Somerset House one step closer to partial demolition

Now that Somerset House is one step closer to being partially torn down, a downtown Ottawa councillor wants the city to expropriate it to ensure the rest of the built-heritage building does not meet the same fate.

Coun. McKenney asks city to explore expropriating the heritage building

Somerset House was built in 1899, but has been closed since a partial collapse in 2007. The built-heritage subcommittee approved an application to demolish part of it. (Alistair Steele/CBC)

Now that Somerset House is one step closer to being partially torn down, a downtown Ottawa councillor wants the city to expropriate it to ensure the rest of the built-heritage building does not meet the same fate.

The city's built-heritage subcommittee approved a demolition application by the owner on Monday to tear down the four eastern-most bays of the landmark building at the corner of Bank and Somerset streets.

The owner of Somerset House wants to demolish the four eastern-most bays of the heritage building. (Alistair Steele/CBC)

The planning committee and full council must still approve the demolition at meetings this week, but as two separate engineering firms have confirmed that the wall in question cannot be restored and is a danger to the public — the sidewalk adjacent to the wall in question is closed to pedestrians — approval for the demolition is virtually guaranteed.

The engineering consultant for the building's owner said the original part of Somerset House, which fronts onto Bank Street, is not in imminent danger of collapse. But there are worrying issues, such as how the bay windows are installed.

'Nothing has been done'

The request to demolish part 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, when it partially 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.

There was no enthusiasm at Monday's committee meeting.

"Nothing has been done to stop this building from further deterioration," said Coun. Catherine McKenney, who represents Somerset ward where the building is located. 

Somebody screwed up here.- Sandy Smallwood, built-heritage subcommittee

So after nine years of dealing with an owner who promised, and then failed, to restore the building, McKenney wants the city to expropriate the property. The last time the city expropriated a heritage building was 1985, when the pre-amalgamation municipality purchased 503-507 King Edward Avenue.

City staff will report on the options for expropriation at council's final meeting before the summer break on Wednesday. 

Coun. Tobi Nussbaum, chair of the built-heritage subcommittee, is open to the possibility of the city expropriating Somerset House. (CBC)

Coun. Tobi Nussbaum, the committee chair, is open to the idea.

"I'll be very interested to hear what staff have to say about that option," he said. "I think you've heard a great degree of frustration at the committee today and we're now in a space where we have to look at all options."

City staff did not use all its powers

The heritage subcommittee members were clearly frustrated that the owner, as well as city staff, did not do enough to preserve the building, which is more than 100 years old.​

Sandy Smallwood, a civilian member of the built-heritage subcommittee, was frustrated that city staff didn't do enough to protect Somerset House from decay. (CBC News)

"Somebody screwed up here," said committee member Sandy Smallwood. "And I don't know who screwed up or what happened. But I simply don't understand why we could be facing something that says the building's about to collapse on us, and yet years ago, I was led to believe that actions were taken to reinforce, to stabilize the walls."

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

If property owners do not comply with orders from the city, the municipality can ultimately take the owner to court. However, councillors have no power to direct city officers to do so.

Nussbaum said Monday he wants to look more closely at how to better enforce the city's property standards rules.