A job opening has been posted for a new head of Canada's National Capital Commission. You'd never know it given the lack of attention. But therein lies the problem. The nation's capital is in a state of disrepair – and few seem to care.
Ottawa is an attractive city with many appealing features. But as the capital of a G8 country, the bar is high. The city should showcase the best of Canada to the world. It should be a source of national unity and pride. It falls far short and it's time, as Canada approaches its 150th birthday, that authorities woke up and met the mediocrity with a new resolve.
In the city's federal precinct, the area over which the NCC has authority, there was progress in the 1970s and 1980s but decline then set in. Structures such as the old U.S. embassy, which fronts the Parliament buildings, have been sitting derelict for more than a decade. The old railway station across from the venerable Château Laurier hotel is now a worn-down conference centre in need of a makeover, as is the national Library and Archives building. The Sparks Street pedestrian mall is woebegone, the prime minister's residence in a state of deterioration.
Office towers that do nothing to gladden the eyes have gone up, blocking the view of Parliament Hill. The prize area of LeBreton Flats has been turned over to condo developers. The seediness of Rideau Street and upper Bank is offensive. The window-deprived National Arts Centre is sized up by Andrew Cohen, the city's most pungent critic, as having the look of a Stalinist detention centre.
NCC chairman Russell Mills is right to say that it's unfair to compare Ottawa to great capitals such as Paris and London. And there have been some improvements. The Canadian War Museum was erected a few years ago and, more recently, a bulbous new convention centre went up. But Ottawa could and should be much better.
The NCC is under the purview of the powerful John Baird, the Foreign Affairs Minister, who asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the responsibility. Mr. Baird is not a small thinker, so some see hope that he will do more than tinker.
Recasting the federal precinct is no easy assignment. The NCC has jurisdictional disputes with the city of Ottawa and municipalities. Ottawa city councillor Jan Harder said last year that everything the NCC does "costs us a friggin' fortune." Ottawa taxpayers can't be expected to foot the bill for national monuments and the like, and the feds, intent on balancing the budget, haven't got big dollars to throw around.
But these kinds of excuses always exist, and it is these kinds of excuses that create second-rate capitals.
Jean Chrétien had a big plan to tear up some of the decrepit buildings on Metcalfe Street and fashion a gleaming new boulevard with a Champs-Élysées look leading up to Parliament Hill. That kind of thinking was too big for bureaucratic minds. But it's the type of grand reform that, if done wisely, could make a dramatic difference.
One of the names being talked about as a new NCC head is Bob Plamondon, the consultant of conservative persuasion who led the successful campaign to have the Ottawa River Parkway named after Sir John A. Macdonald.
Mr. Plamondon likes a few things that have been done in recent years but shares many of Andrew Cohen's laments.
He sees the progress that has been made in capitals such as Washington and rightly wonders why there hasn't been the will and creative energy to do the same thing here. For example, he says, why not take command of the waterfront lands on the Quebec side facing Parliament, tear down the factories and make the area into something.
Something has to be done to shake off the complacency. If a rationale for new fiscal outlays is needed, the country's coming big birthday celebration can provide it. What better time to start giving the capital of the federation the overhaul it needs?