What kind of a city hall should the Best mid-sized city in the country have? A new one?

By Pepper Parr

February 4th, 2014


Did you know that the distance between two cities is measured from where the city hall is located?  A city hall is the core of a community and if you listen carefully to city manager Jeff Fielding when he speaks you will realize quickly that from his point of view city hall is downtown.

Ward 6 Councillor Blair Lancaster spoke once of a visit to the Ottawa city hall where the place was “buzzing” – “there was a coffee shop in the lobby and it was busy” she told her fellow council members.  Burlington city hall once had a small coffee shop but it was in an out of the way location, few members of the public knew where it was and staff didn’t seem to patronize the place – so they shut it down and the space is now a lounge with micro waves and vending machines for staff to use.

The back end of city hall was added in 1986 and planned to accommodate an additional two floors – is that the solution to the space problems?

Burlington has a city hall that was built in 1964, went through an addition in 1986 but that isn’t enough space for the number of people who work for the city.  The city rents significant space in the Simms  large binders and files tucked under their arms.

Sometime referred to as “city hall south” the Sims building has housed a number of city departments for a long time.  Lease is up in 2016 – does the city renew?

Ward 4 councillor Jack Dennison thinks the city could have bought the Sims building with the rent money they have paid during the many years the city has used space in the building.  The current lease runs out in 2016.  Finance, legal, human resources, purchasing and some Corporate Strategic Initiatives work out of that building.

With the Sims lease coming to an end soon the city is looking at its options.  The review is being led by general manager Scott Stewart with a lot of the spade work being done by Craig  Stevens.  These two handled the second run at the pier and oversaw the city part of the Performing Arts construction – they tend to get it right.

The city has engaged CBRE, one of the largest commercial real estate operations in the country to do a needs study that goes beyond the bums and seats approach to space management.

Their task is to review all the options and come forward with a recommendation.

One of the options is to add two more floors to the additional of city hall that was done in 1986.  When that addition was put in place it was designed for two more storeys.  That plan has become a bit complicated with changes in the building code that call for changes that were not anticipated back in the mid 80’s

The first task to figure out is just what the city has in the way of property and what it doesn’t have and match that up with what is needed both now and into the future.

Transit is housed on Harvester Road as is Roads and Parks Maintenance (RPM).  The team revising the city’s web site works off site and the Cultural Planner will work outside city hall if that position is created.  Spreading people who create policy over a number of different locations is not seen as good management.  People need to be able to get to each other and to meet casually.  Much gets done over the water cooler.

City hall isn’t seen as an efficient structure and it certainly doesn’t have the acronym LEEDS anywhere near it.  What does one do with the structure? Enlarge it – there is adjacent land the city could acquire and the space could undergo a major refurbishment.  But that doesn’t appear to be the direction the city thinkers are going in.

“What if we could convince a provincial government department to take over city hall, perhaps buy it from us so that the city could put up the kind of building they need” suggested a senior city hall staffer who spoke on background.  It was suggested that the city could perhaps partner with a developer and get some class A office space in the city.

It seemed like a good idea at the time but hindsight may teach us that the parking lot on Locust was not the smartest idea we ever had.

Some people look at two significantly located pieces of property that could be re-purposed.  The parking garage on Locust Street – part of the dream former Mayor Rob MacIsaac had for the city.  The parking space was certainly needed but was property that close to Lakeshore Road with the potential view the smartest place to park cars?

The downtown core is still looking for the “vibrancy” everyone says it has.  The impending construction of the Medica One project at John and Caroline will add some vitality to that part of the city and the hope is that additional development will begin to take place along the southern part of John street as well.

Parking lots 4 and 5 on John and Brant Street are locations looking for a purpose.  There was a time when McMaster University was going to take up residence there but that one got away on us.

It has been a number of years getting to the point where there are shovels in the ground but at least this project is going forward. We should see some digging on LAkeshore soon as well when the Bridgewater project begins. The Delta hotel won’t manage to open in time for the Pan-American games.

But development and Burlington don’t seem to dance that well.  The city is seeing a lot of condo’s and apartment units going up.  Molinaro has a project on Brock that is under construction and a multi tower project is on Fairview beside the GO station is being actively marketed.

Project like that solve the direction the province has given the city to add more population.  The problem for Burlington is that there are no jobs for those people in Burlington.

The Economic Development Corporation has done a terrible job of attracting new business even though Burlington has a great story to tell.  Late in October the BEDC parted ways with their Executive Director – that was 90 days ago and to date there isn’t a hint as to when they will strike a committee to hire a replacement.

Without some serious economic development, all the talk of Prosperity corridors is just so much public relations.  The city needs new business that will create additional tax revenue that is vital if  residential taxes are to be kept competitive.

That needed economic development will also create new jobs.

Time to begin selling that “Canada’s Best mid-sized city” story to the rest of the world – and that can only happen if there are people who know how to do that kind of work.  The kind of people who do that kind of work need to be led by a Board that can actually create a plan and then oversee its execution.

Burlington doesn’t have such a board in place right now.  This has to be embarrassing.


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