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Rendition of Zibi waterfront community that will sit on the islands around the Chaudière Falls on the Ottawa River.courtesy of Zibi/Handout

When thinking of Canada’s top waterfront cities, the usual suspects like Vancouver, Halifax and Toronto come to mind.

Ottawa? It doesn’t register.

But the developers behind the Zibi waterfront community, a first-of-its-kind cross-provincial development, is looking to change that.

Zibi, which means “river” in Algonquin, is situated on a 34-acre spread across Quebec and Ontario (22 and 12 acres, respectively). The plan for the mixed-use development is to house 5,000 people with room for 6,000 jobs and eight acres of riverfront green space.

The development will sit on the islands around the Chaudière Falls on the Ottawa River. A powerful waterfall in the centre of the Ottawa-Gatineau metropolitan, it was so named by explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1613.

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The aim of Zibi mixed-use development, rendition of plaza space seen here, is to house 5,000 people with room for 6,000 jobs and eight acres of riverfront green space.courtesy of Zibi/Handout

Condos have already been constructed, with more to come. Shovels are in the ground for offices and restaurant space. There will be seven distinct districts in the development with focuses on entertainment, art, business, history, and culture. And this summer there is going to be a 1,400-foot zip line attraction that will take riders across the Ottawa River between Ontario and Quebec.

Shawn Hamilton, senior vice-president and managing director of CBRE Group Inc. in Ottawa says it’s “odd” that Ottawa has never been classified as a waterfront city, but when Parliament Hill was built, the rear of the building faces the Ottawa River. It literally turned its back on the water.

“[The project] is bringing the waterfront into play and making it accessible not just on the weekends, but through a business environment,” says Mr. Hamilton. “For the first time you can have waterfront office space – which is bold.”

Zibi is a partnership between Theia Partners and majority owner Dream Unlimited. President and Theia partner Jeff Westeinde says the four-million-square-foot, $1.8-billion mixed-use development is all-systems-go – this, after years of wading through political, environmental and historical red tape, including issues around perpetual leases, unpatented land and 100-year-old easements.

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The development will house seven distinct districts with focuses on entertainment, art, business, history and culture. A rendition of an atrium is seen here.courtesy of Zibi/Handout

Among other things, the team was faced with cleaning up land titles and figuring out how to build a singular development across two provinces.

The City of Ottawa and the City of Gatineau had input with respect to land development, as did the National Capital Commission and the Algonquin Anishinaabe, who have ties to the site’s land.

Mr. Westeinde notes wryly that there were indeed “more than many” regulatory bodies or government organizations involved in some capacity – a previous report pegged it at 14. Before the project could get underway, a physical undoing of 200 years of industrial history on the site, including remediation and demolition, had to occur.

“It’s not like buying a farmer’s field in West Ottawa, running sewers and putting up [single-family homes],” he explains. “We really were working through the history of our region to get where we are today.”

While the unraveling of history took nearly five years, Mr. Westeinde says the high-level of attention the project received politically was actually a good thing. He describes the vision of the development – which will take a decade to complete – as world class.

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A development like Zibi is a rare opportunity as there isn't a similar cross-border cooperation in any other large metropolitan area across the country.courtesy of Zibi/Handout

Mr. Westiende says his team took cues from developments such as Hammarby Sjostad (a suburb of Stockholm), the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, HafenCity in Hamburg, Germany and Riverwalk in Austin, Texas. In Canada, the team was impressed with the work of CityScapes at the Distillery District in Toronto and Granville Island in Vancouver.

Representatives from the City of Ottawa are particularly excited about the plans. Since there isn’t a similar cross-border cooperation in any other large metropolitan area across the country, a development like Zibi is a rare opportunity.

“[It’s] is a unicorn site,” says city planner Simon Deiaco. “You’re not going to see a community pop up on an island ever again. The principles that have been implemented are very much what the City is encouraging.”

City councilor Catherine McKenney sees the development as a catalyst for intensification in the downtown area and an opportunity to give the public access to a previously under-used part of Ottawa.

“By developing the area as a mixed-used neighbourhood that is well served by public transit and active transportation links, reliance on private vehicles decreases and more [people] are able to live and work downtown,” she says.

The City continues to review other elements of the project such as roadway modifications, a zero-carbon energy system and the overall master plan.

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Zibi will be a cultural pivot point between the Ottawa-Gatineau downtowns.courtesy of Zibi/Handout

The roads, which are being built now will not be traditionally auto-centric, says Mr. Deiaco, but rather will be “complete streets,” with bike lanes and sidewalks.

Despite the initial delays particular to a multi-province development, Mr. Deiaco says if a business wants to call Zibi home, the process will be straightforward: If you’re on the Ontario side, you pay taxes and fees in Ontario, and vice versa on the Quebec side.

Businesses will still operate in separate jurisdictions, but Zibi will be a cultural pivot point between the two downtowns, notes Mr. Hamilton, adding that Ottawa has been “lacklustre” in its development because the City mostly caters to its largest tenant, the federal government.

Zibi is disregarding the previous rules, Mr. Hamilton says, starting with recognizing that the city is indeed on the water. “Everyone is going to be sitting back and watching and when Zibi is successful, others will go, ‘Okay, we’re throwing the rulebook out the window and we’re going to charge forward with things that are new, exciting, and dynamic,’” he predicts. “They’re the start of redefining our downtown cores.”

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