New Royal B.C. Museum: Here’s why the government says it’ll cost $789 million

Tourism Minister Melanie Mark releases the business case for the pricey museum replacement, though significant portions of the 109-page document are blacked out

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The NDP government is doubling down on its controversial $789-million plan to tear down and rebuild the Royal B.C. Museum, unveiling on Wednesday the business case which shows revitalizing or repairing the aging buildings would cost as much or more than a new museum.

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Tourism Minister Melanie Mark released the much-anticipated business case to justify the $789 million price tag for what will be the most expensive museum in Canadian history in straight, uninflated dollars.

“We understand that this investment is a lot of money,” Mark said at a press conference. “We will simply not kicked this project down the road. There is a risk to doing nothing.”

Mark said the business case is a result of five years of work and confirms that the cost to repair or upgrade the seismically unsafe building would exceed the cost of replacing the museum with a new building. Mark showed no signs of back-tracking on the plans despite acknowledging the public backlash for the project.

“My office has received both concerns and celebration,” she said. “I think there are people that don’t understand why we’re doing this. Hopefully today’s efforts will help British Columbians understand what’s at risk and the opportunity to have a more purpose-built, reimagined 21st century building.”

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Premier John Horgan was not at the press conference. He has faced a barrage of criticism for announcing the plan to close and replace the 54-year-old museum without any public consultation and without a design for the new building.

B.C. Liberal leader Kevin Falcon has vowed to cancel the “vanity museum boondoggle” if he becomes premier in the 2024 election.

However, B.C. Liberal jobs critic Todd Stone notes the demolition on the current museum will begin in spring 2024, months before the provincial election that October.

Stone said Wednesday he’s “shocked the government is doubling down on this project” despite public outcry.

The budget includes $550 million for design and construction of the new museum and $239.5 million for project management and insurance, abatement and demolition, packing up items in the exhibition and gallery, equipment costs and contingency costs.

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An additional $224 million will be spent on a new archives and collection building in Colwood, a suburb of Victoria. That building will be finished in 2025 and will eventually house some of the contents of the 14-storey Fannin building. That brings the total price tag to $1 billon.

Significant portions of the 109-page business case are blacked out, including redactions on the capital cost breakdown of each of the project’s components. The indicative design is also blacked out.

Stone said he’s concerned that critical information on the cost breakdown and risk analysis has been kept from the public. The government’s business case release was an “elaborate exercise in smoke and mirrors” that’s not going to bring any concerned British Columbians onside, he said.

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The price estimate allocates $230 million to account for inflation costs between now and 2030, including 10 per cent inflation in 2022 and nine per cent in 2023.

Screen shot from the business case to replace the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, as presented to the media on May 25, 2022.
Screen shot from the business case to replace the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, as presented to the media on May 25, 2022.

A seismic report in March 2018 commissioned by the Ministry of Citizens Services determined that all 10 buildings and structures on the Royal B.C. Museum site are “seismically deficient” and should be upgraded or replaced.

That report found that completing all seismic upgrades and flood mitigation work would cost $129.7 million and the total cost to build an entirely new museum on the same site is $407.5 million.

However, government officials said that report did not take into account the cost of removing asbestos from the building and the cost of packing and moving items out of the building during construction which is why the new price tag ballooned to $789 million.

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Mark could not explain why the seismic risks of the museum make it a higher priority for upgrades compared to the 250 B.C. schools awaiting seismic upgrades.

She said the money spent on the museum does not hamper the government’s work on seismically upgrading schools or building new hospitals.

Along with the seismic risks, museum officials have long complained that the space constraints in the museum prevent it from featuring exhibitions from around the world. It also lacks an adequate loading bay and sections of the museum, which are below sea-level, are prone to flooding.

These concerns prompted the government to look at five options, three of which are just as expensive or more expensive than replacing the building on the existing site.

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The five options ranged from the cheapest option — maintaining the status quo and doing regular maintenance at a cost of $89 million — to the priciest option of renovating the existing facilities to address seismic risk, environmental risk and facility conditions at a cost of $1.1 billion.

Once the project team decided to go with a brand new museum and a new research and collections building, they considered four options for the location: Building a new museum and collections building on a new site, building a new museum and collections building on two separate sites, building the museum and collections buildings on the existing site or, the option that eventually won out, rebuilding the museum on the existing site and building the collections building in Colwood.

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The planning team shortlisted 20 sites that were close to downtown and had land large enough to accommodate the new building. It was ultimately determined that there were no viable alternatives for a new museum in the downtown core other than the existing site.

The government is also facing pushback on the plan to close the museum on Sept. 6, four years before construction begins on the new building in 2026.

Museum CEO Alicia Dubois said the closure is needed to facilitate the complex process of “decanting” which means carefully packing up and itemizing seven million priceless artifacts. Those items will be relocated to a warehouse facility in North Saanich until the research and collection building opens in Colwood in 2025.

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