Ottawa community groups seek binding benefits agreement with NCC on LeBreton Flats

A rendering of the National Capital Commission's renewed vision for LeBreton Flats, a long-empty 24-hectare parcel of land just west of Parliament Hill in Ottawa. National Capital Commission

Community advocates in Ottawa are asking the National Capital Commission (NCC) and its stakeholders in the revitalization of LeBreton Flats to agree to a set of development standards to guide the massive project, but the Crown corporation doesn’t believe their proposal is the “right forum” for public engagement on the plans.

The LeBreton Flats Community Benefits Coalition, an alliance of more than 25 groups including local community associations, wants the NCC to sign what’s called a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA).

CBAs are legally binding agreements that tie certain social, economic and environmental conditions to each stage of a development to ensure both the process and the final product are in line with community expectation.

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The framework is increasingly popular in areas of the province including Toronto, where Metrolinx has embraced CBAs as part of its $5.3-billion Eglinton transit project.

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The federal government joined a CBA as part of the construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge connecting Windsor, Ont. to Detroit, Mich. Another Crown corporation, Canada Lands Co., also makes use of CBAs in its land deals with developers.

Click to play video: '‘I think it can get done’, McKenna says about new LeBreton Flats draft plan'
‘I think it can get done’, McKenna says about new LeBreton Flats draft plan

Advocates of CBAs say they help level the playing field between communities, developers and all levels of government involved in major public infrastructure projects.

“The power dynamic of large infrastructure or built-environment projects has historically been uneven and communities have not had much power in the process or in ensuring outcomes,” says Martin Adelaar, a member of the LeBreton coalition’s steering committee.

“It brings accountability because it’s an agreement that is enforceable. It also empowers the community to be a partner and a collaborator in the process,” he tells Global News.

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The coalition has been lobbying the NCC to adopt a CBA since August of last year and presented the Crown corporation with a framework for how such an agreement could work at LeBreton in January.

But the NCC has thus far pushed back on the coalition’s requests for a CBA.

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Instead, the commission has offered its public advisory council as an opportunity for residents to provide feedback to guide the high-profile development of 55 acres of long-vacant land west of Ottawa’s downtown core.

Speaking to reporters after the NCC’s board meeting on Thursday, CEO Tobi Nussbaum said the public advisory group, not the proposed CBA, is the “right forum” to guide public discussion on LeBreton Flats.

Nussbaum suggested the NCC’s advisory group, which is expected to contain representatives focused on community building, affordable housing, tourism and more, will foster the “kind of dialogue” advocates are looking for.

Click to play video: 'NCC says it will consult with public on new plan for LeBreton Flats'
NCC says it will consult with public on new plan for LeBreton Flats

Adelaar says members of the coalition are among those that have been invited to join the NCC’s advisory committee, and while the group isn’t against the concept in principle, it doesn’t go far enough in its current iteration.

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Namely, while the advisory group has the feedback mechanism the community is looking for, it lacks any accountability.

“It’s a mentality that says, ‘Don’t worry, we know what’s best, we’ll look after you, we’ll feed you information and you can give us feedback,” Adelaar says of the advisory group approach.

“That is so far off from a CBA, it’s night and day.”

Nussbaum confirmed that the advisory group’s role and authority in the process would not be legally binding, and that final decision-making authority will reside in the NCC board.

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Though the past year of work has yet to secure a CBA for LeBreton Flats, Adelaar says the group is hoping to generate public support for the concept.

If it can convince Ottawans about the need for an agreement, the coalition believes it could bring the NCC to the table to sign a CBA.

“The campaign has just started,” Adelaar says.

Meanwhile, the LeBreton development process has been placed on hold amid “economic uncertainties” stemming from the novel coronavirus pandemic, the NCC’s board heard Thursday.

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Plans to take an initial parcel of land near the future site of the city’s new central library out to tender have been put on indefinite pause until the Crown corporation’s market experts advise that it’s time to move forward, said the project’s director Katie Paris.

Paris noted however that the NCC is currently working with the City of Ottawa to potentially add an adjacent piece of city-owned land to the initial development parcel and accommodate 100 units of guaranteed affordable housing into the final product.

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