Ottawa mayor Mark Sutcliffe on Senators arena: ‘There’s got to be a way to do it downtown’

Mark Sutcliffe wants to make it clear that LeBreton Flats is a suitable location to house an NHL arena for the Ottawa Senators. 

As part of an extended conversation with The Athletic earlier this week, the Ottawa mayor was asked about the club recently extending its window to negotiate with the National Capital Commission (NCC) to build a new arena on that parcel of land. 

“The fact they have more time is a good thing,” Sutcliffe said. “LeBreton is a viable option and I’ve always said that for many fans, that will be preferable.”

And while the Senators and the NCC now have until the fall of 2024 to hammer out the parameters of a new arena at LeBreton Flats, Sutcliffe does not want that to be the only site under consideration.

“The Senators should have as many options as possible for where they can locate an arena,” Sutcliffe said. “And to me, there’s got to be a way to do it downtown somewhere.”

When Sutcliffe says “downtown,” he’s not referring to the LeBreton Flats site — which sits roughly two kilometres to the west of Parliament Hill. Instead, Sutcliffe is imagining something walkable from the iconic Parliament buildings that serve as the iconic backdrop and anchor for the downtown core. 

He envisions something close to the two light rail stops at Rideau Centre and Parliament Hill.

For fans preferring to drive downtown, there could be plenty of options to park at the Rideau Centre, World Exchange Plaza or the National Arts Centre. 

Sutcliffe thinks about a site in close proximity to dozens of restaurant and bar options on Elgin St, Sparks St. and the Byward Market. 

And a place located close to more than 20 hotels — including all the big chains like Marriott, Delta, Sheraton and the Westin — that are nestled in the heart of the downtown core. 

The infrastructure and amenities are already sitting in place, whereas it may take several years to build up hotels and restaurants around the undeveloped LeBreton Flats site. 

The idea has never been feasible in the past, considering the lack of options for finding a five-acre parcel of land located in the heart of the city. But as Sutcliffe points out, the federal government is vacating in the neighbourhood of 10-20 buildings in this area over the next few years. With federal government employees shifting to a hybrid model that will see them work many days from home, the need for physical office space in the downtown core has greatly diminished. 

“It can be done. I’m not looking at a specific site, but if the federal government is moving out, there is a level of fluidity in the marketplace,” Sutcliffe said. “This is the first time where you can ever think about assembling a piece of land in the downtown core for an arena.”

Sutcliffe said he’s only had vague, big-picture conversations with the Senators about putting their arena downtown. Those talks have been largely conceptual in nature, but now it’s time for Sutcliffe and city officials to zero in on a specific site or two. 

“At some point, we’re going to need to figure out if there is an option downtown. We’re going to have to develop one or two concepts. See how feasible they are and put them on the table,” said Sutcliffe. “And we’ll see if they can work for everyone involved. If it works great, you go to the next step. If it doesn’t work, then at least you’ve taken your shot.”

To that end, it doesn’t seem like Sutcliffe is prioritizing any of the options that have been floated out in the past — including some that have come directly from the mayor’s lips. In March 2023, Sutcliffe appeared on TSN 1200 and suggested the city-owned lands at Bayview Yards, the RCGT Park baseball stadium and property around the Hurdman transit station could be viable sites for a new Senators arena. 

In December 2022, The Athletic reported that multiple real estate experts in the area pointed to a parcel of land just off the 417 highway near Lees Avenue as a potential arena option. At least one of the groups bidding on the Senators seemed keen on that location, but it’s not known if Michael Andlauer and his ownership group have explored this spot. 

So if these options aren’t being explored as an alternative to LeBreton, what could be realistic in the heart of the downtown core?

There is the current site of the Department of National Defence, which is located just behind the Shaw Centre. 

There are government buildings that could be freed up around the old L’Esplanade Laurier shopping centre at the corner of Bank St. and Laurier Ave.

Another possibility could exist on the western edge of the downtown core near the old Ottawa Tech High School — near Slater St. and Bronson Ave. 

Sutcliffe said people shouldn’t get too caught up in the idea of not having enough size or space with any of the ideas above. He believes there are options to be flexible, which could include purchasing real estate from private companies and marrying it with land from the federal government. 

“You can combine a couple of different sites. You can re-route traffic. We can create a square out of two city blocks and then have traffic go around it,” explained Sutcliffe. “There are arenas in other downtowns. This is not a revolutionary idea.”

At this point, however, Sutcliffe said he has not engaged in serious negotiations with the federal government about purchasing any of the buildings they could be vacating. 

“I have not had a formal or detailed conversation with the federal government about any specific sites or anything like that,” he said. “The federal government is still in the process of identifying the full list of buildings that they are going to move out of.”

Predictably, when the federal government decides to decommission a building, there is a lengthy process plastered in red tape. There are protocols in place and strict rules they need to adhere to before agreeing to sell off a property. 

In a statement to The Athletic in June 2023, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) — the government agency in charge of owning and operating government office space in the area — confirmed they hold more than six million square metres of office space in the Ottawa area.

PSPC wrote they are “currently developing a long-term real estate portfolio plan to optimize the office space under our responsibility, lower operating costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” In a statement to The Athletic last summer, the Department of National Defence said, “DND/CAF continue to occupy the building and are currently expecting to remain until 2035.”

So, as Sutcliffe said, “it’s early yet” in terms of narrowing down exactly what spaces might be available in the downtown core. But with a looming deadline in fall 2024 for the memorandum of understanding between the Senators and the NCC for the LeBreton site, Sutcliffe knows the clock is ticking on putting a viable alternative on the table.

It sounds like the mayor wants to give the Senators — and the city — something to think about before signing off at LeBreton Flats. 

“I think sometime in the next six months, we can say ‘If we can do this, this and this, is it worth pursuing?’” Sutcliffe said. “And then you go into the next stage. But it starts with saying ‘Let’s pick a couple of spots.’ We’re talking about land we don’t own.”

Sutcliffe would like to discuss the idea of acquiring vacated federal government buildings for a variety of reasons, including adding more housing into the heart of the downtown core. In addition to housing, he thinks a new arena would help revitalize a stagnant downtown core. 

“The one thing that we could do to bring a lot of traffic and energy and buzz is an events centre,” said Sutcliffe. “We could draw 15,000 people a night about 100 times a year with hockey games, concerts and events. That’s a home run scenario for downtown.”

After the original deal to develop LeBreton Flats with the Senators fell apart in 2018, the Senators were left with very few options for a new arena. But the potential for prime real estate in the downtown core — a function of the post-pandemic environment — has the mayor thinking about a concept that was impossible to imagine five years ago. 

So while there is a deadline looming with LeBreton, Sutcliffe thinks a little more patience might result in a prime location shaking loose in the heart of the downtown core. 

“This is a huge decision for our community and the Senators. We don’t want it rushed. We want to make the right decision for the next 40 years. If that takes us a few months longer or a year longer, then I think it’s right,” said Sutcliffe. “Lebreton Flats is a viable option, but seems like there is an opportunity here. And we should take a shot at looking for a site for downtown that can be part of an exciting revitalization plan.”

(Photo of the Senators rink at Scotiabank Arena: André Ringuette / NHLI via Getty Images)

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