Denley: How will the city of Ottawa pay for the renovation of Lansdowne?

The 1960s decision to store an arena under the stadium locked the municipality up with a facility that would be substandard in a city half the size.

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After more than half a century of half-baked development and inadequate repairs in Lansdowne Park, it’s time for the city of Ottawa to get this place right.

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The north side stands not only suck, so do the Civic Center, the Aberdeen Pavilion and the Horticultural Building. It’s the core of a city council employee report that council members voted Wednesday. It is a conclusion that can only be reached with a single visit to Lansdowne.

The north side racks, built in 1967, are past their best years if they had ever had one. Toilets, concessions, seating and the driveway are all inadequate. Recent engineering reports say the building is not going to fall down, but that’s about the best that can be said for it. The Civic Center arena is hidden under the grandstands and has the whole atmosphere of the area under the stairs of your house. The Aberdeen Pavilion is a magnificent building, but it has been allowed to decay. The roof is leaking and it lacks air conditioning. The horticultural building is somewhat better, but also lacks air conditioning. All of this makes it difficult to attract people and events to the site.

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City staff want Lansdown’s private sector partnership, the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, to come up with a plan to resolve the mess. It is all council members who were asked to approve this week, but they are opening the door to a mega project. Just evaluating OSEG’s ultimate proposal and seeking public opinion on it should cost $ 875,000. The city spent about $ 211 million on the version of Lansdowne we have today, of which $ 134 million was attributed to the new south side stands.

The next phase of the Lansdowne renewal will almost certainly be major, and it poses significant logistical challenges. The first is where the new Civic Center would fit on site. The bigger problem is how to replace the arena and the football stands without disturbing the matches of Redblacks and Ottawa 67 for an extended period of time.

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Mayor Jim Watson says that “in hindsight” the city should have replaced the north side stands when it redesigned the other half of the stadium. Foresight would have suggested the same thing. That decision was made in 2012 when Watson was mayor.

It is fair to say that the half reno the city went after was the most the council of the day would accept. Even then, it took an astonishing feat of accounting sorcery by Mayor Kent Kirkpatrick to convince councilors that they would rectify the abandoned Lansdowne without incurring any significant net expenses.

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The agreement with OSEG was certainly a huge improvement over the city’s long record of care failure. Lansdowne was a slightly used asphalt sea, and the racks on the south side were so poorly maintained that they eventually had to be torn down.

The councilors ‘decision to go with a football stadium that was only good on one side was an echo of their predecessors’ much earlier decision to build a stadium with a large covered stand and another open to the elements. The 1960s decision to store an arena under the stadium stuck Ottawa with a facility that would be substandard in a city half the size of.

Lansdowne has been a resounding success, with 20 million people visiting the site over seven years. City staff are right when they say it does not get better without improving the buildings and adding more reasons to come to Lansdowne.

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The question of Lansdowne is not whether it should be improved, but how the city will pay for it. The staff offers some wishful thinking about new homes across the northern stands that would generate revenue by selling development rights and adding more residents to boost Lansdowne’s economy. It seems like micro-points, but there will be no micro about the possible costs.

The city says the next phase of the redevelopment should be “affordable,” no matter what that means. This time, let’s make sure we get full value for our money by doing the job right.

Randall Denley is a political commentator in Ottawa and author of the award-winning mystery novel Payback. Contact him at randalldenley1@gmail.com

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