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New Westminster wanted full control on civic centre: Harper

In the shadow of the Arundel Mansion, built in 1912 as a residence for visiting judges, crews begin to erect forms for walls at the new civic centre under construction on Columbia Street.  - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
In the shadow of the Arundel Mansion, built in 1912 as a residence for visiting judges, crews begin to erect forms for walls at the new civic centre under construction on Columbia Street.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

In 2010, the City of New Westminster rejected a pitch from a developer to build the entire Downtown civic centre for $35 million.

And despite the fact it appears accepting the offer from Uptown Property Group (UPG) would have kept costs down, Coun. Bill Harper says it wasn't what the city was seeking when it issued a Request for Proposals (RFP), and there were good reasons for city council to decline.

"We hadn't even completed design," said Harper. "We were still doing public process in terms of the museum and the arts centre, and all those things that were in it. The size of it grew throughout the process."

In issuing the RFP, the city aimed to leverage $35 million in casino money earmarked for the civic centre, by finding a private partner to incorporate an office tower in the project. The goal in partnering was to reduce costs and thereby enhance the civic centre, and adding an office tower was intended to bring jobs and vitality to Columbia Street.

In its RFP, the city sought an equal partner to work on the project, Harper said, so that it could retain something he said was vital: control.

UPG's response, obtained by the NewsLeader through a Freedom of Information request, contains a proposal from the company to build the entire project and essentially hand the keys over to the city for a fixed price. UPG would retain ownership of the office tower, as well as the parking and the restaurant and retail space.

While UPG's offer may look attractive on the surface, Harper said it would have given UPG too much control over the look and feel of the building, and wouldn't have given the city enough flexibility to make changes throughout the process.

"We wanted full control over the whole building," Harper said. "We didn't want anyone telling us what to put in the building, and we wanted quality control."

UPG's proposal was to first build the office tower, a two-level underground parking and civic centre shell.

"This would allow adequate time for the detailed design of the Civic Centre Fit Out and for public consultation, without risking the overall project schedule," states the UPG document.

If the city chose, UPG would then do the fit out of the civic centre—with the city's cost still coming within the $35 million funding.

But Harper said the terms "fit out" and design are different. After public consultation for the different elements of the civic centre—from the museum and arts spaces to the convention space and theatre—the design would no doubt be very different from early concepts, he said. At the time when UPG made its pitch, the architect hadn't even been hired, he added.

"It was never something I entertained," Harper said. "We are going to have this civic centre for the next 100 years. We want to control every aspect of it so it's to the benefit of the city."

After receiving the RFP response from UPG, the city worked toward more of a shared arrangement with the New West-based company, where each party would retain more control over its portion of the project. After just over a year of negotiations, that partnership broke down in November 2011, and the city opted to build the entire project on its own.

The city now expects the civic centre to cost $41.5 million. It has increased the parking lot to three levels, which it expects to be $12.5 million. And the office tower is to cost $33 million, with an additional $7 million for tenant improvements for leasees.

Despite the expanded scope of the city's involvement in this $94-million project, Harper has no regrets about rejecting UPG's original pitch.

"UPG's response was not what we were looking for."

The city has retained Avison Young Commercial Real Estate to lease out the office tower, named Merchant Square, and is seeking to sell the tower outright.

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