After decades of sitting dormant, the large waterfront parcel of federally owned Ottawa land known as LeBreton Flats is finally inching closer to development as the city battles an affordable housing crisis that is growing by the day.
The National Capital Commission (NCC) announced last month that it was selling a portion of the LeBreton Flats Library Parcel to Dream LeBreton group for $30-million, of which the proceeds will be reinvested back into LeBreton Flats. The group is led by Toronto-based developer Dream, which is planning a mixed-use development that will create 601 rental units, of which 41 per cent will be affordable housing.
This will be the first major housing project in LeBreton Flats since the 1960s when the land was expropriated by the federal government and the existing structures razed to make way for a defence ministry complex that never came to fruition. Roughly 2,800 residents were evicted through the expropriation, leaving LeBreton Flats an empty parcel of underused land right next to the downtown core.
The NCC hopes that this is about to change with the Dream LeBreton’s shot of investment. With the shortage of affordable housing growing, the NCC is hoping this fast-tracked project will bring some much-needed relief to Ottawa renters.
It has been a bumpy road to the Dream LeBreton agreement. After the 1962 expropriation erased an entire community almost overnight, the NCC has struggled to reinvigorate the land as project after project fell through.
After the original plan to build the federal defense campus at LeBreton Flats was abandoned, the NCC spent the next few decades slowly remediating the soil.
It wasn’t until 2015 that there was some buzz around the area, with the NCC floating plans for an NHL arena in LeBreton Flats. That plan got as far as a development deal between the NCC and a group known as RendezVous LeBreton, which included Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and Trinity Development Group Inc. That agreement came to an end in 2018 as infighting among the partners of RendezVous LeBreton led the NCC to back out.
The NCC came back the following year with the outlines of a master plan that would divide LeBreton Flats into smaller parcels to be developed in different stages. The 1.1-hectare Library Parcel that the Dream LeBreton project will be on is the first stage of the master plan, named after the proposed site of a future central library branch. Dream LeBreton will be working with architecture and design firms KPMB Architects and Perkins & Will.
Katie Paris, director of Building LeBreton at the NCC, hopes this master plan will speed up the development process and put them in greater control, while also “acknowledging that a working class community was expropriated within the lifetimes of many people walking around Ottawa right now.”
For Dream’s part, while they are aware of the difficult development history in LeBreton Flats, the company was drawn to the vision of the community’s future.
“Yes, it has its history, but how do we move beyond the history and unlock the value and opportunity for this land?” says Tsering Yangki, Dream’s head of real estate and development.
The Dream development is coming at a time when the demand for affordable housing is overwhelming supply in Ottawa. There are currently more than 12,000 households on the city’s affordable housing waitlist and the wait time can be five years or more.
The NCC’s master plan was created in part to address this need and has promised to provide 25-per-cent affordable and inclusive housing in the whole of LeBreton Flats, and had a minimum requirement of 30-per-cent affordable units for the Library Parcel development. Dream has gone over that by promising that 41 per cent of the 601 units will be affordable compared to the median market rent.
The Multifaith Housing Initiative, which is part of the Dream LeBreton group, will own and rent 130 units at 59 per cent of the median market rent in perpetuity. Another 117 units owned by Dream will be rented at 79 per cent of median market rent for 55 years. These will add to the roughly 1,700 affordable housing units that were under development in Ottawa at the end of 2021. These units will be a dent in the city’s under-supply of affordable housing, but the NCC is hoping that the remaining land will be quickly developed to fill the need.
LeBreton Flats has long been on the radar of affordability advocate groups such as ACORN Canada, which has hoped to see the land used for the express purpose of tackling the city’s housing crisis.
Norma-Jean Quibell, co-chair ACORN’s Ottawa West Nepean chapter, sees the commitment to 41-per-cent affordable housing as a good step, but pushes back against the idea that there should be an end date to affordability.
“Markets have been so out of control with landlords raising rents, we don’t know if the median market rent will support the most need in the city,” they say.
Not committing to affordable units in perpetuity “doesn’t make sense, because there’s always going to be people in need of affordable housing.”
Ms. Yangki says Dream is proud that they have gone above the minimum requirements on affordable housing, especially with units offered at affordable rates in perpetuity. However, they had decided to put an end date on their own affordable units because they have to be “cognizant of the lifespan of who we are and what the entity is.”
While NCC has committed to using LeBreton Flats to target the full spectrum of affordability, Ms. Paris acknowledges that this first project may not be able to address all housing needs in the community, such as helping people with no income.
“To house … unhoused people and to address poverty, I think we have to go beyond that model and look to partnerships for publicly owned housing,” Ms. Paris says. “So that can be a part of the future phases of the LeBreton Flats but we’re not quite there yet.
In response to sentiments like these from stakeholders, Mx. Quibell believes it’s time to stop talking about profits in the midst of a housing crisis.
“We’re hoping that those big companies understand that we’re not against you,” Mx. Quibell says. “We just want you to take into consideration that this crisis, you have a part to play in it. And that part is to help get housing built and that housing stays affordable.”
Your house is your most valuable asset. We have a weekly Real Estate newsletter to help you stay on top of news on the housing market, mortgages, the latest closings and more. Sign up today.