291 Carling Avenue – Once a key planning hub for the city of Ottawa

By Sue Stefko
(Appeared in the Glebe Report, September 2018)

Today, the 3.4-acre parcel of land at 291 Carling Avenue, between Bell St. South and Lebreton St. South, which is up for redevelopment by Canada Lands Company (CLC) and the Algonquins of Ontario, is a 300-car parking lot.

This site, however, has a much more interesting story to tell. Prior to 1900, the land was on the outskirts of Ottawa, surrounded by lumber yards to the immediate west, industry, and some working-class housing. The site was purchased by the Ottawa Improvement Commission (OIC – a precursor of the National Capital Commission) in 1900, who used it as a quarry and a stone crushing plant.

However, when the OIC morphed into the Federal District Commission (FDC) in 1927 (which itself then became the National Capital Commission in 1959), this site soon rose to prominence, becoming the new organization’s headquarters. The original building was built in 1930 at the corner of Bell St. and Carling Ave., although the footprint soon began to expand. In 1935 a stone façade wall was built along Bell St. (which, while crumbling, still remains today – though the black steel fence on top was added later for extra height). A number of additions to the original, as well a number of new buildings, were built from the late 1930s to the 1960s. The site’s address changed from 291 Carling Ave. to 401 Lebreton St., likely at some point in the late 1960s, after the new buildings changed the traffic flow, shifting the main entrance of the complex to Lebreton St. It is not known where the original entrance may have been, though it may have been at the southern corner of Bell St. (Note that the ‘South’ designation for both Bell and Lebreton streets only occurred after the Queensway was built in the 1960s, severing the streets.)

It is the original building that made the site so special, however. Initially meant to house a garage, a laboratory, a warehouse and workshops for activities such as blacksmithing and road sign creation, it was renovated and expanded to become the FDC headquarters. As such, it was the site from which where French city planner Jacques Gréber unveiled his famous Gréber Plan of 1951. The Gréber Plan, for better or worse, transformed the city of Ottawa, and its effects are felt to this day. Partly as a result of its historical associations with the site and its importance to the transformation of Ottawa, the building was designated as a Recognized Federal Heritage building in 2006. (The building was also on the City of Ottawa’s Heritage List.)

The Gréber Plan

The plan was designed to bring Ottawa into modernity, and to make it fit for the “future greatness of Canada.” It oversaw the relocation of railways outside of the downtown core, replacing east-west rail lines with the Queensway, and the removal of “unsightly” streetcars. Roads were widened, and cars became king.

Its quest to beautify the city resulted in the creation of grand spaces such as Confederation Square, theatres, libraries and a convention centre. On the other hand, that quest for beauty also called for the demolition of the unsightly “slums” of Lebreton Flats, a site which, to this day, has yet to be rebuilt.

Through the Gréber plan, land was purchased along the Rideau Canal and the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau Rivers, creating the NCC system of trails and walkways along Ottawa’s waterways. Parks and recreation areas were created throughout the city, and Gatineau Park expanded. More controversially, however, the Plan saw the establishment of the Greenbelt, which was meant to curb urban sprawl, but was designed for a city of 500 000 people. The irony is that its presence is now pushing urban sprawl out even further from the city centre than it would otherwise have been.

In 1972, the site was sold to Public Works, as the rapidly growing NCC sold the site to consolidate its headquarters elsewhere in the city. The buildings were used by other departments, such as the Geological Survey of Canada, who used the building for
offices, storage and laboratories, with the last tenants vacating the building in 1999.

In addition to its historic significance, the original building was also designated a Recognized Federal Heritage building for its architectural value. It was praised for its dignified design, its elegant style of simple classicism, and for being, “one of the best examples of a building associated with the Federal District Commission,” according to a 1998 Parks Canada Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office report.

Regardless of its vaunted history, original beauty and heritage status, once the building became vacant, it fell into disrepair. In 2004, the Ottawa Citizen labelled it as one of the city’s greatest eyesores. Ultimately, the building was demolished in April 2011 due to its poor physical condition – and the site has stood vacant since.

View of the original building, taken looking north-west from the corner of Bell St and Carling Ave. Photo: Parks Canada Historical Services Branch, 1997
The same view today. Photo: David Perkins
Former NCC, South Elevation - View of the building looking eastwards along Carling Ave – the Lakelander condominium and the Fitzsimmonds buildings can be seen, illuminated by the sun in the background. Photo: Parks Canada, 1997
The same view today. Photo: David Perkins