The City of Ottawa's planning department has officially backed the controversial Salvation Army proposal to build a 350-bed facility — including a 140-bed emergency shelter — in Vanier, according to a report made public more than a week in advance of the three-day planning committee meeting where the issue will be discussed.

The 83-page report was posted online on Friday afternoon in order to give the public more time to process the hefty document. Committee agendas and reports are required to be made public a week in advance of the meeting, which in this case is Nov. 14.

That planning staff backs the project is possibly one of the city's worst-kept secrets.

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury, who has led the community charge against the Salvation Army's plan to move their services from the ByWard Market to a new $50-million complex on Montreal Road, was furious late last month when he saw a draft of the report.

Councillor Mathieu Fleury Oct. 27, 2017

Coun. Mathieu Fleury wrote a nine-page response arguing against the planning staff's recommendation of the Salvation Army's proposed Vanier shelter. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

And as early as this summer, Mayor Jim Watson indicated his support for the new facility. It's unusual for the mayor to pronounce on a planning item that far ahead of time, but it would also be unusual for city staff to come out with a recommendation that opposes the mayor's public views on an issue.

Proposal needs official plan and zoning changes

The Salvation Army hopes to sell its building on George Street in the ByWard Market, and include the proceeds in a proposed $50-million facility on the property at the northwest corner of Montreal Road and Ste. Anne Avenue in Vanier. The 350-bed, all-male complex would include a shelter, a medical unit for homeless men run by Ottawa Inner City Health, and a number of residential programs, from addiction stabilization to ones that teach life skills.

Salvation Army Men's Shelter in the Byward Market

If its plan is approved, the Salvation Army plans to sell its property on George Street, which has had considerable security issues - including a stabbing on the weekend. (CBC News)

The complex would also include a café open to the public — which would serve as the entrance to the community and family services — as well as a thrift store. There are no plans for a supervised consumption site in the project.

But the project doesn't meet current zoning rules.

Under the city's main planning blueprint, know as the official plan, shelters are not allowed on traditional main streets, including Montreal Road. As well, the Montreal Road secondary plan, a council-approved planning document, doesn't allow shelters or residential care programs.

800 residents sent in comments

There is very vocal and active opposition to this file. According to the city report, about 800 people were in touch with the city about this project, the overwhelming majority either against it outright or expressing concern.

Among the community's concerns are the concentration of vulnerable people at a single site, a worry exacerbated by the fact that Vanier already had the highest concentration of social service agencies and centres in the city.

Protesters Salvation Army shelter Montreal Road July 18, 2017

There has been significant, and vocal, opposition to the Salvation Army's plan, including from group SOS Vanier. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

In Fleury's nine-page response to the city report, he points to an existing 2008 council decision that no additional shelters be built in the Rideau-Vanier ward. But staff says the new Salvation Army complex would not be "new" because the George Street location would be shutting down.

There's also a policy that no ward should have more than four shelters, which city staff says is currently the case for the Rideau-Vanier ward. However, in the report, Fleury provides a list of an additional nine locations in his ward that operate as de facto shelters, but city staff do not count those.

The councillor has asked staff to provide "a clear explanation from both a zoning and social services perspective for each location."

3-day committee meeting starts next week

So many people are expected to come to speak to the issue that the planning committee set aside three days to deal with it and is moving the meeting to council chambers instead of the usual, smaller Champlain Room.

Although much of the controversy about the project has to do with worries about social impacts, as well as whether the Salvation Army's approach to dealing with homelessness is the right one, none of those issues will be allowed to be discussed at the planning committee.

This may prove difficult: not only will residents want to discuss the broader social impacts of the new facility, Salvation Army will be arguing, in part, that it should receive its official plan and zoning changes because it is, in the words of its planning consultant, "a critical public service facility."