A Civic Hospital ‘Who dunnit?’

By Valerie Swinton

The Investigation

Why, how and by whom was the site of a new hospital switched from an NCC-recommended brownfield site at Tunney’s Pasture to more than 50 acres of green and forested land, most of it a national heritage site, in the Central Experimental Farm? How did a corporate board of directors override the result of a six-month government site review?

The Suspects

  1. The Ottawa Hospital (TOH)
  • Approved the sites to be reviewed by the NCC. Why was Tunney’s on the list if a master plan had been approved in 2014 and if the Hospital had such strong objection to it?
  • Insisted on immediate proximity to the existing Civic Hospital, which has been sold to a private long-term care company, and it knew the Heart Institute will relocate to the new Civic Campus. Why was a Farm site so critical?
  • Has been secretive and misleading. The 2016 $2.8 billion estimate is out of date. Oakville’s smaller hospital cost $2.7 billion seven years ago. TOH perpetuated the myth that the site was restricted to the former Sir John Carling building, promised an underground garage and on-site LRT access. They did not reveal they would ask for a city contribution until long after city approval of the Master Plan. They excluded the NCC from their “special” 45-minute board meeting on November 28, 2016, at which the minutes record, a management analysis of the NCC Site Review, took place, including a summary of events following the NCC announcement, discussions with community leaders and feedback from across the city to reject the recommendation. The board voted to reject Tunney’s, citing “access, cost of land remediation and timelines,” substantiation of which has not been provided. The board did not respond to the NCC’s subsequent offer to meet with them. The public deserves to know more about the information presented at this meeting.
  • Has not been diligent. They did not fully investigate the constraints and costs of both sites before deciding on the Farm site, ignored recent research demonstrating that hospitals over 600 beds begin to lose efficiencies in both quality of care and cost, and chose to build a mega hospital in the centre of the city, a decision that does not consider access to standard and emergency care for suburban and rural communities.
  1. The Federal Government
  • Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) objected to Tunney’s Pasture because it was home to 10,000 government workers and the master plan for Tunney’s, approved in 2014 after five years of work by PSPC, did not include a hospital.
  • Catherine McKenna, then the environment minister, and Mélanie Joly, then heritage minister, initially spoke in favour of Tunney’s. Both changed their position. After the switch was announced, Joly removed the heritage designation from the hospital portion of the Farm and instructed officials to make the land available. There is no legislation protecting the remainder of the Farm. What changed their minds? Can the minister remove heritage status that easily?
  1. The Provincial Government
  • Lacks a policy on hospital size, care levels and urban/suburban distribution.
  • Agreed to finance a hospital double the maximum size recommended for efficiency in quality of care and cost.
  1. The City of Ottawa/Mayor Watson
  • Facilitated a solution to the Hospital’s refusal of Tunney’s Pasture.
  • Failed to object to the loss of over 700 trees despite the city’s declared climate emergency.
  • Enacted a bylaw to rezone the 25-hectare parcel of land “Institutional, permitting hospital, office, research and development centres and related ancillary uses.”
  • Approved the Hospital Master Site Plan and building a 2,500-car parking garage beside Dow’s Lake.
  1. Developers with an interest in Tunney’s Pasture?
  • The NCC Site Review noted as weaknesses of the Tunney’s site:
  • Potential cost to federal government (value of land)
  • Requires reconsideration of Tunney’s Master Plan redevelopment scenario
  • The value of lost development potential at Tunney’s was estimated by ReImagine Ottawa to be approximately $2.5 billion and would have been of serious concern to the developer community.
  • A Horizon Ottawa study revealed that almost half of the successful candidates for City Council in 2018 received more than 50 per cent of their funding from individuals connected to the development industry. All but one of the nine-member Planning Committee received some financing from this sector. Three councillors, including the chair of Planning Committee, received over 90 per cent from the development community.

 The Victims

  • The NCC, whose authority and credibility were compromised.
  • Environment Canada, prevented from investigating concerns raised by community organizations because PSPC and the Hospital had signed a lease. (In the spring of 2022, private citizens undertook an analysis and found toxic pH levels in effluent coming from the site.)
  • Parks Canada, which no longer had full jurisdiction over the land after heritage status was removed.
  • The citizens of Canada and especially of Ottawa.

The Verdict

My conclusion is that The Ottawa Hospital bears initial responsibility for the loss of Experimental Farm land and Queen Juliana Park. Their urgency to get the project moving and their overweening ambition to build a monumental hospital in a magnificent setting drove the decision. The federal government bears primary responsibility for making the decision, based, it would seem, on loss of income and existing plans for Tunney’s. The City of Ottawa played a key facilitation role. The influence of community leaders who objected to Tunney’s and from the development industry is invisible but likely. This array was no match for citizen calls to preserve a health-enhancing, green environment and to protect a cherished Canadian heritage site. Transparency? Zero.

Valerie Swinton is a former Glebe resident, a GCA board member and a volunteer with ReImagine Ottawa. A petition calling for an inquiry is on the ReImagine Ottawa website.

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