Monday, February 14, 2011

New waterfront development model needed in Ottawa?

If you’ve read my blog long enough you would know that the state of Ottawa’s waterfront is an important issue for me.

One of favourite areas to visit in a city is its waterfront; it’s a basic amenity that almost every city provides its residents and visitors.  Cities all over the world are in the midst of either creating comprehensive waterfront development plans or have begun resident led visioning processes for their waterfront.  Not so in Ottawa.  

In my humble opinion, one thing that distinguishes a big city from a small town is its focus on urban and economic development.  Having lived and worked in south western and eastern Ontario, I can say that urban development is more of a priority in the prior than the latter.

A month ago I opened a file on Open File Ottawa about the development of the Chaudière Falls-Victoria Island area.  The assigned reporter recently wrote that the NCC has no immediate intention to develop the land due to cost which was estimated at $100 million.  

Having lived in Toronto I think I took for granted that we had a developed waterfront.  It bothers me that Ottawa residents don’t have access to such a basic amenity.  Perhaps the snail’s pace at which our waterfront is being developed can be attributed to the development model.

Waterfront Toronto provides us with a potential model for how waterfront property can be developed.  According to the organization's website, "Waterfront Toronto is governed by a 12-member Board of Directors, including the chair, appointed by the federal and provincial governments and the City of Toronto."  With all levels of government at the table they work together to finance the various projects.  This organization has a singular focus- deliver a revitalized waterfront, juggling the interests of the various levels of government.  Due to this singular focus they provide Toronto residence with a complete waterfront development plan with a clear vision and corresponding online and print resources.

Cities like Hamilton, Aucklund, and Buffalo have also set up stand-alone waterfront development agencies.

Compare that to Ottawa where the NCC seems to have a monopoly on waterfront development.  The NCC is developing Lebreton Flats, owns much of the lands in the Bayview area, and is looking to develop the Chaudière Falls-Victoria Island area at an undetermined point in the future.  The board and design panel are made up of professionals from across Canada not representatives from the Federal Government, the provinces, and the City of Ottawa.  The NCC doesn’t have a singular focus on the waterfront but has to juggle large national programs and celebrations, land development, marketing, and increasingly transportation.  There are currently no vision or comprehensive plan and corresponding resources.  Under such a model it is easy for development of Ottawa’s waterfront to get pushed onto the back burner.
The City of Ottawa does own some land close to the waterfront, but the lack of a vision or comprehensive doesn’t provide a framework to align the City and the NCC.

Ottawa has great waterfront land at Lebreton Flats, Bayview, and the Chaudière Falls-Victoria Islands area.  The same could be said of Gatineau.  

What we learn from Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is that very few cities do waterfront development right.  With that in mind, does Ottawa-Gatineau need a stand-alone waterfront development agency, a joint venture of the two cities, the Federal Government/NCC, and perhaps the provinces, or should it remain solely with the NCC which seems to have a very broad mandate?

Under the prior model all levels of government would be engaged, the waterfront would get attention on a full-time basis, and one agency wouldn’t have the burden of funding and coordinating the whole project.  Under the latter model where the NCC would have that burden we would have to wait until they had the financial and human resources in place to move forward.  

The NCC does a great job with events and festivals and as they begin to partner more with local business they will probably improve even more.  But I question whether waterfront development should be in the hands of one agency with a broad mandate that’s not representative of all levels of government.

Kevin Bourne 

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