Somerset House: time for action

The City of Ottawa has a right to take pride in its appearance. As Canada’s capital, the city’s streets, government buildings and historical sites reflect not just Ottawa but the nation as a whole.

It’s understandable that the lack of progress restoring all-but-abandoned Somerset House is wearing down patience. The building at the corner of Bank and Somerset has been sitting derelict since part of it collapsed in 2007 and despite years of promises, there’s not much change in sight. But as irritation mounts, it’s important not to let frustration overshadow the dignity Somerset House deserves as a historical building.

In its century-plus lifespan, Somerset house has been used as a store, a hotel, and more recently a tavern. It’s been a defining part of the Centretown streetscape since 1896, making it a vital part of preserving Ottawa’s heritage. In its current state, though, it’s a wreck, its face and the sidewalk blocked by scaffolding. What should be a proud reminder of Ottawa’s history is sitting in ruins instead.

When it started falling down, the city’s plan was to have it demolished – a fate from which its owner fought to save it. In the end, he laudably agreed to begin restoration instead. The problem: That didn’t happen. He did finally apply for a building permit in 2013. But that permit is set to expire later this month and with construction still purely hypothetical, the building’s future is as uncertain as ever.

So far, the city has given Tony Shahrasebi, the building’s owner,  plenty of room to decide how to handle the property; it’s waived sidewalk encroachment fees and provided little incentive to get moving on the project. After eight years of delay, though, it’s becoming clear that getting moving isn’t a priority for the building’s owner. 

In recent years, he’s said he plans to wait for tenants to show interest in the building so he can tailor the reconstruction to their needs. But tenants haven’t exactly been lining up to get a look at Ottawa’s favourite eyesore. Every day they don’t, a piece of Centretown history molders a little more. So, what to do?

It’s time the city stepped in again – not to demolish the building this time, but to put the focus back on restoring it as a historical landmark. The ideal way to do that is by launching a collaborative consultation process to work with Shahrasebi on how to proceed. Toronto officials proposed a plan this year to do exactly that with derelict properties citywide. Now would be an excellent time for Ottawa to follow suit. An open dialogue between the city, heritage officials, Shahrasebi, and the neighbourhood, provides a chance to  build a future in line with everyone’s interests – assuming all parties are willing to talk.

Ultimately, the power to get moving on the project still rests with Shahrasebi. Ontario law makes it difficult for the city to directly compel property owners to action on their buildings.

And there’s a good reason for that – the right of owners to use their property as they see fit is one of the fundamental protections of a democratic society. But as with any right, there are duties that come with that. In this case, the duty is to keep buildings in a state that not just the owner, but the whole community can be proud of. Where Somerset House is concerned, it’s time to put our history first.