A parent and two school trustees fear that the city's plan to borrow up to $59 million to build an office tower above the future civic centre will impact plans to replace Massey Theatre and the new schools, but Mayor Wayne Wright says those concerns "lack any reality."
Local parent Kal Randhawa, secretary of the district parent advisory council, fears that if the city takes on such a hefty debt, it could impact its ability to pay for other projects.
"We already have such difficultly trying to get small, minor things done here," she said. "I don't see how adding to the debt is going to help in having anything additionally done for the school, done for Massey Theatre, done for really any infrastructure and education."
Randhawa said the district parent group hasn't met to discuss the issue over summer, and the Parent group hasn't made a stand either way on the project. But Randhawa has registered her concern. She signed a form opposing the borrowing and encouraged her friends and family to do the same. The City of New Westminster launched a process in which residents who opposed the city's borrowing must sign forms and submit them to city hall by 4: 30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 7.
When the Uptown Property Group decided against building an office tower on top of the future civic centre on Columbia Street, the city decided to proceed with construction of the office development on its own.
The city is proposing to borrow up to $59 million for the $94-million project.
"I'm concerned about the borrowing, the practically tripling our debt in New Westminster," Randhawa said. "We already have higher tax. Our property tax here is way higher than anyone else in our surrounding area."
It was trustee Casey Cook's comments in The Record last week that brought Massey Theatre and the schools into the discussion.
"All three schools, particularly the high school, we have joint-use agreements with the city," Cook said. "With the economic uncertainty provided with ventures such as this, it has the ability and the potential to impact the city's ability to manage financing capital projects."
When the city's involvement with the civic centre increased, the city received approval to reallocate an additional $8 million in development assistance compensation (DAC) funds from other projects (Fraser River dock improvements and a crossing between Queensborough and the Quay) to the civic centre project - meaning $43 million of DAC funding would be used for the project instead of elsewhere.
"Already we see statements that other capital projects are going to be delayed or taken out of the mix," said Cook, a former city councillor who ran unsuccessfully against Wright in the 2005 mayoral race.
One of the proposals for the new high school is to demolish the Massey Theatre and build a new theatre. If approved, the province would pay for a school theatre with 600 seats, and the city would kick in for the rest to help pay for a 1,000-seat regional theatre, Cook explained.
The city is at the tail end of a process of gauging what the community would like to see as add-ons to the Massey Theatre, he said. Cook fears that when the final bill comes in for the civic centre, the city coffers might be bare.
"I'm talking about in 2014 or 2015, when people have to pony up and they say, 'Whoa, times are different now,'" Cook said.
As for the impact on schools, Cook said it's not as "large" a threat as the Massey.
"But we have joint-use agreements on both the Robson site and the St. Mary's site," he said, referring to the plans for two new schools being built in the city. "The city is providing a park, and those are all capital projects that require money."
Trustee MaryAnn Mortensen shared Cook's concerns.
"I think we are in uncertain economic times," she said. "It's wrong to overburden taxpayers with that much money."
She said the city had an obligation to talk to residents before it agreed to potentially borrow such a large sum of money.
"It's a big gamble," Mortensen said. But Wright said the civic centre project won't affect Massey Theatre or schools.
"The school (district) has actually called and asked our staff and our financing department, and they are bewildered why somebody would say something like this," Wright said, referring to Cook's comments. "Unfortunately, it's probably out of ignorance."
Wright called the issue a "red herring" and took aim at the campaign against the civic centre office tower, which is spearheaded by Quay resident James Crosty, who ran unsuccessfully against Wright in the last election.
"I'm not sure what their solution is," Wright said. "I have no idea of where any of them are coming from, of whether they want to give us a solution, unless it's just to have a referendum, which means nothing because we are building a building, OK, and we are going to have this building, and we are going to sell this building at the end of the day."
The civic centre office tower is part of a master plan for the downtown the city has worked on over the last several years, he said.
The mayor said the location - at the corner of Columbia and Eighth streets - is prime, especially given its proximity to the SkyTrain. He also noted that it's across the street from a piece of property that sold for $100 million for the commercial part of the Plaza 88 development.
The tower could house an engineering firm, a financial institution, a government office, a lawyers' firm or an international company, Wright said.
"We've had several people who are very interested in it, and we're just playing it very business-and proper-like. We are not ready to do anything yet," he said. "Right now, we are on target for budget, and we're on target for timing."
The new civic centre and office tower will bring more people to eat and shop downtown, Wright said.
Columbia Street has evolved significantly over the last decade under Wright's tenure, and he said this latest project will be a "tipping point" for downtown.