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Duelling Somerset House lawsuits drag on

New plans for historic building could be decided by September

ROKEN OLD DAME. A building proposal from Somerset House owners will likely include a different design including concrete elements rather than maintaining the look of the century-old structure. Credit: Neil McKinnon

Who is to blame for the fate of a historic building on the corner of Bank and Somerset will be decided by judges after the latest round of court filings. Meanwhile, municipal staff could approve new renovation plans for the beleaguered building as early as September.

The City of Ottawa is prosecuting Somerset House owner Tony Shahrasebi for not complying with City building codes. Meanwhile, Shahrasebi is suing the City because officials ordered part of the building torn down because of safety concerns. Court dates in both cases are pending.

“Tony [Shahrasebi] is suing the city because the city insisted part of his building come down. That’s his thoughts. He can sue the City if he wants. It’s part of the democratic process,” says Somerset Ward Councillor Diane Holmes.

Holmes says Derek Crain, the architect hired to renovate Somerset House, is in the midst of filing a new permit application for the heritage building. Because the building’s structure has been damaged, plans will likely require new concrete framing. Shahrasebi and his company TKS Holdings hired engineers and they have met with City officials and proposed concepts for a new concrete structure.

A building permit application is expected by the end of July, which means construction at the site could be approved as early as September.

“It’s been going on for so long. If the permit comes in, we’ll hire consultants to make sure work plans are complete, acceptable, without any hold-up,” says Holmes.

Arlene GrĂ©goire, Ottawa’s chief building official, says the onus falls on the property owner to submit an acceptable building permit application to the City.

“My understanding is [Crain and Shahrasebi] want to change the design. The property owner has to push [the permit application] along,” says GrĂ©goire.

Via email, Bank Street Improvement Area’s executive director Gerry LePage said he “unfortunately does not have any information on the [status of] Somerset House.”

In 2007, the intersection of Bank and Somerset was closed for eight weeks. At the time, the city deemed Somerset House, a heritage building which partially collapsed during renovations and injured one of its workers, unsafe for citizens to move around outside of it freely.

As a result, some businesses watched their customer base dry up as cars were diverted away from the intersection. Centretown Pub is half a block away on Somerset St, but as manager Bruce Davis puts it, business is now “the same as it’s always been.”

The sidewalk beside Somerset House is still blocked and pedestrians walk around the plywood walls on Somerset Street.

“Bar patrons just walk around [the blocked sidewalk]. There was an initial slowdown because of the intersection being blocked off. It bothered us back then but it has no effect on us now,” says Davis.

Centretown resident and community activist David Gladstone says the current appearance of Somerset House is “a complete disgrace.”

“The City’s building rules are straightforward. Somerset House was a landmark; a heritage building located at a major intersection in the Canada’s capital. It’s now sitting there, ugly and degraded to the point where you don’t know it’s a building anymore,” says Gladstone.

Gladstone says he’s not too worried about what will eventually go in place of Somerset House, as long as it is “substantially useful to the neighbourhood.”

The historic Somerset House, built in 1896, opened as a dry goods store. It was last known to host the Duke of Somerset Pub and Lockmaster Tavern, as well as a rooming house. It closed Oct 2004. The heritage building partially collapsed during renovations Oct. 19, 2007. Because a man was injured during the collapse, an investigation was made by the Ministry of Labour. In February 2008, the city ordered part of the building demolished.

Somerset House owner Tony Shahrasebi and architect Derek Crain could not be reached for comment.