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Battle over 24 Sussex's future heats up with a new plan to save run-down residence

Battle over 24 Sussex's future heats up with a new plan to save run-down residence
Battle over 24 Sussex's future heats up with a new plan to save run-down residence

اخبارالعرب 24-كندا:الجمعة 1 سبتمبر 2023 04:11 صباحاً As part of an effort to save 24 Sussex Drive for future prime ministers, a group of heritage-minded construction industry figures has come forward with a plan to restore the dilapidated residence.

Historic Ottawa Development Inc. (HODI) — a non-profit organization that includes noted architects, conservationists and project managers with a track record of saving heritage properties from demolition — says it can't stomach the idea of the 150-year-old building being abandoned as the prime minister's official residence.

HODI maintains the home has been at the centre of national political life for generations and shouldn't be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Marc Denhez is the president of HODI and and a past member of the official residences advisory committee at the National Capital Commission (NCC).

He said he believes reports of the home's state of decay have been exaggerated and the suggested price tag to fix the place is out of step with industry norms for a renovation project of this scale.

"We have a number of experts at our disposal and all of them unanimously have said the $36.6 million figure is for the birds," Denhez told CBC News.

A 2021 NCC report concluded the residence is in "critical" condition and estimated the cost to complete "deferred maintenance" at more than $36 million. The report set the home's "current replacement value" at $40.1 million.

"It can be done for a lot less money if you know how to kick the tires. And we have people who know how to kick tires," Denhez said.

The prime minister's residence in Ottawa, 24 Sussex, is pictured.
The grounds at the Prime Minister's residence at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa. The National Capital Commission (NCC) has started to strip the property of asbestos and remove obsolete mechanical, heating and electrical systems — but the property's future is still uncertain. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

He said the option of commandeering land in Ottawa's Rockcliffe Park for a new home — floated by government sources in a Radio-Canada story earlier this week — would be more expensive than fixing up the current Gothic Revival-style home to modern standards.

"Don't compare us to Jesus Christ. Compare us to the alternative and the alternative is kicking out park goers and putting a glass box in the middle of parkland," Denhez said.

"There's an apparent assumption that it's going to be so much more economical to snatch up parkland and start from scratch. We don't think that's true."

24 Sussex
Trace Architectures' proposal for 24 Sussex Dr. includes would preserve the existing home. (Supplied by Trace Architectures)

Denhez said it shouldn't take millions of dollars to clear out dead rats and squirrels in the walls. Remediation work to remove asbestos and replace outdated electric systems is already underway, he added.

Denhez said the prime minister doesn't require a lavish home with a designated space for large receptions.

He said that under Canada's Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, it's the King's representative who has most of the official hosting duties and Rideau Hall is already well equipped to handle such events.

What the prime minister needs, Denhez said, is a respectable home worthy of a G7 leader with space for family and rooms to host smaller affairs of state.

A renovated 24 Sussex, at 12,000 square feet, would fit the bill, he said.

"It's the Crown that has the responsibility for holding state events. In Britain, you don't have a state banquet at No. 10 Downing St. The prime minister gets in his limo and drives over to Buckingham Palace," he said.

"The same practice applies here in Canada. But you have some people in government who are saying, 'Oh, 24 Sussex, it's not presidential enough.'"

A spokesperson for the NCC declined to comment on the agency's long-term plans for 24 Sussex.

The home was closed for "health and safety reasons" last fall, the spokesperson said.

Starting in September, construction workers will start "abatement of designated substances" while removing outdated mechanical and electrical systems, she said.

A spokesperson for Public Services and Procurement Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the government is working closely with the NCC to "develop a plan for the future."

A government source speaking to CBC News on background said Duclos will release the government's plan for the residence "soon."

"That's the best I can tell you. The final plan will come soon. It's at the top of the list for the minister," the source said.

24 Sussex
Trace Architectures' proposal for 24 Sussex Dr. would add an 'official wing' to the residence for state functions. (Supplied by Trace Architectures)

Ken Grafton, a project manager at HODI, said the government shouldn't be rushing into a decision to replace the home. He said HODI wants the opportunity to make its pitch to Duclos to save 24 Sussex.

He said the NCC has stymied HODI's efforts to obtain detailed documents about the home's condition and the figures that support the $36.6 million price tag to replace it.

"The historic value of the home is very high. Think of all the world leaders that have been through there. It'd be ridiculous to demolish that. The government can't be that callous," Grafton said.

"We've assembled a team that's really bulletproof in terms of credibility on built heritage. We just want the chance to overturn the negative narrative that's been surrounding 24 Sussex for too long. We want to be a resource for the government."

WATCH: 24 Sussex may never house another prime minister

24 Sussex may never house another prime minister

2 days ago

Duration 2:26

The official residence of the prime minister, 24 Sussex Drive, may never house another prime minister. The federal government is looking into options for a more modern and secure house for future prime ministers.

Mark Brandt is a senior conservation architect at Trace, an Ottawa firm that has worked on retrofits of prominent heritage buildings like Parliament Hill's East Block and the Sir John A. Macdonald Building.

A past president of HODI who supports the non-profit's current efforts to save the home, Brandt has drafted an unsolicited proposal to preserve 24 Sussex while also building a new "official wing" on the home's expansive two-hectare grounds.

The existing residence would be returned to its original function as a single-family home while the new addition could be used for other official purposes, he said.

"All this talk of demolishing a historic building — it's crazy. The residence can be saved and it can be rehabilitated. There's no reason to lose the history or the gravitas of the place," Brandt told CBC News.

24 Sussex
An architect at Trace Architectures, a firm that has worked on other historic rehabilitations in Ottawa, says the home's current location is secure. (Supplied by Trace Architectures)

"You can do a completely modern, super-secure, net-zero carbon emissions addition. It can be a friendly next-door neighbour to the existing building which, as part of our proposal, can be fully restored on this spectacular site."

Security concerns are what's motivating the government to consider other sites for the official residence.

The existing home is relatively close to the street, which poses a risk given the real threats Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already faced while in office.

But Brandt said those risks can be mitigated.

The home's location — atop a cliff and surrounded by water on three sides — is already ideal from a security standpoint, he said.

The existing perimeter fence and gate can be "hardened," he added, and the road system reworked slightly to prevent unwanted vehicles from getting too close.

"The home's neighbours, the French embassy and the governor general's residence, seem to be quite happy with the security situation. Security is a challenge but I also think it's a red herring. We have great minds who've dealt with this before and they can do it again," he said.

Other official residences, like the White House in Washington, D.C., are arguably much more exposed to security risks than 24 Sussex, he said.

And other buildings frequented by Trudeau, including ones that Brandt's firm helped design in the parliamentary precinct, are also in more vulnerable urban locations, he said.

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