'How much is too much?' councillor asks of surging Lansdowne 2.0 estimate

Critics of the Lansdowne redevelopment plan say they're not surprised the city auditor has found the project could cost $74 million more than expected.

"Last November we were being told [it was] only going to cost $5 million a year, every year, for the next 40 years," said Carolyn Mackenzie, chair of the Glebe Community Association's planning committee.

"Well, with this, it's likely going to cost significantly more."

In the first report from a so-called "agile audit" released Thursday, the Office of the Auditor General warned of cost escalation due to delays and said the city hadn't included a sufficient contingency fund to cover its risks.

Toby Sanger, an economist who spoke against the Lansdowne 2.0 plan before a committee vote last year, said he wasn't shocked by the latest financial outlook either.

"When the Lansdowne P3 was first announced, the people of Ottawa were promised it was hardly going to cost anything because there's going to be a waterfall that would produce all these revenues that come back," Sanger said.

But the auditor's report concluded that the waterfall — financial distributions split between the city and Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group — could be more like a trickle, leaving less money to pay back the debts of those mounting construction costs.

Mayor Mark Sutcliffe says some large families are forced to stay in a single motel room in the city's current overflow shelter system. He spoke at finance and corporate services committee on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.
Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe says city councillors will have a more solid Lansdowne 2.0 budget figure to consider before a final decision on the planned redevelopment is made. (Michel Aspirot/CBC News)

Alexandra Gruca-Macaulay, Lansdowne chair of the Old Ottawa East Community Association, said that trickle is a major risk for taxpayers.

"Every dollar that waterfall disbursements to the city fall short of projections is another dollar of Lansdowne debt repayment that Ottawa taxpayers will need to bear," she said.

But Mayor Mark Sutcliffe said the auditor's report has to be put in context. He noted the $419 million estimate council heard in November was never more than that: an estimate. The same is true of the auditor general's $493-million figure.

"Whenever there are estimates for a project of this size, there's the potential for those estimates to vary and for there to be a range of what something might cost," he said. "We still haven't made all the final decisions about what will happen at Lansdowne Park."

When council does make that decision, it will have a more solid number to weigh in on, one based on a project agreement with a successful bidder, the mayor added.

Councillor fears 'never-ending growing budget'

Some councillors seem willing to take a wait-and-see approach.

Orléans East-Cumberland Coun. Matt Luloff said the $419 million number was always supposed to be rough, so it's no wonder the price is changing.

"I'm looking forward to seeing the final numbers and then voting on it based on its merits," he said.

But Capital Coun. Shawn Menard, a longstanding critic of the project, said the plan should go back to the drawing board.

"It seems like we're going to be paying close to half a billion dollars for fewer seats, more expensive tickets, no roof over people's heads on the north-side stands and less green space," he said. "Doesn't sound like a win to me."

He said councillors seem set on sticking with the current plan, whatever the cost. But he urged them to keep one simple question in their minds.

"This is a never-ending growing budget for Lansdowne which will be a large source of debt for us for 40 years," he said.

"How much is too much?"