Citizens Services Minister Jinny Sims.
Handout / PNG files
VICTORIA — When the B.C. Liberals promoted the sale of “surplus” government lands, they did so under the guise of expediting development and turning a quick buck to improve the budgetary bottom line.But those sales have been cast in a less-flattering light by The Vancouver Sun’s Lori Culbert, who has reported on big-ticket sales that differed in disturbing ways from what the public was told at the outset.The latest expose, published Saturday and written with Joanne Lee-Young, involves a 10-hectare (25 acre) tract along Vancouver’s Cambie corridor.The so-called Pearson-Dogwood lands — named after two aging health-care facilities on the property — together constitute the largest sale under the Liberals’ property disposal scheme. The Onni real estate development group paid $302 million to assemble the site between 2015 and 2016. That was roughly a third of the $1 billion in deals the Liberals concluded in unloading some 160 properties of one kind or another.Renamed as the Cambie Gardens, the site is ticketed to become home to a community of 4,500, living in a cluster of 21 multi-storey buildings of one kind or another. The property is already assessed at $842 million. When fully built out to the planned 2.2 million square feet of market housing in a scheduled five phases, the development is expected to account for $3 billion in real estate sales.But as The Sun reported Saturday, the developer has to date paid only about half the upfront purchase price, leaving an unpaid balance of $137 million. The lag is because the government of then-Premier Christy Clark granted Onni an eight-year loan at 2.61 per cent, leaving the developer until 2023 to pay off the balance in instalments.The Liberals defended the surplus land sales as a way of improving cash on-hand and helping balance the budget. But with the largest transaction in the series, the province has instead been left holding an IOU for $137 million.The Pearson-Dogwood deal echoes the questionable aspects of a big-ticket transaction that Culbert reported on earlier. In 2008, before the Liberals got into property sales in a big way, the government of then-Premier Gordon Campbell sold off a six-hectare (15 acre) site in the Little Mountain area of Vancouver.A decade later, the land is still largely undeveloped and the buyer, the Holborn group, has yet to pay $233 million of the $334-million purchase price. Indeed, the province never will see the full amount in cash. The Liberals agreed that Holborn can deduct from the purchase price the cost of building more than 200 units of non-market housing. The hard-bargaining Liberals gave Holborn until Dec. 31, 2031, more than two decades after the initial deal, to make the last payment.In nailing down these details, Culbert (and Postmedia News’s Dan Fumano who worked with her on the most recent instalment of the Little Mountain story) faced an uphill struggle. The Liberals kept the deal shrouded in secrecy from the outset. Holborn, an international firm owned by one of Malaysia’s richest families, resisted disclosure as well.But some details have come to light through Access to Information filings by David Chudnovsky, a former NDP MLA for one of the Vancouver ridings, who lives near the Little Mountain site.Given the Liberal fingerprints all over these deals, one might have expected the NDP government to expedite Culbert’s request for information about the other transactions in the Liberals’ ambitious sale of surplus lands. She asked if there were other unpaid balances in the estimated $1-billion-worth of sales. As of Saturday’s story she had yet to get an answer because the Finance Ministry doesn’t compile a deal-by-deal breakdown of individual land sales.Citizens Services Minister Jinny Sims is the NDP cabinet member who inherited the surplus-land-sales program from the Liberals. She says the government has reined in many of the Liberal excesses, guided by a cautionary report last year from Auditor-General Carol Bellringer.“We actually iced the sales and put a hold on them, except the ones that had already gone past the point of no return,” she told Culbert earlier this year.At the A-G’s urging, the New Democrats are making a greater effort to identify possible future uses of surplus properties as sites for schools, hospitals, daycares, social housing and other public facilities. The New Democrats have also put renewed emphasis on the need to accommodate Indigenous people for land sales within the First Nations’ traditional territories. The Liberals did some of that as well, putting aside about 10 per cent of the proceeds from surplus sales to compensate First Nations.But I gather that the price of settling has gone up, in line with court decisions and with the current government’s commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.The first big test of the NDP’s revised approach will come with the pending sale of the Burrard Street site of St. Paul’s Hospital. It was placed on the market earlier this year at an assessed value of almost $800 million. The proceeds are intended to be used to reduce the estimated $1.9-billion in construction costs of the replacement hospital on False Creek Flats.But that would be after all the other claims that could be made on the money, including offsets for social housing and First Nations, to mention just firstname.lastname@example.org