People & Places

From iron-and-steel to bikes and beer — rebuilding the Booth Complex

While the situation at LeBreton Flats has been lavished with attention, the fate of another large heritage property in Ottawa has gone relatively unnoticed: the Booth Street Complex, located at the other end of Little Italy, is quietly moving the city in an exciting direction, all while maintaining its links to the past.

Earlier this year, heritage designation was given to the buildings on the west side of Booth Street between Norman and Orangeville. That includes the iconic red-brick smokestack. Constructed between 1911 and 1952, many were in use until the early 2000s. (Buildings on the east side of Booth and north of Norman remain home to Natural Resources Canada and the Geological Survey of Canada.)

The classic red-brick facades of the buildings along the west side of Booth Street.  Photo by Nico Valenzuela

The Booth Street Complex began to take shape in the early 1900s, when Canadian industry hungered for large supplies of metals and energy. To supply this need, the Department of Mines built laboratories at the northern end of the current site close to the former Canadian Atlantic Railway line (now The Queensway). Early work included testing peat as a fuel for the iron-and-steel industry; later, industrial materials such as clay and gypsum were tested, and massive samples of ore were brought in for experiments and processing. In response to Britain’s demand for tough steels during World War II, a special mill was assembled and operated on a commercial scale. Explosives and fuels were also tested here.

There are now seven buildings on the site composed of 17 individual structures, including the central heating plant and its landmark brick smokestack. The red-brick buildings have flat roofs and classical facades at the public entrances facing the streets, while functional laboratories occupy the interior. The solid workmanship and durable materials used to fireproof buildings have ensured the longevity of the structures, which were state of the art when built.

Constructed between 1911 and 1952, many of these buildings were in use until the early 2000s. Photo by Nico Valenzuela

In October 2015, the Booth Street Complex was purchased by the Canada Lands Company (CLC), a federal Crown corporation that redevelops surplus federal government properties. After asking the public what it wanted from the site, CLC developed a plan that would preserve the heritage structures and incorporate high-rise condominiums up to 25 storeys. Public opinion has favoured integration of old and new buildings, as well as traffic-calming features that will appeal to cyclists and pedestrians. Rather than the commercial atmosphere of Lansdowne Park, people are looking for something more akin to Toronto’s Distillery District or Vancouver’s Gastown. They want living streets with an industrial-chic vibe — and a grocery store.

So far, CLC’s plans have lined up all the necessary government approvals with no local opposition. Heritage status has been granted, and the old smokestack will be saved. Once the city has approved all plans, CLC can begin soil remediation and partial demolition. Private developers could be buying up that land as early as 2020.