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Vancouver never envisioned art gallery taking an entire block

The current home of the Vancouver Art Gallery at Hornby and West Georgia Streets in Vancouver on March 3rd, 2010. The gallery rejected the province's very public offering of a property in the False Creek.

Simon Hayter/simon hayter The Globe and Mail

The Vancouver Art Gallery's aggressive pitch this year to take over an entire city block for a new building wasn't even contemplated during a city meeting four years ago that laid out plans for a new cultural district, according to an internal report obtained through a freedom-of-information request.

The October, 2006, report made clear that the plan developed by the previous council was for the gallery to share that block - envisioned as part of a grand new cultural precinct - with an office tower and a 450-seat theatre.

In fact, city staff thought the best way to get upper-level governments to provide funding was by creating a cultural precinct. That precinct, they wrote, "would provide an attractive vehicle to raise the funds necessary."

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Making the project attractive was vital because the city counted on getting two-thirds of the $360-million cost from the federal and provincial governments.

The $120-million from each level of government never materialized before the recession hit full force in the fall of 2008. However, former councillor Elizabeth Ball, who dealt with arts issues while in office, said they were lobbying hard for it and getting positive signals.

MP James Moore, the Heritage Minister and Vancouver's nearest representative in the federal Conservative government, said Wednesday that he spoke to gallery board chair David Aisenstat a year ago about the possibilities for federal funding but the timing wasn't good.

"We have a lot of money out there for projects right now," said Mr. Moore from Ottawa. "We put $100-million into the human-rights museum in Winnipeg and $21-million into the immigration museum in Halifax. It would be difficult. You never say never, but we have our economic action plan."

That's the difficult history working against the gallery as its official proposal to build a new facility, now estimated to cost $350-million by itself, sits on the desks of senior city staff for review.

Gallery spokeswoman Dana Sullivant said the gallery was never aware of the report and the city's calculations about where it was going to get money for cultural facilities.

However, she said the gallery has raised $90-million already: $50-million from the province and $40-million in pledges from private donors.

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The October, 2006, report asked councillors of the day to agree to "borrow" $40-million against the future office development on the site in order to do a $60-million renovation job on existing theatres. (The remaining money would come from various city accounts saved up for the renovations.)

The report said that councillors had to come up with a way to pay for the renovations immediately so they would be ready for the Olympics but, at that point, there were no funding commitments from senior levels of government.

The plan, which councillors approved, was that the money would be repaid when provincial and federal governments contributed the $240-million for the entire cultural precinct.

But only the provincial government anted up.

"Should the senior governments choose not to share in funding the cultural precinct, the city would be left to fund the entire $60-million cost of the theatre projects," city staff said.

That is exactly what has happened, leaving the city on the hook for the $40-million it sank into improvements to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and Playhouse, which sit on a block adjacent to the one where the art gallery had anticipated moving.

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That means the city would have to commit far more money than it originally intended in order to create the new cultural precinct and new gallery. It had promised to provide land for the gallery for free, but with the expectation that it would get back its $40-million for the earlier renovations.

Vision Councillor Raymond Louie said that calculations made about possible funding "made in a more exuberant time" have now limited the city's options.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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