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Preserving the past amid urban renewal

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While there are concerns a highrise may dwarf a century-old cathedral, the designers are working hard to respect the heritage of the spectacular site, writes Maria Cook

By Maria Cook., Ottawa Citizen

Christ Church Cathedral occupies a spectacular and visible site on the escarpment west of Parliament Hill, overlooking the Ottawa River. The distinctive stone building, flanked by its soaring bell tower, is seen in dramatic silhouette above the Garden of the Provinces.

The Anglican cathedral plans to develop the land surrounding the 138-year-old building to generate income for its ministries.

A proposal for a 21-storey condominium tower, a row of townhouses and a 12-storey office building goes to the City of Ottawa planning committee May 9 and council on May 11 for approval. There are about 130 residential units.

The design aims to transform a patchwork of parking lots and historic structures into a coherent urban block that integrates contemporary buildings with the cathedral.

“We see the cathedral as being the really unique element,” says architect Gordon Stratford, of HOK Toronto. “We didn’t want anything that would fight with the building. We wanted to respect and work with the heritage on the site.”

Images of the project show muted colours, pedestrian spaces, and lots of trees and plants. The forms are simple and the contemporary materials are intended to be in harmony with the old brick and stone buildings.

The diocese and cathedral have a deal with Windmill Development Group of Ottawa for a 220,000-squarefoot development on 35,000 square feet of leased land.

The site is bounded by Bronson Street to the west, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church to the east, Sparks Street to the south and Queen Street to the north. The backdrop to the church is a wall of residential high-rises.

The developer is asking for a zoning amendment for a height increase. The current zoning is for seven to eight storeys. If approved, the condo tower would be the highest building on the block, but not in the area.

Cathedral Hill is a designated heritage district; new buildings are supposed to be sensitive and complementary.

An earlier design showed a boxier 15-storey residential building. Now it is 21 storeys plus a mechanical floor. The top two storeys are penthouse units set back from the rest of the tower to shape the top and respect protected sightlines related to Parliament Hill.

The designers suggest that a taller, more slender tower can better address urban design issues on the site, compared with a shorter building of the same interior size.

It means that the footprint of the tower at ground level is smaller, permitting courtyards and pedestrian passages. It also reduces the amount of view blocked for neighbours across the street.

Roper House, a former lumber baron’s mansion that serves as the bishop’s office, is preserved. So is Lauder Hall, built in 1902 and housing church offices and choir space. The plan includes partial retention of two semidetached houses on Queen Street built in the 1800s.

The key to unlocking the potential of the site while keeping the houses is removal of the 1950s Cathedral Hall facing Sparks Street, and construction of a new parish hall in the centre of the site.

This permits the designers to slip a narrow tower behind Roper House and put lowerscaled townhouses where the church hall used to be.

The townhouses are a key element in the urban design strategy. They provide a lower building along Sparks Street to make a more pedestrianfriendly streetscape and use stone to relate to the older buildings. The townhouses match Roper House in scale at its west end while deferring to the cathedral to the east.

The condo tower rises from behind the townhouses. Designed with a curve, it will feature opaque and transparent glass.

“This will be a very wellmannered building,” says Stratford. “We want to make sure it’s interesting but subtle enough to serve as a quiet backdrop to the cathedral.”

Stratford said the scheme will allow people to appreciate the site’s history. “You will all of a sudden take notice of the cathedral again,” he said.

“You will come into closer contact with the cathedral than you do now.”

The cathedral will be framed by new buildings and have a new plaza in front. There will be new pedestrian routes between Sparks and Queen. The townhouses are set back more than the present church hall so the cathedral is more visible.

The office building is pushed back further than in an earlier scheme to allow a clear view from St. Peter’s to the cathedral.

A new entrance designed as a glass pavilion “gives the cathedral some much-needed breathing space, and allows it to be more fully appreciated as a significant landmark,” says Stratford. “Glass has been purposely selected to provide an understated backdrop to the beautiful detailing and rusticated stone.”

The proponents worked closely with the city’s new urban design review panel, a volunteer advisory group of architects, urban designers and landscape architects.

Windmill’s chief executive Jonathan Westeinde praised them for “valuable insight” and said they helped make the case with city planners for a taller building.

The panel shifted the discussion from compliance with setbacks and height limits to design, pedestrian experience and continuity of streetscape.

“It was a real factor in getting the same amount of density in a more esthetically pleasing form,” says Westeinde. “The planning department had always stipulated not going higher than 15 storeys. The design review panel was able to provide the influence to get past the height barriers.”

Otherwise, he says, they would have had no choice but to build a rectangular box. The pair of semidetached houses are being preserved in exchange.

“Because the site is so significant we felt there really needed to be some serious critiquing of any proposal,” said panel chair David Leinster, a Toronto landscape architect.

“The new architecture should recede,” he said. “We wanted to keep the footprint as small as we could. We wanted to make sure the spire was maintained as a dominant vertical element. We wanted the places where the public can wander to be very special.”

The panel supports the cathedral’s efforts to keep going. “In Toronto, we’ve seen magnificent churches and cathedrals being turned into condos,” he said. “We didn’t want to see something like that happen.”

Still, community associations express concern about size.

“While I appreciate that the condo building has got thinner it has also got taller, and it now dwarfs the cathedral spire,” says Eric Darwin, president of the Dalhousie Community Association. “The new condo, taller than the rest of the block, will set a new precedent for the next condo.”

Adds Charles Akben-Marchand, president of the Centretown Citizens Community Association: “The office building is still very close to the spire of the church. One of our concerns was the addition of office development west of Lyon, which was supposed to remain residential.”

Both towers are to be built to stateof-the art environmental standards, at least LEED platinum. The original idea for the office building was to be a hub for environmental organizations.

“We’re not giving up on that concept, but most of the organizations we started with are in deep financial trouble,” says Westeinde.

Meanwhile, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church is in talks with the developer.

“Our issues include building setback from the east side adjacent to our church to protect our views as much as possible, and the potential loss of our parking spaces adjacent to the west side of our church,” said spokesman Bruce Wolfgram. “We are hopeful that we will all come to an agreeable solution.”

Windmill expects to start marketing the condos in June and start construction next winter to open in spring 2013.

Units are expected to start at about $270,000 with no prices yet on the penthouses.


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