Remaking Somerset Street’s skyline

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Chinatown landowner expects condo project to spur additional developments

By Mark Brownlee.

There’s an old saying that “a single spark can start a prairie fire.” It has its roots in China but could just as easily apply to a stretch of central Ottawa most closely associated with that Asian country’s diaspora.

That’s what one businessman who operates along the street believes. Ken Yip has partnered with local builder Phoenix Homes on a property he owns at 770 Somerset St.

He believes the nine-storey building, which will feature a grocery store and restaurant on the ground floor to go along with 75 residential units, will go a long way to kick-starting interest in developing the street.

“Nobody is taking the lead to promote and develop Chinatown,” said Mr. Yip, adding, “The project that I have going should be the first project that will lead to further development in Chinatown.”

The surrounding areas have been popular with builders the past few years. Little Italy to the west will soon be home to the city’s tallest building, while residents and developers in Centretown recently drafted a hotly contested plan for future buildings in that neighbourhood.

The area in between has been, by comparison, neglected. The individual parcels of land aren’t usually big enough to be developed on their own and many of the street’s buildings are already being used as restaurants.

There have been some recent attempts to build the neighbourhood up. In 2011, boutique builder Chi Developments proposed a seven-storey, 54-unit building for a vacant lot at the corner of Booth and Somerset streets.

Construction was supposed to begin last year, but ground has yet to be broken and the project’s website has been taken down. While the developer could not be reached for comment, several individuals close to the project said it was shelved because it proved to be economically unviable.

Nevertheless, those doing business in Chinatown say there has been renewed interest in the area.

Grace Xue Xin, the executive director of the Somerset Street Chinatown BIA, said many associations and festivals are contacting the BIA looking for office space in the area.

The addition more than two years ago of the Chinatown Gateway arch just west of Bronson Avenue has further stoked interest in the neighbourhood, she said.

“I think two or three more developments like this are probably what is going to be required for a broader group of people to see the potential there,” said Mike Boucher, a planning manager with Phoenix, referring to the project on which his firm is working.

The city is just beginning the process to develop a vacant parking lot it owns close to the arch, according to Diane Holmes, the councillor for the area.

She said she’d like to see the property operate similarly to the Beaver Barracks, a recently completed project offering affordable housing in Centretown, with retail space at street level.

The city is already in the midst of completing a parking study, which Ms. Holmes said is the first step for redeveloping the site. It will then take a few more years of planning before any developments can be built there.

More new construction could be on the way as well, depending on the success of the 770 Somerset project: Mr. Yip said he wants to look at expanding a two-storey retail property he owns at 725 Somerset St. if everything goes well.


Grace Xue Xin, executive director of the Somerset Street Chinatown business improvement area, said a lack of parking is one of the most significant factors hindering the area’s growth.

The area’s councillor, Diane Holmes, said studies show there isn’t much parking available at peak meal times – lunchtime on weekends and dinnertime on Friday and Saturday nights. The rest of the time there is usually plenty, she said.

The study isn’t done yet but she said it will help staff decide if they need to expand the capacity of city parking lots in the area.

The BIA is trying to solve this issue by getting people to come at off-peak hours. That’s why it helped organize Chinatown Remixed, a nighttime arts showcase held in May.

Local landlord Ken Yip is particularly optimistic about the three levels of underground parking he is planning for a proposed building at 770 Somerset St. There isn’t nearly enough space for people to leave their cars in the area, he said, so the 85 new spots should make it easier for the street’s visitors.