A prominent Ottawa architect is accusing the federal government of “stealing” the site that’s been chosen for the new Memorial to Victims of Communism.
In an open letter to Stephen Harper, Barry Padolsky urges the prime minister to find a “more appropriate” location for the memorial, to be built on a 5,000-square-metre property on Wellington Street, next to the Supreme Court of Canada.
That site had long been designated as the future location of a new building for the Federal Court of Canada, called the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Judicial Building in government planning documents.
Padolsky says the Trudeau building — or another comparable structure — is the missing piece in a planned “judicial triad” that would include the Supreme Court of Canada Building and the Justice Building on its eastern flank.
The so-called judicial precinct “needs a significant piece of architecture, not a low-profile landscaped memorial, on the west side of the judicial lawn to achieve the urban design vision for the parliamentary and judicial precincts,” Padolsky writes.
“Our national ‘acropolis’ deserves to be completed and embellished as proposed in our shared homegrown vision.”
And, Padolsky bluntly tells Harper, “We await your explanation of why the chosen site . . . was stolen from its intended use as the location for a future Federal Court building or other national institution.”
Plans for the judicial precinct dating back to 1920 consistently show the presence of a building on the undeveloped site that would create a trio of standalone buildings to mirror the configuration of the Centre Block, East Block and West Block on Parliament Hill.
Plans for the Trudeau building were announced in 2002, and an official naming and design unveiling ceremony was held in December 2003, raising hopes that the federal courts, which have had to rent space in various Ottawa office buildings, would finally get a permanent home.
Completion was scheduled for 2007. But in 2005, the Liberal government of the day put the project on hold.
Despite that, the proposed building remained in a 2006 update by Public Works to the long-term plan for the parliamentary and judicial precincts. Construction of the building, the update said, “will assist in transforming the poorly defined space in front of the Supreme Court into a local square with a strong sense of place.”
The Trudeau building also appeared in a 2007 government document outlining the government’s long-term vision and plan for the parliamentary precinct, though it stated that repairing deteriorating historic buildings was the first priority.
The project now appears to be dead. In an email, Public Works said the department “is not planning on constructing a new building” to house the federal courts.
Public Works said it provided the judicial precinct site for the memorial in support of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, which it said is responsible for the project.
In 2011, the National Capital Commission reserved a site for the proposed Memorial to Victims of Communism at the Garden of the Provinces, on Wellington Street just west of Bay Street.
But, in May 2012, Public Works allocated the current site to Tribute to Liberty, the charity behind the proposed the memorial.
According to an email from the Department of Canadian Heritage, the current site “was deemed more favourable” by Tribute to Liberty because of its proximity and “thematic links” to the Supreme Court of Canada, the Peace Tower, Parliament Hill and Library and Archives Canada.
In March 2013, Public Works asked the NCC to add the memorial to the current site’s permitted uses.
The NCC’s board signed off last November. In a report, staff said the project was in line with strategies in the NCC’s corporate plan supporting significant national commemorations on Confederation Boulevard.
The planned memorial also possessed “thematic links to the judicial precinct and to the Supreme Court of Canada, specifically the protection of the key Canadian values of freedom and respect for human rights,” the staff report said.
By then, Citizenship and Immigration had already announced $1.5 million in funding for the memorial at the selected site. Though it made no formal announcement, the government has since increased its financial support to $3 million.
In addition, Public Works donated the high-profile site, bringing the total value of the federal contribution to about $4 million. Tribute to Liberty says it has raised a further $2 million privately.
In August, the government unveiled six competing designs for the memorial. A jury has since recommended one to the government, which is expected to announce the winning design this month. The memorial is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2015.
In an interview, Padolsky said shifting the memorial to the new site “has thrown out principles of planning for the parliamentary and judicial precincts.”
That’s the key issue, he said. “It’s not about taxpayers’ money. It’s not about the theme, although everyone has questions as to why now for something like that.”
Padolsky, whose firm, Barry Padolsky Associates Inc., has won nearly two dozen awards for heritage preservation projects, says the decision to shift the memorial to the site “goes probably to the highest levels of the country.
“What I do know is that there are senior people at Public Works who have been disturbed by this move to usurp the Federal Court building,” he said. The same is true at the NCC, he added.
Padolsky said he decided to speak out because such a fundamental planning change deserves more debate.
The plan for the parliamentary and judicial precincts was developed by the “best and brightest” planners, architects and landscape architects in the country, and shouldn’t be lightly jettisoned, he said. “This site actually deserves a major building.”
If the government has decided that a Federal Court building isn’t needed, the site should be used for some other national institution, such as a museum, Padolsky said.