Commons board recommending $733M plan to build Parliament Hill visitors centre

MPs on the House of Commons' Board of Internal Economy are leaning toward a $733 million renovation plan for Parliament Hill's planned visitors centre. But its $75M reno plan for the Commons doesn't take into account physical distancing.

Board also recommends a $75M reno to add more seats to the Commons — but has no plans for physical distancing

The Peace Tower is seen as work continues on the exterior of the future Visitor Welcome Centre during a media tour of the renovated West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, June 15, 2018. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

MPs on the House of Commons' Board of Internal Economy are leaning toward a $733 million renovation plan for Parliament Hill's planned visitors centre.

A new report, prepared by consultants for the procedure and house affairs committee and obtained by CBC News, lays out three options for the construction of the visitors centre, which is to link the district's West, Centre and East Blocks together through a series of underground passages and meeting rooms.

The centre will contain a security screening area, a visitor information centre for tour groups and committee rooms for the Senate. The estimated costs of the three options range from $552 million to $847 million.

One option — the one being recommended by the Board of Internal Economy — has been costed at $733 million and would take another six months to complete.

Same Commons, more seats

The report also identifies the board's preferred option for renovating the House of Commons chamber: a $75 million project that would maintain the current dimensions of the chamber while adding more seats.

That plan would see MPs sit closer together, either on stadium-style seating or the long benches used in the U.K. House of Commons.

The consultants' work began before the pandemic hit and before workplaces around the world — including the Commons — were forced to adopt physical distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.

(CBC News)

CBC News asked the board to explain how the $75 million reno option would accommodate physical distancing requirements. A board spokesperson that that the board's choice of renovation options was made pre-pandemic and it hasn't discussed the possible impact of COVID-19 on its decisions.

The report does warn, however, that the pandemic crisis may affect the cost of the renovations going forward.

Crowded house

Right now, the House of Commons holds 338 MPs. That number is expected to grow as Canada's population increases. The Commons could hold 420 MPs by the time the renovations are complete.

By choosing to add more seats, the board is rejecting two other options that would have changed the face of the Commons chamber more radically.

One other option that was under consideration would have added two-storey lobbies on either side of the chamber. The report estimates the cost of this work at $303 million and says it would require an extra year to get stakeholder approvals for the design changes and another two years to complete the construction.

(CBC News)

A third option was dropped by the Board of Internal Economy before the consultants began their work. It would have involved ripping out Centre Block's west exterior wall to widen the Commons chamber.

MPs and senators have been poring over different plans and scenarios to renovate and restore the entire Centre Block to help make it function for the next 100 years. Until they received this report, they were working without knowing the exact costs associated with the options.

When she appeared before the procedure and house affairs committee at the end of February, Public Services Minister Anita Anand promised to get MPs the cost estimates.

No cost estimates for Senate and other facilities yet

The costing report does not include the costs of renovating the Senate Chamber or other parts of Centre Block.

"Detailed analyses are ongoing so that project requirements and costs can be confirmed before major construction begins," said Cecely Roy, a spokesperson for Anand's office.

So far, $4.2 billion has approved by Parliament for the renovations and close to $3 billion has already been spent on renovating the West Block, the new Senate of Canada building and the Wellington Building.

The white area on this aerial image shows how much of the front lawn of Parliament is affected by the construction project. (Google Maps/Laury Dubé/Radio-Canada)

The report notes that the final cost of the House of Commons restoration could vary from the estimates by up to 20 per cent, while the welcome centre's cost could swing by ten per cent.

The report also cautions that future design changes could substantially increase costs. That could turn out to be an important factor, since the renovations are expected to take up to ten years — and a great many of the people in the Commons and Senate right now may not still be there when the work is complete.

Security renos

The report also says that security plans associated with the renovation have not been finalized and could substantially increase the cost and duration of the project. It says that work could be delayed if MPs and senators decide to add enhanced blast protection to the buildings.

Centre Block has witnessed security breaches in the past, including the 2014 attack by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and the 1966 bombing by Paul Joseph Chartier. Both men died during their attacks.

Also missing from the costing report are some factors in the design of the Visitors Welcome Centre that come under the purview of the Senate.

Senators still have to decide if they require a separate entrance to the welcome centre.

As the senior house of Parliament, the Senate regularly hosts many diplomatic functions which might benefit from a separate entrance.

Senators on the long-term vision and planning sub-committee were expected to make recommendations on a separate entrance to the Board of Internal Economy this week.

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Chris Rands

Parliamentary bureau

Chris Rands has been a member of the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau since 2001. As a producer, he has travelled with two prime ministers to six countries. His most famous interview — with Jody Wilson-Raybould — was conducted while walking backwards down Parliament Hill. He also discovered NATO leaders discussing U.S. President Donald Trump on tape during a reception at Buckingham Palace. Chris is a former president of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

with files from The Canadian Press

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