Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The monopoly known as the NCC

A few months after moving to Ottawa one of the first events I attended was Doors Open where over 100 buildings in the city were opened to the public.  It was a great way to get to know and feel a part of the city.

The organization that I was most impressed with was the National Capital Commission.  My wife and I were looking for a place to volunteer and their events looked like a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, after a year and a half in the capital my fondness for the NCC has turned to frustration.  On one side of the coin they coordinate good events, but on the other side it feels like they represent everything that’s wrong with Ottawa. 

An article posted on the Ottawa Citizen website has become the latest episode to drive me to unparalleled levels of annoyance.  The title of the article is, “Convention centre, NCC argue over the big picture”.  The big picture is “the Art Wall”- an interactive LED screen that the Ottawa Convention Centre team would like to mount on the south wall of the new centre (currently it’s a big beige empty space).  The screen would be used to “showcase Canadian art [including paintings, still photos, public art], connect Ottawa interactively with the rest of the country, and create a buzz in the city.”  The screen would also be used to show live video of events and sponsorship advertizing.    

According to the Citizen the issues are that the new centre rests on the official ceremonial route and is in an important historic centre of the city.  Due to the important location the images on the screen might be “incongruous” with the area.  The biggest issue is that the NCC is worried the screens may be exploited for commercial purposes at some point in the future and “distasteful advertising might appear near hallowed downtown sites”, the article says.  The article goes on to say that under a covenant covering the site the NCC has the power to approve the convention centre design.

First of all, if the historic district in which the OCC sits is so precious why was a state of the art convention centre allowed on the property in the first place.  Secondly, how often is the ceremonial route used?  Can the screens be turned off when a dignitary or royal is in town?  Thirdly, the team managing the OCC project, led by a former mayor, has been competent enough to build the project under budget and on time, and have continually exceeded their targets for bookings.  Surely they are competent enough to not make the capital look foolish.

The Citizen says the NCC “has the responsibility for safeguarding the historic character of the capital”.  The question is, “What is the NCC not responsible for?”  Since I’ve been in the capital I’ve seen the NCC move forward with a segregated bike lane plan (without public consultation), approve designs for the West Block renovation, spearhead an interprovincial transit strategy, okay a Stanley cup monument at the Rideau-Sussex intersection, renovate an old mill in the Chaudière Falls area, conduct a new branding exercise for the capital, manage large national celebrations, and have a disagreement with the Ottawa airport over jurisdiction concerning construction in the Greenbelt on airport lands.  A few months ago the NCC wanted to “lend their expertise” to the Ottawa LRT project and have Canadians engaged in the process.  Some ideas included a potential design competition or showcase of the provinces and territories.  Unfortunately, a light bulb can’t be changed in Ottawa without all of Canada being engaged in the process.  

The NCC is also the guardian of parks, including Gatineau Park, as well as the Greenbelt and the official residences; it manages a large real estate portfolio, including riverfront property; and it is in the real estate development business.  Clearly the NCC wears many hats- marketing, real estate development, waterfront development, property management, transportation planning, infrastructure, events management, and design approvals.  

I’ve read interviews with the current NCC CEO, who seems like a personable and qualified individual, and she has stated that she’s heard from residents and they want a vibrant capital.  Well, the OCC is trying to give the people what they want and it’s not working.

This comes across as a “thus far and no further” attitude where the OCC team can build a great building, but can’t go any further.  This stifling, fear-based attitude doesn't foster creativity or innovation; it encourages people to stay within the box.  If the OCC wants to create a buzz, this is a buzz-kill.

At the end of the day people are attracted to vibrant cities and Ottawa doesn’t have that reputation yet.  We can put flags of the provinces and territories on every street corner and people will still not want to come.  If this proposal isn't approved in the end I would like to see some ideas brought forward on how to change Canadians' perceptions of the capital.
The OCC project manager, Graham Bird, said, “...This sort of thing can be a lot of fun for the city so we are just not a bunch of monuments in a glass bowl...”  Karen Mills, the consultant hired to help the OCC with the Art Wall, added, “The Art Wall will create a platform that no one has in Canada as a permanent venue, and it will be marvellous for the city.”  She goes on to say that with this project Ottawa has the opportunity to do something about its “dowdy image”.  In other words, Ottawa has the opportunity to be a leader and innovator, and at the same time shed its “city that fun forgot” image.

The writer of the article says that this points to the never-ending debate about the character and identity of the capital.  Is it “a modern capital growing with the times or one steeped in the true and tested traditions that have served it well for a century and half?”  I say you can have both.  Europe provides us with examples of cities steeped in history and heritage, more lengthy histories than Ottawa, that are also alive.  

I’ve said it before on this blog- I believe that Ottawa will eventually evolve into a vibrant, international city, but it will take vision and leadership.  I mean no offense to the NCC, but I don’t believe that Ottawa will ever be vibrant or international under their leadership.  It just doesn’t seem possible.  They are the most influential organization in the capital region and they seem to operate under an out-of-date model of development.  Also, their mandate is to preserve the historical integrity of the capital and to promote it to Canadians, not to create a vibrant city.  Their scope is also more so national than international.  

What’s the solution?  Perhaps we should make the NCC a joint agency of the City of Ottawa and the Federal Government so the City can bring the interests of residents to the table and the Federal Government can bring the interests of Canadians to the table.  It would also allow the City and the residents they represent to have a hand in the development of some of the most important real estate in the capital.  

Maybe I don’t understand because I’m a former Torontonian and haven’t lived in a national capital all my life, but in the provincial capital, which is a thriving city, it just didn’t work like this.  

But all is not lost.  The NCC also opposed the LRT plan at first, which includes a tunnel under the Rideau Canal, before deciding to lend their expertise.

I give the OCC a big pat on the back for trying to do something new in the city; for wanting to make Ottawa even more of a vibrant, cultural centre.  Obviously, they are not oblivious to how Canadians perceive the capital.

Kevin Bourne


  1. Thank you, thank you, thank YOU, Kevin, for posting this entry! I was mulling over this thought this past week and your posting really shed some light. This is exactly the problem we are facing in Ottawa, where all urban planning comes from a top-down approach. I've been trying to figure out what the solution is to this, to become more citizen-centric. I think some of the solutions you have offered here would be helpful. I also think a summit, or brainstorming session open to people in the city would be a good way to open up the dialogue even further, to discuss how we can make this a more vibrant city. Perhaps the results of the summit can be submitted to the NCC and the Ottawa Tourism Board. We need to show that citizens in this city truly care and want to see some change, rather than a small minority.

    What do you think?

  2. Something definately needs to be done. We'll talk when we meet up.