike or walk along Parkway X. Sunday biking will not be the same. The Precinct, on a bluff at the river’s edge, will contribute significantly to massing of buildings going up at breakneck pace on Parkdale Avenue and in Mechanicsville, and become the only section of Parkway X without any mitigation of urban encroachment on the riverside. Every Canadian will lose by degrading the riverside experience the NCC is mandated to protect.
We have renamed the space “Lazy Bay Commons” because the curve in the Ottawa River at this location is called Lazy Bay, and because the space is and should remain common space for all Canadians. Instead, it runs the risk of becoming bunker-like and closed off to meet the security demands of any future embassies there. What became evident, however, from statements to the protesters by Mr. Nussbaum, the NCC Chief Executive, is that there is currently no request from a foreign country for space there. Nor could he reference a government study documenting any future need. He even hinted (with what looked to us like a wink-wink) that probably nothing will ever be built there. He told us the application to the City of Ottawa for rezoning from open space to buildings is proceeding because the federal government requires the NCC to set aside space for embassies.
It became evident in that moment that the project is a bureaucratic box that must be ticked to make life easier for Mr. Nussbaum, despite the cost to Canadian citizens. He also noted that the rezoning was being done as a courtesy to the City of Ottawa because the Federal Government can proceed without the City’s approval.
A few years ago, the NCC put forward plans to locate an embassy precinct similar to this in New Edinburgh, near the Embassy Mile where many other embassies are located. Public outcry there forced it to cancel, in part because of security concerns of the surrounding community. Ironically, Mr. Nussbaum represented New Edinburgh as the City Councillor for Rideau-Rockcliffe Ward as few years after this incident. Now the shoe is on the other foot. Other candidate Federal Lands, including the wasteland across from the War Museum at Lebreton Flats and the concrete expanse of Tunney’s Pasture, might have offered an alternative. Instead, the NCC has fixated on the greenspace of a small and historically marginalized residential community that currently has among the lowest greenspace per capita ratio in the city. Mechanicsville is a tree desert, and relies entirely on access to the river and Lazy Bay Commons for respite. Expected huge spikes in population density already planned for the neighbourhood and surroundings will only deepen the deficit. Why are appropriately zoned federal lands overlooked in the NCC’s quest to please federal bureaucrats with no plan to actually sell land to nations that want to build an embassy?
The City of Ottawa should have no part in this project, and should as a matter of principle turn down the zoning application when it comes before Planning Committee. Let the NCC wear the decision on its own, as it says it can legally. If you agree, take a few minutes now to write to the committee co-chairs, Councilor Gower and Councilor Moffat, with copies to Councilor Leiper (who is on record as opposing the proposal) and the Mayor of Ottawa (who sits on the NCC Board). Call on them to reject the rezoning application, and explain why. Go to the Planning Committee meeting when it discussed the rezoning application (soon, but no date yet). Let’s not let the insanity take another piece of Nature in the city without at least recognizing the proposal for what it is: a mindless act of bureaucratic neurosis, out of step with current realities and priorities at both the local and national levels.