Demolition of former Ugandan high commission gets go-ahead

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Demolition of former Ugandan high commission gets go-ahead

Ottawa's planning committee overwhelmingly approved the demolition of a Sandy Hill building owned by the Ugandan high commission, despite new evidence that the high commission did not use money its government set aside to repair the building years ago.

Only Coun. Jeff Leiper voted against the demolition.

It's the latest twist in the saga surrounding a two-storey, 1940s brick building that was once home to former prime minister Lester B. Pearson. He was living there with his wife Maryon in 1957 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The building has been the subject of three different reports — including one ordered by the city's built heritage subcommittee — which all concluded that the structure is so far gone that it should be torn down. Even so, the subcommittee earlier this month voted against the demolition, angering the Ugandan high commissioner.

Report reveals repairs never done

At Tuesday's meeting, councillors on the city's planning committee heard for the first time about a 2015 report by Uganda's auditor general that revealed $1 million had been set aside for repairs at 231 Cobourg St. — repairs that were never carried out.

"The trees were neither removed nor were the renovations undertaken within the recommended one year," according to the AG report. "Besides, the delay in renovations causes further deterioration as earlier predicted … after two years without the renovations, the property has now been recommended for demolition."

Community activists argued the report proved the building, which is supposed to be protected because it's a "contributing building" in a heritage conservation district, has been willfully ignored over the years.

"There couldn't be clearer evidence, really, that the building has been neglected and that's why it's going to have to be demolished," said Chad Rollins, president of Action Sandy Hill.

Representatives of the Ugandan high commission said repairs on the building had been made over the years. However, Rollins pointed out that other buildings in the community with similar foundation challenges have been kept up and do not need to be demolished.

Sending wrong message?

Although the planning committee voted in favour of demolition, some worried that it sent the wrong message to owners of heritage properties.

"On the one hand, it was clear this building was in a state that made restoration of the building very, very difficult, and I didn't second-guess the reports suggesting the most reasonable option is demolition," said Coun. Tobi Nussbaum, who chairs the heritage subcommittee. He voted at both the heritage and planning committee meetings in favour of demolition.

"On the other hand, I'm very concerned … because we don't want to send a message that a property owner cannot make the necessary investments, then come running to council 30 years later and say, 'Look, my only viable option is demolition.'"

Both Nussbaum and Rollins said the city needs not only to be more proactive in protecting its heritage buildings, but should also offer financial incentives to owners to keep up their properties.

The demolition still needs to be approved by full council.