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Ottawa Votes 2018: Does heritage matter at the ballot box?

September 4, 2018
Matthew Pearson, Ottawa Citizen

Children who were in kindergarten on the day Somerset House partially collapsed in October 2007 are in high school, now and there’s a good chance they’ll be licensed to drive a car before something comes of the vacant heritage building on the corner of Bank and Somerset.

The fall of Somerset House and the ensuing collective curiosity about its fate has outlasted mayors and city councillors, and outworn the patience of neighbouring businesses, residents and virtually anyone else in Ottawa who passes its sad facade on a regular basis.

“It’s one of the most frustrating files I’ve ever had to deal with,” an exasperated Jim Watson said in a recent interview.

People often corner the mayor and say, “Why don’t you do something about that?”

“I wish we could do something about that,” goes his standard reply.

For the most part, Somerset House has been in the same sorry state for Watson’s entire time in office. The city, he explains, can’t make someone spend money to fix up a building, nor can it force an owner to sell it to someone else with the creativity and financial means to complete, in the words of heritage planners, an adaptive reuse.

As for expropriation, Watson dismisses the idea outright, saying such a move would send the wrong message to landowners and, in essence, “reward bad behaviour.”

So there Somerset House stands, boarded up and plastered with posters as another municipal election comes into focus.

In terms of hot-button issues, protecting heritage buildings may lack the appeal of meatier municipal election issues such as transit, development, roads and garbage collection (though let’s hope that last one has, at long last, finally been put to rest). But how our city’s elected leaders approach heritage files and try to deal with eyesores like Somerset House speaks volumes about their priorities for preserving Ottawa’s past.

Heritage consideration should always be at the forefront of decisions made at city hall, says Rideau-Goulbourn Coun. Scott Moffatt.

“It tells the story of our past,” said Moffatt, a member of the built-heritage subcommittee since its inception in 2012. “It’s really important to know what’s come before us.”

The committee includes three citizens with significant expertise on heritage matters and, in Moffatt’s mind, is perhaps council’s best example of how public members can have input on and be of benefit to decision-making.

Committee chairman Tobi Nussbaum characterizes the city’s approach to heritage as one of carrots and sticks.

Choosing to play a more robust enforcement role to protect heritage properties that haven’t been kept up is the stick. Providing greater incentives to owners of heritage properties to maintain and even improve them it is the carrot.

“If we’re going to get serious about the carrot side of the heritage equation, we need to find more financial mechanisms to incentivize people to do the right thing with heritage buildings,” he said.

But unlike Watson, Nussbaum said he’s not against exploring the option of expropriation to ensure certain high-profile properties don’t continue to be the blights they are when owners fail year after year after year to do the right thing.