Advocates Offer Advice for Ottawa's New Heritage Task Force

Somerset House at corner of Bank and Somerset streets. Photo: Darren Brown / Postmedia

Monday, July 25, 2016

OTTAWA CITIZEN, By Matthew Pearson

The first thing Mayor Jim Watson’s new heritage task force must do is ensure the city’s property standards bylaw is being actively enforced, says the president of Heritage Ottawa.

David Jeanes says the task force, which was announced July 13, the same day city council approved the partial demolition of a heritage-protected building in Centretown that has suffered years of neglect, must come out with firm direction to staff to uphold the bylaw that already exists, rather than waiting until a building deteriorates to the point that it becomes a risk to public safety.

“We’re losing our heritage buildings not because city council is agreeing to the demolition but because the demolition is happening through neglect,” he said. “The property standards department have not been taking action.”

The 2013 bylaw spells out specific standards for heritage properties, including vacant ones like Somerset House, which is on the corner of Bank and Somerset streets.

Owners must protect buildings against the risk of fire, storm, neglect, intentional damage or damage by other causes by preventing animals and unauthorized people from getting in.

Failure to comply could cost a company as much as $100,000 in fines.

Jeanes said he also wants the task force to push for the addition of more buildings to the city’s heritage register and keep a closer tab on the number of individual demolitions approved in heritage conservation districts. “If you allow that again and again, you eventually get to a point where the character of the district is lost,” he said.

The task force, which will meet for the first time next month, includes the mayor, Coun. Jan Harder, chair of the city’s planning committee, and Coun. Tobi Nussbaum, chair of the built-heritage subcommittee. The senior heritage planner, chief building official and the chief bylaw officer will also be asked to participate.

The city says “key stakeholders from the built heritage community” will be consulted about their ideas on how to better protect our built heritage, but Jeanes said there’s no indication yet what exactly that consultation will look like.

Barry Padolsky, the vice-chair of the heritage subcommittee, said he hopes the task force will identify vacant heritage properties and question the owners, both in the public and private sectors, about what methods are being undertaken to make sure buildings are safe and stable while awaiting a future use.

Top of mind for him are the former United States embassy on Wellington Street, the collection of federal government buildings near Little Italy known as the Booth Street complex and the former Forintek administration building at 800 Montreal Rd.

Padolsky wants reassurance the federal public works department and the Canada Lands Corporation, the Crown corporation that manages, redevelops or sells surplus federal properties, such as the Booth Street complex and the Forintek building, are taking the necessary steps to protect these heritage buildings.

“The task force should pay attention to them,” he said.

As a heritage building at a high-profile intersection that’s deteriorating in plain sight, Somerset House is often the go-to example of demolition by neglect. But it’s far from the only example from recent years.

The former Our Lady School, at the intersection of Cumberland and Murray, has long been a sad sight. A proposal for redevelopment has been approved by the city but only two walls from the original 1904 school will be incorporated into the facade of the new building. 

Meanwhile, the National Capital Commission-owned building at 7 Clarence, which housed Memories restaurant until it was forced to vacate the building in 2013, was torn down after engineers ruled the 135-year-old structure was “clearly beyond the point of reconstruction.”