The City of Vancouver manager in charge of patios denies any special treatment was afforded the well-known proprietor of a Yaletown restaurant that violated its permit.
The Aquilini family, which owns the Vancouver Canucks and Rogers Arena, turned the former Milestones at 1109 Hamilton St. in Yaletown into the 200-seat Elisa Steakhouse, named for the matriarch who died in 2015. In August 2018, the city granted Elisa a large sidewalk patio permit on the historic Yaletown loading docks, an opportunity to earn more food and drink revenue. But theBreaker.news has exclusively learned that the Aquilinis’ high-end restaurants division violated the permit when it built a structure over the patio.
Aquilini real estate vice-president Bill Aujla intervened, just seven months after he joined the company from his previous job as city hall’s director of real estate and facilities. In a May email, obtained under freedom of information, Scott Edwards, the engineering department’s manager of street use, allowed the Aquilinis’ Toptable Group to continue operating the patio under an interim large patio permit through Oct. 31. The city has not used its power to order removal and restoration. In an Oct. 28 interview, Edwards said a short extension is possible after the permit expires this week.
“I’m treating them like any other business,” Edwards said.
The perception is otherwise, said governance watchdog Dermod Travis of IntegrityBC.
“Any individual that has a City of Vancouver inspector come around, and something comparable, now has something to hold up and say ‘I demand to be treated just like the Aquilinis’,” Travis said. “That’s the biggest trap they dug for themselves.”
The new permit for a 58.6-square metre sidewalk patio was issued Nov. 14, 2018. But, by the end of November, an illegal structure was discovered by the city’s large sidewalk patio coordinator who threatened to revoke Elisa’s patio permit.
“I happened to be in Yaletown and saw the patio,” Anthony Hoang wrote Nov. 30 to Jim Johnston, director of development and construction for Aquilini. “The patio does not look like what we approved. Definitely we did not approve the deck and awning with support beams from the patio. I need you to stop work on the patio. And you cannot use the patio until we decide what further actions are required. If not complied, your patio permit will be revoked.”
Despite Hoang’s warning, more unapproved construction was photographed in January.
Aujla sent an email to senior heritage planner Zlatan Jankovic on Feb. 11, mentioning that he had been referred by city engineer Jerry Dobrovolny and deputy planning director Susan Haid. Jankovic told Aujla on Feb. 19 that the patio was “unsupportable.”
“The patio floor modification and all related patio work were done without a permit. The current condition should be reversed to the status before the intervention (before any of the work was done without a permit),” Jankovic wrote. “Just to remind, permits must be obtained prior to any changes to the exterior of the building, the patio surface, the patio use, the canopy or associated signs… please initiate steps to rectify the situation as soon as possible.”
In a message later that day to Edwards, Jankovic said that Aujla did not dispute the wrongdoing. “He is only interested in moving forward by reversing the damage, redoing the patio appropriately etc…whatever it takes (as he said) to get this properly processed and approved.”
In a March 8 email to Aujla, and copied to Jankovic, Aquilini Live Entertainment and Hospitality president Michael Doyle downplayed the dispute. He called it a temporary patio like others in Yaletown that can be removed in 24 hours, if required.
Edwards emailed Aujla and Doyle on May 17 after a meeting at the restaurant. Despite the company building a structure that “encloses and privatizes this public space,” Edwards granted interim approval through the end of October. “This would allow the Elisa restaurant to support its first year of operation which, as you pointed out, is often the most challenging period.”
When asked why the city did not order the Elisa patio restored to the permitted condition, Edwards said: “We’re interested in working with them to be able to resolve this.”
“If it was an imminent life safety concern, we would have treated this with a much more furied pace,” said Edwards.
“Businesses are definitely interested in getting a longer season out of patios. What perhaps was once envisioned as a summertime patio, given our mild climate, people are trying to make them comfortable year-round.”
Aujla declined an interview request. He said by email that he assisted Doyle because he is familiar with city requirements and those who are responsible for permitting. All applications and subsequent requirements were taken by Doyle or his staff, he said.
Asked if it was awkward to deal with a former senior manager from city hall, Edwards called it “not unusual.”
“There’s many people that change jobs and it’s an easy way to be able to contact them and have some background with them perhaps, but it doesn’t change how we’re managing this process.”
In late July 2018, Aujla immediately left city hall to join the Aquilinis as their vice-president of real estate. Aujla’s 13-year career at city hall included overseeing the completion of the Olympic Village, which went into receivership after the 2010 Winter Olympics. In April 2014, the Aquilinis bought the remaining 67 condos in a $91 million deal that retired the city’s debt from the $1.1 billion complex.
Travis said Aujla’s involvement highlighted the need for a year-long cooling-off period, like the one that exists provincially.
“One of the biggest dangers about this revolving door that goes on between individuals going back and forth between the public sectors and private sectors is regulatory capture,” he said.
Aujla is the second top official from City of Vancouver to join the family-owned real estate, entertainment, hospitality and farming conglomerate. In 2015, Vancouver Police Department chief Jim Chu retired and joined Aquilini as the vice-president of special projects and partnerships.
During his successful campaign for the mayoralty, Kennedy Stewart proposed a civic lobbying registry and a ban for key staff members from lobbying for 12 months after leaving their civic positions.
“Right now, lobbyists have unchecked access to decision-makers and the city’s conflict of interest rules are out-of-date and toothless,” Stewart said during the campaign.
After taking office last November, Stewart and city council asked the provincial government to amend and expand the Lobbyist Registration Act. Travis said Stewart should have proposed a temporary made-in-Vancouver solution while waiting for the province to act.
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