With hydro wires overhead and bedrock below, it was a challenge to squeeze the proposed seven-storey building on the property at the corner of Booth and Somerset streets, said Peter Evans, the founder of a new company called Chi Developments.
Chi's 45,000-square-foot condo will rise in 2012 on a site that once hosted nearly 20 apartments, as well as several small businesses. Those burned down in August 2007 and the area is now an empty lot.
This provided a rare opportunity to start anew in an old neighbourhood. When Mr. Evans, who runs a small renovation business, heard of the lot from real estate contacts, he bought the property three years ago with intentions to develop it with a Toronto group.
The market crash in late 2008 soured the deal and eventually he decided to start again with a team that included ZW Group, Christopher Simmonds Architect and Coldwell Banker Rhodes to work through the unique development headaches of the area.
The architect sketched an initial six-storey design that brought the building within three metres of the hydro wires, the city standard.
But at a final site meeting with Hydro Ottawa, Mr. Evans said he was informed the utility was enforcing upcoming changes to the building code. That increased the setback on the Booth Street side by two metres, reducing the overall building volume.
"That made the project economically unviable," Mr. Evans recalled.
In response, the architect kept the larger setback and compensated by adding a seventh storey. "Crushing" the height of each individual floor meant adding only an additional 1.9 metres to the height of the building.
This was achieved by changing designs from concrete and steel to concrete-only, decreasing the depth of the floor space, as well as lowering ceiling heights from 2.75 metres to 2.67 metres.
The design also does not include underground parking, and only a small basement, so little bedrock digging is required.
This spring, Mr. Evans asked Ottawa-based ZW Group to handle the construction. The company already has several other condo projects behind it, including Charlesfort Developments's high-end Hudson Park and Continental developments in the city.
"Every project that you build in downtown Ottawa has its utility challenges," said ZW Group president Terry Walker. "The Booth Street project was really no different, but it was an issue we had to monitor and work on."
Reducing the size of the units because of the setback helped make them more affordable, Mr. Walker added. Units range from 408 to 725 square feet, are priced between $225,000 and $375,000 each, and include elements such as feng shui and bamboo flooring, which are meant to appeal to the surrounding Asian community.
The first floor contains approximately 2,900 square feet of retail space and can accommodate most types of businesses, including restaurants, since it has adequate ventilation and plumbing.
Chinatown represents a fresh area for developers, Mr. Evans added, as the area is full of old buildings. Any new structure immediately stands out in the space and will attract interest from residents.
"There's a lot of other (potential) projects that have come on our table as a result of what we're doing; a lot of (landowners) in Chinatown are watching us carefully," he said.
"The success of our project will dictate a lot of other projects. We've consulted the BIA and the community all along, so we've got tied in to what they want."
Peter So, chair of the Somerset Street Chinatown BIA board, said he hopes residential intensification in Chinatown will lead to a larger commercial base as the growing population attracts new businesses.
His organization has the smallest land area among the BIAs in central Ottawa and thus has fewer businesses to charge a levy to and generate revenues.
More money would allow the BIA to spruce up Somerset Street and the surrounding area, he said.
"As a businessperson, you look at what kind of volume you have ... If we have more local people walking around, it will help us a lot."