By Charlie Senack
In February, Ottawa city council voted against the National Capital Commission’s (NCC) plan to build five embassies on a stretch of Mechanicsville greenspace.
The 3.7-hectare parcel of land located between Slidell Street and Forward Avenue is owned by the NCC, but would need to first be rezoned by the city in order for any development to take place. Ottawa’s planning committee voted in favour of the rezoning in September 2021, but was ultimately up to council to make the final call.
Some members of the community have strongly opposed the planned ‘embassy row,’ citing safety concerns and the loss of public greenspace.
“Ottawa needs to protect its tree canopy,” Lorrie Marlow, president of the Mechanicsville Community Association, told Kitchissippi Times in April 2021. “This is the spot to plant even more trees to achieve that needed canopy. Migratory birds need this greenspace as well as the wildlife and wildflowers.”
Kitchissippi Ward Coun. Jeff Leiper also didn’t want to see the rezoning of land passed, and he gave a final plea to his council colleagues during the Feb. 9 meeting.
“I am asking again that this not be allowed to proceed,” Leiper said. “I know from residents, and what I see walking around, is that we cannot lose this greenspace. Our official plan calls for us to provide greenspace for rapidly intensifying neighbourhoods like Mechanicsville. It wouldn’t be appropriate to allow this embassy row proposal to move forward.”
Noting the climate emergency council previously declared and growing development in the community, Leiper said the forested area needed to remain intact.
“When you take a look at the heat map that the city has published, you can see the green effect of this parcel of land in a concrete jungle,” he said. “I’m asking that we be sensitive to the climate crisis that we declared, and preserve this land as greenspace, by rejecting this proposal by the NCC to turn it into a further extension of a concrete jungle in a neighbourhood that we in our official plan and our zoning are going to allow thousands of new residents to live in.”
Leiper got his wish: Council voted 22 to 2 in rejection of the rezoning.
Many planning committee members who initially voted in favour of the application shifted sides during this debate. Some east end councillors say they voted against the proposal due to a growing divide in city council with the NCC. Shortly before the council meeting began, four east end councillors wrote an open letter saying they are frustrated with how the NCC refused to approve an extension for Brian Coburn Boulevard in that side of town.
That development includes a rapid transit park for buses, which would benefit Orleans and Cumberland commuters, who have long complained about transit concerns.
“We have also been struggling with the NCC. Their mandate, in my view, is greenspace,” said Beacon Hill-Cyrville Coun. Tim Tierney. “I’m having a big struggle over the last 12 years trying to get the NCC on board where it will see their portfolio increase in greenspace and solve a massive transit issue in the east end of the city.”
“It’s time for the NCC to start working with the city,” he said.
Couns. Rick Chiarelli and Scott Moffatt were the only two in support of the NCC’s plan.
Moffatt, who sits on the planning committee as co-chair, said while he understands the community’s frustrations, he feared the NCC would retaliate.
“I don’t think that we want to start evaluating planning files based on other positions we have on other files in the city,” Moffatt stated. “If you want a vote against this because you want an infrastructure file somewhere else in the city, and you feel this is the way to get it, the Ontario Land Tribunal is going to disagree with you.”
Shortly after council rejected their plan, the NCC said they were considering legal options.
In a statement sent to Kitchissippi Times, Valérie Dufour, a spokesperson for the organization, said the NCC offered to discuss ways to consider two of the City’s new road options for the east end “in the spirit of partnership and flexibility,” but the offer “was refused by the City.”
“Unfortunately, the City decided not to proceed with the agreed alignment and undertook an assessment of new road options through NCC lands that were not the subject of any prior agreement with us,” she said.
She also said that city council has “contravened planning principles” by linking the rezoning application of the five embassies to the NCC’s unwillingness “to cede environmentally sensitive lands in the Greenbelt” to allow for an extension for Brian Coburn Boulevard.
Mayor Jim Watson said he voted down the rezoning application in order to protect the community greenspace. He urged the NCC to look elsewhere for land to build on.
Leiper said he spent time over the Christmas break trying to acquire other parcels of land, but he had no luck. He said it would have added “relatively significantly to the parkland inventory in an area that is lacking greenspace.
–With files from Alvin Tsang.