Community views split on proposed plan to demolish historic Deschâtelets chapel

The Regional Group seeks approval to demolish the heritage-protected chapel wing of the Deschâtelets building. This 2015 picture shows the chapel interior before it was deconsecrated and the statue at the far end was removed. Photo by John Dance

The Regional Group seeks approval to demolish the heritage-protected chapel wing of the Deschâtelets building. This 2015 picture shows the chapel interior before it was deconsecrated and the statue at the far end was removed. Photo by John Dance

John Dance

The community faces a dilemma: whether to support The Regional Group’s proposed demolition of the chapel wing of the historic Deschâtelets building to pave the way for the repurposing of the remainder of the building as a new school, community centre and, possibly, affordable housing for seniors, or else fight to preserve the chapel wing.

Regional’s application to demolish the heritage-designated chapel wing will be considered by the City of Ottawa’s Built Heritage Sub-Committee this summer. Then, the sub-committee’s advice will be considered by the Planning Committee in the context of the rezoning request of the Conseil des Ecoles Catholics du Centre-Est (CECCE) for an elementary school, community centre and other specified uses within the main part of the Deschâtelets building.

The sale of the main part of the Deschâtelets building to CECCE is conditional on the approval of the proposed demolition.

In 2011, the City approved various heritage designations for Deschâtelets and some of the adjacent lands. While only the exterior of the main building was “protected,” both the exterior and the interior of the chapel were given protection. The chapel wing was built in 1950 and, as noted by John J. Stewart, who wrote the demolition application report, “The chapel interior is a very stark, handsome expression. The monochrome interior, angular planes of the arches picked up in the glazing pattern of windows and pattern of tiles in the central portion contribute to its distinct skeletal character. The very slender exaggerated forms of the modernist sculpture help to establish a respectful hierarchy.”

Over the last five years, Regional has sought a purchaser for Deschâtelets but was unsuccessful until CECCE became interested. Along with CECCE’s interest came the proposal that the City could secure a new community centre within the main building with an adjacent gymnasium serving both the school and the community.

Regional proposed that the chapel wing be used as the gym, but the City declined because the chapel wing “does not meet their standards to be repurposed as a full-sized gymnasium.” Similarly, the Ottawa Housing Corporation deemed the upper floors of the chapel wing “inappropriate for future residential use.” (See the Regional Group’s full position in the sidebar article)

The Community Activities Group (CAG) of Old Ottawa East, which currently runs Old Town Hall as the community centre and would also be in charge of a new community centre if it were located in Deschâtelets, supports Regional’s application, noting “the demolition of the chapel wing is counterbalanced by the public use (community centre, grade school and affordable housing for seniors) of the original north-south wing and the preservation of the most significant heritage element of the building – its front facade.” (See CAG’s full position in the sidebar article)

However, in several Zoom online meetings held over the last month, a number of residents have questioned the justification for demolishing one of Old Ottawa East’s few heritage structures. In a follow-up to one such meeting, resident David Henderson emailed: “The [heritage] designation is very clear, [and] the 1950 Chapel, including the interior, is identified as a key attribute. This does not translate into an open season for demolition. The Chapel, both architecturally and by function, complements the other components of the building and should be respected in this way.”

Similarly, during these calls, former Old Ottawa East Community Association (OOECA) planning chair Paul Goodkey questioned the demolition application’s contention that the chapel wing has significant structural deficiencies.

Barry Padolsky, who was involved in the initial heritage assessment of Deschâtelets in 2011 and now sits on the Built Heritage Sub-Committee, told The Mainstreeter that the key question in considering the proposed demolition of the chapel wing is whether the community benefits and positive contributions of the “adaptive reuse” of the main Deschâtelets building will balance the loss of the chapel wing. He also noted the importance of the community getting assurance that the school and community centre will really happen.

Sally Coutts, the City’s coordinator of heritage service, was responsible for the original heritage designations of Deschâtelets. She has expressed her support for the community benefits and new uses of the main Deschâtelets building and, in this context, favours the proposed demolition of the chapel wing.

Community members have also raised a related question: What will be built on the land vacated by the chapel wing if it is demolished, as well as on the other lands to the east of Deschâtelets. According to existing zoning, the specific area to the east of Deschâtelets is restricted so that the sum of all of the area’s buildings’ floor space cannot exceed twice the land area.

When the Greystone Village Retirement residence was proposed, OOECA was advised by Regional that, although the residence would have more than twice the floor area its property, the floor area of the new buildings on the remainder of the east of Deschâtelets area would total less than twice their property size. Hobin Architecture’s preliminary design drawings show the proposed adaptive reuse of the Deschâtelets building. The scheme assumes the inclusion of the community centre, which will occupy the north half of level one with a link to a gymnasium to be constructed as a separate building to the north of the Deschâtelets. The school will occupy the southern half of level one and all of levels 2 and 3. The school will have its own internal link to the community centre gym from level two. It is proposed that the top two floors will be converted to affordable housing owned and operated by Ottawa Community Housing.

Where our community stakeholders stand on planned demolition of the heritage chapel

CAG’s Position

The Community Activities Group of Old Ottawa East understands the concern community members have about what will be built behind the Deschâtelets Building, including on the land that would be made available by the demolition of the chapel wing. We also respect the views of those local residents who feel the heritage value of the chapel is sufficient to warrant its preservation.

Our concern is that, to be viable, the new community centre project depends on the participation of the Conseil des Écoles Catholiques du Centre-Est and they are not in a position to purchase, restore and operate the chapel wing of the building. Neither can the City of Ottawa justify such an investment since the chapel cannot be repurposed for recreation programs.

We therefore take the view, supported by heritage experts, that the demolition of the chapel wing is counterbalanced by the public use (community centre, grade school and affordable housing for seniors) of the original north-south wing and the preservation of the most significant heritage element of the building – its front facade.

The chapel wing located to the east of the older part of Deschâtelets has three components: the ground floor which served as a large dining room with kitchen, the two-storey high chapel and above that two floors for residences. Photo by John Dance

The chapel wing located to the east of the older part of Deschâtelets has three components: the ground floor which served as a large dining room with kitchen, the two-storey high chapel and above that two floors for residences. Photo by John Dance

Regional Group’s Position

Regional has been looking to repurpose the Deschâtelets building since the site was acquired but has been unsuccessful until now in finding the right user.

The chapel wing and chapel room, which spans two floors of the building, has presented recurring challenges over the years as interested parties have been unable to find an appropriate use for it.

The City of Ottawa has determined the chapel wing does not meet their standards to be repurposed as a full sized gymnasium. In addition, the school board was not able to repurpose the space for their programming needs. Both the City and the school board have deemed the upper floors inappropriate for future residential use, as has Ottawa Community Housing. In addition, extensive work and capital costs are required to remediate the wing and bring the structure and building up to current seismic and building code standards.

Through discussions with the City, it was determined that the parcel north of the Deschâtelets Building meets the City’s requirements to provide a new gymnasium space and an opportunity to create a connection to the building for future community centre space and use. A “land swap” was therefore suggested involving potential development lands north of the Deschâtelets building and the lands where the chapel currently sits.

Regional understands the historical importance of the Deschâtelets building as an anchor in the OOE community. It feels that the current proposal presents the best possible outcome for the building. It will allow the building to continue to play a central role within the neighbourhood and will allow it to be opened-up and remain accessible to the entire OOE community in a way that it has never been before

Old Ottawa East Community Association’s Position

Having considered the proposed benefits to the community resulting from the conditional sale of the Deschâtelets building to the Conseil des Ecoles Catholique du Centre-Est, the community association does not support the proposed demolition of the chapel wing unless the sale of the building to the CECCE is completed and the City of Ottawa commits to the timely construction of a community centre in the Deschâtelets building and an adjoining gymnasium / multi-purpose facility.

[Editor’s Note: Full disclosure – on the issue of the proposed new school and community centre, writer John Dance has represented OOECA in discussions with the City, CECCE, the Community Activities Group and The Regional Group.].

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