By Charlie Senack
If you’ve walked down Somerset near Wellington Street West lately, chances are you’ve heard the screech of construction site machinery.
It began in early December last year, a high-pitch sound from a Claridge Homes construction site where a 30-storey apartment tower is being built. It was an unwanted surprise for parents at Devonshire Public School, which is less than a block away.
“It began on a Tuesday morning and it was insanely loud with no notice to parents,” said Jane Harley, whose four-year-old daughter is in kindergarten at the school. It happened whether they were dropping a child off or picking her up: “There was this bone-shattering, deafening noise next to our kids’ school. Many of us were really taken off guard. We had no clue what was going on.”
The noise, from the construction site at Somerset near Breezehill, could last longer than 10 minutes at a time, with decibel readings reaching between 95 and 120, Harley said. Ontario regulations require employers to ensure their workers are not exposed to levels higher than 85 decibels, which can cause permanent hearing damage, over an eight-hour day.
Parents were quick to contact Claridge to complain, but received no reply at the time. Kitchissippi Times also reached out to the construction company for comment but did not hear back ahead of publication. But Claridge had met Jan. 9 with the school’s parent council, principal, and school trustee about the noise. It was the first such meeting since construction began. The meeting produced no long-term solutions, but did provide more mitigation measures.
With high decibel readings recorded, some recesses at Devonshire School have had to be canceled or cut short.
“Kids have said they can’t hear their teachers in the classroom. They are being moved to other classrooms to be heard, and some are calling home sick because they are getting a headache from the noise,” said Harley. “Their classrooms shake with the noise.”
Suzanne Nash, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) trustee for Kitchissippi, agreed the noise has disrupted students’ learning. The board has purchased and distributed anti-noise headphones for all students and staff. When the noise is present, the school also moves recess to their south yard, further from the construction site than the north yard.
Nash said the headphones were a quick fix. “It’s not ideal but we are looking at all sorts of ways to mitigate the sound.” Harley said headphones accommodate the developers instead of finding a permanent solution.
Engy Sedki, co-chair of Devonshire’s parent council, said Claridge has promised to add more sound barriers around the school and come up with a traffic plan alongside vibration monitoring. The council has asked the developers for updates so it can plan around disruptions as construction continues.
“We are looking to develop a neighborly relationship. The school has been there for a long time and Claridge has just moved in. It’s going to be a multi-year relationship,” Sedki said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing Claridge honoring their role in our community and being better neighbors to all of us.”
Claridge’s tower is not their only construction project scheduled in the community. The Dollarama next door is slated for demolition soon to make way for another high-rise building.
Kitchissippi ward councillor Jeff Leiper is exploring whether the city should review sound bylaws, particularly for construction sites near school zones.
“I have agreed to explore with some of my colleagues whether there is an appetite to modify the noise bylaw to create new limits for sounds in the vicinity of schools,” he said. “But if I or someone brings forward a motion on construction noise, it will not be to immediately modify the bylaw; it will be to study it.”
Leiper said city officials have visited the construction site alongside the Ministry of Labour, which deemed it fine for the loud work to continue.
Trustee Nash said she intends to get help at the board level to support Leiper. She plans to work alongside other local school boards to strengthen her upcoming motion.
“I want to put forward a motion to ask the city to update its noise bylaws to count for things such as around schools and that there are bylaws so we don’t endanger kids and their safety,” she said. “Noise is the big issue but safety in terms of the trucks after the excavation starts is also a concern.”
Most of the approximately 300 children who attend Devonshire get there on foot. Nash said she once saw the crossing guard stop cars 42 times one morning to allow kids to cross.
The deafening noise is from pile-driving, expected to last two to four months, Claridge told parents. It’s expected to be the loudest part of the project. Claridge promised the school it would shut down noisy operations from 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. each day.
Harley wants the noise to stop fully during school hours and resume after hours and on weekends. She’s disappointed Claridge won’t do more when community opposition has been so strong. Ottawa Centre MPP Joel Harden has asked the provincial ministers of Education, Labour and Housing to get involved.
“To know they have that information and they are continuing, it’s unbelievable,” said Harley, who can hear the noise from her home blocks away. “I can’t believe they are allowing it to continue when very few measures have been instrumented to prevent the noise.”
Sedki said the lack of legal mechanisms in terms of bylaws or noise exemptions prevents them from pursuing further action.
“They are in their legal rights to be doing what they are doing, and they aren’t willing to give up doing that work during school hours,” she said. “That’s why this situation is so incredibly frustrating for parents… It just seems like one thing after another and it seems like kids and dispensable.”