Ottawa Warns Windsor To Not Remove Paul Martin Scaffolding Amid Safety Concerns

Warning that it would unquestionably jeopardize the safety of passersby, Ottawa is urging Windsor not to remove the protective sidewalk scaffolding that for years has surrounded the Paul Martin building in the downtown.

In a letter to city engineer Mario Sonego dated March 11, Public Works and Government Services Canada regional director Silvano Mason advises there are no alternative interim measures that are available to secure the facade of the building and that it remains the departments intention not to undertake repairs and to sell it in as-is condition.

It was only in January that a spokesman for Public Works and Government Services Canada Minister Diane Finley told The Star that it is not true that the building poses any safety risk to the public. Press secretary Marcel Poulin described as reckless comments made at the time by MP Brian Masse (NDP Windsor West) that the state of the building was unacceptable and unsafe.

But Masons letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Star Thursday, said the scaffolding was erected for the purpose of ensuring public safety and must remain in place pending repairs.

The Conservatives lied to our community, said Masse. Now they better take some action and fix that facade, he added.

What triggered the letter to Sonego was the citys refusal to renew a required scaffolding permit for 2014. The hoarding, usually only provided temporarily during construction work, has surrounded the Paul Martin building for more than four years. Ottawa announced in January it was walking away from what Mayor Eddie Francis said was a tentative deal in which the feds would fix the facade and then give the heritage structure to the city, which in turn planned to transfer it to the University of Windsor for a new law school.

Public Works Canada pegged the buildings restoration cost at $18 million and said it was a very bad deal for taxpayers. The city argues that if the buildings owner were anybody else, it would have been ordered to do the repairs but that it has no jurisdiction when it comes to federal buildings.

When the feds said in January that the building was safe, Windsors mayor challenged them to remove the scaffolding. The latest letter indicates that would not be in the interests of public safety.

they’ve got a serious issue with this building, said Francis. His and the citys biggest concern is that, with the huge cost associated with fixing the building, it will become an empty piece of blight once the almost 400 federal employees vacate 185 Ouellette Ave. in the next couple of years.

Respectfully, I don’t think anyone is going to come in and buy that building its in dire need of repair, said Francis. With that letter, they admit theres a problem, he added.

In an e-mailed response Thursday afternoon to The Stars request for comment, Poulin said officials with his department are taking all necessary steps to ensure the safety of the public in and around the Paul Martin building. He said monthly inspections by a third party are performed to closely monitor the safety of the building.

There is a health and safety issue there it must be addressed by fixing the problem, said Francis. If this were Toronto, if this were Ottawa, I don’t think they’d be getting away with this, he added.

Masse said Windsorites only have to look at scaffolding-clad Parliament Hill these days, where billions of dollars in repair efforts are underway, to see that Ottawa is willing to spend on historic building restoration. Surely they can find some chump change for us, he said.

Francis said the city was willing to allow the scaffolding to remain in place over several years given the possibility of a future plan for the building. The city has no say over federal buildings, but it does control the sidewalks.

Sonego said the city is now looking at our options that scaffolding cant go on forever.

Greg Monforton, a Windsor lawyer specializing in personal injury lawsuits, said Ottawa might be able to evade municipal property standards bylaws, but it wont escape civil liability should part of the Paul Martin buildings limestone cladding ever shed off and crash down on the head of someone at street level.

A buildings occupant or owner, regardless of who it is, has an obligation to make sure your property is safe, he said, adding the public has every reason to expect that its safe.

But even if the city refuses to renew the sidewalk scaffolding permit for the structure, Monforton cautions that the city could find itself  at some real risk legally if it moves rashly.

I think it would be very unwise for the city to take any steps to remove the scaffolding until it is satisfied there is no danger, he said.

With the scaffolding in place, there is no risk to the public, Poulin said in his email. Ottawa has requested that the city extend its hoarding permit.

Despite such assurances, however, the head of Greg Monforton & Partners law firm, which is located next door at the foot of Ouellette Avenue, said he will no longer be walking that stretch of covered sidewalk.

“If there were imminent danger of anything falling, I’d expect they’d tell us and they haven’t told us,” said Sonego.