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Ottawa Looking to Drop 24 Sussex and Build New Home for PM Elsewhere: Sources

The federal government is looking at dropping the dilapidated mansion at 24 Sussex in Ottawa as the prime minister’s official residence and is considering several other sites in the city for a replacement, sources say.

The various federal agencies in charge of the PM’s official residence have identified other plots of land where they could build an official residence that is larger, safer and more accessible than the one that served prime ministers from 1951 to 2015.

The residence at 24 Sussex is in a state of disrepair after decades of neglect, and the grounds are simply too small to meet modern security standards, several sources and experts have told Radio-Canada.

One of the lots under consideration is in Rockcliffe Park, an idyllic spot along the Ottawa River that regularly hosts picnics and weddings, sources said.

The park has a secondary parking lot, surrounded by woods, in a less frequented area. It’s also farther from the road and from the Ottawa River than 24 Sussex — factors which make it a preferred option among security experts, sources said.

The government also has evaluated a site near the RCMP Musical Ride training centre to the east of Rockcliffe Park. Sources said the flat terrain there is more visible from the road and the site would require fencing that would make it look more like a fortress.

Other plots of land owned by the federal government are also being studied. The leader of the Official Opposition’s residence at Stornoway was even considered at one time, said a source.

Another option being examined is to move the PM’s residence permanently to Rideau Cottage on the grounds of Rideau Hall. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been living there in a “temporary” arrangement since 2016.

The government insists no final choice has been made.

“There is no option that has unanimous support, and every option has its pros and cons,” said a federal government source.

‘It’s embarrassing’

In the midst of a housing and cost-of-living crisis, the construction of a new official residence costing tens of millions of dollars would be a political headache for the federal government, which has been dithering over 24 Sussex’s fate for years.

“I think it’s embarrassing that a G7 country can’t provide a safe, secure residence for the head of government and their family,” said former clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, who was the head of the federal public service from 2016 to 2019.

Plans to renovate 24 Sussex were made during Trudeau’s first mandate but the government decided the price tag was too high and the potential for political controversy too great.

“My understanding is there’s no way to make [24 Sussex] safe at a reasonable cost,” said Wernick.

Built in 1868, 24 Sussex later served as the official residence of a succession of Liberal and Conservative prime ministers, from Louis St-Laurent’s arrival in 1951 until Stephen Harper’s departure in 2015.

Prime ministers have welcomed many international luminaries to 24 Sussex, from U.S. presidents like John F. Kennedy to pop stars like Bono and royalty like Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles (when he was Prince Charles) and Princess Diana.

After he was elected in 2015, Trudeau refused to move into 24 Sussex because the residence was in need of extensive renovations after years of neglect. Among other things, the building’s faulty electrical systems posed a fire hazard at the time.

“The initial preference was to renovate 24 Sussex, but no one realized the extent of the necessary renovations that were needed,” said a source who was involved in the deliberations at the time.

In a report published in 2021, the NCC estimated that the “deferred maintenance deficit” at 24 Sussex stood at $37 million — a figure which does not include the need to spend tens of millions of dollars on better security.

Security shortcomings

A major problem for 24 Sussex is the residence’s proximity to a busy street — which could make a truck bomb attack on the prime minister more lethal. The short distance between the road and the residence also would make it harder for police to respond to a surprise attack.

To prevent drone attacks, steel plates need to be installed on 24 Sussex’s roof. That would require installing a metal skeleton around the frame that one source warned could turn 24 Sussex into a “bunker.”

“In 1951, it was a good choice to install our prime minister here but now the building is no longer up to standard,” said Pierre-Yves Bourduas, a former RCMP deputy commissioner who was once responsible for the security of official residences in the Ottawa area.

“Security has changed enormously over the past 10 years and in this context, we need to rethink the location of the prime minister’s residence.”

Faced with 24 Sussex’s deterioration, the National Capital Commission announced it was “closing” the residence earlier this year. Work to remove the heating and electrical systems is set to begin in September.

The house suffers from a long list of problems, including mould in the pool and sauna area, rodent infestations and asbestos.

A hot potato

Several government officials said there are many arguments in favour of relocating the official residence. These sources were granted confidentiality to speak about a file that is still open within the government.

“Everyone knows that renovating everything can cost more than building something new,” said a source involved in decisions about 24 Sussex.

Beyond its structural and security problems, the site at 24 Sussex isn’t large enough to include a reception area.

“Most G7 and Commonwealth leaders receive official visitors in a space dedicated for these purposes. Canada currently lacks such dedicated spaces,” the NCC said in a 2022 report.

The main residence at 24 Sussex amounts to roughly 12,000 square feet. The NCC says the prime minister’s official residence needs about 16,000 square feet, including space for official functions, security and staff.

The NCC suggests the residence should have 4,700 square feet for private family quarters, including a master bedroom, four bedrooms for children and three bedrooms to accommodate relatives, friends or other guests.

The NCC said it thinks the official residence should be able to accommodate groups of at least 15 to 30 people for professional meetings.

Trudeau’s current residence at Rideau Cottage is less than ideal from a security standpoint, said sources — it has clear sight lines from nearby buildings and also lacks metal roof plating to repel drone attacks.

One former adviser to Trudeau said having the elected prime minister living on the grounds next to the King’s representative in Canada also sends the wrong message.

“It doesn’t make sense for the Prime Minister to live in the Governor General’s backyard,” the former adviser said.

Ottawa has said it could make a decision about 24 Sussex by the fall. July’s cabinet shuffle may slow down that process — Jean-Yves Duclos, Trudeau’s seventh minister of public services and procurement, only recently took over the file.

Building a new official residence in Rockcliffe Park would meet many security requirements but would run the risk of encountering opposition from the park’s users.

Russell Gibson, president of the Rockcliffe Park Residents Association in Ottawa, said he hopes the government comes up with plans for an official residence “that we can all be proud of.” To get there, he said, it will be important for the NCC to proactively consult members of the community before making final choices.

University of Montreal professor emeritus Christina Cameron, an expert on Canada’s built heritage, said the government should keep 24 Sussex as the PM’s official residence. She said the building, which has been visited by major figures in world history over the decades, is part of Canada’s story.

“I think we should keep it, save it,” said Cameron, a former chair of the NCC’s Official Residences Advisory Committee.

“No one will make a decision because they don’t want to be criticized that they’re doing something for themselves. So I find that very frustrating and short-term thinking and I think it’s not appropriate for Canada.”

It’s almost certain that Justin Trudeau won’t be prime minister once (or if) a new residence is built — which could make the decision easier for him.

“At this stage, it will be for someone else,” said a Liberal source.

Wernick said many projects of this kind have run up against a strong NIMBY reaction from Ottawa residents opposed to major developments. He added that prime ministers are very skittish about the appearance of buying a big house for themselves at taxpayers’ expense.

“I think there’s a chill created by adverse media coverage and political backlash. There’s no upside for the prime minister — for any prime minister — to make this call,” he said.

Wernick said he hopes the government will proceed with a plan for the official residence, although he remains “skeptical” that the matter will be resolved before the next federal election.

Source : CBC