City doesn't think Somerset House owner will carry through with redevelopment

Somerset House on July 13, 2016. Photo: Darren Brown / Postmedia

Thursday, September 13, 2018


The city is taking the “most aggressive action” yet on the stagnant renovation to the historic Somerset House in Centretown, the city’s heritage boss says.

Court Curry, the manager who oversees the city’s heritage program, said on Thursday that based on a meeting with the property owner last week, he doesn’t believe the restoration plan will happen for the property on Somerset and Bank streets. According to Curry, the owner has decided to pursue “other development opportunities” for the property over the next two to five years, but those plans fit into the heritage restrictions only “to a degree.”

Curry told the subcommittee that the city is about to take “the most aggressive actions the city has undertaken” against the property owner when it comes to property standards and heritage protection.

Somerset House dates back to 1899 and is protected by heritage designation, which means any alterations must be approved by city council.

Curry, who provided the built-heritage subcommittee an update on Somerset House during a meeting, declined to discuss the other development opportunities the property owner is pursuing.

Tony Shahrasebi, the property owner, said he’s still working toward achieving the council-approved scheme.

“Of course we have plans,” Shahrasebi said in phone interview.

However, there have been no bites from the retail sector to lease space in the building, he said.

Council on May 10, 2017 approved the rehabilitation plan for the building and the issuance of a heritage permit, which has a two-year expiry. There has been little work done since then.

Shahrasebi hired a contractor to fill a pit on the property after the city raised concerns about a potential safety hazard.

That’s about the extent of the work over the past year.

The city has been receiving monthly engineering reports on the building. Staff inspected the building this week.

If the city needs to do work on the building to protect the public, it will undertake the work and bill the owner’s property taxes, Curry said.

Until now, the city hasn’t clamped down on the protection of heritage attributes since there was a redevelopment plan that took into account the heritage restoration. Now, the city will order the property owner to protect the heritage elements, Curry said.

Shahrasebi said he would take the city to court if the city charged construction expenses to his property taxes. He has plans to protect the building against the winter weather, including heating the inside.

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney continues to call for the city to expropriate the property. With no confidence that Shahrasebi will redevelop the building, McKenney wants the city to buy the property and potentially use it for a public purpose, such as creating a library branch.

“This is at one of key intersections of our downtown,” McKenney said. “The fact that we have essentially a dead corner and a dead corner that is also a heritage building is quite egregious. We have to take very serious and strong action on this matter and with this owner.”

The city has only once expropriated a heritage property when it took over 503-507 King Edward Ave. in 1985.

Shahrasebi declined to comment on the possibility of the city expropriating his property.

Curry said the city would exhaust all options before considering expropriation.

The city is working on a financial incentive program to help heritage property owners complete renovations.

Shahrasebi said the idea of financial assistance has come up in discussions with the city, but instead of the $500,000 incentive that was floated during those talks, he asked for $1 million.

According to Curry, staff did talk about the development of a city-wide financial assistance program for heritage redevelopment that would require council approval. However, at no point did staff talk about the availability of or attempt to negotiate a specific amount for Somerset House, Curry said.

Somerset House was once home to the Duke of Somerset pub. A partial collapse in 2007 resulted in a legal fight between Shahrasebi and city hall. After they resolved the dispute, a series of redevelopment plans gave the city hope that the appearance of this busy downtown intersection would be restored.

As time wore on, part of the wall along Somerset Street became so deteriorated, the city had to approve a partial demolition.

The building has become a capital eyesore with an unknown future, even making the National Trust for Canada’s top-10 list of “endangered” heritage landmarks. The city created an internal task force in 2016 to monitor vacant heritage properties, partially in response to the debacle over Somerset House.