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Uganda's diplomatic residence in Rockcliffe lost to 'unapproved' demolition

The remains of the former diplomatic residence of the Uganda High Commission at 235 Mariposa Ave. in Ottawa. (Michel Aspirot/CBC - image credit)
The remains of the former diplomatic residence of the Uganda High Commission at 235 Mariposa Ave. in Ottawa. (Michel Aspirot/CBC - image credit)

The City of Ottawa is taking enforcement action after a heritage-protected home owned by the Uganda High Commission was allegedly demolished without a permit.

The 67-year-old stucco house at 235 Mariposa Ave. was the high commission's official residence. It was a Grade 2 heritage property in the Rockcliffe Park Heritage Conservation District and was on the city's heritage watch list of at-risk properties.

The local councillor called the home's destruction "very frustrating" and part of a broader pattern of neglected diplomatic properties, while the local residents' association called it shocking and urged council to refuse an application to build a larger residence on the site.

Norman Allen, the city's deputy chief building official, called the contravention a serious matter. A staff report called it an "unapproved demolition" in violation of the Ontario Heritage Act and the Ontario Building Code Act.

In response, the city is taking action in provincial court against Elite Dream Construction Corporation of Toronto. It alleges three violations of the Building Code Act from late October, as well as another allegation of failing to comply with an order from late November or early December.

There was a permit in place for the property, but only to alter and build additions to the home. On the morning of Oct. 23, however, building code services received a complaint that it was being demolished.

That day, an inspector found that the demolition work was limited to the front of the garage, which was allowed under the permit. The architect confirmed that the home itself would not be demolished, according to Allen.

But two days later, Allen said in an email, the inspector returned to find the roof and second floor walls demolished and debris placed on the ground floor. The inspector managed to stop the work the next day and issued an order to comply, Allen added.

Currently, only a few  ground floor walls remain standing at the site.

Residents' association devastated, appalled

In a project description submitted to council, Bell + Associatiates Architecture described the now demolished building as "extremely derelict" with "structurally compromised walls."

But Susan Peterson of the Rockcliffe Park Residents Association called the home's unauthorized destruction "appalling."

Susan Peterson of the Rockcliffe Park Residents Association called the unauthorized destruction of 235 Mariposa Avenue "appalling."
Susan Peterson of the Rockcliffe Park Residents Association called the unauthorized destruction of 235 Mariposa Avenue "appalling."

Susan Peterson of the Rockcliffe Park Residents Association called the destruction of 235 Mariposa Ave. 'appalling.' (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

"We were taken by total surprise and really quite devastated," said Peterson, who chairs the association's heritage outreach committee.

"Most embassies do a spectacular job of helping Ottawa, the capital of Canada, care for its heritage. But there are a few exceptions, and this is one big exception," she added. "This is almost unprecedented."

The Uganda High Commission had a previous run-in with city council over another property it owns in a heritage conservation district — a two-storey building on Cobourg Street that was briefly the home of former prime minister Lester B. Pearson.

Councillors rejected its 2018 application to demolish that building, a decision the high commissioner called "very unfair."  The property remains on the city's heritage watch list.

On Mariposa, the high commission is still seeking to build the larger, taller, eight-bedroom structure set out in its alteration permit, but now as a new building. City staff are recommending that council approve the application, which will come to council's built heritage committee next week.

An architect's rendering of the new design propsosed for 235 Mariposa Avenue.
An architect's rendering of the new design propsosed for 235 Mariposa Avenue.

An architect's rendering of the new design proposed for 235 Mariposa Ave. (Bell + Associates Architecture)

Peterson said councillors should refuse to allow it, since it sends a message that owners can tear down heritage properties with impunity to build bigger on a blank slate.

"I think the built heritage committee should decide to draw a line in the sand and say enough is enough," she said.

Matter raised with Global Affairs Canada

Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King has previously spoken out about neglected diplomatic properties in his ward. Rockcliffe properties owned by Iraq and Bulgaria are also on the city's heritage watch list.

"It's very frustrating. We see this as a trend, a continuing trend," he said. "What we want to do is work with those foreign missions to ensure the proper upkeep of those properties, and just generally we want to ensure that the city continues to work on enforcement."

He said dealing with foreign missions is complex, since it often involves working with Global Affairs Canada.

King said the built heritage committee, which he chairs, cannot treat the high commission's new application as an opportunity for punishment.

"I think the perception in the community was that the house is knocked down, and now the high commission is being rewarded by being able to accelerate the process," he said.

"The one thing that people have to remember is that the application process is not tied to an enforcement process."

An architect's rendering of the proposed new construction of 235 Mariposa Avenue from the rear.
An architect's rendering of the proposed new construction of 235 Mariposa Avenue from the rear.

An architect's rendering of the proposed new construction of 235 Mariposa Ave. from the rear. (Bell + Associates Architecture)

According to the city, the Ugandan high commissioner provided a letter acknowledging that the demolition wasn't permitted, though city staff would not provide the letter.

City heritage planner MacKenzie Kimm said the city has made Global Affairs Canada aware of the situation at 235 Mariposa Ave. Global Affairs Canada did not provide comment on whether it raised the matter with the high commission on a diplomatic level.

"I would hope that they would make a bit of a fuss," said Peterson.

Neither Elite Dream Construction Corporation nor the Uganda High Commission responded to requests for comment. A 2023 report by Uganda's auditor general found that the buildings on Mariposa Avenue and Cobourg Street were both in a "very sorry state."