By Doug Hallett
City hall has taken its foot off the gas pedal and is not pushing forward now with an economic investment fund to be used in redeveloping the Baker Street Parking Lot.
Since a February council meeting on the proposed Guelph Economic Investment Fund, the thinking has changed at city hall, said Ian Panabaker, the city’s corporate manager of downtown renewal.
In the end, staff decided this fund shouldn’t be discussed apart from the city’s regular budget and priority-setting processes, he told the Tribune after a special council meeting last Wednesday. This is because there are a lot of competing demands for funding at city hall these days, he said.
The plan now is have the newly elected council talk next year about this investment fund in the context of city budgeting and priority setting. It will also be eyed in the context of a new “enterprise framework” approach for major projects that was endorsed by council Wednesday, Panabaker said.
The Guelph Economic Investment Fund was originally supposed to be a major topic at Wednesday’s meeting, but it wasn’t discussed. However, the meeting “sets us up for having that discussion in a good way next year,” Panabaker said.
Council voted 7-4 on Wednesday to endorse staff’s preferred option for redevelopment of the “Baker District” lands, which include the city-owned parking lot. This preferred option involves bringing a new main library, a Conestoga College campus and other institutional uses to the site, along with 350 housing units in residential towers and underground parking.
Voting against the motion were Coun. Cam Guthrie, who is challenging Mayor Karen Farbridge in this fall’s civic elections, along with Jim Furfaro, Gloria Kovach and Andy Van Hellemond. Councillors Lise Burcher and Maggie Laidlaw were absent.
Staff also presented two other options for council’s consideration. One would see residential development and a new main library on the site, but no other institutional uses.
The other would see nothing but residential development on the Baker Street Parking Lot site. Staff provided 20-year financial projections for all three options.
Guthrie said the “hold-up” for him was staff’s proposal to build a new main library there, fronting onto upper Wyndham Street. It’s true, he said, that council decided in 2007 to make this the preferred site for a new central library.
However, “I believe the appetite for the cost of a new downtown library is not there as it once was,” Guthrie told council.
The cost of a new library includes not only capital costs, but also higher operating costs, he pointed out.
Coun. Bob Bell said that if the city ends up having trouble with its financial model for Baker Street redevelopment, council might have to consider downsizing the new library or even leaving the city’s headquarters library where it is on Norfolk Street.
“I think overall it is a good plan,” said Bell, who voted with the majority.
“I just worry about being able to fit it within our existing tax structure. If you can, you’ve done a great job,” he told staff.
The prospect of having a 1,000-student campus of Conestoga College located in ground-floor space in a redeveloped Baker District seemed dimmer Wednesday than it had been when staff first proposed it.
City CAO Ann Pappert and Mayor Karen Farbridge both warned Wednesday that Conestoga may well not be among the postsecondary expansion projects that are picked by the province for approval in the current round of expansion proposals.
There is a lot of competition from other cities and postsecondary institutions for this provincial funding, Pappert said. However, “even if we are not successful in the first round,” the current Conestoga proposal would end up on a list of possible future expansions.
Pappert also said that if Conestoga’s proposal for a downtown campus isn’t successful, the Baker Street redevelopment issue might come back to council with more emphasis on the option that includes only a new library and private-sector housing on the site.
Panabaker said there “might be some hesitation” by the city’s other prospective partners, notably the YMCA-YWCA, to locate in the Baker District without Conestoga students being there.
He also said the rule of thumb is that one-third of the capital cost of a project like the proposed downtown Conestoga campus would be expected to come from the city. “It’s in the order of $10 million to $15 million,” he said about the city’s likely contribution.
Farbridge said redevelopment of the city’s downtown presents great potential for adding to the city’s overall property tax revenues. Redevelopment is going onto “underused and in many cases contaminated properties.” Such redevelopments can see these sites end up yielding “up to 36 times” as much tax revenue than before, she said.
As well as a new main library, Guelph has a couple of other major projects competing for city funds – namely, a major upgrade of police headquarters and a south end recreation centre. The city is also facing the prospect of paying substantial damages after losing the breach-of-contract case brought against it by Urbacon, the contractor that sued the city after being fired in 2008.
By Doug Hallett