An Architects’ Vision For An InterProvincial Eco-District That Spans The Ottawa River

If one Ottawa architect/urbanist has his way, the national capital region will become home to something known as an eco-district — or perhaps a few.

Mark Brandt has his sights set on some islands in the Ottawa River just west of the Parliament Buildings, taking up parts of Ontario and Quebec in the cities of both Ottawa and Gatineau.

The area consists of two bigger Islands, Chaudiere and Victoria on the east, and a pair of smaller islands, Albert and Amelia.

In terms of what an eco-district is, Brandt describes it as such: “The way we see an eco-district, it is a grouping of properties in a given area that have aligned together to provide a higher level of sustainability in a shared way.”

Eco-District Plan Spans The Ottawa River

A key sustainability feature of the Chaudiere and Victoria islands is its hydroelectricity assets. Hydro Ottawa, a city-owned utility, recently reached to deal to purchase three generating plant from Domtar Corp. for $45 million. Other generating plants there are owned by Hydro-Quebec.

“Right now, 10 per cent of the (national capital) region’s hydro power is generated on this site,” Brandt said. “And it’s generated with the greenest energy that we have on the planet, which is run-of-the-river hydro technology.”

He said he will provide details in the near future on how his ideas for things such as transportation, water usage and waste management will make this area an eco-district.

The Mark Thompson Brandt Architects and Associates website shows his firm gives high priority to urban-design principles such as density, preserving natural features, public transit, walking and cycling.

Brandt said a leading city for establishing eco-districts in North America is Portland, Ore., which has five eco-district pilot projects, according to the website of the Portland Sustainability Institute.

Brandt also cited Calgary and Squamish, B.C., as some of the places in Canada where eco-districts exist.

1990’s Master Plan Meets LEED for Neighbourhood Development Gold Standard

Commissioned by the National Capital Commission, Brandt initially drew up a master plan for the Chaudiere and Victoria islands area in 1990. At the time, sustainability was not part of his mandate. Despite this, decades later he found that old plan’s urban design fundamentals helped it meet the gold standard under LEED ND (Neighbourhood Development). Brandt said it seemed apparent that more focus on sustainability could “easily” push it to LEED platinum “or beyond.”

“It employs really good urban design principles that maybe were a bit ahead of their time back (in 1990) but are seen worldwide today as the way to go,” Brandt said.

Brandt’s plans call for the most eastern part of this site of Victoria Island to be left largely as parkland, giving tourists and locals the chance to experience nature and view the Parliament Buildings, as well as an opportunity for an Aboriginal presence.

Public access is important to the plan. For example, throughout the islands, there are various types of water experiences that could be enjoyed on nature walks, ranging “from the high drama of the dammed falls to the placid contemplation of the calm canals with their pastoral green surroundings and paddling waterfowl,” as described on Brandt’s website.

The central and west parts of the islands would be designated for a mix of commercial, institutional and recreational buildings. Brandt envisions one major anchor tenant, ideally a federal government agency focused on environmental innovation. He sees such a tenant having a number of different buildings throughout the area, perhaps interconnected.

Elsewhere, he said various businesses could establish themselves, including hotels, restaurants, cafes, and various operations devoted to recreation and/or entertainment. He said building heights would be about three to six storeys in most cases.

Such establishments would be built in-between the various existing structures many of them considered historical and reflective of the islands’ industrial history in the lumber, pulp-and-papery and hydro sectors.

“We identified 30 structures and sites within the district that were worthy of conservation,” Brandt said.

A Million Square Feet of New Development

His plans are for about a million square feet of new development on the islands, adding to the hundreds of thousands of square feet already there that can be rehabilitated.

Brandt said he and the NCC does not envision residential development on these islands.

“This National Treasure is far too special for letting people to just start putting up private condominium buildings,” he said, noting that the islands are seen as a historical junction of Canada’s three founding peoples — the English, French and First Nations.

Nonetheless, he said ongoing development in nearby spots on both the Ottawa and Gatineau sides of the river — much of it residential — would make the revitalized Chaudiere and Victoria islands something easily accessible by the two interprovincial bridges that link them to the mainland.

It remains to be seen when — or even if — Brandt’s vision for this area comes to fruition, which he says would take up to about 30 years to fully build out. He says the NCC — the federal agency mandated with overseeing development here— is “very interested, but they haven’t been given the seed funding.”

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