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Murton A. Seymour and the Ottawa Land Inquiry (1953)

Murton A. Seymour was appointed Special Commissioner
for the Ottawa Land Inquiry. Image: Canadian Aviation
Hall of Fame.

During the Summer of 1953, after some back-and-forth with the Province of Ontario, the backup requested by Ottawa Mayor Charlotte Whitton arrived. On April 23, decorated aviation pioneer and lawyer Murton Adams Seymour was appointed as Commissioner for what became known as the Ottawa Land Inquiry.

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Charlotte Whitton Calls for Backup (1952)

Charlotte Whitton sought new rights from the province to manage postwar growth in Ottawa. Image: Ted Grant / Library and Archives Canada. Accession 1981-181 NPC, Item 61-1180, fr. 25-30.

It wasn’t quite clear in 1952 how City of Ottawa could manage the rapid growth that took place after the Second World War, or if it even had the power to do so. A number of housing projects, in particular those at Manor Park and Mann Avenue (Strathcona Heights), had presented significant political and functional challenges to the city and exposed the shortcomings of an civic administration unaccustomed to managing large-scale development projects.

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Apartment

Ottawa’s Apartments, 1955

J.R. Beach's 1950 apartment at 196 Metcalfe. Image: June 2016.
J.R. Beach’s 1950 Beach Apartments (now Algonquin Annex) at 196 Metcalfe. Image: June 2016.

Back in March, I transcribed the list of apartment buildings from the 1945 Might’s Directory of the City of Ottawa and ran some minor analysis of the proportion of apartment buildings in each of Ottawa’s neighbourhoods. I decided to jump ahead to 1955, as a massive transition in the Canadian housing market was well underway.

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Politics

The Road to Good Intermunicipal Relations

Source: Ottawa Citizen, May 1, 1953
Source: Ottawa Citizen, May 1, 1953

The relationship between the Village of Rockcliffe Park and the City of Ottawa has often been a strained one. I recently explored the brou-ha-ha surrounding the renaming of Butternut Terrace to Acacia Avenue and the reaction of Charlotte Whitton to it. Though her outrage was largely symbolic, perhaps a symptom of an individual whose response knob to anything she disliked was always set to 11, the political and administrative rivalry between the two municipal bodies was quite real.

It would not be unfair to point out that the (now former) boundary between Ottawa and Rockcliffe is not a natural one. To be certain, while the legacy of wildly different zoning regulations has rendered the difference between the two readily apparent, there exists no real natural boundary such as a river, valley, or unnatural one, like the Green Belt. The boundary existed running down the centre of a number of streets.

Within the village, Rockcliffe was often characterized as something of a reluctant bride when threatened with amalgamation with the much larger City of Ottawa. [1] A conception that was not entirely without merit – given the dramatic size difference. Of course, the picture painted by those boosting for Ottawa painted the village as a snooty, wealthy enclave on the same level of Westmount or Rosedale. This conception was also not without merit – given the relative financial health of the Villlage, value of real estate therein, and the powerful, wealthy, and influential individuals who called it home.

Following Ottawa’s annexation of significant portions of Nepean and Gloucester Townships (notably including Manor Park and Westboro), it appears that the level of anxiety and conflict increased. Once again, it would be the roads – and the differing visions and needs on either side of the boundary – that would be the location of the kerfuffle.

On May 1, 1953, the Citizen reported on Rockcliffe’s annual ratepayers’ meeting, at which then Clerk of the Privy Council, J.W. Pickersgill recommended that the “village should accept the city’s ‘most reasonable offer’ to rebuild Hemlock Road.” [2] Ottawa’s vision for it would be to lay a modern road with a concrete base topped with asphalt, the costs to be shared 50-50 with the Village. This would also match the similar improvements that were made to Hemlock between Birch and St. Laurent the previous year. [3] For their own part, Rockcliffe Council rejected what they saw as an extravagant project because it was expensive and, after all, Ottawa required such luxurious roadways for its own Ottawa Transportation Commission buses. Since Rockcliffe neither had nor wanted public transportation, a simpler and cheaper roadway is all that was required.

Future Mandarin or not, Pickersgill's argument fell on deaf ears.
Clerk of the Privy Council or not, Pickersgill’s argument initially fell on deaf ears.

Pickersgill pointed out that Rockcliffe’s reluctance to cooperate not only opened them up to retaliation by Ottawa (“Rockcliffe could be made to contribute to the proposed new Sussex Street bridges which were used regularly by Rockcliffe residents”), but that the Province would also cover half of their share. Village council was nevertheless unimpressed by the argument and suggested that since the village paid the full cost of Princess and Lisgar Roads (neither of which fell in the village), that it should not be their responsibility.

Nevertheless, it appears that the two municipalities were able to set aside their differences of opinion over the nature of the work to be done on Hemlock. [4] At least, with some help from the Carleton County Council.

     The Board reports that after considerable negotiation with the Village of Rockcliffe Park it has received a letter from the Clerk advising that the Council of Rockcliffe has agreed to bear 50% of the cost of the heavy type pavements on boundary roads known as Birch Ave. and Hemlock Road and that a bylaw has been passed by the Village for submission to the Minister of Highways and the Ontario Municipal Board for approval. In addition Rockcliffe is making application to the Municipal Board for approval of this expenditure under Section 661 of the Ontario Municipal Board Act. Whether the amount sought will be affected by the reduction in the Provincial Road Subsidy grant remains to be seen as the City of Ottawa is also affected by the reduction of the subsidy grant in its road work, the Board has invited Rockcliffe to join with it in approaching the Ontario Government with respect to the grant.

The Village of Rockcliffe Park was greatly assisted in arriving at its decision to co-operate with the City through the action of the County of Carleton Council in granting the Village a rebate of 75% of its payment to the County for road purposes.

Upon the satisfactory conclusion of the aforementioned procedures, the Board of Control will take steps to secure tenders for these pavement works.

Noted

(sgd.) CHARLOTTE WHITTON, Chairman,
D. McCANN,
R. DONALDSON,
P. TARDIFF,
J. POWERS. [5]

With an agreement in hand, the City moved quickly and accepted O’Leary’s Ltd.’s tender, which came in at $58,248. [6]

Interestingly enough, the merger of cities has not put an end to such arguments. When looking at the comments section of any article that concerns the construction of new infrastructure, the claim that “it does not benefit my neighbourhood so I shouldn’t pay [as much]” invariably comes up. In some ways the machinations of intermunicipal relations have just been replaced with inter-neighbourhood relations that are acted on at the amalgamated city councils.

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[1] The “nightmare” did eventually come true in 2001 following decades of whispers, proposals, studies, and threats from Queen’s Park. For some discussion from the Rockcliffe point of view (noting the “reluctant bride” theme), see Edmond, Martha (2005). Rockcliffe Park: A History of the Village. Ottawa: The Friends of the Village of Rockcliffe Park, Chapter 9, pp. 139-43.
[2] “Boundary Roads Dispute Is Aired At Rockcliffe Ratepayers’ Meeting.” Ottawa Citizen. May 1, 1953. [1]
[3] In this case, the cost total cost of $88,000 was split between the city ($52,800) and the local property owners ($35,200). The contract was awarded to O’Leary’s Limited at their submitted tender price of $71,250. See Minutes of the Corporation of the City of Ottawa, 1952, June 16, 1952. [1]
[4] The City of Ottawa did seem to increase its efforts to compensate the Village of Rockcliffe for more of the costs associated with the boundary roads. see Minutes, November 17, 1952 [1], January 19, 1953 [1], and December 21, 1953. [1]
[5] Minutes of the Corporation of the City of Ottawa, 1953 (Volume 2). July 6, 1953, p. 939. [1]
[6] Minutes of the Corporation of the City of Ottawa, 1953 (Volume 2). September 8, 1953, p. 1158. [1]

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Development and its Discontents

Urban development – particularly when large-scale and rapid – had long been a cause of discomfort and difficulty for nearby residents and local government alike. One does not have to look much further than the local news to find examples of local opposition or tales of legal and political conflict, some falling to the feet of the Ontario Municipal Board or even the courts. When situated in the context of local government reorganization, annexation, and amalgamation, the growing pains have sometimes required a higher level of intervention from the province.

Ottawa Citizen: April 7, 1953
Ottawa Citizen: April 7, 1953

On April 6, 1953, Ottawa City Council agreed to request from the province a Commission of Inquiry into three specific developments that were near or recently completed. The three developments in question were a) Manor Park, b) Honeywell Farm, and c) “certain aspects of the Strathcona Heights development.” [1] A number of the concerns were, of course, familiar. The Honeywell subdivision (around Carlingwood) became problematic as “[the] people who had built single dwellings out there… had understood that they were building in a restricted area. Now, they were to have apartment housing facing them.” [2] In the case of both Manor Park and Honeywell Farm, development charges were in dispute.

Notice of Public Hearing
Notice of Public Hearing

The following month, the province appointed a lawyer from the St. Catharines area, M.A. Seymour, Q.C. to head up the commission. On May 16, a notice was published in the Citizen inviting any interested parties to attend and file documents. As scheduled, the hearings commenced on May 21. Testimony was opened up John Gillis, then proprietor of 75½ St. Laurent and the former Alderman Archibald Newman. Gillis presented to the commission to protest the expropriations the city undertook to make way for the subdivision. For his own part, Newman expressed disappointment that the developers of Manor Park had originally promised a more centrally-located shopping centre (bounded by Eastbourne, Braemore (Braemar), and Jeffry (Jeffrey) streets – where Mr. Gillis lived) but had since shuffled it off towards the east side of St. Laurent. A similar complaint was made about the Strathcona Heights development at Mann Avenue. Finally, Newman testified that there were tax irregularities associated with the expropriated parcels of land. [3] The allegations of irregularity of taxation (including Manor Park residents being over charged on their assessments for local improvement charges) would be what was most frequently reported and would come to be what ultimately resulted in the most explosive headlines. [4]

On November 30, Commissioner Seymour released his report. The headline in the Ottawa Journal was “Seymour Report: Urges $93,000 Cut For Manor Park” [5] while the Citizen ran with “Seymour OK’s Manor Park: Report Lauds Backers On Houses, Street Plan.” [6] The Journal summarized Seymour’s findings:

The report, prepared by Ontario-appointed special commissioner M.A. Seymour, QC, of St. Catharines [sic], after an exhaustive 12-day public probe of land development in Ottawa, also:

  1. Clears the Manor Park developers (chiefly A. W. Beament, QC, and R. Bruce Davis and their associates in various enterprises) of any “suspicious wrongdoing”.
  2. Compliments Mr. Beament and his associates on their excellence of their housing projects and the manner in which Manor Park was built up.
  3. Finds no justification for some of the criticisms made by Mayor Whitton in a report to city council last December 15 which gave rise to the probe.
  4. States the filing system of the City of Ottawa is “sadly in need of overhauling” and adds that if “full and correct information” had been available to the mayor from the files her report to council might have taken a different form.
  5. Strongly criticizes the board of control and city council of 1950 which permitted carrying our of expropriations in a manner in some cases illegal and in others legal but “harsh and arbitrary”.
  6. States that the city should be paid $578.42 by Manor Park developers in compensation for tax losses involved in certain expropriations.
  7. Shows that the pre-annexation Gloucester township council acted illegally in installing private water and sewer services from the street lines to the walls of the buildings in Manor Park.
  8. Charges the 1950 board of control with “slackness” for failure to conclude a formal agreement with Mr. Beament respecting the expropriations to be made.
  9. Terms “most unusual” and “improper” the action of the 1950 board of control and council in handing over to Mr. Beament’s law firm the conduct of the negotiations between the city and the expropriated owners.”
  10. Warmly commends the city’s new subdivision controls first applied in the Westwood (Honeywell farm) subdivision and states Ottawa is now following a “sound course”.
  11. Finds that a shopping centre was included in the original plans for the Mann avenue project (Strathcona Heights) but was eliminated when no chain store could be induced to locate there.

Of course, Seymour’s recommendations were just that: recommendations. It remained up to the City to act on them. I will explore the issue further at a later date.

[1] “City Council Asks Province To Probe Land Developments.” Ottawa Citizen. April 7, 1953, p. 6.
[2] Ibid.
[3] “Says Original Plans Not Followed In Home Project.” Ottawa Citizen. June 22, 1953, p. 16. [1, 2]
[4] “Asserts Mayor’s Charge Is Without Foundation.” Ottawa Citizen. June 24, 1953, p. 20. [1, 2]
[5] “Seymour Report: Urges $93,000 Cut For Manor Park.” Ottawa Journal. November 30, 1953, p.1. [1]
[6] “Seymour OK’s Manor Park.” Ottawa Citizen. November 30, 1953, p.1 [1, 2]