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Power players covet last bit of Expo lands puzzle

BOB MACKIN, QMI AGENCY

On the surface, it's a bid to move a casino, triple its size, squeeze it between two hotels and attach it to B.C. Place Stadium.

What B.C. Pavilion Corporation and Paragon Gaming actually want to do is write the first page of the last chapter of False Creek.

The 1983-opened stadium was the catalyst for the pre- and post-Expo 86 transformation of industrial lands. Today's $563 million taxpayer-funded renewal is intended to help finish the Northeast False Creek job.

Major real estate concerns are waiting to pounce on the opportunity.

Aquilini Investment Group wants to surround Rogers Arena with four towers and build a practice rink on Canadian Metropolitan Properties' Plaza of Nations. Next door, Concord Pacific has the last pocket of prime waterfront land directly across from the Olympic Village. Neighbours were promised parkland. City hall is studying whether to create more space by knocking down the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.

"We have this last portion, it's as if we ought to do it as well as we possibly can," said former city planning director Ray Spaxman. "It helps also to link False Creek to downtown, it's a very important juncture."

Leading the charge is PavCo chairman David Podmore, who denies being a gambler but is a shrewd developer unafraid of risk. Podmore and the late Jack Poole's Concert Properties joined Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn in the failed 1994 bid to create the $750 million Seaport Centre. Taxpayers would've had a bargain convention centre and transportation hub east of Canada Place, but vocal opponents didn't like how it was to be anchored by a 125,000-square-foot casino.

Seventeen years later, Podmore is at it again. His new dance partner, Las Vegas-based Paragon, is feeling similar resistance and Spaxman isn't surprised. The stadium has added to the city, but a grassroots movement worries a large casino would subtract.

Spaxman said the debate is a symptom of the city's lack of a long-term environmental, economic and social vision. It is a battle between those hoping to exploit opportunities created by the new stadium with those who feel "we've got the Downtown Eastside and lots of difficult circumstances socially."

City council's third public hearing goes Monday night.

"It's an unenviable task when they go to public hearings," said Spaxman, conjuring the Judgment of Solomon, "they have to cut babies in half."