After more than three hours of debate — and just days after a marathon week of meetings — Ottawa city council voted 16-7 to approve the Salvation Army's controversial proposal to build a 350-bed facility on Montreal Road in Vanier.
Mayor Jim Watson, who came out in support of the proposal soon after it was announced in the summer, voted in favour of the new complex, which includes a 140-bed emergency shelter.
Coun. Mathieu Fleury, who has worked incessantly to stop the plan, voted against the project. Councillors who also voted against it include Riley Brockington, David Chernushenko, Diane Deans, Jeff Leiper, Catherine McKenney and Tobi Nussbaum. (Coun. Rick Chiarelli did not vote because he declared a conflict.)
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Salvation Army's proposal faced massive backlash from the community, and an unprecedented 145 people came to speak to the planning committee last week over three days.
Although many councillors who were not on the planning committee attended at least parts of the meeting, Watson did not show up in person but said he listened in at various times.
When asked about the message that council sends by voting against that kind of outpouring, the mayor told reporters: "There's a difference between listening and agreeing …Our job is to take in all the information and make our best decisions based on the facts that are before us and based on the input from our communities, from the community affected, and so on. "
Mayor's early support skewed process: Fleury
After the vote, Fleury told reporters the mayor's early support of the project turned him into the "toxic" member of councillor's row these last few months. Some councillors didn't want to touch his too-hot political file, even going so far as to refuse to meet with him, said the Rideau-Vanier councillor. Fleury wouldn't name them.
"That's what stings in this conversation, that I wasn't treated by colleagues as an equal," he said. "I can assure you that there's no colleague that would ask to meet with me that I would ever refuse on any file."
Fleury said the process would have been fairer if the mayor had remained neutral longer.
Watson said he publicly supported the project back in the summer because "members of the media asked me for my opinion and I gave you my opinion. I thought it made sense, there was clearly a need for a purpose-built facility."
The mayor recognized that a shelter like the kind Salvation Army is proposing is divisive, but "they have to go somewhere, and we have to make these decisions based on planning."
But it isn't just Watson and Fleury who've been caught up in the politics of the decision.
An emotional Coun. Diane Deans said the debate has "sickened" her.
"This has been a complete failure of process," she said, criticizing both the Salvation Army for not offering any compromises to the Vanier community, and the city for failing to better guide the proposal.
"This is a failure of leadership," Deans said.
Community consultation ordered
Council directed city staff to work with relevant politicians and community stakeholders "to provide input into the next phase of the Salvation Army relocation development."
"I think the community would have liked this a while back," said Coun. Marianne Wilkinson. "But it's better late than never."
Council's directions also called for city officials to work with the Salvation Army "to help it promote the city's housing and homelessness goals and lessen any community impact."
The motion acknowledged the same issues that were ruled verboten during last week's three-day planning committee meeting: namely, the social impacts of a large complex housing vulnerable people moving into an already struggling neighbourhood, and whether Salvation Army's programming is the right model to address homelessness.
Chernushenko supported the motion, but was unimpressed with the Salvation Army's process.
"We are being forced to today … to force the hand of the proponent to do the things it should have done in the first place," he said. "That's the kind of thing that should have been part of the proposal in the first place."
Salvation Army spokesman Glenn Van Gulik recognized that the organization has a lot of work to do, despite clearing the council approval hurdle.
"The largest task," he said, "is working with the community and making sure we're all sitting at a table addressing the concerns that they've expressed, and a lot of misconceptions about the services we provide — and even the people that we provide those services to."
A few tweaks
Council debated a number of other motions, some of which passed — including one moved by Fleury that recognizes the good work that the Salvation Army does in the community.
Another motion that was approved requires the Salvation Army to seek council approval before adding more shelter beds. The charity must also have a so-called ambassador program in place, and satisfy the city's head of planning that its security measures are sufficient before construction can commence.
Council also voted to forbid another shelter at the site of the Salvation Army's current facility on George Street.
Council voted against a proposal to move the new facility's parking lot 26 metres from the curb instead of the proposed 13 metres.
Project could take years
The Salvation Army has said that if all goes well, it hopes to have the new facility operating in about five years. The charitable organization has a deal to buy the property, currently the site of the Concorde Hotel, conditional on the successful rezoning.
However community opponents led by Finnigan's Pub owner Drew Dobson have indicated they will appeal the decision to the Ontario Municipal Board, which could delay the project by many months.
The Salvation Army will also have to figure out how its programs will be funded, especially as the new national housing strategy favours more permanent housing solutions.