What if the Swedes Would Own Chaudière Island?

Strykbrädan: (the ironing board) housing the manual paper making museum.
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The Industrial Landscape in Norrköping, renovated for cultural and business purposes after the decline of the textile industries.

As you already read in the previous post: Of Post-It Notes and Tapestries, many of the Ottawa residents saw the Chaudière Island as one of the key elements in meeting the ideas and expectations that Canadians have for developing the Nation’s Capital into a world class capital. I have biked around the place and it is really a gorgeous spot, waiting to be developed, now the pulp paper industry is retreating.

What about Chaudière Island?
For those who don’t live in Ottawa: Chaudière Island has a collection of buildings, some as old as 100 years and built with natural stone, which are owned by Domtar, a large pulp and paper company. The island lies in the middle of the Ottawa River, connected with bridges to both Ontario and Quebec province (I smell problems already!). Montreal based Domtar is past its heydays in Ottawa so a number (if not all) building are sitting empty. A few years ago I talked to a pulp and paper specialist and he explained that the low Canadian dollar didn’t encourage innovation and therefore the Russians (with brand new Finnish equipment) and the Brazilians (with trees growing six times as fast) are beating Canada on the world market.

Knock those buildings down

The island has prime waterfront in the heart of the capital, with an estimated value in Domtar’s books for 100 million CAD as we learned earlier this week in an article in the Ottawa Citizen. It is one of the most historic areas in the capital (with its sister island Victoria Island) and it’s screaming for attention. Everyone on both sides of the Ottawa river basically agrees on that.Meanwhile, Domtar knocks a century old building to the ground for safety reasons.

The Industrial Landscape

Last summer my wife and I were in Sweden. As regular readers know, we visit places that no other traveller would go. Like the Industrial Landscape in Norrköping. Why would one visit Norrköping? Because they did exactly what should be developed at Chaudière Island: cherishing the industrial history of Ottawa.

Strykbrädan: (the ironing board) housing the manual paper making museum.

Norrköping is a nice town with a little less than 85,000 people, greater Norrköping has about 130,000 inhabitants (think Kingston, ON). Located on the Motala river, the textile industry employed 6600 workers in 54 factories in 1950. The industry basically folded in 1970. So now what? The Swedes realised they had a gem in the city and redeveloped the whole area. They had a plan: they renovated the buildings and adapted them for use as museums (musea – I know, but this is North America), a concert hall, business space, you name it. And all very pedestrian and cycle friendly.

Kårhuset Trappan, housing the university's student union.

Culture paving the way

The transformation of Norrköping’s industrial landscape began with the city museum, Arbetets museum (Museum of Work) and a concert hall. That way culture assumed a definite, strong role in the transformation of Norrköping. (source: Nordic City Network).

It doesn’t say it with so many words, but I suspect that they pushed cultural buildings, hoping that a cultural scene would attract knowledge companies. And they came: The ProNova Complex houses a hundred or so companies in the knowledge sector in the former Tuppen spinning mill. ProNova is part of the Norrköping Science Park. From what we saw, the transformation looks very successful. One of the challenges for Norrköping is now that although the industrial landscape is populated during the day, at night it is less so, due to a lack of residential dwellings.

Wärmekyrkan, old boyler centre: now a ceremonial arena with room for 1300 people.

If I had a million dollars (and some change…)

One hundred million dollars is a lot of money but probably still market value. Domtar indicated that that is what they want to have for the property. I am sure Marie LeMay and her team are gritting their teeth, fearing it may slip out of their hands. This would be such a great place to bring innovation, creativity and culture together and make it work.

Here are two scenarios:

  • Domtar will leave it there for years to come, not really caring;
  • Domtar’s shareholders will want to have the dead money locked up in property on Chaudière Island, management lowers the price and sells it to a developer in the entertainment industry who turns it into a Granville Island Market with condos on top. (Domtar’s stock is at the same level as 1980 (that is 32 years ago) and trends downwards since roughly 2002. The 1.5% yield on their stock is still better than a savings account though.)
Arbetetsmuseum (Museum of Work), once a cotton factory.

You might wonder by now why Canada doesn’t just buy it from Domtar and develop it as a first class mixed use location. The answer is complex, it has to do with North American government models, not really being aware of the cultural value of buildings yet, a lack of interest to pay more for beautifully renovated buildings, maximising square feet in the real estate sector, lack of imagination, not seeing a location as a ‘business card’ of a company, shareholders interest, access to parking, cultural differences etc. In short, “the bottom line”, as they say here.

It is one of those locations where federal, provincial and local authorities meet in terms of jurisdiction. As Quebec City probably doesn’t want the capital of Canada to be too beautiful (it would take the spotlight away from the capital of a nation within a nation), I wouldn’t hold my breath that this is going to be developed soon. This is more complicated than LeBreton Flats (although it is only complicated if the players want it to be complicated as all bureaucrats know).

What would the Swedes do?

Getting back to the title of the blog: what would the Swedes do? The government would likely buy the property to secure it, set up a fair Public Private Partnership to develop the site based on a plan to make the site earning its own money eventually and basically plan the project as a money making engine for the larger area. Perhaps, as the Globe and Mail writes today, things are changing as Old Montreal, until recently dotted with neglected buildings, is undergoing some change:

“We’re starting to see companies leaving their downtown office space and giving Old Montreal a try,” observes Andrew Maravita, Colliers International’s managing director for the Montreal region. “The old buildings that have been converted to loft-style space have a very nice feel to them that appeals to technology and knowledge companies and their employees,” he adds. “It’s accessible and you’re right by the waterfront, so it’s a fun place to work.”

I know, it is easier said then done. But you need to stay optimistic.

Read the account on the NCC’s Of Post-It Notes and Tapestries about the Ottawa brainstorm session.

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Pictures by the Urban Commuter – Ottawa







  1. One of the major factors that may distinguish the Victoria Island sites from the other ones cited, is the local weather. Granville Island is in a sheltered locale, as is the Distillery District in Toronto. But Victoria Island is in a cold sink, one of the windiest and coldest areas in Ottawa. Visions of outdoor cafes and cozy housing inside stone buildings are a real challenge to attain. There is a reason that the Flats was the poorest neighborhood in the City.

    We need redevelopment that isn’t a seasonal tourist attraction, playground or amusement park, but a real neighborhood and inherent vitality that runs year round. But could Ottawan’s ever stomach the idea of PEOPLE living along the river? No way, the backside of museums inhabited by civil servants with big windows means the riverfront is reserved for “the public” and remain lifeless most of the year.

    Aside from the that, the national sport in Ottawa is bureaucratic meddling, of putting sticks into other peoples’ wheels, of raising the stakes and demanding some bureaucratic nirvana. Which results, usually, a la LeBreton Flats, or Lansdowne, in disappointment and missed potential because of so many compromises.

    That a committee designing a horse ends up with camel or a zebra is no reason not to try again, is it?

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