How many big infrastructure projects can the City of Victoria tackle at once?
CRYSTAL POOL IS A CHALLENGING PLACE to navigate if you’re disabled. You need a key to turn on a power lift to climb the eight steps from the lobby to the men’s locker room. You need another lift on a different staircase to get to the top floor’s tiny weight room, too crowded with equipment to fit a wheelchair. Anyone who’s visually impaired could smack their head on the concrete bleachers overhanging the pool deck. And if you want to get wet, you need someone to hand-winch you down into the water in a hoist.
“The staff here over the years have done everything they can,” says Doug Nutting. “But they’re working with a facility that had no consideration in its original design.”
Nutting is the executive director of Recreation Integration Victoria, an intermunicipally- funded group facilitating active lifestyles for people with disabilities. In December, as Victoria councillors debated the future of the 1971-built Crystal Pool, he wrote a letter urging them to replace it. If you include the debilitating effects of aging, Nutting says, 18 percent of Victorians live with some type of disability, and a public pool should be available to everyone. “If you just retrofit, you’re sentencing people with disabilities to at least another 10 or 20 years of having a substandard, partially accessible facility.”
Such inaccessibility was one of the reasons why Victoria councillors voted in February to replace Crystal Pool, at an estimated cost of $70 million. “That [18 percent] is a big chunk of the population, and that for us was a real eye-opener,” says Thomas Soulliere, the City’s director of parks, recreation and facilities.
UBC says its new pool cost $40 million, all in. Victoria is budgeting $70 million for a new pool.
In 2015, the engineering firm Stantec said $6.3 million in repairs would keep the pool operating. But the City was interested in “current and anticipated community need” for the facility, and hired HCMA Architecture and PERC recreation consultants to assess it. Last December, they said the demand for indoor swimming—by recreational and club swimmers, and elderly and disabled residents—was 22 percent greater than the pool could currently handle. They said a 30-year repair of the pool would cost $40 million, and expanding it to satisfy the “latent demand” for swimming would cost $60 million. The uncertainties of renovation, plus a year-long closure to do the work, persuaded a majority of councillors to vote for a new pool.
Why not simply undertake Stantec’s minimal repair? “We didn’t think doing just the behind-the-scenes systems work was a viable option for the long term,” Soulliere replies. “That keeps the building functioning, but is that really the best overall value, given the service gaps?”
Consequently, Soulliere will go before councillors again in June with HCMA’s designs for a new pool. If they approve, the City will hold events throughout the summer to tell voters about the costs and benefits of the new facility, leading up to a referendum in the autumn. “There’s a lot of zeros there,” he says, smiling. “It should attract attention.”
BUT THE POOL ISN'T THE ONLY IMPENDING PROJECT with a lot of zeros attached. Victoria and the other core municipalities are about to start building a $765-million sewage treatment system, and the City of Victoria’s share of that cost—after senior government grants have been applied—will be $90 million or more. The City will also have to deal with its problem of rainwater and groundwater flowing into older sewers. The City’s allocation of the capacity of a new treatment plant is only 35 percent of the total and it will have to pay financial penalties if it exceeds that use. According to the CRD’s 2012 Core Area Inflow & Infiltration (I&I) Management Plan, the City will need to spend at least $47.5 million repairing its sewage pipes by 2031. If the treatment plant is near capacity when it opens, as Stantec has predicted it might be, the City would have to reduce its I&I faster and to a greater degree, or the region will be pushed into building a second plant.
Rendering of the a sewage treatment plant at McLoughlin Point. City of Victoria's share of the treatment project costs will be $90 million or more.
Then there’s the replacement of Fire Hall #1, which the City hopes to have built by a private developer, with adjacent housing to offset the cost. In a closed meeting last September, City council directed staff to start negotiations with one firm—and those negotiations are still “underway,” said Susanne Thompson, the City’s director of finance, in an email. “There will be a report to council in camera within the next few months. Next steps will depend on direction provided at that time.”
There’s also the Bay Street Bridge. In 2013, an engineer’s report said the bridge was in poor condition, and needed $11 million in work, mainly to replace its concrete deck. But in 2015, Stantec said the deck was OK, and the City could get away with $3.6 million in repairs; the City applied for grants for that work, and this March, the feds and the Province said they’d provide two-thirds of the funding. (The City balked at spending a further $11 million to cantilever bike lanes off the bridge.) Those repairs will start in 2018, after the Johnson Street Bridge is completed—and, one hopes, operating trouble-free—because the work will require closing at least one of the Bay Street Bridge’s lanes of traffic.
The City also needs to perform catch-up maintenance on its other facilities. In 2015, the consultants Morrison Hershfield assessed all 97 City-owned buildings, and rated them on a Facilities Condition Index. Crystal Pool rated the worst: In addition to Stantec’s $6.3 million, the consultants said the pool would need a further $3.2 million by 2025. But over the next decade, the Conference Centre will also need $13.3 million, the police station $7.8 million, City Hall $4 million, and the parkades from $1.1 million to $4.5 million apiece, to continue providing acceptable service.
And that doesn’t include seismic upgrades. In 2010, Read Jones Christoffersen conducted seismic risk assessments of 14 City buildings, to prioritize those that should be upgraded to the highest “post-disaster” standard. They estimated such upgrades would cost $34 million, $20 million for the conference centre and its parkade alone. While a few on the list have been upgraded since then, such as the Oaklands Community Centre, many have not. Other key buildings, such as the police station, Downtown library, and Crystal Pool—which Stantec didn’t recommend for seismic upgrading in 2015 in any case—weren’t included in the study.
THE SEWAGE TREATMENT and Bay Street Bridge projects have already been partly funded by grants from upper levels of government. But it’s impossible to guess how much more the City might get for the rest—and without grants, the City will have to fund these projects from its capital budgets, through tax increases, or by tapping its financial reserves.
In February 2016, City council allocated $30 million “in principle” from the City’s debt-reduction reserve for the fire hall; if the City spends all of that, it will only have $16 million left in the fund, below the minimum in the City’s reserve policy. The City also has $15 million in its infrastructure reserves (it adds $8 million per year), but with the Johnson Street Bridge still unfinished, it’s reluctant to tap that fund—which is why staff recently recommended taking money from the parks budget, or tax increases, to pay for the new parks and plazas around the bridge. If any of the big upcoming projects go sideways as badly as the bridge, tax increases may be the only remedy.
Final price tags are also hard to predict in a hot construction market: Currently, construction costs are escalating by 0.4 percent every month. (And one councillor told me that two projects the City recently put out to tender got no bids at all.) The City says it’s accounting for this with its new “Project Management Framework,” requiring hefty contingencies for early estimates—a “lesson learned” from the Johnson Street Bridge—and third-party evaluations of a project’s costs and benefits. That’s why it’s budgeting $70 million for a new pool: $35 million for construction, $10 million for “soft costs” (design, project management), $10 million in cost escalation, and $15 million for contingencies.
But such careful padding has also faced criticism. Ben Isitt, the only councillor to vote against a $70-million pool replacement, has pointed out that UBC built its new 50-metre aquatic centre for $40 million. (A 2014 report to UBC’s board of governors budgeted $26.7 million for construction, and UBC says $40 million was the final cost for everything.) Online pundits note that YMCA’s new 25-metre pool, built by the Westhills developers in Langford, cost $26 million. And Surrey recently opened two 50-metre pools costing $45 million and $55 million, all-in.
“It doesn’t really matter what UBC did, or the Y, or Surrey,” Soulliere replies. “For this particular project, given what we’re dealing with, at this particular time, in this market, it is good value.” He was in charge of recreation at the City of Vancouver when UBC announced its new aquatic centre, he says, “and all hell broke loose: ‘You’re going to pay what for a pool?’ But these things are bloody expensive. And depending when you hit the construction market, there are going to be these inconsistencies that make [an] apples-to-apples [comparison] difficult.”
Ultimately, though, deciding whether a new aquatic facility is worth the cost will be up to voters. While touring Crystal Pool, I met a young woman in a red knit cap who had to ride her scooter around to the side of the building in the rain, and ring a doorbell so staff could let her in to use the facility’s one universal change room. “It’s not ideal,” she said, laughing. She’d moved here from Revelstoke, which opened a new pool in 2005. “It’s more accessible to more people in ways that the older facility wasn’t,” she told me. “So I can totally see the benefit of having some newer structures in place. But it’s a matter of who’s going to pay the bill.”
Award-winning journalist and author Ross Crockford is a former editor of Monday Magazine and a director of johnsonstreetbridge.org.