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COLUMN: Documents reveal friction between city, Uptown Property Group
There was friction between the City of New Westminster and Uptown Property Group (UPG) just three months after the city chose the company to partner with it to build an office tower above the Downtown civic centre.
And those disagreements weren't even resolved before a memorandum of understanding was signed.
This comes to light from reading documents between the two parties, which I received Friday in a partial release, as a result of a Freedom of Information request, sent in May.
As many know, UPG is the developer the city chose to build an office tower as part of the civic centre project at Eighth and Columbia streets, but that pulled out earlier this year. The city has since opted to take on the project alone.
Following is a brief snapshot of what the documents show.
On Sept. 3, 2010, the City of New Westminster sent a letter to UPG to inform them it has reviewed its submission and "endorsed the Proposal in principal (sic)."
Just over a month later, on Oct. 8, 2010, city chief planner Lisa Spitale sent a letter to the provincial government regarding the casino funding portion of the project, stating, "If the City decides to proceed with the developer, the City will enter into a legally binding Joint Building Agreement with UPG in November 2010."
That highlights a mystery the documents fail to answer: Why was this agreement never signed? How was UPG able to just walk away, apparently so deep into the process, with no penalty? The public was given the impression a formal partnership had been established, when no such thing existed.
Meantime, friction between the partners emerged just three months after Uptown was chosen as the successful proponent.
On Dec. 23, 2010, UPG vice-president Bart Slotman appeared outraged by the fact the city had, according to his letter, "been meeting directly with the electrical and mechanical consultants for the Project without our knowledge or approval," and that "the City had awarded contracts to these consultants, again without the knowledge or approval of UPG."
Slotman further wrote, "We were absolutely dumbfounded…" and "By taking this action the City is violating settled terms of the Memorandum of Understanding we are trying to finalize."
The fact the two parties had yet to finalize the MOU was, he stated, "not the fault of UPG."
He ended by demanding an explanation of the city's actions, and how it planned to rectify the situation.
Still, UPG opted to sign the MOU three weeks later, on Jan. 13, 2011.
A further letter from UPG to city manager Paul Daminato a week after that (Jan. 20, 2011) stated concern that the city "wishes to fully engage structural, mechanical and electrical consultants… immediately, despite the fact that all details of the podium design of the MUCF (civic centre) have not yet been settled…"
In the letter, Alan Leong, UPG vice chair, worried this move would "expose the Project to additional consulting fees and change orders…"
Later, he stated that Daminato had "indicated that the City is prepared to take the risk of increased costs…"
In what appears to be written response from the city dated Jan. 26, 2011, Daminato wrote that the city was engaging the consultants "at this time to complete the schematic drawings for the MUCF (civic centre) as soon as possible. This will allow the City to have comfort with the pricing of the project in preparation for execution of the Cost Allocation Agreement and Development Agreement."
(In the documents I received, there is a gap over a lengthy and important period—about 10 months from January 2011 to November 2011—where I received no written communication between the two parties. The city has let me know that this information is currently under review by the “third party” as the Act provides 20 days to challenge its release with the FOI commissioner.)
On Nov. 8, 2011, there's a letter from Daminato to UPG dated Nov. 8, 2011 in which the city accepted UPG's proposed contribution for the Development Agreement, and that they look forward to finalizing the agreement "to continue forward with the project."
And yet it appears the project was already on the rocks.
The "Disengagement Agreement"—the formal document breaking off the partnership— is dated Feb. 13, 2012. But it states that on Oct. 31, 2011, UPG "gave notice to the City… of its intention to pause its participation in the project."
As some have noted, three weeks before the election.
Then, on Nov. 28, 2011, UPG formally pulled out.
In media interviews, the company never explicitly stated why, other than for business reasons. And these documents fail to solve the mystery of whether it was because the company felt something about the project didn't add up, or whether something simply had changed in another part of their operations.
If you'd like to review the documents I received, you can click here. It's also embedded in the window at the top. Please let me know if you've discovered anything I've missed, and I would also be keen to hear your thoughts and insights.
• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.