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Liberals revisiting plans to build showcase federal court in Ottawa

Thursday, July 07, 2016 @ 8:00 PM | By Cristin Schmitz

The Liberal government has quietly revived an oft-postponed plan to build national headquarters for the four federal courts whose offices are scattered around Ottawa, The Lawyers Weekly has learned.

Known as the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Judicial Building when it was deep-sixed a decade ago by the incoming Conservative government, the acclaimed Carlos Ott-designed, stone and copper-roofed building would complete the “judicial triad” in Ottawa’s Parliamentary and Judicial Precinct that was first planned in 1912.

Estimated to cost about $151 million in 2006 when it was shelved by the Harper government, the design has nine stories, two-below-grade parking levels with 350 spaces, 10 courtrooms and 87 chambers on the upper floors for the judges of the Federal Court, Federal Court of Appeal, Tax Court and Court Martial Appeal Court. There is also room for registry staff and administrative services (476 people in all) in the 48,000-square-metre building that would sit west of the Supreme Court of Canada (where the Conservatives planned to build the controversial National Memorial to Victims of Communism) and across from the Justice Building, the historic headquarters of the federal Department of Justice which now houses MPs offices. The communism victims’ memorial has been moved to another location but may ultimately be shelved.

“We are in discussion with [the Department of] Public Works right now about continuing on the project, and there’s certainly an intent on their side in continuing with the project,” confirmed Silvio Baldassarra, lead architect on the project and Toronto-based president of NORR Canada Architects Engineers and Planners. “They’re looking at continuing with the building and there’s a lot of desire, certainly on the government’s side, to do that,” he said.

NORR has stayed under contract with Ottawa, as architects and engineers on the project, after winning an open competition in 1991 to build the “Federal Judicial Building” in association with famed Uruguayan architect Ott, who designed the $400 million Bastille Opera House in Paris as well as Canada’s largest courthouse, the Calgary Courts Centre in 2007. (NORR has twice redesigned the project and former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien renamed it the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Judicial Building in 2003 to honour the late prime minister. It’s not known whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would keep his father’s name on the building if and when it is built).

Baldassarra told The Lawyers Weekly the working drawings for the new headquarters are ready to go out to tender, when the government gives the green light, but “there may be some changes.

“Could it go out [to tender] today? Absolutely,” he said. The National Capital Commission “has approved the design…courts have approved the design and signed off on the design, so…it’s shovel-ready, with all of the approvals in place.”

Asked whether he anticipates construction will start in the coming year, Baldassarra replied “perhaps.

“I’ve got my own impression of where I think they’re going to go with this, but they are actively looking at it, I can tell you that,” he said.

Federal Court Chief Justice Paul Crampton says there are good reasons to put the judges and support staff, currently scattered throughout Ottawa in leased commercial space, under one roof. “We are optimistic,” he told The Lawyers Weekly. “There have been murmurings that the building that was ready to go in 2005 may move forward…so we’re keeping our fingers crossed, and we will convey our view that to be a strong national institution we should have the visibility that comes with having a building [and] that it would probably be efficient, from a public expenditure perspective, for us to have a building, as opposed to be paying rent in a commercial building where there are all sorts of security issues.”

The Canadian Bar Association called on the government more than a decade ago to get going “immediately” on building a permanent home for the four courts. The federal Courts Administration Service estimated in 2006 that $25 million would be saved over 20 years if the courts were consolidated in one building.

Building a courthouse fits in with the Liberals’ pledge to spend money on infrastructure, said Chief Justice Crampton. “I see it as an infrastructure project. I don’t know why it shouldn’t be looked at as an infrastructure.”

Public Services and Procurement Canada spokesman Nicolas Boucher said by e-mail his department “continues to evaluate various options to permanently accommodate the Federal Courts…and the Courts Administration Service. No decisions have yet been made in respect to design, location or name of the building.”

The Ott/NORR design was singled out a decade ago for design excellence as an “outstanding justice facility” by the American Institute of Architects — the first time the organization honoured a yet-to-be-built structure. “It’s a 2006 design which I think has survived the test of time,” Baldassarra said. “It’s quite an elegant building. It gives the [four] courts the importance, but it also works with the [Justice and] Confederation Building and the Supreme Court of Canada in being very sympathetic to those buildings.”

Like the existing buildings near it, the federal courts headquarters would have a copper-clad mansard roof and be built primarily of natural stone. “The stone that was selected was an Ontario stone — Queenston limestone — and…it’s a noble material that does again match the other buildings that are on Parliament Hill,” Baldassarra explained. “When you’re doing composition like that, the last thing you want is to have a gold glass building stuck in the middle of it.”

As principal architect on the project and team leader for half-a-dozen NORR-designed courthouses, Baldassarra disagreed that the building is overly lavish, a criticism made about the original design by the Auditor General of Canada in 1997. “It’s not lavish,” he said. “It’s a quality building” designed to a standard befitting an Ottawa architectural landmark. “The Federal Judicial Building site is the last remaining site on Parliament Hill, and because of that it’s the most important,” he said. “The materials are quality materials…that are going to last 100 years.”

According to the book NORR published about the building this year, interior finishes include honed granite and marble, walnut, stainless steel and back-painted glass. The building is designed to green standards.

Its “exterior cladding consists of rough cut sandstone, copper panels, aluminum curtain wall system with insulated glazing units and copper solar control shade screens. Roofing consists of a planted green roof on top of the parking podium and a single-ply PVC roof membrane with skylights on the main building.”

The building “is layered in a two-story courtroom base, three administrative support levels and four levels of judges’ chambers above. At the heart of the complex are two stacked atria that open to the north and the Ottawa River and beyond. The lower atrium, five storeys in height, is the primary public space around which the court rooms are organized. Floors 3-5, which contain the registry and courts administration offices, wrap around the public atrium and share the views to the river but are screened from below by a stainless steel fabric curtain.

“Above the five-story public space is another light-filled four-storey upper atrium, which provides a private sanctuary for the judges and their staff. On each floor, private judges’ chambers ring the perimeter of the building, providing a variety of picturesque views to the east, south and west. Between the judges’ chambers and atrium are the open work areas for the judicial assistants and the law clerks. Linking the four levels is a feature stair that provides convenient access and reinforces the sense of camaraderie between the various courts.”