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MPs startled by $6.6-million price tag on Parliament Hill wall

By Tim Naumetz      

The work involved intricate restoration. 'We are leaving a legacy for Canadians,' says Public Works.

The wall marking the boundary between the walking path around Parliament Hill and embankment was restored over five years, finishing this year. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

Several MPs were taken aback this week to learn that the cost to replace a crumbling 400-metre stone wall with a new masonry wall and wrought-iron fence along the Ottawa River escarpment behind Parliament Hill has added up to an eye-popping $6.6-million.

It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the total of $2-billion the Public Works department is spending for a years-long, massive renovation and restoration of the Hill’s West Block and other Senate and Commons buildings, not including the cost of a decade of renovations still to come for the main Centre Block building that contains the Commons and Senate chambers.

But even so, the price tag for demolition and replacement of the original masonry wall and fence that ran from the Rideau Canal on Wellington Street and up behind Centre Block to the west side of Parliament Hill prompted MPs to ask whether the figure was correct.

“For 400 metres of wall?” Conservative MP Randy Hoback (Prince Albert, Sask.) asked after The Hill Times briefed him on the project, completed earlier this year.

Quebec NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice (Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie, Que.) was nearly at a loss for words, though he could still joke: “Four hundred metres? I’m really surprised right now; I’m thinking of starting a construction business.”

Conservative MP Brad Trost, one of the current 12 candidates vying for leadership of the federal Conservative Party, zeroed in on the length of the wall in relation to the cost.

“What is that per metre?” was the first response from Mr. Trost (Saskatoon-University, Sask.).

It works out to $16,548 per metre.

The MPs eased off, slightly, when told about some of the intricate work that was involved in, for instance, demolishing the old stone wall, first constructed after the turn of the 20th century, and levelling and installing a refurbished wrought-iron black fence on top of the wall.

A spokesperson for Public Services and Procurement Canada, the department in charge of Parliamentary Precinct renovations in conjunction with the management boards of the Senate and the House of Commons, explained the detail in an email to The Hill Times. A director general in the department’s Parliamentary Precinct branch, Ezio DiMillo, and John Zvonar, a departmental conservation landscape architect adviser, filled in more details during a subsequent conference call interview.

“The North Perimeter Wall is a historical landscape feature on Parliament Hill,” the department said in an email through spokesperson Nicolas Boucher. “It delineates the Hill’s pedestrian pathway and escarpment.”

The work to repair and restore the wall was done in three phases, beginning in 2011, Mr. DiMillo said in the interview.


A map of the Parliament Hill north perimeter wall construction phases. Image courtesy of Public Services and Procurement Canada

The first phase, a section leading up from Wellington Street past the East Block, was carried out by Colonial Restoration Inc. of Scarborough, Ont., which had worked on restoration of the Library of Parliament. It cost $1.8-million.

The second phase, also work performed by Colonial Restoration and involving a smaller section at the west side of the Ottawa River escarpment, cost $869,000.

A separate contract for the third and final phase, the largest part of the project in terms of work and cost, was awarded through tender to Prestige Design and Construction Ltd. of Ottawa, and cost $3.95-million, excluding taxes. It took 15 months to complete.

Heritage Grade Architectural Restoration Services of Ottawa was sub-contracted for restoration of the original wrought-iron fence. Robertson Martin Architects was contracted as consultants.

“The wall showed significant signs of deterioration,” wrote Mr. Boucher by email. “The original ironwork needed to be restored, joints between the masonry and the foundation had become friable, the masonry was cracked and displaced, and the water drainage was inefficient.”

The old wall, despite its state, was also a favourite lookout for tourists to lean on, and their children, Hill denizens have observed over the years.

The cost is included in a government-approved budget for current renovations and “was delivered on time, on scope, and on budget,” said Mr. Boucher.

An 11-point department list of the $6.6-million job, provided to The Hill Times, consisted of: demolition of the old masonry wall; removal of the demolished wall and masonry; removal and off-site restoration of the wrought-iron fence; excavation for new footings and retaining walls; pouring of new concrete footings and retaining walls; installation of a waterproof membrane and (drainage) weeping tiles; drainage improvements; construction of the new stone wall and masonry, including capstones; compacting the ground for construction of a new limestone pathway; construction of the limestone pathway; and landscaping with top soil, shrubs, and sod.

Despite the attraction of the new wall, and its view of the Ottawa River, the wall, walkway, and statues behind Centre Block will remain closed to the public until 2017 “in time for Canada’s 150th anniversary celebration,” Mr. Boucher said in his email, due to ongoing work on other construction projects in the area.

“Through the restoration and modernization projects underway on and around Parliament Hill, we are leaving a legacy for Canadians. We are ensuring that our Parliament Buildings and grounds continue to serve our country for another 150 years,” said Mr. Boucher.

Mr. Hoback said such an expenditure on a stone wall, though a fraction of the entire parliamentary restoration project, should still be scrutinized.

“Any average Canadian would be deeply concerned if they heard the price tag of this,” said the MP.

After being told of some of the details provided by the department, and the workmanship involved in the masonry, stonework, and fence, Mr. Trost said: “So the costs really added up, oh yeah, I can see.”

“It’s just mind-boggling how much it cost. There’s no way they could have done this less expensively?”

Mr. Boulerice concluded: “I’m happy if it’s so beautiful, but I’m still really surprised you could spend $6.5-million of taxpayer money to do that kind of work. I would like to see more details.”


The Hill Times

Correction and clarification: This story originally incorrectly stated the general contract for Phase 3 was awarded to Prestige Masonry of Edmonton. It was in fact awarded to Prestige Design and Construction Ltd. of Ottawa. The story also originally stated that Phase 3 was the largest section of the old wall behind Centre Block. It has been updated to describe that phase as the largest part of the entire project, in terms of work and cost.

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