Public Values

Ottawa considering handing over control, redevelopment of Landsdowne Park to private sector

CUPE: Lansdowne Partnership Plan does not follow control and accountability guidelines

Landsdowne Park, shown in the 1950s, is slated for a major redevelopmentSTATEMENT BY CUPE:

CUPE Local 503 has launched a TV and radio campaign to oppose plans by Ottawa City Council to hand over Lansdowne Park to private developers rent free to build a shopping mall, along with $129 million of taxpayers' money interest free to build a new stadium. 

Lansdowne Park is a prime public asset of 37 acres with important heritage buildings right beside Ottawa's Rideau Canal, a UNESCO heritage site.  The plan cooked up by Ottawa mayor Larry O'Brien is a sole-source public-private partnership that will cost Ottawa residents over $150 million, equal to over $500 per household, and funnel millions in profits to these private developers.


It’d be very useful to get more info about Ottawa's Lansdowne Park issues out to people outside the City of Ottawa, and more advice and support in from a wide base. Council decided in a split vote on 16 November to go ahead as a partner in developing an unsolicited sole-source proposal to transfer control of this gem of public space to the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG), whose principal mover is Roger Greenberg of the Minto Group. It's called the Lansdowne Partnership Plan (LPP). The offered benefit is a new Canadian Football League franchise if the city will pay OSEG to build a new stadium at Lansdowne, and let them build big retail, 40 housing units, and a hotel on 1/4 of the public space, without having to buy the land from the City.

The City interrupted its own international design competition to favour this private development proposal, without defined specifications, and without competition. The location will not be served by any major transportation corridors - a normal requirement for pro sports stadiums. The CFL didn't require the stadium to be at Lansdowne. The City's own studies have said other sites would now be better for football. It appears the essential element for the developers is new commercial control of the public space at Lansdowne. The proponents in Council believe, despite contradicting expert studies, that the deal will let the existing stadium be repaired without additional tax implications. Public calls for a return to consideration of first class alternatives for whole site have been answered with a plan to consider alternatives for just the part of the park that would remain east of a stadium and the commercial developments.

The risks to taxpayers and damage to nearby neighbourhoods and businesses are big if this goes ahead. The lost opportunities for a heritage public space worthy of the Capital, serving future public purposes, would be heartbreaking.

The developers and some members of City Council are presenting it as a fait accompli. But Council's decision is conditional. The City Manager, Kent Kirkpatrick, has said the City is not yet financially obligated to OSEG, and won't be until June 2010, when additional needed studies are completed.

Strong stands have been taken by local CUPE, community associations, architect associations, and business associations. Lots of citizen work has been done on the economics, the consultation process, and better alternatives. It's becoming a classic case of privatization through an astutely presented initiative to a public body that has weak principles of governance.

It's now a flagship issue for the City, with all kinds of dimensions that are becoming better understood around town.

Public Values readers will be interested, and certainly they can help with advice and support.

A Note on Public control and Public-private partnerships 16 November 2009

"Ongoing politically-accountable public control of all of Lansdowne Park and its uses as a public asset should be retained, no matter what physical form redevelopments take, or what subsidiary partnerships are made with private enterprises to implement the public goals."

This underlying principle is needed to support public engagement, to secure ongoing public access, and to enable public transparency and accountability.  

Public control is the guarantee of ongoing public consultation and public access for evolving public needs. Without primary accountability to voters through our elected City Council, neither consultation nor access nor flexibility for public purposes is assured. Such control is traditionally provided through public ownership. Public-private partnerships (P3s), particularly such as proposed but only sketchily defined in the Lansdowne Partnership Plan (LPP), change the governance through complex sub-agreements. It's misleading to say that under the Plan the land will remain owned by the City. Under the LPP proposal, the city will technically keep title, but ongoing politically-accountable public control of uses, benefits and risks will be gone or severely compromised. This is the underlying transaction of the LPP proposal, regardless of what starting mix of uses is chosen.

When done well, P3s can allocate resources, risks, costs and benefits appropriately between public and private sectors.  However, P3s can also be mis-used.

Some writing on P3s alerts private sector partners about the transfer of political risk away from councillors and into the private sector. Managing this risk may be why OSEG would like to control choices for the entire site. From the public viewpoint, however, it's a caution that voters can lose oversight and control of a public asset, making public choices subordinate to private financial decisions.

After about 20 years of experience around the world, jurisdictions from municipal to national (Calgary, province of Quebec, State of Queensland Australia, Government of Canada) have adopted careful guidelines to navigate through the risks of poor P3 design. The Lansdowne Partnership Plan does not follow these other guidelines. The City of Ottawa should, in diligence, be steered by the best of them. For any P3 for Lansdowne Park, the objectives and specifications should be set following public consultation of the highest standards. The partnership should then be competitively bid.   Any selected partnership should remain accountable to City Council for specifications and performance, and subject to public review at intervals that suit the selected public purposes. If control of any of the public site is to be transferred to private hands, it requires justification in the context of opportunity costs, and other City assets and revenues.  If there is to be a transfer, openly advertised market purchase is a strong alternative way to do it, for financial transparency and for highest returns to the City. 

Tim Lash is an independent consultant in Ottawa.

Links and sources
  CUPE - Public Private Partnerships (P3s) research briefs, etc.
  Project for Public Spaces - Discussion of public spaces in cities
  Friends of Landsdowne Park - Grassroots organizing
  Development point of view
  Field of Schemes How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit
  City of Ottawa web site

Posted: November 18, 2009

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