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Senator's mission impossible

Friday 3 April 1998






What a town! The future of a key open space in downtown Ottawa is being decided in a shootout between an unelected senator and the secretive National Capital Commission.


Senator Colin Kenny has a mission to turn the site of the former Daly Building on Rideau Street into a park. Normally, a senator with an idea is a rare but harmless sight, but Kenny has found the right gimmick to make his plan go.


He wants to turn the Daly site into an historic national park commemorating the Persons Case and the Famous Five. Never mind that these pioneering women will have their work marked by a separate statue just up the street on Parliament Hill. Redundancy and duplication have never been a cause for alarm in the Senate.


Kenny's enthusiasm for a park on the Daly site predates the Famous Five fad by a couple of decades, but now he's found a trendy cause to hook the idea to. There's absolutely nothing historic about the Daly site, but by tying it to an historic event, it can qualify as a national historic park. It's a cunning piece of work by Kenny, although the same logic could be used to make Lansdowne Park a national historic park paying tribute to Louis Riel. (Football fans take note.)


Kenny has a private member's bill moving through the Senate. If the Senate passes it, and it appears it will, the bill could hang up development because the NCC will not be able to proceed with a building on the site while their political bosses are considering making it a park. It has already caused delay, the NCC says. After the Senate, the bill will the move to the Commons, where it's likely to linger indefinitely, although Kenny is trying to drum up the support of Canadian Heritage Minister Sheila Copps. Kenny can't even estimate how long the bill will take to clear the Senate, but the delay will certainly be long enough to make the three firms vying to build something on the site lose interest.


Local Liberal MP Mauril Belanger is not pleased with Kenny's plan. He wants a building on the site and says the other local Liberals support him. The NCC also has the support of various business types and local politicians, but the senators on the committee don't seem impressed.


The NCC is not helping its case by proceeding with its usual secrecy. The commission is considering three development proposals for the site. One is a hotel, the others mix public uses with residential and shopping. That's about all the public knows about the plans, although important people like local MPs and senators on the committee studying Kenny's bill have seen more.


It's not even clear how much sense the NCC's plans make. They call for parking on the site but it's solid rock underneath. NCC Chairman Marcel Beaudry told the Senate committee that he has heard the cost could be $25,000 to $30,000 per parking space, about double the usual cost. The task is further complicated because a sewer runs under the site.


The NCC says the site must be an attraction in itself but the unanswered question is what will the attraction be. Unfortunately, this well positioned piece of land doesn't seem to be particularly suitable for anything. Redevelopment has been kicked around for years but there has never been a compelling idea proposed.


Despite that, the land is too valuable simply to turn into a park and the area is already well endowed with parks, including Confederation Park, Major's Hill Park and the land along the Rideau Canal.


Kenny's plan would take the Daly site away from the NCC and give it to Parks Canada. That organization, whose budget is shrinking, has the task of looking after real national parks and genuine historical sites. The NCC estimates that developing Daly as a park would cost $3 million to $5 million. It's difficult to imagine it as a priority.


The senator hasn't consulted Parks Canada about his plan and has no suggestions himself for what the park would be like. Best leave that to the experts, he says. Besides, he doesn't want to impose his views on the people of Ottawa.


That's rich, considering.


It's bad enough that we're afflicted with the NCC, the curse of the capital. Now we've got former Trudeau aides telling us how to develop the downtown. You have to give Kenny points for knowing how to stick it to the mighty NCC. Many have tried but few have succeeded.


That aside, his idea doesn't make much sense. A city consists primarily of built structures and people. Leaving the Daly site as a place for planters and saplings is simply a failure of imagination.


Senator Kenny’s Response