Owner of Somerset House furious over political indecision on Catherine Street project

Somerset House / Postmedia

Friday, October 29, 2021

City's planning committee refuses to consider a zoning application for Catherine Street property until Tony Shahrasebi produces a credible plan for Somerset House

OTTAWA CITIZEN, by Jon Willing

The owner of Somerset House is furious the planning committee held hostage another one of his downtown projects, all to send a message over the sad state of the heritage building at Somerset and Bank streets.

“What a mentality,” Tony Shahrasebi said in an interview Thursday after the planning committee refused to consider a zoning application for his property on Catherine Street.

“Are they treating me like I’m a Taliban? You can write that in the paper. Why are they treating me like this? They’re treating me like I came from Mars. What did I do wrong to these people?”

Councillors on the committee stood behind Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney and their call to defer a decision on the Catherine Street project until “there is proof this property owner can be a responsible downtown property owner” and produce a credible plan for the heritage-designated Somerset House at Somerset and Bank streets.

“(Somerset House) has been an embarrassment for the City of Ottawa for many years,” McKenney said during the committee meeting.

“We don’t have the tools we need, the leverage we need, to redevelop this property.”

The Somerset House saga dates back to 2007 when the building partially collapsed, leading to a legal fight between Shahrasebi and the city. The historic building, which dates back to 1899 and was home to the Duke of Somerset pub before the collapse, has been deteriorating and is one of Ottawa’s most high-profile eyesores.

There’s nothing the city can do to force Shahrasebi to redevelop the property using what’s left of Somerset House. The city can make sure he protects heritage features and it can enforce property standards, but that’s it.

Now that Shahrasebi needs the city’s approval for another project, councillors believe they have found their bargaining chip.

The move by the committee is extremely rare since each development application is usually considered on its own merits with virtually no consideration of other projects by the applicant. City staff were also blindsided by McKenney’s deferral motion.

However, Shahrasebi still has the upper hand. He can ask the Ontario Land Tribunal for a decision on his Catherine Street rezoning application, which received the support of city staff.

There’s nothing remarkable about the development application at 129-133 Catherine St.

Shahrasebi wants to fix up a three-storey former rooming house damaged by fire at a neighbouring building in 2019 and rent out four apartments. He considers the project temporary since his property is zoned for a tower.

Councillors didn’t seem to mind the prospect of the land tribunal making a decision on the Catherine Street application if it meant that Shahrasebi wouldn’t get what he wanted from the committee.

“This is someone who does not play by the rules, so why should we be expected to as well?” said Coun. Scott Moffatt, the co-chair of the committee.

While Coun. Shawn Menard suggested the city should expropriate Somerset House as soon as possible, Moffatt said it shouldn’t be an option because the city would have to pay market value and assume the liability of a damaged heritage property.

“This owner doesn’t deserve a cent of city money,” Moffatt said.

“At this point, I’d rather spend money tying this guy up in court than giving him money to walk away.”

Shahrasebi, through his company TKS Holdings, has floated redevelopment plans for Somerset House in previous years, but nothing has happened.

Now with a new design, Shahrasebi said he wants to demolish the dilapidated Somerset House and build a nine-storey mixed-use building that would architecturally resemble the historic landmark.

According to Shahresebi, Somerset House can’t handle the loads required for a redevelopment and it needs to come down.

“I promise by the end of next month, we’ll submit for site plan,” Shahrasebi said.

Shahrasebi wasn’t afraid to point out how much property he controls in the downtown area to show how much power he has over important real estate. He said he owns 300,000 square feet of land and he has also recently acquired the Tannis building on Catherine Street across from the old bus terminal.

But, according to Shahrasebi, he needs the revenue from his project on Catherine Street to help fund his $20-million vision for the Somerset House property.

Creating a barrier to development on the Catherine Street project will only further delay the transformation of Somerset House, Shahrasebi said.


Related Reading:

Heritage Ottawa Opposes Demolition by Neglect of Somerset House / Heritage Ottawa, June 30, 2016