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Mike Howell: You’ll never guess what Vancouver paid for notorious Balmoral, Regent hotels

Reporter’s FOI exercise takes more than a year, returns 1,086 mostly redacted pages
The City of Vancouver bought the Balmoral and Regent Hotels in November 2020 but has refused to disclose how much they cost taxpayers. File photo Dan Toulgoet
I really didn’t want to be a grump in my first column of the new year.

But after receiving 1,086 mostly redacted pages on Dec. 23, 2021 from the City of Vancouver that never answered the question I posed in December 2020, I’m confident I’ve earned the right to be a wee bit prickly in today’s entry.

The question: Can you tell me how much the city paid to buy the Balmoral and Regent hotels from the Sahota family?

The answer in December 2020: No, we can’t.

The answer more than one year later, via a request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA): No, we still can’t.

Regular readers will recall that the city announced Dec. 4, 2020 that it bought the notorious Downtown Eastside hotels from the Sahotas. At the time, the city refused to disclose how much it paid for the buildings, saying terms of the agreement were confidential.

A few days later, my colleagues Mike Hager and Frances Bula at the Globe and Mail cited unnamed sources in a story they wrote that said the city paid more than $7.5 million.

Then a few days after that, my colleague Jen St. Denis at The Tyee cited an unnamed source and reported the city paid $11.5 million for the hotels.

I believed both reports.

I also believed what Evan Cooke, the Sahota family’s lawyer, told council in November 2019 — that the family had received multiple private offers ranging from $7 million to $12.5 million for each building.

1,086 mostly redacted pages

But me being me, I wanted to see what a request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act would return in terms of an official document. That was, as I develop carpal tunnel syndrome from scrolling through the 1,086 of mostly redacted pages, some misguided optimism on my part.

My choice of the adverb “mostly” is used in the most conservative way, since I was unable to understand the relevance of the few sentences in email threads that weren’t redacted, and how they would provide any value to you the reader.

For example: “I haven’t reviewed the latest iteration of the report, but I think we need to acknowledge that council is going to have very little time to review it. It should be as tight as possible.”

That’s what city manager Paul Mochrie wrote in an email Oct. 8, 2020 to senior staffers. I assume he was referring to a report on the terms of a potential agreement with the Sahotas, but that’s just an assumption.

Anyway, this has been a ridiculous exercise.

You should know that the city’s FOI office notified me a few times over the past year that they were on the case and that a response was coming. I actually had some hope when I received an email Nov. 24 saying “we have decided to release the records to you.”

The email said “third parties” had 20 business days to have the city’s decision reviewed by the Information and Privacy Commissioner. The parties didn’t bother, so hence what I believed to be an early Christmas present arriving in my inbox Dec. 23.

'Settlement privilege'

But alas, a letter attached to the document warned me of its contents: “All responsive records are attached. Some information in the records has been severed, [blacked out], under s.12(3)(b), s.13(1), s.14, s.15(1)(l), s.17(1), and s.22(1) of the Act, as well as, Settlement Privilege.”

Some thoughts:

• The city’s use of the word “some” was cruel, considering 95 per cent of the 1,086 pages are blacked out; there is actually not one clean page for me to read.

• The amount of staff time that went into reviewing the 1,086 pages — and redacting almost all of them — must have taken several hours or days and required consultation with the city’s legal department.

• What a waste of time for all involved.

Transparency suffers here folks when the amount of public money used to buy two condemned hotels that citizens, police, politicians and city staff members have complained about for decades can’t be released.

We know how much the provincial government paid last year for the Patricia Hotel up the block from the hotels ($63.8 million) and the Burns Block building down the block ($10.9 million). So why not the Balmoral and the Regent?

I first wrote about the troubles at the Balmoral and Regent when I was typing away at The Vancouver Sun more than 20 years ago. At the time, they were dilapidated, rodent-infested buildings where violence and crime was commonplace.

The conditions never improved and the city ordered the hotels closed in 2017 and 2018.

The untold public dollars spent on police, firefighters and paramedics attending both East Hastings Street addresses, along with city staff’s battles with the landlords over bylaw infractions, should be reason enough to release the sales price of the buildings.

$1 million in security costs

As I wrote last summer in a piece about property ownership in the Downtown Eastside, the Balmoral will likely be toppled at some point and the Regent will be renovated. Their current assessed value is $3 million each.

Meanwhile, the city has racked up roughly $1 million in costs in the last year related to security and other charges to protect the hotels from further deteriorating or catching fire, with no indication when the promised safe and secure low-income housing will be built on the sites.

Finally, I have yet to decide whether I’ll contact the Information and Privacy Commissioner to request a review of the city’s non-response to my request to disclose the price paid for the hotels.

At this point, I don’t know that it’s worth my time.

C’mon council, c’mon city staff, just tell us what you paid for them already.