What we don't know about the new Brandt building in Wascana Park
Province is concealing a list of pre-approved permitted tenants for new Brandt building
Regina City Councillor Bob Hawkins is calling for a public inquiry into a controversial plan to build a new commercial office tower in Wascana Park. He says that until an inquiry happens, construction should be halted.
"Secrecy has plagued this project," Hawkins said.
"I think there are too many unanswered questions, too much secrecy, too many regulations that have been skirted not to be concerned."
Regina-based Brandt Developments is in the process of tearing down the old CNIB building in Wascana Park to make way for a four-storey tower that will be four times the size of what it's replacing.
I think the inquiry should have access to all information surrounding all of the dealings with respect to CNIB, Brandt, government and others.- Bob Hawkins, Regina city c ouncillor
The demolition was temporarily halted last month shortly after it began because Brandt had failed to get a permit from the city. Hawkins said his concerns about the project go well beyond that.
The plan is for the building to house the CNIB and other undisclosed commercial tenants. That lack of disclosure has been the source of much of the controversy because, for decades, commercial development in the park has been for the most part disallowed.
Brandt's commercial realtor is promoting this leasing opportunity in the "brand new four-floor office tower in beautiful Wascana Park" for professional offices, laboratories, recreation clubs or government offices. The brochure notes those are just "potential uses (but not limited to)." A Brandt exec has hinted at the possibility of retail stores in the building.
A 2016 leasing agreement obtained by CBC shows that CNIB and the government of Saskatchewan have agreed on a secret document outlining a schedule of permitted tenants which they are refusing to make public.
Hawkins said it's that sort of secrecy that has led to his call.
"I think the inquiry should have access to all information surrounding all of the dealings with respect to CNIB, Brandt, government and others," Hawkins told CBC. "And I think there should be an impartial chair and the job should be to get the facts laid out to the public."
'Treasured asset' at risk
Hawkins said the consequences of not acting are dire.
"We're dealing with one of the most treasured assets of the province," he said.
Wascana Park, located in the heart of Regina, is one of the largest urban parks in North America.
"There is no room for mistakes. They're not making any more Wascana Park land. If we lose part of the park now we'll never get it back."
Brandt Developments, which bills itself as Saskatchewan's largest privately held company, told CBC the 77,500-square-foot office complex is, in part, charity. The company said it will be providing CNIB with 4,000 square feet of space in the building for free.
"What it really means is that Brandt as the landlord in the building will forego profits that we would have otherwise received," said Brent Sjoberg, Brandt's VP of development. "There's a strong philanthropic aspect to this project."
Hawkins isn't overly impressed. He said that, "4,000 square feet of 77,000 square feet does not make a philanthropic project."
He said that Brandt will have plenty of space to lease in a premium location.
"I have to believe that this office space will be amongst the very most expensive office space in the city," Hawkins said.
He pointed out that Brandt wouldn't have been allowed to build in the park if it weren't for its connection to the CNIB and that organization's history in the park.
CNIB building was in bad shape
In 1955, the provincial government gave the CNIB a 99-year lease on its current Broad Street location, which is still Crown land.
In 1962, the Wascana Centre Authority (WCA) was created to manage the park. It was a partnership between the province, the City of Regina and the University of Regina.
The CNIB building was grandfathered into the park, even though it didn't conform to the authority's founding rules.
The park was reserved exclusively for five so-called "pillars":
- Development of the seat of government.
- Enlargement of educational opportunities.
- Advancement of cultural arts.
- Improvement of recreational facilities.
- Conservation of the environment.
The building deteriorated over the years. By 2011, things started to become more desperate. An engineering report said the facility had exceeded its lifespan.
This forced the CNIB to face a difficult reality. Because the organization was "grandfathered" in to the park and didn't conform to the Master Plan, it would not be allowed to rebuild on the Crown land. It would simply have to abandon the building and move.
Then CNIB found a work-around.
CNIB launches a fundraising campaign
According to an email from the province, "in November 2012, after significant discussions between CNIB and the Wascana Centre Authority (WCA), the WCA board approved CNIB staying within Wascana Centre and that they could construct a new building on that site."
The CNIB building was reclassified from non-conforming to conforming. The authority concluded that CNIB fit into the "enlargement of educational opportunities" pillar because it educates its vision-impaired clients.
The following year CNIB launched a fundraising campaign and developed a detailed plan to replace the existing building with what appeared to be a similar-sized facility.
The caption for an April 2014 video presentation of that plan says the proposed design "uses sophisticated architectural techniques to be comfortable for use by those with visual impairments while blending into the beautiful backdrop of Wascana Park."
Christall Beaudry, CNIB's executive director, said that the organization started approaching business people in Regina for its fundraising campaign in 2014.
Beaudry said Brandt expressed some initial interest.
"[Brandt] were one of the proponents that came forward and said 'This might be something we're interested in,' " Beaudry said.
That interest was no doubt welcome, given Brandt's significant profile and influence. Shortly after Brad Wall's 2007 election, Brandt's owner and board chair Gavin Semple was appointed the vice-chair of the new premier's signature project, Enterprise Saskatchewan. Brandt has also been a significant donor to the Saskatchewan Party.
In the end, Beaudry said, "nobody had really come to the table with the funds that we needed to develop the project."
A rapidly developing new plan
Somehow, a conversation began between the WCA and the government about a new approach to the replacement of the CNIB building.
On March 30, 2015, the government wrote a letter to the WCA in which it agreed to extend the CNIB's lease for another 99 years at the current rates and to continue to allow the CNIB to sublease space to others.
The government also agreed, "that CNIB should seek options for development through an invitation process."
It's not clear who proposed this new approach.
One month later, on May 6, 2015, the CNIB did just that putting out a tender for its rebuild project. Brandt responded.
"We did a tender out to the community and [Brandt] were one of the proponents that responded to that tender and were providing options actually to rebuild the space for the CNIB," Beaudry said.
In June, CNIB's national office selected Brandt as the winning proponent.
CBC asked Beaudry for a copy of that tender but she didn't provide the document. In the interview with CBC, Beaudry said there were other proponents who responded to the tender but she wouldn't provide any further details.
Hawkins said he wonders whether it was CNIB, WCA, Brandt or the government who initiated this new approach. He said it's important to know because the plan seems to contradict the established rules, yet it appears to have been warmly embraced.
"There are criteria in the Master Plan, in the [Wascana Centre] Act for uses of the park. And if someone is going to initiate and get this kind of traction for uncertain uses, then I think we have a problem," Hawkins said.
He said he's also concerned about the connection between Brandt — the proponent of this controversial project — and the government that would ultimately have to approve it.
"Brandt and the Semple family have close relationship with this government," Hawkins said. "At the very least it makes me think they know how to contact government and talk to it."
Quick action on new plan and secrecy on new tenants
New partners Brandt and CNIB wasted no time.
On July 1, 2015, just two months after the tender was initially put out, they submitted their initial pitch for a brand new building to the WCA. WCA approved that pitch days later. By August 2015 CNIB and Brandt had submitted the second stage of the application.
The plan that was submitted included proposed uses for the building. In its recent interview with Beaudry, CBC asked what other sorts of tenants would be moving in besides CNIB.
"I'd have to check with our national office if they're comfortable with me sharing that information," Beaudry said. When pressed she said "you're free to contact Brandt if you want to know what was all proposed and submitted."
CBC asked Brandt for a follow-up interview. Sjoberg replied by text "we can connect once further details get firmed up."
In September 2015, the WCA offered its comments back to CNIB on its proposal.
No one will tell CBC what the WCA said. However, after the flurry of activity in the summer of 2015, there appear to have been no significant developments until an unusual "public consultation" took place the following year.
A summer-time consultation
On July 27, 2016, CNIB placed an ad in the Regina Leader-Post advertising a public consultation about a plan to replace its building.
"This development will require amending Wascana Centre Authority's Master Plan in regards to building height and use," the ad said.
The meeting was planned for August 24, 2016.
Dr. Bill Elliott remembers spotting the ad in the paper and being puzzled.
"Why was a public meeting going to be held in the middle of the summer when probably not many people were around for that sort of thing?" Elliott said. "It was gonna be held at five in the afternoon and you had to RSVP to go to a public meeting. I thought that was kind of unusual."
His concerns didn't end there.
"I also thought it was unusual that the meeting was going to be hosted by the developers of a project and the participants in the project rather than the authority that manages the park."
It turned out, there were a lot of things about this meeting that didn't seem right.
Government didn't promote "public consultation"
The August 2016 consultation was necessary, according to Ryan Whippler, acting executive director of the Provincial Capital Commission, which replaced the WCA in 2017.
"This was determined as a major amendment to the [Wascana Centre] Master Plan which is what triggered the public consultation," Whippler told CBC.
"When they subleased to Brandt that would have triggered an amendment to the current master plan because they are not a permitted use, so they would need an amendment to the master plan and part of that is a public consultation process."
According to a post on the WCA's Facebook page after the meeting, public consultation was required for two specific reasons: the building's height and planned use don't conform to the Master Plan.
The Wascana Centre Act, which was in force at the time, said that for two consecutive weeks prior to the meeting "the authority shall give notice" to the public of its intention to change the Master Plan.
CBC found no evidence that the WCA or any branch of government notified the public of this meeting ahead of time. The government also failed to provide any documentation showing it advertised the meeting.
The act says at a bare minimum, two ads are to be placed in the newspaper on consecutive weeks. CNIB did place two ads in the news paper prior to the meeting. It also told CBC it promoted the event on social media but it failed to provide any proof of that.
CNIB also sent out an invitation email to stakeholders, clients and partners of the CNIB. The media was not notified.
Meeting run by private advertising consultant
The act requires that at the public consultation "the authority shall hear any person or group of persons… who wishes to make representations," but WCA staff did not run the meeting. Instead, the one-hour consultation was hosted by a representative of the Phoenix Group, a Regina-based advertising consultant.
For the first half of the meeting, Beaudry, Gavin Semple and the project's architect spoke about why CNIB needed a new building and what it would look like.
Elliott said the meeting didn't feel like a consultation. It felt like a lecture.
"It didn't have that sort of feel of 'Let's see what the people in the audience are thinking.' It felt more like an advertisement as to what the project was and the benefits of the project," he said.
During the 35-minute presentation, the speakers didn't mention that the building would be occupied by tenants other than CNIB.
Elliott said he thought that was odd, given that the reason this meeting was held was because the uses proposed by CNIB and Brandt didn't conform to the Master Plan.
"It just didn't feel like they were ready to divulge that information," he said.
Brandt probed about building use
Elliott tried to find out what the plan was during the meeting's question and answer period.
According to a transcript of the meeting prepared by the advertising firm, Brandt VP of Development Brent Sjoberg offered some detail.
"Yes, there certainly is contemplated to be other tenants right now," Sjoberg told the attendees. "The types of uses will be, certainly, complementary. There's things we think that can work well with the services the CNIB delivers. So, could be other medical tenants that may add to the value in the building. Certainly, likely some office tenants as well and potentially some retail."
The crowd was told CNIB will be located on the second floor of this new building. Someone asked why sight impaired people weren't being put on ground level.
"We are going to continue working with the CNIB but to date, that's worked for them and allows us, in terms of developing the building over all the types of uses on the main floor, with access to potentially retail or other things that may work effectively there," Sjoberg said.
In the end, Elliott said he was concerned that retail was being considered for this building and he found the answers frustratingly vague.
Hawkins said the transcript of the meeting gave him the impression it had been, "dominated by Brandt."
"Given the requirements that are outlined for holding a public meeting, I'm uncomfortable with the fact that one of the potential beneficiaries played such a dominant role in running the meeting," he said.
He said the "public consultation" failed to fulfil its purpose. He said the full nature and scope of the project should have been presented by an independent person for scrutiny by the community.
"What is required is a full and frank disclosure. And this doesn't strike me as meeting that standard," he said.
A secret list of permitted tenants
Earlier this year, the Saskatchewan NDP received a copy of the leasing agreement between the CNIB and the government of Saskatchewan via an access to information request. The NDP shared the document with CBC.
The July 12, 2016 document is most notable for what it doesn't say.
In the section on subletting of the lease, the contract says CNIB will need to get permission from the government before leasing space in its building to anyone, but there's an exception. The agreement says CNIB doesn't need to get permission if the proposed sublessee is a "permitted tenant" as per "schedule C."
The two-paged "schedule C" at the back of the contract has been entirely redacted. The government won't let the public see it.
The basis for the government's refusal is a section from Saskatchewan's Freedom of Information and Privacy Act. It allows governments to withhold information that "could reasonably be expected to result in financial loss or gain to a third party" or "interfere with the contractual or other negotiations of a third party."
It's not clear which third party the government is referring to.
The government said in an email that the redacted portion of the document was not a list of specific company names.
"What we can share is that its contents reflect the five purposes of Wascana Centre," the email said.
Hawkins asked why the government wants to keep this document a secret.
WCA out, Provincial Capital Commission in
At the public consultation, CNIB and Brandt said they were hoping to begin construction in the spring of 2017. In the weeks and months that followed, the project seemed to be stalled.
In her interview with CBC, Beaudry said, "our biggest challenge was the process was never clear."
"We kept saying 'Look, what's the process next? What do we need to do next?' And there was always struggles with that from the Wascana Centre Authority."
Those struggles ended in March 2017. In its provincial budget, the Saskatchewan government announced it was doing away with the WCA and replacing it with the Provincial Capital Commission.
Kevin Doherty, then the minister of finance, said at the time that the WCA model was unsustainable. "It is incredibly difficult to get things done," he said.
Under the WCA, the province, the city and the University of Regina, shared power. No one entity could make a decision without the support of at least one of the others.
However under the PCC model, the province has a clear majority. The PCC has five board members: one from the university, one from the city and three from the province.
Hawkins says this was a power grab "without any consultation with the city." He noted that recently city council voted for a moratorium on all commercial development in the park.
He said the thing Doherty was complaining about was actually a benefit of the WCA.
"It should be incredibly difficult to build an office tower in the park," he said.
The PCC was constituted in June 2017. It approved the CNIB/Brandt building design in September 2017.
The project was officially announced March 2018 and demolition of the building began last month.
There's one final step in the approval process before construction can begin.
The PCC's Architectural Advisory committee is currently reviewing the detailed plans for the building.
CBC asked for a list of the committee members.
The PCC declined, noting "it is not PCC practice to share their names publicly."
CBC protested and eventually, on reflection, the PCC agreed to release the names. It said the committee is made up of three architects; Derek Kindrachuk, Dave Edwards and Lloyd Isaak.
With their approval — barring the public inquiry Hawkins is calling for — the project can go ahead.