Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Meewasin move to Mendel site revives aborted 2005 plan; Lamb & Knight serve on secretive River Landing destination centre steering committee

News that the Meewasin Valley Authority (MVA) is contemplating moving into the Mendel Art Gallery once it’s vacated confirms the resurrection of a similar plan that was aborted more than three years ago.

The StarPhoenix reported on Apr. 7 that the MVA is eyeing the Mendel site once it’s empty. The gallery announced on Apr. 3 it’s changing its name to the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan and is proposing to move to a new $55-million facility at the troubled River Landing.

‘The MVA board of directors will take the next few weeks to decide which option to pursue: Occupying the Mendel site or building an $8.9-million interpretive centre at its current location in the former Rothman’s building in Friendship Park,’ the article said.

City councillor Darren Hill, a member of the Meewasin board, said all four councillors on the Meewasin board are in favour of moving to a vacated Mendel Art Gallery.

Hill estimated it would cost no more than $1 million to relocate and renovate the Mendel, plus around $2 million to set up exhibits in the interpretive centre. He also said the present building would likely be demolished if the MVA moves out.

The Mendel and MVA plans mirror a scheme that was launched in late Sept. 2005 when the city, according to an Oct. 12, 2005, Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD) briefing note, “put forward the option of relocating the Mendel Art Gallery… to the cultural centre” at River Landing.

In an Oct. 4, 2005, report to the city’s executive committee, the then city manager, Phil Richards, said administration had “engaged Mr. David Russell, a tourism consultant based in Vancouver, to examine the feasibility of” a destination complex.

“In order to evaluate further possibilities for the destination complex, we have approached the Mendel Art Gallery to ascertain their interest in developing the site. As Executive Committee will know, the Mendel is planning a major expansion of their present facilities. A potential alternative is to relocate and construct a new facility as part of the destination complex on River Landing. The Mendel Board has indicated an interest in this option and we will proceed to do a full evaluation,” Richards said.

“Under this potential scenario, the destination complex would include Persephone Theatre, the Mendel Art Gallery (with an expanded Joni Mitchell component), public space, an observation tower, and retail opportunities (which may include a visitor kiosk). The Meewasin Valley Authority could move to the vacated Mendel facility. While this option solves many issues, it also creates questions that will need to be fully examined.”

The executive committee received Richards’ report at its Oct. 11, 2005, meeting.

Richard’s report proved to be somewhat misleading. On Oct. 11, 2005, the Mendel issued a media release advising that it had not received a formal development plan from the city to relocate to River Landing. All that had occurred was a “sudden, short discussion” held on Sept. 27, 2005, between city officials and Mendel management.

Terry Graff, the Mendel’s director and CEO at the time, said the board heard the city wanted to make a proposal and said it would listen.

“That was the extent of it. There was not much to it (the meeting) and there’s been nothing since,” Graff said. [Mendels threaten to pull cash gift: Plan to move art gallery doesn't sit well with donors (StarPhoenix, Oct. 12, 2005)]

Also on Oct. 4, 2005, Meewasin CEO Susan Lamb sent an email to WD’s Daniel Watson and David James providing an update on her organization’s activities. The correspondence, obtained under federal freedom of information legislation, states in part:

“You are also aware that we have been approached about moving to the Mendel Building while the Mendel Gallery and office moves to River Landing. I have discussed this with both [censored by WD officials] has asked us to carry on as usual until we have some formal word from the city that this option is in play. As you can guess, our questions have to do with operating cost and efficiency (especially if our office stays here), the cost of capital improvements, and the impact on potential sources of capital funds.”

The names of the two individuals referred to by Lamb were severed from the document. What’s clear though is that someone approached the MVA about moving to the Mendel. Since the city ultimately calls the shots regarding the gallery the assumption is one or both of the names could be city administrative staff or elected officials.

The minutes from the Oct. 7, 2005, Meewasin board of director’s meeting indicate that the issue was discussed but no meaningful details are given.

It should be noted that both Lamb and the Mendel’s current board chair, Dr. Art Knight, were appointed by city council on Apr. 7, 2008, to serve on the city’s River Landing Destination Centre Steering Committee. The committee is mandated to “oversee the consultation process and recommend to City Council a preferred concept for the Destination Centre.”

According to a city administrative report considered by council at its Jan. 14, 2008, meeting, the committee “should complete this work within four months of its inception and provide a progress report to Council once a month.”

It’s been more than a year since the committee was established and there are no reports being submitted to council. There is only silence. The city is also refusing to release certain records concerning the committee.

On Mar. 2, an access to information request was submitted to the city for copies of the minutes to any meetings conducted by the committee. The request was denied on Mar. 13 because the group has not completed its work. The city has given no indication whether the committee will be allowed to finish its work and submit a final report. It remains unclear whether the latest attempts to move the Mendel and Meewasin were discussed by the committee, whose deliberations are shrouded in secrecy.

The potential fallout of Meewasin moving is the impact it could have on Friendship Park. If the current MVA building is demolished and the land sold the city may revisit its Direct Control District 1 (DCD1) Guidelines for the area.

Present zoning allows for an eight storey building on the Meewasin site. However, at the Apr. 5, 2004, city council meeting, city administration put forward a proposal to amend the DCD1 to allow for nearly half of Friendship Park to be opened up for development. Fortunately, the proposal didn’t succeed.

Given Mayor Don Atchison’s thirst for development in the south downtown if Meewasin were to eventually move then look for council to take another look at the DCD1.

As of June 30, 2006, the estimated market value of the MVA property was $477,000.

Proposed DCD1 Amendment from Apr. 5, 2004, city council meeting


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