Richmond approves $60-million to buy Garden City lands

March 10, 2010

In a 7-2 vote, Richmond council approved setting aside $59.2 million for the purchase of the Garden City lands.

Although Mayor Malcolm Brodie didn’t like the terms of the deal, he said a deal’s been brokered with the Musqueam Indian Band and the Canada Lands Company, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to vote against it at this point.

But Brodie made his position clear during the special meeting of council Mionday, in which Coun. Sue Halsey-Brandt participated via conference call.

“It’s not the deal I would have made,” he said.

While council members shared slightly different opinions and concerns, they were united in their desire to obtain the 55-hectare (136.5-acre) site.

What divided them was the way to go about it.

“We all want a large urban park in the centre of Richmond,” said Coun. Greg Halsey-Brandt, shortly before registering his opposition. He said spending $59.2 million of taxpayers money simply to grow blueberries and cranberries is “irresponsible.”

At the heart of the concern raised by those in opposition to the deal is the uncertainty that lies in buying an expensive parcel of land controlled by a third party, in this case the Agricultural Land Commission.

About a half dozen members of the public spoke about the Garden City lands becoming Richmond’s answer to New York’s Central Park, but Coun. Evelina Halsey-Brandt, her husband Greg, and Mayor Brodie pointed out the flaws in that vision.

With the land commission twice having nixed plans for the lands, there’s no certainty that future bids to reshape the parcel to include sports fields or parks would be approved.

“I just don’t want the public to be misled. This vision of Stanley Park just doesn’t fit,” Greg Halsey-Brandt said, noting that Stanley Park has a whole host of family-focused activities that might never appear at the Garden City lands.

Even sports fields and parks would require the commission to grant an exemption to the land.

Evelina Halsey-Brandt said there was no pressure on council to hammer out a deal now, and said there was no reason to keep the deal-making hidden from public scrutiny.

She’d rather have seen the public be given the right to vote on the deal, through a referendum.

The land sale won’t be approved until a second council vote at an upcoming public meeting.

Garden City lands advocate Jim Wright expressed his view that council really has no choice.

“This can never possibly happen again. We cannot waste this opportunity,” Wright said.

Richmond Food Security Society co-ordinator Arzeena Hamir said even if the land is used solely for farming, the expenditure of $59.2 million is worth it.

“This is an urban agriculture site,” Hamir said, noting the possibility that people living in the downtown core of Richmond will be able to walk across the street and do their own gardening. Buying a massive amount of farmland in the eastern half of the city simply wouldn’t be the same.

She also pointed to the city’s purchase of the Terra Nova lands.

“I think the Terra Nova investment has been well worth it.”

School trustee Carol Day said learning of the news about the proposed deal “is the best news I’ve read in a very long time.”

“It’s a good deal for Richmond. It’s a good deal for the Musqueam. It’s a good deal for the Canada Lands Company.”

Coun. Ken Johnston said debating the use of the land before actually owning it isn’t prudent.

“Ownership is job one,” he said.

Coun. Harold Steves said Monday afternoon’s debate sounded just like the debate of two decades ago, when councillors questioned the merits of buying Terra Nova.

He said about 34 hectares (85 acres) of the Garden City lands parcel comprises top quality soil for farming, while the remaining 21 hectares (51 acres) is damaged, and might require the addition of clay topsoil, thereby allowing for the creation of playing fields.

He said the land commission allowed for the building of churches and places of worship on No. 5 Road-Richmond’s so-called Highway to Heaven-and other proposals that would benefit farmland would be dealt with in the same fashion, he suggested.

The city’s offer-revealed for the first time in a late Friday afternoon notice of a special council meeting at 4 p.m. on Monday, March 8-has already been accepted by the Musqueam Indian Band and the Canada Lands Company.

The agreement is unconditional and needs to be completed before March 31, 2010.

“It’s a dream come true,” Richmond Coun. Bill McNulty said Monday morning. “It’s something the sporting community has been working on for 35 years…I couldn’t be more happy.”

McNulty said he believed the proposal will pass easily.

“Some may make political speeches (but) this is not a political item, this is a need for the community.”

Before Monday’s meeting, Coun. Evelina Halsey-Brandt said she voted against the plan during a meeting held behind closed doors, and that Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie and former mayor and current councillor Greg Halsey-Brandt also objected.

“It’s an absolute farce of the public process,” Evelina Halsey-Brandt said. “I am absolutely appalled that the public was left out, when there’s no need for them to be left out.”

There was no need to rush into spending nearly $60 million on a parcel of land that wasn’t going to be developed any time soon, after the Agricultural Land Commission twice nixed plans for the land put forward by the city and the Musqueam Indian Band, she said.

At the very least, the public should have been brought into the decision making process through a referendum, she added.

What’s doubly troubling is that the city has no real plans for the land, which prompts her to wonder why the rush to do this in such a secretive manner. Placing playing fields, or even a coach house, would still require the lands commission to grant an exclusion.

The offer of $59.17 million taps into the Community Legacy and Land Replacement Reserve created from the sale and lease of lands surrounding the Richmond Olympic Oval.

The city had expected to sell the oval lands for $43 million, but instead Aspac Developments came forward with a $141 million bid that generated a $98 million reserve for future land acquisition.

If approved by council, the deal would mean the entire Garden City site would become the property of the City of Richmond, while remaining part of the Agricultural Land Reserve and bound by those land-use restrictions.

The city’s offer works out to about $433,000 an acre, which lands advocate JIm Wright noted is far less than the $2.5 million per acre that the city’s spent on park land in recent years.

McNulty said he believes the city should next set its sights on the Department of National Defence lands, a 59.2-hectare (146.3-acre) site bounded by Alderbridge Way, No. 4 Road, Westminster Highway and Shell Road.

That would allow a contiguous green strip to connect the Garden City lands-as McNulty called it, Richmond’s version of New York’s famed Central Park-and Richmond Nature Park.