Mayor Brian Bigger is curious about the colour, but when it comes to the fact the Junction East project has basically doubled in price to $93.2 million and apparently grown in size by some 40,000 square feet, he appears to have no concerns.
We watched with growing consternation as city council got a look Tuesday evening at the proposed design of the Junction East arts and culture hub building slated to be built in downtown Sudbury along Shaughnessy Street (the footprint being what is currently the parking lot next to Sudbury Theatre Centre).
Councillors gushed at the proposed design. Words like “visionary” and “iconic” were tossed around in describing the work of Toronto-based firm WZMH Architects.
There is no arguing the design is impressive. There is no arguing buildings of impressive architecture boost community pride, and help attract new residents and tourists. Greater Sudbury does deserve nice things.
There is no arguing that creating a “cultural campus” downtown to house the main branch of the public library and the Art Gallery of Sudbury, as well as the Sudbury Multicultural and Folks Arts Association (SMFAA, which provides services to the many new Canadians taking up residence in the city) makes logistical and design sense.
We have no argument with city council’s intent to minimize the impact of the loss of Sudbury Arena to the downtown (when and if the Kingsway Entertainment District opens) by turning the core into the hub of arts and culture. In fact, within the context of the KED, that makes sense.
We see the value in the arts and in cultural expression, and understand much of that value is not monetary.
While our collective jaws dropped at the new price tag, which jumped from $46.5 million to $93.2 million, councillors seemed completely unfazed. Only Ward 11 Coun. Bill Leduc even mentioned the cost in a critical way.
Even though $68 million of the $200 million the city borrowed in 2020 to fund several large projects was set aside for both the Junction East and the (apparently now dead) Junction West projects, council did not bat an eye that Junction East will eat that entire $68 million and then some.
As of Wednesday, the city’s website still listed the footprint of Junction East at 62,000 square feet. Ian Wood, the city’s director of strategic initiatives, communications and citizen services, told Sudbury.com city staff has been planning the building as a 92,700-square-foot structure for several years — though no one bothered to tell the media or the public about this. Then on Tuesday night, the man responsible for the city’s communications strategy unveiled the project is another 11,000 square feet bigger than the size they did not bother to tell us about in the first place.
In followup correspondence, Wood told Sudbury.com the project was always 92,700 gross square feet, and the 62,000 number (or, more specifically, the 61,800 reported in 2017) is simply the net square feet, which he defined as covering only the area needed for the function of the art gallery and library, exclusive of things like washrooms, stairwells, maintenance areas and the thickness of walls.
The extra 11,000 in gross square footage currently proposed accounts for the addition of the multicultural association to the project, the space required for the inclined walkway recommendation and some additional common space in the lobby area.
The city website has, for years, listed the size of Junction East as 62,000 square feet, with no differentiation between net and gross. On Wednesday, this website was updated to reflect 92,700 square feet (presumably because Sudbury.com asked about it), with no mention of the additional 11,000 square feet unveiled on Tuesday.
By today, it had been updated yet again to reflect its projected gross size of 104,000 square feet (again, no mention of net or gross).
Wood told city hall reporter Tyler Clarke he was confused as to why Sudbury.com and every other media in the city has been using 62,000 as the number for years. Confused, really? If the figure on the city website has been inaccurate for years, is it not Wood’s department that is responsible for the inaccuracy?
When the city plays fast and loose with numbers like this, is it any wonder the public questions its transparency?
And even though the price tag on Junction East has been earmarked at $46.5 million for several years, Wood waived that away with the rather hollow argument that that number is just some consultant’s approximation.
OK fine, but it is an approximation around which budgets and loans were structured; it is the approximation that was used publicly by council to determine whether to proceed with the project; it is the approximation that was used to gauge public support — it seems to us a little more precision around that price tag would have been in order, no?
None of the issues raised above seemed to occur to the councillors around the table, save Leduc. Or if the thought occurred to them, they did not voice them. Even officials like Ward 1 Coun. Mark Signoretti, who never tires of pointing to the rising costs of the KED, had nothing but compliments for the design, and not a word on the cost.
Much of council spoke to the importance of having an impressive downtown skyline to attract new residents and tourists to the Nickel City, about the sense of pride an iconic building will engender in Sudburians, and no doubt there is truth in that. However, we have seen what gambling on a “build it and they will come” approach without due diligence and strategic planning did to Laurentian University.
Speculating that more tourists will come or more people will move here or more parking revenue will be collected is not doing due diligence — it is just guessing.
The fact the vast majority of council did not express concern about the massive cost increase or the greatly expanded footprint is concerning, especially in the light of Laurentian’s insolvency and the findings contained in Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s preliminary report. Why is that?
It certainly could be that councillors were simply very impressed with the design. But another thought occurs to us. Could it be the city knew the public would fixate on the cost increase, so stage-managed the meeting to focus only on the lovely building, distracting from the massive price jump?
We also cannot help but wonder what this means for the cost of the KED. If Junction East is now twice the price, and with council’s decision to discard the $92-million design/build bid limit for the KED in favour of an open-ended budget requiring council approval for proposals that push the project beyond its $100-million total budget, is council paving the way to minimize the sticker shock when the KED bids start coming in? What does this mean for the city’s ballooning debt load?
City staff are juggling several large, pricey balls in the air right now between the KED, Junction East and Sudbury Arena. What the city is trying to pull off in a relatively small window of time is no small task: build an arena and close an arena, while figuring out what to do with the hole that will be left downtown; work to ensure the KED partners carry their water, and; build and find funding for Junction East.
Meanwhile, all of these large projects occurring at the same time require a labour force and materials, so the city will, in a sense, be competing with itself to get these things built.
The design of Junction East is impressive, no doubt. If it ever gets built, it will definitely be an iconic local landmark on par with Science North.
But when it comes to Junction East, we have questions. And not a one is about the colour scheme.
Sudbury.com's editorial opinion is determined by an editorial board made up of senior staff.