Sunday, May 19, 2024

Plan to revamp downtown Ottawa block sparks debate over intensification | CBC News

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Kevin Gosselin is one of the residents of 178 Nepean St. who says he won’t leave despite being asked to do so by the building’s owner, which wants to redevelop the area. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

A proposed redevelopment of a downtown Ottawa block is sparking a debate over the merits of intensification, with tenants feeling pushed to the side and the owner saying the project will revitalize the area.

Residents on the east side of Bank Street between Nepean and Lisgar streets, some of whom are longtime tenants, have been asked to move out of their apartments by property owner 211-231 Bank Street Holdings.

The company wants to build 263 new apartment units with retail space on the ground floor. City councillors have yet to sign off on the project. 

The company and its development manager, Smart Living Properties (SLP), say their goal is a “true community space” that will help with downtown revitalization.

They say the project will replace “dilapidated” business spaces and inject much-needed studio apartments into the market along with accessible multi-room units.

Some would be furnished, others not. 

Residents of the relatively low-cost apartments in the existing buildings say the relocation money they’ve been offered isn’t enough and worry some might end up homeless.

While they want the project to include space for those at risk of displacement, the company said it can’t cater to everybody. 

“I don’t think that you can demolish a building or put up anything new without acknowledging what you’re destroying or taking away,” said Julie Ivanoff, one of the affected tenants. 

A row of stores with apartments above them.
The proposed redevelopment is for the east side of Bank Street between Nepean and Lisgar. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Almost all businesses have left

The buildings on the block’s east side date back more than a century, having hosted everything from an early 20th-century movie theatre at 219 Bank St. to a bathhouse and massage parlour at 178 Nepean St.

The land was bought by 211-231 Bank Street Holdings from a family in autumn 2021.

Today, aside from one vape shop, all the businesses have left. Seventeen of the 27 apartments remain occupied despite calls for the residents to leave. 

“We are resisting,” said Manuel Cua, who has lived on the block since 1998.

Cua says he enjoys feeding homeless cats in the area and pays $478 a month in rent for a bachelor-type apartment, which he realizes is “lucky.”

To maintain the block’s heritage character, the company plans to preserve the business facades — “a costly engineering undertaking,” it told CBC — and install over 9,000 square feet of new retail space, according to documents submitted to the city

The empty storefronts have “negatively impact[ed] the surrounding street,” according to the company’s emailed statement to CBC. 

Someone poses on a city street corner in early spring.
‘We are resisting,’ said Gosselin’s neighbour Manuel Cua, pictured here at the corner of Bank and Nepean streets on April 12, 2024. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Above the businesses, there would be a residential tower up to nine storeys high, set back from the property’s front and sides.

That’s mid-rise compared to much taller projects previously proposed for Centretown, said Mary Huang, the president of the area’s community association, which has called 211-231 Bank Street Holdings’s proposal “a welcome addition to the neighbourhood.”

To make room for the new apartments, the interiors of the current buildings will be demolished, according to a heritage impact statement

The company hopes people could live there again in the latter part of 2026 and “attract more people and bring a renewed sense of community to the area.”

‘Down to the dirt’ 

One resident of 178 Nepean St., John Bergeron, has called the block home since 1981 and says the current situation facing tenants is “unacceptable.” 

His neighbour Kevin Gosselin has lived there for almost seven years and pays $720 a month for a bachelor unit. While the building is old and has no elevator, Gosselin said there are also “no bugs, no rats [and the] neighbours are cool.”

Tenants say they each received an N13 notice to end their tenancy from 211-231 Bank Street Holdings in October 2023.

“This is a legal notice that could lead to you being evicted from your home,” the document said, adding that all rental units will be demolished “down to the dirt.”

No timeline for that work was cited, though residents were asked to move out by Feb. 29, 2024.

“Having to move out of a place that you have called home is never easy, and we strive to provide as much advance notice … as possible,” the company told CBC. 

The way the housing situation is right now, there’s a good chance a lot of these people … are going to be homeless.– Kevin Gosselin

If all of the tenants agreed to end their tenancies one month earlier, on Jan. 31, they would receive up to 12 months rent and a $500 moving allowance, according to a letter sent out with the N13 notice. 

Tenants were also offered help to find a new apartment “in the local area.”

Both of those supports are beyond what the Residential Tenancies Act requires, said John Dickie, an Ottawa lawyer who specializes in residential landlord-tenant law and is chair of the Eastern Ontario Landlord Organization. 

Dickie has acted as a lawyer for SLP in the past but is not currently on retainer for them, he said. 

By the end of February, the company offered tenants cheques covering three months’ rent, as required by law, according to the company. An accompanying letter continued to offer relocation assistance “on an agreed basis.” 

A rendering of a brick nine-storey building on a street corner.
211-231 Bank Street Holdings is proposing to build over 200 new apartments in a nine-storey development with new business space on the ground floor. (City of Ottawa/Fotenn Consultants Inc./217 Nepean Street Holdings Inc. & 211- 231 Bank Street Holdings)

Gosselin said the money the company has pledged isn’t enough because rents will be much higher elsewhere. According to rentals.ca, the average rent for a bachelor suite in Ottawa is $1,644.

“I understand they are a business and they’re out to make money,” Gosselin said of the company. “But the way the housing situation is right now, there’s a good chance a lot of these people … are going to be homeless.”

Ivanoff said that when she got the N13 notice, she worried about having to resettle in the middle of winter and wondered whether the company could even take these steps “when there is no project approval.”

According to Dickie, it can.

Issuing the N13s before city approval of the project is legal, he said. So is negotiating with the tenants for termination.

If things escalated, though, and Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) ordered evictions, Dickie said the company would generally need to have city approval of the rezoning and other permits in hand first.

At the same time, it’s “sensible” to issue the N13 early because there can be lengthy delays in the LTB process, he added.

According to the city, the company can’t demolish anything until they have a building permit. They can’t get that permit without their zoning amendment and site plan being approved, which hasn’t happened yet.

The company said it expects demolition to start after it finalizes the exterior facade preservation plan with the city “in the coming months.”

Company touts ‘generous’ assistance

Somerset Coun. Ariel Troster said while she supports intensification, she shares residents’ concerns about being priced “out of the downtown” and “possibly priced out of the city.” 

Troster also worries that furnished apartments will not lead to long-term stays and so is not prepared to support the project when it comes to council’s planning and housing committee.

“This project has become symbolic for a lot of residents of the way intensification can lead to displacement,” she said.  

If the company incorporated affordable housing units that current tenants could move into — a feature the city says is not required — that would “be a great outcome,” Troster said.

Huang agreed “it would be nice” if some accommodation with current tenants could be reached.

Apartments above a former arts supply store in a city.
Some of the existing apartments are above the space recently left by Wallack’s. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

In its statement, 211-231 Bank Street Holdings said it would be “unreasonable to expect one development project can cater to all the diverse housing needs in the neighbourhood or city.”

A high concentration of studio apartments in the development, the company said, will “strategically offer lower-cost entry into newly constructed buildings.” It also said its “generous and comprehensive relocation assistance package” was offered to existing tenants based on community feedback.

Even though the Jan. 31 deadline has come and gone, the company said it still plans to offer tenants relocation assistance, 12 months of compensation and $500 for moving expenses.

Some residents have already successfully found new places to live and have been compensated under the terms of the original offer, the company added.

“Although individualized care is available, a group approach and co-operation among the resident group would maximize the available resources for the residents,” the company said.

“We remain optimistic that more residents will join those who have already successfully found a new home.”

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