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Rob Shaw: Eby's rationale for sale of ICBC head office stretches credulity

Is turning the aging ICBC headquarters into affordable housing a bad deal for British Columbians?
ICBC building web
ICBC's head office building in North Vancouver, pictured in August 2017. ICBC Building photo Paul McGrath ICBC headquarters 151 West Esplanade Ave. in North Vancouver.

There’s nothing wrong with the basic idea of taking the Insurance Corporation of B.C.’s aging, half-empty, waterfront headquarters in the heart of North Vancouver and turning it into housing. But the governing BC New Democrats left lingering questions about the move with their less-than-honest approach to the announcement this week.

Premier David Eby credited his government with swooping in to save the ICBC HQ from a private sale by buying the building from the Crown auto insurer to turn into affordable housing.

“The previous government, instead of fixing ICBC, proposed they would sell this headquarters to the highest bidder resulting in … luxury condos unattainable for the vast majority of British Columbians,” he said.

“We’re taking a different approach.”

To hear Eby tell it at Monday’s press conference, ICBC was on the verge of offloading the property for a song to fat cat private developers, as per orders from the former Liberal government, until the NDP caught wind and intervened to halt the disastrous move.

Local MLA Bowinn Ma, who is also emergency management minister, picked up the narrative on social media.

“Instead of letting this key waterfront property be sold off to private interests, we've purchased the ICBC HQ site in #NorthVan for #TransitOrientedDevelopment, ensuring it can continue to benefit people in our community for generations to come!” she posted on X (formerly Twitter).

The argument, however, is absurd.

The BC NDP has been in power for seven years and Eby, as the former attorney general in charge of ICBC, has had iron-clad control of the corporation the entire time through a leadership team and board that he picked and is loyal to him.

The corporation wasn’t going to go against the premier’s wishes and offload the building under former board chair Joy McPhail, a close confidant of Eby’s. Nor was the current board chair Catherine Holt about to double-cross the NDP and flip the property — especially given she’s currently seeking the BC NDP nomination in the riding of Oak Bay-Gordon Head.

Simply put, there was no diabolical plot engineered by sleeper agents of the former BC Liberal government inside ICBC to cut a sweetheart deal for a prime chunk of real estate to well-connected luxury developers.

The second dubious part of the announcement was the price tag of the deal.

The government paid ICBC $53.3 million for the property. That’s only half of the around $100 million assessed value. And that assessed value is likely a lowball for such a prime chunk of waterfront real estate right beside the Lonsdale Quay and SeaBus terminal.

“It appears that the NDP government is prepared to short ICBC policyholders by some $40 million by redirecting savings from the purchase of the headquarters building,” wrote Richard McCandless, a retired deputy minister who monitors the financial performance of ICBC through a series of public policy updates.

“In essence, the government has appropriated almost $40 million of ICBC policyholders’ capital, which could have been used to strengthen its capital reserves or to reduce pressures on future insurance premiums.”

Eby, who once accused the Liberals of using ICBC profits like an ATM to subsidize government spending, rejected any comparison he’s doing the same by expropriating the headquarters for pennies on the dollar.

“The sale was based on assessments that were received by ICBC,” he said Wednesday, when I questioned him about the amount.

“The building has some major challenges, including asbestos. And even if we accept the premise of your question, Rob, that we could have sold it for more if the property was going to be used for luxury condos, the bottom line is for British Columbians that the value is realized by ensuring that people have the opportunity to live in the communities that they work in and that they have a transit hub for the region that is successful and has the capacity to expand.”

Again, there’s nothing wrong with a public policy decision to turn the ICBC headquarters into housing.

But it isn’t honest to cast it as an emergency manoeuvre designed to save the building from an imaginary private sale concocted entirely within the minds of New Democrat election strategists and pinned on a previous government seven years out of power, three leaders removed.

Nor is it honest to pretend ICBC ratepayers are getting a good deal out of the transaction, as they take below-market value for the property to help backstop the provincial treasury.

It’s hard to take the NDP government seriously when it fabricates rationales like this. A little more honesty, and a whole lot less spin, would do the current administration a world of good.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

[email protected]

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