Georgia Park lease deserves referendum

The Harbour City has a lot to offer a new Hilton hotel. Parkland shouldn’t be part of the equation.

The Harbour City has a lot to offer a new Hilton hotel, from a 10-year tax exemption to prime waterfront real estate.

Parkland shouldn’t be part of the equation.

InSight Holdings wants to build a $100-million hotel on Front Street. According to John Steil, senior planner with architectural firm Stantec, it’s hard to find waterfront property in places like Victoria and Vancouver, making this “one of the last great sites for a waterfront hotel.”

Plans for the new project show it could rise 35 storeys from the waterfront, offering rooftop terraces, conference space, restaurants and retail. There will also be public access through the hotel from Front Street and a $1.187-million contribution for upgrades to Maffeo Sutton Park as part of the hotel’s rezoning application.

InSight is also asking to expand into city park. It wants to lease close to 60 per cent of Georgia Park, between Maffeo Sutton and Pioneer Plaza, for features like an infinity pool, grand staircase, patio and loading dock.

The project could be redesigned, but a project spokesman says it would be a loss to the public. The developer is offering private money to upgrade and maintain the space, which would be jointly used by the public and hotel guests.

Council seems to think it’s a good deal. Five politicians, including the city’s mayor, provided approval in principle for a lease last month.

It was a tough decision to watch.

There is no doubt benefit to leasing the space. The city would see new revenue as well as private dollars invested into park upgrades.

But it would also lose control of one of its biggest assets – a piece of its downtown waterfront.

Residents would be dependent on the terms of the lease agreement, suggested to have a 60-year-plus term, to lay out the kind of access they get to the park, but I also wonder if residents’ sense of ownership over the space would erode in time anyway.

The staircase, loading dock and patio are all expected to remain open to the public, but would a resident think to loiter in a private hotel’s loading bay, or feel comfortable stretching out on its staircase?

There is also the issue of potentially setting a precedent. If Nanaimo is open to renting its waterfront park to this hotel, what’s stopping the city from leasing Piper Park to SSS Manhao, for example?

I grew up in the Nanaimo area and have always taken pride in the parkland and waterfront legacies fought for and won by residents and purchased by the city. Georgia Park might not look like much, but it belongs to us without condition and without restrictions.

It has been used by the public for more than 100 years and long before the city bought and dedicated the green space as a park in the late 1940s. It’s also part of an overall waterfront network that we continue to build on and grow as we strive to enhance tourism and quality of life.

As Coun. Fred Pattje said, public space is public space and we have it for a reason. It ought to be the most difficult thing to give up.

This isn’t the first time our politicians have considered offering our waterfront to developers and it’s hard to understand why it’s given up so easily. This legacy was preserved for us and we have the opportunity to maintain it for the enjoyment of future generations. Prying it away from our hands should be the most difficult thing to do and if our council’s grip on green space is a little loose, then it should be left to residents to make the ultimate decision. Park isn’t for politicians to barter with. It belongs to the citizens of Nanaimo. Put the issue to referendum.