I have a question for Tony Shahrasebi and when I phone he tells me to drop by the car wash, he’ll be there mid-morning.
“It’s about the anniversary, right?”
“Yes,” I answer.
“Six years. Do you believe it?”
“I’ll be there around 10:30.”
Six years. It is indeed hard to believe that six years have passed since the city of Ottawa tore down part of a heritage building Shahrasebi owns. (The actual anniversary is this Wednesday.)
Six years and a sidewalk still closed at one of the busiest intersections in the city. Six years with ugly scaffolding and metal bracing and one of the worst eyesores in Ottawa.
Where once there was the Lockmaster Tavern. The story goes from bad to worse.
Although I have long thought the convoluted saga of the Duke of Somerset building could be a primer on how the city of Ottawa manages to do that so effortlessly. Make a bad situation worse.
Got a problem? Bring it on. We’ll make it a debacle.
Need a bridge built? Glad to meet you. That’s our specialty.
Anyway, I consider what happened to Shahrasebi to be a classic Ottawa city hall story. A cautionary tale for business people everywhere.
It begins in the autumn of 2007, with Shahrasebi — the owner of Capital Parking, Minute Car Wash and many commercial properties around Ottawa — working on a property he had just bought. The Duke of Somerset, a century-old building at the corner of Somerset and Bank streets.
On October 19, 2007 there was an accident on the worksite and part of a wall collapsed, briefly trapping a worker in a forklift. (Shahrasebi later paid $55,000 in Ministry of Labour fines, for not having the right permit for the work.)
So, the story starts with his mistake. No one argues that. But here comes the bad to worse part.
Within an hour of the accident, the City of Ottawa arrived and cordoned of an entire city block. For safety reasons.
Which sounds fine, until you consider that to reach the outer perimeter the Duke of Somerset building would have had to get up, walk and then long-jump itself down Bank Street.
After the barricades, the city set up 24-7 police protection of the perimeter (in case the building tried to escape.)
When businesses in the area complained the city had just shut down a main downtown intersection, six weeks before Christmas, because of one crumbling wall, the city responded by tearing down part of Shahrasebi’s building.
Without his permission. Even though he had not one, but two engineers’ reports, saying the building was fine.
What followed was a nasty lawsuit between the city and one of its more successful businessmen, a sad turn of events that I often think happened because the city never understood the man.
If the city had arrived at the Duke of Somerset back in 2007 and found some well dressed “construction consultant” — the bill-by-the-hour professional the city likes playing with — I think everything might have been different.
Instead, it found an Iranian-immigrant entrepreneur who has as much fondness for red tape as he does for unsightly blemishes on the seat of your car.
So the city ended up suing Shahrasebi for the cost of the barricades and the round-the-clock police protection (“Are you kidding me?”) and Shahrasebi countersued the city for tearing down his building.
Sue me, sue you. It was an old George Harrison song there for a while.
The case was settled some months ago with Shahrasebi paying the city $650,000 (much less than the original claim.) And new plans for rebuilding the Duke of Somerset were approved last month.
The plans are impressive. (One of the ironies of this story is that Shahrasebi loves old buildings, and many other owners would have razed the Duke six years ago and built condos.)
So the question:
“When are you going to re-open the Lockmaster Tavern?”
“Why? You need a drink?”
“No. Thought you might.”
Shahrasebi stands at the end of a rinse line at Minute Car Wash, a cloth in his hand, this man who made his millions in Canada by figuring out you could park more cars in a parking lot when you took the keys, and he says:
“I’m not sure about re-opening the Lockmaster. But after what the city of Ottawa put me through, maybe I should open two seedy, old taverns, just to bug them.”
And I find myself thinking — why stop at two?