Vancouver is being offered potentially tens of millions of dollars by BC Hydro, in exchange for allowing two large substations to be built underneath parks and schools downtown.
Hydro's precedent-setting offer, made public late last week, is also only on the table until March 31, as the Crown corporation looks for an alternative way to meet what it says will be a huge jump in electrical demand as the downtown core continues densifying.
Hydro chief executive Jessica McDonald says the utility will lose the available money it has this fiscal year for capital projects if it is not spent by that deadline, which falls weeks before the provincial election.
That need for a fast decision has prompted warnings about negative consequences, sparked definite interest and set off a scramble among perpetually cash-strapped local-government officials.
The proposal includes a promise to build two new schools downtown, refurbish Lord Nelson Park in the West End, Emery Barnes Park in Yaletown and Cathedral Square Park near the central business district, as well as hand over millions for prepaid 99-year leases.
Park-board chair Michael Wiebe, whose board considered the proposal at a closed-door meeting after hearing a presentation from Hydro in mid-November, said the group will support Hydro's massive public-consultation effort in the next couple of months, in order to see what the public thinks, but that everyone still wants much more information.
"This is going to be a big decision with big money."
A staff report has raised a number of concerns, including the loss of park space for years during construction, the inability to plant certain kinds of trees because of the underground structure, and public concerns about the health effects of a substation.
Downtown parks are some of the city's hardest-working parks, the report notes, and having a substation underground "may prevent the parks from being used to their fullest potential."
The Nelson Park and Lord Robert school construction would start in 2020 and last for five years. The Emery Barnes substation construction would start in 2036 and last five years. The board plans to have a full-time planner embedded in the consultation process to make sure park interests are understood and represented.
Vancouver city manager Sadhu Johnston called the proposal "innovative" and said in an e-mailed statement that "the city is very interested in the public's input … and encourages residents to participate in BC Hydro's engagement process." The city has jurisdiction over parkland.
Vancouver school board secretary treasurer Guy Bonnefoy called it "an unprecedented kind of request" and said the board will be waiting to see the outcome of public consultations.
Former board trustee Patti Bacchus said it's the kind of decision that people in Vancouver should examine carefully. She, along with Mr. Wiebe, said it's unfortunate that the school district is now being run by a government-appointed trustee, who will make the decision, rather than an elected board.
"Is this how government intends to start funding schools?" Ms. Bacchus asked. The Coal Harbour elementary school was on the district's list of capital projects suggested for government funding this year to cover the $21-million cost. The funding has yet to be approved.
She said parents will also likely be concerned about the health impacts of an electrical-transmission station under a school.
"If I were still on the board, I would be calling for independent, scientific advice."
In response to that, Ms. McDonald said the current Cathedral Park substation has been operating for years and tests have indicated that it emits 0.5 per cent of what the World Health Organization has set as a safe level of exposure for electromagnetic fields.
She also noted that there are already 37 electrical substations in Metro Vancouver, half of them within 100 metres to 200 metres of a park or school.
"There is nothing new about siting a substation next to a school," she said.
Ms. McDonald said Hydro staff scoured the downtown peninsula for two years looking for sites for new substations, each of which would take up about half a city block.
Anything they could find was substandard and would mean taking away room needed for housing in central Vancouver, she said.
Only recently did someone suggest the novel idea of building them under existing city parks. The substation under Cathedral Park, across the street from Holy Rosary Cathedral downtown, was the first underground station ever built in North America when it was constructed in 1983.
Since then, two other cities – Anaheim, Calif., and Toronto – have built underground substations.
Ms. McDonald said the corporation has been given about $2-billion a year to do a massive upgrade of electrical-power infrastructure throughout the province and these substations are part of that.
Hydro spent $2.31-billion last year for capital projects and, up to December this fiscal year, has spent $1.75-billion.
She said if Hydro doesn't get a decision by March 31 on the Vancouver properties, it will lose its remaining allowance for this year for capital projects.
Central Vancouver is currently served by three substations in or near the downtown: the Dal Grauer station on Burrard Street, the Murrin station at Main and Union Streets and the Cathedral Square station.