By Neal Rockwell
In early May 2015, 105 families residing in Alta Vista’s Herongate neighbourhood received notices informing them that their homes were to be demolished. They would have to move out by Sept. 30.
This is the second time in two years that Timbercreek Asset Management, the housing complex’s owner, has displaced residents to make way for new construction. Upon learning this news, residents began organizing under the banner of the Herongate Tenant Coalition, mobilizing in a bid to save their homes and community from destruction.
I began documenting what was happening in Herongate in late May, after being contacted by some of the coalition’s organizers. My original focus was to record what was happening on the ground in the community.
I took photos, conducted interviews and made short videos that captured the neglected state of buildings, the fears and anxieties of residents, as well as their desire to save their homes and community from destruction.
My first impression of Heron Gate was one of shock. I was surprised that a place like this could exist in Ottawa.
Roofs leak, sewers back up when it rains, homes are infested with pests like cockroaches and bedbugs, and mould proliferates. This neglect is at the hands of Timbercreek, and of Transglobe, Heron Gate’s former owner.
Uncovered dumpsters – perpetually overflowing with trash – had been dropped haphazardly throughout the property. Old mattresses were piled in a small enclosure near the unmaintained pool, where plastic bags and empty drink containers floated in brackish green water.
The concrete steps and asphalt walks were crumbling. Shingles were falling from roofs. In one place someone had attempted to secure some shingles with binder clips.
An unsecured front door allowed me to access one of the low-rise apartment buildings. It was a pleasant spring day, but the heating had not yet been turned off.
The hallway greeted me with an airless, suffocating must, and was lined with stained, threadbare carpets. In some places, the baseboards had fallen in.
At the end of the corridor, water damage had caused an entire section of the ceiling to collapse. Clearly, it had been this way for quite some time: the paper on the edges of the drywall was brittle and yellowed with age.
A picture began to emerge that confirmed itself again and again the deeper I looked and the more people I spoke with: a portrait of neglect.
In Heron Gate, roofs leak, sewers back up when it rains, homes are infested with pests like cockroaches and bedbugs, and mould proliferates. This neglect is at the hands of Timbercreek, and of Transglobe, Heron Gate’s former owner.
More recently, I’ve begun to look outside the immediate boundaries of Herongate, into the world of city politics, the planning process and developer influence.
What has really struck me is how much it seems like two, utterly distinct worlds, one floating above the other. They seem almost not to touch at all – except that what happens in one has profound consequences to what happens to the other.
For the residents of Heron Gate who are within the area slated for demolition, it has been a summer of intense stress and deep sadness. Many people reported sleepless nights, spent worrying about where they were going to go and how they were going to afford a new apartment in Ottawa’s extremely tight rental market.
Heron Gate, despite the abject state of its buildings, is important for its residents. There is significant Somali community living in the demolition zone, which has been built up over nearly thirty years.
For these people, destruction of their homes also means the loss of vital support networks and a strain on friendships, as families will be forced to relocate across the city.
This is one world.
The other, the one that floats above, is the world of planning, politicians and developers.
At first glance, it is very bland, mundane. It is a world of spreadsheets, official plans and zoning – where friendly acquaintances play golf together and make deals, where inconsistencies between local zoning and the Provincial Policy Statement are ironed out by City Council.
Heron Gate, for a little background, is located in Ward 18, Alta Vista. The city councillor is Jean Cloutier. It is owned by Timbercreek.
Timbercreek Asset Management was founded in 1999 by Blair Tamblyn and Ugo Bizzarri, who both still head the company. Timbercreek became the owner of the property after it was spun off of Transglobe Real Estate Investment Trust. This in turn was dissolved in 2012, a mere two years after being formed out of the previously private company, Transglobe Property Management, which was started by one Daniel Drimmer in 1994. (For a much deeper dive into the complex corporate ownership of Heron Gate and how the financialization of housing is driving these evictions, see our companion piece “The Money Behind the Heron Gate Evictions.”)
In 2012, CBC Marketplace did a feature on Drimmer and Transglobe, where they called the company one of Canada’s worst landlords.
Of course, that doesn’t prevent them from getting a warm welcome from Ottawa politicians.
The problem of developer influence in Ottawa city politics has been long-standing. Mayor Jim Watson is known to be a good friend to developers, and the large numbers of them listed in his campaign contributions are a testament to this.
So far Watson has been unwilling to intervene in any way in Heron Gate. When residents from the affected demolition area met with him, he informed them there was nothing he could do.
Watson’s lawyer, also present at the meeting, reiterated this powerlessness. Watson had no legal authority; they presented the situation as cut and dry.
This account, however, is challenged by another event which took place around the same time. In early August, the mayor intervened in Old Ottawa East to preserve two maple trees.
On Twitter he stated, “I have directed staff not to issue any permits to take down those two trees. The developer will have to find a way to keep the trees and live up to their original promise to the community.”
Councillor Jeff Leiper challenged him,“Mayor, what was your authority to do that? We’ve struggled with mature tree loss and the by-law for several years. Are permits subject to ‘executive order,’ so to speak?”
Watson replied, “Because I was asked to get involved and protect those two trees and work with the ward councillor to ensure they were protected.”
In one instance, we have the mayor taking a bold and vocal moral stance, getting involved and perhaps even overstepping his legal authority to lean on developers for the purported good of the community. In the other instance – the one that deals with the future wellbeing of hundreds of vulnerable, low-income people rather than two trees – he is unwilling to make any statement at all, instead entirely washing his hands of the matter and stressing his utter impotence before the law.
Ottawa East also happens to be a much wealthier neighbourhood than Heron Gate. But there’s more.
As I tried to understand what was going on with the redevelopment of Heron Gate, what emerged was a tangled web of politicians, business interests and planning consultants – a dense and somewhat convoluted set of interests and relationships. Please bear with me while I try to lay this out for you.
- Prior to Cloutier, Peter Hume was the councillor for Alta Vista. He held office from 1991-2014. In 2003 Hume was appointed chair of the city’s planning committee, which oversees development applications and planning policy for the City of Ottawa. He held this position until he left office, after which, he was replaced as planning committee chair by councillor Jan Harder. (Remember that name for later).
- Another notable figure is Jack Stirling. Stirling was the planning commissioner for Nepean before amalgamation. In 2001 he went to work for Minto as vice-president of development. He held this position until 2014, when he started his development consultancy firm, Stirling Group.
- Minto is a huge, Ottawa-based developer, and was incidentally the company that built Heron Gate in the 1960s. As an illustration of this company’s influence in Ottawa politics, it is notable that Lorry Greenberg, one of its founders, was the mayor of Ottawa from 1975-1978.
- In 2015, shortly after leaving office, Hume formed a new development consultancy partnership with Stirling, known as HP Urban. Both Stirling Group and HP Urban consult with developers to help facilitate companies’ applications through the city’s planning process, drawing on their insider knowledge and important connections.
- Meanwhile, Stirling is presently employed for Timbercreek, working specifically on the Herongate project.
- Hume is also Jean Cloutier’s campaign manager in his bid for re-election as Heron Gate’s Ward 18 councillor. He was also Cloutier’s 2014 campaign manager. When I approached Cloutier for a comment, he said “[Hume] is my campaign manager. Peter’s been a friend for 25 years. When I was community association president, I worked closely with him, and he ran the campaign in 2014, and in January I asked him to help me with this campaign and he readily agreed.”
- Stirling, as well as running his various consultancies, is listed as the “professional planner member” of the city’s Planning Advisory Council, which also counts as members city councillors Jan Harder, Tobi Nussbaum and Scott Moffatt.
- More connections emerge when looking into campaign finance donations. Amongst the numerous developers who contributed to Mayor Jim Watson’s 2014 re-election campaign were Timbercreek, which gave $500, and its co-founder Ugo Bizzarri who donated $250. Bizzarri’s donation is doubly notable in that he is amongst the tiny minority of contributors listed as being from outside the Ottawa region. And he lists the Timbercreek corporate address of 1000 Yonge St, rather than his home address, for his contribution. Suzanne Valiquet, a public relations consultant who, as she has listed on her LinkedIn account, is working for Timbercreek “Overseeing the Communications and Relocation Program at Timbercreek’s Heron Gate Development,” also donated $250 to Watson’s campaign.
- Not directly related to Heron Gate, but somewhat interesting nonetheless, is the event formerly known as the Jan Harder Charity Golf Tournament. This was run out of the Barrhaven councillor’s office, the CBC reported, and involved playing golf and asking developers for sponsorship money. This was considered too louche once Harder took over chairing the planning committee. This led her to hand organizing the little-publicized event to Stirling and Hume. It was renamed the Just Happy Golf Tournament, though Harder is still apparently a prominent fixture of the event.
To summarize: Timbercreek is employing a former planning commission (Stirling), who has also worked for Heron Gate’s original developer (Minto) and who runs a consultancy with the planning commission chair and former councillor for Heron Gate residents (Hume), who now serves as campaign manager for the current councillor (Cloutier). Timbercreek makes sure to donate to the mayor (Watson) and they are all close with the current planning commission chair (Harder), playing golf for charity together.
None of this, apparently, breaks any laws, but it does paint a stark portrait of a system where a close-knit group of insiders pass back and forth between the porous boundary of city politics and the development industry. It is a hermetic world where a small number of people have an outsized influence on public policy and the shape of the city.
It is utterly cut off from the world of deprivation and neglect that Heron Gate residents experience, even as rents from their neglected apartments help keep this world in motion.
What enables these cosy relationships is the planning process itself.
Mayor Watson may like to give the impression of a system which is largely bureaucratic and perfunctory when it suits him. But the process is in fact highly subjective. In fact it gives a good deal of discretionary power to city council.
One of the primary ways this power is exercised comes out of the city’s Official Plan. The province issues something called the Provincial Planning Statement, which is a general guide for all Ontario cities. From this, municipalities must come up with an Official Plan which is in line with the province’s policy objectives.
If zoning is in conflict with the Plan – which it often is – developers can appeal to the planning committee as part of the secondary planning process. Developers submit applications to city council and if they are deemed to be within the parameters of the Official Plan, but in conflict with zoning, then councillors are supposed to vote to approve the application.
This may seem perfunctory, but in fact affords significant power to elected city officials, since it is up to them to interpret whether a given proposal is in agreement with the Official Plan or not.
If city council is favourable to developers, which the current one certainly is, it is actually quite advantageous for developers if there are significant conflicts between zoning regulations and the current Official Plan. This gives them ample opportunities to have their wishes granted in a favourable and highly subjective forum.
This returns us to the two worlds, to the ways in which they interact with one another, yet at the same time are kept separate.
Below, people struggle. They worry about paying the rent. They worry about where they are going to live. They settle for substandard living conditions.
Some might view it as bonhomie, others as a sort of legal collusion. The upshot for the residents of Heron Gate – a vulnerable population of majority low-income, majority immigrant people, many of whom are also refugees – is that they now face greater poverty, possible homelessness, as well as the destruction of the community they have lovingly nurtured over decades.