The City of Ottawa has been working with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG) over the past year to develop a plan to make Lansdowne financially self-sustaining and their revitalization plans were shared on Wednesday, April 25, 2022 during a meeting of the Lansdowne Stakeholder Sounding Board.
In short, there are major changes being proposed to what is becoming known as Lansdowne 2.0. These plans will be released to the public for first time through a report to the City’s Finance and Economic Development Committee (FEDCO) in early May.
New arena and replacement of the North Stands
Less than 10 years after the city invested $136M to renovate and update the Civic Centre and improve the North Stands, city staff and OSEG are recommending these city-owned assets be demolished, with the North Stands rebuilt with fewer seats, and the construction of a new 5,500 seat arena/event centre (the existing Civic Centre has 9,500 seats) under the berm on the east side of the stadium’s end zone. The location of the proposed new arena is curious, given the city is aware that the soil under the berm is toxic and they will have to pay to remove it. When Lansdowne was redeveloped in 2012, the city determined this soil remediation process was too expensive which is why there is a berm on the end zone of the stadium today.
The new, smaller arena is expected to improve the fan experience, increase attendance to the Ottawa 67s games and build a “medium sized” venue for arts and cultural events that will fill a gap in Ottawa for a contemporary venue for mid-sized music and cultural events that are currently by-passing Ottawa on national tours. The city believes this new venue will help support the city’s “Music Strategy” and supplement the offering of existing music festivals and ultimately, enhance the tourism appeal of Ottawa. If the city is serious about achieving its climate objectives, it should take this opportunity to build a carbon neutral arena/event venue.
Additional housing at Lansdowne and the sale of air rights
Three 20+ storey towers are being proposed next to the new North Stands on Exhibition Way that will create 1,200 new dwelling units. 120 units (or 10%) are required to be “affordable.” In selling the air rights to build these high-rise apartment buildings, the city will look for a buyer that will be required to find a partner that will operate the affordable units for the next 50 years. Regrettably, the units will not be deeply affordable units, rather, they are being proposed as “low-end of market” (80% of the average market rent currently found in the Glebe). Rezoning will be required to add additional housing since the current zoning only permits 280 units. According to Steve Willis, the City’s General Manager for Planning, Infrastructure and Economic Development, the number of units being proposed and only requiring 10% as affordable units was integral to make the revitalization plans self-financing. Anything less would mean the city is losing money and the site would not be considered self-sustaining.
Important questions remain outstanding; for example, is 1,200 units the appropriate number for this site, and can current municipal infrastructure support this number of new units? Can it accommodate more? Is the type of new housing being proposed (one and two-bedroom condominiums) the kind of new housing Ottawa needs at the moment? With Lansdowne being public land, should the city use its leverage with prospective developers and require a significant increase in deeply affordable units (units that cost way less than 80% market rent?) Given the affordable housing crisis in our city, surely the city can significantly increase the amount of proposed affordable housing and go further by ensuring that deeply affordable housing units are a requirement of the sale of the air rights, even if this ends up costing the city money.
Improvements to the heritage buildings and Aberdeen Square
Other changes to the site will include the much-needed repairs to the beloved heritage buildings at Lansdowne Park, specifically the significant structural repairs that are required to the historic Aberdeen Pavilion, including the roof and the floor, as well as improvements to the Horticulture building to better equip these facilities with heating and air conditioning as well as modern technical infrastructure to support events and programming. Aberdeen square will get a face lift with more shade and outdoor seating, more trees planted on the site and improvements will be made to accommodate pedestrian access and active transportation.
OSEG and the City of Ottawa worked with Deloitte on a cash flow model, financial risk analysis to assess revenue neutrality and affordability of the revitalization plans. The sale of the air rights and “tax increment financing” which is the projection of future property tax revenue from the 1,200 new units appears to be the main financial inputs. Furthermore, an agreement between the city and OSEG that makes changes to the financial waterfall that will benefit the city are being considered.
At the time of publication, city staff are asking FEDCO to “approve these plans in principle” and give staff the required permission to continue with next steps that will include spending money on public consultation on these concepts, start the rezoning process, apply for new land use, and further develop legal agreements with OSEG concerning the proposed changes to the financial waterfall agreement. Steve Willis insists the report to FEDCO is simply asking City Council for “approval to start these plans, not approval to finish these plans.”
Without comprehensive public consultation across the city, especially so close to the upcoming municipal election, one obvious question is, what’s the rush to have this approved now? During the Stakeholder Sounding Board meeting, Steve Willis indicated they are fulfilling the desire of City Council that passed a motion in July 2021 to have city staff return to council with a plan to make Lansdowne financially self-sustaining by Q2 2022 (now). Furthermore, the city wants to provide OSEG the certainty it desires with regards to the future of the site. On numerous occasions Steve Willis indicated that a future City Council could reverse these plans, change the financial structure, and adopt new ones or do nothing at all. Only time will tell if a future council decides to change course, and what it will cost the taxpayers of Ottawa to amend or cancel the plans City Council is being asked to approve now.
What’s currently missing from the plan beyond rigorous public consultation and feedback from residents, is a way to better integrate the site into our community, better connect it with the Rideau Canal, and most importantly, a public transit and transportation plan to get visitors and the new residents in the high-rise buildings to and from Lansdowne. OSEG and the city have both identified this as a serious concern even though it is currently lacking from the plans. Without an efficient way to get people to and from Lansdowne, combined with a lack of parking on the site, no rapid transit along Bank Street and reduced lanes over the Bank Street Bridge, the goal of increasing the number of visitors from 4M to 5M every year is going to be a challenge and it will have serious impacts on nearby residents and small businesses in the Glebe, Old Ottawa East and Old Ottawa South.
The city’s new Official Plan designated Lansdowne Park as one of its “special districts,” therefore we should expect comprehensive public engagement across the city on the future of this valuable city-owned land before significant decisions are made concerning Lansdowne’s future. It’s clear that these revitalization plans are good news for OSEG, but only time will tell if it’s also good news for the city as a whole and the residents and small businesses in our community that surround Lansdowne Park.
Anthony Carricato is the Chair of the Glebe Community Association Lansdowne Committee, a member of the Lansdowne Stakeholder Sounding Board and a resident of Fifth Ave.
Featured in the May 2022 OSCAR.