By David Sali
Real estate firm Brigil says it plans to build multiple highrises on the site of Ottawa’s former downtown bus station as part of a development that would include more than 1,000 residential units as well as office and retail space – but the ward councillor cautions the company’s bid to reach for the sky might not fly with nearby residents.
The Gatineau-based developer announced this week it has agreed to purchase the 2.55-acre Ottawa Central Station site on Catherine Street in a deal that will officially close on March 1.
Brigil vice-president of development Jessy Desjardins told OBJ Tuesday the property is an ideal location for a mixed-use project due to its proximity to downtown and the Glebe. He said the firm envisions a mix of condos, townhomes and rental apartments on the site, along with office suites and a retail component that could include coffee shops, eateries, boutiques and specialty food stores.
“When we talk about that 15-minute walkable neighbourhood, that site offers everything,” he said. “It’s a very central location that has lots of potential to create a nice residential hub with commercial and office (space). When this opportunity came up, we really felt like it was the right site for us.”
Current zoning rules would allow Brigil to construct two buildings of up to 27 storeys on the southeast and southwest corners of the property fronting Catherine Street, with mid-rise buildings of between three and seven storeys allowed on the north side facing Arlington Avenue.
But Desjardins said the developer might push for an amendment to permit even taller buildings on the site.
He said that would allow the company to build more residential units, boosting the development’s income streams and making it more economically viable to charge lower rents to retailers and other businesses in the commercial component.
“That would be our goal – to increase density,” he said. “When we look at the post-pandemic economic revival, it’s going to be important that developers have a vision of encouraging local businesses to establish themselves. By having a bit more density, it allows us to reduce the rents for those commercial spaces.”
However, Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, whose ward includes the proposed development, said current zoning rules are meant to provide a buffer between single-family homes on Arlington and other nearby streets and potential highrise development on Catherine Street.
“I don’t think there would be much of an appetite (for towers taller than 27 storeys),” the councillor said.
McKenney plans to meet with the developer and get more details on the proposal before passing judgment on the project. The councillor said it's encouraging that Brigil is looking at bringing amenities such as food stores and restaurants to the neighbourhood.
“There is opportunity for good mixed-use (development) on that site to animate Catherine Street,” McKenney said.
Desjardins noted the project is still in the concept stage, but he said initial plans call for at least 1,000 residential units, between 20,000 and 60,000 square feet of office space and up to 70,000 square feet of retail space.
He said a hotel could also be part of the development, which he expects will be built in multiple phases.
“This location would be great for a hotel,” Desjardins said, pointing to nearby tourist attractions such as Lansdowne Park and the Canadian Museum of Nature. “It’s something that we believe – once (the pandemic abates), people will want to travel again.”
He also suggested the firm intends to minimize the amount of parking at the site, noting the builder might forgo an underground lot in an effort to cut costs and encourage residents to use transit.
“I don’t think that Ottawa is ready for a parking ratio of zero in that location. That would be wonderful, but we’re not there yet,” Desjardins said. “But I think we’re definitely aiming at reducing the parking ratio as much as possible.”
The company has asked half a dozen architectural firms from Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal – including high-profile names such as NEUF, Diamond Schmitt and Perkins&Will – to take part in a design competition. Brigil expects to submit a site plan to the city within the next six months and aims to start construction in 2023.
Desjardins said the builder is actively scoping out other potential development sites in the downtown core as the city continues to put a priority on transit-oriented intensification projects.
“We’re always looking for great opportunities,” he said.
The bus terminal has occupied the Catherine Street property since 1972. Greyhound had operated out of the site since 1994 but said last October it was vacating the building, which is owned by the Crerar Group of Companies, after suspending bus service across Canada earlier in the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.