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Standing Tall

Doug Casey is an accountant, but he knows good design, not money, is often key. Now a pair of slim condos promise to improve the urban face of Ottawa

Photo of Doug Casey in front of The Hudson construction site

Charlesfort Developments' Doug Casey struggled with City Hall and Centretown residents to gain approval for the Hudson condo towers. But he's convinced everything has worked out. And he still prefers core-area projects.

Within a week or so, heavy construction machinery will start digging the foundations for two slim condo towers that will sit directly across from the stern, stone face of St. Patrick's Basilica on Kent Street.

As far as Doug Casey is concerned, it's taken too long and cost too much money in legal fees to get this far, but the president of Charlesfort Developments and the brain trust behind a series of well-executed condos in the city's urban core is philosophical.

"At the end of the day, we have done the right thing and it is a better solution for the site," says Casey, who had to cool his build mentality for seven months as neighbours petitioned the Ontario Municipal Board to stop the $72-million project.

He estimates the delays cost a minimum of $1 million, but he could have lost far more if the project had been derailed.

"Ottawa needs some good architecture and I believe the Hudson will be a good shot in the arm for Centretown," says Casey, who has racked up a series of design awards for condos and townhomes he has built throughout the city core in the past 23 years.

In early November 2006, the OMB dismissed procedural concerns posed by a small group of neighbours and approved Charlesfort's proposal to build two towers—one 15 and the other 17 floors—with a corner garden and an urban garden that accounts for 50 per cent of the site located seven blocks from Parliament Hill.

Then in the last week of December, Casey agreed to a settlement with a resident living in a neighbouring condo building and an appeal of the OMB's November decision was dropped, giving a go-ahead to the project which has gone through a series of redesigns.

Within days, Casey sent out "happy letters" to 63 buyers in the first and larger southern tower, informing them of a construction start before the end of January and initial occupancies in August 2008. "It's great. We can go ahead now and start digging. Hopefully Jan. 22."

Initially, Charlesfort proposed two 24-storey towers for the site where McEvoy and Shields Funeral Home had stood for years but was recently demolished by Charlesfort. That proposal ran into a brick wall of protest at City Hall, prompting Charlesfort and Barry Hobin's team of architects to scale back to a pair of slender 18-storey towers.

Amazingly, city planners supported the concept. But councillor Diane Holmes was opposed, prompting a new plan for a 12-storey building that would abide by all of the zoning, yet fill the entire site and block views of many residents in a neighbouring condo—the Everett by Domicile—to the south.

Residents in the 11-storey Everett complained to Holmes, who met with Charlesfort. The Hobin team was sent back to the drawing board.

A new plan, which looks very similar to the 18-storey towers, came back in a slightly smaller format, winning support from an overwhelming majority of downtown neighbours, Holmes, and planning folks at the city.

All looked well until a small band of neighbours appealed to the OMB. There were two days of hearings in the fall, including testimony from Hobin, planners hired by Charlesfort and municipal land-use planner John Smit, who all supported the proposal, which broke through the height restrictions of 12 storeys yet left open space for a garden and views of the downtown.

The OMB was also asked to rule on two other variances that had already been approved by the city's committee of adjustment last fall, including a passenger dropoff area, a loading space and a reduced side-yard allowance of 1.5 metres from 7.5 metres.

"The city felt it important to take a formal position in support of the proposal," Smit told the fall hearing, adding the proposed design "is in keeping with the neighbourhood concept for Centretown."

The compromise of intensification is deeply seeded in Casey's blood because he is now close to striking a deal at the committee of adjustment to build a 15- and a five-storey condo building on Richmond Road, between Woodroffe Avenue to the west and Westboro to the east.

He has already met with newly elected councillor Christine Leadman and last week held an open house, diffusing several issues with leaders at the Unitarian Church, a neighbour to the north.

"There is quite a lot of intensification focused on Westboro," says Leadman. "It's overwhelming for residents because there is a lot of pressure for traffic and leakage into the communities.

"It all comes down to a fine balance," says Leadman, who knows development and intensification are coming. Yet she wants it clearly understood that Westboro and traditional main streets, including Richmond Road, are not downtown and shouldn't be developed with a high wall of condo towers.

"This is not about anti-development. It's about knowing development is going to happen and to bring something that is going to enhance the community and not create other problems such as traffic and safety issues.

"It has to be balanced," says the councillor, who is keen to work with councillor Alex Cullen and reactivate a community design committee to set new height restrictions for the area and then start the process rolling to amend and strengthen the Official Plan.

Somewhere, in between politician, builder and community, there is always an answer, says Casey, who is drawn to developing sites in mature communities. "I am not interested in the 'burbs. They don't work for this camper.

"Sometimes, some call me crazy and usually I don't like to compromise. And yes, I am an accountant, but it's not always about money. It's also about buildings that will stand the test of time."

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