P3s for Cultural Facilties

Two posts in one day – wow! I read this article on the weekend in the Groan and Wail and thought it worth commenting on though it involves a project in Montreal. I think is relevant to potential new cultural facilities in Calgary, and how they might be delivered. First off, I disagree with Rochon; she attempts to conclude right off with her hypothesis, that P3s will not work for cultural facilities, and then makes poor arguments to back it up. In particular, she appears to believe that P3s will subvert design, and the absolute supremacy of the architect to vulgar cost considerations, not befitting such a grand edifice such as a new symphony hall:

“My concern has to do with how a symphony hall, imagined for 50 years, can be
reduced to the vagaries of a money-making operation in which issues of
visual impact, finely tuned construction and inspired movement from the
surrounding streets barely get discussed. In bookkeeping, aesthetics are too
messy to mark on a score sheet.”

First of all, this is not true. I don’t know how the process went exactly, but in setting out the technical performance requirements in the competition, design considerations could be weighted heavily, and the consortia would have had to submit fairly detailed designs, including materials; it is not as if the winning bidder could now build anything they wanted, and pocket the difference. The second key point, and the one where she seems to inadvertantly undo her argument, is the notion that any public project, should or could be lead purely by design considerations, with an apparently unlimited budget. Sure we would get something impressive, but no government would sign on to such a deal, having to live in the real world of being accountable to taxpayers. If you can find a deep pocketed philanthropist sure, but otherwise this is a non-starter. In fact, as she herself noted, it was this lack of certainty over costs that derailed proposal after proposal for 50 years. I always say, P3s have at least one thing going for them; they actually get things built.

The implications for Calgary are good, since this project proves that P3s can work beyond beyond highways and hospitals, and, in my opinion, the city has reached a point where new cultural facilities are needed. A new central library is on that list, but also, possibly a new large scale concert venue (the Saddledome’s horrid acoustics are well known), and possible a new dedicated public art gallery to add to the Glenbow. In a city where taxpayers really do care about how much things cost, the kind of certainty around budgets and ongoing lifecycle costs that a P3s can provide may make the difference on whether such venues could be built. That they can also be visually beautiful buildings too goes without say.

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