The two-storey red brick building on 231 Cobourg street was constructed in the 1940s as an apartment building, and became Uganda's high commission in 1985. Owned by the Ugandan government, the building was used as Uganda's high commission to Canada until 2014 when it was declared unsafe.
As a result, the Ugandan government announced that it wanted to demolish the building and build a new high commission in its place. However, the plan suffered a setback on Thursday when Ottawa's Built Heritage sub-committee ignored the advice of both the city's own professional heritage planners and a third-party engineering firm, who agreed the building is in such bad shape and it isn't worth repairing.
The Built Heritage sub-committee, established under the Ontario Heritage Act, is a sub-committee of Planning Committee and provides advice to the City Council on built heritage issues. It is comprised of four members of council and three members of the public.
In a meeting held on Thursday, only two members of the committee voted in favour of demolition. The rest said they were not convinced demolition was the only option. They argued that razing the structure was detrimental to the history of Ottawa. Ward councilor Mathieu Fleury, one of the municipal councillors who opposed the demolition of the building said the heritage value of the building must prevail.
"We recognize that maintaining certain properties, especially those that are heritage, can be very expensive," he admitted. "It's not an excuse to abandon them and not do the necessary work.
The building was once home to Lester B. Pearson, the former prime minister of Canada who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for organizing the United Nations Emergency Force to resolve the Suez Canal crisis. But the decision of the subcommittee has triggered outrage from the Ugandan envoy in Ottawa.
"We are so disappointed by the decision made by the committee, and that ... does not enhance the good bilateral relationship between Uganda and Canada," ambassador Joy Acheng is quoted saying in an interview with CBC.
She added that the committee members were very unfair not to consider the technical report that came out of a review conducted by an independent engineer hired by the Ottawa city to have another look at the building.
The review from John G. Cooke and Associates Limited published online found the damage to the building was "significant" and related primarily to settlement associated with moisture depletion of the underlying clay soils. The engineer came to the same conclusion as the building's owner: it should be torn down. The engineer's report pegged the cost of repairing the building at $1 million.
Acheng dismissed allegations that the Ugandan government had willingly allowed the building to fall into disrepair but blamed the crumbling foundation on the unique soil conditions in Sandy Hill. Judah Mulalu, the architect hired to design Uganda's new high commission also disagreed with the decision to save the structure.
"It's past the threshold of reason to try to rehabilitate the building," he said. "There has to be some kind of threshold of reason."
The structure, while not individually designated as a heritage site, is officially designated under a section of the Ontario Heritage Act as part of the Wilbrod/Laurier Heritage Conservation District. If the building is saved it will become part of a "street museum" dedicated to the lives of former prime ministers.
A number of countries have previously been involved in similar battles over the years. In 2017, Belgian officials opposed a plan by the American embassy to demolish a disused office block in the leafy Brussels suburb of Watermael-Boitsfort and build a new embassy there from scratch.
The embassy had wanted to demolish the building because it is not fit for use. It reportedly had a poor energy rating, an underground car park that presents a security risk, and that the office space measuring 65,000m², was three times too large for the embassy's 380 members of staff.
But officials at Watermael-Boitsfort town hall and the Brussels region applied for the building and its gardens to become listed property. They said any renovations to the site must maintain the building's appearance and respect its heritage.