City’s proposed portrait gallery sites ineligible

Ottawa is at a disadvantage in the competition for the Portrait Gallery of Canada because federally owned sites, which make up many of the city’s prime locations, are not eligible under the federal government’s bidding process, city officials say.

This means some of the city’s best sites for the gallery – the Lorne Building on Elgin Street, the Government Conference Centre on Rideau Street and the former U.S. embassy building on Wellington Street – do not qualify.

“We feel slightly disadvantaged compared to other cities because a lot of the prime real estate is owned by the federal government and not by the private sector,” says David Powers, an economic development official with the city.

With the support of city council, Mayor Larry O'Brien sent a letter to the federal government last week requesting that federally owned downtown buildings be eligible to compete for the gallery in public-private partnerships.

The mayor also asked the federal government to extend the bid proposal deadline to May 31 from April 16 and to establish an independent review committee to approve the final site selection.

“On behalf of city council, I urge you and other Members of Parliament representing the Ottawa-Gatineau region to support the retention of the Portrait Gallery of Canada in the National Capital Region,” wrote O’Brien. “The collection belongs to the nation, and as such, the national portrait gallery belongs in the national capital region.”

Powers says until there is clarification from the federal government, Ottawa’s bid would have to rely on buildings owned by the private sector.

“We have a couple of good (private) sites that will be competitive,” Powers says.

In an e-mail interview, Denis Simard, a media relations officer with Public Works and Government Services Canada would not say whether the government will consider amending the bidding process.

“Lands owned by a department of the Government of Canada are not part of this solicitation,” wrote Simard.

In November the federal government invited bids from private-sector developers in nine cities across Canada to build a new national portrait gallery.

While Edmonton and Vancouver have expressed interest, the only city to make a move is Calgary, announcing $500,000 towards a bid.

Under the previous Liberal government, the gallery was supposed to be housed in the former U.S. embassy building on Wellington Street. About $11 million was spent on renovations before Prime Minister Stephen Harper pulled the plug on the initiative shortly after taking power, citing escalating costs.

But Somerset Ward Coun. Diane Holmes says it will cost more federal tax dollars – at least $2.5 million in annual operating expenses – to move the gallery to another city.

“The Harper government doesn’t seem to care whether it’s more costly as long as they continue to undermine Ottawa as a national capital,” she says.

The city is doing all it can to keep the gallery in Ottawa, offering private developers a $430,000 break on development charges.

Ottawa Centre MP Paul Dewar says he supports the city’s efforts. He says the gallery's best spot is the old U.S. embassy building.

“We’ve already spent $11 million renovating, and look at the location. It is right across from Parliament Hill,” Dewar says.

Holmes says the former building is ideal because it’s near other national museums and easily accessible by tourists.

“To think the portrait gallery should go outside the city is quite incredible,” Holmes says.

“No other capital city in the western world has national museums sprinkled across the country.”