Somerset House redesign gets nod from heritage committee

Somerset House on Bank Street is a step closer to being rebuilt, a decade after it partly collapsed, after a city subcommittee approved a redesign of the heritage building.

But the design, which is not the first to receive the committee's approval, will probably still undergo some tweaks after an error that saw the new architect present a vision with walls made of glass, even though the city had stipulated that the walls should replicate the original brick.

The architect, Richard Chmiel, said he only took over in December and didn't know the city required he try to reuse the bricks. City planner Sally Coutts, meanwhile, said the city had relayed those recommendations to the engineer and owner of Somerset House.

Chmiel acknowledged it wouldn't be too hard to honour the city's vision and build a wall using new bricks, instead of glass.

Coun. Tobi Nussbaum, who chairs the heritage committee, was keen to not delay the project for more months or years if that further redesign had to come back for another approval.

So his committee approved the redesign, but gave staff the okay to approve any changes to use brick instead of glass.

"I think staff have been very honest in the report about the mistake that was made. We all make mistakes and at this stage, we really need to move forward," said Nussbaum.

Somerset councillor still wary

Coun. Catherine McKenney wants to see something finally happen at that busy intersection of Bank and Somerset streets. She's disappointed the building was left to fall apart for so long.

"I probably get more calls about this property than any others," said McKenney. "When residents contact me they're upset at both the owner and the city and I have a hard time disagreeing with them."

She's glad the brick wall along Somerset could be replicated, and thinks overall the redesign does a decent job of reflecting the original building.

McKenney is wary, however.

Even if the heritage permit for Somerset House gets final city council approval, there's nothing the city can do to compel the owner to apply for a building permit. If Somerset House still doesn't move forward, McKenney would want the city to entertain the idea of expropriating the property.

Subcommittee member Sandy Smallwood was also concerned that the building's owner had not shown up at Thursday's meeting.

"Going back, I've met with the owner, I've been in the building. This has gone on and on and on," said Smallwood.

"I'm really concerned that we're negotiating today with an architect and not the owner and that this is going to go back and it's going to go into a black hole and we're going to be here... maybe our grandchildren will be here dealing with this."