Letter: Is the MacInnes Field Parkade justified?

On September 27, Andrew Simpson, UBC’s vice president of finance and operations, released new expenditure guidelines for all faculty and staff “to improve transparency and enhance stewardship of public funds.” Included were four guiding questions intended to help people make responsible decisions when spending university money.

We tried to answer these questions for the proposed parkade under MacInnes Field, and what we feel is a rushed $12.5 million project with insufficient time and capacity for consultation from the UBC community. If UBC goes ahead with a parkade under MacInnes Field, it will be breaking its own expenditure guidelines. Here’s what we found:

Does the expense need to be incurred and is there value for UBC?

Short answer: NO.

One of the justifications Campus and Community Planning (C+CP) provided for the parkade — for example, on page 1 of this document and page 3 of this document) — was that visitors to the businesses in the area need street parking. However, Bunt & Associates Engineering Ltd., the consultants hired to crunch the numbers on the demand for parking, based this requirement on the “industry standards” for on-street parking needed in a commercial area.

UBC is not a commercial area.

Saying that street parking for the nearby businesses is important does not apply to a university campus as it might to a suburban mall or a busy city centre. Although, countless jurisdictions in other parts of the world have vibrant city centres that are exclusively accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, so this argument is weak even for city centres.

“Besides, shouldn’t safety take priority over the financial viability of shops and restaurants?”
“Besides, shouldn’t safety take priority over the financial viability of shops and restaurants?” Courtesy UBC

Also, bike lanes and bike traffic were entirely absent from the consultants’ multi-coloured traffic flow model. In addition, as a recent post on UBC Insiders clearly and succinctly stated, almost all of the customers — students, staff, faculty, residents, etc. — to the businesses in this part of campus are already here. They do not need parking. Besides, shouldn’t safety take priority over the financial viability of shops and restaurants? C+CP should have asked the consultants for a more realistic model and the Board of Governors should not have made their decision based on meaningless data from C+CP.

Another reason we feel that this is an unjustified expense is simply that there is already enough parking space on campus. In a September 8, 2017 email from UBC Parking, we were told that during some periods of the year, Health, West and North parkades fill up. However, we assume that means the three other parkades — Rose Garden, Thunderbird and Fraser River — and the surface lots do not fill up completely. So, it appears that the current parking options meet the needs of the community.

2. Is there an alternative that is less expensive but still appropriate, safe and convenient?

Short answer: Yes.

Since the parkade is not needed in our opinion, the most appropriate and safe alternative would be not to build it at all. Even without a parkade, there are daily conflicts between private vehicles, buses, pedestrians and cyclists in and around the trolley bus loop. This problem has been documented many times. In fact, C+CP recently added camera-enforced “No Stopping” signs, which acknowledges that there is already a problem in the trolley loop.

Adding another entrance that leads to a 200-car parkade will only make this matter worse.

There is also a more complicated answer to this question. At the recent open house for the MacInnes parkade, the project architects said that their first idea was to combine this parkade with the parkade under Central, which already has an entrance off of University Boulevard. But apparently because Central is market housing, its underground parkade needs to be secure. The architects said that access to public parking can’t happen through Central’s private parkade. But surely there is a way to develop an innovative solution that would make the best use of existing infrastructure. Can the Central parking stalls not be separated with an additional gate? If that’s not possible, it is disappointing that C+CP didn’t have the foresight to build the existing parkade with a way to connect to the proposed parkade so that a single driveway solution would have worked.

Was this sort of long-term thinking not being done when the “master plan” for the University Boulevard area of campus was presented a few years ago? More on that later.

3. Would this expense be considered excessive/unreasonable from the general public’s view?

Short answer: Yes.

For the reasons above, we feel that there is no clear need for this project and that even if there was, alternative safe and convenient options are available. Therefore, we think the general public will be confused about why money is being poured into this project. We feel that the public may also be confused because on one hand, UBC promotes its supposed commitment to sustainability — we hear no end to claims that this is a green place to work, study and live — but on the other hand, the university is encouraging more car trips to campus by building a new 200-car parkade in the middle of campus.

How are these two things consistent with each other? As UBC Professor Dr. Charles Menzies states, “there is a certain irony involved here.”

“The site for the underground parkade.”
“The site for the underground parkade.” Courtesy UBC

4. Is it an arm’s length transaction (i.e. no conflict) that conforms to sound business practice?

Short answer: Hard to say.

This is a difficult question to answer because UBC Properties Trust and C+CP are not forthcoming with data. For example, questionnaires were collected online and at the open house for the MacInnes parkade. However, C+CP did not release the results of this “consultation.” The UBC community has no idea what feedback this project received and if the report passed along to the Board of Governors was representative of that feedback. This is not a transparent community engagement process. Michael White, the associate VP of C+CP, was asked by one of the authors — Eric Jandciu — by email on September 19, 2017 when this information would be made public, but he did not reply.

Now, let’s go back to that 2015 extensive consultation that was done for this part of campus. There was no mention of any of the surrounding buildings needing parking. Plus, the feedback received from the campus community during the consultation brought up no concerns about parking. On page 6 of the report, respondents said they want to see strategies to minimize noise, fumes and vibration. They want to see good pedestrian and bike connections, not more vehicular traffic. Why the sudden change? And why not release the recent parkade consultation feedback? While these two things do not necessarily mean there is something sketchy going on, it does seem like C+CP is trying to hide something or at the very least not adhering to best practices for engaging the community.

Let’s also not forget that the open house was on the first full day of classes of the new academic year. The online consultation period was the last two weeks of summer — when staff and faculty are especially busy and/or not even on campus — and the first week of term, when everyone on campus is very busy.

These dates might have been good if the goal was to minimize community engagement, but not if the goal was to obtain representative feedback.

Given the new expenditure guidelines and the details provided here about the lack of need for a new parkade, confusing priorities, poor optics, questionable procedures and availability of alternate options, we look forward to hearing how Mr. Simpson can still justify a parkade under the new MacInnes Field.

Eric Jandciu and Ashley Welsh work for the UBC Science Centre for Learning and Teaching. Jackie Stewart is a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry. They are working to improve the student experience at UBC and are disappointed that C+CP doesn’t seem to be doing the same.