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Originally published in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Jeff Salmon

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Now that we are a couple months removed from the public presentations and consultation process for the redevelopment of Lebreton Flats I am anxious to see what recommendations will be made to the National Capital Commission (NCC) Board of Directors by the evaluation committee.

Their recommendation along with a summary of the public input that was compiled for the committee will be made public sometime this spring.

As we await their recommendation, I can’t help but wonder what influence our input will have on the committee’s decision, if any at all. I am optimistic that the more than 7,900 people who submitted comments will feel as if they were a valued part of the process through some correlation between the summary and the selected design. However, the public engagement process has left me with some reservations.

The magnitude of the Lebreton redevelopment demanded more than a few public presentations and two weeks to provide comments through an online questionnaire. While we likely won’t see another project of its size or prominence in the near future it does call into question whether the current public engagement strategies are adequate. I would argue that they aren’t.

To date Ottawa has championed the online questionnaire for gathering feedback from citizens. As mentioned, for the Lebreton redevelopment this tool was employed in conjunction with the question period of the public presentations.

Similarly, although it may be a distant memory to some now, the City undertook the Liveable Ottawa 2031 project two years ago which also consisted of an online questionnaire.  The perspective gained from this exercise was supposed to play a role in influencing public policy in Ottawa which would be reflected in the amendments to the Official Plan, Transportation Master Plan, Infrastructure Master Plan, Cycling Plan, and Pedestrian Plan.

Yet some of the Liveable Ottawa questions were too ambiguous and were left open to interpretation as previously noted by yowLAB and the Ottawa Citizen. Additionally, it is still unclear to me how the information gathered was put to use.

I think we all appreciate the opportunity to provide feedback but without an understanding of how it will be put to use, the incentive to continue participating diminishes.

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While the National Capital Commission was pleased to announce the success of their public consultation with nearly 8,000 responses to the questionnaire on the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats, we are left asking to what end? How will the content of those questionnaires be compiled? Who will see the results? How will public feedback be used, if at all, and at what stage of the decision making process?

Following the close of the online feedback, the NCC chief executive Mark Kristmanson exclaimed:

The high level of civic engagement and serious debate on the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats will help guide this historic project to a successful conclusion.

Yet many, myself included, were disappointed because the public consultation lacked precisely that; opportunity for meaningful engagement and serious debate.

Despite a few leaks, no details were shared about either proposal until the public presentations on January 26 and 27 at the Canadian War Museum. Neither the formal presentations, that were more marketing than informative, or the Q&A session were sufficient for facilitating serious debate.

With only two weeks to participate in the only official form of public feedback, the extremely limited format of the online questionnaire contributed little more than a flood of knee-jerk reactions and poll of individual opinions. Engagement and debate require an opportunity to interact.

The number of questionnaire responses shows sincere public interest. The NCC should be excited. Sadly we have not been given a platform to actively engage in prioritizing goals or guiding principles to construct the groundwork for a responsible and meaningful development.

On the “ladder of citizen participation”—a tool devised in the 1960s by Sherry Arnstein for classifying participation—the LeBreton Flats process sadly falls at best in the “tokenism” category of placation, consultation, and informing. There is no partnership or citizen power.

Especially in the light of the history of the Flats as emblematic of the kind of authoritative control of the highly criticized and problematic mid-century approach to urban planning, we have to wonder whether our present day process is realistically any more sensitive or sensible.

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Originally published in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Jeff Salmon

The days and weeks following the public presentations of the two proposals for LeBreton Flats have seen both schemes dissected, analyzed and compared and contrasted. The two proposals have certainly given us quite a lot to write and talk about.

Like many, I am still on the fence as to which one I would rather see built as there are compelling and discouraging aspects to both proposals. Truthfully I sympathize with the designers, the task of getting it right is such a tall order for a site of this magnitude and prominence.

On the other hand it is a dream project for urban planners and architects alike. The opportunity to participate in the design of a project that will have such a grand influence on a city is extremely rare, not just in Ottawa but across the world. The greatest projects can also be the most challenging.

The design teams were tasked with designing a community, not just one or a few buildings. To put this in perspective, it can take only a few buildings to redefine or rejuvenate a community or neighborhood, but in that scenario the designer has the existing context to respond to. In the case of the LeBreton Flats the design teams had to design the context as well.

Starting from scratch means there is unlimited potential, and as proven by the last time the National Capital Commission sought out proposals for the LeBreton area, there is the potential of it falling flat. The significance of this project to the entirety of the city was evident by the turn out to the public presentations.

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Submitted to yowLAB
April 18, 2014
by Muktirajsinhji Chauhan

I write this to share my anguish at a mini urban design disaster happening right across my street and to defend an Ottawa development that has come to be derided quite a bit by many including a Federal minister calling it ‘not among NCC’s best work’ or some such words. Some may regard what is happening right now as insignificant, but I fear for the rest of the development in the neighbourhood and, many more such developments in future.

I am talking about the new condos at Le Breton Flats and the amusing situation of two sides of a street, Fleet Street, with buildings on either side of this rather well thought out street, which is part of a larger development of about 30 ha, being clad in two different coloured tiles.

Let me explain what is amiss here.

We all love traditional towns such as Quebec city, others few located on the east coast Canada and many in Europe. The reason we love them is because the public spaces of these towns are positively defined by buildings that are formed, or shaped, in response to the street and other public spaces and there is a harmony about the total built environment be it owing to the humane scale and heights of the buildings, harmonious street facades, materials, colours and texture of the building materials.

Simply put, the urban experience of a city gains when architecture lets go and individual buildings are less assertive, and instead they all add up to a harmonious whole. Anything else is like a box of assorted chocolates as a friend once put it, or worse with some gummies in there too competing for your attention.

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