University of Regina says 'misconceptions' exist on Conexus deal in Wascana Park
City council approved land transfer to U of R on Monday night
Conexus Credit Union's head office might be moving to the foot of Wascana Park.
On Monday night, city council approved the transfer of 1.1 hectares (2.6 acres) of city-owned land in Wascana Centre to the University of Regina for development purposes.
The U of R will lease the land, located west of Darke Hall on the College Avenue campus, for 90 years to the credit union for its 80,000-square-foot head office.
In return, Conexus has donated $8.25 million to the University of Regina to revitalize the College Avenue campus.
But the University's vice-president of administration says the deal is worth much more than that.
"Probably one of the biggest misconceptions is that Conexus is getting this for free," said Dave Button "They're actually paying well beyond what is fair and reasonable value. Only one part of what they're contributing to this actually gets reported. That's the cash amount of $8.25 million."
Darke Hall improvements
Button said, in addition to the up-front cash donation, Conexus will be paying for major upgrades to Darke Hall, which will remain in the U of R's control.
Button estimated that improvements to Darke Hall would have cost the school as much as $10 million.
"The atrium or lobby part of the Conexus building will also serve as the reception area, lobby and access for Darke Hall," said Button.
Maintenance costs of the area will be covered by Conexus for the lifetime of the 90-year lease.
Conexus will also provide 15,000 square feet of space for a 'business incubator'. Button said it will be the first of its kind in Regina and allow students, faculty and businesses to meet and exchange ideas.
Button said the footprint of the head office will be smaller than some people think.
"There's 2,300 acres in Wascana Centre. The part that is being transferred by the city is 2.6 acres, but the actual development will be far less than 2 acres. The development will be on a small triangular piece of land everyone would have assumed was already the university's," Button said.
Opposition to commercial development
Councillor Shawn Fraser voiced concern in the council meeting over the donation amount, and also over the fact that Conexus will not pay rent over its long-term lease.
He disagreed with the mayor's suggestion that the deal was too good to pass up.
"If $8 million is too good to pass up for an office building near the park, what that means is: the next person who comes along with $9 million — how can that not be too good?" said Fraser.
The Regina Downtown Business Improvement District (RBID) opposed the development as well, saying it could set a precedent for more office space developments within Wascana Centre and that it violates the city's own policy to keep office space downtown.
The city made an exception in this case. It has a required location for office developments which, for the most part, keeps them in a box from 4th Avenue to College Avenue (north side) and then from Albert Street to Broad Street.
Other development plans in park
The University/Conexus project isn't the only development that is being planned on park grounds. On the east side of the park, Brandt is working on a plan to redevelop and expand the headquarters for The Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
According to the Wascana Centre Authority, the new building may 'accommodate other tenants in addition to the CNIB.'
"The [downtown] office development policy was put into place for a reason and it should be consistently applied." said Judith Veresuk the executive director of RBID.
The current vacancy rate for office space in downtown Regina is 15.17 per cent according to Colliers International. That is up from 12.54 per cent in fourth quarter of 2015.
In 2012, the downtown office vacancy rate was about 5 per cent.
"This process actually isn't over yet," said Fraser. On Monday, city councillors voted to bend the city's downtown office policy in addition to approving the transfer of land.
The application still has to be submitted to the Wascana Centre Authority, which will ultimately decide whether the construction will go ahead in the park.
Fraser said residents who are either in favour of, or opposed to the development should contact Mayor Michael Fougere.
with files from CBC's Micki Cowan