Demolition inevitable for section of Ottawa's Somerset House

Nine years after failing to restore the damaged Somerset House, its owner is asking the city to allow him to demolish a section of the century-old heritage building at the southeast corner of Somerset and Bank streets.

After years of neglect and broken promises, century-old section of heritage building awaits wrecking ball

The owner of Somerset House wants to demolish the four eastern-most bays of the heritage building along Somerset Street W. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

Nine years after failing to restore the damaged Somerset House, its owner is asking the city to allow him to demolish a section of the century-old heritage building at the southeast corner of Somerset and Bank streets.

And with two independent engineering consultants agreeing that the most dilapidated section of the building cannot be repaired and — according to one firm — is "an imminent danger to the public," both the city's built heritage subcommittee and planning committee will have little choice but to agree to the demolition when they meet next week.

"After nine years, I can't believe we're still talking about this building. It's quite disappointing, actually," said Somerset ward Coun. Catherine McKenney.

"It is definitely demolition by neglect."
Coun. Catherine McKenney believes Somerset House is a victim of 'demolition by neglect.' (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

McKenney said she will be looking for reassurance from city staff that they will take every measure possible to protect the rest of the building from further deterioration. In this instance, it does not appear the city used all measures within its power to save the building.

The Building Code Act allows the city to fix buildings in certain circumstances. For example, if a landowner refused to abide by the city's property standards, the municipality can go in and do the work. The city did just that in 2007 when Somerset House partially collapsed during a renovation project, but hasn't intervened since. 

"I think that we as a city have to move in and do what we can to fix it up and put that cost back onto the owner, the same way we would with anyone's private dwelling if they were allowing it to deteriorate," said McKenney. 

"I do believe it's time to use the stick rather than the carrot."

Long history of neglect

The request to demolish the four eastern-most bays of the building along Somerset Street is the latest in a nearly decade-long battle between the city and the building's owner Tony Shahrasebi that began in 2007.
Somerset House owner Tony Shahrasebi, shown here in 2008, has presented a number of plans to restore the heritage building. None materialized. (Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC)

A protracted legal battle between the city and Shahrasebi's company, TKS Holdings, ended in 2012 with the company paying the city $650,000. Soon after the owner proposed a plan that would have seen part of the building restored and part replaced with glass. The city enthusiastically approved of the plan and even waived some fees to encourage the restoration.

But when it became obvious a year later that no work had been done, council voted to stop waiving the fees and a furious Mayor Jim Watson called the derelict building "an eyesore."

As recently as a year ago, Shahrasebi said he expected the reconstruction of Somerset House to be finished around now. But there's still no evidence of work being undertaken on the building.
A architect's drawing of an earlier, unrealized renovation plan for Somerset House. (City of Ottawa)

The eastern end of the building appears to be so dangerous, city crews have closed the adjacent sidewalk.

Shahrasebi was not available for comment Thursday.

The original corner building of Somerset House was built in 1899 and has served as a dry goods store, a hotel and, more recently, the Duke of Somerset pub. The eastern wing of the building was added in the early 1900s. 

Two independent engineers — one hired by Shahrasebi, another by the city — agreed the eastern end of the building could be neither restored nor repaired. City staff are recommending to the committees that they require the owner to reserve the bricks and any other materials to be used in a future restoration of the rest of the building.

City failed to use all its powers

While the city cannot force a landowner to develop a property, it does have powers to ensure an empty building remains in good condition.

The municipality can intervene to repair a building and bill the work to the property owner. And under the property standards bylaw, updated in 2013, a corporation can be fined $50,000 for a first offence under the building code, and $100,000 for subsequent offences.

The city fined TKS Holdings $10,000 in 2007, a bill the owner eventually paid in 2011. The city didn't fine the company again, despite its clear failure to maintain the minimum standards for Somerset House.

The city also could have taken TKS and Shahrasebi to court to force him to take some protective measures for Somerset House, as it did with landlord Claude Lauzon. But even in that instance, the legal action was taken much too late to save the heritage building.

McKenney believes the city staff was reticent to fine Shahrasebi under the property standards bylaw because the legal wrangling over Somerset House took so long, and because the owner always insisted he was on the verge of fixing up the building.

"The owner has indicated that he's going to redevelop, shovels in the ground within a few months," said the downtown councillor. "Any movement on part of the city to fine him would take six months to a year."

But Shahrasebi has never once followed up on any of his proposals to refurbish Somerset House, leaving the city on the verge of losing a chunk of a landmark Centretown building.

"We have to start taking our bylaws seriously," said McKenney.
The sidewalk adjacent to the eastern portion of Somerset House was closed due to danger from the dilapidated part of the heritage building. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)