The convoy protests that occupied downtown Ottawa last winter may inadvertently have pushed forward a plan to convert Parliament Hill into Parliament Square.
Talks are under way to make the temporary closure of Wellington Street in front of the Hill permanent. With work on the restoration of Centre Block ongoing, and with the winning design now chosen for the new Block 2 on the south side of Wellington, federal and city planners and politicians had already been questioning the future of the street.
Then the occupation of the downtown core by protesters forced the closure of Wellington in front of Parliament and the streets intersecting with it. With that closure still in place four months on, it’s starting to feel not only possible but inevitable that the street will never reopen to traffic, and will instead be integrated into a new Parliament Square.
“If you asked me, do I think all of these things could come together simultaneously, I think the answer is yes,” said Bob Plamondon, a consultant, historian and author who is part of a group pushing for a tramway loop that would run along Wellington Street and would link Ottawa with Gatineau across the river. “And it’s all because they had to close Wellington cold-turkey.”
The three-week occupation by protesters brought home to Canadians the vulnerability of the parliamentary precinct.
“This country was certainly shocked by what happened in February,” said Ottawa city councillor Catherine McKenney, whose ward encompasses the area around Parliament Hill. “The notion that we need to do better in and around our Parliament buildings is there.”
The protests also coincided with the most fundamental transformation of the parliamentary precinct since Centre Block opened in 1920, replacing an earlier Parliament building that was destroyed by fire.
In January, 2019, the House of Commons and Senate relocated to temporary quarters – the West Block for the former; the former train station for the latter – while Centre Block underwent the largest restoration project in Canadian history.
The renovations are going well, said Rob Wright, assistant deputy minister at Public Services and Procurement Canada, who is overseeing the project. The interior of the building has been largely gutted; 20,000 heritage assets have been removed and stored, and 8.6 million kilograms of asbestos-containing material carted away.
The exterior stonework is being cleared and repaired, with some stones replaced, and there is a large trench in front of the building that will house both the heating and cooling systems and part of a new visitors’ centre,. As well, shock absorbers are being installed to protect the building against earthquakes.
If things stay on track, the restored Centre Block should reopen to the public in about 10 years at a cost of between $4-billion and $5-billion, “and that baseline holds,” said Mr. Wright. At around the same time, the new Block 2 will come into service, running along the south side of Wellington Street, facing Centre Block. People on the project are already referring to it as South Block.
The winning design from David Chipperfield Architects of London and Toronto’s Zeidler Architecture was chosen in May. The widely praised proposal incorporates existing buildings and adds new ones, with extensive use of stone, wood and copper, the latter in tribute to the roof of Centre Block across the street.
The new block increases the desirability of closing Wellington Street to traffic, which would effectively turn Parliament Hill into a square. The proposed tramway is one option under study.
“For visitors to the capital, and for workers on both sides of the river, this becomes a really nice, hop-on, hop-off way to connect all the buildings and to make the National Capital Region work really well,” said Mr. Plamondon. The National Capital Commission (commonly called the NCC) is studying the proposal, which has support on both Ottawa and Gatineau city councils.
The forced closure also demonstrated that other downtown streets could handle rush-hour traffic, in part because Ottawa’s new LRT line has taken many buses out of the downtown core. And with the increase in working from home, which the pandemic brought on, the loss of Wellington to traffic would not significantly increase congestion.
With new protests again happening on Canada Day, and with the possibility of a terrorist attack a constant concern, the security of Parliament Hill is another reason to keep the street closed.
The writer and philosopher John Ralston Saul served as the honorary chair of the committee that chose the winning design for Block 2.
For generations, he observes, Canadians have stood on Parliament Hill’s lawn to celebrate, protest or practise yoga, surrounded on three sides by Centre Block, West Block and East Block.
Now, with the creation of a south block, “they will turn in four directions, and this will be their square,” he said. Mr. Saul believes Wellington Street must become part of that square. “It will become self-evident.”
Some business owners on the streets running north-and-south off Wellington complain that the closures are hurting trade. And the future of Sparks Street, running parallel to Wellington one block south, also needs to be considered. The street has been a pedestrian mall for decades, but the mall has never worked. Should it be reopened to traffic, or integrated into the new precinct?
Jurisdictional squabbles have doomed many a proposed improvement for the national capital. The tramway loop, for example, would require the approval of the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, and the federal government.
But the odds are now better than even that the City of Ottawa will eventually transfer jurisdiction over Wellington Street to the federal government, which will redevelop the street as a new Parliamentary precinct integrating the new south block with Parliament Hill.
“I think the will is there on everyone’s part – the NCC, federal government, the city and Gatineau – to move this forward,” said Mx. McKenney.
“There’s just the beginning of conversations,” between governments about the future of the street, said Mr. Wright. But “there’s an alignment that I’ve never seen before,” among public officials to reimagine the future of Wellington Street.
Mr. Saul points out that Canadians in the 1860s constructed the West and East Block. Canadians in the early twentieth century constructed Centre Block. Canadians today will add their own imprint through the new south block and the integration of Wellington Street.
“This will be a statement about us,” he said. “It’s our generation that will define, architecturally, the fourth side of Parliament Square. And it will be there for a very long time.”
With goodwill, a renewed people’s precinct will welcome Canadians for generations to come.
Editor’s note: Editor's note: A previous version of this story had the incorrect figure for the weight of asbestos-containing material that has been removed to date.
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