Proposals for Lansdowne 2.0
Photos: Courtesy of OSEGBy Anthony Carricato. Proposed concepts for Lansdowne 2.0. shared at the Lansdowne Stakeholder Sounding Board Meeting in April. Proposals include building three new condo towers, a new and smaller arena and new north-side stands.
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 April 20 during a meeting of the Lansdowne Stakeholder Sounding Board. In short, there are major changes being proposed in what is becoming known as Lansdowne 2.0.
New arena and replacement of the north stands
Less than 10 years after the City invested $136 million to renovate and update the Civic Centre and improve the north stands, city staff and OSEG are recommending these city-owned assets be demolished and replaced. The north stands would be rebuilt with fewer seats, and a new 5,500 seat arena/event centre (the existing Civic Centre has 9,500 seats) would be built under an expanded berm that would be inaccessible, and result in reduction of usable park space. The location of the proposed 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 that soil remediation was too expensive, which is why the berm is there today.
The new, smaller arena is expected to improve the fan experience, increase attendance at Ottawa 67s games and fill a gap in Ottawa by providing a contemporary “medium-sized” venue for mid-sized music and cultural events that are currently bypassing Ottawa on national tours. The City believes this new venue will support its music strategy, supplement the offerings 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.
More housing at Lansdowne and the sale of air rights
Three 20-plus-storey towers are being proposed next to the new north stands on Exhibition Way, creating 1,200 new dwelling units of which 120 units (or 10 per cent) are required to be “affordable.” In selling the air rights to build these high-rises, the City will look for a buyer that will be required to find a partner to operate the affordable units for the next 50 years. Regrettably, the units will not be deeply affordable; rather, they are being proposed as “low-end of market” (80 per cent of the average market rent currently found in the Glebe). Rezoning will be required to add more housing since the current zoning only permits 280 units at Lansdowne. Steve Willis, the City’s general manager for Planning, Infrastructure and Economic Development, says the large number of units being proposed and limiting affordable units to 10 per cent were integral to making the revitalization plans self-financing and prevent the City from losing money.
Important questions remain outstanding. For example, are 1,200 units the appropriate number for this site? Can current municipal infrastructure support that many new units? Is the type of new housing being proposed (one- and two-bedroom condominiums) the kind of new housing that 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 per cent market rent)? Given the affordable housing crisis in our city, surely the City can significantly increase the amount of affordable housing and make it a condition in the sale of air rights, even if this ends up costing the City money.
Improvements to the heritage buildings and Aberdeen Square
Under the plan, there would also be much-needed repairs to heritage buildings at Lansdowne Park, including to the roof and floor of the Aberdeen Pavilion. The Horticultural Building would get heating and air conditioning, to make it more useable during winter cold spells and summer heat waves, along with technical upgrades needed to support events and programming. Aberdeen Square would see a facelift to enhance it with more trees, shade and outdoor seating, and improvements to better accommodate pedestrian access and active transportation.
Financial Plan to rely on “air rights” and diverting new property taxes from towers
OSEG and the City 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, appear to be the main financial inputs. But does diverting 90 per cent of new taxpayer revenue to pay for new facilities make sense? How will we pay for other municipal costs? The staff report indicates that the City will look to “annual budget tax increases…for funding City tax-supported services.” Does council support this approach? Changes are also being considered to the financial “waterfall” scheme – revenue now goes first to OSEG to pay down its equity in the original development; changes could give the City more cash distributions sooner to help it pay for new construction.
On May 6, council’s Finance and Economic Development Committee (FEDCO) approved the plans in principle, and the project will go to full council on May 25. Approval in principle allows City staff to continue with next steps that will include spending money on public consultation, starting the rezoning process, applying for new land use and further developing legal agreements with OSEG on changes to the financial waterfall agreement. Willis insists council is simply being asked 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? Willis indicated City staff are fulfilling the desire of city council which passed a motion in July 2021 to have them return to council by the second quarter of 2022 with a plan to make Lansdowne financially self-sustaining. Furthermore, the City wants to provide OSEG the certainty it desires on the future of the site. On numerous occasions, Willis indicated that a future city council could reverse these plans and change the financial structure, then adopt new plans or do nothing at all. Only time will tell if a future council decides to change course, and what it would cost taxpayers 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 and better connect it with the Rideau Canal and, most importantly, a transportation plan to get visitors and the new high-rise residents to and from Lansdowne. OSEG and the City have both identified this as a serious concern even though it is currently missing from the plans. 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 four million to five million a 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,” so we should expect comprehensive public engagement on the future of this valuable city-owned land before significant decisions are made. It’s clear these revitalization plans are good news for OSEG, but only time will tell if they are also good news for the city as a whole and for the residents and small businesses in our community.
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 Avenue.