NCC doesn’t rule out future Senators arena on LeBreton Flats land

Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk stands near the ice at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

OTTAWA — The National Capital Commission isn’t closing the door on an NHL arena for the LeBreton Flats neighbourhood near downtown Ottawa.

But the NCC isn’t counting on an arena, either.

"It’s not essential. It’s possible," said new NCC CEO Toby Nussbaum, when asked if an arena was a vital part of any new proposals to develop the vacant lands west of the Parliament Buildings. "We’re not conditioning the development of this project on an arena or major event centre."

Yet, there remains room for endless possibilities — an NHL arena included — on a site this large, and accessible via future LRT stations, near the shoreline of the Ottawa River. To borrow a hockey expression, there’s ‘time and space,’ for the Ottawa Senators to be involved with LeBreton.

"That’s going to be a question to which we are very, very open," Nussbaum said. "The important thing is, in a site that is 56 acres, we have time. This is not going to be done overnight. There will be opportunities. And we want to ensure we maintain opportunities.

"Should there be the idea, or an interest in siting an arena or major event centre of any kind on the site, we can offer that kind of flexibility."

The NCC called Thursday’s brief availability to declare their full commitment to developing LeBreton Flats, despite last week’s failed mediation bid to rescue the RendezVous LeBreton proposal of Trinity Developments and Senators owner Eugene Melnyk.

Trinity and Melnyk were at odds almost from the outset and by the fall of 2018 had sued each other to the tune of $1.7 billion.

That $4-billion RendezVous plan, first approved in April of 2016, included a new NHL arena for the Senators, an Abilities Centre, aqueduct, and retail and housing units. A second bid to develop LeBreton, from Quebec-based billionaires Andre Desmerais and Guy Laliberte (Devcore Canderel), was rejected. It also contained a proposal for an arena, with an understanding it would have to acquire the team eventually.

Now, the NCC is inviting any and all parties, including newcomers and those players who assembled bids in 2015, to submit ideas if interested.

This time, though, the NCC doesn’t want to be held hostage by a single proposal tying up precious time to get its act together. The days of a comprehensive bid handcuffing the development for a two-to-three year period are over, implied Nussbaum in the part of his presentation entitled ‘Lessons Learned.’

"We want to be open to exploring a flexible real estate strategy as opposed to disposing of the entire 56 acres site to a single proponent," Nussbaum said, without naming RendezVous. "This will allow us to phase the development to respond to market conditions and think of new ideas for land development in the future."

The NCC wants tighter timelines and "more controls in the solicitation process to decrease the negotiation period with successful proponents."

In announcing a new process for public consultation and future development, the NCC is already beginning the first phase of development, a so-called "Library District," a mixed-use site of about 2.6 acres that will connect to the proposed new Ottawa Library building as well as a future light rail transit station (Pimisi Station).

This spring and summer, the NCC will develop an overall vision and concept plan for the flats, a land area that has been empty for nearly 60 years. This will include public consultation and market analysis. A request for proposal (RFP) will be done immediately for the Library District.

A second RFP process for one or more parcels of land will begin in the summer of 2020 and carry into 2021. This is where an arena proposal could kick in.

After all this, what are the odds an arena will one day be built on LeBreton Flats? Pretty good, if the ownership of the NHL club, now or in the near future, can find a way to be part of the development. After RendezVous collapsed, Melnyk said he will look for other central locations for a rink. Realistically, there is none better than LeBreton.

While the NCC is not exactly holding a specific parcel of land for a future rink or major event centre, it is open for business. That should present some hope that the Senators can one day move from their 23-year-old arena in Kanata.

"What we’re saying is, if there is interest in proceeding (with an arena), we have the capacity and land to accommodate that," Nussbaum said, in response to a question about the Senators and a future rink.

"We haven’t determined where that would be. We have to think about the phasing. But again, in light of the fact some of these lands won’t be developed for years to come, we think it’s possible to be flexible."

That might depend on how quickly and efficiently a proposal can be put together to make the Senators part of what NCC chair Marc Seaman said will be a "vibrant community in the heart of the National Capital Region."

Nussbaum wants it understood the public will have a say in whether or not an arena, or a museum, or some unique open spaces become part of the scene at LeBreton.

"We’re really trying to find the balance between ambition and humility," Nussbaum said. "We don’t have all of the answers now, but we thought it was important to start this process. To listen to people. To get public input. And to make sure we are working together with all the partners."

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