The Surrey Now
Friday, November 14, 2008
By Sandra Thomas, Vancouver Courier
Pools, parks and capital plans
The 2009-2011 capital plan will set the course of major city spending for infrastructure, parks and community facilities for the next three years. If approved by voters tomorrow, here's what the parks board hopes to do.
Photograph by: Photo-Dan Toulgoet
The Mount Pleasant Community Centre is bustling on a warm September afternoon.
While a group of pre-schoolers works on an art project in one room, about a dozen men and women push through their workout routine using equipment in the community centre's gym. With the help of a trainer, a recent stroke victim is put through his paces on a sloped section of a hallway, pushing a weight up and down the slight incline with alternating feet. More young children occupy other rooms while a group of mothers waits in the hall to claim their own.
During a tour of the building, which is surprisingly brighter and larger inside than it appears from the outside, Mount Pleasant Community Centre Association president Nancy Chiavaro laments the imminent closure of the popular centre. The aging building and its outdoor pool are scheduled to be demolished next year at a cost of $1 million, which also includes the regreening of the site.
But many area residents, as well as several community activists, an arts coalition and now numerous politicians, want to save the aging structure. The parks board initially considered including $750,000 in the 2009-2011 capital plan to build a children's water spray park once the property was demolished, but the Save Mount Pleasant Pool group asked that the money be redirected to retrofitting the pool. With no support from the community for a spray park, the parks board reallocated the money to other projects.
Demolishing the pool is part of the board's long-term Aquatic Services Plan, which was completed in 2001. Because the centre and pool are still functioning and well used, Chiavaro wants to know why the parks board won't leave them open until they simply stop functioning. "If the pool doesn't have to be closed, why close it?" asks Chiavaro. "Let it stay open until it dies of old age."
The fate of the Mount Pleasant Community Centre and its outdoor pool has proven to be a hot button issue during the municipal election. At a September parks board meeting, half of the delegates who spoke regarding the draft 2009-2011 capital plan dedicated their allotted five minutes pleading with commissioners to put Mount Pleasant back in the plan. The speakers included Liberal MP Hedy Fry. During a rare appearance at a parks board meeting, Fry told the commissioners she was there to represent her Mount Pleasant constituents, who live in her riding of Vancouver Centre.
The fate of the centre is also making some voters who normally might ignore details of the city's capital plan sit up and take notice. The various Save Mount Pleasant groups hope recent meetings and media attention will make voters consider the plan carefully when they go to the polls Nov. 15.
The capital plan is developed to maintain the infrastructure and facilities used for delivering services to Vancouver residents. The money outlined in the plan pays for sewer and water systems, streets, bridges, pedestrian and bike routes, traffic control systems, public safety, library buildings, social and cultural facilities as well as parks and recreation. Due to the vastness of the city's capital plan, this story concentrates on how it relates to parks and recreation.
The city's entire 2009-2011 capital plan totals about $500 million $160 million of which is dedicated to sewer and water systems maintenance. The money to pay for projects included in each three-year capital plan comes from many sources, the largest from loans, which must be approved by voters. Other sources include user fees, development contributions and funding from senior governments and community partners.
A borrowing program contributes about 40 per cent of the total cost of the plan while 13 per cent is provided from water system user fees. The annual property tax levy provides another 15 per cent. If this capital plan is approved by voters Nov. 15 it will mean an estimated 1.5 per cent increase to property taxes per year for the next three years.
For a residential property valued at $850,000, the increase will work out to about $30 more a year. For a business property valued at $850,000, the tax increase represents an increase of about $125 a year. Because the costs of the capital plan are paid for primarily from taxes and utility fees, council sets a limit on how much the city can spend. That limit means city staff must make difficult decisions about what can and cannot be included in the plan.
The parks board manages more than 200 parks and 37 major facilities, including 23 community centres, eight ice rinks and 14 swimming pools. Capital funding at the parks board level pays to improve existing parks, new park development, the upgrade and replacement of existing facilities and increasing recreational amenities to meet the needs of a growing city.
In March, the parks board approved the first draft of its portion of the 2009-2011 capital plan, requesting $107.5 million for parks and recreation projects. According to a parks staff report, that initial draft was based on submissions from the public, technical data and the review of long-term plans. In April and May, three community meetings were organized for the three parks board districts Stanley, Queen Elizabeth and Vancouver East to receive public feedback on the draft plan. About 100 people attended the meetings, and 56 made verbal presentations.
In May, city council received the first draft of the city's capital plan and circulated it for community comment. Senior staff, including representatives from all major civic departments, formulated that draft copy. Upon completion of the copy of the draft plan, $53.6 million was earmarked for the parks board half the board's initial request. And that's where the "difficult choices" kicked in. While several large projects included in the board's initial draft plan were given the green light, others were dropped, including the replacement of the Trout Lake Community Centre and the $750,000 for Mount Pleasant. The Mount Pleasant Community Centre and pool will be demolished once the replacement facility at 1 Kingsway is completed next year. The new community centre does not include a pool. In the case of Trout Lake, after a huge public protest, much of it played out in the media, the centre's reconstruction was put back in the plan. Mount Pleasant community members hope that by raising awareness of the issue, the same scenario will play out for their community centre and pool. In the end, after some fiscal finagling by parks staff, the parks board's portion of the capital plan was increased to almost $90 million.
Margery Duda helped launch a fight to save the outdoor pool not long after the announcement was made in 2001 that it would be demolished. Duda is disappointed in the capital plan because, according to the timeline set out by parks staff, while the pool and community centre will be demolished next year there's no money dedicated for park development. She'd hoped the parks board would dedicate the $750,000 to redeveloping the park with the money already set aside to build a new outdoor pool, along with the $1 million already dedicated to re-greening the park.
At the September parks board meeting, some commissioners took Duda to task over the inability of her grass-roots group, Save Mount Pleasant Pool, to raise money for the project. According to parks board policy, it's standard procedure for community groups and associations to contribute large amounts of money towards capital plan projects. Van Dusen Botanical Garden Association, for example, raised $4 million for the popular attraction's multi-million dollar renovations. The association also successfully applied for a $2 million grant from the provincial government.
Duda blames the parks board staff's refusal to work with the group for the delay. "We have expressed our willingness, readiness and enthusiasm to get this project underway many times [since the last capital plan]," Duda told the Courier. "Park board staff is staunchly opposed to building a replacement pool, standing by an outdated Aquatic Services Plan that calls for the elimination of all community outdoor pools."
According to the aquatic services review, the outdoor pools at Sunset and Mount Pleasant community centre were slated to close, while the pools at Kitsilano, New Brighton, Second Beach and Maple Grove are to be maintained for long-term use.
The pool at Sunset is already closed. The report recommends no new outdoor stand-alone pools will be built in the city. Duda said it's extremely difficult to approach possible donors and raise money for a new outdoor pool when the parks board won't commit to its future. "The community has not raised significant funds independent of the park board because we need the credibility that comes with the demonstrated support of the board, plus a tangible pool concept and a realistic budget to present to potential donors," said Duda.
Duda is astonished the parks board is willing to spend $1 million to decommission a functioning building and pool when there are no funds in the capital plan to build anything in their place.
"Since there will be no money allocated in this capital plan, despite the ongoing efforts of the community and advocacy from other levels of government, an alternate and more fiscally responsible strategy would be to delay the decommissioning of the building and pool until the next [2012-2015] capital plan when we will have money for rebuilding the pool," Duda said. "To do otherwise would be to throw the good money of many, after the bad ideas of a few."
NPA commissioner Marty Zlotnik, chair of the board's financial committee, said until Duda's group shows it has the capacity to raise a substantial amount of money for the project, it's unlikely there will be a change of heart by this or the next board.
"Staff sat down a year ago to talk about priorities and came up with a plan they thought was achievable," said Zlotnik. "The reality is the Olympics created a big commitment we have to honour in both this capital plan and the last. We are committed to completing those projects and that meant some projects had to be put on hold."
Zlotnik pointed out that increased construction costs and overruns have been devastating to the board's budget, which has had an impact on its ability to immediately rebuild several community centres. He noted if the capital plan is approved, Marpole-Oakridge and Hastings community centres will receive funding to develop rebuild proposals.
COPE commissioner Loretta Woodcock admitted that leaving Mount Pleasant off the capital plan was a tough decision. Without parks board funding, Woodcock conceded Duda's group will have difficulty getting money from the federal and provincial governments. And without secured funding from the feds or province, the parks board can't commit to moving ahead with saving the pool.
"This is the proverbial question of what comes first, the chicken or the egg in terms of which level of government wants to initiate project funding," said Woodcock. "With a parks board capital plan that has been carved back by $17.7 million the conclusion was to use the funds city council granted us for projects that could be completed."
It's the same issue facing the Southeast Vancouver Seniors Arts and Cultural Society, which wants the parks board to build a seniors centre under the umbrella of the Killarney Community Centre.
Not everyone is unhappy with the capital plan. At the September parks board meeting, several delegates thanked the board for the $250,000 dedicated to the Renfrew Park Community Centre's pool renewal project. The funding means new change rooms to accommodate families and people with disabilities, postponed in the last capital plan, will finally be built.
There are several key reasons why the 2009-2011 $89.3 million plan is a record-breaker. One is due to aging infrastructures. Most of the parks board facilities (community centres, rinks and pools) were built between 1950 and 1975.
Population growth also factored in the increased allotment. In 2000, the city instituted development levies collected from new developments, a portion of which is allocated to park land acquisition and upgrades. These funds have more than doubled, from about $9 million in 2003-2005 to almost $21 million in 2009-2011.
Another key reason is the board's need to cover cost escalations. The cost of construction has more than tripled since the late 1990s. Replacing the Killarney Community Centre cost about $6 million in the 1998-1999 capital plan. The estimated cost to replace the Trout Lake Community Centre in this plan is $22.5 million. Finally, the 2006-2008 and 2009-2011 plans include funding for 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games projects. Some related projects were subsequently pushed ahead of schedule to take advantage of partnership funding from the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC).
Highlights of the 2009-2011 plan include park renewal projects at Carleton, Fraserview, Grandview, Hillcrest, Norquay, Oppenheimer, Renfrew and Riley parks; the replacement of 15 playgrounds and the construction of three new ones; two new synthetic turf fields, the reconstruction of two grass fields and repair/upgrade to six others; the reconstruction of one running track and repair of 10 to 12 tennis courts; an upgrade to one kilometre of the seawall and the demolition of the Jericho Park Marginal Wharf.
Facility renewal, which includes additional funding for projects already underway, is allocated for Killarney, Trout Lake, Riley and Renfrew community centres and some of their pools and rinks.
As well, a new field house will be built at Trillium Park, improvements will be completed at Nat Bailey Stadium and 2,500 new street trees will be planted.
Some of the projects anticipated but not included in the plan were the pool renewal at Mount Pleasant, money for a seniors centre on the city's southeast side and an $18 million upgrade to Britannia Community Centre. Unlike all other community centres in the city, Britannia is unique. It's operated by a non-profit society that works with the school, library and parks boards, as well as social service agencies. The parks board supports some of the centre's programming.
The board typically spends a year working out the details of the draft, and final capital plans, explained Mark Vulliamy, manager of research and planning for the parks board.
"We started in November last year, but we were a little delayed because of the civic strike," said Vulliamy, who directed the parks board portion of the capital plan.
A vote in favour of the capital plan gives the city approval to borrow money to meet capital expenditures. Of the $521 million total funding for the plan, $222 million comes from borrowing that requires voter approval.
For the parks board, the borrowed amount of its $90 million portion works out to almost $60 million. "If the capital plan isn't approved, the city wouldn't have the borrowing authority," said Vulliamy. "That would have a huge impact. It wouldn't stop all capital expenditures, but it would stop a big part of them."
Some capital expenditures could still be funded by development cost levies, but Vulliamy noted those funds are restricted to projects around parks and population growth. The city also has funds available in its operating budget for a limited number of capital expenditures.
"The city isn't allowed to go into debt without voter approval," said Vulliamy. "So the city won't be able to borrow if the answer is no. In the case of the park board that would be a huge percentage of what it needs and that would have a significant impact on our capital expenditures."
Here are a few of the borrowing questions included in the capital plan that voters will decide on Nov. 15:
- Public works: $93.8 million, including $66.6 million for street and bridge infrastructure.
- $12.5 million for transit and safety improvements and $14.6 million for street lighting, traffic signals and communications systems.
- Public safety and civic facilities: $68.6 million, including $32 million for public safety, $32.5 million for civic facilities and $68.6 million for the library system.
- Parks and recreation: $59.2 million, including $52.2 million for recreational facilities and $7.3 million for parks. Late additions to the parks board capital plan include $22.5 million for the Trout Lake Community Centre renewal and $10 million for community legacy projects. The money is part of an $18.46 million loan, $10 million of which is owed to the city's Capital Financing Fund. A third late addition is $3.2 million for Riley Park Community Centre, pool and rink.
© Lower Mainland Publishing