‘Ottawa’ Senators’ complaints delay Parliament Hill renovations, possibly adding millions to cost
OTTAWA — Senators’ complaints about construction near their offices appear to have delayed a major step in the multibillion-dollar Parliament Hill renovations — which could mean increased costs and an exodus of heritage stonemasons from Ottawa.
Complaints centre on work causing “a little bit of noise” and “a little bit of dust,” said Oliver Swan, business manager for Ottawa’s Local 7 union, part of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers.
“We understand that the East Block is not going to be renovated immediately. That’s been put on hold for the indefinite future, the foreseeable future, the reason being the senators don’t like the idea of having people work on the exterior of the building while they may be working inside.”
The East Block is the most intact, but also the most decrepit, of the heritage buildings on Parliament Hill. It mainly houses senators’ offices.
Swan said there are ways to avoid disruption, including working in the evenings and during the Senate’s summer break.
But delaying the $167-million project could cause a bigger headache: costs could rise by millions, said one source. Expert workers may also be forced to pack up and seek steadier work elsewhere.
Public Services and Procurement Canada confirmed this week it put some plans for East Block renovations “on hold” in April, “to re-evaluate the implementation of the work and its sequencing.”
Work to restore the “most deteriorated elements” of the East Block, mainly around building entrances, is proceeding, said spokesman Pierre-Alain Bujold, but the short-term scope of repairs has been “reduced.”
“As part of any rehabilitation project, the impact on occupants is considered,” he said. “The Senate of Canada has requested that project impacts be limited while the building remains occupied.”
Sen. Scott Tannas, who chairs the responsible Senate subcommittee, said senators asked repairs “be limited to those that are urgent, as opposed to a total exterior restoration, while senators are still occupying the building.”
This is a “logical consequence” of the upper chamber’s “initiative” to move down the street in 2018 while the Centre Block is being restored, Tannas said. He added the British parliament is looking at conducting renovations in a similar way.
The original plan for Parliament Hill would leave no gaps in construction. After the West Block was finished later this year, work on the exterior of the East Block was due to start. The focus would be on walls in the interior courtyard during 2017, to avoid disrupting Canada 150 celebrations.
That would have given workers something to do until major renovations to the Centre Block begin in 2018.
The senators don’t like the idea of having people work on the exterior of the building while they may be working inside.
Parliament Hill’s most iconic building, featuring the Peace Tower, will be emptied that year, with the Senate moving to the Government Conference Centre and the House of Commons to West Block.
On that schedule, work on the exterior walls of East Block would finish around 2022 and on the Centre Block around 2028. After that, it would be turn of the interior of the East Block.
Bujold said Centre Block plans will not be affected by the Senate’s request. But Swan said there are wider implications to introducing a gap in the schedule.
Heritage stonemasons who have been recruited from all over the world may now be left without work for more than a year. They are likely to move away to find something steadier and not be available in 2018.
About 700 people were set to work on the East Block’s exterior, says the PSPC’s website.
If some of them leave, mobilizing, training and organizing security clearance for new workers in 2018 could be expensive. Wages and material costs also increase yearly as a result of inflation.
“It’s not going to get any cheaper,” said Swan.
A source close to the project estimated cost increases of 10 per cent for each year of delay, amounting to tens of millions.
The overall cost of renovations in Ottawa’s parliamentary precinct is $3 billion.
Swan said the union wants to co-operate with PSPC and doesn’t want to get into a “public slanging match.” Postponing repairs won’t serve anyone, he said, especially as the building are in rough shape.
When part of the East Block underwent emergency repairs in 2013, he said he saw a crack “so wide I could put my boot in it.” Renovations aren’t just a facelift. They keep buildings standing.
“Everybody agrees it has to be done. Everybody agrees that it’s part of our heritage, it’s a symbol of Canada, we have to keep it in good order for the next generation and the generations that come after them,” said Swan.
“But when it comes to actually doing it, there’s always some excuse.”