Lansdowne end-date delayed two years

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Court challenges push back completion of renovations, but city documents say CFL team may face just one-year hold

By David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen 

Renovating Lansdowne Park will take two years longer than planned, according to documents provided to city councillors Thursday evening, though a new professional football team could only be delayed for one year.

The documents describe changes to the so-called Lansdowne Partnership Plan, between the city and a group of private developers and sports businessmen called the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group. Together, they'd renovate Frank Clair Stadium for a new CFL football team and minor-league soccer team and erect commercial and residential buildings on the northern part of the site. The city also plans to replace most of the expanse of parking lots at Lansdowne with a new urban park.

According to the original plan, it all was supposed to be finished by June 2013, just in time to field the football team for that season. Instead, according to a memo from city manager Kent Kirkpatrick, the stadium isn't expected to be substantially completed until December of that year and not ready for use until June 2014. Work on the park won't begin until January 2014 and won't be done until summer 2015, according to the new schedule.

The documents pin most of the blame for the delays on the court action by a community group called the Friends of Lansdowne Park, which challenged the whole project on the grounds that city council considered and approved it improperly. A judge ruled against the Friends at the end of July, but the litigation "impacted the finalization of the major components of the park such as the stadium design and the advancement of the detailed design development," according to the documents given to councillors. It also distracted the project team by making them spend time preparing for court rather than working on the plans.

Roger Greenberg, the top Minto Group executive who's also the lead partner in OSEG, said the previous timeline was always tight, but the new one is reliable and acceptable to the CFL.

"They understand that we are working very, very hard to make sure we have a quality place to play football," Greenberg said. "Better late than never."

The documents say the delay is also partly OSEG's fault, because the development group decided to change the architect working on the commercial buildings. Greenberg said that OSEG was happy with the highlevel work done by local architects Barry Hobin and Ritchard Brisbin, but decided to bring in "somebody with extra strength in urban retail" - John Clifford of New York City's GreenbergFarrow. ("Absolutely no relation to me," Greenberg said.)

Negotiations have also been slow with the Ontario Heritage Trust, a provincial agency with the authority to protect the heritage status of the Aberdeen Pavilion, the centrepiece of Lansdowne Park.

The plan has called for buildings to be constructed that narrow the building's "viewshed" more than the heritage rules would allow, with the explanation that that nevertheless would interfere with the view less than taller, blockier, but technically permissible buildings would. Making the talks trickier is the objection of the provincial agency to the plan to move the Horticulture Building from the northwest corner of the Aberdeen Pavilion, though it has no formal authority over what happens to the building because it doesn't have the same heritage status as its more prominent neighbour.

Although there's no deal with the trust, there is at least an agreement on how to reach a deal: the city and the trust "have now established a set of heritage principles for moving forward with securing required OHT approvals and have agreed to a process to accomplish this," according to the documents.

To keep things moving, Kirkpatrick and OSEG are recommending that the city do more design work on Frank Clair Stadium before putting it out to tender for construction - rather than leave 70 per cent of the work to the company hired to rebuild the stadium, the city would provide plans that are 95-per-cent finished.

" 'Permit, tendered and contracted ready' designs are costed in detail and contracted prior to construction," the documents say. "This means that the designs will now take place prior to construction resulting in higher costs earlier in the process, without changing the overall project budget." This also means that the work can proceed even if the Friends of Lansdowne appeal the court case, according to the documents, because the design work will be separate from a stadium construction deal worth over $100 million.

The city is also having to work more extensively than expected with the provincial environment ministry to deal with two significant spots of contamination on the Lansdowne site (one in front of the Horticulture Building and one on the site of an old dump near the southeast corner of the property). The documents say that extra work isn't expected to produce significant delays and money was already budgeted for it.

There is good news from Kirkpatrick: the projected finances for the project have improved since council last voted on it, according to his memo. He says the previous financial projections were based on higher interest rates for money the city intends to borrow to fix up the stadium, and on what turn out to be conservative projections for the amount private companies might be willing to pay to lease commercial space at Lansdowne.

The plan has had to be modified from the last version formally presented to councillors to accommodate a settlement the city reached with community groups that challenged the plan to the Ontario Municipal Board, which can overrule councils' urban-planning decisions. The agreement reduced the heights of residential buildings to be put up along Holmwood Avenue at the north end of the site and capped the height of a tower to be built at the corner of Holmwood and Bank Street at 12 storeys instead of 14. Both moves reduced the revenue the city can expect to get from selling the "air rights" for development - the documents say that the loss from those changes is $3.4 million.

On the other hand, the plan has also been changed to eliminate the possibility of putting the Ottawa Art Gallery into one of the new buildings, and the city report says that and other tweaks to designs are expected to make up $3.2 million. So in the end, the documents say, the city expects to raise $10 million from selling air rights rather than the $10.2 million it had budgeted.

Kirkpatrick says high-end retailers are interested in opening stores at Lansdowne, which will push up the city's expected take in property taxes. Besides a Whole Foods and an Empire Theatres cinema, the names of those retailers are still being kept secret.

In all, the city expects to make a little less out of the "waterfall" profitsharing arrangement with OSEG that distributes revenues from the project once it's finished, but also to spend less on Frank Clair Stadium and to make more in property taxes. "With interest rates lower than anticipated, higher lease rates factored into the waterfall and increased property taxes, the current outlook for the City is better than it was in June of 2010," the memo says.

Council's finance committee is to consider the updated schedule and other elements of the project next Thursday morning, and members of the public will be able to address the committee. Even so, the deal with OSEG is still at an intermediate stage; the schedule calls for it to be finalized for real by next May.

"This is the hardest project I've ever worked on in my life," Greenberg said. But he said he's confident it'll move forward, that visible work can begin at Lansdowne this year, and that the focus can move from planning a construction project to planning a football team by the end of 2012.

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