Last week City Council shorter-listed three of the five finalists in the City Centre Redevelopment Master Plan Design Competition, with the winner set to be named on June 22. The decision to narrow the field to three after a botched media conference was unexpected and was largely overshadowed by last week’s arena news.
The media conference was set to take place on Wednesday afternoon. The advisory had gone out less than 24 hours earlier:
Join City Manager Simon Farbrother for the announcement of City Council’s selected design team to transform the City Centre Redevelopment project into a world leading, environmentally sustainable community. The announcement completes a year-long international competition to select the best team to deliver a master plan to develop this centrally-located land which is approximately 266 CFL football fields in size. A representative from the winning team will be on hand for media interviews after the formal portion of the announcement.
Members of the local media filled the Councillor’s Boardroom at City Hall which had been setup with chairs and the competing teams’ display boards. Mayor Stephen Mandel, City Manager Simon Farbrother, City Centre Redevelopment Executive Director Phil Sande, Fairness Advisor James McKellar, and a representative from each of the five finalists were set to be in attendance. We chatted amongst ourselves as we waited for the proceedings to begin.
Just before four o’clock, Mayor Mandel and Simon Farbrother entered the room, nearly half an hour after the media conference was supposed to begin. The mayor took the podium and revealed that City Council had been discussing the proposals in camera (in private) and still had too many questions outstanding to make a decision. I tweeted the news at 3:57 PM, along with The Charrette and a few other people. Simon Farbrother also said a few words, and said the media would be given an update by the following morning. The whole thing lasted just five minutes.
I remember thinking as I left City Hall that someone must have screwed up. I mean, since when does Council discuss anything quickly? It’s their job to make an informed decision, and that usually takes time. I found out later that inconveniencing the media was just the tip of the iceberg.
When Mayor Mandel had told the media that Council still had questions, I assumed they were questioning the finalists directly. Not so, Shafraaz Kaba of Manasc Isaac told me. While the media were sitting in the Councillor’s Boardroom waiting for the announcement, the five finalists were sitting in a windowless room in the City Clerk’s office. Shafraaz said they had been taken there while Council was discussing the selection committee’s recommendation. They were not told how long they’d be waiting. “They provided coffee and drinks, and some fruit and dessert that basically no one touched,” Shafraaz told me. He recalled that everyone was starting to get impatient as they watched the minutes slowly tick by. Finally after an hour and a half they sent someone to find out what was going on. Soon everyone had left the room and was waiting outside the clerk’s office for some kind of update. “That’s when I saw your tweets, about Council not being able to make a decision,” he told me. A few minutes later, Phil Sande arrived and told them that Council would not be making a decision after all. When Shafraaz told him that they already knew that, Phil seemed surprised and asked how they had found out. “It was like he didn’t seem to know that there was a press conference going on,” Shafraaz said.
The next morning, Phil called Shafraaz and told him that their team’s submission had not been chosen as one of the three to move ahead. It was clarified that the Mayor and City Council will make the final decision on the winning team. At the Downtown Business Association’s Spring Luncheon later that day, representatives from all five teams were introduced and then a short, pre-recorded video with Mayor Mandel was shown. In the video, Mandel made reference to “the decision” which brought chuckles to the packed room. Simon Farbrother then made the official announcement about the shortlisting of three teams.
The way the finalists were treated last week is completely inexcusable. Five world-class teams are competing to help shape the future of Edmonton and we lock them in a room with no information about what’s going on? It’s completely unacceptable. What are the chances that they’re going to want to work with the City again after being treated like that?
The worst part is that Wednesday was just more of the same, according to Shafraaz. There has been confusion and some disappointing decisions made ever since the start of the competition. “We asked early on who had the final decision, the ‘jury of distinguished experts’ or City Council,” Shafraaz told me. The response from the City was that Council had the final decision but that hopefully they would respect the jury’s decision. The RFP stated that “the jury will ultimately recommend a winning Submission or combination of Submissions to City Council for adoption” and that “City Council reserves the right to accept or reject the recommendation of the jury.” It certainly seemed as though Council’s role was not to conduct its own analysis but was instead to ratify the recommendation of the jury. Why have an independent jury if that wasn’t the case?
There were other bumps along the road too. “It was unclear what the deliverables for a ‘master plan’ should be,” Shafraaz told me. With no guidance, each team likely interpreted the amount of work involved differently. That’s especially problematic given that 25% of the evaluation scoring was price (vision & team philosophy was 30%, primary requirements was 25%, and master plan principles was 20%). “Is it about design or is it about cost?” Shafraaz wondered. “If you want the best design, you pay for it; it should never have been about cost.”
Unsurprisingly, the finalists also had to dig for details on the public involvement aspect of the competition. “We had to ask how much information we could present, how many boards we could have, how long the videos could be,” Shafraaz said. The jury was supposed to consider how the public responded, but teams were given no information about how that would be done. I saw some great coverage at The Charrette, but what little buzz there was about the videos didn’t seem to be sustained or capitalized on by the City, let alone factored into any evaluation.
Shafraaz is obviously disappointed that his team wasn’t shorter-listed, but he doesn’t regret taking part in the competition. “What made losing worth it, in terms of time and energy and all of the hours put in, is the experience of working with amazing designers, engineers, and other consultants that have done this kind of work in other projects.” He hopes other local participants also learned from the experience.
Ultimately, the real work will begin after a winning team is finally selected next month. Shafraaz thinks the project can gain some momentum after that decision is made, “but they’re going to have to work at it.” I don’t think it’s enough to simply hope that the City does indeed work at it. There are clearly some issues that must be addressed. We need to hold the City accountable and we need to ensure the mistakes that have been made so far are not repeated. This project is too important.