Still waiting for a spark

‘Strict’ NCC regulations slow down Ashcroft’s downtown development

A local builder is adjusting to a different sort of landlord as it prepares for a delayed start to construction on buildings it believes will begin the revitalization of a central area of downtown Ottawa.

Ashcroft Homes has been working with the National Capital Commission, a Crown corporation that administers much of the land owned by the federal government in the city, on what it calls the Canlands A project on Sparks Street.

Although the project began with promise four years ago, Ashcroft has yet to begin construction in earnest, more than 10 months after the originally planned start date of December 2011.

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This is in part because of the learning curve the builder has gone through to discover how best to get the approvals that are required for building on NCC-controlled land, said Paul Rothwell, Ashcroft’s director of planning and development.

“The difference really comes to roost when you’re wanting to build momentum. This trickles all the way down into what we think, from time to time, to be routine matters, where you’ve then got to share it all with the NCC and await their response,” he said. “That can be a challenge.”

The plan calls for the construction of two buildings – one six storeys, the other 16 – that would allow people to live and shop in an area until now known more for the surrounding office space.

Canlands A is one of the NCC’s two “revitalization” projects, according to the Crown corporation’s most recent corporate plan, with the other taking place at Lebreton Flats.

The NCC requires builders to consult with it closely as a means of maintaining the heritage status of Sparks Street and the other landmarks across the city for which it is responsible, said Roland Morin of the NCC.

“Ashcroft has submitted to us their plans, so we’re looking at the plans to make sure everything is confirmed with our conditions and we will go ahead with the project,” said Mr. Morin, the commission’s vice-president of real estate management.

Mr. Rothwell cited the approvals process for signage that advertises residential units for sale as an example of what he believed were “pretty strict” reporting requirements.

On property it owns, Ashcroft would be able to simply print off the signs and put them up. With the Canlands A project, however, Ashcroft employees first need to send the designs to the NCC and wait for their approval before they can do so.

“It’s another layer that, when you’re the landowner, simply doesn’t exist,” said Mr. Rothwell.

Nevertheless, he stressed that Ashcroft still has a good working relationship with NCC officials and that most of the difficulty comes from the rules and regulations the commission has on the books.

Learning to work with the NCC hasn’t been the only delay, said Mr. Rothwell. The project has also been set back by the logistics of moving the power supply for neighbouring buildings away from the site, as well as the approvals process with the City of Ottawa.

He said Ashcroft is still planning to have the project completed by the originally scheduled opening of December 2013, despite the delays. Mr. Rothwell estimated Ashcroft has sold about 80 per cent of the condominium units, adding that he believes all the trouble of getting approvals from the NCC will be worth it.

The combination of condo units and rentals, as well as commercial space, offices and a hotel, would bring to life an area that is usually only busy during the hours people are at work in the area, he said.

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