The protest convoys that occupied downtown Ottawa last winter may have inadvertently pushed forward a plan to turn Parliament Hill into Parliament Square.
Discussions are underway to make the temporary closure of Wellington Street in front of the Hill permanent. With the Center Block restoration work underway and the winning design now chosen for Wellington’s new South Side Block 2, federal and municipal planners and politicians were already pondering the future of the street.
Then the occupation of the city center by demonstrators forced the closure of Wellington in front of Parliament and the streets that intersect it. With this closure still in place four months later, it is starting to feel not only possible but inevitable that the street will never reopen to traffic and will instead be incorporated into a new Parliament Square.
“If you ask 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 that campaigns for a streetcar loop that would run along Wellington Street and connect Ottawa to Gatineau across the river. “And that’s because they had to shut down Wellington’s cold turkey.”
The three-week occupation by protesters made Canadians realize the vulnerability of the parliamentary precinct.
“This country was certainly shocked by what happened in February,” said Ottawa City Councilor Catherine McKenney, whose neighborhood encompasses the area around Parliament Hill. “The idea 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 Center Block opened in 1920, replacing a former parliament building that had been destroyed by fire.
In January 2019, the House of Commons and the Senate moved to temporary quarters – the West Block for the former; the former train station for the latter – while the Center 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 was largely gutted; 20,000 heritage items were removed and stored, and 41 million kilograms of asbestos-containing materials were washed away.
The exterior brickwork is being cleaned and repaired, with some stones replaced, and there is a large trench in front of the building which will house both the heating and cooling systems and part of a new visitor center . In addition, shock absorbers are installed to protect the building against earthquakes.
If things stay on track, the restored Center Block should reopen to the public in about 10 years at a cost of between $4 billion and $5 billion, “and that baseline holds,” Wright said. Around the same time, the new Block 2 will go into service, running along the south side of Wellington Street, facing the Center Block. The project people are already calling it South Block.
The winning design by David Chipperfield Architects of London and Zeidler Architecture of Toronto was chosen in May. The widely acclaimed proposal incorporates existing buildings and adds new ones, with extensive use of stone, wood and copper, the latter in homage to the roof of the Center Block across the street.
The new block increases the opportunity to close Wellington Street to traffic, which would effectively turn Parliament Hill into the square. The tramway project is an option under consideration.
“For visitors to the capital and for workers on both sides of the river, it becomes a very nice way to connect all the buildings and make the National Capital Region work very well,” said Mr. Plamondon. The National Capital Commission (commonly known as the NCC) is studying the proposal, which has the support of the municipal councils of Ottawa and Gatineau.
The forced closure also demonstrated that other downtown streets could handle rush-hour traffic, in part because Ottawa’s new LRT line pulled many buses out of downtown. And with the increase in working from home, brought about by the pandemic, the loss of Wellington to traffic would not significantly increase congestion.
With new protests happening again on Canada Day and the possibility of a terrorist attack a constant concern, the security of Parliament Hill is another reason to keep the street closed.
Writer and philosopher John Ralston Saul served as honorary chair of the committee that chose the winning design for Block 2.
For generations, he observes, Canadians have stood on the lawn of Parliament to celebrate, protest or practice yoga, surrounded on three sides by the Center Block, the West Block and the from the east.
Now, with the creation of a southern block, “they will turn in four directions, and that will be their place,” he said. Mr. Saul believes that Wellington Street should be part of this square. “It will become a no-brainer.”
Some business owners on Wellington’s north-south streets are complaining that the closures are hurting commerce. And the future of Sparks Street, which parallels Wellington a block south, must also be considered. The street has been a pedestrian mall for decades, but the mall has never operated. Should it be reopened to traffic or integrated into the new district?
Jurisdictional wrangling has doomed many proposed improvements for the nation’s capital. The streetcar loop, for example, would require approval from the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, and the federal government.
But there is now a better chance that even the City of Ottawa will eventually transfer jurisdiction over Wellington Street to the federal government, which will redevelop the street into a new parliamentary precinct incorporating the new south block on Parliament Hill.
“I think the will is there from everyone – the NCC, the federal government, the City and Gatineau – to get things done,” said Mx. McKenney.
“This is just the start of conversations,” between governments about the future of the street, Mr Wright said. But “there is an alignment that I have never seen before” among public servants to reimagine the future of Wellington Street.
Mr. Saul points out that the Canadians of the 1860s built the West and East Blocks. Early 20th century Canadians built the Center Block. Today, Canadians will add their own footprint with the new south block and the integration of Wellington Street.
“It will be a statement about us,” he said. “Our generation will architecturally define the fourth side of Parliament Square. And it will be there for a very long time.
With good will, a renewed working-class neighborhood will welcome Canadians for generations to come.
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