Obtuse: The only word for Ottawa councillors on the Château Laurier file

Rob Snow is one of Ottawa’s best interviewers, and listening to his popular morning show on CFRA is like tapping into the pulse of our region. Yesterday, Snow had an interview with Ottawa Councillor Alan Hubley that was so incredible I had to go online to confirm what was said.

Snow asked Hubley about the planning committee vote of 8-3 that approved the construction of a new wing to the Château Laurier Hotel, one of Canada's most historically important, storied, and revered buildings. Larco Investments, which owns the hotel, is proposing to build a seven-story, 147-room addition to the Château that includes an underground parking garage, a new ballroom courtyard, and a connection to the terraces above the Rideau Canal. They have been trying to build an extension for several years but have been rejected on four previous occasions because the designs have been, to be generous, horrible.

The fifth and latest attempt is another big fail. It looks like an oversized air filter was attached to the back of the building. There is no integrative flow with the rest of the Château, and it is beyond butt ugly. It ruins the look of the rest of the hotel, not to mention it juts out onto Major’s Hill Park, which is adjacent to one of Canada’s great museums, The National Gallery. I suspect the architects must also be anti-American because only someone who hates America would design a structure directly across the street from the U.S. Embassy that looks like it was inspired by the worst of Soviet post-war architecture.

Rob Snow’s interview let the cat out of the bag.

When interviewing Councillor Allan Hubley, a member of the planning committee, Snow asked him if he would vote in favour of the new design monstrosity. Incredulously, Hubley responded very matter-of-factly that he was going to approve it. He said, “Everyone knows it's ugly, but I’m a technical guy, and the rules were followed, so we need to get on with it.”

And therein lies the problem.

Why are we letting Hubley or any city councillor who will proudly and publicly admit their ignorance on matters related to architecture and design, as if it were a badge of honour, decide this matter? Worse is that he doubled down and marinated in this ignorance by adding, “I’m a technical guy, and the rules were followed, so we are going to build it, even though it will be ugly.” Really? Does he think he is building a garden shed for the above-ground pool in his yard? He seems unaware that his responsibilities are much greater.

Hubley and the other councillors who voted in favour of this blight on our nation's heritage should read a couple of books on industrial design or educate themselves on the importance the design of buildings plays in the history of the great capitals of the world. Why are we settling for the decision of councillors who think the Group of Seven were house painters from Kanata to decide on the design and look of one of the most symbolic buildings in Canada’s capital.

The real problem has been the process. It is not the business of city officials to get into the detail of the design, what kind of design, or how much limestone, glass, or other materials should be used. That is for architects and designers to decide. This is part art and part design and, of course, vision.

Many excellent firms have had incredible success in design in Ottawa, including the firm that undertook the spectacular renovation on the West Block, the Mizrahi architects who have designed and will build an exceptional condo on Wellington, the firm who designed the new Ottawa Art Gallery (The John Ruddy Cube), those who redesigned the Ottawa Conference Centre, or even the firm responsible for the extension of the Château Frontenac in Quebec City several years ago.

The simple fact is that Larco architects have failed five times in a row, and they need to go back a sixth time to (hopefully) get it right. Process should not trump the desired outcome. How preposterous and ridiculous a statement from an elected official.

These technocratic, process-driven, creatively challenged councillors who do not seem to understand the importance of this project should not be given the final decision. We need to go big or go home. We mustn't have a small town, cheap attitude around this.

But don't take my word for it. Over 2,400 complaints have been submitted to the city criticizing the design, including former MP David Collenette, who served as a Federal Minister in various portfolios for years (Defence, Transport Canada, Multiculturalism, and Veterans Affairs). Collenette called it a “travesty,” and he appealed to the committee to defer the decision until Larco came up with another design. Architectural historian Peter Coffman said, “The Château is fire. The addition is water.” Chris Wiebe of the National Trust for Canada, which advocates for historical places, said the city shouldn't shrug our collective shoulders and move on. “We believe a better outcome is possible, and someone has to make the first step,” said Wiebe. Architect Barry Padolsky, a member of the city’s heritage subcommittee, has called for the planning committee to demand a better design. Claridge Homes has even weighed in through their Lawyer Paul Webber who said Larco should have been forced to file a full-blown rezoning application rather than going through a site plan and minor variance process.

Councillor Stephen Bais has said, "As ugly as the drawings are, I’m hopeful that it'll turn out better in real life.” Really. Ugh . . . there’s leadership.

Apparently, the planning committee had the final say on site plan control, and the matter will not rise to the city council. For the record, Councillors Riley Brockington, Jeff Leiper, and Scott Moffatt voted against the site plan. Voting in favour were Laura Dudas, Glen Gower, Rick Chiarelli, Stephen Blais, Allan Hubley, Tim Tierney, Jan Harder, and Eli El-Chantiry. Bravo to Rideau-Vanier Councillor Mathieu Fleury for putting the council on notice that he’ll ask for the heritage permit to be pulled on the development, virtually ensuring municipal politicians vote on the design. Kitchissippi Councillor Jeff Leiper said he would help Fleury get the matter to the council floor. “I think it’s critical for councillors to weigh in,” said Leiper.

Hubley and the other proponents of this debacle claim that if the city council intervenes and votes this down, Larco could sue the city, resulting in a six-figure legal bill for City Hall after years of court process and an uncertain result. Well, I say BRING. IT. ON.

As citizens, why are we enabling meek-minded councillors to allow a private company into bullying us into something we don’t like. Hubley admitted to Rob Snow that they all know the design is ugly! We should tell Larco to go back and get it right or use other methods available to the city to prevent Larco down from proceeding on any extension. If Council can’t get this right, the Federal Government Minister responsible for Parks Canada should intervene and send this back to the drawing table. They need to stop this stupidity before we are saddled with a white elephant a block from Parliament Hill for a century.