A base to build on
Former military site in Ottawa a beacon of development in partnership with local Algonquin tribe
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/03/2018 (1641 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — It’s a long-vacated military base surrounded by wealthy neighbourhoods that’s coveted by First Nations seeking recognition for their traditional territory — but it’s not Winnipeg’s former Kapyong Barracks.
A development in Ottawa is among a handful of former military bases in Canada that are being converted into innovative, mixed-use housing while employing Indigenous workers. The project commemorates Indigenous history.
More than 20 years after the military left CFB Rockcliffe, residents are finally moving into Wateridge Village, a 310-acre development thatwas built in lockstep with the local Algonquin tribe.
It’s nestled in a corner of the nation’s capital that few people know exists, accessed by a side street off a busy road. The street plunges down a steep hill, revealing an expanse of snow-covered earth surrounding a cluster of new homes.
Last November, Karen Foti and her son Evan were among the first to move into the development, whose coarse roads are flanked by piles of mud.
“It’s prime real estate,” said Karen, who had lived nearby and often wondered why nothing seemed to be happening with the former base. “It’s been vacant for quite a long time, and I was watching it, kind of thinking ‘hurry up already; let’s get going on this,’” she said, waving her hands while laughing.
Digital renderings show houses of various sizes, multiple parks and apartments with ground-level stores. Nearby neighbourhoods feature ambassadors’ houses, mansions and an area that’s being gentrified.
“You can see it’s high value… but I think it’s only going to go up,” said Evan.
When the two look outside, they can pinpoint the locations for a splash pad, hockey rink, tennis courts and a skateboard park, all planned to be built by the end of the year. Three schools are slated to be built in Wateridge.
“It’s dense, but it’s to encourage people to walk and bike. So that’s a huge plus,” said Karen.
Historical photos and Google Street View show as many as three houses occupying lots that used to each hold one modest house with a sprawling lawn.
“It’s been vacant for quite a long time, and I was watching it, kind of thinking ‘hurry up already; let’s get going on this,’” – Karen Foti, one of Wateridge Village’s first residents
Outside, Celso Dantas darts between puddles and backhoes, on his half-hour bike ride home from his downtown tech job.
“We’re going to have, at some point, like a mini-downtown, a main street area, where I hope to get groceries within walking distance,” said Dantas, 33, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a bicycle.
To Dantas, the project is a gamble on whether enough Ottawans living outside downtown will take advantage of a neighbourhood crafted for cyclists and pedestrians. He seldom sees anyone else’s tire tracks in the mud.
“Hopefully, we’ll get a mixed street so people won’t feel the need to use a car. Maybe people will take their cars and go to Costco and destroy the main street, like it won’t be able to maintain itself, but only time will tell.”
The development is being meticulously planned by Canada Lands Company, a Crown corporation that crafts housing projects out of government-owned land.
Though there’s only a few dozen people living in the community, CLC convinced the local transport agency to modify two city bus routes to reach Wateridge last December. The school board sends buses down into the subdivision’s sole, dusty street.
Parking was a hot topic at a recent information session. Some fear soccer games will draw so many families that there won’t be sufficient spots, while others are skeptical about back-lane parking, which is rare east of the Prairies.
Around the corner, Jamie Stevens hushes his young son, who bounces on the couch in his pyjamas.
Stevens lives on Avro Circle, which carries the name of a former residential road on the base whose path it roughly follows today. The base was his grandfather’s last posting, and he lived in a nearby house that has since been demolished.
“It’s something that felt good to see what was happening with the street names,” said Stevens.
A military-themed town square is reportedly in the works, as is an aviation-themed play structure. “Legacy trails” will have interpretive plaques about the area’s history.
Stevens’ home is one of the larger, detached houses that hug the large hill, which his father and aunt recall cycling down at top speed as children.
The hill ends with a steep ditch, part of the area’s stormwater-management system that culminates in an artificial waterfall.
Nearby, Trevor Corless also praises Wateridge’s design. The area means something deeper to him.
“This is probably the best approach to development in terms of prior consent,” said Corless, a history instructor who has helped steer efforts to include more Indigenous content in the local curriculum. “We so often get these things wrong.”
Under a 2010 agreement, the Algonquins of Ontario will be consulted “in all stages of concept development, land use planning and detailed design.”
So far, Mikinak Road — named after the Algonquin term for turtle — is the only visible sign of an Indigenous presence. Online postings give sparse details, though three of the development’s 10 parks are to be dedicated to the Algonquins, and their soldiers will inspire street names.
The Algonquins will have first pick of land plots at Wateridge, though the project is not a reserve. Elders have helped pick certain areas that should be used for commemorative purposes.
“Some locations may be sacred spaces, or spaces with strong cultural affinity to Algonquin traditional uses,” reads an Algonquins of Ontario newsletter, which notes that development will acknowledge their use of certain plants and the Ottawa River.
They have a financial arrangement with CLC as part of an ongoing land-claims process, which gives them a cut of the revenue for properties that are developed on the land. Algonquin companies get notice of any tenders for engineering, construction and landscaping on the site.
“This is a useful way of approaching reconciliation,” said, the Algonquins’ chief negotiator Robert Potts. “In doing this, we also enhance the Algonquin presence by giving ourselves a chance to make some use of these opportunities for our own well-being.”
Potts said the project balances the city’s need for housing, the government’s desire to use the property for something worthwhile, and the Algonquin need to establish visibility and economic growth.
“There’s not a handout here; this is a legitimate part of a treaty-making process in which the Algonquins have certain rights that pertain to the land base. Rather than see the land base kept in a state of non-development because of the issues that arise, we engaged… and worked out all the ways we could have a win-win,” he said.
“It’s a bit of a microcosm for what we’re trying to do across Canada, and at the essence of it is respect, by all parties, and finding a way to solve problems.”
That’s what Corless hopes. He has family in Caledonia, an Ontario town where local First Nations believe a developer is encroaching on their traditional land. That’s sparked rallies, blockades and lawsuits dating back to 2006.
“Where we live should be an ethics decision.”
Developers say CLC has made meticulous demands over landscaping and housing types. They also say the Crown corporation has made it easy for all four builders to be on the same page, even as they attract different homebuyers.
Within weeks, Tartan Homes sold out its first phase of mid-range homes, including semi-detached and townhouses. The firm was surprised by the mix of downsizing seniors, growing families and first-time homebuyers.
Tartan executive Pierre Dufresne says the mix of properties attracts a lot of interest, and the development is already surrounded by streets, businesses and transit.
“Having a large piece of land in an infill situation is just a huge opportunity,” Dufresne said. “They’ve incorporated some very urban ideas, in terms of mixed-land uses and also in terms of housing design, to create a very unique community.”
Another developer, Claridge Homes, has sold 70 per cent of its units despite a late start to opening a sales centre.
“It’s almost impossible to buy a house that close to downtown, especially new,” said marketing co-ordinator Tyler Doucet.
“I think having a company like CLC manage a project like this for the city, and to be able to properly represent all the interested stakeholders, was a really great way of doing it, especially on such a prized piece of land,” he said, suggesting Kapyong in Winnipeg could have a similar future.
“Reusing that old space can always revitalize an area and bring new life to a space that isn’t really used anymore.”
By the end of construction, which could last two decades, the area aims to have a maximum of 5,345 housing units. Some of the largest houses will sit atop an embankment overlooking a major thoroughfare, not far from the Ottawa River.
Developers have left some large trees on the site, though CLC says most had to be cleared to accomodate sewers, water mains and roads. A secondary street into the subdivision is blocked by a fence and a “no trespassing sign,” as it has to be widened and possibly rerouted.
It’s a popular route for cyclists and runners. It winds past plots of land where houses used to sit, framed by tall trees.
Wateridge is the latest CLC development on a former military base. Others have incorporated Indigenous and military history. Some have retrofitted military buildings for housing, though not Wateridge, which sat dormant since 1994, when the military decommissioned the base.
CLC has been cagey about weighing in on Kapyong, declining multiple interview requests because the Crown corporation does not own the property, and doesn’t want to influence Ottawa’s negotiations with Treaty One First Nations.
Others, including Winnipeg architect Brent Bellamy, want CLC to play a big role in the future of Kapyong.
In fact, Canada Lands was supposed to develop the property before Treaty One launched a court case, arguing that Ottawa had failed to adequately consult them. Many believe the lawsuit led Ottawa to approach other projects with more Indigenous input, including Wateridge.
“It was exciting at the time because it seemed like the opportunity to create an amazingly progressive urban neighbourhood, the way Canada Lands has been doing in other cities. That’s exactly what Winnipeg needs, to be an example of how we can do infill development, instead of the typical big-box stores and cul-de-sac streets,” he said.
“The site needs to be very progressive and high-density, and a model of how development can happen in the suburbs in Winnipeg.”