Heritage Ottawa not impressed with Somerset House facelift plans

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Somerset House redesign abandons brick façade replica after staff error

Images of a proposed addition to Ottawa's historic Somerset House given to city staff provide the first glimpse of a long-awaited redesign of the heritage building, but Heritage Ottawa says it isn't impressed.

The illustrations are part of plans submitted to the city's built heritage subcommittee for the landmark building at the southeast corner of Somerset and Bank streets.

That subcommittee will meet to evaluate the proposal on April 13.

The plans would represent the first real signs of development on the part of the building's owner in nearly a decade.

Partial collapse in 2007

The city and the building's owner, Tony Shahrasebi, have been in a decade-long battle since 2007, when Somerset House partially collapsed.

When the owner didn't fix the building, the city stepped in and later billed his company, TKS Holdings. That led to a protracted legal battle between the two that ended in 2012 with the company paying the city $650,000.

Soon after, the owner proposed a plan to have part of the building restored and part replaced with glass, but those plans did not materialize.

Last July, the city agreed to let the owner tear down the four eastern-most bays of the building after engineer's reports suggested it could not be restored and was unsafe.

The original corner building of Somerset House was built in 1899 and has served as a dry goods store, a hotel and, more recently, the Duke of Somerset pub. The eastern wing of the building was added in the early 1900s.

'We're very disappointed'

Heritage Ottawa isn't impressed with the proposed redesign. "We're very disappointed," president David Jeanes told guest host Stu Mills on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Friday.

"City council had actually directed that when that wall came down, the bricks were to be saved, and an exact replica was to go back in its place when the building was reconstructed," said Jeanes. "And instead we see a glass wall where that one quarter of the original building was supposed to be replaced."

He calls the saga around Somerset House a "sad story." Heritage Ottawa will prepare a submission for the city committee reviewing the plan in April. 

Despite his reservations about the redesign, he would like to see the project go forward for the sake of the community.

"The heritage planners at the city, Heritage Ottawa, and people in the neighbourhood really want to see that landmark reinstated. It's an important part," said Jeanes. 

"It's a gateway — together with the former Bank of Montreal on the other corner — to the part of the heritage conservation district along Bank Street going south. So restoring that building is important. And there are some good elements that were going to go into the plan."

CBC News reached out to TKS Holdings for more details about their plans for Somerset House but did not hear back.