a peek inside the fishbowl

03 Mar, 2011

Avenue Q for Quagmire: the Ashcroft Convent Fiasco

Posted by andrea tomkins in: - Westboro|Ottawa|Yaktivism

This post does not reflect the views of the Westboro Community Association, of which I am a board member. These opinions are entirely my own.

Last night I went to the second of a series of public meetings about what I am now calling the Ashcroft Convent Fiasco.

I am sad and angry and many shades in between.

There are a lot of angry Westies out there right now, in fact. These are people, like myself, who have invested financially and emotionally in their community. It’s heartbreaking to see how unhappy people are in their own neighborhoods. We’re in it for the long haul, and the fine balance we’ve found here is precariously close to being overturned.

I had the pleasure of chatting with John Doran (president of Domicile Developments) about this at the unveiling of Domicile’s new condo development in Little Italy. I asked him about the overdevelopment on Richmond Road. When will it end, I asked. He admitted that there had to be an end at some point (hmmm, when we run out of room?), but otherwise didn’t give me a satisfactory answer. In fact, he suggested that we get used to the traffic.

For me this issue is not just about traffic. Traffic is a symptom of a larger problem.

Sidebar: If you live in Ottawa and aren’t planning on reading any further (especially if you live in Kitchissippi Ward) you MUST do one thing. Write to your councillor (here’s a handy contact list) and tell them how you feel about losing the opportunity to build something amazing on the site of the old Convent. Councillor Hobbs said, in no uncertain terms, that she’s going to decide what she’s going to do based on YOUR emails and phone calls. If you are at all concerned about this development – about the density, the traffic, the height, the heritage, the greenspace –  it is critical that you convey those feelings to her immediately. YOU, yes, YOU, are going to help decide what Ottawa is going to look like, and every email counts.

There was talk of a referendum but it’s not going to happen.

This whole process is pitting neighbour against neighbour… an uncomfortable situation at best.

This article summarizes the first meeting about the Ashcroft Convent Fiasco. I have a few niggling thoughts about the whole thing.

There is no doubt in my mind that the problem started as soon as the for sale sign went up. The City blew it, big time. They should have had some foresight and bought it. If there was no money in the coffers, they should have imposed a levy across all Ottawa households.

Why does Ashcroft have the upper hand? Why isn’t the City of Ottawa holding all the cards and working with the community about how this kind of development will unfold?

A handful of community meetings does not cut it.

There was a news item on CBC radio this morning about a cloistered order of nuns in Winnipeg who are renovating their convent to use as a retirement home – both for themselves and for the community that supported them for so many years. Our nuns just sold to the highest bidder.

I know that some people out there disagree with me, but Ottawans everywhere must recognize the value – the aesthetic value, environmental value, the historical and heritage value, the economical value – of this property. Preserving our history as a city benefits all Ottawans, and preserving trees and green space does too.

A word about the levy for the greenspace: it has been calculated at $97/year for ten years if you live in a home that has been valued at $380,000. Households that are assessed at more will pay more. Businesses will pay an annual $500 annually for every $1million valuation. What’s more, they’re telling us that the levy would only be paid by the people in this ward because it is believed that we would be the only ones to “benefit” from this parkland. I totally disagree. If I have a big tree on my front lawn, am I the only person who benefits from it? No. We ALL benefit.

For some reason it’s all come down to this levy. No other funding is being entertained.  I predict that no one but Ashcroft is going to get what they want. At the end of this sorry process Hobbs (who will be a one-term councillor) is going to say to us: You said you wanted to save some greenspace but didn’t want to pay for it! SORRY IT DIDN’T WORK OUT FOR YOU.

I am feeling sick and disheartened with our Councillor. I think she’s in over her head and she’s not properly representing our collective interests. Someone in the audience asked whether she could approach the other ward councillors and ask to them about casting a wider net and spreading the levy across the rest of the city. Her answer did not inspire confidence. She should have said: YES, I WILL FIGHT FOR YOU BECAUSE THIS IS WHAT YOU WANT AND IT MAKES SENSE. Instead she hemmed and hawed: Um, a levy is a touchy subject – a tough sell – you know. She’s not going to sell it to anyone. She’s going to walk into the other councillors offices with a great big sigh and say: I know this is going to sound crazy but my ward wants YOUR ward to pony up and pay for this “PARK” they want. Not a great idea, right?

That’s the feeling I got last night. And I know I’m not alone.

Someone commented on the WCA blog about being disappointed that the issue of the convent has been totally overshadowed by the levy. I couldn’t agree more. What happened to the issues of density and height? Why is the Community Design Plan being disregarded. And when will the development stop? Can we at least press the pause button and assess how it’s working out?

What do you think? My gut tells me that we’ve lost and Ashcroft has won. They have us over a barrel. The City is impotent. The Councillor is ineffective. We are doomed to live in a windy canyon of beige condos.

For more updates on this issue you must check out this site. It’ll tell you everything you need to know.


30 Responses to "Avenue Q for Quagmire: the Ashcroft Convent Fiasco"

1 | The Moffman

March 3rd, 2011 at 10:28 am

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Good luck! It looks like this would be great greenspace, and I hope your side wins.
Dealing with government can feel so pointless sometimes, but I just found out this morning that you can fight city hall (actually, town hall here) and win.

2 | andrea

March 3rd, 2011 at 10:47 am

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Thank you! And yes, we do have more power than we think.

FYI, there’s great post about this issue online here:

http://simby.ca/open-letter-to-mayor-jim-watson-on-the-visita

3 | Jen

March 3rd, 2011 at 11:04 am

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Good post Andrea- I spent a number of years working in public health at the City, and I am disappointed that the whole ‘how will this benefit *my* ward’ attitude persists. Issues such as health, green space, parks, recreation and traffic are ‘big picture’ issues. The City loses big-time when we only think within our own ward boundaries, and don’t work collectively toward a common visit of what we want the City to be. And getting used to the traffic is only one part of the issue. I can’t help but to wonder how our recreation services will be affected with more families moving into the community. Westboro is of course a welcoming community – I just wonder what kind of studies have been done to assess how other services (such as rec) will be affected.

4 | D.O.

March 3rd, 2011 at 11:34 am

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You do realize that Mr. Doran owns essentially every building on Richmond Rd. from LuLu’s to M.E.C. as well as the same on the North side of Richmond rd. That’s probably why he’s telling you to get used to it.
The future is bright for more developments in Westboro and I say the more, as long as they are well done, the merrier.

5 | andrea

March 3rd, 2011 at 12:34 pm

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D.O.,
I do realize that Domicile owns most of Westboro Village, that’s why I thought the question was a good one. :)

But “the more the merrier”? Really? Where is the tipping point?

6 | tosca

March 3rd, 2011 at 12:49 pm

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Who exactly voted Ms. Hobbs in? I know I didn’t.

I didn’t like everything Christine Leadman had done, but I do believe her heart was always in the right place.

You are very correct in saying Ms. Hobbs will be a one-term councilor. When the time comes, I’ll be actively working on someone *else’s* campaign (not that I even know who yet!). That’s how strongly I feel about her.

7 | andrea

March 3rd, 2011 at 1:51 pm

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Tosca, I hear you.

I also want to point out that the City of Ottawa tax man at the meeting last night (I forget his name) was not able to tell us what the levy would be if it was spread across all Ottawa households. I found it a little strange that he didn’t have the number at hand, but whatever. I’m willing to guess that it will be a lot less than $97.00 per year, for ten years.

8 | binki

March 3rd, 2011 at 4:48 pm

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I have written letters to the ex-mayor and the ex-counsellor and more letters to the new gang (Watson / Hobbs). I asked Ms Hobbs before the election what she thought of the Convent Fiasco and she basically said mistakes were made and there’s not much that can be done at this point in the game. I thought it was a fair/honest answer but I pointed out that we (she) must do much better at getting City Hall (Planning Dept) to adhere to the Community Design Plan. It’s completely out-of-control and the Developers know it and abuse it.

The levy thing as proposed by Katherine Hobbs will never ever fly. I think what Ashcroft is doing on the Convent land is WRONG but I will not pay $100 per year to buy back a chunk of park from Ashcroft. Absolutely not. Ashcroft would then get every single grotesque thing they proposed – plus $11.5M kiss on the mouth. Ick. Enough is enough.

Let’s get back to Ashcroft’s Convent development plan. Does it respect the Community Design Plan? And if not what will Mayor Watson and Katherine Hobbs do about it? We need to hear from them – NOW.

9 | ken

March 3rd, 2011 at 5:07 pm

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I’m sorry, but I completely don’t agree on this one. Without degenerating into an argument which we are all familiar with, I would just like to point out that there are people out there who have looked at all the same issues as you have and come to completely different conclusions.
Is it perfect, no.
Is it good, yes.

10 | Lorne Cutler

March 3rd, 2011 at 5:56 pm

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The real issue is that this has been orchestrated from the beginning to ensure that Ashcroft does not lose anything.

Planning Department wanted to allow Ashcroft to give cash instead of parkland even though they had 5.5 acres. Planning Committee overturned this. What did the Planning Department do? They negotiated with Ashcroft to turn over the Nun’s Walk as the parkland. This is the parkland that Ashcroft said would always be kept open as a linkage from Byron to Richmond Road at every single one of their public meetings and in their submissions to the City. This is the land that Ashcroft presented to Staff as their internal green space. This is the land that they even widened when the Independent Design Committee (and staff) recommended last June. So what does the city do, they take this land as the parkland so as to prevent Ashcroft from ever fencing it off. And our Councillor goes around saying that this was the land that the PEC motion required be taken until we finally had the sense to present the actual motion to her. The motion said that the land only had to be adjacent to the Byron Park. It could have been east-west instead of North-south. When asked why there was no consultation with the community as to which land we wanted taken as parkland, Hobbs told us that Staff made the decision without any public input because they knew what was best for us (this was at the Hampton Iona AGM on March 2). And then she claims that she is doing her public meetings because she wants transparency. Why wasn’t she arguing for transparency when it came to negotiating the statutory parkland?

Every suggestion for finding existing funding has been shot down by the City even though they are doing similar things elsewhere in the City. Instead of challenging Staff and advocating for her community, Katherine is accepting everything that City Staff says (the same staff trying to price an LRT). Councillors are allowed to fight back but they have to want to. By closing every funding avenue and making the appraisal price so high, the City is trying to insure that the levy is so high that it is turned down even by people who want to see the park happen.

If by some miracle the levy is approved, over 90% of the funding to purchase the park will come from the Kitchissippi community not from the City. If this happens, I would say that representatives of the community should handle the negotiation with Ashcroft, rather than City staff. It will be our money, not theirs. That being said, I am sure that staff will come up with a reason why they know how to negotiate better than mere citizens, even if many of us might be lawyers, bankers, business people, etc. who negotiate contracts for a living. After all, it was City Staff who negotiated the deal with OSEG that saw the City agree to not fund any stadium over 5000 seats for the next 30 years (luckily Christine Leadman alerted the Senators to that one and it didn’t stand).

11 | Julie

March 3rd, 2011 at 6:37 pm

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Thanks for continuing to write about this issue and encouraging everyone to get in touch with Ms.Hobbs either by phone or email. I just sent off my email, hoping my ‘drop in the bucket’ will help with this issue.

Too much, too soon without much foresight is how I feel about Westboro over the past few years.

12 | Steve

March 3rd, 2011 at 9:37 pm

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At this point, I’m willing to bet that not only will the land purchase not go through, but after that’s off the table, Ashcroft will re-apply to put an access across Byron Park, even though it was previously rejected. And the city will allow it, using the unsuitability of Shannon Street as justification. I’m pretty much willing to bet money on this, sorry to say.

13 | Valerie

March 4th, 2011 at 8:46 am

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I understand your frustration and sympathise with you. It is much like how those of us in Kanata feel about the Beaver Pond forest which is currently being bulldozed. :(

14 | Lindsay

March 4th, 2011 at 10:59 am

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I’m sorry you’re frustrated. I completely recognize how important neighbourhoods are to our happiness and sense of “home”. But I respectfully disagree with your suggestion of a city wide levy.

I have no doubt that park land and historic buildings benefit everyone, but they benefit those in the community most. The idea of a special levy for this particular case seems unfair.

Something I *could* support would be having an assessment done of all the neighbourhoods in the city to determine how much parkland/greenspace/historical building/community buildings, etc there is (maybe per capita) in that community. Then the city could impose a levy which would go into a fund and that fund could be used when things like this crop up. The city could look to see whether the community was underserviced, etc and then make a decision about whether to intervene/buy a property, etc. But all neighbourhoods would have access to it.

I don’t know… infill/planning/growth… it’s such a complicated issue with so many different goals and stakeholders. It’s hard to balance and it’s hard to sound coherent, informed and respectful in a short comment. :-)

15 | lacoop

March 4th, 2011 at 3:04 pm

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We wouldn’t be in this pickle if the city used the guidelines they asked us all to help develop in the first place. Ashcroft wouldn’t have bought the land if they knew those guidelines would actually be used. When they get around to cutting a lane though the bike path to access Byron, I will become a little less attached to this neighbourhood, because it will lose one more good thing (the relatively carefree bike path) and gain one more bad thing (more congestion).

16 | Dave

March 4th, 2011 at 4:28 pm

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I agree that the city dropped the ball on this one by letting the property get purchased by a developer before having the right process in place to consider an alternate use for the site — be it environmental or cultural. That said, unless someone can find a way to get this property away from Ashcroft without paying a king’s ransom, I suggest we cut our losses and move on. There will be future opportunities that will be more affordable and done under much less duress.

17 | lacoop

March 4th, 2011 at 9:38 pm

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Dave’s right. I would guess the next major challenge for the hood will be the field beside the Keg. Just prime for major townhome and highrise development. Who needs a field in their neighbourhood…

18 | Nat

March 4th, 2011 at 10:25 pm

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I think the other thing that stood out at the meeting is that Ashcroft may not want to sell… which means what? We’ll have to offer them more than $11.5 million?

This levy is stupid idea, it’s an orchestration. Just like the motion back in November was, just like this business of having a 10-day consultation.

19 | RealGrouchy

March 5th, 2011 at 9:03 am

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Tosca – two words: Shawn Little.

Never forget.

Lacoop – I’m pretty sure that field is NCC, and I don’t see them selling it anytime soon.

– RG>

20 | lacoop

March 5th, 2011 at 12:22 pm

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Then 3 cheers for the NCC!

p.s. ditto on Shawn Little…I’ll never forget

21 | ken

March 5th, 2011 at 8:26 pm

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I beleive I saw somewhere that the field beside the Keg is part of the new/old Transitway. It is supposed to be a connection from the transitway to the Byron transit corridor. This is one of the potential corridors for LRT if the NCC does not allow them to build on the parkway. This manifests itself farther west by Lincoln Fields. The Lincoln fields transit station is on the east side of the parkway to facilitate the connection to Byron.
So, in short, IF it belongs to the city don’t be suprised if they sell it, as that would give them some leverage with the NCC. They would have to build on the parkway then.

I hope no one was serious about Shawn Little being good?

22 | lacoop

March 5th, 2011 at 11:02 pm

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In my case, my comments about Shawn Little were not positive. “I’ll never forget” meant I’ll never forget how bad he was.

23 | andrea

March 6th, 2011 at 8:47 am

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Like Lorne (see comment above) I also believe this was orchestrated to benefit Ashcroft. Whether or not this is ACTUALLY TRUE will remain to be seen, but the truth is that many people have lost their faith the system. What’s more, there is nothing in place to prevent this from happening again and again.

For some reason, in a city that is steeped in history, there is a huge difficulty getting people (not just City of Ottawa staffers and elected officials) to value our built heritage. Would you build condos on the lawn in front of Parliament hill? Would you pave over Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica to make way for much-needed parking? I don’t think so. The City of Ottawa has lost its vision in its excitement to Build New.

It’s a fine balance between what should be preserved and what should be replaced, isn’t it?

Just because Les Soeurs convent is smaller and has more lawn attached to it than forest – doesn’t make it is less valuable. The building and the grounds represent a piece of our history both as a nation and as a neighborhood. It’s tragic that the City let it get sold to the highest bidder and is now seemingly unable to do anything about it.

The idea that this “park” would be for area residents only is laughable. First of all, let’s look at it as something more than just a regular park. It’s a unique piece of greenspace in a increasingly built-up area that is intertwined with history. This benefits everyone. Again, would you argue that Rideau Hall benefits the GG (after all, he lives there) and the surrounding neighbourhood? No. Even if you never visit that site, either Rideau Hall itself or the beautiful gardens surrounding it, it is GOOD AND PROPER that tax dollars go to supporting it. That is how it should be. We need history and art and green spaces in order to be a great place to live. Once you start to cut these things we become bland and indistinguishable from every other city with big box stores, fast food joints and miles of suburban roads and cookie-cutter houses.

No one from the city has the courage to say enough is enough, that this deserves fair and measured discussion because the ramifications are so far reaching. And if you ask me, the suggestion of a levy was introduced as a stalling tactic and deliberately planned to pit neighbour against neighbour.

And the fact that every other funding option has been closed off to us (including the fact that they’re refusing to spread the levy over a longer time-period) is proof that there’s something incredibly wrong with the whole system. Something stinks in Ottawa, that’s for sure. Will we ever get to the bottom and fix it?

Here’s a question for you: we elect Councillors, but who elects the Planning Department? How can we ensure that they’re working in our best interests?

What’s new here is this: everything has been pushed UP to March 10th. It’s unbelievable, really, for a country that prides itself in being a democracy. To quote the Citizen: “The date means that council’s planning committee won’t debate the matter first and the public won’t have an opportunity to speak directly to councillors.” It’s an utter travesty.

You can read more about it and get the dates of the last two consultations on the WCA website.

24 | D.O.

March 6th, 2011 at 12:28 pm

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Andrea:
“Where’s the tipping point”, well that’s for the market to decide.

25 | D.O.

March 6th, 2011 at 12:49 pm

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Am I the only one who does not get a reply from the Councillor’s office? I have addressed red light running, speeding and lack of garbage cans on Kirkwood which could be addressed with public furniture funds rather than those ridiculous stylized fire hydrant things???? Whose idea was that?
I know she’s busy but isn’t that her job?
At least Christine promptly returned emails and phone calls even if we didn’t get the answers we wanted. Looks like Catherine has a cushy term of sitting back collecting a salary at our expense kind of like a paid vacation.
I’m running next term if that’s all you have to do to be a Councillor in this riding where only a few want the representation to be accountable but I don’t imagine there’s a big lineup of contestants wanting to be next in line for the Westboro firing squad.

26 | zchamu

March 6th, 2011 at 2:28 pm

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The field beside the Keg is NCC. It does carry zoning for development, but I don’t see it actually being developed anytime soon (I hope).

The levy as it is proposed is dead in the water, because here’s the thing: It’s $95 a year on a $350K property. Most homes in W’boro are valued at well above that and would be paying at least double if not more. Those who are not already familiar with and/or invested in the issue are simply going to see the concept of hundreds of dollars being added to their tax bill and say, not bloody likely.

Plus, the fact that the motion is going to a vote without any kind of debate being allowed means there’s no opportunity for tweaking or problem solving.

It’s fairly obvious that Hobbs wants this issue to just go away as fast as possible. Unfortunately, she has set a very bad tone with her ward residents. It’s going to be a long few years for her, I’m afraid.

27 | zchamu

March 7th, 2011 at 11:54 am

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Here’s the letter I wrote to Watson and Hobbs on the issue. Hail Mary for a Convent: http://zchamu.com/2011/03/07/hail-mary-for-a-convent/

28 | binki

March 7th, 2011 at 4:57 pm

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Agree entirely with lacoop’s comments below. We will continue to run from one victim of Developers to the next until we stop and fix this. What is the plan/vision, what are the limits and will the Planning Dept ever adhere to the Plan/Guidelines? If not, how do we fix the Planning Dept?

Lacoop said: “We wouldn’t be in this pickle if the city used the guidelines they asked us all to help develop in the first place. Ashcroft wouldn’t have bought the land if they knew those guidelines would actually be used.”

29 | John

March 9th, 2011 at 10:02 pm

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So far, we have heard mostly from people who live near the proposed new park, and who would benefit greatly. We have yet to hear much from those who live further away and would not use the park, but who would have to pay exactly the same amount as those using it regularly.

The amount is question is a large sum of money, notwithstanding the effort to make it look small by spreading it out over several years and expressing it as a levy on a hypothetical $300 K house. It amounts to a tax increase of over 3% this year, which is greater than the general tax increase that the city just approved as part of financing all the services in Ottawa. This would then represent a double tax increase on top of the other whopping tax increases that we have had in recent years (especially from reassessment).

Given that most people in the ward do not live close to the proposed new park, the proposal would probably be voted down if put to a referendum and if people knew how much they would actually be paying based on their own tax assessments. The only way it is going to get through is if it sneaks through before ascertaining the views of the general public in a reliable way (not just public meetings attended by proponents).

Rather than buying an unaffordable new park at this very late point in the process, we should protect what we already have and look for future opportunities (like the Canadian Bank Note company land). We should certainly be protecting the Byron strip (no cut-through for the new development at les Soeurs). But we keep hearing about the Byron strip as a potential route for the LRT, which would be ruinous. Maybe Councillor Hobbes can make it clear that as this ward’s councillor, she will seek to protect the Byron strip, and rule out any consideration of the Byron strip for the LRT.

30 | For some a win, a loss for others >> a peek inside the fishbowl

June 29th, 2011 at 11:39 am

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[…] know what my feelings are about some Westboro-area developments such as Ashcroft’s convent (Avenue Q for Quagmire!). There has been an update today and it’s all rather unfortunate. I’m feeling an […]

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