via No Business in the Park

Business in Wascana violates Master Plan and threatens the park’s future

Three and a half years ago, in a letter to the Leader Post, I wrote, “‘the Camel’s Nose Under the Tent Flap’ is an Arabian Fable, a cautionary tale akin to, but more colourful than our ‘slippery slope’ or ‘thin edge of the wedge’ metaphors.  It warns that if, during a sandstorm, you allow the camel to put its nose under the flap of your tent, before long you will be sleeping with the whole camel. Now camels are known to be large, lumpy, and stinky, three adjectives also suited to the Conexus development recently approved for construction in Wascana Park.”                                                     

Three and a half years after I submitted those words to the Leader Post, the Conexus camel is now near completion. Its College Avenue front is a massive, shapeless glass structure, near bright red in the sunshine, not at all complementary to the majestic old college buildings and Darke Hall to which it is affixed by an atrium.  Perhaps it is best described by recalling the words of Charles, Prince of Wales about a similar proposal for construction in London as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.”

It wouldn’t matter if it were the second coming of the Taj Mahal; it doesn’t belong in the glorious setting of Regina’s Wascana Centre.

Nevertheless, it matters not that the Conexus building is a carbuncular camel.  It wouldn’t matter if it were the second coming of the Taj Mahal; it doesn’t belong in the glorious setting of Regina’s Wascana Centre.  It has no business in the park if for no other reason than it is a prohibited development. And if that weren’t enough another camel is trying to nose its way into the tent on the Broad street access to the park.  The proposed Brandt/CNIB building – 94 per cent Brandt, 6 per cent CNIB. 

After more than half-a century during which Wascana Centre flourished under precise guidelines and vigilant stewardship, how did this happen?

Wascana Centre was officially constituted in June 1962 by an Act of the Saskatchewan Legislature that received all-party support and was passed unanimously.

Over the next 55 years the Act sailed through 13 elections, five ruling political parties and eight premiers.  Whatever else, the matters of Wascana Centre were not capital-P political. The Centre was meant to transcend all socio-economic and political barriers and to be a truly public park that would serve and belong to each and every citizen in the city and province.

The Centre was meant to transcend all socio-economic and political barriers and to be a truly public park that would serve and belong to each and every citizen in the city and province.

The founders envisioned the park as a 100-year project, but in less than half that time it had acquired an international reputation among urban and architectural landscape planners.

This remarkable achievement – documented in Dr. William Riddell’s 1992 book, “The Origin and Development of Wascana Centre” – was largely a result of the brilliant vision of those who gathered in 1960 to start the process.

The Centre was placed in the trust of the three major parties to the land: the provincial government, which already had several buildings including the Legislative Building itself within the prescribed boundaries; the University of Regina, which was about to expand from its College Avenue location to the main campus further south and east; and, of course, the City of Regina itself, within which the entire Centre was situated.

The board appointed to oversee the Centre and its development was to consist of 11 members, five appointed by the provincial government and three each by the city and the University.  That decision was also brilliant in its simplicity. No one party could act without the support of at least one other.  Governance by consensus.  Most importantly it ensured that the most powerful of the parties, the provincial government, could not usurp either the authority of the other two parties or the wishes of the citizens of the city and province.  As the largest minority stakeholder though, the government did hold considerable sway over the Centre’s operations, thus acknowledging that it was both an urban and provincial asset.

Most importantly it ensured that the most powerful of the parties, the provincial government, could not usurp either the authority of the other two parties or the wishes of the citizens of the city and province.

Over the next 50 years Wascana was guided by those like Roger du Toit, who, before his death in a cycling accident in 2015, had been the Centre’s architect planner for 35 years.  (Among the achievements contributing to his international renown were the CN Tower in Toronto, the Parliamentary Precinct in Ottawa, and structures on 45 Canadian university campuses.) The Centre was fiercely protected for 21 years by its executive director, Joe Moran, whose own daughter Margaret said about her father, “he would be rolling over in his grave” concerning the Conexus and Brandt projects.  Several advisory groups managed the details of the Centre’s development as strictly set out in the governing contract and ensuing master plans.

Those persons, the board, the architect planner, the advisory committees, the Executive Director, along with a full administrative core of about 10 individuals made up what was known as the Wascana Centre Authority.  They were the stewards and guardians of the Centre entrusted by the founders to develop and protect the park for its citizens.

But in 2014 things suddenly went awry.  A relatively simple but important concern arose.  The CNIB – a charity assisting those who are blind or living with vision loss – had occupied a non-conforming building in the park (grandfathered into the Centre, having been built previous to the 1962 Act) but it began to crumble and was declared in 2011 to be terminal.  With time still remaining on its $1/year land lease, the Wascana Centre Authority Board, with approval from their various advisors, agreed to extend the life of the CNIB on the understanding that it continue its operations in the same location if they could construct a new building to serve their purposes. 

The founders envisioned the park as a 100-year project, but in less than half that time it had acquired an international reputation among urban and architectural landscape planners.

The WCA was under no obligation to do so, and in fact the 1962 Act stipulated that when the operations of the CNIB or the life of its building ceased it would not be allowed any further tenure in the park.  Nevertheless, the concession was granted, a decision that met with almost no objection.  And so the process began. 

By the fall of 2013 a beautiful and cutting-edge design for a new building was presented that met with immediate approval of all authorities.  But within only a couple of months, the architect who had presented the design of the building left the firm he was with and went to work for Brandt Industries.  Several months later a new proposal was brought forward by Brandt, not to construct the originally approved 6,000 square foot building but instead a 77,500 square foot building of which the CNIB would be permitted to occupy approximately 4,000 square feet rent free for the remainder of the land lease.  This was all conditional, though, on Brandt being able to freely latch onto the $1/year lease and utilize the rest of the building for its own revenue generating sources (although to this day they have not revealed what those may be). The 2016 Master Plan, (dedicated to Roger du Toit) rooted in the governing Act and binding on the government, clearly states that the Centre is to serve any of five and only five purposes: development of the seat of government; advancement of the cultural arts; enlargement of education and research development opportunities; improvement of recreational facilities; and conservation of the environment.

Despite not meeting any of those conditions and constantly being rejected by the Centre’s authorities, the project inched ahead.  It appears this was simply a matter of Brandt, with urging from the Minister in charge and the Cabinet, circumventing the Wascana Centre Authority and the legislation. But worst of all, they took advantage of the CNIB’s plight to acquire a free lease on invaluable land thus exposing a purported philanthropic gesture for what it really was meant to be, a profitable endeavour.

Despite not meeting any of those conditions and constantly being rejected by the Centre’s authorities, the project inched ahead.  It appears this was simply a matter of Brandt, with urging from the Minister in charge and the Cabinet, circumventing the Wascana Centre Authority and the legislation.

Then, a couple of years later, spying an opportunity, questionable as it was, the University of Regina, in order to secure funding from the federal government for the restoration of the College Avenue campus, quietly crafted a deal with the Conexus Credit Union.  The University provided Conexus with parkland for $3.25 million (worth far more) and a vaguely-defined contribution (in kind or in dollars) of $5 million over the next ten years. That spurred the federal government to kick in $27.5 million and, as a result, we now have an 80,000 square foot bank – repeat, a bank – occupying space in our public park.

Concerning both of these developments, a submission to the provincial auditor last summer, contributed to and supported by former WCA board members, administrators, architectural advisors and the writers of the master plan cited no fewer than five violations of the Acts governing the Centre and its master plans, as well as bylaws of the city.  The auditor responded clearly – not loudly, because auditors don’t shout – with a declaration that the one project (Conexus) did not comply with the legislation and that the other (Brandt) appeared to be doing the same, although it was hard to confirm as formal records of the approval process were nowhere to be found.

Upon the release of the Auditor’s findings most reasonable people thought the Brandt project was dead.  But not the government who did a mild mea culpa and said they would proceed more carefully from now on.  The problem is the auditor cited non-compliance going back to the initial proposal.

Concerning both of these developments, a submission to the provincial auditor last summer, contributed to and supported by former WCA board members, administrators, architectural advisors and the writers of the master plan cited no fewer than five violations of the Acts governing the Centre and its master plans, as well as bylaws of the city.

The frustration of Regina citizens has been going on four years with respect to this matter. Unfortunately, it appears we have reached the point where the government hasn’t followed its own legislation or listened to its citizens, Regina city council, or even its own provincial auditor, and the necessary recourse may be the courts. A judge’s ruling, if also unfavourable to the government, will not easily be dismissed by those who have forgotten that their job was to follow the legislation and listen to the citizens.   

What about the CNIB?  Contrary to what we have been hearing from their spokespeople recently, no one opposes their goal to acquire a new facility and no one objects to their being in the park where they previously had been. And there is certainly no one being “unkind to the blind” simply because they oppose the notion of constructing an immense, prohibited building to solve the problem.

The solution?  The current proposal should be scuttled and begun anew.  This time perhaps Brandt and others in the corporate community could demonstrate genuine philanthropy and contribute to a new project in dollars, in kind or in fund raising efforts.  Or perhaps, Conexus could make available to the CNIB 4,000 square feet in their building, thus healing some of the damage they and the University have inflicted on the north-east corner of the park.

Unfortunately, it appears we have reached the point where the government hasn’t having followed its own legislation or listened to its citizens, Regina city council, or even its own provincial auditor, and the necessary recourse may be the courts.

Regardless of how this all eventually turns out it would be extremely wise for everyone to heed the words of Dr. Riddell, who concluded his book on the Centre with these words, future generations may be more inclined to take Wascana Centre for granted…Londoners tend to take Hyde Park for granted, but one can imagine the deafening chorus of protest that would greet any proposal that seemed to threaten its integrity.”

To that I add, camels travel in herds and carbuncles are contagious.

Jim Gallagher is a lifelong Regina resident who has just completed a six-year term on the Senate of the University of Regina.  He has opposed the two developments in the Centre since they first became public four years ago.  He is not affiliated with any political party and in fact has never contributed financially to a political party.  He bears no animus toward private commercial developments or developers.  But like the founders of Wascana Centre, he wants No Business in the Park.

Tags:   activism capitalism environment government

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