June 13, 2023 – “Are we using cohesive design elements to make a cohesive statement, or are we going to have an ad hoc dog’s breakfast?” The chair of the Town’s Advisory Planning Commission (APC), Andrew Brown, posed this question at the beginning of a recent APC meeting.
Readers are excused if they don’t automatically recognize which of the many current development proposals that have been bandied about by the Town Adminstration recently that Brown was referring to. There seem to more new spending “ideas” popping up every couple days, even though long-planned projects sit on the shelf, seemingly mired in a bureaucratic fog.
In this case, the subject was the completion of the remaining touches to the unfinished roundabout at Memorial Avenue and Highway 19A.
Town Administration has requested about three million more dollars to cover the finishing touches.
A brief history of how we got here
Readers may remember this image that was peddled to residents by Town engineer Bob Weir and Town Administration years ago when he was angling to impose the project on the public purse in the face of much opposition. Note the expansive park-like walking area between the proposed roundabout and the ocean, very different from what has actually been built.
You may also remember the equally egregious disinformation that this roundabout project was to cost only about $2 million.
By our count, the price tag of this money pit climbed to over five million dollars before the shovels hit the ground.
For details you may want to read our analysis published two years ago.
As we reported at the time, on December 23, 2020 Council met, and in a 10 minute meeting, approved both the recommended bidder and the project itself, even though it did not have either an approved budget or public understanding and consent to the sudden increase in complexity and cost, including the requirement for an additional $1.75 million of taxpayer money.
Who knows what has actually been spent.
Remember when monthly Financial Reports were included with Council agendae? No longer.
For a short time, these reports even included a year-end forecast for each budgeted line item. But now these reports have disappeared. Town Hall once again has drawn the drapes even tighter to prevent the public from seeing how taxpayer money is actually spent.
Little attention was drawn by Town engineer Bob Weir and then Finance Director John Marsh to the fact that the ballooning project estimate as we entered 2021 would NOT actually finish the project.
Popular waterfront sidewalk obliterated
There was no provision for any form of beachfront sidewalk to replicate the existing popular walkway that has now been completely destroyed by the over-engineered footprint of the new asphalt and concrete roundabout.
Hence, the plan for a Memorial Roundabout Viewing Platform and Separated Walkway project.
The price tag for that feature was projected to be a mere additional $1.5 million, which the current Council accepted – having little choice given the unacceptability of the current dysfunctional unfinished eyesore. At least Council only agreed to proceed when and if sufficient grants were acquired to cover two thirds of the capital cost, meaning the Town’s portion could be capped at $500,000.
Just for perspective, for the Town to collect an additional $500,000 in any given year, our property taxes would have to increase by 5%.
Our analysis reveals that the $1.5 million project estimate to finish the job was badly understated as well, as has been the pattern ever since this non-essential discretionary roundabout project was launched.
Finishing touches will cost $3 million more, but no notice to taxpayers
According to the June 5, 2023 Town Media Release, construction of the Memorial Roundabout Viewing Platform and Separated Walkway has already started.
And with that announcement, there came an additional $500,000 – unbudgeted – surprise hit to the taxpayers of Qualicum Beach.
Town Administration and Council knew this was coming, could have and should have told the public during its much-ballyhooed “transparent engagement” in the budgeting process in the spring of 2023. But they chose not to.
On April 14, 2023, tenders for this project closed. Over three weeks later, on May 10, 2023 Town Council adopted the 2023 – 2027 Financial Plan (2023 budget).
In that detailed document we QB taxpayers were told that the capital budget for the Beach Path and Viewing Platform was $2,000,000. With federal and provincial grants (also taxpayer money) totalling $1,535,000, the Town’s contribution would be the remaining $465,000, plus liability for any cost overruns.
On closer inspection, it turns out that that Town budget statement was not true.
The project tender was awarded to Knappett Industries for a cost of $2,493,051. That is $493,051 more than taxpayers were told it would cost — suckered again. Town staff, and presumably Council, knew that the budget for this project that they passed on May 10, 2023 was already blown.
But that is only for the biggest of three “finishing touches” currently under consideration.
Let’s add a mural
The unfinished roundabout includes a plain short concrete barrier on the north side of the roundabout, presumably to keep vehicles from ending up in the estuary below. The wall is immediately adjacent to a narrow shoulder, itself immediately adjacent to the roadway.
Someone wrote Council a letter suggesting they beautify the inner face of the concrete wall with the addition of a mural. Council was enthused. Others were not, for well-explained reasons, including those expressed by architect Bruce Fleming-Smith in a letter we published recently.
The mural idea was referred by Council to the Town’s Advisory Planning Commission (APC). The APC’s candid, pragmatic observations grounded in common sense warrant consideration. Here are excerpts from the APC meeting on May 17, 2023.
Driver distraction danger
Commissioner Maureen Dyson’s comments reflected the unanimous view of the APC.
“I believe the primary function of the roundabout is to provide safe movement for both pedestrians and vehicular traffic. For this reason it is crucial that the infrastructure remain clear, clean and uncluttered so it is as simple as possible to navigate.
“I feel a mural is not appropriate for the concrete barrier as proposed. First and foremost it would be too visually distracting and will compromise the safety of the traffic moving through the roundabout.
“Secondly, I think it will distract from the beautiful views that are present at the site. A simple texture or facing would enhance the visual effect of the barrier without undue distraction.”
Pedestrian safety issue
APC Commissioner Roy Collver agreed that “the roundabout wall presents some challenges both esthetically and practically.” Esthetically, Collver suggested that “the view of the natural environment there should be enhanced rather than overwhelmed by some kind of bold and/or busy design (on the concrete barrier wall).”
On the practical side, Collver continued: “Driver distraction is an obvious issue. But another one is pedestrian distraction which is less obvious. But if you drive around this town you can see that situational awareness of traffic by pedestrians seems to be a growing problem. People just step out in front of your car with no eye contact.
“With the sidewalk being immediately adjacent to a busy roadway – a highway – we don’t want to provide pedestrians with more distraction. Stepping too far back to get a detailed look at the artwork (proposed for the concrete wall) could prove disastrous. The curb is right there and then you are in traffic. It is not a good place for people to hang out.”
It seems that the roundabout, as currently operating, has become a more, not less, dangerous intersection for pedestrians – a serious or fatal accident just waiting to happen, along with an inevitable and costly legal dispute about liability for negligent design.
Which begs the question – should pedestrians even be allowed on the dangerous, narrow sidewalk between the concrete barrier and the roundabout curve?
Planning Department head Luke Sales explained that the long-term intention is that “the walkers will take the lower walkway (outside the barrier) and cyclists will either take the roadway or the shoulder (between the roadway and the barrier wall).”
Ad hoc, fragmented design
APC Chair Andrew Brown, an experienced urban planner, focused on the glaring absence of overarching design guidance to glue together the remaining pieces of the puzzle.
“My main concern is: Are we using cohesive design elements to make a cohesive statement, or are we going to have an ad hoc dog’s breakfast?”
Brown interprets the viewing platform as a major attraction: “You can look all the way down past Judges Row on one side (east), and all the way up past the bay on the other side (west). .. I think the viewing platform is really going to snap this into ‘Oh my gosh! This is really worth stopping for and getting out for.’”
Assuming one could find somewhere to park. And so much for reducing congestion at this intersection!
What started as a non-essential project to replace a stop sign at a non-congested intersection has now turned into the creation of our equivalent of the Taj Mahal. Oh well, if we have to do it, let’s do it right.
Brown feels strongly that ”Qualicum Beach must prepare its own design criteria. Otherwise, we’ll get what someone else wants. The roundabout experience is and will remain visually and functionally complex. We need a safe, coherent design concept to complete this important urban feature. We need some visual consistency and simplicity for driver and pedestrian safety, as well as for esthetics.”
For example, Brown continued, “We haven’t got a design concept for the centre of the roundabout. The perimeter wall and any decoration on it should not conflict with the central feature.”
What “central feature”?
APC Commissioner Deborah Christie echoed Brown’s criticism of the lack of cohesive design: “The overall project has to be looked at in full as far as what’s happening on the other (north, lower) side of the roundabout. The artist who is working on the central design of the roundabout should certainly be aware of what is going on with the rest of the proposed mural.”
Whoa. Wait a minute, what’s that about an artist currently at work?
At the APC meeting, Sales explained that “In the centre of the roundabout there is a concept that a local First Nations artist will provide some art to the Town which would then be manufactured and put into the centre of the roundabout. The artist is currently putting together some concepts.” Funded presumably, without tender, from the $200,000 allocated in the 2023 Roads budget for “completion of upgrade works on Memorial Avenue roundabout (First Nations artwork and railings)”?
Christie continued: “I would hope that the consultants who have been working on this project have already put some thought into the interpretation of the surroundings and how this all fits into it and the future potential that brings to our community, as a tourist attraction.”
Whoa again. Consultants? What consultants? And where is the public consultation? It seems like the public has been kept completely in the dark as these multiple splintered efforts bump along in their own little vacuum without coordination.
Maybe, just maybe, some form of overall design criteria and integration will emerge to at least mitigate the pending hodgepodge, mishmash, dog’s breakfast, pick your metaphor. But it’s probably too late for that, thanks to the absence of leadership from Town Council and Administration.
This project is certainly now the largest of the white elephants we taxpayers have been forced to feed.
Soon we may have the enviable reputation of being the only Town that ever spent $10 million of taxpayer money to replace a stop sign at a non-congested intersection.
Anyone else longing for the good old days, as shown in this photo from 2021? It’s a real photo, not one of the Town’s misleading propaganda illustrations.
A light(er) note – consideration given to fish not available to human residents
At the APC meeting, as an example of a design element that may not have been carefully considered yet, Brown noted the need for evening lighting on the viewing platform/walkway, not only for pedestrian safety but also to illuminate any art or historical plaques.
That idea was quickly shot down by Planner Luke Sales: “From the perspective of Fisheries who has to approve this project, they strongly discourage any lighting. It’s an extreme sensitivity when it comes to fish habitat. So that [lighting] probably won’t happen.”
The resident otters probably prefer to live with natural sunlight and moonlight too. Perhaps they enjoy fishing in the dark.
We find it ironic that government policy caters to the preference for darkness for the shoreline marine life, while at the same time, Bob Weir, with zero sensitivity to the preferences of the mammals (including two-legged ones), birds and insects, imposes garishly excessive LED night lighting on the rest of the Town.