A plan to build 42 new affordable apartments for seniors in the same building where health and social programs reside is being lauded as an innovative way to provide housing for an aging population.

But the plan, which received zoning approval Tuesday from Ottawa's planning committee, also calls for one of the city's oldest community gardens to be relocated.

"This is a very unique and rare opportunity that we have and we've had to make that choice," said Cameron MacLeod, director of the Carlington Community Health Centre.

​"We haven't done it without strong consideration for relocation of that garden."

The proposed four-storey building would be linked on one floor to the Carlington Community Health Centre, which is housed in a 94-year-old former school on Merivale Road.

The plan would mean seniors could get help with chronic illnesses without going to a hospital emergency room, or take part in a smoking cessation program without leaving the site, said MacLeod.

Councillors lauded the partnership

It would also add affordable housing stock, in a city where the waiting list is 10,000 households long, said Stéphane Giguère, CEO of Ottawa Community Housing, which will manage the new building.

"This is innovative," said Giguère. "We are receiving interest from other municipalities and other groups here in Ottawa."

The project, which still needs zoning approval from Ottawa city council, would also see the health centre get an expansion.

The project to be funded by the city and provincial and federal governments through programs set up for housing, and construction could start by this summer.

One of city's oldest community gardens 

To make room for social housing on the two-acre lot, however, a community garden with 150 plots tended by volunteers has been closed and will need to relocate.

That community garden is among the city's oldest, said one of its volunteers, and the soil has been cultivated for the last twenty years.

Community Garden behind Carlington Community Health Centre

The community garden behind the Carlington Community Health Centre is one of the city's oldest and largest, with 150 plots (Facebook/Angelina Singson)

"It hurts," said Heidi Sabourin. "But I'm not one of the people in the demographic of people who need it for food desperately."

"A lot of people in this neighbourhood live in apartments and don't have anywhere to garden except for the community garden and they really count on it," she said.

The gardeners also give about 10 per cent of their produce to the food bank in the nearby Caldwell neighbourhood.

"It's not only the food, it's the whole sense of community," said Sabourin. "People help each other. People come by bus."

Seniors have their little plots," she said. "And they say 'When I come spend the afternoon at the community garden I feel so good afterward.'"

MacLeod said he sees both sides — a garden with a lot of history and a need for social housing for seniors. 

Ideally the community garden can re-root nearby, and the centre has staff helping try to secure city approval, said MacLeod.

A committee is also looking at whether a new garden can be created on the health centre site after construction of the social housing building is finished.

Proposed site would require raised beds

Sabourin sees challenges with a move to the proposed site, which she said is at McBride Street and Woodward Avenue near baseball diamonds.

The land, she said, is a former landfill so plots will need to be in raised beds.

Another question will be where to store the soil until those beds can be built. The hope is to move the soil from behind the health centre, Sabourin said, because it is organic and after 20 years is finally the way the gardeners want it.

If all goes well, by this summer the community garden may have 15 accessible plots built at a new location, Sabourin estimated.