Philip Mcleod

The McLeod Report - London, Ontario

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The cost of saving old

REPORT #1,128: Preserving our heritage costs money – and it doesn’t stop with this year’s new coat of paint. That on-going cost needs to be built into the renovation budget, as well as into our political mindset.

Monday, Oct. 19, 2015 – London Ontario

Old buildings, as anyone who has ever renovated one will know, are not called money pits for no good reason. So we shouldn’t be surprised the cost of bringing the old Normal School in Wortley Village into the 21st century has suddenly jumped upwards.

We shouldn’t be dismayed either. Saving our history is expensive. If we think that’s important – and I hope we do – then we need to anticipate these sudden surprises.

 Okay, a few expletives are permitted when you first break through the plaster and find the brick wall behind is rotting (or fill in your own unexpected discovery). Think of it this way, though – you’ll have a great story to tell when the job is finished.

For London the costs have increased about $2 million, or about 25 per cent, as a report to Tuesday’s meeting of city council’s corporate services committee indicates. That’s a serious chunk of change, granted, but not unusual. It means the final cost to London taxpayers of acquiring the building and surrounding land, and renovating it to current standards, will now top $11.3 million. 

That’s in addition to the considerable sums the provincial government – also supported by London taxpayers – paid previously to restore the exterior.

As city council considers this additional spending, it should be acknowledged protecting heritage is not an automatic solution to every old building. 

In this case, for example, the end user will be the YMCA of Western Ontario which, as a tenant, will operate a daycare at an annual rent of $450,000. At that rate, obviously, the city will be a long time getting its money back from this project, if ever. 

Financial returns like this suggest protecting heritage is something most businesses will find difficult. In future it may be something only governments can afford to do. Do taxpayers want to buy every old building to save it?

Location of the old Normal School in Wortley Village, and in particular the sizeable green that surrounds it, made this an appealing neighbourhood project and it had considerable community support.

But now that we own it, what is the long-term plan to keep it up-to-date? The city owns a number of heritage buildings now in deplorable condition. Fixing old buildings is one thing, but they must remain fixed to current standards to both remain useful and to remain protected. 

Preserving our heritage costs money. It doesn’t stop with this year’s new coat of paint. That cost needs to be built into the renovation budget, as well as into our political mindset.

An unnecessary ranking

Also on the corporate services budget this Tuesday is a recommendation from staff to change the way the deputy deputy mayor is appointed. The suggestion is to use ranked ballots.

A better suggestion would have been to abolish the deputy deputy position altogether.

Since the current council was elected we’ve had two deputies – one, appointed by the mayor for the four-year term, is the senior deputy; the other, elected by council for a year at a time. That second deputy is also chairperson of the corporate services committee; the first deputy is given no special duties. 

So when Mayor Matt Brown is absent, the first deputy, Paul Hubert, serves in his place. Should it happen both are away, then the second deputy, Maureen Cassidy, takes over. 

In days of yore, when London had a Board of Control, the controller winning the most votes city-wide earned the position as deputy mayor. There was only one, and she or he also served as budget chairperson.

When Board of Control was canned in 2010, the deputy’s job became a rotating position each member of council could fill. That idea lost favour when the likes of Stephen Orser or Dale Henderson suddenly became mayor for a day or week.

The mayor is the only council position elected city-wide. Allowing him or her to pick a colleague of similar viewpoint as an assistant or replacement seems fair and reasonable. Why do we need a second one?

Comments   

# Each council is differentobserver 2015-10-19 01:09
The deputy mayor is mainly ceremonial and for emergencies. One is enough and it should not attract additional compensation. Regarding the Normal School, same thing happened with the former TD building at Dundas and Wellington. Most expensive "free" building the city ever got. At least it doesn't have to rent the space, like it does all over town to a single landlord (Farhi Holdings).
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# Two Too Manyjmac 2015-10-19 02:10
Deputy Mayor no big commitment in time or mental acuity. Lots of chicken dinners and wreath laying. Signing a few documents already approved by staff. Yawn.

The Separate School Board got out of the Normal School because they already knew it was a gorgeous old pit for money.But the city jumps in. Who is running the show?
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# RE: The cost of saving oldBill Brock 2015-10-19 03:50
The cost of saving: let's review process and get the facts straight. London Free Press November 27, 2012 "Money no obstacle: Mayor"; more recently I believe deputy mayor said something similar. The community wanted to ensure green space was not sold off to private developers (same article). October 20, 2012 should be reviewed as to process followed and results of 3 proposals. On August 26, 2014 Corporate Services Committee received and ultimately Council passed a motion approving Tonda Construction Ltd. for part 1 and eventually the action approving building of renovated facility noting cost upset limits etc.. On Oct. 15, 2015 London Free Press article identified cost increases of some 2 million dollars. Many of the references to cause were known before when decisions made (review reports to Council to confirm). Please note asbestos is not new but has been identified for several years in old buildings. Also, the August 26, 2014 report clearly states under conclusion " The Normal School is unique......... .requires a contractor with experience and expertise...." Councillor Cassidy wants answers from the EXPERTS!. Watch webcast!
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# Heritage not always expensiveRockinon 2015-10-19 20:06
According to Ken Bernstein, Director of Preservation Issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy:

. . . the public school system in LA finds renovation costs about 15% less than new construction. And with renovated office space Bernstein claims savings of as much as 50% over new building.

There are literally hundreds of postings from around the globe making similar claims. Preservation of heritage, when done correctly, is often less expensive than tearing down and building new.

All that said, the amounts spent in London seem quite high when the final results are considered.

Think of the Bowles Lunch building which The London Free Press has called an historic gem saved from the wrecker's ball. The entire facade, originally terra cotta, is gone. The present facade is a copy, a fair copy, but a total copy done in stone. Inside, there is nothing left of the original diner.

For all the talk of heritage preservation, London is damn poor at turning words into action.
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# Regrettable Loss of Board of ControlLeila Paul 2015-10-20 22:18
Rather than abolish the elected Board of Control, we should have expanded its powers and increased the amount paid to Controllers.

They were elected city-wide and had the capacity and obligation to place any project into greater perspective. The fact they were elected also allowed for direct contact with the people they served.

I don't recall the rationale for eliminating the badly-needed oversight they provided. I think the goal was to save money, but I'd bet that we've spent far more - needlessly - than if the Board had continued to exercise its oversight.

I'd rather have seen Controllers take on more of the duties now done by unelected Managers at city hall. Rationalizing managerial roles while expanding the roles of Controllers might have been far wiser. We may have been much further ahead in terms of cost-saving as well as accountability and transparency.

Was abolishing Board of Control an irreversible act, or is there a method that allows voters to reassess the question of restoring Board of Control?
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