Penny Collenette, former director of appointments in the Prime Minister’s Office under Jean Chrétien, and is an adjunct professor in the University of Ottawa’s faculty of law.
Can you ever fight city hall? It’s not easy, especially when the future of a national iconic symbol is relegated and degraded to a simple municipal decision.
Jackie Kennedy Onassis learned this lesson in the 1970s when she fought to preserve New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Protecting the public good or interest often seems to be a lost cause. “We’ve all heard that it’s too late. … But I don’t think that’s true … if there is a great effort, even if it’s the eleventh hour, then you can succeed.”
I hope she is right.
The planning committee of the Ottawa city council recently gave the green light to a widely controversial addition – one that has been compared to a behemoth toaster, or a nuclear power plant – to the Chateau Laurier hotel, a familiar architectural silhouette to most Canadians.
The hotel has been part of our public landscape and our history for more than a century. Depicted on dollar bills, often paired with the historic Parliament buildings, it is endlessly photographed. As the Chateau looms in the distance, a skate down the world’s largest rink is a special Canadian moment.
Abutting the Chateau is the UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site of the Rideau Canal. The hotel itself is designated as a provincial historic building and a national historic site. The land behind the hotel, Major’s Hill Park, is constantly used by the public and administered by the National Capital Commission (NCC).
Canadians could be forgiven if they believed the Chateau was linked by osmosis to the Parliamentary precinct and that it was public space. The problem is that it is not.
The Chateau is privately held by Larco Investments Ltd., which in turn is owned by the Lalji family of Vancouver. Larco Hospitality bought the Chateau in 2013, noting on its website that it was opened in 1912 by Canada’s seventh Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Larco also owns the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver.
When the company made an application to demolish the tired parking garage at the rear of the hotel in 2016, it also requested an extension of 147 rooms. This was granted providing NCC guidelines were followed. The extension was to be distinguishable from, but compatible with, the existing hotel. It was also to be subordinate to the hotel.
But now if Ottawa’s city council gets its way, and if the federal government remains silent, only one criterion will be met. The addition is certainly distinguishable.
Compatibility has been lost completely. The addition does not blend, but rather offends. It jars the eye, not to mention the heart. It overpowers the existing building by its very presence.
Experts have weighed in with devastating comments and presentations.
Peter Coffman, an architectural historian from Carleton University, notes that while the existing architecture is an “invitation to dream,” the addition is “frankly grotesque.” He likens the Chateau to fire and the addition to water: “The two are locked in a struggle to cancel each other out.”
Phyllis Lambert, director emeritus of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, commented that “urbanistically and symbolically the project would destroy major elements of our national identity.” She strongly recommends that "knowledgeable expert intervention is essential.”
A recent issue of the British magazine Country Life noted that the Chateau addition “is a box designed with complete indifference to its architectural context and visually sensitive location.”
The protection of the views is crucially important, said Christina Cameron, the Canada Research Chair for Built Heritage at the University of Montreal, because the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has the power to delist a site, as it did in Dresden, Germany, when a new bridge irrevocably damaged an outstanding view of the Elbe Valley landscape. Ms. Cameron points out that “Parks Canada acknowledged the importance of protecting the Rideau Canal’s scenic vista,” but yet both Parks Canada and the NCC have been curiously silent.
The public outcry has continued over three years and five iterations. The fiasco was compounded by the last municipal election when former city councillors, perhaps sensing trouble, delegated the file to city staff.
Can no one protect the public interest in this file? Is it possible to have a last-minute miracle?
Perhaps Mayor Jim Watson will pick up the phone and explain to the Lalji family the concerns of the community.
Perhaps, the family will have a change of heart, withdraw this particular rendering and begin again. A contemporary structure does not have to be another fairy tale addition, but it could reflect our own time – possibly with a nod to the mighty waters that surround Ottawa, and which this year threatened flooding – or with a nod to reconciliation with our Indigenous communities.
Perhaps, the public outcry will penetrate Ottawa City Hall and allow a final debate motion of the full city council.
Perhaps, the federal government will step in and use its power of expropriation.
Or, perhaps nothing will happen. And the Chateau Laurier will be lost in time.
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