Proposed francophone community centre in a 'shambles,' neighbours say

Neighbours say the site of the former Grant Alternative School has become a "shambles" as attempts to turn it into a francophone community centre run into financial trouble.

French public school board took over safety and security of former Grant Alternative School site in December

Barry Dickman is concerned about the security at the former Grant Alternative School site. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Neighbours say they're concerned about security at the former Grant Alternative School site as attempts to turn it into a francophone community centre run into financial trouble.

"The place is in a shambles," said Barry Dickman, stepping over broken glass strewn throughout the hallways of the school's former annex building.

Dickman, who lives a couple of streets away from the Richmond Road site, said people have been able to get on the property through an unlocked gate at Cresthill Street and Rob Roy Avenue, leading to vandalism and other unsavoury behaviour.

"That doorway was closed yesterday, but not locked. Today's it's open, held open by a brick," he said Thursday.

There are broken windows, doors propped open in the main building and an empty beer bottle perched on what appear to be kindergarten cubbies.

A door has been propped open with a brick and a window is smashed at the annex building at the proposed site for the Maison de la francophonie de l'Ottawa on Richmond Road. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

"Somebody's being active here," Dickman said. "And I don't know what they're doing. As far as I'm concerned they should be chased out and this place sealed up so they can't do it."

The conversion of the site into a multi-use centre for French-speaking residents of western Ottawa, called Centre multiservices francophone de l'Ouest d'Ottawa (CMFO), has been in the works since 2011.

"I fail to see why CMFO and the City of Ottawa have let this go to the point where it's wide open to anyone who wants to walk in," Dickman said.

Security on site increasing

The project, also called La maison de la francophonie d'Ottawa, continues to face financial challenges and delays. Those problems have led to a change in who manages the property.

The CMFO struck an agreement with the Conseil des écoles publiques de l'Est de l'Ontario (CEPEO) in late 2016, which put the French public school board in charge of the site.  

CEPEO sent staff to secure and repair the site Friday once they had heard of the breach, and encouraged neighbours to report any problems.

Linda Savard, president of the Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario, said the school board has been taking steps to secure the site since a break-in early last month. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Linda Savard, president of the board, said security has been increased since reports of trespassers making it onto the site in early July.

"Right at that time we increased the security to make sure that that would not repeat itself, and we're trying to find all kinds of other ways — such as cameras — to make sure that site is secure," Savard said.

Savard said security guards check the site twice a week. Fences have been repaired, she said, and CEPEO is working to get permission from the City of Ottawa to demolish the secondary structure in the back of the property that seems to attract visitors.

Ottawa police said they're investigating a July 2 break-and-enter at the site.

$9M funding gap

The project requires an additional $9 million to address renovation challenges, such as asbestos removal and accessibility retrofits, that come with updating a school built in 1920.

The province had originally put forward $4 million for renovation, and CMFO had been raising money from private donors. 

The City of Ottawa signed over the land to CMFO for one dollar. Coun. Mark Taylor said there is no additional cost to the city and the community supports the project.

"Nearby residents, of course, are sometimes little bit anxious about the fact that it's sitting here. And we hear these stories about people invading the site, squatting and drinking beers and that type of thing," he said. 

"They're a little bit frustrated too. They want to see it progress and get open, and we're all on the same page there."

Coun. Mark Taylor said residents may be frustrated with some of the activity on the proposed site of the French-language community centre, but they overwhelmingly want a community use for the property. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

The demolition is expected to be approved in the coming weeks.

The French public school board said it will host community meetings in mid-September to talk about the future of the parcel of land and address concerns from neighbours.