By Sue Stefko
Today, the 3.4-acre parcel of land at 291 Carling Avenue between Bell Street South and Lebreton South, which is up for redevelopment by Canada Lands Company (CLC) and the Algonquins of Ontario, is a 300-car parking lot.
The site, however, has an interesting story to tell. Prior to 1900, the land was on the outskirts of Ottawa, surrounded by lumberyards to the immediate west, industry and some working-class housing. The site was purchased in 1900 by the Ottawa Improvement Commission (OIC), a precursor of the National Capital Commission, which used it as a quarry and a stone crushing plant.
However, when the OIC morphed into the Federal District Commission (FDC) in 1927 (which itself then became the National Capital Commission in 1959), this site soon rose to prominence, becoming the new organization’s headquarters. The original building was built in 1930 at the corner of Bell Street and Carling Avenue, although the footprint soon began to expand. In 1935 a stone façade wall was built along Bell Street, which, while crumbling, still remains today – though the black steel fence on top was added later for extra height. A number of additions to the original, as well as new buildings, were built from the late 1930s to the 1960s. The site’s address changed from 291 Carling Avenue to 401 Lebreton Street, likely at some point in the late 1960s, after the new buildings changed the traffic flow, shifting the main entrance of the complex to Lebreton. It is not known where the original entrance was, though it may have been at the southern corner of Bell Street. Note that the “south” designation for both Bell and Lebreton only occurred after the Queensway was built in the 1960s, severing the streets.
It is the original building that made the site so special, however. Initially meant to house a garage, a laboratory, a warehouse and workshops for activities such as blacksmithing and road sign creation, it was renovated and expanded to become the FDC headquarters. It was the site where French city planner Jacques Gréber unveiled his famous Gréber Plan of 1951, which, for better or worse, transformed the City of Ottawa, and its effects are felt to this day. Partly as a result of its historical associations and its importance to the transformation of Ottawa, the building was designated as a Recognized Federal Heritage building in 2006. The building was also on the City of Ottawa’s Heritage List.
In 1972, the site was sold to Public Works, as the rapidly growing NCC wished to consolidate its headquarters elsewhere. The buildings were used by other departments, such as the Geological Survey of Canada, who used it for offices, storage and laboratories, with the last tenants vacating the building in 1999.
In addition to its historic significance, the original building was also designated a Recognized Federal Heritage building for its architectural value. It was praised for its dignified design, its elegant style of simple classicism and for being “one of the best examples of a building associated with the Federal District Commission,” according to a 1998 Parks Canada Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office report.
Regardless of its vaunted history, original beauty and heritage status, once the building became vacant, it fell into disrepair. In 2004, the Ottawa Citizen labelled it one of the city’s greatest eyesores. Ultimately, the building was demolished in April 2011 due to its poor physical condition and the site has stood vacant since.
Sue Stefko is president of the Glebe Annex Community Association.
The Gréber Plan was designed to bring Ottawa into modernity and to make it fit for the “future greatness of Canada.” It oversaw relocating railways outside of the downtown core, replacing east-west rail lines with the Queensway and removing “unsightly” streetcars. Roads were widened and cars became king.
Its quest to beautify the city resulted in the creation of grand spaces such as Confederation Square, theatres, libraries and a convention centre. On the other hand, that quest for beauty also called for the demolition of the unsightly “slums” of Lebreton Flats, a site that, to this day, has yet to be rebuilt.
Through the Gréber Plan land was purchased along the Rideau Canal and the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau rivers, creating the NCC system of trails and walkways along Ottawa’s waterways. Parks and recreation areas were created throughout the city and Gatineau Park expanded. More controversially, however, the Plan saw the establishment of the Greenbelt, which was meant to curb urban sprawl but was designed for a city of 500,000 people. The irony is that its presence is now pushing urban sprawl out even further from the city centre than it would otherwise have been.