Lowertown heritage battle comes to bitter end

By Robert Janelle

On a cold day in January 2010, many residents on Bruyère Street and St. Andrew Street in Lowertown East found a City of Ottawa sign in front of their homes announcing a proposed zoning change.

That sign represented more than mere political procedure. Local developers Claridge Homes had acquired the land on which five buildings sat, and intended to demolish those five buildings—some more than one hundred years old—to build a 101-unit, mid-rise condominium.

The nearly eight-month conversation that followed between the developer, nearby residents and local politicians came to an end on Aug. 15.

At a meeting of the city’s planning committee, councillors carried a motion to recommend that city council approve the re-zoning, giving Claridge the go-ahead to demolish the buildings located at 316-324 Bruyère and 317-321 St. Andrew.

The zoning amendment, though, was tweaked: The new condo building would be reduced from the proposed 16.5 metres to 14.5 metres, in keeping with the overall look of the neighbourhood.

When the sign announcing the proposed re-zoning went up—the first indication to many residents that buildings in their neighbourhood were going to be demolished—a group of people living in Lowertown east of King Edward Avenue (which doesn’t have the same heritage protection given to the west side of Lowertown) sprang into action. They created the Bruyère Street Task Force to fight the development.

The task force quickly found and then promtly lost an ally in their local councillor, Rideau-Vanier ward’s Mathieu Fleury. On June 28, Fleury recused himself from any discussion relating to the development after finding out that his father, to whom he rarely speaks, works for Claridge Homes.

Alta Vista councillor Peter Hume and Barrhaven councillor Jan Harder temporarily adopted Fleury’s constituents on the issue.

“I think it makes a councillor stronger to learn more about the rest of the city,” says Harder, who said she plans to continue representing Lowertown East residents in further dealings regarding the site plan.

Harder and Hume negotiated with Claridge Homes in the week leading up to the vote as late as the Sunday night before planning committee—which met Monday morning—to come up with a compromise solution.

In addition to lowering the height of the building, Claridge Homes will also contribute to a fund to help residents who’ve been living in the buildings slated for demolition to transition into new homes.

It was a solution reluctantly accepted by residents.

Speaking on behalf of the Bruyère Street Task Force, Jodi Murray, a Lowertown resident for 14 years, said they would acquiesce.

“The community doesn’t have a choice,” she says. “It’s the best we were going to get.”

Planning committee also carried a motion to undertake a heritage evaluation of the buildings that will remain in Lowertown East.

But the housing units that will soon be no more didn’t qualify.

City planner Lesley Collins explained that to qualify for heritage protection under the Ontario Heritage Act, a building must score six points out of nine. The row-house on Bruyère Street that has been the focus of the debates fell one point short, scoring five.

That’s two points for design, two points for context and one point for history as “it is a typical example of a working class home,” said Collins.

While residents may have surrendered to condos, they levelled no shortage of criticism of the city over the planning process.

“Making money is great. I’m all for it,” says David Flemming, the past president of Heritage Ottawa. “But why is it always working-class neighbourhoods? Nobody is proposing leveling Alta Vista.”

Marc Aubin, a vocal opponent of the development, echoed the statement.

“We’ve raised the bar too high with the standards for heritage designation,” he says. “Especially when it comes to the houses of poor people.”

Aubin’s family has roots in Lowertown going back to 1870, and he said city council dropped the ball by not having the area declared a heritage district.

But he did commend councillors Hume and Harder for their work in negotiating a compromise.

“I think that it was a challenging file and the councillors came through as best they could,” Aubin says.

Lowertown is one of the oldest areas of Ottawa, and has historically been home to French Canadians and Irish immigrants, as well as Jewish entrepreneurs—many of whom played a role in establishing the ByWard Market shopping district.

City council is expected to vote on the planning committee’s recommendations on Aug. 25.