Shame on the Hill

A massive renovation project shows the ugly side of Ottawa

Photograph by Blair Gable

The tulips were in fine form on Parliament Hill this week, blooms of red and white matching the flag snapping in the breeze atop the Peace Tower. Spring weather brought out a healthy crop of tour buses, too, marking the start of the busy season along what might be called the country’s main street. It’s no wonder the visitors flock: with its iconic copper-roofed architecture, bronze statues and monuments, Ottawa’s picturesque Wellington Street delivers a palpable sense of history in a stroll of only a few blocks.

But tourists are finding they must frame their snapshots carefully to avoid construction hoarding, scaffolding and shuttered buildings. It’s more than just inevitable upkeep in a historic precinct. Some of the unsightliness results from drawn-out political indecision over what to do with sensitive real estate. Some is the outward sign of tension over renovations among various branches of the government. That confusion recently drew sharp criticism from federal Auditor General Sheila Fraser. “We need to fix this,” she said, “and the longer it waits, the more the deterioration and the more it will cost.”

A visitor on foot doesn’t need to conduct an audit to recognize the problems. Start walking west from the landmark Chateau Laurier hotel and in only a few strides, you’re in front of the “Danger” sign, warning of construction inside, taped to the modern glass entrance of what was once the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. Opened in 1992 as a branch of the National Gallery of Canada, the photo museum decamped in 2006 after a flood exposed structural problems. Last spring, the gallery announced it wasn’t moving back in, ever. Despite its inviting street entrance and visitor-friendly location by the Rideau Canal, the building is now being rehabilitated, not for some new public use, but as extra space for parliamentary committees.

Continue along Wellington over the canal, past Parliament’s intriguingly asymmetrical East Block, and you’re soon facing the soaring Peace Tower. It’s worth lingering for that first square-on view. Turn 180 degrees, however, and the spell is quickly broken. Directly across the street, in what is indisputably one of the nation’s choicest urban locations, stands the empty building that long served as the U.S. Embassy. It should be a delight, a bit of Washington-style neoclassical design to contrast with Parliament’s Gothic revival style. But the former embassy is surrounded by construction hoarding. It’s been that way since the Americans moved to their big new embassy on Sussex Drive in 1998.

A dozen years is a long stretch for such a prominent address to stand vacant. Former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien had designated it as the home of a new National Portrait Gallery. After winning the 2006 election, however, the Conservative government scrapped that plan, announcing instead that nine cities would compete to host the federal portrait collection. In 2008, that idea was cancelled, too. So when will some other use be found for the lovely, deserted shell of the old embassy? “We’re in the planning stage to see if there’s a fit,” said a senior government official. “There’s no deadline on that.”

Might as well keep on walking. The next arresting sight is Parliament’s West Block, the subject of much of the auditor general’s attention in her wake-up-call report last month. Like the Centre Block and East Block, it’s a beauty—or, at least, would be if it weren’t for all the screening and scaffolding. The West Block is in an advanced state of decay. Public Works and Government Services Canada plans to empty it this fall, and embark on an extensive restoration. “Like a monster Lego kit, we’ll be taking it apart, assessing whether each stone needs to be repaired, or replaced,” says Robert Wright, the department’s executive director for major Crown projects. The daunting project is slated for completion in 2018.

And it’s only a piece of a larger puzzle. Once the West Block is finished, the plan is to empty the much larger Centre Block, which houses the Commons and Senate chambers, for an overhaul that’s scheduled to last until 2025. Likening the buildings to bodies, Wright says the West Block’s structural deterioration amounts to “massive skeletal issues” and the Centre Block’s electrical, heating and other system problems threaten “central nervous breakdown.” Several other major federal buildings nearby are being adapted to serve Parliament’s needs during long years of renovation. Asked what it will all cost, Wright says, “I don’t think that anything of substance or meaning can be put on the table.”

That uncertainty about multi-billion-dollar costs troubles Fraser, along with other aspects of the planning process. Just $55 million of a roughly estimated $800 million needed to restore the West Block has been approved. She blames the welter of federal players at the table—Public Works, the National Capital Commission, the House, the Senate, even the RCMP. Without a more streamlined decision-making process, the auditor general says “only limited progress can be made on the rehabilitation of the Parliament Buildings.” Spoiling the view for tourists is hardly her big worry. She flagged the risk of “complete failure” of systems in the long-neglected buildings.

The path to this dire point stretches back over decades. A long-term plan for the parliamentary precinct was approved in 1992. Signature upgrades have been finished since then, including fixing the Peace Tower’s masonry and fully restoring the spectacular Library of Parliament. But the blueprint keeps changing. A 25-year plan laid out in 2001 was substantially overhauled in 2007. Wright says that three-year-old strategy has proven more flexible and pragmatic. He points to innovative steps already being taken, like sending masons to the University of Calgary to learn how the West Block masonry walls can be remade to withstand earthquakes.

But long-time expert observers remain unconvinced the government is properly focused on turning Wellington Street into the showcase it should be. “They’re kind of struggling to have a strategy, but they stagger back and forth without a vision or a timetable,” says Ottawa architect Barry Padolsky, noted for his design and conservation work on the city’s heritage buildings, including the newly renovated and expanded Canadian Museum of Nature. Alex Rankin, another prominent Ottawa architect, who worked with the legendary Raymond Moriyama on the acclaimed Canadian War Museum, compared those key blocks of Wellington Street to a “nice smile, but, quite frankly, we’ve got teeth that are bad and teeth that are missing.”

Both Padolsky and Rankin point out that along with deteriorating and vacant structures, the Parliament Hill area features some gaps that cry out for new buildings. A few years ago, for instance, architects were asked to submit concepts for the underutilized land just west of the West Block, but the plan to build there was abandoned in 2005. The RCMP makes practical use of that prime location for screening vehicles being driven onto the Hill, under what looks, from the vantage point of the throngs on Wellington, like a sort of oversized, rusty carport. Sadly, it doesn’t appear entirely out of place.

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