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The Château Laurier fight is over. The hideous extension will be built and Major’s Hill Park in Ottawa will be despoiled as it will now dwell in the shadow of an enormous shipping container.
It’s astonishing that the only ones who defended the hotel’s extension on the merits themselves were those being paid. What no one wants will now be built on some of the most historic land in the country, in an architectural environment that ought to receive heightened protection, not less.
So let us assign responsibility. And if those guilty were not largely shameless, their culpability would make them ashamed.
First, of course, is Château Laurier owner Larco Investments, which proposed the monstrosity and persisted over years of objections.
Larco has failed as a steward of the historic building. What remains incomprehensible after all this is why Larco, which presumably purchased the Château Laurier in part due to its history, beauty and prestige, would want to deface it.
If an enterprise is desirous of owning a profitable and ugly hotel building, there are plenty of options, including a few buildings within walking distance of the Château Laurier.
Building ugly is likely cheaper but may not be decisively so. Creative architectural solutions can balance profitability with beauty; in this case, Larco didn’t try. Over the three years of dispute, Larco only really consented to making a very tall and ugly extension into a less tall and ugly extension.
After Larco, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson deserves to be held responsible. He should have stopped the proposal when he could have and exerted some effort to enlist the co-operation of others.
“People love the Château Laurier and if I own[ed] that building I wouldn’t put that addition on, but unfortunately I don’t own the building,” Watson said during the decision vote at city council last week.
“The city doesn’t own the building. It’s owned by private property owners, and at the end of the day they do have the right to choose the design and style that they want for their building.”
Watson’s zealous defence of property rights is somewhat idiosyncratic. Private property owners all over Ottawa face innumerable restrictions on what they can and can’t do with their properties.
Want to put more energy-efficient windows on the backside of a heritage property? Want to cut down a tree on your private property? Ottawa has a 37-page document that tells you whether you can or can’t, and all the approvals required if you can.
The mayor may boast of powerlessness, but the city has plenty of power when it wants to use it.
City council bears plenty of responsibility as well. In June 2018, council unanimously – unanimously! – approved a heritage permit for Larco to build the extension, leaving it up to city staff to approve the final design. Last week’s vote to revoke that heritage permit was defeated 13-10.
It’s quite likely that most city councillors who voted not to revoke the permit did so because they felt Larco would sue the city for substantial damages. That means that because city council didn’t do its job last year when it could have, it refused to do its job this year when it might have had to pay a price for not doing its job last year.
The National Capital Commission – last seen haplessly failing to get the prime minister’s residence problems solved – took a pass on the Château Laurier file, saying it was municipal matter.
If the Château Laurier doesn’t qualify for the commission’s involvement, what does?
The Ontario provincial ministry that oversees heritage took a pass too, even though its minister, Lisa MacLeod, is from nearby Nepean. The Ontario Heritage Act enables the minister to act if a building has “heritage significance” but she declined to do so.
Again, if the Château Laurier doesn’t qualify, what does?
What’s to be done?
Those who could have done something have not and will not. So all that’s left is to try to persuade Larco not to do what it’s manifestly determined to do.
In the meantime, if visiting Ottawa, enjoy Major’s Hill Park before the vandals begin their work in September.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow.
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