North Bay councillor concerned about plan to build community centre project on soil prone to sinking

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By Michael Lewis

Special to Ontario Construction Report

A North Bay councillor is criticizing the design of a community and recreation centre approved to be built on a massive sports field in the city that would see one section built over bedrock and the other on soil that he says would be prone to sinking without steel and concrete foundation supports.

“Why is the north pod designed to sit on a mixed clay soil that requires steep pilings at an estimated cost of $1 million plus HST – that doesn’t include caps and grade beams to support the pods,” councillor Mark King said.

North Bay council has voted to request tenders for construction of a new multipurpose community and recreation centre.

A proposed plan is for a community and recreation centre, with twin ice pads, change rooms, community meeting spaces, and an indoor walking track and other amenities. The design team from MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects Ltd. and North Bay’s Mitchell Jensen Architects has worked on the project for more than a year.

The previous council then directed staff to complete the building design to achieve the requirements for net zero carbon certification so the project qualified for funding from the federal government’s Green and Inclusive Community Buildings program.

Seven pre-qualified bidders are expected to submit prices likely by the end of April, with a construction start possible this year.

“Why would we go down this road … when you’re dealing with soil that’s subject to sinking. “There is a tremendous opportunity here,” King added, “to build something that actually makes sense.”

He said contractors who have looked at the plans “quite frankly are tremendously upset that we would even consider that type of design.” He said it calls for 45-foot pylons to be dug into the ground to support only one of the twin pods to be hinged together in a trident shape, one on bedrock and one on soil, and to each house an NHL-size ice rink. “Anyone that is involved in construction would never do that.”

In an interview with Ontario Construction Report, King suggested that the proposed support system would eliminate any potential threat of sinking, a view echoed by foundation specialist firms including Vaughan-based GeoSolv, but would add “extraneous costs.” That project has an estimated $51.6 million price tag – far more expensive than another double ice rink complex in another northern Ontario municipality, Sault Ste. Marie, which has been completed on bedrock using a more conventional side by side pod design.

Despite some geophysical challenges, the Omischl Sports Complex on Lakeshore Drive is identified as the preferred site for the multipurpose twin-pod arena project, says a report to the city by an arena committee that was chaired by Councillor King.

Foundations in the area would be supported on engineered fill over bedrock, according to the report. Blasting will likely be required and any excavations must consider the shallow groundwater, adding though that the location’s synergies with the existing sports fields and economic development opportunities outweigh the difficulties.

King said the site makes sense, but he would like to see the pods moved 200 to 300 feet so they would both sit on bedrock, eliminating the need for reinforcing pylons.

The city’s interim chief administrative officer John Severino and Nathan Jensen of Mitchell Jensen Architects, the North Bay architect on the design team, said the build is planned for the site on mixed surfaces so the pods are adjacent to existing sports fields and so as not to encroach on species at risk habitat, although King said the entire site is in a natural habitat area. Jensen also responded to the suggestion that the north pod is to be built on soil prone to sinking:  “It’s safe to say that we are not in the business of providing buildings that sink.”

Marc Downing, a principal with the project’s Toronto-based architecture and design firm   MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects Ltd., said soil conditions were assessed by a geotechnical engineer as silty clay, with the consultant recommending a foundation system of micropiles embedded in bedrock.

“There was no mention (in the geotechnical engineer’s report) that the proposed building would be prone to sinking.” He added that all foundation details which include reinforced concrete structure were incorporated in the cost report submitted to the city last November.

David Jackowski, the project manager for the city, said ground conditions at the building site are common in Northern Ontario, “which is the reason we conducted a thorough geotechnical study.’  The word “sink” or “sinking” does not appear anywhere in the geotechnical report, he said, adding that the study refers to building settlement.

“Settlement is something every building must contend with, including buildings built on rock.  The expected settlement rate for all parts of the building and foundation systems have been considered in the design,” he said, noting as well that the geotechnical report will form part of the tender documents.

And while the move to tender was approved in a six to five vote with North Bay Mayor Peter Chirico and King among those in opposition, proponents of the project as constituted say after years of planning, they are eager to proceed.

“It’s time to initiate the tender process. Only then will we have the most updated costs and be able to make the most informed decision,” said Councillor Justine Mallah. “As we have already discussed, we can turn away if the numbers come back massively higher than expected. We won’t know until we go there.”

The previous North Bay council had directed staff to complete the building design to achieve the requirements for net zero carbon certification, so the project qualified for funding from the federal government’s Green and Inclusive Community Buildings program.

The new council is now counting on a $25.77 million Green and Inclusive Community Buildings grant from Ottawa – available until March 31, 2026, but it is a finite funding

“A $52-million community and recreation centre for $26 million is in the best interests of our community,” Mallah said.

Severino told council prior to the tendering approval vote that the cost estimate was prepared by consultants with a variance of plus or minus five per cent.

“I would not hazard a guess as to what the market will do. I think the best we can do is have the actual cost and come back to council,” he said, adding the city has a 6.9 per cent construction contingency fund.

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