By the fall of last year, the battle between Canadian Pacific Railway and the City of Vancouver over an nine-kilometre stretch of old track that the company owned was as acrimonious as ever.
The denizens at city hall had long coveted the north-south sliver of land that stretched from the Fraser River to Burrard Inlet. The rail operator had abandoned its operations along the track in 2001 and since that time it had sat unused. It didn’t take long for residents to move in and use some of the fallow property to plant community gardens that would thrive.
While zoning bylaws prohibited the land from being commercially or residentially developed, severely restricting its value, CP wasn’t prepared to give it away for nothing. It was demanding $100-million. The government of Mayor Gregor Robertson was offering $20-million.
In an effort to exert some pressure on the city, CP had vowed last year to return the line to active service; the company had the community gardens ripped up in a dramatic demonstration of its intent.
This, of course, only served to raise the temperature of the dispute. The city threatened to take CP Rail to court. CP said to “bring it on.” By summer’s end, however, Mr. Robertson’s long-time political fixer, Mike Magee, had decided that it was worth trying to see if a peace could be brokered. He also had access to the one person in town who might be able to help him out: Jim Pattison.
Mr. Magee had turned to B.C.’s legendary businessman for assistance once before. On that occasion, the city was looking for guidance on how to best handle the Olympic Village fiasco, a financial nightmare that the mayor and his Vision Vancouver party inherited upon taking office in 2009. Mr. Pattison put the city in the hands of one of his most trusted advisers and also one of Vancouver’s top lawyers, Morley Koffman. The affable, hard-working octogenarian helped Mr. Robertson and his council make the best of a terrible situation.
But Mr. Koffman was no longer around. He died last summer at the age of 85. So when Mr. Magee sat down in Mr. Pattison’s office last October to talk about the Arbutus Corridor, he didn’t waste any time getting to the point: “Jimmy,” he said. “I need another Morley Koffman.”
Mr. Magee spelled out the general challenge facing the city in its quest to get its hands on the CP land. Mr. Pattison had some experience in the rail industry and understood how people such as CP’s tough-as-nails chief executive officer, Hunter Harrison, operated.
“Give me 24 hours,” Mr. Pattison told the mayor’s chief of staff.
Mr. Magee, meantime, had recently opened a new line of communication with Mr. Harrison’s chief of staff, Mark Wallace. Over dinner at Gotham last September, they had talked about trying to put a halt to hostilities and restart negotiations. They later carried on their conversation at a Vancouver Canucks game. There was certainly an appetite on CP’s part to see what could be done, but the city needed the help of a skilled negotiator.
Mr. Pattison phoned Mr. Magee back the day after they met with the name of someone who might play the role of Mr. Koffman in the CP talks. His name was John Smith.
While not exactly owning a moniker that made him stand out from the pack, Mr. Smith, a Brit with a law degree from Oxford and a senior partner at Lawson Lundell, had long impressed Mr. Pattison with his legal savvy.
Mr. Smith’s contribution to a final deal on the Arbutus Corridor would be crucial. Whenever talks hit a snag, he would somehow find another way to keep “moving the ball up the field,” as Mr. Magee described it to others.
The mayor’s chief of staff would also tap his friend Avtar Bains on the shoulder for advice. Mr. Bains is a highly regarded expert in the area of commercial real estate and president of the boutique firm Premise Properties. He would be instrumental in helping set a valuation on the property with which both sides could ultimately live. Bill Aujla, the city’s astute manager of real estate and facilities, also took a seat at the negotiating table early on. As did Brenda MacCalder, CP’s managing director of real estate.
Mr. Magee was desperate to get a deal. He had been at Mr. Robertson’s side since Vision Vancouver took control at city hall. After seven often-tough years serving as the mayor’s prime political operative, he had been ruminating privately about moving on, seeking out new challenges. Few people served in that type of position in a major city for even half that length of time. Mr. Magee figured that if he could broker an agreement on the Arbutus Corridor, it would count as one of the greatest accomplishments he had been a part of during his time at Mr. Robertson’s side.
For years, it had been imagined that the corridor would one day be Vancouver’s own High Line, the popular 2.4-kilometre-long linear park in Manhattan built on an elevated section of unused rail line. The city envisioned a lush corridor of walking and bike paths and gardens as well. A strip of land within the corridor would be protected in the event that one day a decision was made to install light rail transit service along the route.
Mr. Magee and the mayor talked about how a deal could be tied into Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations in 2017, with CP being able to talk up the nation-building role it played in the country’s history and the connection that the Arbutus spur line had to it.
By December, the broad terms of a deal had been reached. The city would pay $55-million for the land, more than $35-million more than it originally agreed to offer. For its part, CP came down $45-million off its opening demand. Both sides understood that critics would say the city paid too much or alternatively that CP took too little. That was the price of doing business.
But there was no question that the city and CP were the architects of something likely to stand the test of time and be viewed as visionary generations from now.
On Saturday, Mr. Magee reached Mr. Pattison by phone in Palm Springs, Calif., to tell him that an agreement with CP had been reached the previous day. He thanked the business icon for the advice and wisdom he had provided, singing the praises of Mr. Smith, the lawyer Mr. Pattison had recommended
Mr. Magee talked about the incredible legacy that Mr. Pattison was helping to leave the city as a result of his behind-the-scenes role.
“It probably wouldn’t have happened without Jimmy,” he would tell others afterward. “It was a whole bunch of people who got it done in the end, but Jimmy got it all started. Now, the city has something people will enjoy for generations. Pretty amazing.”Report Typo/Error