A group of residents in Ottawa’s Centretown neighbourhood are up in arms over a proposal to tear down two heritage homes on Kent Street and replace them with a 31-unit apartment building.
Many argue the proposed development – a four-storey building squeezed into a tight plot of land – would not be in keeping with the character of the downtown neighbourhood, which falls in a heritage conservation district and features many two-storey homes.
Key concerns are that the front face of the building – currently designed at 30 centimetres from the property line – would eclipse the sidewalk and neighbouring buildings. Residents also oppose the planned removal of several mature trees for the building’s rear parking lot.
“This will irrevocably change the historic character of the neighbourhood and is completely unacceptable,” McLeod Street resident Mindy Sichel told members of the city’s built heritage sub-committee Thursday.
The proposal hasn’t yet received the green light. After hearing from all sides at today’s meeting, the committee ordered staff to continue working with the developer to rework the design proposals and come back to them with a new plan mid-June.
Members of the subcommittee appeared more concerned with the design of the new build and less so about the demolition of the two heritage houses. Somerset Ward Coun. Catherine McKenney said applications like this one put her and the committee in a “difficult” position because they do want to see affordable housing and density increase in the downtown area.
“We don’t want to be seen as not supporting that … but at the same time, when we look at the heritage character of our streets, we have to maintain that,” she said.
“We only get one chance. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
‘Historic properties’ should not be torn down, residents argue
While Sichel and others say they’re not opposed to development that is “respectful of the scale and character” of the heritage neighbourhood, in this case, they would like to see the two homes at 443 and 447 Kent St. preserved.
City planning staff asserted in a report to the subcommittee that the front-gabled, two-storey homes – built around 1900 – contribute little to the heritage conservation district “because of their lack of architectural and contextual value and low integrity due to significant alterations.”
McLeod Street resident Jennifer Blair told councillors she doesn’t think that’s the case at all. She insisted that 443 Kent St., in particular, does have “huge cultural value” because of its use as a “major music venue” for the past 10 years.
Blair argued that a heritage building shouldn’t have to have been frequented or inhabited by “a prime minister or a Group of Seven painter” in order to be considered significant. She said research she did revealed that a labourer with six children used to live in one of the homes at the turn of the century.
Sichel, Blair and others alleged the current owner of the properties is to blame for letting the houses fall into disrepair and that shouldn’t be reason enough to tear them down.
“This does not benefit the city. This only benefits owners who fail to maintain their properties,” Sichel argued. “By failing to enforce heritage preservation, we risk losing parts of our collective history.”
The application to the city also seeks permission to remove part of – but not demolish – a third property located at 423-425 McLeod.
The design of the proposed apartment building
Residents were united in opposing one particular aspect of the developer’s design plans: how close the front face of the building would be to the edge of the property line, and in essence, the road.
The developer has argued they’re only asking to maintain the distance that exists now between the two-storey Kent Street homes and the curb – but Sichel and others said a four-storey wall would “completely overrun the existing size of other neighbourhood buildings as well as the sidewalk.”
Members on the subcommittee agreed, ordering city staff and the developer to address this. They suggested either reducing the size of the project from a four- to three-storey building or reducing the number of units.
Blair said following the meeting she felt the subcommittee was receptive to residents’ concerns, but that she would have liked to have seen more consideration given to preserving the two heritage homes. Sichel questioned why more consideration wasn’t being given to building townhomes, for instance, instead of apartment units.
Residents worried about fate of trees
The multi-unit residential project would also involve razing a number of surrounding trees, including one maple that an upset resident estimates is around 100 years old.
Guy Lacroix lives on McLeod Street, next to the third property the developer is looking to alter. The maple, which he said is “perfectly healthy,” sits between those two residences.
Lacroix said the developer never consulted him about the tree and that he only learned they planned to remove it through a notice left in his mailbox in March. A planning consultant for the developer apologized at Thursday’s meeting for not approaching Lacroix sooner.
McKenney said her office is working with Lacroix on the matter, saying it is “absolutely imperative” that the maple, as well as the other trees, are saved. She argued that trees like that provide a “canopy” for surrounding residents and allows many to go without air conditioning on hot days.
“For anybody outside of the downtown, that may not look like gold,” McKenney said, referring to a picture of the tree. “But in downtown, that tree might as well be made out of gold.”
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