Ask Pat: DCC, MFA, WTF?

This is not a real “Ask Pat”, but I was recently shown this Facebook Post, and I asked the author if I could answer it at length on my blog. I think it provides a good opportunity to open up a bit of how municipal financing works, from my decidedly non-expert-but-required-to-learn-enough-to-make-decisions viewpoint, and (in a roundabout way) asks what I think is a fundamental question about financing municipal infrastructure.

So here’s a question I’ve been pondering for a while about the housing crisis. I’m not sure exactly when the Local Government Act was amended to change the way municipalities generate revenues to cover the cost of infrastructure to support growth. The current method is called Development Cost Charges (DCC’s).

In conversations with a retired city controller I learned that up to the implementation of DCC’s cities would issue Municipal Bonds to generate the funds needed to cover these costs, build the infrastructure and then taxpayers would collectively pay for the costs through tax payments. In the early 70’s the Province created the Municipal Finance Authority to streamline this process so that hundreds of small communities didn’t have to be floating bonds to generate their infrastructure capital they now have expertise and experience at the MFA.

All this changed with the enactment of provisions in the Local Government Act for DCC’s which are essentially prepaid taxes paid to municipalities to cover the costs of roads, sewer and water installations and parks associated with the new development whether that’s an addition to your house or a 50 storey condo development.

OK so what? Well now the purchase price of that newly developed housing unit comes preloaded with tens of thousands of dollars of prepaid taxes. For arguments sake let’s use $50K as a nice round number, please bear with me for this illustration. So your purchase price includes this $50K, which by the way the developer probably has to finance plus any profit margin the developer might add and so additional costs, but lets work with $50K for now. At 5% mortgage interest that increases monthly payments by about $290 and adds over $37,000 in additional interest to the mortgage. With me so far? Now let’s add property transfer taxes and these days for a lot of people government mandated mortgage insurance as well.
So we’ve transitioned away from publically financed infrastructure growth to growth financed by individual families. What used to be money borrowed at preferential interest rates through government Bonds is now financed by homeowners through their local BANKS, the same ones that continue to report record quarterly profits year after year after year.

So what about the cities. Well since 2008 Canadian Municipalities collectively have managed to sock away over $100BILLION IN CASH while continuing to press Federal and Provincial Governments for cash to help them cover the costs of their suppossed infrastructure deficits. It seems to me that while its easy to blame ‘foreign investors and speculators’, at least some of this crisis needs to be laid at the feet of our governments at every level.

My first impression is that this discussion conflates a couple of things, and that is leading to a bit of confusion. Here is my understanding of the relationship between DCCs, Municipal Bonds, and the MFA.

The idea behind DCCs is to charge the capital cost of infrastructure expansion to the persons who benefit from that expansion. DCCs are charged when there is growth in residential density (a 3-story building becomes a tower, a house becomes a set of townhouses), and are meant to assure that a fair share of the cost of building bigger sewer pipes, bigger water pipes, buying new parks space, etc. is covered by the new population that fills that density. The City charges a DCC based on the square footage of the new density, and presumably the developer passes that cost onto the purchaser of the property, who is the ultimate beneficiary of the new infrastructure. In New West, we have DCC Bylaws for Transportation, Water Supply, Sanitary Sewer, Drainage, and Parks.

At current rates, a new 1,000 sq ft apartment in Downtown New Westminster would include about $5,140 in DCCs. That would be $1,120 for Transportation, $60 for drainage, $250 for water, $430 for sanitary sewers, and $3,290 for Parks. Note than a brand new 1,000 square foot apartment in New Westminster sells for something over $700,000. If you believe that the cost of new housing is directly correlated to the cost of building it, then DCCs can be said to raise the cost of any single unit by much less than 1%. Although they cumulatively do a lot to reduce the cost of infrastructure upgrades for current residents, I don’t think DCCs are a significant cause of the current housing affordability crisis.

It is important to note DCC money is not thrown into general revenue, but is put into specific reserve funds and earmarked for defined projects under the category for which they are collected. This is fundamental to the DCC regulation – they must be spent on improving infrastructure above and beyond what would have been spent if the density was not permitted.

For obvious reasons, DCC money is not spent the day it is collected. A City is a complicated thing, and we cannot upgrade a section of sewer on a whim. Instead, we need to plan out years, sometimes decades, in advance so that all parts of the system work together. When collected, DCC money mostly goes into a reserve fund and is drawn out when the works happen. Sometimes we can borrow against a reserve fund (if the sewer needs to be upgraded today, but a DCC has not been collected yet and we are confident it will be collected in the near future), but even that is a bit deeper than we need to go here.

DCCs also don’t pay for all infrastructure upgrades. Even if there was no density increase in a City, we would have to replace your water lines every 50 years or so, pave your road every 10 years or so, etc. That money comes from property taxes (in the case of roads and parks) or part of your water/sewer bill (in the case of the pipes). We collect a little more in your water bill than it costs us to run the water system, and set that aside into those same reserves to pay for maintenance and upgrades of the system when they are needed. Alternately, we can pay for the upgrades when they come up by borrowing money, and charge future users that cost (plus interest). As you will see, we do a little of both based on what makes the most financial sense at the time.

That is how we can have both $120 Million in our reserves and $65 Million in debt. I hate using household finances as a model for explaining municipal finance (they are two very different things), but this is similar to having money in an RESP account at the same time as holding mortgage debt: we do it for rational reasons related to how the financial and taxation systems are designed. We didn’t invent global capitalism, but we operate within it. If you have an alternative system that more fairly distributes capital, send me your e-mail and I’ll subscribe to your newsletter!

This does raise what I think is the fundamental question about how we finance public infrastructure. If we want to build, say, a new $100 Million recreation complex, do we save up enough money to pay for it before we build it, or do we build it on debt and pay it off over time? There are compromises to both.

In the first case, everyone pays today into a reserve fund until we hit the number that we need to build the complex. It will take several years, and for all that time, the taxpayers of the City will be paying into the fund but not receiving the benefit of those payments until some point in the future when the complex is completed (if they still live in the City at that time). Is that fair to them?

In the second case, the complex gets built first, and the people who have an opportunity to benefit from that complex pay taxes for it while it is being used. Of course, they have to pay a little more this way because the debt needs to be serviced over the period of time it takes to pay it off. Is that fiscally prudent?

(It sounds to me like you would prefer more of the latter in the case of financing infrastructure related to new growth, as it would result in the City borrowing more from the MFA or Municipal Bonds and spreading the cost evenly among all taxpayers, whereas the former puts more burden on the new home purchaser which they would, presumably, borrow from a bank to finance. Please correct me if I got your argument wrong.)

There are other factors that need to be considered, and this is why most local governments do some combination of both. It matters what interest rate a local gov’t can earn on its reserves vs. what interest they pay servicing the debt. In this low-interest era, we may choose differently than back in the high-interest 70s. These rates are also related to your financial status: a City with $100 Million in the bank can get a lower rate than a City with $100 Million in debt. There are also significant complications local governments have to go through to borrow beyond their 5-year financial plan. Add to this uncertainties like inflation of construction cost and other capital needs that may pop up in the same time period. The practicality is that we sometimes need debt, and we benefit from strong reserves. 

I don’t want to get into the discussion here about us going to senior governments with hats in hand asking for their help in funding public infrastructure (this blog post is already much too long). However, I can summarize by saying local governments are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of about 60% of public infrastructure in Canada, and we directly receive about 8% of all tax revenues. Without help from senior governments, little of your public infrastructure would be sustainable. The Infrastructure Gap commonly measured across Canada to be more than a hundred billion dollars is measured above our existing reserves; but I digress.

The Municipal Finance Authority is, essentially, a Credit Union. Local Governments can borrow money from the MFA at rates better than we can get from commercial banks, and we can save our reserves with the MFA and receive a pretty good return. Most years, New West makes a little more in interest on our reserves than we spend in interest on our debt (though market fluctuations obviously impact this equation). As you note, the MFA structure has largely replaced Municipal Bonds issued by individual Local Governments. In essence, the MFA issues Bonds on behalf of all its member Local Governments. I am really not an expert on this part of finance, but I would assume that the reason we use the MFA instead of issuing our own Bonds is that the interest rates the MFA can offer (because they are a large, diverse organization) is much lower than we would have to pay to make the Bonds attractive in this razor-thin investment market.

But perhaps more to the point, the Bonds vs. MFA issue is something completely separate from the DCC discussion. DCCs are taxation – they generate revenue for a Local Government. Bonds are simply debt instruments; they are loans which we would have to generate revenue (taxes) to pay back. This takes us right back to the fundamental question that we have already asked – when should a government collect the money to pay for new infrastructure? Before it is built, or after? In reality, we do a little of both, and use the financial instruments available to us under the Local Government Act to hopefully strike a fair and responsible balance between the needs of today and the needs of tomorrow.

Pipelined

I wanted to comment a bit on this story. Kinder Morgan is apparently using an industrial lot in the Braid Industrial Area of New Westminster for staging and equipment storage as part of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Extension Project. That has caused some people to send me correspondence around why the City is allowing this, people asking me why I am not opposing the pipeline. I replied to a Facebook Post, but I think this issue is important enough for me to expand a bit on it here on my blog.

The site within New West being used by Kinder Morgan is on Port of Vancouver land, not land where the City has any jurisdiction. Council members were very recently made aware this was happening, but we do not have any regulatory authority around land use on Port lands, as only the Federal Government can issue or withhold those permits. We were not involved in the planning for this, and we have not had any formal correspondence on the issue from the proponent or the Port.

This City and this Council have been involved in the NEB review of the Kinder Morgan pipeline from the onset. The City acted as an intervenor in the NEB review, raised a number of significant concerns during the process, and continues to emphasize these concerns since. Not the least of these concerns is the potential for impacts on the Brunette River and its riparian areas.

We have supported court cases challenging this project and the process towards its approval. The NEB and the Federal Governments (past and present) have demonstrated no interest in our position, nor do I feel they have adequately addressed our concerns. It is actually worse than that, as there were recent hearings in Burnaby to review some of the still-unresolved questions about the routing of the new pipeline along New Westminster’s border (and within the Brunette River riparian zone) and the NEB didn’t even invite New Westminster to attend. I was refused entry to the hearings when I showed up. They were held behind closed doors, and as the routing was some 30m outside of our City, my being able to even listen to the conversation was not seen as relevant. At least the Harper Government invited us into the room to be ignored.

I cannot speak for all of Council, nor is this the “official position” of the City, but I have been involved in this process for several years now. I bring a significant amount of professional and technical experience to this, having provided expert evidence as an Environmental Scientist to several Environmental Assessments in my career. I am concerned about the pipeline, but I am much, much more angry about the unaccountable and unacceptable process that has taken us to this point. In the last Federal election we were promised that the industry-focused reviews brought in by the Harper Government would be replaced; that didn’t happen. We were told that community consultations would be opened up, and that consent from communities would be sought; that didn’t happen. We were told that a new era of reconciliation would be ushered in before we impose unsustainable and  damaging infrastructure projects to unceded lands; that didn’t happen. We were told that subsidies to sunset oil industrial development would end and a new energy vision would be offered; that didn’t happen.

We were lied to, and now we are ignored.

Fandom

As a Canucks Fan, often I am unsure who to support when Playoffs come around. That last sentence is really funny to fans of 28 other teams, even though for some (I’m looking at you, Buffalo) it cuts close.

The question is not an easy one, as being a Canucks fan for several decades, I have built up a long series of grudges against the entire NHL. With the possible exception of the Blues, I have at least some reason to hate every team. Even the Canucks were coached by Keenan for a while, which is pretty unforgivable, and you still sometimes see somebody wearing Maki’s #11 Canucks jersey with Messier on the back, and shake your head. But we soldier on. We are all Canucks, as they say.

With the first Round of the Playoffs under way, I do have to make a call here to maintain my attention until the Giro starts, so here is the first Patrickjohnstone.ca listicle:

In inverse order, the teams I most hope win the Stanley Cup, 2018:

16: Boston The dirty, rotten, oughta be kicked out of the NHL Bruins are everything wrong with Hockey. They cheated and cheap-shotted their way into the playoffs again. Bruins Fandom is, based on my own anecdotal experience, correlated well with sociopathy. I hate the Bruins so much I don’t even order from Boston Pizza, I don’t even watch re-runs of Cheers.

15: Toronto At this fragile time for Canada’s Confederation, I’m not sure we could handle the indignity of watching Premier-elect Doug Ford hoisting the Cup at Dundas Square in June. For the good of the Nation, and all that is holy, Toronto must lose.

14: Los Angeles Almost as bad as Boston, but not even as good at being as bad. Drew Doughty? Dustin Brown? Dion Phaneuf? I guess their moms love them. I went to a Canucks Game in Los Angeles once, and really, not even their fans like the Kings, and they have won a couple of Cups recently. Gross.

13: Winnipeg It would be intolerable in the rest of Canada if the Jets won. It seems half of the population of every other City in Canada is “from Winnipeg”, and drags their Jets and Bombers jerseys out for important games, embarrassing all in their vicinity. It makes me wonder if there is anyone left in Winnipeg, and if people are so damn proud of Winnipeg, why does no one live there? I’m with The Weakerthans here.

12: Columbus
12: San Jose
12: Nashville I have no specific love or hate for any of these teams, I just have this weird notion that if another team wins their first Cup before the Canucks win their first cup, it somehow diminishes the Canucks. So: No, no, and no.

9: Tampa Bay
9: Anaheim
9: Philadelphia The second half of my 6-way tie of ambivalence. Same as above, except these teams have won Cups in the past and the further-shaming-the Canucks factor isn’t in there. No love here, no specific hate, I would find any of these wins supremely uninteresting. So: Yawn, yawn, and yawn.

6: New Jersey A little bit like above, but I want to think a Jersey win would at least make David Puddy happy. And guy deserves it after all Elaine put him through.

5: Colorado They really snuck into the playoffs, and have no hope. But everyone loves a good underdog story, and I am not made of stone. Is Partick Roy still involved?

4: Minnesota Wait, they still have a team? How is that even a thing? I guess if they win, it would piss off Winnipeg, so that’s a bonus.

3: Washington They have Ovi and he isn’t getting any younger, so it would be good to see him get a reward for being one of the most skilled goal scorers in the history of the game. If Ovi is winning, the game is more fun to watch. Bonus: watching CNN tie themselves in knots when they find out that Washington D.C. has a hockey team, whose Captain is a big Putin supporter, should make the obligatory visit to the White House interesting.

2: Vegas There are lots of things that make me want to support Vegas: the brilliance/ stupidity of the drafting process that made this possible, the ugliness of their entire marketing package, their pretty killer social media presence. I can;t get past the sense they are punking us all, daring us to take them seriously, sort of like the Beck Hansen of Hockey. They also have the most Canadian roster of any team, so I want to cheer for them. What’s wrong? The smug look on Bettman’s face if it were to occur. It is possible that the T-Mobile Arena is the only one he could stride into carrying the Con Smyth, and not get booed. And I can’t tolerate that.

1: Pittsburgh I have nothing against Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby is the best player of his generation, deserving of all the accolades he gets, and probably a lot more. The franchise has done so much right over the last decade that the word “dynasty” may come back to the NHL. Besides, what else does the City of Pittsburgh have going for it? Give them this. Go flightless waterfowl!

Compromise

The existing Skate Park at Mercer Stadium is now closed, as the school district is busy building a high school on that spot. Recognizing this was coming, the City put some money in to the capital budget to build a replacement. The replacement will be bigger and more modern than the old skool bowl at Mercer, and it took more than year to work with the skate community and other stakeholders to figure out the best compromise between various potential locations. The best solution found was the old Arenex location at Queens Park, in an area of the park designated for “active recreation” in the Queens Park Master Plan.

As there was some community concern related to this location during the community and stakeholder consultation, staff did extra outreach, design and engineering work to specifically address the concerns raised by some existing park users. With this work done, they came to Council in Monday last to ask for the go-ahead to procure the works, in the hopes we can get the new facility in the ground this summer.

I received a lot of correspondence on this proposal. At least 60 e-mails, some in favour; most opposed. An online petition was circulated and apparently collected hundreds of signatures in opposition to the proposal though I have to note that I haven’t seen or been provided any such list. Frankly, I was dismayed by much of what I read in that correspondence. I’m not going to call anyone out by name here, but the quotes speak for themselves:

I am concerned about cadet safety and potential conflict that could arise between the cadets and skateboard park users

It will just lead to conflict between young people and theatre goers.

The theatre building will be a prime target for graffiti.

With the legalization of marijuana, the theatre faces the possible smell of skunk to the west

I believe having a skate park within Queens Park anywhere would be a detriment to the Park. It is a beautiful quiet family park and not suited to a skate park at all.

There are many (most) residents in new Westminster who would have it (the skateboard park) done away with if they could, so please do not create more ill will between your mature, working, VOTING citizens and youth.

To quote the staff report on the last round of Public Consultation “In summary the stakeholder’s concerns include personal safety for other park users, risk of vandalism, potential for bullying of youth aged members of some organizations, perceptions of noise generated at the site, potential for vandalism/ graffiti

I’ll talk about the noise concern further down, but before I get there, I have to admit that just reading this correspondence completely took me aback, and made it hard for me to remain objective. The narrative presented offers an archaic and uninformed attitude about roller sports. Skating (along with bmx/trials, scooting, blading) is a healthy, creative athletic activity enjoyed by youth and adults. Characterizing an entire group of recreation users as troublemakers not deserving of sharing in our parks use because they are vaguely threatening is, in short, offensive to my definition of community. So, to be really honest here, I probably went into Monday’s meeting with a frame of mind shaped by this, and that no  doubt influenced my decision making. But let’s step back a bit.


When planning for a facility like this, or any facility in a City Park, there is a lot of work done before we get to a meeting like last Monday. Staff, user groups, stakeholders, consultants, and Council have been working on this for more than a year. I appreciate people wanting to get engaged in a decision like this, but people joining at the 11th hour need to recognize that your new idea has most likely already been evaluated. The City evaluated every piece of available City-owned land between Grimston and Hume Parks, between (to borrow a phrase) 10th and the Fraser, for this facility, and none were perfect. However, I can confidently say, having been involved in this discussion for more than year, that all other options had more net negatives than the final proposed location. The proposed place was not the perfect place, it was the least non-perfect place. That is the reality of how a consultative City works – every decision is a compromise of least-perfect solutions.

That said, the proposed location was a good one, worthy of support.

In speaking to the Skate community, it was clear that by putting a roller sport facility (like any other facility primarily directed at youth) at front and centre in a public place, you not only show you are inviting that activity into your community, but you generate interest, curiosity, and engagement, and build the sport. We hear too much these days that youth have limited opportunity or interest in unstructured outdoor activity (or “getting off their screens”, in the parlance of the day). Roller sport are exactly the kind of creative, athletic, unstructured, knee-scabbing and dexterity-building activity we lament youth not doing enough of, yet we have adults here trying to marginalize the activity by wanting it put “somewhere else” where they don’t have to see, walk or even park near it. Sorry, that argument doesn’t work for me.

Knowing this issue was emerging, I have spent some time in the last little while dropping by the old Mercer skate bowl and the All-Wheel Park at the Queensborough Community Centre. Every time I went by there, there were users of a variety of ages, from 4 year olds on scooters to adults teaching their kids how to board. There were parents watching their kids be active and creative in the outdoors. None of them felt this was an unsafe place. I think all of them would be offended to hear they (and their kids) were being dismissed as threatening to other parks users. The New West Police and the staff at the Queensborough Community Centre were both consulted on conflict issues that we may need to mitigate if we move the facility to Queens Park, and both said, plain and simple, there are none. The City’s skate parks are not havens of hooliganism and trouble.

There is a reason for that. Rolling sports are not a fringe activity like it may have been 25 years ago. This is a mainstream sport. Its culture has evolved to one of creativity, community support, and partnership. When I found out that roller sports are going to be in the Olympics in 2020, and tried to square this with the non-competitive/cooperative nature of the community, it reminded me of something I noticed at the Winter Olympics this year. In the new Snowboard/Slopestyle/Cross type sports, there was a noticeably strong comradery in these sports. The person finishing fourth in the Skicross ran up to hug the gold medalist from another country; every slick run was rewarded by high-fives from competitors, every sick crash with a pat on the back or a hug. The kids today are different than us; dare I say better.

This was manifest in the correspondence I received in favour of putting the park in Queens Park. Again, no names:

Placing the new skate park in the centre of Queens Park would profoundly and positively impact the New West community and increase acceptance and diversity for youth in New West. I believe it is the responsibility of our Mayor and Council to practice inclusivity towards more unique recreational activities that are popular among our youth.”

“I believe that placing the skate park in Queens Park would demonstrate the city’s celebration of diversity as well as honouring positive activities. It would set an example for all of our youth to see adults value the well-being, health, and enjoyment of young people. Skate Parks are a beautiful place that may invite people across many different socioeconomic backgrounds in New West to enjoy being outside, and foster belonging within our community

Given the wide range of existing facilities and user groups within Queens’ Park, our community has demonstrated it’s belief in the importance of public spaces being fully inclusive of different expressions of arts, culture, leisure and recreation. This is an opportunity to welcome a new user group and demographic to Queen’s Park and enrich its uniqueness, while contributing to its cultural legacy

Now that I have disclosed by biases (and how they were developed as we went through this process), we can talk about the decision made on Monday.


There were some legitimate concerns raised about this site: most notably the potential for noise impacts on the Bernie Legge Theatre. Recognizing these concerns when raised by stakeholders, the City paused the process and hired an acoustical engineer to evaluate the impacts. The report acknowledged that the skate park would create noise, measured it, and evaluated two ways to mitigate it. If the skate bowl was oriented towards the north, and a berm were built on the south side, the noise of the park (and other significant ambient sounds such as whistles on the soccer pitch and traffic on McBride) would be abated, making the theatre actually quieter than it is now. Alternately, the City could invest a little money in providing some improvements to the theatre including weather stripping and solid-core doors, which would effectively reduce ambient noises and the skate park form impacting theatre operations. The report from staff recommended the City do both of these, to double the sound baffling effect to give the theatre patrons an extra measure of confidence. This proposal would have resulted in a quieter Bernie Legge Theatre experience than there is now.

There were also some concerns about parking and pedestrian circulation around the Theatre. Again, the report proposed designating parking spots adjacent to the skate park, and improving pedestrian flow and surfaces between the parking lot, the theatre and the Cadets building. The proposal would have actually improved the very things the stakeholders were concerned about.

So the location was good for the user group, the legitimate concerns raised by the stakeholders could be and would be mitigated at the cost of the City, actually resulting in a quieter theatre with better parking access and pedestrian amenities. I don’t know why I would vote against this proposal.


After hearing a dozen delegations at Council, however, a “compromise” location was proposed. I could not support it. Here is why.

After more than a year of work, and a concerted effort to evaluate all positive and negative impacts of different locations, finding a design that fits the space and takes advantage of a current unused and unprogrammed part of the park, and after delaying to hire professional engineers to develop scientifically-defensible mitigation measures to address legitimate concerns, Council came up with a knee-jerk “compromise location” 30-40m to the west where there is a grove of trees and old tennis courts (the actual location is a little vague), which we have asked Staff to move ahead with “if technically feasible”. To be clear – no-one in that meeting knew exactly what footprint we are talking about, and no-one has any idea what “technically feasible” means, or what compromises will need to be made to accommodate this plan.

This “compromise location” is clearly an ill-informed compromise. It is not (as it was touted at the meeting) a “win-win”. It was, in my opinion, a result of treating the wants and needs of one user group with lesser regard than the wants and needs of another group, even after significant efforts to address the concerns of that second group resulted in a well-developed strategy to address their valid concerns and then some. Make no mistake, there is a lot potential loss in this “win-win”.

We don’t know what the skate community lost yet. Best case scenario, only a couple more months of being without a facility to practice their recreation. Potentially, this may be a much longer time if engineering or other concerns pop up. The “if technically feasible” caveat is a vague and compromising one in the world of engineering, and a terrible piece of guidance for professional staff (technically feasible at any cost? Regardless of other impacts?). After more than a year of work, the vision developed will be unnecessarily delayed and potentially compromised because of a last-minute knee jerk reaction that received far, far less technical scrutiny or input from stakeholders and user groups. That is a terrible way to make decisions.

Even worse: The potential impact on non-skaters has now not been fairly assessed. What of the users of the tennis courts and picnic area that will now be removed? Honestly, we don’t even know if moving the Skate Park to this “compromise location” will make the noise impacts on the theatre better or worse. It is entirely possible (and quite likely) that an earthen berm would have deadened sound much better than an extra 30m in distance. We do not have any evaluation of the opportunity cost of the “compromise location”. Basically, we cannot demonstrate any actual benefit of this location to anyone, other than salving a vague feeling that “they” need to be kept further away from “us”.

Best case scenario, staff will not run into any problems shoehorning a well-developed plan into a “compromise location”, and after only a couple of months delay, we will get a fully functional park up and running. Best case scenario, the new location will not create unanticipated impacts on other users of the park that require further mitigation. I am an optimist, and I sincerely hope this best case is realized. But in the decision we made on Monday, and the way we made it, Council did nothing to assure this happens.

Council – April 9, 2018

It was a long complicated Council Meeting, and not to bury the lede, I’m not going to talk about the Skate Park here, but will save it for a subsequent post. After all this meeting’s lengthy Agenda included starting with the most exciting day of everyone’s Council-watching year:

Parcel Tax Roll
The City’s revenue sources include fees (charging people for services from building permits to swim lessons), property taxes (a tax indexed to the assessed value of a property in the City), and Parcel Taxes (taxes collected based on some other characteristic of the property parcel). Unlike many municipalities, we don’t have a blanket “parcel tax” on all properties, but reserve Parcel Taxes for specific purposes. These are the three Business Improvement Areas (where the City collects the tax, then turns it over to the BIA for them to spend on their programs) and several places where some of the cost of neighbourhood-specific projects are charged to the neighbourhood as a special assessment (such as infilling ditches in Queensborough).

Every year, we have to officially review the roll of properties for which Parcel Taxes are applied, and give those properties an opportunity to appeal that the tax doesn’t apply to them. We then sign the roll to show we have done this. Thrilling stuff.


The Regular Meeting then followed, with the following items Moved on Consent:

Recruitment 2018 Arts Commission Representative on the Public Art Advisory Committee
Our Arts Commission has a representative on the Public Art Advisory Committee. Council approved the appointment of their designated representative.

838 Ewen Avenue (Modular Housing): Official Community Plan Amendment, Rezoning and Development Permit Applications – Preliminary Report and Section 475 and 476 Consultation Report
This parcel of land belongs to the City, and there is a plan to put Provincially-supported modular housing on it as part of our ongoing affordable housing program. To do this, we need to change the Official Community Plan designation for the land, which requires consultation with a wide breadth of parties, including public consultation. This report provides the preliminary project plans and details of the upcoming consultation schedule.

Construction Noise Bylaw: Consideration of Changes to Permitted Hours and Update on Pile Driving Methodology Research – Bylaw for Three Readings
The City has been looking into the issue of construction noise, and particularly the impacts (pun!) of pile driving. This issue really emerged with the early stages of construction of two buildings in downtown last summer. This Bylaw will change the construction hours on weekends, and limit some types of pile driving. There is a great attached report from the Engineer about the benefits and costs of different pile driving techniques. Council moved to give these Bylaws three readings.

520 Carnarvon Street: Heritage Revitalization Agreement and Heritage Designation Bylaws – Consideration of First and Second Readings
The owners of this 1898 house on Carnarvon want to preserve it, and build an extension on the back. This will involve a heritage conservation plan, and some land use changes to bring the commercial/residential mixed use into compliance. The Downtown RA, the Advisory Planning commission, and the community Heritage Commission are all good with the plan. So Council gave it two readings, and it will go to Public Hearing, so I’ll hold my comments until then.

318 Fifth Street: Heritage Revitalization Agreement and Heritage Designation – Consideration of First and Second Readings
This project will bring a largish laneway house to Queens Park, in exchange for Heritage Designation of the main house, and a long-term restoration plan. Council gave this project two readings, and it will go to Public Hearing, so I’ll hold my comments until then.

1084 Tanaka Court: Rezoning and Development Permit for Banquet Hall – Bylaw for First and Second Readings
This project would see a large banquet hall built on an undeveloped piece of commercial property near the Casino in Queensborough. Council gave the proposal First and Second readings, and as it will be coming to Public Hearing, I’ll hold my comments until then.

306 Gilley Street: Heritage Revitalization Agreement and Designation Bylaws – Consideration of First and Second Readings
This HRA and development project would bring some infill density to a lot in the Brow of the Hill, while protecting the heritage house on the same lot. Council gave the proposal First and Second readings, and as it will be coming to Public Hearing, I’ll hold my comments until then.

18. Queen’s Park Heritage Conservation Area: Special Limited Category Expanded Study Update
How do we protect heritage homes, while mitigating the impact houses that may not have real heritage value, and how to tell the difference?

With an HCA the size of Queens Park (the largest in the province, possibly in Canada), there are some properties that may be caught up that probably have limited heritage value and don’t necessarily need protection. I’m not an expert at evaluating Heritage Value (which is why Council shouldn’t be deciding without expert advice), but there are experts who do this exact thing for a living.

Currently, a person with a pre-1940 house in Queens Park can apply to have the protection level for their house reduced (up to an including allowing for its demolition) based on a heritage assessment demonstrating there is no heritage value to be lost. There are some examples of houses built before 1940 that had significant renovations later on and look more like a 70’s house (including 70’s materials) with none of the characteristics of the original pre-war house. In the spirit of the HCA, the owner should be able to demolish this house and replace with a new house that meets the HCA guidelines. Due to the structure of the HCA permitted under the Community Charter, that takes an OCP update, which is a bit of a hassle for a one-off.

To help out property owners caught in the middle here, the City is launching a program to fast-track the assessment of houses where the owners feel they should be reduced in protection, by packaging all of the assessments together and doing a single OCP amendment. This should save the City and the homeowners quite a bit of time and money in the long run. There will be a small charge to the homeowner (approximately 1/3 of what a heritage assessment would cost if they did it alone), but if they opt in, this will be the easiest path to reducing the protection of a house with no heritage value.

This requires a Bylaw, so we asked staff to write it.

41 – 175 Duncan Street: Official Community Plan Amendment and Zoning Amendment for Townhouse and Child Care Development – Bylaws for First and Second Readings
This large townhouse development in Queensborough will include a space for a daycare, and some significant improvements to the waterfront adjacent to Port Royal. The Residents Association has no objections, and the project complies with the FCM Rail Proximity guidelines (as there is a lightly-used Southern Railway line along the south boundary of the property). The Design Panel and Advisory Planning commission are OK with it. It will be going to Public Hearing, so I’ll hold off on my comments until then.

Amendment to Bylaw Notice Enforcement Bylaw No. 7318 as a result of revisions to the Water Shortage Response Bylaw No. 6948, 2004
Our Bylaw Notice Enforcement Bylaw needs to be edited to comply with the new Water Shortage Response Bylaw. Fines aren’t changing, we just need to align the language so the bylaws are enforceable.

Food Truck Vending at Westminster Pier Park
We have not had a huge pick-up on food trucks in the City since we opened up our permitting to allow them to operate. Other than a hugely successful Food Truck Festival, and a few special events, we don’t seem to be in a place where ad-hoc random food truck locations are financially viable for the operators. The trial at the Pier Park didn’t really work out. We still have a policy to allow it in other parts of the City, and will revisit this again in the future, depending on how the trend evolves.

228 – 232 Sixth Street (La Rustica): Rezoning and Development Permit for a Proposed Six Storey  Residential Building – Bylaw for First and Second Readings
This proposal would see a 6-story residential building where there is currently an abandoned and boarded-up restaurant space in the Brow of the Hill. The project was approved by the Design Panel and Advisory Planning Commission, after several rounds of redesigns to fit the space and setting a little better. As this will will be going to Public Hearing, I’ll hold off on my comments until then.

406 – 412 East Columbia Street: Rezoning and Development Permit for Proposed Six Storey Mixed Use Development – Bylaw for First and Second Readings
This proposal would see a 6-story mixed-use building on a currently vacant lot in Sapperton. The development is an interesting mix, with commercial on the ground floor, a floor of office space, then 4 stories of residential. The project was approved by the Design Panel and Advisory Planning Commission, after some discussion of the creative design of the living spaces to make them fit with limited footprint and setbacks. As this will be going to Public Hearing, I’ll hold off on my comments until then.

224 Sixth Avenue: Heritage Revitalization Agreement and Heritage Designation – Bylaws for First and Second Readings
This HRA will extend permanent protection and a restoration plan to a heritage house in Queens Park while subdividing the property and infilling with an smaller house on the same rateher wide lot. The Community Heritage Commission and Advisory Planning Commission are OK with the designs. Once again, this will be going to a Public Hearing, so I’ll hold off on my comments until then.

Canada Post Corporation Driver Infractions and Road Misuse
Allegedly, a few Canada Post employees were driving like jerks. The NTAC wants the Mayor to send a letter to Canada Post and ask them to drive better. What the hell, can’t hurt, can it?


The following items are Removed from Consent for discussion:

118 Royal Avenue: Rezoning and Development Permit for Four Unit Rowhouse – Bylaw for First and Second Readings
This project would see 4 rowhomes built where there is currently a single family home on Royal Avenue right next to QayQayt School. This will come to Public Hearing on April 30, so I am once again going to hold off on commenting. And boy I have comments on this one!

Proposed BC Energy Step Code Requirements for New Part 9 Residential Buildings
The City is implementing Step Code standards for our residential housing stock. This is part of a Province-wide program where the building code is creating shifts towards energy performance standards for new buildings through progressive ramping up of standards (“steps”). The City is exercising its option to phase in progressively higher steps. This takes a bit of time, as we will need to train builders on performance-based standards that come with “stepping up”, and our building inspectors to understand how to test and implement these standards. We are one of about 20 local Governments in BC who has taken this route, some slightly more aggressive than New West, most are about where we are. This isn’t free for builders, or the City, but our community will become more efficient, our housing stock more comfortable and our GHG emissions lower through this. I’m happy to support it.

2017 Filming Activity Update
There is a lot of filming in New West, and in 2017, our permitting fees from filming grossed just a little over $1M. This is aside from all of the filming fees collected by local homeowners and businesses, and all of the spin-off economic benefits of a vibrant film industry in our community. This report by our staff Filming coordinator updates where we are in this file.

Mercer Stadium Skatepark Relocation Project
I have a bunch to say about this, as I have received and responded to about 100 e-mail on this issue, and had about a dozen Delegations on the topic, but I’ll save that for a subsequent Blog Post. Short version: I’m not excited about the decision made by Council, or the way we made the decision, but I am cautiously hopeful we can still get this facility built in Queens Park this summer.


Before we got to the Public Delegations and presentations, we went through our regular Bylaws shuffle that was a record length in my time on Council:

Heritage Revitalization Agreement (318 Fifth Street) Bylaw No. 7977, 2018 and
Heritage Designation (318 Fifth Street) Bylaw No. 7978, 2018
As discussed above, this HRA and Laneway House project in Queens Park was given two readings. It will go to Public Hearing on April 30. C’mon out and tell us what you think.

Heritage Revitalization Agreement (224 Sixth Avenue) Bylaw No. 7989, 2018 and
Heritage Designation (224 Sixth Avenue) Bylaw No. 7990, 2018
As discussed above, this HRA and subdivision project in Queens Park was given two readings. It will go to Public Hearing on April 30. You should show up to tell us what you think.

Heritage Revitalization Agreement (520 Carnarvon Street) Bylaw No. 8004, 2018 and
Heritage Designation (520 Carnarvon Street) Bylaw No. 8005, 2018
As discussed above, this HRA that will renovate/expand the building and change the land use in Downtown was given two readings. It will go to Public Hearing on what is starting to look like a busy April 30. It might be worth showing up to tell us what you think.

Heritage Revitalization Agreement (306 Gilley Street) Bylaw No. 8007, 2018 and
Heritage Designation (306 Gilley Street) Bylaw No. 8008, 2018
As discussed above, this HRA with infill housing project in the Brow of the Hill was given two readings. It will go to Public Hearing on April 30. Anyone sensing a trend here?

228 – 232 Sixth Street (La Rustica) Zoning Amendment Bylaw No. 7996, 2018
As discussed above, this development for a 6-story building in the Brow of the Hill was given two readings, and will go to Public Hearing on April 30. That is going to be a busy evening, but you should show up if you have opinions or concerns.

1084 and 1130 Tanaka Court and a portion of the existing road right of way Zoning Amendment Bylaw No. 8011, 2018
As discussed above, this proposal to build a large banquet hall on an undeveloped piece of commercial land near the Casino was given three readings. It will be part of this remarkably diverse and exciting Public Hearing on April 30. There must be at least one of these projects you have an opinion for or against!

118 Royal Avenue Zoning Amendment Bylaw No. 7954, 2018
As discussed above, this project would build 4 row homes on Royal Ave next to QayQayt school. It was given two readings, and will go to Public Hearing on April 30. Seriously, everyone who is anyone is going to be there!

175 Duncan Street Official Community Plan Amendment Bylaw No. 7982, 2018 and
41 and 175 Duncan Street Zoning Amendment Bylaw No. 7983, 2018
As discussed above, this larger townhouse project in Queensborough was given two readings, and will go to Public Hearing on April 30. You really think we weren’t going to include a little Q’boro in the Mother of All Public Hearings?

406 – 412 East Columbia Street Zoning Amendment Bylaw No. 7995, 2018
As discussed above, this mixed-use project on an empty lot in downtown Sapperton was given two readings, and will be included in the Public Hearing on April 30. Seriously, this has to be some kind of record.

Construction Noise Bylaw Amendment Bylaw No. 8013, 2018
This Bylaw that changes construction hours in the City was given three readings. No Public Hearing for this one! But there will be an Opportunity to be Heard on May 7. C’mon out and let us know what you think.

Development Services Fees and Rates Amendment Bylaw No. 8009, 2018
This Bylaw that allows us to charge a fee for opting into the collective Queens Park HCA Special Limited Category Study (see above) was given three readings. No Public Hearing needed for this one, either!

Bylaw Notice Enforcement Housekeeping Amendment Bylaw No. 8012, 2018
This Bylaw that aligns our Notice Enforcement Bylaw with the new water restriction bylaw was given three readings. I’m going to go ahead and assume you have no opinions on this.

Water Shortage Response Amendment Bylaw No. 7988, 2018 (Revisions to the Water Shortage Response Plan)
This Bylaw that aligns our Water Shortage Response Plan with the regional plan from Metro Vancouver was Adopted by Council. It’s the law of the land, schedule your sprinkling accordingly.

Electrical Utility Amendment Bylaw No. 7998, 2018
This Bylaw that adjusts our Electrical Utility rates to match the 3% increase in BC Hydro rates was adopted by Council. It is the law of the land, please adjust your light bulbs accordingly.


Then we had presentations, public delegations and an extended conversation about locating a Skate Park in Queens Park. I’ll report on that some time in the next few days. Same Pat-time, same Pat-channel!

This is fine

This shouldn’t fill me with rage. I think the intent was to do the opposite; to provide me a guide to supplant anger and frustration with quiet acceptance. A serenity prayer to bring calm to the unrelenting intensity of our times. Instead, I found myself yelling at the radio on a Sunday Morning:

“You entitled asshole! How dare you tell everyone calm down!”

No surprise, the essayist in question is a white septuagenarian upper middle class Canadian male idling away his dotage by providing accumulated wisdom via the established media. Perhaps the messenger was the message.

For his regular Sunday morning essay, Canada’s kind leather-elbow-patched uncle Michael Enright decided to remark on a sense of despair or foreboding expressed by his fellow white-coiffed legacy journalist Gary Mason. In it, Mason remarked on the many aspects of our current troubled times, and invoked an interest in just getting away from it all. To which Enright prescribed a healthy dose of calming baroque music.

Which brought this to mind for me:
As Mason pointed out, this is a terrible time for many parts of the industrial world, and Canada is surrounded by storm clouds. This appears to be the decade where all the bad cheques written by 30 years of NeoLiberalism get cashed. Climate tipping pints are passing like telephone poles on a desert highway, stagnation of wages and erosion of social supports are run up against a cost of living inflated by speculative money trading and wealth measured by the ability to avoid taxation. For the first time we can be sure this generation will have less than the previous, and the next will be left to pick the scraps. Instead of lifting leaders willing to address the causes of inequity and despair, the exploited and disenfranchised are turning to despotic strongmen driving wedges to split apart the fibres of our society. To quote Mason’s article “We are living in times as dangerous and unpredictable as there’s been in 80 years.”

This is no more apparent than in media, the industry these two men inhabit. Hedge fund managers own every newspaper of note in Canada, a small collection of very rich and politically-connected individuals own every other traditional media channel, and use them to shamelessly shape political opinion. The President of the United States openly calls for the destruction of media organizations that counter the narrative presented by his defacto propaganda channel. In Canada, the second party in the House is increasingly being managed by alt-right propagandists and white nationalists who were apparently too radical for Rebel Media. Meanwhile, the emergent new media streams are being dominated by algorithms designed by the security apparata of hostile nations to bend our minds into false narratives and shape our political views at a scale that would have terrified Orwell.

That is the landscape that one of our dead-tree media stalwarts caught a momentary glimpse of, and suggested he felt the need to escape. To which Enright, in all of the comfort and security of resources drawn from the savings account of future generations, replied: just listen to Beethoven. It’ll all be fine. “The best medicine for what ails Mr. Mason and the rest of us is music”.

In an effort to avoid the long stream of profanity I feel, and to speak in the generational parlance of Mr Enright: Bollocks!

The only Sabbath Mason needs now is a Black one. If music is to be applied to this malaise, let it be loud, aggressive, and filled with calls to action. The Clash, Rage Against the Machine, Anti-Flag, anyone who has taken seriously the hard work of yelling at fascists. Now is not the time for journalists to chill to a Bach cantata, it I time for the Fourth Estate to stand the hell up and start shouting about the chaos they are seeing.

If the likes of Enright and Mason are as seriously concerned about the fate of their children and egalitarian society as they claim, I don’t understand how solemnly lamenting their fate while enjoying a little Puccini is seen as a valid response. These gentlemen have been granted (earned?) three hours of national radio every week / ample column inches in an ever-shrinking media landscape. I humbly suggest they get past their woe-is-me head-under the pillow bullshit and start doing their job.

The media already has enough old men yelling at clouds for being a lesser shade of white than in their halcyon youth, dispatching their “I got mine” wisdom nuggets from their comfortable porches on the Sunshine Coast or “cattle ranches called the Schively” (dear Christ, did Enright actually say that!?). These are not the realities of young people in Vancouver or Toronto struggling with stagnant wages and housing crises and collapsing hopes, of First Nations across the country still waiting for the promise of some sort of reconciliation for their inter-generational sabotage, of a globe of youth facing terrifying implications of global climate shifts and concomitant migrations spawning a new rise of wall-builders (metaphorical and literal) and sabre-rattlers and possessors of ICBMs that can deliver hypersonic glide vehicles to any point on the planet as easily as their software that can deliver hundreds of thousands of duped votes to ballot boxes in the same far-off places.

Far from the luxury of seeking Bechet as an escape from the bedlam of a society stacked against them, there is a generation in this country, and across the industrialized world, who are feeling right now the doom of this bedlam, and cannot even dream of a dotage of relaxed musical contemplation. And it is you, Mr. Enright, and your industry that is, right now, the first up against the wall, being torn apart by a new wave of fascist demagogues from Moscow to Manila to Beijing to Washington, as dictators have always taken apart the free press at the beginning of their destructive rule. If you need contemplation in this time of chaos, be it in contemplating whether you are willing to take up the fight now to protect the things that made your life so comfortable?

Escaping from it all is a luxury that serves to demonstrate the privilege too many in your generation (and in your industry!) don’t even recognize as existing. Taking that luxury at this time may be the final (but not greatest) insult you generation imposes on your children.

Damn, I need a coffee.

Ask Pat: Housing crises

R57 asks:

I’m the one who suggested replacing the Bosa harbour front proposal with reproductions of the ‘Argonath’, and that not enough concern has been shown for the Temple of Doom half concealed in the plans for the 618 Carnarvon development. Over the past couple of years I have documented on Twitter the ongoing development of both condo and rental towers in my immediate neighbourhood: the noise, disruption, destruction of heritage or historic buildings, and so on. Ultimately, however, the greatest impact is on affordability and security for low income people in the downtown core.

I live [near] the development of the Novare tower and the site of the now demolished Masonic Hall. Our building has been sold twice in the past two years. We have now been informed that we are to be evicted for ‘renovations.’ This is from the same landlord who told us, on buying the building, that he planned not to spend a single cent on its upkeep. So, it is very fine to say that revenue from the development of a condo tower–whose ultimate purpose is to make mountains of money for developers and speculators–will partially go into an affordable housing strategy–but what have you actually done?

The last I looked, the city has approved a 42 unit affordable development to go ahead, but that was two years ago. What else? My rough tally, of just the 618 development, and the pointless, unnecessary exercise in megalomania called Bosa Pier West, amounts to about a thousand luxury units, and real, affordable housing available today–zero.

I note that the 618 developers will pay a million dollar penalty for bending the height or density bylaws, is that correct? If that is so, and that figure is still insufficient to build a few affordable units, may I suggest dividing that sum into a hundred individual grants of $10,000 each, which should be sufficient to help stressed citizens to relocate elsewhere here and abroad, and start over? I would prefer Tuscany myself, but Malaysia may be more affordable on my pension.

That’s a bit of a joke, but not much. So, we all have to go somewhere in two months. Any suggestions?

This was sent as a comment on one of my regular Council Report posts a month or so ago, but it raises enough issues (outside of architectural criticism) that I thought it deserved a fuller response, so I redacted a few personal-identification parts, and included it here. That said, I recognize I don’t really have an adequate response, but am thankful for the opportunity to go on a long rant here about the “Housing Crises”.

There is a lot going on in the housing market regionally, and the days have passed when New Westminster – a little tucked away, a little gritty, a little bypassed – could avoid the worst of the affordability crisis. We should have seen it coming. I think we did see it coming as we went through the Official Community Plan process, but while some made the case for urgency at that time, I think our reaction was (with benefit of hindsight) a tepid one.

One complexity of the problem is demonstrated in the inherent dichotomy in your comments: new building around your affordable apartment is seen as part of the problem, and not part of the solution to the regional housing squeeze. I hear a lot more concern from people (notably those who already have secure housing) that there is too much construction in the City. The reality is that growth of the City is tracking along with the Regional Growth Strategy expectations set out more than a decade ago. If there is a difference, it is in that we are building more high-density units and are not building into our single-family neighbourhoods. That is another entire blog rant I’ll have to save for later.

The newest of construction is rarely the most affordable housing, but if we bring in new supply while protecting older supply, market forces *should* result in that older stock remaining more affordable in the medium term. Even this approach creates a bunch of other problems – people buy up the less affordable stock with the expectation that they can knock it down and replace it with a tower and make more money. This is one area of speculation New West has (up to now) been pretty successful at avoiding, and we have not seen a large number of affordable housing units replaced with unaffordable condos. That is by New Westminster policy, not coincidence.

What we have seen is an increase in “reno-vicions” – tenants being displaced as an owner renovates a rental building only to raise rents substantially (doubled or more) once the renovation is done. As a City, we have no regulatory ability to prevent this, but we have been advocating at the provincial level for changes to the Residential Tenancy Act to prevent this. We have also been investing a bunch of resources and time into making sure tenants know their rights when landlords act unethically, and to provide as much support as we can to people when they are displaced. This is an ongoing effort at the City.

Building new homes is a business, and without a reasonable expectation of profit, no-one is going to do it. The construction market right now is crazy, and every construction project is burdened with a significant amount of financial risk. This risk is alleviated by building what they know, by pushing density limits, and by developing a pre-sale market that itself feeds speculation and inflated prices. It’s a vicious circle. It is clear we cannot trust “the market” to fix the affordability problem when the market is a large part of the problem. We need new construction, but we need much more than that.

We also need a supply of new homes not relying on the profit motive to get built. Few charities have the resources to do this work, so that leaves government. The federal government (with by far the deepest pockets) got out of the house-building business back in the 80s around the time we signed a new Constitution Act that put housing in the provincial realm. Since then, we have had a succession of provincial governments, each less interested in building public housing than the previous one. Local governments like New Westminster simply don’t have the resources to do this work when we have less than 8% of the tax revenue of the larger governments, and have our own increasing demands for expanded services and pressing infrastructure needs.

The upshot is that there was virtually no “non-market” housing built in the lower mainland for a good 30 years. At the same time, population has exploded and market housing has gotten completely detached from our stagnant wages (Why is no-one challenging the Chambers of Commerce and Boards of Trade about wages stagnation? ah…I digress). in 2018, it isn’t only the unemployed and the working poor who can’t find housing, it is the “middle class” struggling to find a place to raise a family. Rental vacancies have been stuck under 1% for a decade, and parochial concerns oppose any expansion of housing density into established single family neighbourhoods.

This is not a simple housing crisis, this is a bunch of different and overlapping housing crises coming together in a perfect storm. It was 20+ years in the making, predictable and avoidable, but here we are now. After 2 decades of bullshit neo-liberal responses (“we just need to Build the Economy, so everyone can afford a bigger house!”), the situation has only gotten worse.

So enough whining, what do we do now?

First off, anyone who tells you there is a simple or quick solution is lying or ignorant; probably both.

Clearly, we need to start investing again in non-market housing, like we did in the 50s and 60s when our country and economy were growing. We need to get back into building purpose-built rental buildings, so people who cannot or don’t want to own have a variety of housing available to them at various cost and scales. We need to incentivise the building of more “family friendly” middle-sized housing, and those have to extend into our once- (and sometimes still-) sacred single family neighbourhoods. And we need density around major transit hubs and commercial areas like downtown New Westminster to relieve market pressure. We need to shift our economic incentives (taxation regime, mortgage system, etc.) so that owning a home to live in is easier but buying investment property offers relatively less return. We need to do all of these things, and more. And we need to start doing it with the urgency usually afforded to something called a “crisis”.

I’m not going to shy away from saying that New Westminster, as a City, has been a regional leader in housing policy and investment, punching well above our weight. We have literally thousands of purpose-built rentals coming on line in the next year or two, because we have created an incentive package that makes them financially viable to build. We have managed to hold the line on demolition of older and more affordable rental stock. We have region-leading Family Friendly Housing policy, so there are more 2- and 3-bedroom suites being built. We have worked with service agencies to support affordable housing projects (two on the go, one more in the pipeline) being built on our very limited supply of City-owned properties. We have included an affordable housing component in our Master-Planned Community Developments such as Victoria Hill, and our OCP does open up more opportunities for infill density and flexible development forms. We direct amenity money from new developments into an Affordable Housing reserve fund to provide capital assistance to affordable housing agencies. We employ staff who do housing outreach and step in where (frankly) senior governments have failed, and try to connect residents with housing in any form they need. The brutal reality is that none of this is enough, and we are up against our limits as a local government, both in the resources and in legal authority. We need help. Back to the word “crisis” again.

You make reference (I think) to the bonus density charges made for the project at 618 Carnarvon. That money wouldn’t go to general revenue in the City, but is directed to specific capital funds – 30% of it directly to an Affordable Housing amenity fund, the rest to Childcare, Public Art, and General Amenity Funds to support capital projects like the Canada Games Pool replacement and the Library renovation. The City recently increased the value of these charges (reflecting recent increases in real estate prices), but have not reviewed how we apportion those funds in a few years. It might be time to do that. But even if we took $1,000,000 from that fund, it would only pay for building maybe a half dozen affordable units, if we had a place to build them, and an operator to manage them. As a local government, we simply cannot do this alone, and need to invest our capital in supporting the efforts of others to leverage our contributions into larger things we cannot do on our own.

I am encouraged by the work being done so far by the new provincial government, and hope we can see some serious investment here in New Westminster, and across the region. First in emergency housing to assist the homeless and those facing imminent homelessness, then supportive housing for those whose income doesn’t get them shelter in our market. We need to re-invest in the Co-op Housing model that worked so well 30 years ago, and we need to curtail the speculation market. We need to do all of these thing, and more. It is hard to be patient when so many people are so precariously housed, but this government is essentially starting from scratch, as a policy vacuum has existed in this province for 30 years. It is going to take some time to catch up.

All this is a long way of saying I have little advice for you. You can contact the Tenant Resource Advisory Centre (links/number for them and more contact info can be found here) and find out what your rights are, and what assistance my exist for you and your neighbours. I wish I had better answers. 

It is sad that the Lower Mainland is becoming so unaffordable that dreams of escape are only partially jokes. I have several friends who have left New West in the last couple of years, and housing affordability was a primary motivation for them. Some of them I would describe as pillars of the community. Volunteers, community builders, current and future leaders: the people who make a city into a community. Instead of here, they will now be building community in Winnipeg, in Saint-Lazare, in the Interior of BC. It saddens when people who want to call New West home cannot find a home they can afford here. It also angers me. We need more people to be angry about this to create the political will to make change, and willing to speak out for that change.

Trucks in the City

Douglas College has been running an interesting talk series this year under the banner of “Urban Challenges Forum”. The final episode of this semester occurred on Wednesday night, and deserved a better turnout than it received, considering the amount of social media bits and watercooler shatter we have in New Westminster around the topic: the livability impacts of truck routes and goods movement in our community.

Fortunately, they recorded video of the event, and will (hopefully?) be posting it on line. It is worth the time to see how the four panelists speak about trucks from different viewpoints: an urban systems geographer, a representative of the trucking industry, a representative of the Port Authority, and the CAO of New Westminster, a City that is (arguably) impacted most by the negative externalities of “goods movement” in the region.

I want to give a quick summary of my take-away points before raising the question I never got to raise at the event, partly because of the time constraints, partly because no-on needs to hear from a Politician when actual thinking people are speaking, and partially because I wasn’t sure how to phrase my question in the form of a question*.

Peter Hall (the geographer) reminded us that transportation, by its very nature, makes us selfish, and makes us act in shamefully selfish ways (speeding, tailgating, yelling at others). This is at least partly because it isn’t an ends, but a means, and its hassles are preventing us from meeting these ends. Add to this our general ignorance about freight, and we get a selfish ignorance about goods movement – we all want the benefits, none of us understand why we need to tolerate the costs. Trucking also has many benefits and externalities, and they are not evenly distributed. Altogether, this makes it a vicious political problem, not made easier by jurisdictional overlap.

Matthew May from BST Transport and Peter Xotta from the Port of Vancouver gave similar messages about their respective industries: they need to keep the goods moving in the National Interest. You ask for tomatoes in the store, you need to deal with trucks. You want a vibrant economy, you need trucks and ports. You live in a Gateway, and we will accommodate your community as best we can (even want to make you happy!), but the mandate is to drive the economy.

Lisa Spitale gave a concise summary of some of the interface issues New Westminster has dealt with over the last few decades. With rail and roads encircling the community and a Regional Growth Strategy mandate to be a dense Urban Centre supported by (and supporting) transit, we are a hot spot for the externalities of goods movement, by rail and truck.

If I had a point to make at this event (again, I could not put this in the form of a question), it is that we have *chosen* to accept the level of negative externalities that come with a large number of diesel trucks in our neighbourhoods.

To frame this point, we need to put aside the local-goods-delivery for a moment and talk about the larger getting-stuff-from-Port-to-hinterland-through-logistics-hubs part of this equation. This is what separates us as a “Gateway” city from most other regions, and is the foundation of both the Port’s arguments on this issue and the emphasis of the Gateway Council model that has commonly dominated our regional transportation conversation. But what kind of Gateway have we built?

Here in New Westminster, we host one end of a 114-year-old single-track swing bridge that is the only rail link crossing the Fraser River west of Mission. The City of New Westminster has something like 14km of river shoreline under Port of Vancouver jurisdiction, with about a third of that backed by industrial land, much of it under the Port’s direct control. Much of this land is used for logistics, cross-shipping, container storage, and other aspects of that all-important gateway-to-the-hinterland business. Yet over all of that space there are (2) conveyors moving aggregates and chips on/off barges, and one (1) pier occasionally used to move breakbulk lumber. These are the only location in New Westminster’s extensive port lands where anything is taken on or off of a boat.

The only contribution our Port lands make to the Gateway is providing space to move and store trucks, and facilitate the movement of goods in and out of trucks. Unfortunately, New Westminster is not alone in this.

How we move goods through the region is a choice we make, not a foregone conclusion. For these hinterland goods in containers, we have chosen to use trucks to move a large portion of them intra-regionally. A cynic would suggest that is because building waterfront infrastructure to make better use of short sea shipping and barges is expensive. Upgrading rail infrastructure so a single swing bridge isn’t the only vital link across a river that has seen 30 lanes of highway built across since that single track was installed, is expensive. Relying on roads and bridges is comparatively cheap from the view of the person who has to pay for the initial capital, because taxpayers will often pony up for “congestion reduction” investment, and the other costs (noise, pollution, public safety) are completely externalized, at least partially in the form of decreased livability of our communities.

I’ve made this rant before.

Since 1808 when Simon Fraser first tasted salt in the Sto:lo, there have been strains resulting from the needs of the Gateway to the Hinterland and the needs of the people living on the river’s shores. We can, however, find a better balance between these forces. It must include acknowledging that externalized costs of fueling the Gateway need to be accounted. Trucks are part of a functioning modern society, but their true role cannot be understood as long as we subsidize them over other options.

*I was once at a forum-type event where the request for “question from the floor” was prefaced by this proviso: Your first sentence must be in the form of a question; there should not be a second sentence. I thought that was brilliant.

That New Premier Smell

You may have seen this graphic across the #CDNPoli Social Media this week:

It reinforces whatever political biases you bring into it: Horgan is doing OK; Wynne is a wreck; PEI doesn’t matter. But I took something else out of it, and had to draw my own graph to demonstrate it:

Politics is a hell of a business.

For the rest of us who slept through Statistics 101, an R of .92 is a pretty high correlation, so I can definitively say popularity as a Premier in Canada correlates negatively with time in office. Any Premier above that trend line is doing better than average, any premier below the line is doing worse than average. Arguably, Pallister is doing worse than McNeil on average, but you know which I would rather be going into re-election.

Because in politics, it doesn’t seem to matter if you are above or below the line here. The only lesson to be learned from this graph is that the best you can hope for in Provincial Politics in Canada is to get things done before that New Premier Smell wears off. As years in office accumulate, any successes or victories are quickly weighed down by a legacy of being to blame for everything that may have gone wrong. Inevitably some of that is your fault (no one is perfect) and some is beyond your control, but in politics at the highest level, it simply doesn’t matter.

The only good way out of politics is to recognize when the door has been opened for you, and get out. Problem is, that kind of self-recognition is the first thing to be eroded by electoral success and access to power. Entering politics in the first place requires hubris, time in politics increases hubris, getting out requires absence of hubris. You can see the problem here.

I’m not sure how this plays out at the Municipal level, but I am just going to leave this post here, and hopefully someone will point it out to me when I am considering my 6th term for Council.

ASK PAT: Road Closures.

JF asked—

Pat, what are the City of New Westminster’s policies regarding road closures that impact cycling routes? Is there a requirement for the company requesting the road closure to identify and provision safe detours for people walking and bicycling through construction zones.

This past fall and winter has seen a large number of road closures in the Sapperton area for combined sewer separation and RCH related projects, and another sewer separation project on 7th Avenue near Moody Park. The Crosstown Greenway passes through both of these areas.

Many, many times over the past few months I have encountered road closures on the Crosstown greenway or connecting streets that I utilize. Most of these closures have little in the way of advanced warning and any detours in place don’t have cycling or walking in mind – ie being detoured down an alley onto Braid Street – FUN!

I’m a daily bicycle commuter passing through New West to/from my place of work in Burnaby and easily fall into the capable/confident category of rider. I don’t have any problem being detoured onto Braid or 8th Avenue and cycling alongside traffic moving at 50+km/h, but for a new or less confident rider I could easily picture them saying “forget it. I’m taking the car.” Not exactly the goal for any Active Transportation minded community.

To answer your first question, the City’s policy is that road closures caused by road/utility works are required to be well signed, and that safe alternate routes for all users including cyclists and pedestrians are to be maintained at all times. What you have discovered is that the policy sometimes fall short in practice. This is something I have spent much time ranting about in the past. It is a perennial problem, one that is (hopefully) getting better, but is (admittedly) a work in progress.

There is a *lot* of roadwork going on right now in New West. As you surmised, much of it is related to a sewer separation program accelerated somewhat by winning a federal grant to help pay for some of it. The situation in lower Sapperton has been especially intrusive, as that is where the sewer separation work is most intense along with utility works related to the expansion of the Hospital.

Almost all of this work is done by contractors (a city the size of New West doesn’t really have staff to do works at this scale anymore), and requirements to maintain rights of way and accommodate all types of road users are written right into the tender documents. They hire road flagging crews, do traffic plans, our engineers sign off on those plans, and our engineers sometimes drop by the site to see how things are going. However, these jobs are complicated and worksites are dynamic, so maintaining 100% access is difficult, and traffic plans necessarily shift as the project requires. This is often when the best laid plans get set aside for a bit, and people are inconvenienced. Sometimes, of course, they simply don’t care. Either way, the City needs to be let know.

Often, it results in a call to the Engineering Department or a SeeClickFix entry, an e-mail to a Councillor, or my better half bending my ear over dinner (if it impacted her riding route to work, like it did on 13th Ave last month). This usually means one of our engineering staff goes out there, sees what the situation is, and the contractor (if they haven’t already) are told to make it right.

This is, unfortunately, the reality of this type of work. I simply don’t know how to make it better.

I say that as someone who rides bikes around this city all the time, but I also say it as someone who at one point in his life got paid to stand with a hardhat next to an excavator or drill rig with flagging crews protecting me from traffic and vice versa. Any time you are interacting with heavy equipment, public streets and underground utilities, there are unpredictable conditions you encounter, and you need to make adjustments to plans on the fly, and the impact on traffic is but one (important) aspect of your contingency plans.

I was actually compelled early in the year to drop by the upper Sapperton project when I received two separate compliments from cyclists I know about how well the flagging personnel managed two different conflict situations with a bike route. This seriously never happens – I never get people pointing out when something goes good – so I had to check it out and let the Director of Engineering know. That said, I have also gone through lower Sapperton in the last couple of weeks, and have found through-signage lacking at times.

This is all to say I think we are doing better that we used to on this, as we have updated our policies. Our Engineering Department requires that cycling access or alternate routes must be part of the traffic plan, and that safe pedestrian access routes must be considered prior to starting work. At the same time, it still happens that I run into road works with no warning, and little indication of how I am supposed to route around them.

My best advice, when this happens, is to contact our engineering operations desk (604-526-4691  or engops@newwestcity.ca) and tell them about your experiences. We don’t have engineers on site every moment of the project, and if they don’t know there is a problem, they cannot address it. You can contact me as well, but I’m just going to contact Engineering Operations anyway, so you can cut out the middle man.

If you are into filling out web forms (you got here, didn’t you?) you can also use the SeeClickFix App to report these issues, with the bonus of being able to track how staff respond to them.

Making a complaint to Engineering may help in the short term, but it also helps longer-term. There are a limited number of contractors who do this type of work in the region, and a contractor that receives complaints about their inability to manage our traffic and access requirements is one we are less likely to hire for future contracts. Their ability to address traffic access is part of the quality assessment staff need to do at the end of every contract. That is, ultimately, the only way we will get better compliance.

I just want to say one more thing. This situation is frustrating at the time, but please try to be kind to the persons holding the Stop/Slow paddles at the worksite. Their job is surprisingly difficult and stressful. They often work in terrible conditions (noise, dust, weather, silly hours), and have to deal with irate drivers, angry neighbours and demanding construction managers, while carrying the responsibility of keeping the public and the workers on the site safe – often by putting themselves in dangerous situations. They know you are frustrated, they have little control over the hazards they are protecting you from, they honestly want to get you on your way as quickly and safely as they can.