Westboro convent still empty five years after development approval

Ashcroft Homes is now considering commercial uses for the former convent in Westboro and is no longer committed to building seniors' residences on the southern side of the site. The community is not happy.

Ashcroft now looking to rent convent instead of providing a community use

Ashcroft Homes has taken steps to keep the two-storey stone house that is part of the former Westboro convent from further deteriorating. (CBC News)

When Ottawa city council gave Ashcroft Homes approval to develop the former Westboro convent lands, it was with the understanding that the developer would restore the 150-year-old building so the community could use it, and to build low-level seniors residences on the south side of the property.

Five years later, a nine-storey condo complex has gone up along the Richmond Road edge of the five-acre site near Island Park Drive, which Ashcroft originally purchased for $12 million. But there's been little news on what's in store for the heritage building.

Ashcroft looking to deviate from original plan

Now, facing a higher-than-expected restoration bill of more than $2 million, Ashcroft is considering commercial uses for the convent and is no longer committed to building seniors' residences.

In fact, the company suggested to the community at a meeting last November that it wanted to build a condo that would swoop up to 25 storeys in the middle of the site.

A rendering of a 25-storey building Ashcroft proposed to the community on the former convent site in November 2015. (courtesy of Ashcroft)

"At the meeting there was fairly close to universal opposition to what was being proposed," said Lorne Cutler, president of the Iona Hampton Park Community Group.

"No one was happy with the 25 storeys for a variety of reasons," including the fact it went against the city's official plan, no one wanted to see such a tall building in the middle of a residential neighbourhood, and that it would loom over the public school next door, Cutler said.

So far, the plan has gone nowhere. But it does indicate that Ashcroft is looking to deviate — possibly significantly  — from its original plans for one of the area's most controversial developments.

Putting 'real money' into former convent

Coun. Jeff Leiper, who represents Kitchissippi ward where the convent is located, said that Ashcroft has put "real money" into the old convent.

In the past five years, walls have been braced but obvious fissures in the stone walls indicate more work needs to be done.

Ashcrofts Homes has taken steps to secure the heritage building, including installing bracing.

But the fact that Ashcroft has invested in restoration is good news in a week that saw another heritage building — Somerset House in downtown Ottawa  — be approved for partial demolition due to property owner neglect. That's definitely not the case with the convent, said Leiper.

The councillor said he doesn't know how much money Ashcroft anticipated spending on restoring the former Soeurs de la Visitation site, which includes a two-storey Gothic Revival stone house that dates back to the 1860s and an addition building in 1916.

But the company told Leiper that the price tag is now "well north of $2 million."

"The necessity of putting more money into preserving the convent building than they anticipated having to do is leading to a re-evaluation of how to develop that entire back lot," said Lepier.

The former convent clearly needs structural work. Coun. Jeff Leiper said he's been told the restoration will cost "well north of $2 million." (CBC News)

The Ashcroft official conceded that the original plan calls for seniors' residences, but that the company is looking for "different alternatives and different options." He said the company wants to do "what's right for the community." He wouldn't give a dollar figure for the convent's restoration.

The official also couldn't confirm whether the company was committed to a public use for the convent, adding that it is planning "a lot of consultation" with the community.

Public use for convent a point of contention

"There is concern that for five years, there's almost no communications by the developer on his plans for the building," said Cutler of the convent. "No discussion with the community for what they want to see happen on the building, no commitment for any dollar amount they're prepared to spend to restore the building and find an adaptive use."

They bought that building with their eyes wide open. Regardless or not of whether they are able to make a profit from it, they have a requirement to preserve it.- Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper

In fact, Leiper said that in his discussions with Ashcroft over the past months, the initial proposal to use the convent for community space has morphing into for-profit uses, such as A grocery store or coffee shop. Residents were looking for space for community meetings and arts programming.

"That doesn't sound like what Ashcroft is thinking about right now," said Leiper. "This is a point of contention in the community right now and I'm absolutely siding with residents." 

As discussions continue on how the south side of the former convent property should be developed, Leiper is adamant that Ashcroft's need to spend more than it originally planned on restoration not be used as an excuse for more height, or giving up on community space in the heritage building.

"They bought that building with their eyes wide open," said Leiper. "Regardless or not of whether they are able to make a profit from it, they have a requirement to preserve it."

To be fair, Leiper said, Ashcroft hasn't neglected the building, so far. But added that he's "not going to allow Ashcroft to make an argument that they need to develop something that is not accepted by the community in return for saving the convent. They're two separate issues."