Church planning for development near future LRT station

With a new light rail station to be built just steps away, First Unitarian Church is making long-term plans to open its two-and-a-half hectare site up for development.

First Unitarian congregants agree the long-term plan includes affordable housing

First Unitarian Church sits on two-and-a-half hectares on Cleary Avenue. It also has the Unitarian House seniors' residence and a child-care centre on the property. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

First Unitarian Church finds itself caught in two trends: the faltering finances of churches and the boom to build around light rail stations.

So, with a new LRT station to be built just steps away from its Cleary Avenue property, it is laying the groundwork to open its site for development and smooth out any future financial bumps.

"We don't want to mess it up. It's just too valuable a property to do something we regret later, and we're in no rush," said Blair Erskine, who has attended the church since it opened in 1965 and now leads a committee looking at what to do with the site.

The church sits on two-and-a-half hectares between the Ottawa River and Richmond Road, and has a seniors' residence, child-care centre and memorial garden also on the property.

We don't want to mess it up. It's just too valuable a property to do something we regret later.- Blair Erskine, First Unitarian planning committee chair

The new Cleary Station will be just around the corner when Stage 2 of LRT opens in the west, and several neighbouring parcels on Richmond Road are already slated for high-rises.

Congregation wants affordable housing

The congregation had opposed the initial plan to have the LRT tunnel cut through its property, and the revised route travels through an existing strip mall that is now nearly empty.

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"We don't want to mess up," says Blair Erskine of the First Unitarian Church, who is leading a committee that is looking into making long-term development plans for the property.

Now the 300-member congregation has hired planning consultancy Fotenn and held a meeting in May to let neighbours weigh in.

First Unitarian Church is working with consultant Fotenn to plan ways to develop the church's site near the future Cleary LRT station. Blair Erskine, the chair of that church committee, looks over some of its ideas. (Kate Porter/CBC)

First Unitarian isn't yet in the financial bind of other churches that have turned to development, Erskine said, but the first priority will be income to make sure the church can survive long-term. 

At this early stage, the other thing the congregation agrees on is that any development must include affordable housing.

"It's crucial. The congregation has made it clear that they want that in whatever development is settled on," Erskine said.

Cleary Station, seen here, and New Orchard Station will be open-air stations that act as bookends for a section of the western Confederation Line that will travel below street level along the Byron Linear Park. (City of Ottawa)

Neighbouring community associations have also suggested the area could use a community or health centre, which First Unitarian would like to pursue.

"I have mixed emotions," said Susan Miller, who lives nearby and is also a church member. She cares that First Unitarian remains viable, but is also concerned for the residents of Unitarian House, and whether the existing 35-year-old seniors' residence remains a part of the plan.

Erskine said the development would happen in phases and everything is on the table.

The plan will leave open the possibility that 50 years from now the church building itself might be redeveloped, he added.

"Eventually we're going to have to develop, for one reason or another, and the sooner we get a handle on it the better," Erksine said.


Kate Porter


Kate Porter covers municipal affairs for CBC Ottawa. Over the past two decades, she has also produced in-depth reports for radio, web and TV, regularly presented the radio news, and covered the arts beat.


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