The "Legislative Precinct" in Victoria has never been as attractive as the name suggests.
The only buildings to meet the expectations created by that term are the legislature itself and the Royal B.C. Museum, with its adjacent theatres and Thunderbird Park.
If you stretch the elastic boundaries of the precinct, there's also St. Ann's Academy, but the bulk of the precinct is ugly parking lots and decrepit buildings in the block behind the legislature on Superior Street.
It has taken 20 years and a desperate cash crunch, but that's about to start changing.
The government formally listed the block behind the legislature for sale this week. It's not part of any grand new redevelopment plan. It's because the B.C. Liberals need every nickel they can find between now and the end of the fiscal year.
Knowing how close to the margin they were going to live when it comes to balancing the budget, they started an asset-sale program last year to make some ready cash. Rounding up every surplus piece of Crown property in B.C., the finance ministry put them all up for sale with the goal of raising almost a half-billion dollars in short order.
When the asset sales were first announced, the idea was downplayed. The properties were consistently described as unwanted surplus lands, cast-off bits and pieces. The finance ministry also refused to identify all of the properties on the market. The project was described as a routine function of government selling off excess land it didn't need.
Then, last month, the Times Colonist discovered a prime chunk of downtown property is for sale, the biggest single new development in the downtown core in a generation.
The eight-page brochure for Capital Park bills it as "Canada's Premier Mixed-Use Development Opportunity," no less. So much for the "no story here" attitude. The sale is also in hurry-up mode. Deadline for offers is Dec. 9, just five weeks away. And the completion date must be on or before March 21, 2014, one week before the end of the fiscal year. That's so the revenue can be counted in the year they need it the most.
Apart from the desperate motivation, the sale couldn't come soon enough. It's a great opportunity to start building a real legislative precinct, an idea that bloomed 20 years ago and then faded away.
The New Democrat government of the 1990s took on the task of rectifying the precinct's obvious shortcomings, devising a Victoria Accord. It was an ambitious development plan that envisioned millions of dollars of government investment in office blocks and amenities. St. Ann's Academy was refurbished under the accord's auspices, and a few smaller projects were done. But it eventually ran off in several directions and petered out.
Now the concept is back and running on a fast track. The NDP was big on elaborate planning and weak on execution. The B.C. Liberals are going to execute a deal in short order, but have no plan whatsoever.
Redeveloping a prime six-acre block in the precinct is not going to come without a lot of public arguments. But the sudden, quick sale fobs all that process off on the new buyer.
The government is going to take the money and run.
Les Leyne writes for the Victoria Times Colonist.
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