Upkeep for vacant embassy costs Ottawa over $1M
Postmedia News Oct 7, 2011 – 4:10 PM ET
By Thandi Fletcher
OTTAWA — Once a mecca of activity on the coveted doorstep of Parliament Hill, the abandoned former U.S. Embassy building on Wellington Street has gathered more than a decade’s worth of dust and cobwebs at a taxpayer cost of more than $1-million over the past six years.
Documents obtained by Postmedia News using access to information legislation reveal the Conservative government, since coming into power, has spent more than $1.1-million on the upkeep of the deteriorating structure, now essentially a vacant warehouse.
The biggest expense — $556,207 spent between 2006 and 2011 — was for operations, maintenance and minor repairs.
Another $204,539 was spent on other repair projects, $65,012 on roads, grounds and security, $2,792 on cleaning and $272,321 on utilities in the same time period, while electricity costs averaged almost $53,639 per year.
When told of the costs, New Democrat MP Paul Dewar said he was shocked to see how much the federal government has spent “just to keep an empty building going.”
“It’s outlandish when you think of the history of this place,” said Dewar of the prime piece of real estate. “It’s not an abandoned building by design, it’s an abandoned building by decision.”
Built in 1931, the Beaux-Arts style three-storey mansion, with its intricate classical details carved out of limestone, was designed by prominent American architect Cass Gilbert.
The building was well maintained throughout its operational life, and still retained many of its original architectural elements when the last of the U.S. Embassy workers moved to their new, larger office on Sussex Drive in 1999.
As ideas on how to use the space were tossed about, then-prime minister Jean Chretien approved in 2001 a proposal to spend $22-million on transforming the historic building into a portrait gallery.
The planned renovations would create galleries to display the National Archives’ massive collection of paintings and photographs of people who have played a role in Canada’s history, from Canada’s first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
However, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative party came to power in 2006, the embassy renovations were quickly axed.
At that point, $11.4-million had already been spent — $6.5-million by the Department of Public Works and $4.9-million by Library and Archives Canada — on the portrait gallery plans, according to 2007 internal documents provided by Dewar’s office.
The Conservatives instead organized a competition inviting private developers from across the country to submit bids to have the portrait gallery built in their city, but the bidding process was cancelled about a week before the expected announcement of a winning city.
The competition was cancelled because “because none of the proposals met the government’s requirements,” according to an email from the Department of Canadian Heritage.
Almost $2-million was spent on the ill-fated competition, according to Dewar’s office.
In 2009, the Harper government reportedly looked into using the building as a reception space for dignitaries, but nothing came of that idea, either.
Today, although tall wooden barricades block off the street level view of the building, signs of wear and tear are visible on the its facade. The left doorknob on the double-door entrance is broken off, and graffiti has been drawn into a layer of dust and grime that has accumulated over many years of vacancy.
In any other nation’s capital, Dewar said, such a historically significant building in such a prestigious location would never be allowed to sit vacant. Dewar said he often fields questions from visitors about the building and what it is used for.
“It’s becoming a bit of an embarrassment,” said Dewar. “If you go to other nation capitals, be it Washington, London, Paris, and in the areas around their legislative buildings, this would be a no-brainer to have a portrait gallery and a building of this kind of prominence.
“It just kind of shows Canadians and the world a lack of any kind of caring and vision for the capital.”
While he doesn’t object to spending money on maintaining the building, Liberal Public Works critic and MP John McCallum said it’s high time the Conservative government decided what the building will be used for.
“What’s the point of having an empty building there, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain, and not do anything with it?” he asked. “Nobody sees it, nobody goes inside it. I think five plus years is ample time to act. It’s overdue.”
Gregory Thomas, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said a decision on the building’s function is long overdue.
“Keeping it vacant and keeping the lights on at a cost of $220,000 a year makes very little sense,” said Thomas. “Only the Government of Canada would keep an empty building around and pay $1.1 million to keep it empty. It’s crazy.”
In an email on Friday, Public Works and Government Services Canada wrote the department “is exploring options for future use of the building located at 100 Wellington.”
For now, the building “is a classified heritage building and requires regular maintenance and repairs to mitigate health and safety risks and to ensure its preservation,” the email said.http://news.nationalpost.com/2011/10/07 ... a-over-1m/