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Residents got grief; developer got sweet deal

Audit probes land-swap mistakes

Posted: 07/5/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0


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Five years ago, rookie River Heights-Fort Garry Coun. John Orlikow was greener than a July tomato when he was handed a nightmare of a proposal for his ward.

On July 13 of that year, Winnipeg suddenly faced a proposal to swap one of the largest parcels of undeveloped city-owned land for a smaller chunk of land belonging to developer Andrew Marquess.

The plan called for the city to give up 24 hectares of unserviced city land in the Parker neighbourhood of Fort Garry. In exchange, the city would receive 3.6 hectares of serviced land near Winnipeg Transit's Osborne Street headquarters.

A report that initially went before a closed-door session of council's property committee said both pieces of land were assessed at $1 million.

The exchange would give the city room to expand a Winnipeg Transit garage, while Marquess could proceed with a plan to transform the Parker neighbourhood into a residential district and build 3,500 townhouses.

When these details were made public, on July 15, 2009, residents near the Parker lands flipped out. Some were angry at the proposed elimination of a patch of semi-forested prairie that includes a dog park. Others were frightened by the proposed extension of the Sterling Lyon Parkway. Mostly, they were outraged the idea was put before city council in only nine days after its sudden appearance.

Orlikow, who was elected the previous March, struggled to comprehend what was happening. The rookie councillor learned about the plan by reading the Free Press.

Faced with angry voters, he put together a town hall at Victoria Community Centre, where his constituents told him flatly to do anything to prevent the swap from passing.

On July 22, council approved the transaction by a 10-6 margin. Orlikow voted against it, as did Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt, who wasn't buying whatever senior city officials were trying to sell.

"The fact that this is being rammed through here at 8:30 on a Wednesday in the middle of July is a bunch of garbage," Wyatt seethed.

Orlikow was reduced to meekly complaining that as the new guy, he shouldn't have to play the role of political eunuch.

Now, five years after the fact, the real estate audit reveals Orlikow and his constituents weren't just acting like a bunch of whining NIMBYs.

Auditor EY found the city didn't inspect the properties in question, didn't conduct proper assessments, and didn't even provide a rationale for swapping the properties.

Even worse, the auditors found city appraisers complained their $1-million assessments amounted to a back-of-the-napkin "rush job" that were intended only for internal purposes.

The city appraisers complained time restraints made it unreasonable to assess the two pieces of land.

Most disturbingly, the auditors also found the value of the Parker land to be "significantly greater" two years after the exchange. They ultimately suggested it was highly problematic to part with this city property without issuing a tender.

Orlikow, however, doesn't feel vindicated by the audit conclusions.

"There's lots of 'I told you sos' in this thing, but I'm not sure that helps," he said Friday. "There's no reason why the land swap wasn't evaluated and why it was rushed through."

Marquess told the Free Press he played no part in the city decision. While the auditors essentially concluded he wound up with a sweet deal, he said it was tough for him to comment on city processes. "It's been five years. I've moved on from that," he said.

In response to the auditor's comments about the increased value of the Parker land, city officials noted this area had yet to be contemplated for the second phase of the Southwest Transitway. This is beyond belief, considering what appears on page 8 of the report recommending the Parker land swap to council in 2009: A diagram of a "proposed bus rapid transit" line running one block north of Parker Avenue.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2014 A8

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