A hockey arena, or something else: NCC seeks proposals for Ottawa’s LeBreton Flats

Rendering of the proposed arena from the previous RendezVous LeBreton proposal, which faltered in acrimony between the proposed developer's partners

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Ontario Construction News staff writer

The National Capital Commission (NCC) has opened the door for another shot at a National Hockey League Arena at Ottawa’s LeBreton Flats  – but it is unclear whether the agency’s Request for Expression of Interest (RFI) will attract an arena, or something else to the 2.5 hectares it has set aside.

A previous development competition for the entire 29 hectares of land expropriated decades ago by the federal government included a partnership between the Ottawa Senators and Trinity Developments. The RendezVous LeBreton initiative broke down in acrimony, resulting in a lawsuit that will reach the courts next year; largely caused by a dispute about the financing and capital investment/revenues required for the proposed arena.

So the NCC decided return to the drawing board, drawing up a master plan two years ago, and breaking the overall development into bite-sized components. The first phase, including lands around a joint Ottawa Public Library/Library and Archives Canada project, is moving forward.

Last Wednesday (Dec. 1), the NCC started the process to invite proposals “to identify the best opportunities — in areas such as sports, entertainment, arts and culture, or recreation — to make LeBreton Flats an attraction that will ignite the passion of residents and visitors in the National Capital Region.”

The primary RFI site is a “parcel of prime downtown land located along an arterial road and 5-minutes’ walking distance from two O-Train LRT stations that link directly to the east, west and south ends of Ottawa,” the NCC says. There also is a second “nearby half-hectare (one-acre) site that hugs an inlet of the Ottawa River, offering an outstanding location for a smaller venue.”

The two parcels for which NCC is inviting RFIs

The idea is to get the major community attractions (includng the arena?) in place before inviting developers to build out other segments of the site – because these core developments will likely shape the economics for the rest of the lands.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” NCC’s chief executive officer Tobi Nussbaum said in a statement.

“We are looking for visionaries and trailblazers who share our passion and excitement for the possibilities of this incredible place. We want to draw ideas for attractions that are both bold and transformational. LeBreton Flats has an exciting vision in place, and is poised to come alive again. It is time to breathe excitement and innovation into this spectacular site.”

Katie Paris, the NCC’s lead for the development project, said interested developers should embrace the guiding principles of the master plan for the site, and that the winning bidder must be prepared to “make it happen.”

The two land parcels covered by the RFI “will become important anchors for the surrounding development, which is planned as one of the most sustainable and inclusive communities in Canada,” the NCC says. “Steps away, LeBreton Flats will feature iconic residential and public spaces, including a hilltop park with spectacular views of the Ottawa River and Gatineau Hills.”

Development is already under way to transform the area into a neighbourhood that will become home to 7,500 residents and 4,000 workers.

Could the new structure on primary 2.5 hectare site be the long-envisaged NHL arena?

Paris said “the door is open but we also want to make sure we get going on this project.”

“A major event centre would need to identify its tenant, its use, its financing sources with this call for expressions of interest,” she said, noting that the NCC would neither own nor operate the building.

The Ottawa Senators are saying “maybe” to the idea of getting involved in a new arena initiative.

“We’re always open and interested in a new multi-purpose entertainment facility at LeBreton Flats,” Melnyk said in a statement to Postmedia. “And understand how it can benefit our fans and the Ottawa Senators hockey club generally.”

That wording suggests that the Senators might be willing to work with a developer who approached them with a concept they could accept, but it isn’t the organization’s highest priority.

“It’s fair to say, however, that this isn’t a front-burner issue for Melnyk, “Ottawa Sun writer Bruce Garrioch wrote on Thursday. “His focus is on staying at the Canadian Tire Centre for the foreseeable future and the National Hockey League club has been making upgrades to the building.

“Yes, Melnyk would listen to somebody who wants to discuss the idea of building a rink at LeBreton, but he’s not actively seeking to make any calls. Instead, president of business operations Anthony LeBlanc and the staff are focused on doing business in Kanata, including trying to raise the season-ticket base.”

And the NCC, apparently, isn’t interested in “maybe” ideas without committed funding and the resources to finish the work.

“It’s really different this time,” the NCC’s Paris said, addressing skepticism some feel about reopening the process. She pointed to the NCC’s master plan and the public consultations that have already been done, which she said “will really ground the idea of these events centres in that bigger vision and really make sense.”

“We’re very confident that we’ve got the right context in the right moment right now to get going,” she said.

Interested proponents are invited to read the REI, and send in submissions by Feb. 28, 2022.

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