Monday, August 23, 2010

Art Gallery of Saskatchewan cost spirals to $66.51 million; Destination Centre Steering Committee review of proposals a sham

The ground hasn’t been broken yet and already the cost of the future Art Gallery of Saskatchewan is escalating.

At its August 18, 2010 meeting, city council approved spending $510,000 on design fees for additional floor space and a second level of underground parking estimated to cost $8-million. The $8.51 million would increase the new gallery’s price tag from $58 million to $66.51 million.

The project is behind schedule. Construction on the underground parking was to begin next year but has been pushed back to 2012. On April 3, 2009, Mayor Don Atchison said the city was “ready to go.” Shovels could be in the ground by year’s end, the public was told. That turned out to be false. There was no design or business plan in place.

The city spent millions of dollars to extend 2nd Avenue and Spadina Crescent. The functional program for the new gallery, however, calls for removing the 2nd Avenue roundabout and replacing it with a conventional two-way roadway to the east side of the Prairie Wind sculpture, as well as creating a lay-by for bus and car-drop-off along the Persephone Theatre frontage. The accompanying drawing is hideous.

The plan also says the Saunders Place roadway may require adjustment to accommodate waste disposal trucks and the largest allowable tractor-trailer for art and exhibition shipments.

These expensive afterthoughts expose council’s folly of not engaging the public in a master plan process for the south downtown. Council instead worked behind closed doors from January to March 2004 to develop a concept plan. Atchison proudly boasted that the city did a year’s worth of planning in three months. And boy does it show.

What started out in 2004 as a $42.1 million project has ballooned to $144.1 million and counting. River Landing has become a financial albatross, a development too big to fail. Apparently council will spend whatever it takes to get it built.

Toronto-based Lundholm Associates Architects (LAA) was hired by the city, through a sole source contract, at a cost of up to $150,000 to prepare the functional program plan for the Destination Centre.

LAA was previously hired by the Saskatoon Art Gallery and Conservatory Corporation, through public tender, to complete the functional program for the Mendel Art Gallery renovation and expansion project.

When the city floated the idea of moving the Mendel to River Landing in 2005, Michael Lundholm told the StarPhoenix it undermines an art gallery’s stature to be located in a multi-use complex.

He said galleries need a strong identity and a strong visual image, and noted that the Mendel already is a strong institution with a national reputation.

“When you’ve got something that’s working that well, you don’t fool around with it,” Lundholm said. [Leave Mendel out of the mix (StarPhoenix, October 15, 2005)]

Sadly, Lundholm’s work for the city appears to have done just that, selling out the Mendel and sacrificing his credibility in the process.

The city recently reconsidered a decision it made last year to deny access to the meeting minutes of the Destination Centre Steering Committee. In July, the city released the minutes of the committee’s first six meetings, but continues to withhold the minutes of the final two meetings held in April 2009.

The minutes show the committee “was in agreement” that a joint submission by the Children’s Discovery Museum, Centre for Creativity, and the University of Saskatchewan “was the best fit” for the Destination Centre. Following the proponents presentation on October 31, 2008, the committee resolved the “concepts will continue to be considered for the Destination Centre.”

The steering committee was supposed to provide a progress report to council once a month. However, the committee produced no reports whatsoever. Instead, on November 30, 2009, city administration reported to council that the committee reviewed the joint bid but did not support their inclusion for the Destination Centre.

Interestingly, the steering committee’s first meeting of 2009 was on April 1, which by then was too late. The city, provincial and federal governments had already settled on a new building. On March 14, the Mendel Art Gallery board voted to pursue the construction of a new gallery at River Landing. By March 18, Atchison had sent letters and brochures to Saskatchewan Party MLAs and Conservative MPs announcing the move. And then, at a private meeting on March 23, the city’s executive committee approved in principle, a new art gallery as the anchor facility at River Landing Destination Centre. This means the steering committee conducted its review knowing that the city had already made its decision. In other words, the review was a sham.

What’s galling is that earlier this year council happily borrowed $13 million for the new gallery and intends to do the same with the latest $8.51 million. That’s a total of $21.5 million. Meanwhile, in December 2008, the city said the cost to renovate and expand the Mendel was $24 million and would address both the existing facility needs and the required capacity to see it through the next 30 to 40 years of operation. The city grudgingly committed $4.6 million to the project.

Mendel board chair Art Knight and gallery CEO Vincent Varga said in January 2009 that the expansion plan was “shovel ready” and could be tender ready by March. Had it been issued, we’d soon be experiencing the grand re-opening of an important community and heritage landmark – at less than half the cost.

Destination Centre site with roundabout, April 2010

Destination Centre site without roundabout, April 2010


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