Requiem for Dorothea Athans’ Dream

It's not the Athans subdivision. It's Blossom Park on July 19, 1956. Close enough. Image: Ted Grant / City of Ottawa Archives, Item CA039619.
It’s not the Athans subdivision, but it’s close. Blossom Park on July 19, 1956. Image: Ted Grant / City of Ottawa Archives, Item CA039619.

Dorothea Athans was ambitious. Really ambitious. And determined. Characterized as “a visionary” with “a force of will that was incredible”, Athans (and her husband Alex, a chemist) arrived in Ottawa from Greece in 1955. That she was one of the few women in Ottawa get involved in property development would have made hers a good story. Her 1980 plan to develop a movie studio near Hawthorne Road, however, is what makes hers a great story. Unfortunately, her ambitions in the Ottawa area were met with little more than disappointment, frustration, and – in at least two cases – being caught on the wrong side of the region’s green belt policies.

Green Belt Surprise

"National Capital Region - Proposals" (1950). Source: Plan for the National Capital (1950), Plate 8.
“National Capital Region – Proposals” (1950). Source: Plan for the National Capital (1950), Plate 8.

Considered to be a showpiece of Jacques Gréber’s 1950 Plan for the National Capital, the introduction of the Green Belt was, to no small degree, a highly contentious event. Although so-called green belts have never been akin to a forest preserve, they have been employed to create a sense of order: to answer the question: “where does the city stop, where does the country commence?”1Jacques Gréber. “What Is a Green Belt?” June 1952. LAC RG 34 Vol. 294 File 219-C(1). The Gréber Plan, though broadly popular with the City of Ottawa, was much less so with the surrounding townships. This was entirely understandable: reeves and aldermen could hardly be blamed for not taking Gréber’s characterization of their territory as “an uneconomical and social disorder” that “encircles and dishonours the proudest cities, old and new.”2Ibid. Though Gréber was speaking more generally, it referred broadly to surrounding townships. What was responsible for this “menace of human decay”? “Speculation and neglect, selfishness and unwise profiteering.”3Ibid. While the surrounding townships agreed to the Gréber plan in principle,4See LAC RG 34 Vol. 294 File 219-C(1). the implementation of the Green Belt never did sit right. Gloucester was especially rankled.5For a selection of articles relating to Gloucester’s struggles against the Green Belt, see “Claims ‘Green Belt’ Has No Legality In Subdivision,” Ottawa Journal, March 26, 1955, p. 3; “FDC and City Officials ‘Deplore’ Green Belt Ruling,” Ottawa Journal, April 29, 1955, p. 3; “Gloucester Council Seeks Clarification of Green Belt Policy,” Ottawa Journal, August 16, 1955, p. 12; “Gloucester Plans ‘Green Belt’ Talks,” Ottawa Journal, August 23, 1955, p. 1; “Gloucester Council, CMHC Officials Discuss ‘Green Belt’,” Ottawa Journal, September 2, 1955, p. 3; “Township ‘Green Belt’ Blocks Building,” Ottawa Journal, September 22, 1955, p. 21; “Gloucester Wants New Conference On Green Belt,” Ottawa Journal, February 7, 1956, p. 21; “Gloucester Favors ‘Green Belt’ Talks Being Resumed,” Ottawa Journal, February 11, 1956, p. 7; Richard Jackson. “Gloucester Raps Green Belt Policy,” Ottawa Journal, May 31, 1956, p. 1; “Gloucester Council Hears ‘Green Belt’ Complaints,” Ottawa Journal, May 14, 1958, p. 4.

The subdivision in 1965. Image: geoOttawa.
The subdivision in 1965. Image: geoOttawa.
Dorothea Athans in 1980. Image: Ottawa Citizen, October 22, 1980, p. 3.
Dorothea Athans in 1980. Image: Ottawa Citizen, October 22, 1980, p. 3.

For the townships on the other side of the Green Belt, intensive development and subdivision, which were supposed to be  prohibited, were often considered necessary and wanted. If Ottawa could benefit from rapid development, then surely so could Gloucester, Nepean, or March. In 1956, shortly following her arrival in Canada,6Athans was born in Belgrade in 1929 and studied law there. She earned a PhD in Criminology in Greece, where she met her husband Alex. The relocated to Canada in 1955. See Tony Lofaro. “A visionary not of her time or place,” Ottawa Citizen, February 20, 2008, p. C3. Athans purchased 50 acres between Bank Street (then Highway 31) and Conroy Road and had it subdivided into 110 lots.7Ottawa Land Registry Office, Subdivision Plan 653, April 16, 1956. I am uncertain about the price she paid for the lot itself, but did take out a 6% $132,000 mortgage, which was held by Rosa Andrews. Although Athans was able to have her plan of subdivision accepted and registered, there was a problem. As part of an effort to ensure that all of the state tentacles in the housing development industry were working to the same end, the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation was instructed to exclude from its programming any projects that were located within a greenbelt area.8See collection of documents in the Federal District Commission’s file on the CMHC and the Planning and Land Use Committee. LAC RG 34 Vol. 294 File 219-C(1).

Ottawa Land Registry Office, Plan of Subdivision No. 653, April 1956.
Ottawa Land Registry Office, Plan of Subdivision No. 653, April 1956.

As Athans’ subdivision was, unbeknownst to both herself and Gloucester Township, located mostly within what the Federal District Commission defined as the Green Belt, she was excluded from obtaining funding under the Corporation’s housing development programs. Earl Armstrong, then Gloucester Reeve, claimed that the Federal District Commission did not consult the Township over the location of the Green Belt and that Gloucester “had nothing to do with it.”9”Charges Gloucester ‘Inconsistent’ Over ‘Green Belt’,” Ottawa Journal, September 11, 1956, p. 8. In a letter presented to the Township Council, Athans requested that it work to have her property excluded from the Green Belt.10”Green Belt in Gloucester Is Problem,” Ottawa Citizen, September 11, 1956, p. 10.

Dorothea Athans might not have constructed her subdivision, but Ottawans have a popular off-leash park to enjoy. Image: Detail of National Capital Greenbelt Trail Map.
Dorothea Athans might not have constructed her subdivision, but Ottawans have a popular off-leash park to enjoy. Image: Detail of National Capital Greenbelt Trail Map (16MB PDF).

As these things went more often than not, it was the Federal District Commission that carried the day. Dorothea Athans’ subdivision did not materialize in accordance with her vision. With less than half of the subdivided property available to be constructed on, the finances simply did not square. Had that been the end of it and Athans walked away, her loss would have been tolerable. On May 14, 1957, a local judge issued a Final Order of Foreclosure for all lands identified in Plan 653.11Ottawa Land Registry Office, Instrument GL57813, Reel 5-1172. Athans fell behind on her mortgage, which was held by Rosa Andrews. She won a stay of execution on that, securing a court order in June that cancelled the foreclosure so long as she paid the entire $138,439.70 outstanding by August 27.12Ottawa Land Registry Office, Instrument GL57977, Reel 5-1172. The date came and went, and a new FOF was issued on September 25.13Ottawa Land Registry Office, Instrument GT58562, Reel 5-1175. While the non-Green Belt portion of the subdivision was built on,14By Andrews Bros. Construction in the earlier days. the other portion now forms part of the very popular Conroy Pit off-leash dog park.

Dog Bites and Expropriation

Save for Zuo-Zuo and Sheba, Dorothea Athans had kept a low profile. Source: Ottawa Citizen, June 1, 1964, p. 1.
Save for Zuo-Zuo and Sheba, Dorothea Athans had kept a low profile. Source: Ottawa Citizen, June 1, 1964, p. 1.

For twenty years after the Green Belt debacle, Athans kept a relatively low profile. Working as a lawyer, she and her husband Alexander, a chemist,15Alexander had founded his own chemical company in those years, Athans Chemicals. The company grew slowly, but surely through the 1960s and 1970s. At some point in the (late?) 1970s, the company developed a cleaner/degreaser, which was named FX-9 and is still available today. See Montreal Gazette, April 29, 1963, p. 42; Canada. Department of Industry, Trade, and Commerce. New Products Bulletin, No. 294 (July 1980), p. 1. moved from their small home in Sandy Hill to a much larger home at 1659 Kilborn.16”Charges Gloucester ‘Inconsistent’ Over ‘Green Belt’,” Ottawa Journal, September 11, 1956, p. 8; Urban Preliminary List of Electors, 1963, District of Russell, Urban Polling Division No. 208; Urban Preliminary List of Electors, 1965, District of Russell, Urban Polling Division No. 219. The only time the couple made the news in those years was for their pair of energetic English boxers, Zuo-Zuo and Sheba, who liked to play rough with the neighbourhood children.17”Dogs Gain Freedom, But Limited,” Ottawa Journal, June 4, 1964, p. 30. A man who claimed to have been bitten by one of the dogs wanted them put down, though after a week with them, a local veterinarian, Kenneth Switzer concluded that the dogs weren’t harmful and had them returned to the family. It didn’t hurt that the man who claimed to have been bitten could not substantiate.18”Decision goes to dogs,” Ottawa Citizen, June 1, 1964, p. 1.

After having laid low for years, working as a lawyer, Athans found her way back into the papers. Source: Ottawa Journal, June 6, 1978, p. 1.
After having laid low for years, working as a lawyer, Athans found her way back into the papers. Source: Ottawa Journal, June 6, 1978, p. 1.

By 1978, well into her legal career, Athans decided that she’d re-enter the ring and do a few more rounds with civic officials. The first order of business? Getting what she felt was just compensation for land at the front of her home at 1659 Kilborn the city expropriated for sidewalk construction 10 years previous. Rather than make her point through the legal system, she decided to erect a fence over the sidewalk. In discussion with John Wylie of the Journal, the exasperated Athans said “other people get money, why not me?” She planned to keep the fence up until the city was ready to settle with her.19John Wylie. “Woman fed up fencing with city,” Ottawa Journal, June 6, 1978, p. 1. When the police arrived with city crews to remove the fence, she put it back up the following day. Crews returned quickly to remove the fence. While Athans had received a total of $7,744 for the land, she had insisted that the amount was hardly sufficient, as it necessitated the removal of a stone fence that she valued at $15,000.20Sheila Brady. “‘The point is made’; City insists whatever happens the street must be kept clear,” Ottawa Journal, June 7, 1978, p. 3. According to the Citizen’s report, she felt that $28,500 would be just compensation. When the fence tactic failed, she mused that she would donate her property to an unnamed embassy and make it diplomatic land, “forever out of reach of the city.”21Ross Laver. “Sidewalk squabble continues,” Ottawa Citizen, June 7, 1978, p. 2.

The property in 1965. Today it's the site of Rosewood Estates. Image: geoOttawa.
The property in 1965. Today it’s the site of Rosewood Estates. Image: geoOttawa.
Toronto? Vancouver? No! Hollywood North will be in Gloucester!

Hollywood North. It has long been something of a dream. Dorothea Athans was likely not the first to dream of luring a piece of the industry to the region and she is most definitely not the last. I’m also going to put it out there that it wasn’t as laughable an idea as it was treated then or seems now.22The industry hadn’t yet been as established in Toronto, Vancouver, or Monteal as it is today, though to be fair, they did have a head start. Still, boosters in numerous other Canadian cities vied for a piece of the pie. It was on April 14, 1980, the night of the Academy Awards, that Ottawa was formally introduced to Athans’ new vision. The Journal’s Karen Fish reported that day that a “major motion picture studio, executive housing and mini-Disney World are being proposed for Gloucester township.”23Karen Fish, “Movie studio planned near city,” Ottawa Journal, April 15, 1980, p. 1. Athans reputedly had generated some interest from some figures in American film, like Barlow Films, Murray King, and Francis Ford Coppola and through the project’s architect Richard Leslie, stressed that she needed approval rather quickly. Another representative, Vivian Taylor, even presented a telegram from Murray King expressing support for the project.24Ibid., p. 2. In selling the project, Taylor “dazzled councillors with prospects of stars walking the Gloucester streets, of 3,000 new jobs and millions of dollars in municipal tax revenue.” The reasons given for the claimed interest? Tax advantages and relative labour peace.25Taylor was formerly an assistant to Jean Pigott during her time as an MP. See Beatrice Hampson. “Massive movie studio proposed for Gloucester bog,” Ottawa Citizen, April 15, 1980, p. 58. The stars would live in the new luxury subdivision she had planned just south of Blais Road, on which she would construct more than 330 $250,000 homes. The studio would be constructed on land near the Mer Bleue Bog and the “mini Disney World” was to be constructed elsewhere, on land near the Ottawa River.26If the luxury subdivision seemed familiar to council, it was because she had proposed it the previous Fall. Council rejected it then because the township found it too expensive to extend water and sewer services one mile to the south of its furthest extent. In this case, however, with the bigger vision came a larger willingness to spend: Athans’ company was willing to spend the money. See Hampson, p. 58; Fish, p. 2.

After having been wowed, some councillors shook the stars from their eyes and started to look critically at the proposal. Source: Ottawa Journal, April 16, 1980, p. 5.
After having been wowed, some councillors shook the stars from their eyes and started to look critically at the proposal. Source: Ottawa Journal, April 16, 1980, p. 5.

Outside of the self-inflicted difficulties,27While Francis Ford Coppola is undoubtedly real, who was Murray King? I certainly could not locate any large director of that name. If he existed, he did not make it into many newspapers, the Internet Movie Database, or Wikipedia. Her claim that “Montreal” was interested in the development was demonstrated false when the Citizen’s Beatrice Hampson asked Jean Drapeau’s office. there were a number of other mundane concerns. Oddly familiar concerns. Both of Athans’ lots consisted of mineral reserve and agricultural lands, meaning that at the very least, Regional Council had to be involved in the process.28Karen Fish. “Gloucester council cautious about film studio proposal,” Ottawa Journal, April 16, 1980, p. 5. After having laid low for two months, Athans submitted new documentation, including an engineering report for the site and plans for a 40 lot luxury subdivision. Although she was doubtlessly serious, Director of Planning John Reid felt that the subdivision plan asked more questions than it answered, mostly around servicing the lot.29Karen Fish. “Gloucester development plans reduced but still on,” Ottawa Journal, June 23, 1980, p. 4. A month later, on July 14, Gloucester gave the proposal its conditional approval to the project.30Jim Withers. “Gloucester movie studio a step closer,” Ottawa Journal, July 15, 1980, p. 3.

Dorothea Athans' own field of dreams. Image: geoOttawa.
Dorothea Athans’ own field of dreams. Image: geoOttawa.

Gloucester council remained somewhat skeptical, though it’s clear that it very much wanted Athans’ proposal to be entirely as presented. Her hardball tactics were, however, misplaced. Because of the Regional plan, Gloucester was only one piece of the planning puzzle and it was thus powerless to allow the plan to sail through unchallenged. After the disappointing meeting of Gloucester council, she openly mused that she had probably just lost a $14 million contract for an American film, which was to start production in the Spring. They were hoping to begin construction in September. Many of Gloucester’s councillors appeared to be as exasperated as Athans. Eugene Bellemare was quoted in the Journal saying that the township “should be begging for this, rather than looking for 200 rules to block them. This is the project of the decade.” Reeve Betty Stewart was interested, but hesitant. It was precisely because of the size that she felt time was needed.31Ibid.

One example of a movie with a similar budget in 1980 was the much-anticipated Empire Strikes Back. Excited Ottawans line up outside the Somerset Theatre to learn about Luke Skywalker's paternity. Source: Ottawa Citizen.
One example of a movie with a similar budget in 1980 was the much-anticipated Empire Strikes Back. Excited Ottawans line up outside the Somerset Theatre to learn about Luke Skywalker’s paternity. Source: Ottawa Citizen.

Getting specific details from Athans was next to impossible. Calls placed to the family home by the Journal’s Gord Lomer (who knew a thing or two about getting the local buzz) were unsuccessful, normally being answered by her husband Alex, who was “not involved with the project.” Though he doubtlessly knew of details, he had promised not to talk to the press. In 1980, a $14 million movie would have been sufficiently impressive to warrant some reporting, though Athans was unwilling to show her hand there too.32Surely a film with a $14 million budget being filmed in Canada would generate some attention. At least in the trade press. To name a few examples of contemporary films with a similar outlay: The Empire Strikes Back was the top grossing film of 1980 and it had an $18 million budget. 9 to 5, that year’s box office silver medalist cost $10 million. Rounding out the top five, Stir Crazy was produced for $10 million, Airplane! for $3.5 million, and Any Which Way You Can for $15 million.

Thanks to the recent success of Canada's Wonderland, Canadian Association of Motion Picture Producers executive Sam Jeffcott saw merit in the theme park element to Athans' proposal, but was baffled by the movie studio. Image: City of Toronto Archives, Harvey Naylor Fonds (1526), Canada's Wonderland (File 98), Item 1, June 8, 1981.
Thanks to the recent success of Canada’s Wonderland, Canadian Association of Motion Picture Producers executive Sam Jephcott saw merit in the theme park element to Athans’ proposal, but was baffled by the movie studio. Image: City of Toronto Archives, Harvey Naylor Fonds (1526), Canada’s Wonderland (File 98), Item 1, June 8, 1981.

Moreover, though she claimed to be quite serious about the proposal, her actions sent another message. The rezoning application submitted without either supporting documentation of the standard fee. Should that administrative misstep not have been enough, there still weren’t any site plans or servicing plans made available. When asked, about the prospects for a studio, Sam Jephcott, an executive of the Canadian Association of Motion Picture Producers (CAMPP), was beyond skeptical. The Canadian industry at the time was struggling, Ottawa had no support services for the industry (ie. film processing, actors, screenwriters, composers), and Toronto, which had those those things in spades, even had two complete studios up for sale. He was, however, charitable about the theme park idea based on the recent successful delivery of Canada’s Wonderland. Vic Atkinson, long of Crawley Films, was even more skeptical, noting that Crawley had a studio up in Chelsea that stood largely empty for 10 years due to lack of demand. Graeme Fraser, the vice president of Crawley Films chimed in with similar concerns, noting as well that there are only about two or three $14 million films produced in Canada per years, and a film “with that sort of budget would probably involve one or two top Hollywood names. If they had $14 million I would think they would use existing studios rather than one someone is thinking of building.” Athans’ proposal, he felt, had much more to do with the real estate component than it did with the studio.33Gord Lomer. “Vague plans for film studio complex meet with skepticism,” Ottawa Journal, August 2, 1980, p. 4.

Crawley Films' Graeme Fraser was highly skeptical about the scheme and, had Crawley himself been asked, he'd likely feel the same. Source: Ottawa Citizen, May 22, 1974, p. 9.
Crawley Films’ Graeme Fraser was highly skeptical about the scheme and, had Crawley himself been asked, he’d likely feel the same. Source: Ottawa Citizen, May 22, 1974, p. 9.

Official skepticism aside, that Athans had successfully captured Ottawans’ imaginations was clear. The Gloucester Citizens Action Committee, made up of area residents organized to press Gloucester to accept the plan. Jean Smith, a committee member even claimed that she had “heard through the grapevine that Nepean is just waiting for the plan to fail here and then step in and grab it.”34Bruce Dysart. “Gloucester residents push for film studio,” Ottawa Journal, August 5, 1980, p. 44. Whether she intended to or not, the Athans proposal tapped into what would turn out to be a rich vein of boosterism. With more than 40 residents looking on, the following day, Gloucester council officially amended its official plan to make it easier to let the project proceed. An elated Athans claimed that she was free to sign the $12 million contract for the filming of indie director Paul Winston’s Dollar Covenant,35It does appear that Dollar Covenant was intended to be a real movie which was to star Al Pacino and Richard Dreyfus. Suffice to say, the film never did happen and Paul Winston Productions folded entirely in 1991. See “Filmmaker Takes on Multinationals,” Multinational Monitor, Vol. 1, No. 4 (May 1980); Jack Webster. “Double life of man at the palace,” Glasgow Herald, March 24, 1987, p. 10; “From the realm of royalty to rough and tumble of big business,” Glasgow Herald, November 6, 1989. which was scheduled to complete filming in the would-be Gloucester studio the following year.36Jim Withers. “Gloucester movie studio step closer,” Ottawa Journal, August 6, 1980, p. 3.

Absolutely unkind, but not entirely unearned. Source: Ottawa Citizen, October 1, 1980, p. 6.
Absolutely unkind, but not entirely unearned. Source: Ottawa Citizen, October 1, 1980, p. 6.

Suffice to say, the editorial board at the Citizen was positioned firmly on the side of the skeptics. In a scathing editorial run on October 1, the paper argued that Athans was “simply playing on their [Gloucester’s] vision of the stars to win instant approval of yet another housing development” and that the plan should rightly quashed by regional council.37”Gloucester: a rank production,” Ottawa Citizen, October 1, 1980, p. 6. As Athans’ plans faced increasing opposition, her tactics became increasingly vigorous. After Gloucester council gave into her demands after threats to cancel the studio, she refused to sign a development agreement, which gave her space to cancel the studio anyway while keeping the right to the subdivision (which both the Citizen’s editorial board and Crawley’s Fraser suspected). She further claimed that she had to give Winston an answer by Tuesday, claimed that without approval, the movie itself would be cancelled, and waved plane tickets around while issuing the ultimatum. To raise suspicions further, the Citizen contacted Paul Winston himself, who claimed to have no plans to sign a contract with her on Tuesday. Other US-based producers contacted had not ever heard of Paul Winston, and he was not willing to name any other films that he had made. The stakes had been raised for Gloucester, for in its haste to approve Athans’ project, it accepted servicing commitments the size of the township’s entire public works budget for a year. The project was scheduled to be debated at Regional council on October 21.38Jane Taber and Beatrice Hampson. “Developer could cancel movie studio,” Ottawa Citizen, October 1, 1980, p. 3.

Athans pulls out the big guns: a scale model. Source: Ottawa Citizen, October 22, 1980, p. 3.
Athans pulls out the big guns: a scale model. Source: Ottawa Citizen, October 22, 1980, p. 3.

It was sheer force of will. It took Athans and her solicitor Stephen Guest less than 30 minutes to win the support of Regional council. The tactics didn’t even change: the usual threats that the project would be cancelled entirely combined with promises of film producer interest. This time, to up the stakes, she claimed that “New York film producers were flying into town next week to survey the 50-acre site.” In the meantime, the subdivision went back up in size, back up to 294 units. Regional planning committee Chair Marianne Wilkinson concluded after the presentation that “if Gloucester feels it is beneficial then the region has no objection.” When asked, Paul Winston did verify that he would be visiting Ottawa along with his art director the following Monday.39Beatrice Hampson. “Hints about losing movie studio cuts through regional red tape,” Ottawa Citizen, October 22, 1980, p. 3. On October 29, Gloucester council approved the amended plan for Leitrim, making way for both Athans’ studios and subdivision.40”Village plan approved,” Ottawa Citizen, October 30, 1980, p. 4. In spite of all the negativity cast at the project, Athans retained the support of Gloucester council, of Regional council, and of what felt like a majority of nearby residents.41Ibid; Thomas W. Keenan. “Gloucester movie studio brings back memory,” (Letter to the Editor) Ottawa Citizen, October 30, 1980, p. 6. Contrary to the normal image of Ottawa, Athans awakened a sort of ambition and spirit to dream big. On October 31, the Citizen reported that Athans had indeed signed a pact with Paul Winston, though it was contingent on being approved by Regional council by December 1.42”Film pact signed,” Ottawa Citizen, October 31, 1980, p. 4.

The Citizen's cartoonist had a great time with the affair. Source: Ottawa Citizen, November 20, 1980, p. 6.
The Citizen’s cartoonist had a great time with the affair. A hat-tip to a Gloucesterland logo reminiscent of Fabricland’s. Source: Ottawa Citizen, November 20, 1980, p. 6.

On November 18, the Regional planning committee gave the 1,200 acre project, warts and all, its blessing. This left it up to the full Regional council, which was due to assess the plan on the 26th. Although a number of the Region’s planning committee members retained their reservations, they did not feel that rejecting what could potentially be a large generator of revenue and jobs would be wise.43Beatrice Hampson. “Movie star community approved,” Ottawa Citizen, November 19, 1980, p. 1. Once again, the Citizen’s editorial board made sure to register its deep disappointment in the way Gloucester council handled the file.44Mostly ignoring development rules, official plans, and their critical thinking faculties. See “Another rule broken,” Ottawa Citizen, November 20, 1980, p. 6. Nevertheless, things were looking good or Athans’ project: a Citizen survey of Regional councillors indicated that 27 of 31 would likely support the development.45Dave Rogers and Paula McLaughlin. “Movie studio ball now in developer’s court,” Ottawa Citizen, November 25, 1980, p. 3. The editorial board at the Citizen found this alarming and implored the Region to reject the proposal and “save Gloucester township from further embarrassment.”46”Saving Gloucester from itself,” Ottawa Citizen, November 25, 1980, p. 6.

And it's curtains. Source: Ottawa Citizen, November 27, 1980, p. 1.
And it’s curtains. Source: Ottawa Citizen, November 27, 1980, p. 1.

The November 26 Regional council meeting at first appeared to vindicate Dorothea Athans, her ambition, and work to pull the project together, That is, until it didn’t. After council voted in favour of the project 15-13, it abruptly reconsidered and elected to delay the decision until December 10, 10 days after Athans’ deadline. Furious, she left the meeting stating that the “project is dead” and she didn’t “want to build the project because they don’t deserve it.” Gloucester reeve Betty Stewart, who would later become one of Athans’ most valuable supporters, was visibly upset at the outcome, and blamed the project’s critics – the Citizen chief among them – for killing the venture.47Dave Rogers. “Curtain falls on Gloucester movie studio,” Ottawa Citizen, November 27, 1980, p. 1.

Ottawa Citizen, November 28, 1980, p. 6.
Ottawa Citizen, November 28, 1980, p. 6.

Rusins Kaufmanis, the Citizen’s full-time cartoonist did not believe this marked the departure of Dorothea Athans, and it was doubtful that many others did either. When asked, Paul Winston claimed that the December 1 deadline was more about Athans’ funding arrangements (her unidentified European backers were reputedly losing patience with the frequent delays) than it was about his schedule. Indeed, he claimed that his immediate plans in Gloucester did not even need a studio, but he would be happy to make use of one at a later date should it be constructed.48Wendy Jackson and Dave Rogers. “Hope still flickers for movie studio,” Ottawa Citizen, November 28, 1980, p. 1. Regional council gave the project its blessing on December 10, and, barring any opposition to the project during the comment period or appeals to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), the project seemed likely to go ahead. Athans used that opportunity to play a little more hardball, saying that she had “some firm and attractive offers to build her project in West Quebec,” and that she had contracts in hand for eight movies.49Donna Balkan. “Studio approval appears certain,” Ottawa Citizen, December 22, 1980, p. 4.

Pierre Trudeau, dining with Ronald Reagan. Image: Office of the Prime Minister Collection / LAC Accession 1984-133 NPC, Box TCS-00546.
Pierre Trudeau, dining with Ronald Reagan. Image: Office of the Prime Minister Collection / LAC Accession 1984-133 NPC, Box TCS-00546.

The Ontario Municipal Board received its objection during the Christmas season. One. Filed by Yves Bellefeuille, described as an 18 year old University of Ottawa student. Sent as a telegram, Bellefeuille argued that he was strongly opposed to the project on the basis that it was in contravention to the region’s official plan. An exhausted Athans recruited her husband to do press duty and he reiterated the familiar threats about losing the project entirely.50Donna Balkan. “Lone objector could torpedo Gloucester movie studio,” Ottawa Citizen, December 31, 1980, p. 3. In the meantime, everyone had to wait until the OMB hearing was scheduled.

In spite of the major weaknesses in the plan, the peculiar approach to planning procedure, and controversy, Leitrim residents were by-and-large excited about the project and wished to see it through. Source: Ottawa Citizen, January 14, 1981, p. 19.
In spite of the major weaknesses in the plan, the peculiar approach to planning procedure, and controversy, Leitrim residents were by-and-large excited about the project and wished to see it through. Source: Ottawa Citizen, January 14, 1981, p. 19.

Although several more objections to the plan were filed after Bellefeuille’s, those who lived closest to the proposed development seemed to be excited about it. Some of the more cautious community members were less concerned with the drama that had occurred to that point and more with its potential to change the rural village atmosphere of Leitrim. Some local farmers, however, wished her success so that she may then be interested in buying up their properties in the future. Still others supported her as a show of their own distaste for having multiple layers of government. One person even remarked that the studio plan had already brought improvements to the area, citing a street light erected at the corner of Leitrim and Hawthorne roads.51Wendy Jackson and Rima Berns. “Studio’s neighbors starry eyed,” Ottawa Citizen, January 14, 1981, p. 19. As the OMB hearing was scheduled for March 9th, excited Ottawans were given several more weeks to dream about bumping into Robert Redford at the James Poulimenakos’ restaurant at the BP Station.52Beatrice Hampson. “Movie studio objections get airing at board,” Ottawa Citizen, January 29, 1981, p. 17.

The hearing at the OMB did not go well for Athans. In front of the fearsome provincial appeal board, all of the project’s weaknesses, the misdirections, and Gloucester’s liberal handling of planning procedure all contributed to a rough ride. The Citizen, for its own part, took the occasion to humorously associate the ongoing saga with the March 1981 visit of US President Ronald Reagan. The former actor turned president would, perhaps, save Athans’ dream from sinking into the Mer Bleue.53”Horse opera,” Ottawa Citizen, March 18, 1981, p. 6. It does not seem that her experience in front of the OMB was the critical blow, however. It was that she either refused – or was unable – to pay for the extension of the sewer system to the site herself. Exhausted, defeated, and likely bitter, Athans took her leave.

Some dreams die hard. Source: Ottawa Citizen, June 15, 1982, p. 2.
Some dreams die hard. Source: Ottawa Citizen, June 15, 1982, p. 2.

Contrary to her frequent threats to relocate the project elsewhere if she was unsuccessful, it was Gloucester that had her heart. On June 15, 1982, the Citizen’s Kelly Egan reported that “after months behind the scenes,” she had “resurrected her ‘Hollywood North’ plans for a movie studio in Gloucester.” Much of the plan did not change, only the tactics. She had appeared before Gloucester council, this time to apply for a road opening off Blais road. The opening would allow her to sever a portion of the property and subdivide it into about 50 lots, the sale of which she hoped to generate about $4 million to finance the sewer extension. As was the case in 1980, she claimed to have fourteen movies lined up and even that many of the 50 not-yet-subdivided lots had been sold.54Kelly Egan. “Dorothea Athans plans revival of ‘Hollywood North’ project,” Ottawa Citizen, June 15, 1982, p. 2.

It's a little difficult to make out, but the dirt roads Athans had roughed out for her 1982 plans remained visible in 1991. Image: geoOttawa.
It’s a little difficult to make out, but the dirt roads Athans had roughed out for her 1982 plans remained visible in 1991. Image: geoOttawa.

Perhaps wiser, Gloucester council granted her the road opening, but only on the condition that she sign a subdivision agreement with the city. There was one detail: by August, it didn’t appear that one existed or was pending. She began laying the dirt roads to begin the process, but there was one problem: she wanted 50 lots and the city refused to grant her a subdivision containing that many lots. Without a subdivision, she was unable to actually sell the lots and raise capital. Once again, it was the region’s official plan that stood in the way: it did not allow for lots less than 2 acres in the area.55Kelly Egan. “Athans blazes trail to the stars,” Ottawa Citizen, August 6, 1982, p. 18. This was not a new requirement and dated back to the implementation of the Green Belt that had frustrated her efforts nearly 30 years previously. Early in 1983, Athans reached an agreement with Gloucester council to construct the sanitary sewers while Gloucester would have to operate them, as the Region’s policies dictated.56”Studio sewer pact reached,” Ottawa Citizen, January 11, 1983, p. 17.

The site in 2014. Dorothea Athans dared to dream. Image: geoOttawa.
The site in 2014. Dorothea Athans dared to dream. Image: geoOttawa.

It may have been the hard work Athans and her company put into the new plans, or it may have been bearing witness to near-Herculean determination. Whatever it was former Gloucester Reeve Betty Stewart joined Athans’ company as a director in 1983 after her electoral defeat to Fred Barrett. Acknowledging her previous skepticism, Stewart became a believer in the scheme, noting that the “money for the project will come from a European financier knowledgeable about the movie business.”57Dave Rogers. “One-time mayor joins would-be movie mogul and loses her skepticism,” Ottawa Citizen, January 14, 1983, p. 20. By 1984, an agreement with the city had been signed, forcing Athans to construct the studio before the subdivision could go ahead. This, of course, presented some difficulty and Athans had to admit that she did not yet actually own the land for the studio, she just had the option.58”1984 start pledged for film studio,” Ottawa Citizen, May 29, 1984, p. 19.

When the studio failed to materialize for what must have felt like the hundredth time, Athans and her husband Alex decided to lay low. It was only when the couple filed for bankruptcy in 1995 that they made the news again. Between the debts owed for chasing the dream of the movie studios at Gloucester and Alexander’s own struggling chemical company, time and money had run out. Everything, including the family home at 1659 Kilborn, was lost.59Tony Lofaro. “Gloucester developer declared bankrupt; Grandiose plan for movie studio withered a decade ago,” Ottawa Citizen, February 28, 1995, p. B1. Put up as collateral, the family home was picked up in 1996 by Tamarack Homes, torn down, and replaced with an infill townhouse development. Interestingly, the 6,000sqf heritage home was dismantled, rather than demolished. See Angela Mangiacasale. “Deconstruction,” Ottawa Citizen, August 3, 1996, p. I1; Irene Brownstein. “Reusing Demolished House Creates Jobs and Revenue,” Peace and Environment News (February 1997); Colleen McKeracher. Designing For Destruction: Anticipating Architectural Dismantling Through the Act of Making M.Arch. Thesis (Carleton University, 2014). After the bankruptcy, both Dorothea and her husband Alex withdrew from the public eye.

Athans passed away on February 13, 2008 at 79 years and the Citizen did not let her pass without comment. A fitting tribute was written by the paper’s Tony Lofaro:

Dorothea Athans swept through Ottawa in the early 1980s, bringing a touch of glamour, sophistication and a Holly Golightly optimism to council meetings with her ambitious plan to build a combined movie- studio complex and housing project on land she owned in south Gloucester.

The flamboyant Yugoslav-born businesswoman made the first pitch for the studio project to regional councillors, appropriately enough, on Academy Awards night in 1980. It was quickly labelled Hollywood North and came with promises of an economic boom and glitz to a staid government town that back then was on the hunt for new industry.

In the ensuing years of council meetings, zoning regulations and more questions about her financial situation, the project went through more twists and turns than a Hitchcock thriller. In the end, the project didn’t get approval and Ms. Athans dropped her plans to build the $3.5-million movie studio and a 294-home subdivision on 126 acres of land on Hawthorne and Blais roads.

In death, and in time, the Citizen’s acid pen was exchanged for the standard variety. When asked, Marianne Wilkinson remembered her as a visionary who was ahead of her time. She respected her vision, though acknowledged that as seductive as the ideas were, connecting the dots was difficult. Wilkinson remained sufficiently impressed with the vision that she had discussed the possibility of the project being constructed in a rural part of Kanata.

“She was a woman who wanted to be a society woman. It was important for her to have perfume, makeup, to dress properly and have presence. I was in her house once or twice, and it was an elaborately-furnished place. In some respects, she was in a location that was not suitable for what she wanted to be,” said Ms. Wilkinson.

With that understanding of Athans’ personality, it becomes clear that although she was the local saleswoman of the Hollywood dream, she was just as susceptible to it as anyone else in town was. Jean Pigott, who was a Progressive-Conservative MP between 1976 and 1979, said that Athans had at first approached her to solicit for federal aid to construct a studio. While there was no available money, it was Pigott’s assistant who first helped Athans to marshall the project through the labyrinthine state of planning in the early 1980s.60Tony Lofaro. “A visionary not of her time or place; Ottawa wasn’t ready in the early 1980s for a combined movie-studio complex and housing project or for the woman who envisioned it,” Ottawa Citizen, February 20, 2008, p. C3.

Although it remains quite clear that Dorothea Athans’ vision for a movie studio in Ottawa suffered from poor planning, both urban and business, it still appears to me that it was the city that wasn’t ready for someone like her and her vision.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Jacques Gréber. “What Is a Green Belt?” June 1952. LAC RG 34 Vol. 294 File 219-C(1).
2. Ibid. Though Gréber was speaking more generally, it referred broadly to surrounding townships.
3. Ibid.
4. See LAC RG 34 Vol. 294 File 219-C(1).
5. For a selection of articles relating to Gloucester’s struggles against the Green Belt, see “Claims ‘Green Belt’ Has No Legality In Subdivision,” Ottawa Journal, March 26, 1955, p. 3; “FDC and City Officials ‘Deplore’ Green Belt Ruling,” Ottawa Journal, April 29, 1955, p. 3; “Gloucester Council Seeks Clarification of Green Belt Policy,” Ottawa Journal, August 16, 1955, p. 12; “Gloucester Plans ‘Green Belt’ Talks,” Ottawa Journal, August 23, 1955, p. 1; “Gloucester Council, CMHC Officials Discuss ‘Green Belt’,” Ottawa Journal, September 2, 1955, p. 3; “Township ‘Green Belt’ Blocks Building,” Ottawa Journal, September 22, 1955, p. 21; “Gloucester Wants New Conference On Green Belt,” Ottawa Journal, February 7, 1956, p. 21; “Gloucester Favors ‘Green Belt’ Talks Being Resumed,” Ottawa Journal, February 11, 1956, p. 7; Richard Jackson. “Gloucester Raps Green Belt Policy,” Ottawa Journal, May 31, 1956, p. 1; “Gloucester Council Hears ‘Green Belt’ Complaints,” Ottawa Journal, May 14, 1958, p. 4.
6. Athans was born in Belgrade in 1929 and studied law there. She earned a PhD in Criminology in Greece, where she met her husband Alex. The relocated to Canada in 1955. See Tony Lofaro. “A visionary not of her time or place,” Ottawa Citizen, February 20, 2008, p. C3.
7. Ottawa Land Registry Office, Subdivision Plan 653, April 16, 1956.
8. See collection of documents in the Federal District Commission’s file on the CMHC and the Planning and Land Use Committee. LAC RG 34 Vol. 294 File 219-C(1).
9. ”Charges Gloucester ‘Inconsistent’ Over ‘Green Belt’,” Ottawa Journal, September 11, 1956, p. 8.
10. ”Green Belt in Gloucester Is Problem,” Ottawa Citizen, September 11, 1956, p. 10.
11. Ottawa Land Registry Office, Instrument GL57813, Reel 5-1172.
12. Ottawa Land Registry Office, Instrument GL57977, Reel 5-1172.
13. Ottawa Land Registry Office, Instrument GT58562, Reel 5-1175.
14. By Andrews Bros. Construction in the earlier days.
15. Alexander had founded his own chemical company in those years, Athans Chemicals. The company grew slowly, but surely through the 1960s and 1970s. At some point in the (late?) 1970s, the company developed a cleaner/degreaser, which was named FX-9 and is still available today. See Montreal Gazette, April 29, 1963, p. 42; Canada. Department of Industry, Trade, and Commerce. New Products Bulletin, No. 294 (July 1980), p. 1.
16. ”Charges Gloucester ‘Inconsistent’ Over ‘Green Belt’,” Ottawa Journal, September 11, 1956, p. 8; Urban Preliminary List of Electors, 1963, District of Russell, Urban Polling Division No. 208; Urban Preliminary List of Electors, 1965, District of Russell, Urban Polling Division No. 219.
17. ”Dogs Gain Freedom, But Limited,” Ottawa Journal, June 4, 1964, p. 30.
18. ”Decision goes to dogs,” Ottawa Citizen, June 1, 1964, p. 1.
19. John Wylie. “Woman fed up fencing with city,” Ottawa Journal, June 6, 1978, p. 1.
20. Sheila Brady. “‘The point is made’; City insists whatever happens the street must be kept clear,” Ottawa Journal, June 7, 1978, p. 3.
21. Ross Laver. “Sidewalk squabble continues,” Ottawa Citizen, June 7, 1978, p. 2.
22. The industry hadn’t yet been as established in Toronto, Vancouver, or Monteal as it is today, though to be fair, they did have a head start. Still, boosters in numerous other Canadian cities vied for a piece of the pie.
23. Karen Fish, “Movie studio planned near city,” Ottawa Journal, April 15, 1980, p. 1.
24. Ibid., p. 2.
25. Taylor was formerly an assistant to Jean Pigott during her time as an MP. See Beatrice Hampson. “Massive movie studio proposed for Gloucester bog,” Ottawa Citizen, April 15, 1980, p. 58.
26. If the luxury subdivision seemed familiar to council, it was because she had proposed it the previous Fall. Council rejected it then because the township found it too expensive to extend water and sewer services one mile to the south of its furthest extent. In this case, however, with the bigger vision came a larger willingness to spend: Athans’ company was willing to spend the money. See Hampson, p. 58; Fish, p. 2.
27. While Francis Ford Coppola is undoubtedly real, who was Murray King? I certainly could not locate any large director of that name. If he existed, he did not make it into many newspapers, the Internet Movie Database, or Wikipedia. Her claim that “Montreal” was interested in the development was demonstrated false when the Citizen’s Beatrice Hampson asked Jean Drapeau’s office.
28. Karen Fish. “Gloucester council cautious about film studio proposal,” Ottawa Journal, April 16, 1980, p. 5.
29. Karen Fish. “Gloucester development plans reduced but still on,” Ottawa Journal, June 23, 1980, p. 4.
30. Jim Withers. “Gloucester movie studio a step closer,” Ottawa Journal, July 15, 1980, p. 3.
31. Ibid.
32. Surely a film with a $14 million budget being filmed in Canada would generate some attention. At least in the trade press. To name a few examples of contemporary films with a similar outlay: The Empire Strikes Back was the top grossing film of 1980 and it had an $18 million budget. 9 to 5, that year’s box office silver medalist cost $10 million. Rounding out the top five, Stir Crazy was produced for $10 million, Airplane! for $3.5 million, and Any Which Way You Can for $15 million.
33. Gord Lomer. “Vague plans for film studio complex meet with skepticism,” Ottawa Journal, August 2, 1980, p. 4.
34. Bruce Dysart. “Gloucester residents push for film studio,” Ottawa Journal, August 5, 1980, p. 44.
35. It does appear that Dollar Covenant was intended to be a real movie which was to star Al Pacino and Richard Dreyfus. Suffice to say, the film never did happen and Paul Winston Productions folded entirely in 1991. See “Filmmaker Takes on Multinationals,” Multinational Monitor, Vol. 1, No. 4 (May 1980); Jack Webster. “Double life of man at the palace,” Glasgow Herald, March 24, 1987, p. 10; “From the realm of royalty to rough and tumble of big business,” Glasgow Herald, November 6, 1989.
36. Jim Withers. “Gloucester movie studio step closer,” Ottawa Journal, August 6, 1980, p. 3.
37. ”Gloucester: a rank production,” Ottawa Citizen, October 1, 1980, p. 6.
38. Jane Taber and Beatrice Hampson. “Developer could cancel movie studio,” Ottawa Citizen, October 1, 1980, p. 3.
39. Beatrice Hampson. “Hints about losing movie studio cuts through regional red tape,” Ottawa Citizen, October 22, 1980, p. 3.
40. ”Village plan approved,” Ottawa Citizen, October 30, 1980, p. 4.
41. Ibid; Thomas W. Keenan. “Gloucester movie studio brings back memory,” (Letter to the Editor) Ottawa Citizen, October 30, 1980, p. 6.
42. ”Film pact signed,” Ottawa Citizen, October 31, 1980, p. 4.
43. Beatrice Hampson. “Movie star community approved,” Ottawa Citizen, November 19, 1980, p. 1.
44. Mostly ignoring development rules, official plans, and their critical thinking faculties. See “Another rule broken,” Ottawa Citizen, November 20, 1980, p. 6.
45. Dave Rogers and Paula McLaughlin. “Movie studio ball now in developer’s court,” Ottawa Citizen, November 25, 1980, p. 3.
46. ”Saving Gloucester from itself,” Ottawa Citizen, November 25, 1980, p. 6.
47. Dave Rogers. “Curtain falls on Gloucester movie studio,” Ottawa Citizen, November 27, 1980, p. 1.
48. Wendy Jackson and Dave Rogers. “Hope still flickers for movie studio,” Ottawa Citizen, November 28, 1980, p. 1.
49. Donna Balkan. “Studio approval appears certain,” Ottawa Citizen, December 22, 1980, p. 4.
50. Donna Balkan. “Lone objector could torpedo Gloucester movie studio,” Ottawa Citizen, December 31, 1980, p. 3.
51. Wendy Jackson and Rima Berns. “Studio’s neighbors starry eyed,” Ottawa Citizen, January 14, 1981, p. 19.
52. Beatrice Hampson. “Movie studio objections get airing at board,” Ottawa Citizen, January 29, 1981, p. 17.
53. ”Horse opera,” Ottawa Citizen, March 18, 1981, p. 6.
54. Kelly Egan. “Dorothea Athans plans revival of ‘Hollywood North’ project,” Ottawa Citizen, June 15, 1982, p. 2.
55. Kelly Egan. “Athans blazes trail to the stars,” Ottawa Citizen, August 6, 1982, p. 18. This was not a new requirement and dated back to the implementation of the Green Belt that had frustrated her efforts nearly 30 years previously.
56. ”Studio sewer pact reached,” Ottawa Citizen, January 11, 1983, p. 17.
57. Dave Rogers. “One-time mayor joins would-be movie mogul and loses her skepticism,” Ottawa Citizen, January 14, 1983, p. 20.
58. ”1984 start pledged for film studio,” Ottawa Citizen, May 29, 1984, p. 19.
59. Tony Lofaro. “Gloucester developer declared bankrupt; Grandiose plan for movie studio withered a decade ago,” Ottawa Citizen, February 28, 1995, p. B1. Put up as collateral, the family home was picked up in 1996 by Tamarack Homes, torn down, and replaced with an infill townhouse development. Interestingly, the 6,000sqf heritage home was dismantled, rather than demolished. See Angela Mangiacasale. “Deconstruction,” Ottawa Citizen, August 3, 1996, p. I1; Irene Brownstein. “Reusing Demolished House Creates Jobs and Revenue,” Peace and Environment News (February 1997); Colleen McKeracher. Designing For Destruction: Anticipating Architectural Dismantling Through the Act of Making M.Arch. Thesis (Carleton University, 2014).
60. Tony Lofaro. “A visionary not of her time or place; Ottawa wasn’t ready in the early 1980s for a combined movie-studio complex and housing project or for the woman who envisioned it,” Ottawa Citizen, February 20, 2008, p. C3.

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