Now that Vision has stopped dumping all over the Olympic Village, does Mayor Gregor Robertson still consider the project a "train wreck"?
The stunning new Olympic Village was formally handed over to VANOC yesterday. As we think about the athletes walking into their rooms for the Olympics, or the new owners seeing their finished units for the first time, it is a good opportunity to recognize the efforts of all those who built this amazing project.
It was refreshing to hear Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson offer praise to past councils and partners in the project, given that as recently as a few weeks ago he was still referring to it as a “train wreck”.
The public lands in Southeast False Creek were long ago identified by our civic leaders as being an ideal location for the city’s greenest neighbourhood. With the Olympic bid came the opportunity to move more quickly by committing the site for the Athlete’s Village.
In 2003 the Olympics were awarded to Vancouver, and the COPE/ Vision council of the day made the unprecedented commitment that civil servants, not the private sector, would take responsibility for developing the project. By the end of their term, the land was zoned and ready to go.
By 2005, when I was first elected, council was faced with designing and building 1000 units of housing, and doing it fast. Several key decisions were made. Council unanimously agreed that the city would retain ownership of the land to guarantee timely completion, that Millenium would be the developer, and that Fortress would be the lender.
It is worth noting that many of the current COPE/Vision councillors were on that council and participated in those key decisions, with all councillors being provided the same information and options for consideration.
Financing was challenging throughout. It reached a crisis at the end of 2008 with the global financial meltdown. Fortress had advanced $317m but refused to advance any more under the existing terms. The city had to scramble and council (unanimous again) agreed to advance funds to keep the project moving forward. That decision was leaked to the press and not only did it become an election issue, it was part of the reason Vision won their majority.
In Nov 2008 the newly elected Mayor Robertson renegotiated the financing and returned the $317m external funding to Fortress. The new money was cheaper but 100% of the risk was transferred to Vancouver taxpayers. At this stage the City has now loaned about $650m to the project, and much more to the social housing and public amenities, for a total of over $1b.
Through all this the hammers kept pounding, the cement was poured, and the buildings reached completion. Now, a year later, the proud moment has arrived when city has met its commitment and has handing the keys to the country’s greenest and most cutting-edge neighbourhood over to VANOC.
Unfortunately the Mayor until recently continued to refer to all the hard work and heavy lifting done by the previous councils and staff as a “train wreck”. There are several problems with this characterization: The unseemly spectacle of his council colleagues disavowing their own previous decisions; the deplorable criticism of staff who worked on the file at the time; and the fact that the characterization was just plain wrong.
The project was in difficulty due to the global financial meltdown, but herculean efforts were made to keep the project on track for fall 2009 delivery.
The Athlete’s Village is the City’s project and it is important to keep the public’s faith. After all, 100% of the risk is in the price of the units. Shake confidence and you shake sales. In undermining faith in the project, the Mayor was putting taxpayers at the greatest risk of all.
What the Mayor did not understand was the incredible spirit of the project team. It was such an exciting experience being part of it. The politicization of the project was a terrible disappointment to everyone. Workers felt proud to be a part of history and everyone truly believed they were helping to make our city shine in the eyes of the world. To see it be used as a technique to get elected and denigrate others who gave it their very best under constant pressure and challenges was most disappointing.
With the dedication of the developer, the construction contractors, the many professional staff and the thousands of builders on the site, the City has pulled off a remarkable accomplishment. There have been bumps along the way, but the site is now ready for the Olympics.
We can all feel so proud of the hard work of all those who have built this project. When the Olympics are over, all of Vancouver will be able to judge the Village for themselves. I’m guessing they will have no concept of why it might have been called a “train wreck” and will see it for what it is: an outstanding new neighbourhood and a stellar Olympic legacy.
Suzanne Anton is a Vancouver City Councillor elected with the Non-Partisan Association. Other elected officials from Vancouver council are also encouraged to provide us with their perspective on city issues.