Discover more from Fix Your City
Fix Trust in City Hall 2: "Controlling the Narrative" Can Destroy Your Credibility
The Case of Lansdowne 2.0 in Ottawa and "moves away from solely air rights"
This is the second in a series of common sense solutions for restoring trust in city hall
If you live in Ottawa, please see the “Be heard” section below where I ask that you consider emailing your City Councillor if you are concerned with the Lansdowne 2.0 proposal.
The City narrative is …
Trust in City Hall can take months to establish … or minutes to destroy.
Ottawa’s new-ish mayor and its City Council are learning this the hard way.
Mayor Mark Sutcliffe is trying to sell the city on a “Lansdowne 2.0” proposal – which would spend $400-500 million of taxpayer money to rebuild a sports stadium.
The City, and its project partner, the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, have been working overtime to control the narrative on Lansdowne, asserting that the stadium is crumbling and functionally “end-of-life”. They also argue that tearing down the stadium and rebuilding it along with new retail and residential towers, will be done at the low cost of $5 million a year.
The only problem is that their narrative is simply not credible.
… contradictory to its own reports
The City’s own consultant has said that the stadium is perfectly good for another 40 years with a modest level of annual maintenance and repairs.
The financial projections are at best “optimistic”, according to EY, the City’s due diligence consultant.
At worst, they are a repeat of the broken promises that have left the City holding the bag – in this case, $15 million a year in debt payments for the next forty years. That would almost be the same as a 1% property tax increase.
“Moving away from solely air rights”
But the day before this proposal goes to Committee for review, and a week before the Council decision, a potential bombshell has dropped.
Lansdowne has been sold to the public as low cost, with the city selling “air rights” to build towers above a retail podium. The land would remain public and the city would own the podium, but developers could build and sell units in towers above the podium.
If true, and City staff have not confirmed one way or the other, this would set a dangerous precedent. Is the City of Ottawa now willing to selloff parcels of its parkland?
If so, what’s next? There’s plenty of space at Walter Baker Park in Kanata. Or Millennium Sports Park in Orleans. Or Laroche Park in Hintonburg. Will it be one of those parks, or somewhere else?
What else are they not telling us?
If this City is being as secretive with something as important as potentially selling off public parkland, what else are they not telling us?
Keeping parkland in the public domain is a core belief for most Canadians.
To try to sneak through the privatization of parks, via financial engineering that no one understands, can be reputation-destroying.
Given the dismal track record of the Lansdowne site, the public has naturally been skeptical.
The City’s unwillingness to provide real answers has unleashed community voices across the political spectrum opposed to the proposal.
As the CBC reports, the financial concerns boil down to rosy projections about retail mortgaging – and its forecast billion dollars of operating profits.
A group of prominent local experts in finance and governance wrote to the mayor with their concerns, and subsequently gave the proposal a score of 56 out of 100 on transparency – effectively saying that councillors and the public have about half the information they need to make an informed decision.
Repeating the LRT mistakes
This is not the first time that the City of Ottawa has tried to control the narrative on a major capital project. We saw it with Light Rail Transit.
The LRT fiasco led to a provincial public inquiry, despite the fierce resistance of a majority of City councillors. Through the inquiry, we learned of secret communications, and the deliberate withholding of information to keep councillors and the public in the dark.
In his final report to the inquiry, Justice Horigan writes:
“the conduct of senior City staff and Mayor Watson in not sharing information … prevented councillors from fulfilling their statutory duties to the people of Ottawa. Moreover, it is part of a concerning approach taken by senior City officials to control the narrative by the nondisclosure of vital information or outright misrepresentation. ... It is difficult to imagine the successful completion of any significant project while these attitudes prevail within the municipal government.”
Horigan predicted exactly the situation we are in today. Did we really learn nothing from the LRT?
With Lansdowne 2.0, Mayor Sutcliffe is precariously close to breaking the trust of residents across the city. He, and this Council, may not be able to regain the public’s trust, or our confidence that Council is operating in the best interests of residents.
This didn’t have to be the case. He could have made the Lansdowne deal fully transparent, and let it stand on its own strengths.
But in cheerleading a weak proposal that is likely to place a significant burden on taxpayers, he broke the fragile bond of trust between Council and residents.
The only remedy at this point is to reject the proposal and send it back to the drawing board. Ottawa needs real options for Lansdowne, informed by meaningful public engagement.
Council needs to understand that their job is to serve the public interest, not to play favourites with our tax dollars.
This is our moment. People power can push back against political power. It worked with the greenbelt fiasco in the Toronto-Hamilton region. Could it work again in Ottawa?
If you share our concerns, please take a minute to send an email to your councillor.
Short emails are the best and they work. But they need to be real messages, and not form emails. The voices of anyone living outside the core are especially important at this point.
If you would consider writing to your councillor, it could be as simple as the following points:
NO to the current proposal
Too much risk to the taxpayer
Higher priorities for public spending
What else are we not being told about this deal
The proposal goes to Committee on November 2, and Full Council for a final vote on November 9. Please let your Councillor know how you feel before November 10.
It’s our city. Let’s take back control.
P.S. the 613
If this newsletter speaks to you, have a look at my Ottawa-focused weekly newsletter, the 613.
the 613 focuses on public spaces fit for a capital, choice in transportation, real climate action, housing we can afford, and compassion for those with less.