For visitors and locals alike, the transformation of Lansdowne Park over the past decade has created and enhanced an important community and cultural landmark in our city. The revitalization has reignited the passion for local sports including the Ottawa REDBLACKS, Ottawa 67s, the Blackjacks, and Atlético Ottawa. The shops and eateries have been a welcome addition and the farmer’s markets and green spaces are great family attractions. I believe I can speak for all of us when I say that we appreciate this dynamic urban park and want it to have a long vibrant life here in the city.
While Lansdowne is a place we all enjoy, the Lansdowne Partnership Plan between the City of Ottawa and Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG) that was formed in 2010, has not performed financially. In 2022, this reality prompted OSEG to request that the city renegotiate the Partnership Plan to ensure a more sustainable arrangement, the plan has been dubbed ‘Lansdowne 2.0’.
Earlier this month, the Lansdowne 2.0 Report was released to the public. The proposal and changes to the Partnership Plan are significant and requires another substantial investment from the taxpayer of nearly half a billion dollars. After having read the report, I have significant concerns with the proposal including the level of financial risk to the city, lack of affordable housing, and insufficient improvements to site access and the public realm.
Throughout the report, the funding strategy for this project is based around several unpredictable financial assumptions such as, but not limited to, project cost estimates, optimistic profit projections, and funding from other levels of government. If any of these assumptions do not come to fruition, it’s tax-payers who will end up footing the increased bill.
The current price tag for the project is $419.1 million. However, this is only a Class C cost estimate, which means that the project is still in very early stages and as we move forward into the detailed design phase, it is likely that costs will rise. In all likelihood the final project cost will be closer to half a billion dollars.
To fund this redevelopment, staff are proposing a number of strategies, including the issuance of over $330 million of new city debt. This debt will cost taxpayers $16.4 million to service each year and relies heavily on positive cash flows and profits from the partnership to help pay off the debt. In theory, this sounds like a safe bet, but in the past ten years, Lansdowne has not been a profitable venture, making this new deal quite the gamble – something I am not willing to do with your money.
The financial risk in this new Lansdowne Partnership Plan is high and unlike in Lansdowne 1.0, where the city was protected and did not bear the burden for any annual loses, in this new deal the city is fully exposed and shares in both potential profits and losses. This is hugely important because if the site does not produce annual revenues, which is hasn’t to date, more and more of your tax dollars will be used to pay back the debt. That is money that will not be available in future years to invest in our roads, parks, housing, and transit services.
In addition to the risks associated with profit projections, the financial arrangement also hinges on receiving $20 million in funding from upper tier governments, a commitment we have not received. In the absence of those dollars, staff may need to issue more debt, which will continue to place a significant pressure on our already limited resources.
While the financials of Lansdowne 2.0 leave much to be desired, this is not the only consideration that Council will take when deciding whether or not to approve the proposed plan.
As many of you have acknowledged, the Lansdowne 2.0 plan includes considerable amounts of new housing – up to 800 units onsite. We are in an affordable housing crisis and the creation of 800 new homes is a compelling argument.
However, it is important to note that of the 800 units, not one will be deemed affordable. This is a significant deviation from the original plan, where 10 per-cent of the units onsite were going to be affordable. As we know, not all housing is created equal, and increasing the supply of housing by building luxury condos will have almost no impact on general affordability.
One of the options being proposed is to instead build affordable housing offsite, to make up for the lack of having affordable housing onsite. This would not only mean that housing could be built sooner but could also include deeply affordable units. This is good in principle, and was set to be financed by the City policy, that states 25 per-cent of all proceeds generated from the sale of city land/air rights should be allocated to affordable housing. In the sale of the city’s air rights in Lansdowne 2.0, this would generate approximately $9 million in funding. However, this plan has asked council to instead only allocate 10 per-cent of the proceeds to affordable housing, leaving only $3.9 million to build these homes –almost $5 million less than before.
So not only are there no affordable housing units proposed to be onsite at Lansdowne, but the city is also not honouring its own policy and commitment to affordable housing, by asking Council to forgo over $5 million in funding for new affordable units in favour of supporting the redevelopment of a sports stadium. Given the current needs of our residents, this is a difficult pill to swallow.
SITE ACCESS & PUBLIC REALM
One of the biggest challenges of Lansdowne Park is the site’s access. During large scale events, congestion around the site is a real problem. The goal of the Lansdowne 2.0 plan is to attract one million more visitors per year to the site, yet no changes to improve transportation to the site have been proposed. It is unclear how the site will accommodate these new visitors, which is a cause for concern and a missed opportunity given the investment we are being asked to make into the park.
For those who frequent the sports and entertainment venues, this new plan also removes the hill that currently allows onlookers to enjoy the festivities from the sidelines and replaces it with a stadium that has fewer seats, without the green roof that was previously proposed –all while increasing ticket prices. The proposal also includes replacing the north side stands and removing the roof that currently provides coverage for fans enjoying a game in inclement weather. This is a popular feature for sports fans and will have a negative impact on the overall game day experience.
While I have highlighted many challenges that I see with the current Lansdowne 2.0 proposal, this is not an exhaustive list. For me, the biggest risk with the plan is the financial burden placed on the City, especially in our current cost-of-living crisis. I am concerned that approving the Lansdowne 2.0 proposal, as is, would be financially irresponsible.
While it’s important that we support the continued success of Lansdowne, this is not the only path forward. Reports have shown that both the stadium and the arena are structurally sound and with proper maintenance have lots of life left. I want to push Council to broaden our scope and ensure we are exploring all of our options before being asked to approve this plan. Whether this means new financial strategies, or even new partnerships altogether, we need to be sure that we are making the best decision for our city.
Lansdowne will always be an important place. With the right vision, strategic partnerships, and with our residents top of mind, we can ensure that Lansdowne remains a vibrant park for everyone.
Lansdowne 2.0 will be considered at a Joint Committee of Planning and Housing and Finance and Corporate Services Committee on November 2nd and at a Special Meeting of Council on November 10th, 2023. I encourage you to participate in these meetings and to share your views on this project with my office at Jessica.Bradley@ottawa.ca