Brampton Not Well Served
Jealousy, corruption, and unbridled power all played a part in the City Hall expansion project in Brampton. The story and its impact on the community and culture is a litany of missteps, incompetence, and self-aggrandizement which tantalizes budding authors and encourages investigation. Single articles morph into book chapters and into volumes of encyclopedic proportions in attempts to tell the story accurately and completely. It is a story that can serve as a primer on what to not emulate for future civic projects, and to ensure that public taxpayer funds are being appropriately and carefully spent initially and over time in long term commitments.
The City determined that it needed to consolidate its present and future space requirements into a new building in downtown Brampton, and they chose an off-centre site that was owned by the City in what was referenced as the South-west Quadrant. Direct connection from the new building to the award winning City Hall required an overhead bridge over George Street, blocking one of the few meaningful downtown urban sightlines to Gage Park, an outstanding urban oasis in the heart of the City.
The present City Hall had been designed to allow expansion to the north with elevator shaft capacity and knock out panels in what was considered the obvious and best location in the Southwest Quadrant to maximize the City’s institutional presence. It would act as a major catalyst for future, mixed use development to the north, providing a direct connection to the major transportation hub at the downtown G0 station. That would have potentially involved some degree of expropriation of property to accomplish, but the impact on City building would have been immense. Rather, the expansion was built on an off-centre site, somewhat hidden from the town centre of the Four Corners and behind many sub-standard retail buildings on the south side of Queen Street.
The use of the City owned site on George Street represents an opportunity lost to use the dynamic of the City tenancy to reinvigorate the Four Corners, already improved with the addition of the Rose Theatre and Garden Square, and to share that reinvigoration with related private sector development enthusiasm.
The Call for Private Sector Proposals
Traditionally, proposal calls for civic projects involve invitations to the private sector to submit their ideas for development which would meet the City’s requirements and terms of engagement. Transparency is assured, and the public is able to see the suggestions before a final decision and reasons for so doing is reached by the selection committee and approved by Council.
For some unknown reason, the City chose to use a completely new process called “Competitive Dialogue” never before used in Canada for municipal projects. It invited submissions and allowed private conversations with the proponents to take place prior to selection and required total secrecy on those conversations for all time. The City under the Call had complete control after the submissions were received. A confidentiality agreement had to be signed with the submission and no proponent would ever know whether his/her ideas had been shared with other proponents. The lack of transparency in the process was extreme. The result of the Call was telling. Of the 40 or so requests for Proposal Call documents outlining the terms of the Call in a glossy brochure, only three (3) actual submissions were received on this potentially lucrative contract.
It was clear by this result and in conversations with those who had had preliminary interest, the “Competitive Dialogue” process was deeply flawed and unattractive.
Rather than recognize that the private sector had reacted indifferently and abandon the process, the City soldiered on. One proposal submitted by a local developer with significant experience and local credibility was disqualified, and a second submission was at best half-hearted when it was shown on display boards to the public. The City then awarded the contract for the first and rights to future phases to the only effective remaining proponent, even though that company and its personnel had limited office and commercial construction experience, and in the minds of many, should not have been a qualified proponent.
The winning bid included plans drawn by an exceedingly well known and knowledgeable architect, but the exterior designs were not met with much public enthusiasm. To those who liked it, the presentation was bold and modern. To those who did not quickly named it “the bar code building”, somewhat out of place in the downtown Brampton context with no attempted relationship to the present City Hall and its surroundings.
The plans showed a building shoe-horned into an irregular site which was clearly too small for the proposed design. The site boundaries forced an inefficient floor plate in the upper floors, and a contorted circulation plan in the below grade parking garage which ended up requiring an additional floor excavation to accommodate the total car parking needs. Servicing the building had to share ingress and egress lanes for the parking. The building at grade has encroached on the sidewalk and resulted in the need to narrow the road width. In fact, the building overhang at the corner of George and Queen has been significantly damaged due to interference with truck turning at the corner.
The challenges and inefficiencies in the layout could have been largely removed had the City agreed to acquire a small site fronting on the south side of Queen – a property owned by the disqualified bidder that was offered at a reasonable purchase price and who recognized the advantages its acquisition would be to the overall project. But the City officials and Council did not see those advantages, perhaps because of some animosity to the owner. And perhaps even the developer contractor would have enjoyed the benefits of the acquisition. It would have allowed him to use tie backs in or excavate the entire property and obviate the need to use an expensive construction methodology to build the project and protect the adjacent property from collateral damage.
Throughout the initialization of the construction contract and its oversight, staff assigned to the project seemed woefully lacking in knowledge of development and construction process and the need for appropriate controls and inspection regimen to ensure that what the contractor was building met the terms of agreement with the architect and the builder. It was evident, for instance, that there was no commitment to adhering to an established site plan at the beginning of the project. Rather, the site plan was considered to be an open document right through the construction period, with City officials prepared to make adjustments as and when needed. Why? Because the City did not have to adhere to the rules and regulations that would face the private sector in a similar situation! It is all too evident that planning ‘on the run’ can have undesirable consequences.
The Long term Agreement
There is no question that the development cost of this project exceeds significantly the cost opinions of professional consultants with commercial office construction experience. And had the Call process followed a more traditional route, competitive tenders subject to market forces would have proven the point.
Armed with a long term lease of the building by the City for virtually all the space, arranging financing of the project, both construction and long term at attractive interest rates, was a gift to the developer owner. But those advantages which should have reduced the overall development cost did not fall to the benefit of the City lowering the net leasing rates.
While we do not know the details of the agreement, the City does not appear to have negotiated ironclad and clear developer responsibilities to be financially penalized for missed deadlines and space delivery delays. In fact, it would appear that extensions were granted, and penalties forgiven, all without the knowledge and agreement of Council, even though the City has had to negotiate hold over leases for leased space that could not be vacated at the termination of those leases.
And, before the developer contractor had even finished the main construction work for the project (the City had the responsibility for space fit up), it sold its position to a third party for an unknown price without the acquiescence of Council, meaning that the City has a different landlord than was contemplated for the next twenty-five years.
Significant Outstanding Events
Even before, and certainly since the partial occupancy, the following significant events have occurred and issues arisen which continue to keep this ill-begotten project in the news.
- The original proponent (Inzola Inc.) which was disqualified has sued the City for $28.5 M for alleged bias on contract award some 5 years ago. The suit has not been settled, but depositions have been taken and are now a matter of public record. The information being reported in the press is certainly showing a dark side of the former City Mayor and official staff which appears to show skullduggery, favouritism, and corruption. A trial date is awaited.
- During fit up by the City, all lights in the building were left on throughout each night, indicating a tremendous wastage of power.
- There was a major flood in the mechanical room for unknown reasons and which remains presently under investigation. Responsibility for it is still unresolved.
- Inzola, the owner of the immediately adjacent property on Queen Street West, has filed a $1,500,000 lawsuit against the City for negligence and punitive damages for exposing his property to excessive snow load.
- The residential neighbours at the rear of the project are suing the City for trespassing and breach of contract for $2,250,000.
- A notice of a third suit against the City has been recorded and may be filed, by Dominus, the original successful bidder, for $20 M. It is alleging that under the agreement, the exercise of the option to acquire the site for Phase 2, even though paid clandestinely by the City on behalf of Dominus, triggered its right to develop Phase 2.
- City staff have just requested Council to approve the availability of $230,000 cash, needed to immediately pay the cost of making changes to ground floor retail space to allow for a restaurant tenant. The costs include doing X-rays to locate plumbing and wiring buried in concrete walls, to prepare for kitchen exhaust ducts, and to install new access doors to Queen Street. Pre-planning by the architect and his consultants for this known tenant occupancy appears to have been missed, as do the drawings that outline mechanical and electrical locations and which should have been certified by the consultants.
There would appear to be some evidence now being exposed in the press through access to the public record of depositions that there were some untoward relationships, chance meetings and conversations between the Mayor and some of those at the helm of Dominus prior to the award of the contract. It seems possible that those contacts could have resulted in a bias against Inzola Inc. and particularly its President, a former Citizen of the Year in Brampton. Time will tell.
Overall, this sorry tale of corruption, incompetence, insufficient oversight by staff and Council, and a shocking lack of vision have been at the expense of the taxpayer. Good governance has gone missing, and the City`s reputation badly tarnished.
It would be an absolute shame if this debacle is not seen as a learning experience not only here, but across the country. It is essential that we do better, and rebuild trust in our democratic leadership and representatives.
Fortunately, the Mayor has requested that the Ontario Ombudsman, Paul Dube, review the entire project, from procurement, to oversight, to lease contract obligation, and to final occupancy. His report is awaited. But one things seems sure. Brampton has the opportunity to put new procurement policies and construction procedures in place that can serve as a role model for civic project development in Canada and beyond.