'Stealth' bunkhouse sneaking into Old Ottawa South, says councillor

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Karen Stevens-Guille

Karen Stevens-Guille is angry the development next door to her house — seen here to her right — will be a 27-bedroom apartment building. She's wants the builder held to account for assurances made during the approval process that there would be 12 bedrooms. (Susan Burgess)

Expanded six-plex will have 27 bedrooms, instead of the 12 proposed by developer during approval

By Susan Burgess, CBC News

A builder in Old Ottawa South got approval to expand a six-unit apartment building by making assurances it would have only 12 bedrooms, but months later, the number of bedrooms suddenly ballooned to 27.

And David Chernushenko, the councillor for the area, says he's powerless to stop what he calls an "over-development by stealth."

Verbally promised 12 bedrooms

Builder Jordan Tannis wanted to enlarge the six-plex at 177 Hopewell Ave. Last October, his application appeared before the city's committee of adjustment, a council-appointed tribunal that makes decisions on minor planning issues. The project qualifies as an expansion, as opposed to a completely new project, under the city's rules despite the fact that a single wall is the only obvious remaining part of the original structure.

During the hearing, Brian Casagrande — a Fotenn planning consultant hired by the builder — repeatedly assured committee members and concerned neighbours that Tannis intended to fill the renovated building with six two-bedroom units. He said the existing building also had six units, but with eight bedrooms between them.

In an official audio recording of the meeting, he can be heard dismissing concerns of neighbours about a potential tripling of people living on the site, saying "I want the committee to understand that that is not in fact true," and that "the intention of the proposal is to have all two-bedroom units."

Later, he refers to floor plans, saying: "The intention is shown on the plans. This plan here is showing you two-bedroom units."

Moreover, Tannis's intention was to create "a higher-end version of rental units," the consultant told the committee.

"He's not going to want one unit with 10 kids slammed and sandwiched into it," said Casagrande, referring to concerns about student housing given the building's proximity to Carleton University.

Councillor feels hoodwinked

But the latest version of the plans, which came to light just a few weeks ago, paint a very different picture, according to Chernushenko.

Those plans depict five units with four bedrooms each, and another seven-bedroom unit spanning two floors, for a total of 27 bedrooms, according to staff in the councillor's office.

In other words, while the builder had explicitly proposed a 50-per-cent increase in the number of bedrooms when arguing for approval of the plans, the development is now on track for an increase greater than 300 per cent.

The builder "told a nice story, and then went about doing what they wanted to after all," said Chernushenko.

What 177 Hopewell looked like before construction began, according to "planning rationale" documents submitted by the consulting firm Fotenn.

Plan beat bunkhouse law by weeks

The plan with the extra bedrooms was submitted to the city last June, weeks before city council approved an interim control by-law to deal with the problem of so-called "bunkhouses," and which put a one-year freeze on new construction or renovations of a building with a large number of bedrooms.

Neighbours, who have kept an eagle eye on the development for more than a year, accuse the builder of pulling a fast one.

Karen Stevens-Guille, who lives next door to 177 Hopewell, attended meetings and stayed abreast of the entire process, yet discovered the plan for additional bedrooms only by chance.

"I noticed a bunch of new windows in the foundation that weren't there on the plans that I understood had been signed off on by the city," she said.

Stevens-Guille quickly contacted Chernushenko and city staff, who investigated. In late September, Chernushenko's office delivered the news that the city's Building Code Services branch had in fact approved plans for 27 bedrooms.

"I feel completely let down by the City of Ottawa. I feel really betrayed," said Stevens-Guille, adding many people in the community participated in public consultation on the project. "We don't think it's right to be able to promise one thing and build another and for that to be OK, to be allowed to proceed."

Even the early proposal had residents concerned about issues such as increased traffic, a shortage of parking and the storage of garbage on the site, and the latest version of the plan has only intensified those concerns.

The proposed expansion of the six-plex on Hopewell Avenue, from planning rationale documents submitted to the city's committee of adjustment by the consulting firm Fotenn. 

City cannot stop construction

Neighbours might be angry, but the builder has done nothing illegal, according to Doug James, the city's manager of development review.

That's because in its ruling, the committee of adjustment tied its decision only to the size and location of the construction, James said in an e-mail, not to the number of bedrooms.

"No City By-laws were broken and the construction is moving forward in accordance with the plans approved by the Committee of Adjustment," James said.

Asked whether the committee could have opted to include a condition tying the approval to the number of bedrooms, James said yes, but that the plans filed by the committee of adjustment did not include floor plans.

Residents also angry with city

Stevens-Guille isn't buying that excuse, noting that even if the committee's ruling doesn't mention bedrooms, numerous other documents from the city do.

The notice of hearing to residents states: "the number of units will remain at six and the units will be expanded to two and three bedroom units." The same language appears in the pre-amble of the document that contains the committee of adjustment decision.

That language suggests a maximum of 18 bedrooms was contemplated, more than discussed by Casagrande at the meeting but a third fewer than the 27 currently planned.

Jeff Tobin, who also lives right next to 177 Hopewell, said assurances from the city about the number of bedrooms influenced his decision to buy the house last December.

His realtor reached out to the committee of adjustment, Tobin said, and quickly relayed to him exterior plans for the house next door, along with the information that it would have six units of two to three bedrooms each.

"If we had any knowledge of the bedroom count or even the knowledge that all that had been approved was the building size with no restrictions on bedrooms, we would not have purchased the home," Tobin said in an email.

'We're not doing anything sneaky': developer

The builder arrived at 177 Hopewell shortly after CBC began an interview with Stevens-Guille.

Tannis declined to have his comments filmed or recorded, but adamantly denied he had ever presented a plan for the number of bedrooms, and that in any case it's not the place of the committee of adjustment to regulate a building's interior.

"We're not doing anything sneaky or tricky," he said. "We're following the rules the city puts forward."

Tannis also told CBC that "stories like this give credence to complainers and I think it's not fair." It's also unfair to discriminate against students when building housing, he said.

The city does need to change the rules around how developments are approved, Chernushenko said, but he also took a shot at builders on the lookout for loopholes.

"Someone who has an intent to shoehorn as many people (as they can) onto a property and maximize their rental income out of it is going to keep looking for them," Chernushenko said. "The city has always got to be trying to stay ahead of it, and then closing them as quickly as we can."

Stevens-Guille warned if things don't change, other communities are at risk.

"This can happen anywhere in Ottawa," she said. "It's not just us. It has nothing to do with our precise neighbourhood."