Council clears way for partial demolition of historic Somerset House

City council has reluctantly given the go-ahead for the demolition of part of Ottawa's historic Somerset House, but is vowing to be more aggressive in enforcing the city's property standards to avoid similar conundrums in the future.

City to create special task force to police property standards, end 'demolition by neglect'

Ottawa city council voted Wednesday to allow the partial demolition of Somerset House. (Alistair Steele/CBC)

City council has reluctantly given the go-ahead for the demolition of part of Ottawa's historic Somerset House, but is vowing to be more aggressive in enforcing the city's property standards to avoid similar conundrums in the future.

That includes the creation of a special task force to make sure heritage buildings are being properly protected.

Mayor Jim Watson will also press the provincial government to change rules that give property tax rebates to owners who leave their properties vacant, to avoid so-called "demolition by neglect."

"We have to do a better job of enforcing the laws and bylaws that we have, but we also need the province of Ontario to be on board," Watson said.

He added that he's meeting with Eleanor McMahon — the province's minister in charge of heritage — on Wednesday afternoon and that he'd be raising the issue of the vacancy rebate with her.

No expropriation

Council did not give any serious consideration Wednesday to the idea of expropriating the heritage building at the corner of Somerset and Bank streets.
The owner of Somerset House wants to demolish the four eastern-most bays of the heritage building. (Alistair Steele/CBC)

Watson said he was not in favour of expropriating the heritage building, as suggested earlier this week by Somerset ward Coun. Catherine McKenney, because he believes it rewards negligent landlords.

"Without so much as having to lift a finger, the developer gets a big fat cheque from Ottawa taxpayers and taxpayers are left holding the bag," he said.

Rideau-Vanier  Coun. Mathieu Fleury pointed out that the city had some success taking property owner Claude Lauzon to court over the crumbling Our Lady School building in Lowertown, and wondered why the same tactic wasn't used for Somerset House.

Planning manager John Moser said that each situation was unique and that Somerset was being monitored, although by the property owner. Moser told councillors that the process had been "successful" — until the demolition application came in for the eastern wall of the building.

Plans to restore never materialized

Council's decision comes after the city's built heritage subcommittee approved on Monday a demolition application by the building's owner, Tony Shahrasebi, to tear down the four eastern-most bays of the landmark building. Councillors on the city's planning committee followed suit Tuesday.

Two separate engineering firms have confirmed that the wall in question cannot be restored and is a danger to the public.

It's the latest in a battle between the city and Shahrasebi that began in 2007 when part of the building collapsed.

When the owner failed to fix the building, the city did the work and billed Shahrasebi's company, TKS Holdings. That sparked a protracted legal battle between the two that ended in 2012 with the company paying the city $650,000. 

Soon after, the owner proposed a plan to have part of the building restored and part replaced with glass.

Councillors enthusiastically approved of the plan and even waived some fees to encourage the restoration — but those plans never materialized.