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July 28, 2014

Christopher Ryan: Raccoons in the Penthouse (and an RCMP inquiry too!)

A regular feature by Christopher Ryan, a local photographer, blogger and researcher.

Originally known as the Laurentian Towers, the Suites of Somerset has seen its share of action. Image: July 2014.

With the significant number of apartment towers that were constructed around Ottawa during the 1960s and 1970s, it would be easy to forget that for every two constructed, there is probably one that didn’t make it off the drawing board. In spite of a strong market for them, combined with an unprecedented level of institutional and governmental support, an announced project could – and often did – find itself cancelled after it was announced and a permit issued.

The Laurentian Towers, now known as the Suites of Somerset, almost didn’t make it. At some point previous to the passage of the new city-wide zoning in 1963, Phil Nesrallah and his brother (generally identified as the Nesrallah Bros, though the Journal did not identify him. I am uncertain about their relationship with the owners of the Nesrallah IGA nearby) successfully filed for a building permit to construct an apartment of 70 units and at a value of $510,000. During this period, when a developer filed for a building permit, it more often than not meant that they had already gone ahead and thoughtfully dug a hole and maybe even poured a little concrete.

For a lot with a building permit issued - especially in 1965 - it was awfully silent. Source: geoOttawa, 1965 Aerial Images.

This is not what happened, however. The building permit was issued and …nothing happened. No holes, no hardhats, no cranes, and no hammers. Nothing. By the end of 1966 (which was more than two years after the passage of the city’s new zoning bylaw), it was reported by the Journal’s Charles Lynch that they had deferred construction. It should be mentioned that because the MadDonald Manor received an extension that September, it was only fair that the fully private developers with outstanding buildings received the same treatment.

The following year, Nesrallah submitted a much larger plan for something of a mixed use complex – commercial, office, and of course, the apartment. This new plan was much more ambitious, not to mention potentially useful in a neighbourhood like Hintonburg. There was only one thing standing in the way: the city’s zoning bylaw. At first, the city’s Board of Control had rejected the proposal, in spite of Council’s approval.

Although this might appear to be setting up a narrative which pits the desires of a real estate developer against the city, that’s not where the battle took place. Interestingly, it was Nesrallah who appears to have become caught up in the centre of tensions between City Council and the Board of Control. Although it’s clear that Nesrallah wanted to see his new vision through, the fight moved beyond and erupted into a war of words between Council and the Board of Control.

As what exists today is substantially what had been proposed after 1967, it appears that City Council was the ultimate victor (the Board of Control met its end 10 years later). Following the back-and-forth, Nesrallah submitted another – slightly amended proposal - at the end of 1969 and the complex was constructed and open for business by early 1972. The apartment was operated as an apartment-hotel, which was a popular measure at the time to capture more of the market while conveniently not being subject to the same regulatory machinery of the rental housing market. He additionally constructed a small 5,000 square foot commercial building adjacent and reserved the top floor for offices.

It looms over Hintonburg today. Perhaps Cyril Sneer looks over the city, searching for ways to earn a little coin. Now that the W.C. and D. Kemp Edwards’ yards aren’t nearby, he’ll have to think outside the lumbering box. Image: July 2014.

Normally, this is where I’d introduce the architect and wrap it all up. I didn’t actually locate a citation and the events that took place in the penthouse offices are so much more interesting.

Some of the events were notable, but mundane, some were exciting and creative, and some were downright scandalous. I’ll get the mundane out of the way first: the offices of the eighteenth floor were used through 1974-75 to conduct the Marin Commission, which investigated public complaints into the RCMP.

The Commission of Inquiry Relating to Public Complaints, Internal Discipline and Grievance Procedure within the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Just rolls off the tongue. Source: PCO/Archived Commissions of Inquiry.

Once the Marin Commission was done with the space, the office penthouse played host to a much different client. Ottawa had long been home to a rather healthy animation industry. One of the largest and most successful at the time was Atkinson Film Arts, which had just finished of the acclaimed Little Brown Burro, a Christmas movie, in 1977.

While it hasn't become a Christmas classic on the same plane as Frosty or the Grinch, it certainly was a capital point of pride during the late 1970s. Source: Ottawa Journal, December 13, 1977.

The company was flying high and by 1979, they became the penthouse’s tenant. From that room with a view atop the Hintonburg skyline, Atkinson’s legion of animators brought the first season of The Raccoons to life, the B-17 scene of Ivan Reitman’s Heavy Metal, and a number of other Canadian favourites. Atkinson’s star appeared to soar rather quickly, but a number of poor decisions made in the early 1980s would prove fatal to the venture by the end of the decade.

Hard at work atop Hintonburg. Source: Ottawa Journal, April 21, 1979

As Atkinson experienced its decline and fall, ownership of the Laurentian Towers was set for a change. Phil Nesrallah, looking to change gears, sold the building to Thomas Assaly Jr, son of Thomas Sr., who was head of the second-largest construction firm in the city. Thomas Jr., looking to follow in his father’s footsteps and get into the real estate and development business himself, engaged in a highly-leveraged purchase of the building in the summer of 1986. He wasn’t really alone in the tactic and it would be an understatement to say that many of Ottawa’s successful developers at the time found such tenuous leaps into the real estate market (both at home and abroad) attractive at the time.

Unlike his father, Assaly Jr. was something of a loose cannon. Just as it had become increasingly difficult for him to afford the mortgage payments on the complex, his decisions became increasingly irrational and erratic.

In 1987, reports had been made public that the 29 year old Assaly was alleged to have pulled a gun on Robert McLeod, Philip Nesrallah’s mortgage broker, who had met with him to levy a $50,000 penalty for non-payment on what was Assaly Jr’s fourth mortgage on the property. It was the act that may have been a breaking point: in addition to the realization that real estate success was not going to come easily (he was involved in a bit of a controversy over an apartment in Lowertown on Clarence at the same time), he had to face his brother’s death from muscular dystrophy that same season.

In April, the Citizen reported:

Lawyers for Thomas Assaly Jr . were back in court Wednesday to fight off a foreclosure attempt on the Laurentian Apartment Hotel where Assaly allegedly pointed a gun at a mortgage broker last week.

Assaly, 29, is charged with extortion and pointing a gun at the head of Robert McLeod while forcing him to sign a document absolving Assaly of a $50,000 mortgage penalty.

The Laurentian foreclosure application was filed by Philip Nesrallah and other members of his family who want the 17-storey building on Bayswater Avenue returned to them for non-payment of mortgage payments.

William Neville, representing the Nesrallahs, told an Ontario Supreme Court hearing that Assaly was $40,000 in arrears on a $1-million third mortgage and $30,000 in default on a $317,000 fourth mortgage held by the Nesrallahs.

In addition, Neville said, Assaly was $60,000 in arrears on the building's municipal taxes and $100,000 in arrears on a $3-million first mortgage that was due to be paid off on Wednesday.

The first mortgage and a second mortgage for an unknown amount are held by commercial lenders.

Neville said the Nesrallahs wanted possession of the building to protect their equity until it could be resold and the financial ramifications of the sale to Assaly sorted out.

Richard Bosada, acting for Assaly, said returning the building to the Nesrallahs was not necessary as Assaly, with consent of the first mortgagee, had placed the building in the hands of a receiver on Tuesday.

Bosada said Assaly was not opposed to the receiver overseeing the sale of the building. Neville said the Nesrallahs want the sale monitored by a court appointed official.

The hearing was adjourned until today to allow both sides time to work out a mutually acceptable out-of-court agreement.

The Nesrallah petition was filed before last week's alleged incident at the apartment hotel, where Assaly has an office.

The apartment hotel was built by the Nesrallahs in the early 1970s and sold to Assaly in June for between $6 and $8 million, a figure that reportedly is also in dispute.

Source: Ottawa Citizen, April 2, 1987, B3 (Dennis Foley)

By the mid-1990s, his “roaring twenties” had come to an end and he had settled down at the helm of Les Suites Hotel.

Some of the stories from the top floor would mirror somewhat what was happening on the lower floors. General malaise, violence, drug deals, and the occasional shooting, the Laurentian Towers came to develop a reputation that was at the least self-defeating when it comes to maximizing the return on investment. A change of ownership in the early 1990s did little to improve things in the short-term. Nevertheless, as the years progressed, the Laurentian Towers (renamed the Suites of Somerset by 1992) has cleaned up and quieted down. Really, sort of a reflection of what has become of Hintonburg altogether.

Original photos & text by Christopher Ryan.
(See more on our blog from Christopher...)

See also: Ottawa History Guide
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