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Hilton seeks park lease for waterfront project

Nanaimo city council will move ahead on a lease agreement which could see waterfront park loaned to private developers.

In a 5-1 vote Monday, city council gave approval in principle for a lease that allows InSight Developments, developers of the proposed Hilton hotel, to build amenities into Georgia Park, between Maffeo Sutton and Pioneer Plaza. Development representatives say they have been working with city staff and the parks department on the design, which includes a grand staircase down to the waterfront, an infinity pool, patio and loading dock. The work, estimated at $1.5 million, would also be part of a public thoroughfare the city wants from Front Street, through the hotel to the waterfront, according to project spokesman Brian Henning, who says without the lease area people would walk out of the building onto grass.

The desired work would take more than 900 square metres or close to 60 per cent out of the waterfront green space and be for the benefit of the hotel and its guests, although a city report says the area will still remain open to the public.

A draft agreement is expected to go to council if a zoning amendment bylaw for the 35-storey hotel is approved, but electors will ultimately decide if the project gets the park lease.

Mayor John Ruttan, who gave initial approval for the lease, said he appreciates “a park is a park is a park,” but pointed out there’s not a great utilization of the space and the city would still own the property under the agreement.

However, Coun. Fred Pattje believes the city could lose control of what happens with that section of the park no matter how flowery the wording,  “because it will be for hotel purposes and not for public purposes,” he said.

The agreement reminds him of a previous city council that was prepared to give a portion of Maffeo Sutton to the conference centre hotel developer.

“Luckily we were able to undo that and now we have this,” he said.

While he agrees Georgia Park has been underused, he also blames the city. People aren’t able to get a stroller, wheelchair or walker down the zig-zagging path which stretches from Front Street to the waterfront.

The city’s parks and open spaces planner also isn’t sure if the green space has ever seen a full improvement.

“[The] park space ... it’s not a heck of a lot I know, but it’s the principle of the thing,” Pattje said. “Public space is a bit of a sacred thing with me and you don’t give it up so easily if there are other possibilities.”

Lease agreement details haven’t been ironed out, but the hotel would be responsible for construction and maintenance in the lease area as well as annual payments. Staff is also recommending a 60-year-plus term.

According to Darwin Mahlum, a spokesman for the hotel project, the area could be designed without the park but it would be a huge loss to the public. He says redeveloping the hill is a problem for the parks department because of access and this way the hotel would do the work and pay for the joint-use area.

On Monday city council also decided to sell the hotel developers a $475,000 lane way and move ahead on rezoning, which includes staff securing $1.187 million for park improvements. A public hearing for rezoning is set for Sept. 4.

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