Southminster redevelopment must balance needs and expectations

August 2017

Every issue of this paper demonstrates the importance many Old Ottawa South residents place on preserving community attributes they deem important, even essential. These can be cultural, aesthetic or practical. Even a view is not just a view for most, but a defining characteristic of where they live, a symbol of the place they call home.

A threat to that symbol is therefore not a trivial matter, and in a city undergoing considerable transition, the preservation of an important landmark such as Southminster United Church becomes important not just in its own right, but as a bulwark against a perceived larger unravelling. This is the context for what is certain to be the biggest debate over heritage, character and community that Capital Ward has seen since Lansdowne Park.

As councillor, I hear many points of view on every project, and this one is no different. Opinions range from “Don’t touch it” on one end of the scale to “I like the proposal just fine” at the other, with a large middle ground of “I can support appropriate redevelopment.” Most people, myself included, are somewhere in the middle — but it’s a somewhat mushy middle. What is appropriate? What is too high, too dense, or too modern?

In this case, there is also the church itself to consider. Southminster United is in the same situation as many Ottawa congregations: shrinking, aging and severely strapped for cash. Just keeping the heat and lights on, let alone making essential repairs, is a constant struggle. This is especially unfortunate when you consider the many important roles the building plays in the community. Daycare, yoga classes, Scouts, addiction recovery meetings, hot suppers for the homeless and, more recently, musical performances — there is a place for everyone at Southminster. The loss of the church as a community venue would be a big blow.

From so many points of view, Southminster must be saved. The thorny question is “how?” The congregation has explored many avenues over the past decade. They have spoken with many potential partners and developers. Ultimately, they found a developer — a green developer at that — interested in a partnership. And yet, any venture of this sort has a bottom line. How much profit must be realized to make this viable, to provide the congregation with enough of a financial legacy to not just keep the doors open, but revive and carry the building far into the future?

There is no easy answer. This is a business arrangement, and few businesses are willing to open their books for all to see. So we are left in a situation where we must accept that, in order to generate sufficient profit, the redevelopment must achieve a certain density and be granted certain height and possibly setback exemptions from existing Institutional zoning. That is where the main controversy lies.

People ask: Why do they have to build so high? Why is rezoning necessary? Can’t they make do with less profit? Can’t they can make plenty of money within the existing zoning and 15-metre height limit?

Ultimately, money is the driver behind any “need” for rezoning, for additional height, for a certain level of density. And because we will never get to see the inner workings of the developer’s financial model, we can only speculate about what is or might be possible besides the current proposal under consideration by the City’s planning department, and likely coming to Council in late autumn.

I have not taken a firm position on this proposal, and I trust that the above context helps explain why. In fact, I rarely take a firm position for or against any project from the outset, because proposals evolve, and I am often able to achieve improvements if I get engaged and try to ensure that all interests are considered. A proposal has to be either outstanding or truly egregious for me to give it my thumbs up or thumbs down at the outset.

In this case, I have made it clear to the church, developer and residents that I wish to see the height reduced to respect and protect heritage views of this landmark building. If the financial requirements can be achieved within the 15-metre limit, all the better — aim for that. I also wish to see as many of the mature trees protected as possible, not merely replaced later. Southminster is an essential part of Old Ottawa South, but for it to have a future, the property will need to be redeveloped in a major way. As always, though, the devil is in the details.

To find our more, please attend the community meeting I will host on Sept. 11 at 7 p.m. in the church’s Lower Hall.