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BC Hydro bails on plan for substations beneath downtown parks

A BC Hydro render shows how the Crown corporation would re-do Nelson Park and Lord Roberts elementary school annex if it were granted permission to build a new electrical substation underground.

An innovative proposal from BC Hydro to build substations under downtown parks, which the corporation said it would compensate local governments for in part by building two new schools and refurbishing three parks, has gone up in a puff of smoke.

Hydro CEO Jessica McDonald announced Thursday that the corporation is bailing on its proposal – which it only made public in late January – because the City of Vancouver had asked too much for the land and had indicated that it couldn't meet the March 31 deadline.

"While we respect their processes and views in reaching this decision, this means that our proposal is no longer possible," Ms. McDonald said in a news release.

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That decision has surprised and dismayed many involved – including the city.

City manager Sadhu Johnston said the two sides had barely begun negotiating the price and the city was extremely interested in the idea, but felt that it needed more than the next three weeks to work out all the complications.

"I am disappointed," said Mr. Johnston, who said council made the decision in camera Tuesday that it wasn't ready to finalize such a major deal by the end of the month. "We were trying to meet their timeline but these are major civic assets. It's a very innovative proposal but very complicated."

Mr. Johnston said only 100 people came out to the quickly organized public meetings that Hydro had in February and the corporation only got 200 other comments in surveys – a far cry from the kind of input the city expects in its consultations about development.

Hydro had proposed what it called the "seed" project Jan. 22, which would have involved building two substations, one under Nelson Park in the West End and one under Emery Barnes Park in the Downtown South.

In return, it offered to refurbish both parks, build a new school to replace Lord Roberts Annex, which is next to Nelson Park, and a school in Coal Harbour for West End students to use while the Annex is being replaced.

Ms. McDonald said that all of that would be cheaper than the alternative – having to buy land for above-ground substations at downtown Vancouver land prices.

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And, she said, Hydro has to expand the electrical network because of the region's booming population.

Besides holding open houses and running a survey, Hydro staff also met with people from the Vancouver school board, the park board and the city. Although many people believe the park board has sole jurisdiction over park land, the city is, in fact, the legal owner on title. As well, it owns the adjacent streets, which would be affected by such two such large projects.

Ms. McDonald said that Hydro needed a decision by the end of March, its fiscal year-end, or it would lose its money for major capital projects.

The news came as a shock and a disappointment to park board chair Michael Wiebe.

Like many, he said people at the board were interested in the proposal, which offered the possibility of millions of new dollars for park upgrades.

"The finances that the park board would have received would have helped us move forward with biodiversity."

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But, he said, it was difficult for everyone to try to come to a decision on such an unusual and massive undertaking in only a few weeks.

"To be forced into making a decision like this so fast was why it failed."

Both he and NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert, who represents the West End, said that residents were at first wary about the idea of having a large electrical facility buried near parks and schools.

But they say that many appeared to be getting more comfortable with the idea as they got information at the public meetings run by Hydro. However, residents, too, wanted more time to understand all the ramifications.

"Parents told me they were very excited about getting new schools. There was no huge groundswell to say 'No way, this can't happen.' They just wanted some time to weigh it out."

However, one long-time development strategist and urban planner in Vancouver says the city should have just taken the plunge.

"Every so often you have to be bold and say 'yes.' They could have had an agreement in principle," said Gordon Harris, who is also the CEO of Simon Fraser University's residential-development project, called UniverCity.

However, all of that seems to be moot, with Hydro backing out.

The one thing that Mr. Wiebe said he fears is that Hydro's statement is just a bargaining tactic. "I hope it isn't," he said.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More


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