Salvation Army open to changing controversial shelter project

The Salvation Army now says it is open to changing the size of the controversial shelter it wants to build on Vanier's main commercial strip, but critics question the timing and sincerity of the charity's latest overture, just days before a crucial Ottawa city council debate.

The charity held a closed meeting Monday afternoon for representatives from Vanier's business and community associations, social service agencies and city housing staff, two days before Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury is to put the project to a vote  with a new city council.

Spokesperson Glenn van Gulik said Monday's meeting was to "bounce ideas" off community groups, just as the Salvation Army had promised to do during when city council approved its zoning a year and a half ago after heated debate that lasted days.

The proposed facility at 333 Montreal Rd. was to have 350 beds, including 140 for emergency shelter, but critics argued the model was wrong and should focus on housing people permanently.

Salvation Army

Since the zoning was approved, the housing landscape has changed in Ottawa, van Gulik explained, and the charity might look at introducing supportive housing as it has in Halifax and Vancouver.

Salvation Army promises plan within 48 hours

It might also look at whether units should be open to women and children, as well as the men they traditionally serve.

Asked if the community meeting had anything to do with the council debate Wednesday, spokesperson Glenn van Gulik said, "Absolutely not."

He pointed out the Salvation Army sent its invitations on May 31, and was surprised when Fleury signalled a couple of weeks later he would try to get the new council to repeal the zoning.

Van Gulik promised to have "something tangible that we can make some commitments on to adjust the project" within 24 to 48 hours of Monday's meeting.

'Why are we all fighting?'

"It sure felt like a PR exercise at times," said Drew Dobson, founder of SOS Vanier, a group that marshalled opposition to the shelter in 2017.

Dobson is also one of a handful of Vanier business owners who have appealed city council's decision to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, or LPAT. 

Kate Porter/CBC

Because of that appeal, the shelter's zoning remains in limbo awaiting a hearing scheduled this fall.

Coming out of Monday's meeting, Dobson said the Salvation Army appeared open to making significant changes, and said he urged them to withdraw their zoning application. Van Gulik said the Salvation Army will not.

"If they're not serious about building a 350-bed mega shelter, then why are we all going to the [LPAT] and why are we fighting? They should withdraw their proposal, go back to the drawing board and put a new proposal on the table," Dobson said.

Until then, the two sides remain adversaries, Dobson said.

Issue to hit council Wednesday

Fleury attended Monday's session as well, but would only say the meeting felt like a distraction and that he was focused on Wednesday's council meeting.

Fleury hopes a new council will repeal the zoning approved last term in a 16-7 vote.

Last term, current councillors Riley Brockington, Diane Deans, Jeff Leiper and Catherine McKenney joined Fleury in voting against it. New councillors Rawlson King and Theresa Kavanagh have also told CBC News they intend to support Fleury. He needs a majority vote of the 24-member council to overturn the zoning.

Fleury had argued council should reverse the decision because of what he said was the recent discovery that the Salvation Army didn't actually own the property when the application was approved.

In a memo sent Friday to the mayor and city councillors, the city solicitor said the shelter zoning applies only to the Salvation Army, and if that purchase doesn't go through, no other operator could run a shelter in its place.