It’s been a fixer-upper for years.
So is it time to gut this old House?
Officials at Ontario’s aging legislature think so and look longingly to Parliament Hill, where the Centre Block is getting a $5-billion, decade-long renovation to bring it up to contemporary standards.
In a building that opened in 1893, and is now better known for leaks of political secrets, they point to frequently spurting original pipes at Queen’s Park, where signs warning “DO NOT DRINK TAP WATER” were placed in washrooms more than a decade ago because of lead contamination.
There’s also asbestos insulation, decades of jerry-rigged and exposed wiring through offices and in the ceilings, and a wonky, ancient steam heating system that leaves some occupants huddling over space heaters (hello, blown fuses) and others rushing to open windows wide, even on frigid January days, to avoid a free sauna.
But it’s the damage from flooding and other problems in the heavily retrofitted edifice that causes the most concern. The hours-long tracing of a recent pinhole leak required workers to find a shut-off valve that had been drywalled over, an effort that took opening parts of three floors and three walls. By that time, two rooms in the basement were wading pools.
“We don’t want to wait until there’s a catastrophe,” says Ted Arnott, the veteran Progressive Conservative MPP who was elected speaker of the legislature after Premier Doug Ford’s 2018 election victory.
“We need to make it safe and we need to modernize.”
In November, a workman got a surprise when his foot burst through the fourth floor, sending debris into the washroom of the speaker’s third floor apartment.
“Thankfully, I wasn’t in here at the time,” Arnott says as he points to a patch above the sink during a tour of the building with Jelena Bajcetic, director of the legislature’s precinct properties branch, clerk of the legislature Todd Decker and Minister of Legislative Affairs Paul Calandra.
They have been preparing and planning for a full renovation they hope to begin in 2025 — once an alternate location can be found and MPPs, staff, civil servants and journalists moved out, as has taken place in Ottawa with the House of Commons relocated to the recently renovated West Block.
“I’d like to see the building restored with all the modern utility that is required … with its original look and feel,” Calandra says in his west wing corner office, which is notable for its dark wooden wainscotting and trim.
“People expect the building to be maintained in a way we can be proud of,” he adds during the tour, which took place in late November as word of the Omicron variant was first emerging.
There is no official cost estimate yet, but the b-word, as in billion, is being used for the job that could include reopening skylights and windows long ago covered over, restoring some original grandeur along with improving the dismal lighting in darker areas.
Although the idea of a move-everyone-out, top-to-bottom renovation pre-dates the pandemic, there are the optics of embarking on an expensive major project at a time the province has gone billions deeper into debt to finance the COVID-19 response.
“There’s never a good time to start this, but right now we’re going through an emergency,” says New Democratic Party deputy leader John Vanthof, who acknowledges the value of preserving the building. “Right now, our focus should be on getting Ontario through this.”
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Nevertheless, consultants have been going through the premises cataloguing the many problems to be solved and upgrades needed to make the Pink Palace (so named for the colour of its exterior stone) ready for another century as the seat of government.
In the basement, which was never intended as more than that but now houses a cafeteria, mail room, dining room and more, thick cast iron steam pipes run under the floor. It is hot to the touch. More steam pipes run through the ceiling, with all manner of wires and cables snaking around them.
Should one of those ceiling steam pipes crack or leak, damage to the wires could put parts of the building out of commission.
“Electrical is one of the biggest issues,” says Bajcetic.
While it can take a good five minutes to get lukewarm water out of a tap on the top floors, the water in the first floor west-wing washrooms is luxuriously hot.
There are questions, too, about what the building should ultimately include.
The plan is to eliminate the viceregal suite that was constructed in the late 1930s as the Depression-era government of Liberal premier Mitchell Hepburn sold off the lieutenant governor’s Chorley Park residence as a cost-saving measure.
Calandra also wants every MPP to have an office within the building, instead of having some scattered in others nearby.
Green Leader Mike Schreiner says he supports a renovation but urges the government to create an all-party committee to discuss it because only parties with 12 MPPs are considered “official” — meaning the Greens and Liberals are not on the board of internal economy.
“This building should have been renovated a long time ago,” he told the Star.
“We have to make it more energy-efficient. It’s ridiculous how much energy this building wastes and how much money it costs us. We need to upgrade the pipes. We can’t even drink the water. And while the government’s talking about electric vehicles, why not have some EV charging stations?”
In the last five years, work that didn’t have to wait for a full renovation has already been done.
A drainage upgrade to the foundation around the building cost $20 million, restoration of the exterior masonry and windows took another $10 million and there have been various fire safety and other upgrades costing up to $2 million.
“We could continue to do it piecemeal, but that is inefficient, takes longer and costs more,” says Arnott.
“If you look down the street, most of those buildings weren’t there 100 years ago,” adds Decker, nodding south toward hospital row along University Avenue.
“But 100 years from now, this building will still be the provincial parliament.”
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
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