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City says it fell short on explaining tower plan

But defends borrowing $59 million to build it

With more than 2,000 people opposing the City of New Westminster's plan to borrow millions of dollars to build an office tower atop the future civic centre, city council doesn't think the city has done a good enough job explaining its plan.

As part of the city's plan to borrow up to $59 million to allow it to build the office tower, the City of New Westminster held an "alternate approval process" that gave electors a chance to oppose the plan. 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.

Coun. Jonathan Cote said the city has to do a much better job in explaining the civic centre/office tower project, and articulating the way the city is financing construction of the office tower.

"It simply provides the city with flexibility to move forward with the project," he said about the bylaw that allows the city to borrow up to $59 million.

Coun. Betty McIntosh said some residents are concerned about the impact the loan and any potential city debt would have on their future taxes.

"People are really, really getting fearful that our taxes are getting too high to live in New Westminster," she said. "These are all factors that create a fear in the community."

McIntosh said it's "regrettable" that the alternative approval process occurred in the summer because the timing seemed "a little awkward" for residents to respond.

"I think they need to be given credit that they got involved," she said of the more than 2,000 electors who signed the elector response forms as part of the alternate approval process.

Coun. Lorrie Williams said some residents are "afraid and nervous" about the city's decision to borrow money for an office tower, but she believes the city needs to better convey the positive aspects of the office tower, such as job creation and taxes for city coffers. She said some residents have questioned how the city has the audacity to proceed with building the office tower after its development partner backed out of the project.

According to Williams, developers want "instant and very quick profits," while the city must look at the big picture. The office tower may not have immediate financial returns, but she said it will be a huge asset to the city down the road.

Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said the community was first informed of the city's plan to proceed with construction of the office tower and borrow up to $59 million in April, so there was ample time to get information about the city's plan. He doesn't believe it became an issue until someone "championed" it as an issue.

Although Puchmayr voted against the city's plan to borrow the money, he said he still believes in the office tower project.

"We either need to lease it or sell it, which I believe we will," he said.

The City of New Westminster had agreed to partner with the Uptown Property Group on the multi-use civic facility proj-ect, but the company later decided against building a 100,000-square-foot office tower above the city's 80,000-to 85,000 squarefoot civic facility. The city decided to proceed with the office tower on its own.

Coun. Jaimie McEvoy said the city was required to build the civic centre by certain deadlines in order to get the casino funds that had been negotiated to construct a civic centre. Referring to negotiations with the Uptown Property Group, he said it "might be hard to negotiate when you have a deadline and a potential partner doesn't."

Mayor Wayne Wright said the city remains "ever vigilant" to limit risks to the city and to end up with a good project. He said other developers have told the city that constructing a public and a private building in one location can be a "difficult" undertaking.

When the Uptown Property Group pulled out of the project, Wright said the city agreed to "move into the void" and build the office tower. He noted that other cities have constructed buildings with great success.

"We are good enough to be the same as Surrey, we are good enough to be the same as Burnaby, we are good enough to be the same as Vancouver," he said.

Wright said the city will try to clear up any misunderstanding about the complex details about financing the office tower. While the city has gone through a "little bit of a rocky time" with the alternate approval process, he's convinced the city will end up with a project that residents will love.

Council received a report about the results of the alternative approval process at its Aug. 27 committee-of-the-whole meeting. At that evening's regular council meeting, resident James Crosty presented city council with 68 additional signatures from people who wanted to sign a petition even though they missed the Aug. 7 deadline.

As someone who was collecting petitions from New Westminster electors, Crosty said he presented them with the alternate response forms and did not spread misinformation. He noted that many residents believe the city didn't do a good job explaining the loan authorization bylaw.

"We did all that we could to help the process so voters in New Westminster had the opportunity," he said.

According to Crosty, the alternate approval process related to the project result-ed in the largest response in the city's history for this type of process.

As part of the alternative approval process, electors who opposed the loan authorization bylaw had to sign and submit forms to city hall. Residents who support the bylaw didn't have to do anything.

The total budget for the project is $94 million, which includes $41.5 million for the civic centre, $12.5 million for the parking structure (to be used by the office tower and the civic facility), and $40 million for the office tower. The city will use $43 million in casino money known as "development assistance compensation" for the project.

The city's plan is to borrow up to $59 million from the municipal finance authority: up to $11 million for the city's costs related to the multi-use civic facil-ity and parking structure; up to $33 million related to traditional capital programs; and up to $15 million to interim finance the costs related to development assistance compensation funding until the city receives those funds.

tmcmanus@royalcityrecord.com

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