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I said in my last blog that Monday’s meeting of the Built Heritage Sub-Committee (BHSC) at City Hall had an unusual outcome. They met to discuss the recommendation by City staff that the current iteration of the proposed expansion of the Château Laurier (above) be accepted. Normally, the committee would vote to either accept staff’s recommendation or reject it, but that’s not what happened.

Instead, BHSC passed a motion conditionally accepting the design – the condition being that it be altered to become more compatible with the Château. Specifically, the motion required “that staff be directed to work with the applicant to make the proposed addition more visually compatible with the existing Chateau Laurier.” What does that mean? Hard to say, it could mean a lot of different things. But one thing it definitely means is that the design has been placed back in the hands of two groups – Larco Investments and City staff – who already thought that the last design was just fine, thank you. Remember that old joke that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over, and expecting the result to change? Apparently, not everyone got the joke.

One interpretation: this is a compromise solution, based on the fear (by no means misplaced) that if BHSC rejected the staff recommendation and sent the current proposal packing, it would simply be overturned the following week by Planning Committee (the next group at City Hall that gets to vote on this). Assuming that City Council then endorsed Planning Committee’s recommendation (which is likely), then we’d be stuck with the current design, with no further alterations possible. So, assuming this compromise motion would be easier for the Planning Committee to accept, it might well be our last, best chance to improve a design that almost everybody agrees is deeply flawed.

If you’re like me, even this mild bureau-speak is starting to make you comatose. Here’s what it boils down to: no one believes that a majority on Planning Committee, which consists entirely of elected City Councillors, has enough interest in either heritage, architectural excellence or public opinion to get in the way of the current design. So this motion is BHSC’s Hail Mary pass – not made in the hope of winning the game, but in the hope of losing it by a little less.

This is, at best, underwhelming. Most of all I am concerned – and frankly discouraged – because the motion seems to have given up any hope that a truly excellent building will result from this process. Instead, we have retreated into a strategy calculated to give us the least terrible result possible under the circumstances. Forget about getting an “A+” addition to one of the most important heritage sites in the country. Or even an A-.

“Maybe the building will finally turn out to be a B+,” a distinguished retired professor of architecture said to me recently in a burst of optimism. Maybe. And maybe that’s now our best-case scenario. In which case, I can only say that no other capital city on the planet would place the bar so low. It is pathetic.

Peter Coffman
peter.coffman@carleton.ca

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