“I Don’t Know When This Business Development and the Library Became One”

Something amazing almost happened during Tuesday afternoon’s (ir)regular monthly meeting of the CBRM council.

As I predicted (call me Kreskin), Martin Chernin and Jim Wooder of Harbour Royale Development Limited (HRDL) asked for an 18-month extension to their exclusive agreement to develop the Sydney waterfront — a development that includes a new public library because…well, we’ll get to that.

As I did not predict, HRDL’s request got a rough ride through council — the motion to extend the deadline was amended from 18 to six months and the amendment came within a hair’s breadth of passing. The vote was tied, 5 to 5, and so declared lost.

7 CBRL Central Library Entry Lane Axial View

Sketch of office tower, library and residential tower planned by Harbour Royale Development Ltd for Sydney’s waterfront. (Source: HRDL)

Voting in favor of the six-month amendment were District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullin who moved it, District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschweiger, who seconded it, District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes, District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall and — who’d have thunk it? — Mayor Cecil Clarke. (Missing from the meeting were District 6 Councilor Ray Paruch, District 1 Councilor Clarence Prince, and District 12 Councilor Jim MacLeod.)

Although the amendment failed to pass, and council subsequently voted (6-4) to approve the 18-month extension, the dissenting councilors demonstrated during the discussion that they understand the difference between public and private investment — a distinction Wooder honestly doesn’t seem to grasp.

At the heart of the matter is a simple question: Why has our new central library, a building that will be publicly funded and owned, been lumped into a private developer’s scheme for our waterfront?

It’s a question Coun. MacMullin asked, point blank, during the meeting (“I don’t know when this business development and the library became one”), and that District 4 Coun. Steve Gillespie also tried to come to grips with — noting that while the library was supposed to be just one element in HRDL’s overall development, it has become the only element they ever seem to talk about. (Certainly, it was the only element they discussed last night — no one asked Chernin and Wooder for an update on their plans for a residential tower and a commercial tower and an expanded Holiday Inn housing the casino and a marine interpretive center. Nobody even asked if they’d convinced Dennis Campbell — who is supposedly a partner of some sort in this venture — to bring the Harbour Hopper back.)

Councilors Coombes and McDougall seemed to me to be asking a related (and equally valid)  question, namely, is this a good arrangement in terms of actually building a library? (Or developing the waterfront, for that matter.)

The answers to both questions are actually quite simple: the library got lumped into HRDL’s development because HRDL lumped it in. I’ve discussed this at some length, so won’t belabor the point, but here’s the short version:

It started when the CBRM called for bids to develop a stretch of the Sydney waterfront from the cruise pavilion to the Holiday Inn (a dubious proposition in and of itself) and HRDL put in a bid. In fact, HRDL put in the only bid.

In addition to Martin Chernin, who has been planning a development on the Sydney waterfront for over a decade, HRDL includes architect Spiro Trifos. Trifos had participated in a library feasibility study which involved him sketching pictures of three “representative” possibilities for a new library, one of which was a standalone structure on the waterfront. HRDL included that sketch in its waterfront development bid, the bid was accepted and — Hey, Presto! — HRDL was suddenly leading the library project.

And it is not a good way to develop a library.

As Coun. MacMullin pointed out, council never discussed other possible locations for the library, it didn’t debate the optimal size for the library, it didn’t consider the possibility of re-purposing the McConnell Library (or “putting lipstick on a pig” as Wooder would have it), it was simply presented a plan for the library by a private developer and assured that, in accepting it, it wasn’t committing to anything.

But in signing a pre-development agreement with HRDL, the CBRM basically signed onto HRDL’s vision for the library — and HRDL’s vision for the library is as an element that will be “the heart and soul,” according to Wooder, of their private development.

(By the way, I really recommend you watch the video of the debate when it is posted on the CBRM website, because Wooder’s attempts to pass this off as a perfectly normal arrangement are quite entertaining, as is watching him get annoyed and start lecturing council on its responsibilities — of which lecture Coun. MacMullin was having precisely none.)

Council should have nipped this in the bud 18 months ago by telling HRDL that it had not issued a request for proposals to develop a library and would therefore only approve the development plan if the library were removed from it. Sadly, though, council did not nip this in the bud, which is why we are in the ridiculous situation we are in today.



Martin Chernin and John Phalen

Martin Chernin presents to CBRM council as John Phalen looks on 10.12.2019 (Capture from video stream.)

John Phalen, billed in the agenda as the municipality’s Economic Development and Major Projects Manager although he left that job to return to Public Works in February, had the unenviable task of presenting the request for the 18-month extension to council.

Council was too polite to point this out, but I’m a jerk so I will: at least part of the reason why we have no library yet is that we entrusted the job of securing provincial and federal funding to Phalen and HRDL and they messed it up, a fact Wooder has conveniently elided from his account of events. All he knows is that the funding didn’t materialize and HRDL “lost a year,” which is why they deserve that 18-month extension.

Wooder says HRDL also knew 18 months was not long enough to accomplish what was asked of them and had initially requested a three-year agreement, but council insisted on keeping them on a “short leash,” hence the 18-month deal. (Imagine what they might have accomplished on a longer leash? They could probably have had the funding for the second berth retroactively denied.)

So what was HRDL expected to accomplish in 18 months? Well, frankly, I hadn’t known until this meeting because I had never seen the “pre-development” deal we signed with HRDL (and I still haven’t seen it) but I got a little peek at it in Chernin’s letter to council. Apparently, Section 5 (v):

…contemplates HRDL submitting a development application for any portion of the Project lands within 18 months or by December 26th 2019.

And by “contemplates,” I presume he means, “sets out as a term of this legal agreement.”

This suggests Chernin could simply have submitted the plans for the residential tower he’s been threatening to build on the waterfront for over a decade now — the tower Wooder assured council Chernin could “build tomorrow” if he wanted to but has “put on hold” to focus instead on bringing joy to the community by building a library.

And if that hasn’t pushed your ability to suspend disbelief to its breaking point, get a load of HRDL’s list of accomplishments:

We’ve already established that I’m a jerk, so I’m just going to go right ahead and point out that OF COURSE there is environmental and geotechnical information available about much of these “project lands” because we’ve built the boardwalk on them, and we installed two huge bollards for docking cruise ships on them, and we built public washrooms on them, and there used to be a yacht club on them, and we let a guy set up a temporary restaurant on them and Chernin is supposedly ready to build an office tower on them “tomorrow.”

Chernin references these “lands” as though they constituted some great, sweeping plain extending as far as the eye can see into the distance but anyone with eyes knows we’re not discussing a particularly large piece of property. And yet, somehow, in 18 months, HRDL’s own “geotechnical programme” has managed to cover only a “significant portion” of it.

Council seemed ready to accept Wooder’s declaration that HRDL had spent so much on the project to date he didn’t even want to put a figure on it — “hundreds of thousands of dollars” — but me, I’d like to see some receipts.

And even if they did spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, that’s on them. That’s called risk-taking — they gambled on being able to pull something together in 18 months and they lost. But it’s not up to the residents of the CBRM to make them whole.

Of course, what they actually gambled on was being able to pressure council into extending their contract no matter what they’d actually accomplished in 18 months — and they won.


Give and take

Much of the debate yesterday was of the eye-crossing variety we’ve come to know and love in the CBRM.

District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald, so staunch a supporter of the project he actually slipped up and said “we” instead of the “they” in reference to the promoters, seems to be a true believer in HRDL’s vision. He thinks there will be a library and an office tower and a residential tower and a casino in an extended Holiday Inn and a marine interpretive center on our waterfront and they will expand the tax base and fill our coffers and resist sea rise and allow us to live happily ever after (or at least pave our streets).

But just prior to his impassioned defense of the waterfront scheme, MacDonald had been giving Erika Shea of New Dawn the third degree about parking at the renovated Convent. Although able to envision every element of Chernin’s cockamamie waterfront scheme, MacDonald’s imagination apparently failed him when it came to envisioning nine parking spaces, originally planned for the corner of Yorke and George Streets, instead moved to a lot on the Charlotte Street side of the building.

Mayor Clarke weighed in a few times but although I recognized the language he was speaking as English, I mostly didn’t understand what he was saying. Except when he made the point that an 18-month extension would outlast the term of this current council, a fact that seemed to weigh heavily with him and to have motivated his vote in favor of the six-month extension.

Then, I guess, he remembered he’d had no such qualms about giving port “developers” Albert Barbusci and Barry Sheehy of Sydney Harbour Investment Partners (SHIP) a five-year extension to their contract in 2017 that will not expire until 2021. So he voted in favor of the 18-month extension.

But a lot of the debate was serious and, I thought, pertinent. Coun. Coombes argued that there were a lot of unanswered questions associated with this development scheme and that council should take more time before voting on extending HRDL’s agreement. She also asked one of these unanswered questions, wondering whether provincial and federal governments might be hesitant to fund the library precisely because it was part of a private developer’s project. (Response from the proponents: crickets.)

Coun. Steve Gillespie got the CAO to state, on the record, that Membertou and Eskasoni First Nations were asked to contribute to the capital costs of the new library and declined.

Coun. McDougall pointed to the potential impact on this plan of a new provincial funding arrangement (about which I need to educate myself) which will treat the CBRM as a “rural” area (and in the process, perhaps, help it to become one).

Both Coombes and McDougall expressed concerns about the operating costs attached to the new library and were told (by the CAO) that there is no point studying operating costs until a design is chosen and a design can’t be chosen until the municipality knows how much funding it can access and the municipality won’t know how much funding it can access until, probably, this spring.

What is glaringly obvious to me is that if the library had been treated as a priority municipal infrastructure project and the past 18 months had seen a focused campaign to source provincial and federal funding for it, we would probably be building a library by now. We managed it for the second berth, after all, a project whose “value proposition” to the community is not nearly as significant as that of a library.

The dissenters last night didn’t prevail but they succeeded in making it painfully obvious to anyone listening that the current arrangement — in which HRDL has inserted itself into a discussion about funding and building a public library — is just plain wrong.

But either the funding will come through within the next 18 months and (I’m going to be psychic again) a Trifos-designed library will be built on the waterfront or the funding will not come through, and we’ll be scrambling for a Plan B.

I get why proponents of a new library have to prefer the first scenario to the second, but how disfunctional is our municipality that those are our only options?