Geller: can we do better to sell this housing – yes! See GlobalTV clip
Michael Geller is quick to admit that his forté is not politics. But to give him some credit, he certainly sometimes knows how and when to weigh in on difficult political issues. Geller is well-known to readers of this blog as a sometimes contributor, a former city council candidate who sided with the NPA, a developer and regular on Bill Good's civic affairs panel. On his blog today Michael has written some of the most thorough analysis of the current situation facing the Millennium development, aka Vancouver's Olympic Village.
This morning Geller sent out an email to city councillors and key City staff outlining some of his ideas and concerns. That email was modified slightly into his blog post titled An Olympic Village Reality Check. What I like especially about Michael's thoughts is his insistence that we extract the politics from the problem. It's advice so far that Coun. Geoff Meggs and Mayor Gregor have not bothered to take. Both have recently made public statements blaming "the previous city council".
Geller poses several questions not that he or any partisan observer might answer, but instead suggests that we ask an impartial third party for their views. To me this is a good start. For example, Michael asks:
What is the average cost of the condominium units, in terms of dollars per square foot, and what is the likely rent?
Everything boils down to the economics involved, so Geller wisely asks if the ideas floated by Vision Coun. Raymond Louie that we rent the whole place out are at all feasible. He also asks how much tax money would we be foregoing with a rental scheme, and what are the real costs of keeping the social housing component in place, suggesting that we even look at walking away from the Olympic bid promise to keep the housing in SEFC. Geller has always insisted that you can get more social housing offsite with the money government is prepared to shell out.
For those who continue to point fingers at the previous city council, Geller has documented twelve key reasons why the project got into trouble, which I will share in their entirety below. By doing so he in effect says that you cannot blame the previous council for the current mess, and it's hard to argue otherwise.
[T]he following are some of the factors that I think are responsible for where we are now:
- The initial decision to offer the site to one developer. It was too many units for any one firm to build and market in an effective way.
- Millennium's initial bid, at a time of rising prices, was too high for the land. As a result, they started off very badly. The high price also led to their decision to build very high end units
- The law department's insistance that the city not transfer title until the project was completed. Unfortunately, Millennium and its lawyers did not fully understand the ramifications of this, until they tried to arrange financing;
- Millennium's choice of architects. Merrick and Erickson were both talented firms, but the wrong choice for this project; Their designs were very inefficient, not truly respecting market realities and very expensive to achieve. At one point, Millennium wanted to use other architects but wasn't allowed to do so. GBL, the architects for the social housing are an experienced firm; but they saw this as a chance to design the most impressive social housing in the world, and they tried to. That too was a mistake;
- The extensive and confused community direction, and the Planning Department's interference in the planning process. Directors of Planning and other city staff have often talked about how much they influenced the design of the overall plan, the streetscapes and buildings
- The decision to make this the greenest project in the world, and a LEED Platinum award winner; None of us really know just how much this added to the cost...but as I have often told Frances Bula, it's not 5 or even 10%...it's more.
- Poor project management by Millennium who had a very small staff, and had never undertaken such a large project. The company has created some very beautiful and successful projects, but was completely over its head on this one;
- Poor project management by some city staff, especially related to the Social Housing in terms of the initial program, unit sizes, building efficiency, specifications. In part, this might have been due to all the other projects they were having to deal with. There was also an absence of involvement by the Province, who normally are involved. BC Housing let the city make mistakes on its own. This was a very unusual situation;
- A difficult bidding climate. The project was put out to bid at a time of rising costs. ITC is an excellent contractor and Metro Can was also very experienced. I have never worked with them so cannot comment further But as I noted in Frances Bula's Vancouer Magazine article, Millennium has had past difficulties in its dealings with contractors since they often participate in certain aspects of the construction themselves. This impacted the initial bids, and the subsequent cost of change orders, etc;
- The world global crisis. Most of us never expected the dramatic events that happened. For instance, while I didn't know much about Fortress, I never expected them to get into such serious trouble, and I admit to saying as much in a CTV interview in fall 2008;
- The city staff's recommendation to Council that the city guarantee the loan to Fortress in order to ensure that the project was completed on time. While some would say the city had no choice given the need to complete by an imovable deadline, there were other options that could have been implemented at the time. It is unfortunate that the city councillors were either not presented, or did not appear to understand the full legal and financial ramifications of this decision.
- The timetable related to the project, and deadline to complete. It is interesting that one major developer recently told me he didn't bid since he was concerned when Larry Campbell was Mayor that it was taking too long to get the project started.
Geller's blog post goes on to make some innovative suggestions on how to deal with the social housing, by possibly making the land lease-hold for those units in the same way that the units on South False Creek (where Coun. Meggs resides) are held. It would be a way to make the housing more affordable, argues Geller.
Interestingly for those following the Olympic Village saga, one of the social housing protesters who have dogged this project leaves a comment on Geller's post. While the words are a little confused (it's written to Geller as though he was a government decision-maker), it's interesting that they are out there promising to make good on plans for an Olympic Village tent city.
At the athlete's village open house we tore down the fence and crashed the meeting, disrupting your controlled message to people who were unaware of your ethical violations i.e. broken promises. We'll have a lot of fun at the Halloween roaming street party through that ghost town, and in February we promise (not merely propose) to celebrate the one year anniversary of olympic tent village with a new and even bigger one at Athlete's village, that is unless the original promises are kept.
So now we have social housing activists adding to the complexity, and even promising to "roam" the ghost town on Hallowe'en. Of course, Mayor Robertson could nip this in the bud by stating he will not tolerate actions which will threaten the value of this city asset. But given Gregor's track record, it's unlikely we'll see any firm action by him.
For further background on the facts of how we got into this mess, read our previous feature reports on the history of the Olympic Village:
- Which way out of the Vancouver Olympic Village mess?
- Olympic Village decisions defined political differences
- post by Mike