Resident determined to get answers to questions about how decisions were made on controversial project
Christopher Bell is a man on a mission - with no end in sight.
The tenacious city resident has often been a thorn in the city's side, asking questions about the waterfront pier park and other city projects. And now he's sunk his teeth into the civic centre.
The City of New Westminster is building a civic centre at the corner of Eighth and Columbia streets. When the Uptown Property Group withdrew from its plan to build a 100,000-square-foot office tower above the civic facility, the city decided to build the office tower on its own.
Bell has filed freedom of information requests and sent numerous emails to city staff in an attempt to clarify questions about the city's ability to finance an office tower. Feeling like he's been told to "get lost" by city staff, Bell recently sought city council's help in getting answers to his questions about the financing of the project, the use of various city reserves for the office tower and the dates that various contracts related to the project were approved.
"The other questions you ask require detailed answers and are beyond questions staff can easily answer during the course of their busy day," stated a recent email to Bell from the city's records and information administrator. "If you would like further information on this topic please feel free to put in an FOI request on the topic and we will provide the information to you."
Gary Holowatiuk, the city's director of finance, said his department had answered a number of Bell's questions, but he then sent another set of questions that required much more detailed responses. It was then that the finance department referred the matter to the city's freedom of information officer.
Bell recently told The Record that he's chosen to seek documentation about the project, rather than calling city officials directly because he doesn't get the answers he's seeking.
"I have learned, let's forget about the discussion, let's cut to the chase," he said. "I want the detailed stuff."
As first reported in The Record in April, the Uptown Property Group withdrew from the project because of business reasons. In May, the City of New Westminster announced its plan to proceed with construction of the office tower and to borrow up to $59 million to finance the project that's considered critical to downtown revitalization and economic development.
Bell has filed a number of freedom of information requests with the city in an attempt to understand the financing of the project, the reason the city began digging the hole for the foundation without having a secured agreement in place with the Uptown Property Group and the reason why the partnership fell apart.
It was through a freedom of information request that Bell received a copy of a "disengagement agreement" between the city and the Uptown Property Group that stated that the company had given notice to the city on Oct. 31, 2011 of its intention to "pause its participation" in the project. He stated that the city picked up all costs related to the project after Oct. 31, 2011, which further indicates it knew Uptown Property Group was pulling out of the project.
"It was clear notice to the city that 'we are out of here' until it can show me different," he said.
Officials from the Uptown Property Group stated the decision wasn't made until after the Nov. 19, 2011 municipal election. City officials said the Uptown Property Group officially notified the city of its decision to withdraw from the project on Nov. 28, 2011.
Bell believes the city should have informed citizens immediately of the company's decision to withdraw from the project. As part of the municipal election campaign, he said the city should have sought direction from electors about whether it should proceed with the office tower or only build the civic centre that is being fully funded with casino fund, known as development assistance compensation.
"That conversation should have been held in the last election," he said.
Bell said taxpayers have been given no assurances that the building will be leased or sold, leaving some to wonder whether the city will be paying for the project through massive tax hikes in future years. If a lucrative deal isn't forthcoming, he fears the city will sell off the office space at "fire sale" prices.
Mayor Wayne Wright said city officials continue to meet weekly to discuss the project, and he anticipates that "things will start to move pretty quickly" once the foundation is completed.
Wright said the city was able to get an extension to deadlines for building the civic centre. Under the original development assistance compensation agreement, the city was required to complete the civic centre by Dec. 31, 2013, but it's received approval to extend the deadline to December 2015.
Wright said the extension gives the city some breathing room and provides more time to find a buyer or leaser for the office tower component.
"I think most developers are looking to see how we are progressing," he said.
Wright doesn't share Bell's view that developers will wait until the office tower is built and the city is in a dire need to sell off the tower because of financial concerns.
"From the city's point of view, we know different. We know the value we have got there," he told The Record recently. "You have an asset. It is not like a car that depreciates every day - it is an asset that will grow."
Wright said there's a huge demand for office space in the Lower Mainland. He said the site is located next to SkyTrain and will be a state-of-the-art tower with fiber optics throughout.
"It's not a monster building," he said. "It is not 30 storeys."
Wright said he's not worried about the office tower sitting empty. Because it's a business dealing, he said information about any negotiations can't be revealed publicly.
"We may have negotiations with people who are interested in the building," he said. "We are not going to be talking about those."
The City of New Westminster recently held an "alternate approval process" through which electors were able to inform the city if they opposed a plan to build up to $59 million. In order to prevent council from proceeding without the assent of the electors, 4,528 electors were required to complete the elector response form - and 2,098 were received by the Aug. 7 deadline.