Planning committee sends 'strong message' to Somerset House owner

In a rare, if not unprecedented move, Ottawa's planning committee has deferred a decision on a downtown low-rise project to send the property owner a message about his years of inaction at Somerset House several blocks away.

Committee unanimously tells owner to fix building before decision on unrelated project

Somerset House on Ottawa's Bank Street still shows a poster for a redevelopment approved back in 2017 that has never happened. (Ryan Garland/CBC)

UPDATE | Planning committee approved the Catherine Street zoning request on April 28, after city staff reiterated safety concerns about the fire-damaged building.

In a rare, if not unprecedented move, Ottawa's planning committee has deferred a decision on a downtown low-rise project to send the property owner a message about his years of inaction at Somerset House several blocks away.

The area councillor, Somerset ward's Catherine McKenney, acknowledged it was "unconventional" to link a decision about one property with another unrelated one, but said the city simply had too few tools and leverage to get TKS Holdings Ltd. to act on the heritage building that partially collapsed 14 years ago.

Since that day in October 2007, the City of Ottawa has approved designs for redevelopment at that prominent Bank Street corner in 2013 and again in 2017, and granted a permit that eventually expired. It had to allow an unsafe wall to come down, and has previously ordered repairs.

Today Somerset House still stands empty, its main-floor windows boarded up, and construction fencing along one side.

McKenney also pointed to two other parking lots the owner operates on O'Connor Street in contravention of zoning bylaws.

So when TKS Holdings Ltd.'s request for an unrelated rezoning at 129 and 133 Catherine St. in order to build a low-rise apartment building came before planning committee on Thursday, the committee unanimously agreed with McKenney to hold off on granting it.

Committee approved McKenney's motion to defer that approval "until there is proof this property owner can be a responsible downtown property owner and commit to deliverable plans to rehabilitate the Somerset House site."

Planning committee deferred a decision to allow a low-rise four-unit apartment building at 133 Catherine St., seen here in May. It was damaged by a fire next door in 2019, and construction is already underway, city staff noted. (Google)

Councillors united in frustration

City of Ottawa legal and planning staff had not seen McKenney's motion ahead of time and did not support it.

They counselled that the municipality shouldn't decide one planning application based on a property someone owns elsewhere. The Catherine Street low-rise application has already passed the date by which the city was required to make a decision, and the owner could appeal at the Ontario Land Tribunal.

One by one, councillors expressed frustration about the lack of mechanisms the city has to deal with neglected properties, from West Coast Video in Old Ottawa South to McGee House in Hintonburg.

Somerset House has caused problems for the city longer than most have even sat on council, they noted.

"I don't like rewarding bad behaviour in respect to property owners that preside over heritage structures, especially when they're flouting city rules and regulations," said Innes ward Coun. Laura Dudas, who remembered covering Somerset House as a reporter.

A heritage brick building on a city street corner.
The heritage building at the corner of Bank and Somerset streets is seen Thursday, still empty 14 years after it partially collapsed. (Ryan Garland/CBC)

Legal costs not a concern

Councillors also weren't deterred by the possibility of legal costs should TKS Holdings appeal over the lack of decision on the Catherine Street project.

Coun. Shawn Menard also pushed for Somerset House to be expropriated, but planning committee co-chair Scott Moffatt disagreed saying the city would have to pay market value, and then the building would become the municipality's problem and liability.

"This owner doesn't deserve a cent of city money," said Moffatt. "Deferring it might cost a bit of money, but at this point I'd rather spend money tying this guy up in court than giving him money to walk away."

McKenney said they avoid walking past the Bank and Somerset street corner because residents stop the councillor, and don't understand the city can't compel the owner to fix the building.

"This is ... sending a strong message to not just this owner, but other owners in our city who are allowing buildings to be demolished by neglect, especially heritage buildings, that we're not going to stand for it anymore."

The members of planning committee include: Moffatt, Dudas, Menard, Glen Gower, Tim Tierney, Jeff Leiper, Riley Brockington, Allan Hubley, Catherine Kitts and Jean Cloutier.

TKS Holdings Ltd.'s Tony Shahresebi did not reply to requests for comment.