June 11, 2010

Failed bid back to haunt

New city hall?: DeCicco-Best said she did right thing for city as far as Bell building goes.

By Patrick Maloney The London Free Press

London missed a golden opportunity when it failed in 2008 to buy the so-called Bell building, a potential future downtown home to city hall, two political veterans say.

The city’s unsuccessful bid for the 300,000 square-foot building, instead bought by land baron Shmuel Farhi, is now in the spotlight as calls mount for London’s civic government to consider moving from its cramped, aging Dufferin Ave. headquarters.

"We should have bought it when it was available," Controller Bud Polhill said. "It’s almost the ideal size for us. But it’s gone now. That option’s not there."

Orlando Zamprogna, a former longtime council member who says he’s offered his input to city officials about what to do with city hall, was more blunt about the missed opportunity.

"This was a very high-level mistake of the worst kind," he said Thursday. "The city, if it had any forward wisdom on downtown redevelopment, ought to have negotiated with Bell at the front end when they did get knowledge it might (sell) the space."

But Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best dismissed the criticisms, noting the city did what it could to buy the building, located at Dundas and Talbot streets.

It’s believed that London bid $14 million for the property, with several conditions attached. Farhi bid $11 million but had no conditions on the sale — which appealed to the seller, who was trying to move the property quickly.

DeCicco-Best says there’s nothing else city hall could have done. "I don’t know why (anyone) would say we made a mistake, we tried to buy the building," said DeCicco-Best, who wouldn’t confirm those dollar figures. "We tried buying it and it wasn’t a successful bid. How much more could you do?"

Peter Whatmore of CB Richard Ellis, who brokered the sale and purchase by Farhi, said in his opinion, the city did the right thing. Because it was working with public money, it couldn’t make an offer without "due diligence" and attaching conditions, he said.

But with Tom Johnson, now handling the city’s asset-management portfolio, examining the options London has with regard to city hall — including selling the 40-year-old building — the Bell building is again being raised as a future home.

The problem for some, though, is it’s now privately owned by Farhi. Could that, some ask, affect the public’s sense of ownership and involvement in city dealings?

Coun. Stephen Orser suggested an interesting offer: Pay Farhi what he spent on the Bell building and give him the current city hall building, the value of which to the city is questionable given the millions required to remove its asbestos.

"That would be a nice fit," Orser said. "It’s reasonable."

DeCicco-Best, noting a major analysis comparing the costs of leasing and buying is needed, says partnering with a private property owner, possibly in a multi-use building, is a wise option.

Her chief rival in this fall’s mayoral race, Joe Fontana, offered similar thoughts.

Fontana once again declined to criticize DeCicco-Best or the current council on the '08 Bell bid — "I’d rather speak about the future" — and said he’s open to leasing a new city hall.

"There’s no doubt the status quo is not operating," Fontana said. "There’s some interesting opportunities that could come from partnerships. We could make a statement. We could be creative and innovative."

London’s 40-year-old city hall offers about 120,000 square feet of work space, a figure that doesn’t include the first floor or 12th-floor cafeteria.

With several departments already parcelled out in other downtown buildings, city hall remains cramped.

In something of a pilot project, the city is spending more than $1 million to renovate and create more space on the 11th floor — much of that money going to removing asbestos. Once the work’s done next year, council will examine repeating the process on every floor, which could push the tab to $20 million.