At the heart of this LeBreton Flats debate — this one and those that began in Biblical times — is the idea that people are dying to live there.
Possibly, this is a large slice of magical thinking. Our latest effort, a stillbirth plan to build 4,400 housing units over 20 or so years, is only the latest in a string of concepts that adhere, religiously, to the idea that we need to replace an old neighbourhood with a new neighbourhood.
The federal government razed a community that was home to 2,800 people in the 1960s — mustn’t we now return hundreds, even thousands of souls, to the 50-acre plot of tumbleweed?
Well, there is no vibrancy to any place these days without the pitter-patter of jousting yoga-mat warriors, high on caffeine, hurrying to their happy place. So be it. It’s a weird world. But what does history tell us about LeBreton’s appeal, for millennials or their downsizing parents?
Here is one fact alone that should sober the debate, and worry those named Melnyk or Ruddy: Claridge Homes began pre-selling condos on the eastern end of LeBreton Flats in 2005 — it had 12 signups on the first night — and 13 years later, yes 13 years, that first phase is still not sold out, about 500 units in total being built.
And to back up slightly further: The National Capital Commission decided in 2004 it would sell 10 acres of land on LeBreton’s eastern tip, cut off at Booth Street. Then-chairman Marcel Beaudry, rest his soul, called it the most desirable piece of undeveloped land in Canada, one that would attract national, if not international, interest.
Initially, 12 companies expressed interest, then only six. In the end there were three bidders, including Minto, and a Montreal concern. And then there was only Claridge, which acquired the land for $8 million, and began to build a set of condos that went on to be mercilessly maligned, unfairly in my opinion.
But the point remains: They didn’t sell like hotcakes, though these were pre-LRT days. (These early “pioneers” may soon look like geniuses as they now live within a stone’s throw of soon-to-opened Pimisi station.)
“Ah, I would say sales were OK,” said Claridge vice-president Neil Malhotra, when asked this week about the LeBreton rollout. “It went as well as most other projects.” He reminds us that this first phase has roots to a plan devised in the 1980s, before LRT was conceived, and before the anchor uses of the remaining 50 acres on LeBreton were sorted out.
LeBreton, he points out correctly, never had a proper transit-centric “visioning exercise,” which is another way of saying we still aren’t settled on where an arena would go: connected to one station, mid-way between the two, or riverside, where patrons would first walk by an enticing strip of bars, restaurants and stores.
All of which to say that, in 2018, Claridge is taking a different approach to its undeveloped portion of the 2004 sale — higher and denser. It is now planning five towers of various heights (from 25 to 45 storeys) for a total of 1,950 units. And this across from the main LeBreton site, where there are to be 4,400 units, in close proximity to 900 Albert, the Trinity Development-involved project with 1,300 units in three towers.
It should probably be thrown into the mix that Claridge is planning three of its own highrises near the Lyon Street LRT station, with 566 more units, while currently building Ottawa’s highest residential tower, the Icon, at Carling and Preston, at 45 floors — both projects within three kilometres of the Flats.
Nor is this an exhaustive list of projects in the pipeline. So, an obvious question: Are we so intoxicated by the unproven appeal of train transit that we’ve drunkenly overplayed the housing market?
Ottawa, the experts tell us, is a steady, slow-growth market where young families still love the suburbs. It is not Fort McMurray in an oil boom.
I asked Malhotra (not in these exact words, mind) whether you need to do more than say “LeBreton Flats, Swanky Sens Lofts by the River” to sell that much housing.
“Listen,” he said. “Nothing’s that easy. Having done this for 20 years, it’s never that easy.”
OK. So we ask: Are we spending too much time talking about “how much” housing, how that housing must cash-fuel the showcase pieces, and not enough time talking about what public realm uses we really want, in ways the market can bear?
But begin with what we know: People are not dying to live on LeBreton Flats, at least not yet.
To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896 or email email@example.com
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