What if…

Posted on Friday 25 November 2011

(Blogger Graeme Nichols challenged me and 19 other people to answer the question: ‘What if?’ For example, what if the NCC, the National Capital Commission, had said ‘yes’ to putting the Palladium on their lands at Lebreton Flats in downtown Ottawa instead of being constructed on the suburban Kanata site where Scotiabank Place (as it is currently called) sits today. What would that alternate universe look like? Here is my somewhat tongue-in-cheek answer to that question. It is based on an imaginary conversation between me and the then Chair of the NCC circa 1987 or 1988. I also give some clues as to how I think Lebreton Flats should be developed today to make it a people place rather than just a collection of condo towers which it appears destined to become.

You can see part of this essay and 19 other ‘what if’ questions on Graeme’s 6th Sens site at: http://www.the6thsens.com/ and follow Graeme as he continues ‘to see Daigle People’ on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/6thSens. The 20 ‘what if’ questions are unofficially part of the 20th Anniversary of the Sens return to play in the National League.)

From the Private Diary of Bruce M. Firestone, Founder of the modern day Ottawa Senators Hockey Club

Circa 1987/1988

I met with the Chair of the NCC today. I wanted to ask her if we could develop part of the NCC’s lands at Lebreton Flats to construct what Cyril Leeder has started calling ‘the Palladium’—a new home for the team we plan to bring back nearly 55 years after they played their last game in Ottawa in 1933 before moving to St Louis for a year then folding during the Great Depression.

I expected her to say something like: ‘Bruce, do you want the private answer or the public answer to that question?’

To which I might have responded: ‘Both.’

And she might have said: ‘The private answer is ‘no’. The NCC has a 200 year plan for Lebreton Flats—to build national structures of national importance there—perhaps a new War Museum or a new SCC, Supreme Court of Canada, building. There’s no way we are going to allow you to build a hockey rink there even a very nice one which I’m sure you will do. The public answer will be the one we give other proponents who want to use NCC lands: ‘We’ll study it.’ We don’t like to say ‘no’ to people (publicly) so we study things until one of two things happen: a) the proponent gets fed up with our requests to prepare (and pay for) more studies and consulting reports or b) they die, whichever comes first.’

Imagine my surprise when instead she said: ‘What a wonderful idea, Bruce! Imagine a downtown arena, a place where two million guests a year can come together to celebrate not only a renewed hockey team but Tier 1 Acts from all over the world who will now be able to come to the National Capital Region—Ottawa, a G8 capital city—for the first time. This arena, what did you call it… The Palladium… lovely name by the way… will act as a catalyst for Lebreton Flats, a way to springboard our whole development! It’ll help make Lebreton Flats into a people place for not only Ottawans but all Canadians who visit here—more than five million per year. There’s plenty of room for national monuments and structures that serve national purposes plus housing and gathering places for events including those held at the Palladium! Super idea!

‘You know, Bruce, confidentially, I must say that the NCC should never have expropriated Lebreton Flats in the first place. It was a vibrant community (please see Paul Kitchen’s comment at the end of this article on what the neighborhood was like before it was destroyed, Ed.) where the working person could find a reasonably-priced place to live close to downtown and close to the factories that spanned both sides of the Quebec-Ontario border. We just knocked those homes down and displaced thousands of working poor to build… well, nothing for more than 40 years. Now here you come along with this grand idea.

‘In case you don’t remember what the neighborhood looked like, I’ve got a photo of it around here somewhere. Ah, here it is:

Lebreton Flats as It Used to Be

‘What I think we should do is not only provide land for your new building but let’s do an overall master plan that sets aside a few large blocks for national facilities but let’s also make sure we do a fine enough grained plan that we get lot and block sizes that are highly variegated (large, mediums size, small and very small) so that not only big developers can play but lots of mid-tier ones will be able to develop some of the land too. That way, we’ll get something that looks more like the Byward Market or Granville Island rather than just a bunch of tall, monolithic condo towers standing incongruously in a field separated by no-places which become, after dark, unsafe and unsavory hang-outs for wrong doers.

‘I think I saw a report somewhere—it never saw the light of day since it preached planning practices that we at the NCC typically eschew—it was titled ‘Planning at Macro and Micro Scales’. It’s in a file somewhere*—you should read it if we can ever find it.

‘If we do a highly differentiated plan then we can develop the property, which by the way in my humble opinion is among the most important properties in Ottawa which include the old Rockcliffe Airbase, the Parliamentary Precinct and this one, then it won’t just fill up with undistinguished towers that might one day look something like this:

Lebreton Flats Now

‘Instead it might look more like our Byward Market or Granville Island. I just happen to have a photo of each right here:

Byward Market Highly Variegated Land Holdings and Sizes

Granville Island People Place

‘You see the NCC has a habit of putting out RFPs that only the largest, best capitalized companies can ever hope to respond to. But you’ve given us the opportunity to open up the process, Bruce, and while we can’t undo the damage we did 40 years ago to the fabric of Ottawa, this gives us the best shot to rebuild what was a real community with… well, another real community.’

‘Wow, that’s great news, Jean,’ I said. ‘It might even become a place a US President would want to visit. Do you think that is even possible?’

‘Absolutely,’ Jean said. ‘A future President’s visit might include a walkabout, a leisurely stroll where he or she might buy some gifts for their family. I wonder if Presidents carry any cash with them?’

‘Dunno,’ I said.

‘Me neither. But the visit and stroll might look something like this:

A Place a President Might Want to Visit

‘The President might even do a bit of unscheduled shopping, you never know,’ Jean added.

Strolling and Shopping

‘You know if I were to buy a piece of land somewhere to build the Palladium on, I would want it and the development that would be generated around it to look a bit like like Granville Island or the Byward Market or what we are trying to do together here at Lebreton Flats,’ I said. ‘I would like it to look something like this concept plan I’ve been working on for a fictitious place we have started calling ‘West Terrace’:

West Terrace

‘Maybe after working on the plan for another twenty years, it might evolve into something called the Kanata West Concept Plan that would look like this:

Kanata West Concept Plan

‘Those two plans look like live-work-play-shop kinda places,’ said Jean. ‘But why do them on a flat treeless plain. You could do that right here at Lebreton Flats.’

‘Exactly! But, Jean, I have another question for you,’ I said.

‘Sure, shoot, what is it?’ she replied.

‘Well, one of the reasons that the Montreal Forum is downtown and Maple Leaf Gardens is downtown is that both Montreal and TO have rapid transit**. Montreal has their Metro and Toronto has its Subway and Go Trains. We have OC Transpo which with all the goodwill in the world can only move about 2,500 to 3,000 people per hour on Scott Street versus the 20,000 pph for the Metro and nearly 30,000 pph for the Subway so it’ll take more than eight hours (!) to exit 22,500 people by bus out of the Palladium at Lebreton Flats which is, as anyone can tell you, way too long.

‘So, Jean, I was wondering if you think the Palladium might also be a catalyst for light rail development in Ottawa?’

‘Now that you mention it, Bruce, I do! No G8 capital should be without light rail. In fact, I can’t think of one that doesn’t have it and, furthermore, no great city can be great without a subway, tube, metro, etc. Umpty-umps, you know, the rich folk, the well-to-do, the mad car-driving public, most of them won’t take buses but they will switch to trains. We can build a real community with medium and high density residential structures that uses public transit. We can build a terminus right at Lebreton Flats and connect in east—west—and south.

‘Hold on, I’m forgetting something, right?’

‘Yes, Jean a coupla things.’

‘Care to give me a hint?’ she asks.

‘Of course, glad to. We should hook in the Quebec side too—instead of building more bridges for cars to cross the border why don’t we use the existing ones we have, the ones that were purpose-built for trains that currently have practically no traffic on them now for light rail!’

‘Nice. I like it,’ Jean says. ‘What was the other thing I forgot?’

‘Well, it’s a good idea of yours to have medium density and high density residential condos, towns, stacked towns, doubles, maybe even a few stately singles but what about adding some employment and retail? I’ve got the entertainment thing covered off with the Palladium. So we could develop a live-work-shop-play community built in what used to be a live-work-shop-play neighborhood, albeit 40 years ago.’

‘Splendid, Bruce, splendid. But I have one problem with all this.’

Gulp. ‘What is it?’ I asked.

‘Well, I don’t think the NCC should sell its land.’

‘You know, Jean, you may be right. Why don’t you grant people 69 year land leases with a one-time renewal of 30 years? That way folks can build all these nice structures and not have to pay huge amounts to the NCC upfront—they simply pay an annual land lease which’ll help them with their cashflow. Now, from the NCC’s point of view and the GOC’s (Government of Canada’s) POV, you’ll still own the land and, in 99 years, you’ll get to do this all over again! You can fulfill our national destiny, whatever that may be, a century from now.

‘That sounds interesting. But are there any precedents? You know we at the NCC never want to be too far out in front of our constituency,’ she said.

“Well, I’ve been advising a co-op out in Kanata which has a long waiting list of people who need affordable housing. At the same time, I know a Minister whose parish includes St John’s Anglican Church and they’ve been thinking of selling their land on March Road. But I told the Minister and his Vestry to learn something from the Holy Roman Catholic Church—they’ve been doing land leases for ages.

‘St John’s was thinking of selling their property, about four acres, for $135,000. But it would be a one-time sale and a lot of their money would flow (up) to the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa so they wouldn’t be left with much– they might not even have enough to build the bigger classroom and meeting hall at St John’s which is the only reason they are even considering this.

‘So instead I’m advising them to lease the land to something which one day might be called the Blue Heron Co-op and look kinda like this:

Blue Heron Coop

‘The concept is that the co-op won’t have to find a big chunk of money up front to buy a site– they can pay an annual or monthly land lease to the Parish (which by the way, under Diocese rules, they can keep since it is considered rent i.e., not a sale of Church property). And the Co-op can find that money in their monthly cashflow that comes from leasing the housing units.

‘So say the Co-op builds 145 badly needed affordable townhouse and apartments there. Let’s also assume that co-op members each pay $40 per unit per month towards this land lease (some will pay nothing at all since some will pay more in a cross subsidization plan where some units are rented closer to market value and some are way below that). Finally let’s stipulate that the lease is for 69 years (we’ll ignore for now the 30 year renewal option they might get) and that there is no inflation clause in the land lease (although we do intend to put one in– the CPI less a bit).

‘So if we do the calculation, St John’s would get more than $4.8 million over the next 69 years and still own the land at the end of the lease!’

‘Wow, that’s a lot better than a one time payment of $135,000,’ Jean said.

‘Exactly. And most organizations are just like regular folks– if they have the money, they’ll spend it. So here you have a renewal spigot of cash and an asset that will only increase in value– land,’ I said.

‘So basically you are recommending that St John’s and the NCC behave more like the Catholic Church?’

‘Well, I’m just talking about how they deal with their land portfolio. But the Church of St Peter has a planning cycle that stretches over two millennia and by leasing their land rather than selling it, they can continue where other institutions might falter and fade away. The largest rentier in England is the House of Windsor (i.e., the Queen). It’s her land interests and the cash they bring her (it used to be tax free before Betty voluntarily and foolishly (at least from the point of view of continuity) gave that up) that, to a great degree, account for the longevity of their House. So let’s look at the NCC’s mandate the same way, OK?’

‘Bruce, you’ve got a deal!’

Prof Bruce
Dr. Bruce M. Firestone, B.Eng. (Civil), M.Eng.-Sci., PhD.

“Making Each Day Count”

* You can read Planning at Macro and Micro Scales here: http://www.eqjournal.org/?p=456.

** This article should be read in conjunction with:
Why Scotiabank Place Is Where It Is (Part 2): http://www.eqjournal.org/?p=441 and
Why Scotiabank Place is Where it Is: http://www.eqjournal.org/?p=261.

Note: There are many other ‘what if’ questions that could have been asked. A couple that occur to me include:

1. What if Liberal Premier David Peterson had never called that Ontario election in 1990 two and a half years early that led to NDP leader Bob Rae becoming Premier?

2. What if Premier Bob Rae hadn’t reneged on the Province’s three promises to: a) come to Palm Beach to campaign for a team, b) to build the Palladium Interchange on the 417 while private money paid for the team and the new building but not public infrastructure and c) to fast track zoning approvals for the Palladium lands (instead of suing us and taking the matter before the OMB, Ontario Municipal Board)?

But Graeme missed the biggest ‘What If’ question in the Sens short history, the mother of them all. I didn’t tell him what it is because it’s a secret. But check back later, maybe I’ll share it with you after all.

OK, I’m back (it’s a few days later). Some other what-ifs:

3. What if Scotty Bowman who was then living in Buffalo and out of the National League had accepted our offer to become the Sens first ever GM?

4. What if the NHL had approved getting rid of the two line offside rule when we first suggested it in 1993! After Randy Sexton took me to see a US College hockey game at St Lawrence College in upstate New York, I thought that we could make the ice ‘bigger’ at the NHL level without actually increasing the ice surface (or decreasing valuable seating.)

I likened a defenceman coming out from behind his own net to hit a forward at the opposition’s blueline as hockey’s equivalent to the long bomb in football– not completed all that often but exciting as heck for fans. It would also prevent immobile, hulking defencemen from clogging up the ice.

I mean if we’d never changed the rules, there would still be a rover playing at the National League level. With skaters getting bigger and faster, it would make the game a kludge-fest. I felt that the NHL could learn from the NFL who change their rules as often as they need to not only because players are getting better but also because coaches are so good at adapting that they can devise systems that are practically unbeatable.

Nevertheless, we only got six votes in favour. Most members of the BOG (Board of Governors) voted against on the advice of their GMs. It would take a lock-out and another ‘generation’ would pass before the League would take this and other steps to bring the game into a new era.

5. But the biggest ‘what if’ of them all? What if Prof Bruce had accepted Ogden’s Doug Logan’s offer to relocate the franchise to Anaheim? Doug and I were on the witness stand together in the summer of 1991.

We were being cross examined by the ‘Perry Mason’ of OMB lawyers, Tom Lederer, who was a Toronto-based gunslinger hired by NDP Bob Rae’s government to derail the Sens by opposing the construction of the Palladium in Kanata. Their vain hope was that somehow, by nixing the Sens, the franchise would miraculously reappear in Hamilton’s Copps Colisuem where the NDP had more political support than Ottawa.

On the 2nd day, Doug got PO’d by the line of questioning being taken by Lederer and during one break offered on behalf of then Ogden President and CEO, Richard Ablon, a $20 million leasing inducement to relocate the Sens to Orange County to play in the then nearing completion arena there.

They had no prime tenant there and viewed the ridiculous reaction to the franchise award in Ontario (Hall of Famer Phil Esposito who was fronting the Tampa Bay Lightning franchise told me about the congratulatory call he received from the Governor of the State of Florida for bringing a NHL team there while we got a lawsuit from our Premier) as reason enough to blow town.

I said: “Doug, we didn’t bring back the Senators to play in California” and the hearing, which we eventually won, endured for 13 weeks.

A year and a half later, I was on the NHL’s expansion committee when the CEO of the Disney Company, Mike Eisner, came in the room wearing a Goofy hockey jersey– the NHL’s Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (now just the Ducks) were born a short while later.

If we had accepted Ogden’s offer there would have been: no Ducks/no Sens/no Disney involvement with the NHL/no Palladium/no Kanata West Concept Plan/no mini boom in Kanata (for example, Wal-Mart told constructor PCL to pull their building permit but not begin construction of their store at Kanata Centrum until the Palladium itself got going)/no boom in VC funding of tech (a VC told me they only like to invest in Tier 1 cities/how do they know what cities are Tier 1/they let major league sports do that for them).

What if…

Postscript: comment by Paul Kitchen, Hockey Historian, November 2011.

Hey Bruce—what a great piece of future-think. When SBP is ready for demolition at the end if its economic life maybe the Flats will still be available! There will be lots of room there, judging by the NCC’s current pace.

I have a soft spot for the Flats. I can tell you about every street and every backyard there. I was a garbage man for the City and in those days (when service was service) we hauled cans from backyards and took them in again.

Broad Street, Duke, Lett, Ottawa. Our crew of four would stop at a greasy spoon on Duke on our morning break. We sat in a row on stools along the counter. I was the rookie on the crew. Everyone would order the same: ” Pepsi and a hotdog, please.”

Waiting for the truck to return from the dump, I would sit on the sidewalk, probably Lett Street. A woman would come out of her house with a cup of water for me. The people there were nice and they treated our crew with respect.

Charlie was our top loader. He was portly and dressed in overalls and always had a battered fedora. We tossed the cans up to him and he would empty them so that a good heap would be piled up before we threw the tarpaulin over the load and battened it down.

One day on Duke Street, a funeral procession was going by. Up top of the load, Charlie removed his fedora and stood at attention. We all followed his example, ramrod stiff.

There was an LCBO on Albert Street. D’Arcy, the driver, would buy cheep wine there. When the truck went down into Bradings Hole, where Library and Archives now stands, we would sit on the grassy slope and drink the cheepo stuff. Weren’t those the days?

Best regards,


Postscript 2: comment by Jim McAuley, November 2011

Hi Bruce,

What a wonderful piece. If only!

I have a few reminisces about The Flats. My Dad was Alderman for Dalhousie Ward from 1948 to 1968. The ward included The Flats. I remember as a young boy going into corner stores to make sure my Dad’s election signs were not covered up by others during election campaigns.

Another memory.

It was a Saturday afternoon. I was at the Grads Pool Room on Somerset at Rochester Street. A bunch of the guys decided we should go to Ottawa House on the Hull (Quebec) side. We all piled into infamous Woody Latimer’s car.

At the edge of the Flats was a Supertest service station. Woody pulled up to the pumps and said: “Fill er up.” The attendant did so. Woody handed him $2. The guys says: “You asked me to fill it up.” Woody says, “No. I asked for $2.” Woody put the pedal to the metal and we took off for an afternoon at the Ottawa House.


4 Comments for 'What if…'

    Michael Slavitch
    November 28, 2011 | 10:45 am

    Original-Six arenas such as Maple Leaf Gardens, the Montreal Forum and Boston Garden had an operating lifetime of 70-80 years. Early expansion arenas such as The Igloo, Winnipeg Arena, and Le Colisee had an operating lifetime of 50 years. The operating lifetime of two of the three arenas ending with the NHL teams leaving, and with The Igloo nearly facing the same fate. Pacific Coliseum and The Cap had operating lifetimes in the range of 25-35 years. Northlands Coliseum was built in 1974 and is now obsolete. Calgary’s SaddleDome is getting pretty long in the tooth.

    All this to say the following: Scotiabank Place is now middle-aged at 15. Bruce’s what-if is not just a coulda-woulda-shoulda. Given the snail’s pace of change in Ottawa, the time to start considering its replacement is now, not 15 years from now. It’s also best to do so without involving the NCC.

    While John Martin may have a pipe dream up an orifice regarding developing a football stadium on city-owned land at Bayview Yards, given the freight-train of money and political power behind the Lansdowne development (which, after football fails again, means The Glebe wins again: sorry folks) it does point to an interesting scenario brought up by Bruce Firestone. Bayview has everything needed for an urban hockey arena, including a new light rail system opening in 2017 that will move 20,000+ people per hour (10,000+ in each direction).

    Michael Slavitch
    November 28, 2011 | 11:08 am

    Let me update that, the light rail system will supposedly allow for up to 25000 people per direction per hour. “http://www.ottawalightrail.ca/en/project-plan/fast-facts/our-new-lrt-line-will-greatly-increase-downtown-transit”

    Let’s halve that for comfortable ingress or egress. It still means that an entire arena population of 22,500 (assuming a larger arena) can be assembled or discharged using public transit in about 45 minutes, which is faster than what happens today at Scotiabank Place, primarily using cars. It also means that such a location becomes a much better venue for other bookings, making such an arena potentially viable even without an NHL team.

    Michael Slavitch
    November 28, 2011 | 11:34 am
    November 28, 2011 | 11:40 am

    [...] posted a precursor of the following at Bruce’s [...]

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