The buildings on Parliament Hill— with the Peace Tower soaring over the Centre Block, which contains the House of Commons and the Senate—are among the most recognizable structures in Canada. But those majestic buildings are increasingly crowded with workers and visitors. As well, such eyesores as 2,000 parking spaces blemish the appearance of the site. Now, a Crown corporation with a mandate to embellish the national capital has released a sweeping plan that would attack those problems and dramatically alter the appearance of Parliament Hill and the surrounding area. National Capital Commission chairman Jean Pigott, who owns the oldest house in Ottawa, declined to estimate the cost of transforming that 76acre parcel of federally owned land. But other NCC officials said that the project would cost billions of dollars and could take as long as 50 years to complete. Declared Pigott, a former Tory MP for Ottawa-Carleton, last week: “We are going to give Canadians the capital they deserve.”
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has endorsed the study, and Ottawa Mayor James Durrell has said that the federal proposal fits well with civic plans to redevelop the downtown core. But NCC officials stressed that the federal government would not undertake extensive alterations to the site until basic maintenance projects—including erecting barriers against erosion by the nearby Ottawa River—have been completed later this year. Then the commission will turn to its vision of the future, a 129-page study entitled The Parliamentary Precinct Area. It recommends such on-site improvements as a turreted display centre for the Canadian Constitution, an underground parking garage near Parliament Hill and the creation of an additional 330,000 square feet of office space to provide more room for the 5,000 people who work on the Hill each day. The commission noted that there will soon be 295 MPs on Parliament Hill instead of the current 282 because a redistribution of federal riding boundaries in July will bring 13 new members and their staff to Ottawa after the next federal election.
Despite those pressures, Pigott did not release the master plan until early this month—even though a Torontobased urban-planning firm completed the $110,000 study last May. The cause of that lengthy delay: the NCC had first to find a suitable location for a new embassy before U.S. diplomats could announce that they would move from
their elegant but cramped quarters facing the Parliament Buildings. They did so on Feb. 29, signalling success for the federal drive to control the remaining half-block of the key section of the redevelopment area—two blocks that face Parliament Hill on nearby Wellington Street.
That announcement also ended a controversy that erupted in 1986 when NCC officials said that they wanted to place the new embassy in the Mile Circle, a 52-acre stretch of federal parkland along the Ottawa River. But many residents of two exclusive Ottawa districts—the village of Rockcliffe and nearby Manor Park — swiftly organized opposition to the proposal.
They argued that the U.S. presence would destroy valuable parkland and increase the risk of terrorist attacks.
Their attack succeeded. And during the next four years workmen will erect a heavily fortified building on pastureland that RCMP members now use to exercise horses that participate in the force’s famed musical ride. In fact, that 10-acre site is directly across the street from the Mile Circle, but area residents said that they were pleased by the shift.
Added U.S. Ambassador Thomas Niles: “I had a lot of sympathy for the National Capital Commission because I knew how difficult it was for our people in Washington to accommodate over 100 embassies throughout the city.” Certainly, NCC officials want to avoid a fresh controversy over the current U.S. Embassy. It is an imposing 56-year-old sandstone building that members of The Heritage Canada Foundation, a group dedicated to the preservation of esthetically pleasing old buildings, say that they want to retain alongside the MPs’ offices that are planned for the site. To that end, Pigott has stressed that the commission plans to hold public meetings and consult with local, regional and municipal governments before construction begins on the
agency’s vision for Parliamment Hill.
In their efforts to improve the national capital’s appearance, Pigott, 20 commissioners chosen from across Canada and several staff members are following a well-established tradition. Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier first shouldered that responsibility in 1899 when he created the Ottawa Improvement Commission. Shortly afterward, Frederick Todd, the commission’s first planner, described its task as nothing less than the creation of a city “which will reflect the character of the nation.” For Todd, that meant acquiring land for parks and parkways and filling those new federal properties with flowers—an approach that led to his organization and its successors becoming known as the nation’s gardeners.
The NCC itself came into existence 30 years ago, and during its lifetime the agency has carried out such popular projects as the creation of 140 km of bicycle trails and, each winter, the conversion of a five-mile stretch of the Rideau Canal into a skating rink. And although the NCC’s authority is restricted to federally owned land, its mandate to develop the national capital sometimes causes friction with local residents—as the dispute over the embassy site clearly demonstrated. Similarly, municipal politicians criticized an agency plan of two years ago to repave the streets around Parliament Hill with terra-cotta brick, a proposal that would have rendered some of the most heavily travelled routes strikingly red—and bumpy. Critics said that the multimillion-dollar proposal was extravagant and unnecessary.
Other NCC projects, including performances that the commission stages on Parliament Hill—including a nightly sound-and-light show and, during the summer, staged vignettes of significant historical events—have been more successful. Canada Day celebrations alone attracted 350,000 people to the Hill last year—a fraction of the three million visitors who throng the site each year. But needed improvements in the commission’s sweeping blueprint for change, including pedestrian tunnels and landscaped walkways linking the buildings, will have to wait until a $7.7-million project to upgrade the Centre Block’s electrical wiring and to add a sprinkler system and a rare-book room is completed in September. Despite uncertainty over a starting date and a lack of funding, Pigott claims that the billiondollar renovation of Parliament Hill will take place. She added, “It is a super thing that must be done.” But as the controversy over the NCC’s plan to brick the capital’s streets made clear, transforming a national treasure is unlikely to proceed smoothly.
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