About 150 people came to the Hintonburg Community centre on April 4 to hear about plans for the “Hintonburg Hub.” The Hub, still in the conceptual stage, would be a much-needed community health centre at ground level with about 100 units of affordable housing above. The partners involved in this proposal—Somerset West Community Health Centre (SWCHC), the non-profit affordable housing corporation CCOC, Family Services Ottawa, and Citizen Advocacy—have been discussing the purchase of the site of the former Bethany Hope Centre at 1140 Wellington St. West with the Salvation Army, who recently indicated they want to sell the property. The site would include the Bethany property and the adjacent parking lot at the corner of Wellington and Rosemount.
Support for the concept appears pretty much universal so far. The community forum was widely publicized by both SWCHC and the Hintonburg Community Association. The large majority of the people attending the forum were from the community around the proposed site (confirmed by a show of hands). Nobody expressed opposition, while most who spoke were strongly supportive. The proposal for a health care centre is particularly welcome, since Hintonburg is on the edge of the SWCHC catchment and relatively distant from its main Eccles St. location. A heavily used walk-in medical clinic that had been on Rosemount closed several years ago, leaving the area without a nearby option. The pressing need for a healthcare centre was recognized by the City in the Hintonburg-Mechanicsville Neighbourhood Plan, approved by City Council, which explicitly makes it City policy to “encourage Somerset West Community Health Centre to open a health-care satellite office in Hintonburg.”
The potential problem? The site under consideration contains the Bethany Hope Centre building.. The Bethany building was built around 1925 as the Salvation Army Home for Children, functioning as a home for unwed mothers, and more recently has been the site of the Salvation Army’s programs that support marginalized young parents. The Bethany Hope Centre programs, however, are moving to newly-renovated quarters on Woodroffe Road, leaving the old Bethany building surplus and available for a new use. Almost always, redevelopment in an established community is complicated, and this proposal will be no exception.
The Bethany Hope Centre building, a three-storey, gracious early 20th brick century institutional building that remains essentially in its original state, has been proposed for designation as a heritage property, and is featured on the Hintonburg Heritage Walking Tour . The City’s heritage staff says that the research is currently being done, with the Bethany Hope building next in line to be considered for designation as soon as the current work on the proposed Clemow Estates Heritage Conservation District is completed, expected to be soon.
Complicating matters further is the importance afforded to the Bethany site in the Community Design Plan that for the West Wellington Traditional Main Street area. This CDP was recently completed after a sever-year process, and is scheduled to be considered by Planning Committee of City Council for approval on April 26th. CDP policies would become part of the City’s Official Plan. The draft CDP discusses the immediate area around the Bethany Hope Centre extensively, specifying that the area “will continue to be the “greenest” part on Wellington and a community services node. It is anchored by the neighbourhood-oriented McCormick Park, the spacious front yard of Grace Manor, and a unique grouping of Hintonburg heritage buildings…” Further, it mandates policies to “protect the existing green space in front of the Grace Manor, Bethany Home and St. George’s Home…” and “respect and enhance views to heritage-referenced and –era buildings, including Bethany Home.” It is worth quoting the proposed Official Plan policies for this area in detail:
“This plan recognizes the importance of protecting and enhancing the unique green streetscape character created by the existing front yards of the Grace Manor and Bethany Hope Centre (1134 and 1140 Wellington Street) and St. George’s Home (1153 Wellington Street).
This unique green area of Wellington Street depends on the continuity of these front yards, which affords potential to link them with McCormick Park to strengthen and expand this street character.
The public enjoyment of these green spaces will be maximized by improving their utility and/or aesthetic. This improvement may be, for example, by programming the land for public use through the collaboration of property owners, the community and the City of Ottawa and/or through land acquisition by the City.”
This clearly says that the Bethany building and the green space in front of it are vital to the Wellington streetscape and to the local community. A key question is whether these City policies have any practical meaning.
Perhaps this situation sounds a bit familiar. Here we have a property owned by a religious group, with a building proposed for heritage designation, and a proposal for a substantial redevelopment. The City just finished thoroughly mishandling a similar situation on the Soeur de la Visitation convent site on Richmond Rd., culminating in a cynical proposal for a tax levy that was never going to fly in a last-ditch attempt to salvage some of the site (but that is a subject for another day). Here, the City has a chance to get it right. Will they take it?
It would be hard to conceive of a situation where more of the City’s core policies are in play. It is already City Council policy (in the Council-approved Neighbourhood Plan) that SWCHC should locate a satellite health centre in Hintonburg. Increasing affordable housing is a fundamental policy of the City and Province, and specifically called for in the Neighbourhood Plan and CDP—a policy that needs more than lip service. This particular small stretch of Wellington is the only one in the whole CDP area singled out as needing protection for both the heritage buildings and for the “unique green area.”
It is impossible to expect all of this to be downloaded onto the backs of the Hintonburg Hub partners or the community. Preserving green space and heritage costs money. This is not a for-profit developer, and any substantially increased costs will either result in decreased healthcare and affordable housing, or make the project non-viable. This is where the City must step in. The partners have already proposed that the City purchase the property, and bank it for this purpose until the complicated financing and planning can be completed between all the parties (http://www.swchc.on.ca/news-info.php). This is exactly what is proposed in the CDP Official Plan policies for preserving the heritage and green space in the area—“land acquisition by the City.” It is time for the City of Ottawa to put its money where its mouth is, purchase and bank the land, and ensure its policies are implemented.
How much would this cost? Eric Darwin reported on his West Side Action blog in February that the Salvation Army was asking $3.2M, although now that negotiations are ongoing, the current asking price is not public. However, the City would likely have to lay out something like $3M to buy the land. However, it would recoup most of this when selling the land to the partnership for development. In order to implement its own policies, however, the City should cover the difference in cost between demolishing the Bethany building and building as cheaply as possible including on the greenspace and what it would cost to preserve at least the front portion of the building (which sits on a deep lot) and the lawn. This should be entirely feasible, as it will be only a fraction of the land cost, and costs can alternatively be reduced by waiving development charges, reducing parking requirements, and other concessions. Money from the “cash-in-lieu of parkland” paid by Ashcroft as part of the Soeur de la Visitation convent development are also available for parks in Kitchissippi, and could be applied here if the lawn was kept by the City.
The land to be developed also includes the attached vacant lot at the corner of Rosemount and Wellington. This site is identified in the CDP as needing a landmark building of particularly outstanding design. The City, Hintonburg Hub partnership, and the community should seize on this opportunity. One obvious solution is a density transfer, moving some of the lost development potential from the Bethany site to the corner lot, allowing a taller building there. This is already being done in the same CDP area for the lands owned by Metcalfe Realty at Spencer and Armstrong, where lost development potential from the heritage-designated Capital Wire Cloth Company building is to be transferred to increased height and density on adjacent lots owned by Metcalfe. Now is the time to put a density transfer in place for the lot at Rosemount, while the CDP is up for approval. The local community, for its part, will have to accept the increased height and density on the vacant lot, and likely on the deep lot behind the Bethany building, as a tradeoff to preserve those features of the streetscape that are important. Finally, CCOC, the affordable housing developer, may have to change perspective somewhat. After the Hintonburg Hub meeting, several of their representatives expressed distaste for having “million dollar penthouses,” despite this project being intended as a mix of subsidized and market rate units (like their successful recent Beaver Barracks project near the Museum of Nature). But why? Should the well-off never live with those who need housing assistance? If an extra floor or two of market rate condos at the top make the project viable, should this option not be considered? The community should not have to lost heritage and greenspace if options for alternative funding schemes are available.
Finally, there is one other opportunity that should be explored. The Rosemount Library branch abuts this land. It is sorely in need of expansion (and to have the façade restored to its original condition, given that it is the only remaining Carnegie Library building in Ottawa). What about attaching the new Hub buildings to the library and creating space for library programs and collections? This could be return for the City investment, and could allow a larger footprint for the Hub by eliminating the need for setback from the library.
Will the City do the right thing? Those who have followed recent planning decisions in Ottawa probably are not that optimistic. However, there is a chance here for first-term Councillor Hobbs to demonstrate leadership on a complex issue that could lead to a triple win for health care access, affordable housing, and heritage and greenspace preservation. It remains to be seen if Councillor and the City are up to the challenge.
Image courtesy of the Hintonburg Community Association