LeBreton Flats: Ottawa’s Field of Dreams

Of all the monuments, museums, sculptures and edifices in Ottawa, perhaps no landmark better epitomizes the nation’s capital than an empty field: LeBreton Flats. Until the early 1960’s, LeBreton Flats was a thriving working-class neighbourhood just a few blocks from Parliament Hill. But city planners deemed it an eyesore – a blot on the capital’s grand vision of itself.So the government expropriated the land and bulldozed the properties.

And for nearly 40 years afterwards various levels of bureaucracy have wrangled over conflicting development plans for the Flats. All of which fell flat.

For residents of Ottawa, LeBreton Flats has come to symbolize many different things: Government bullying. Colonial oppression. Bureaucratic boondoggle. Industrial wasteland. Field of dreams. There’s some truth behind all these depictions. But the real story is much more complex.

“Je me souvien” reads the motto on Quebec license plates. The slogan (I will remember) recalls with lingering bitterness the battle on the Plains of Abraham where the French were defeated by the British in 1758.

While LeBreton’s Flats is no Plains of Abraham, it has come to be lodged in the memories of Ottawa residents as emblematic of government mistreatment of the poor and powerless.

Once the home to 2,800 souls, the Flats was a bustling blue-collar community containing railway-yards, a paint factory, chop shops and several pubs.

Condemned for committing the cardinal sin of lying too close to Parliament Hill, the government determined to flatten the Flats as part of their plans to beautify the capital.

Though residents of the Flats couldn’t argue with the eviction notices they received in their mail on April 18, 1962, they were treated fairly by government. Phil Jenkins, the author of the definitive book about the history of LeBretons Flats, An Acre in Time, in an interview says that residents received ample compensation for their property. Nor was their any public outcry. At any rate, residents of the Flats in 1960 fared far better then the first inhabitants, the Algonquin Indians. In 1800, the Algonquins were paid a measly $30 U.S. by Philemon Wright for the Flats as well as for land across the river that eventually became the city of Hull. Moreover, most of the land on the Flats actually belonged to the railways and was obtained by negotiation not expropriation.

The last building to be torn down on the Flats was a tavern called the Duke House, which was demolished on October 27, 1965. Since that fateful date the Flats has lain fallow. But city planners have been busy floating proposals for the Flats even before the wrecking ball had its final swing.

Originally, the Flats, a 160 acres wedge of land bordering the Ottawa River was intended to be the new seat for Canada’s Department of National Defence Headquarters. Instead, military planners, perhaps for strategic reasons – no one, not even the venerable Phil Jenkins is quite certain why – decided to locate alongside Colonel By Drive.

During the past 35 years every imaginable schemes has been pitched for the site. Plans have ranged from theme parks to office buildings to residential developments. In the past decade alone, there have been proposals to build a $70-million aquarium, a $100-million railway terminal for a high-speed train that would link Windsor to Montreal and a $700-million overhaul to the Flats to bolster Ottawa’s bid to host the 2005 World Fair.

Proposals for the Flats multiplied like Hydra heads, Jenkins says. “Each time a plan was axed two more would sprout in its place.”

Despite no dearth of plans with grandiose titles, such as ‘Town and Crown,’ ‘Symbolic Bridge,’ ‘Multi-use Node,’ (my personal favorite) and ‘An Agora for the Capital’; spades have yet to break ground on the Flats.

“Perhaps the reason that nothing has ever happened was that anything could,” remarks Jenkins wistfully. Another factor, Jenkins wisely notes, is the maxim that the more people you have involved in a decision, the less likely you are to get one.

No less than three levels of government held legal sway over LeBreton Flats.

The National Capital Commission owned 78%, the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton controlled 14% and the City of Ottawa retained 8%.

On November 9, 1999, the Region and the City handed over their parcels of land to the Commission. But ownership is just one obstacle barring construction.

A bigger impediment to building on the Flats maybe an Environmental Study conducted in 1991. The report found some areas were tainted with toxic substances from a paint factory, two gas stations and a bulk oil storage that used to be situated on the Flats.

Construction may pose some risk of contaminating ground water and the Ottawa River.

Though the report concluded that most sites presented “little or no environmental risk,” the cost of clean-up nevertheless carries a $30-million to $40-million price tag.

Remedies being considered include skimming off 6 ft of topsoil and dumping it somewhere else, or drilling drainage holes straight down into the earth to speed up natural decay.

Many events and activities have been held on the Flats. The Flats has served as a launch pad for hot-air balloons. Cirque du Soleil, the famous Montral circus, pitched their big top on it. Protestors have also camped out on the Flats. Concerts have been held there, including the annual Blues Festival, which last summer starred the legendary Smokey Robinson. Pope John Paul the II wrapped up his 12-day tour of Canada in 1984 with a sermon on the Flats. The outdoor communion message was broadcast around the world and an estimated 300,000 souls attended the mass.

Jenkins disparagingly dismisses the current development plan for the Flats concocted by the National Capital Commission as a camel with too many things stacked on its back. At the core of the plan is 2,500 housing units, providing homes for 4,500 residents. Stores, restaurants and office towers would line the streets and up to 6,500 people would work there. Museums, monuments, ceremonial plazas and federal buildings will grace the landscape. Parkland will cover 40% of the site and would be accentuated by a wide promenade along the waterfront. According to the National Capital Commission development is not expected to start until 2005 and would take 15 to 20 years to complete.

This longtime Ottawa resident is skeptical. But who knows? Anything can happen on LeBreton Flats – Ottawa’s field of dreams.