Church Conversion Sparks Tensions in Sandy Hill

posted in: ASH in the News
[06-March-2013] Click here to view original article.

YourOttawaRegion.com – A heritage-sensitive redevelopment of a former church might be considered a great proposal in another location or at a different time, but the conversion is becoming a “flashpoint” for conflict in Sandy Hill, says its community association president.

No applications have been filed with the city, but representatives of the developer held a preliminary meeting on Feb. 28 to present the idea to approximately 75 community members.

Architect Robert Martin, who specializes in adaptive re-use of heritage buildings, said the proposal would preserve the mid-century modern church on Mann Avenue at Russell Street and convert it into approximately 62 small one-bedroom and bachelor apartments ranging from around 19 square metres to 34 square metres. The plan would also involve demolishing the church manse and building an extension mimicking the style of the church.

The top concern for residents at the meeting was parking. The site is within 600 metres of a rapid transit station and it’s a convenient downtown location travel by walking or cycling, said Katherine Grachuta of FoTenn, a consulting firm hired by the developer, Black Iris Developments.

For those reasons Black Iris hopes to include only seven parking spaces, including one dedicated as a spot for a Virtucar (a vehicle-sharing program) instead of the required minimum of 32 parking spaces.

Residents at the meeting said there is no question that will force more cars to park on already-crowded streets, but Grachuta said the idea is to attract tenants who don’t have vehicles.

Providing parking is a double-edged sword, she said. Offering parking will guarantee that new residents contribute to the traffic and parking congestion in the area. Making a building that is obviously not suited for tenants with cars will discourage drivers from wanting to live there, Grachuta said.

The architect, Martin, even suggested that tenants would be required to sign a lease stating they won’t have a vehicle. That lease is a document the city requires in order to approve an on-street parking permit, so it would be up to the city to decide if it would still issue a permit.

A small amount of parking would be a benefit for customers of proposed businesses that could set up shop in the basement. The developer is proposing some space for businesses such as a yoga studio or sports therapist, as well as rentable meeting space for the community.

STUDENT CONFLICT

The format of the building – rental units – also caused an outcry at the meeting. In a neighbourhood that has struggled with the clash of students living among families, the prospect of attracting more students to live in Sandy Hill was met with outrage.

“Sandy Hill is not just a bedroom community for the university,” said resident Leanne Moussa.

The influx of students seeking housing in the neighbourhood has led to issues with noise, partying and garbage, residents said.

Alex MacDonald, a student at Dalhousie University in Halifax who was home visiting his family in Sandy Hill, said the proposed apartment building “will become a party central, for sure.”

Martin said the high-end quality of the apartments is intended to appeal to graduate students or young professionals. He couldn’t say what the rents might be.

Opening the discussion about this latest proposal early, before Black Iris Developments even approaches the city, will help the community work through these issues, Collmorgan said.

“It’s a reasonable proposal, but at this time, it is unacceptable to the community,” he said.

Action Sandy Hill originally indicated its support to the developer, but Collmorgan said the negative response from residents has left the group in an awkward position of whether to support the development because it represents good planning and the retention of a neighbourhood landmark, or to side with residents in opposing the development.

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury said it was too early for him to take a position on whether he’d support the church conversion.

But when it comes to the frustrations expressed by residents, Fleury said it’s time for the University of Ottawa to address housing needs for its students and look at constructing new residence buildings, perhaps in partnership with private developers to make it cost-effective.

“It’s not to say students aren’t welcome … it’s the negative impact of a concentration of students on an established neighbourhood,” Fleury said.

But Fleury admitted the residents’ “expression of frustration” wouldn’t be appropriate if they were discussing any other minority group.

“We can’t discriminate,” about who lives in Sandy Hill, Fleury said.

MOSQUE

Adding to the complexity of the issue is an alternate proposal to relocate a local Islamic group to the St. Clements site. The Islamic Society of Sandy Hill, which is currently located on Mann Avenue, put in a bid to buy the St. Clements site. Although that bid was rejected in favour of Black Iris, many residents at the meeting indicated they would prefer to see the Islamic group take over the former church.

“It’s a growing religious community,” said resident Jeffery Marder. “There may be a better alternative there.”

Martin, the architect, said communities surrounding previous mosques he has worked on felt the strain of an influx of worshippers arriving for prayers five times each day, but Mustazibur Rahman of the Islamic Society of Sandy Hill said the 10 to 50 worshippers who pray at the centre daily arrive by foot.

Friday weekly prayers tend to attract a congregation of up to 100 people, he said.

Rahman said the Islamic society was heartened by the community’s support for its proposal during the meeting.

“There is an emotional impact on the society for the loss of this as a place of worship,” he said. “It would be used for its original purpose … We are still very hopeful.”