Regional Vision(s)

With a busy schedule at the city, and so much election-related angst and chatter and tension and fluff, I found a way to be inspired and challenged in the most positive way on Thursday.

The City Program at Simon Fraser University and the SFU Centre for Dialogue hosted a constructive dialogue on the topic of the Regional Plan, or more on the very topic of regional planning in a Metro Vancouver context. The guiding questions for a compelling 4 hour conversation were:

Is this vision of “Cities in a Sea of Green” still appropriate? Will it sustain us for the next half century? What are the issues our vision must address if it is going to continue to serve the region?

In the room were about two dozen regional leaders from academia, activists and community conversation leaders, planners new and old, and a couple of elected types, both new and old. I would love to list resumes, and attribute quotes (there were many great quotable moments), but the program was run under Chatham House Rule, in order to facilitate freer dialogue. There will be reporting out via the City Program, but what that looks like probably depends on where this new dialogue leads.

In as short a summary as I can muster, my read of the feeling in the room was that the vision and the resultant Regional Plans have served the region well, even as the populations rise, the economy boomed and busted, our economic drivers shifted, and public transit replaced freeways as the ideal connector between city centres. However, there are many flaws in its applicaiton, and many of the current crises challenging the region (affordability, transportation, increasing social alienation) have at least partial connections to the vision itself. The consideration of keeping this vision or developing a new one needs to be measured against its ability to adress our new pressures. There was a broad consensus that this is the time for the Region to be having this conversation, as the pressures right now feel large enough to shift the region in pretty fundamantal ways. I was driven to think about our beautiful, admired, and unique region as being on a precipice.

Instead of trying to summarize the entire diverse conversation here, I would like to touch on just a few points that really hit me.

The conversation we prefaced by a report by a small group of grad students from SFU that looked at the history of regional planning in Greater Vancouver, and the pressures on the current plan:

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The historic timeline was interesting. A few burgeoning communities collaborating on water and sewer systems in the first half of the last century prefaced an initial dabbling in regional landuse planning driven by the disastrous flood of 1948, but the first comprehensive regional growth strategy emerged in 1966 (where the vision “Cities in a Sea of Green” was first codified). This vision was still of town centers (Vancouver, Surrey, New Westminster, Langley, etc. separated by greenspace and agricultural lands, tied together by freeways, as was the ethos of the day.

The complex history since this time has involved complex relationships between the province and the local government leaders – and there were great forward moves (The 1973 establishment of the ALR, formation of the GVRD, the 1975 Livable Region Plan and 1996 Livable Region Strategic Plan, the 1998 formation of TransLink) and equally important slips backwards (Bill 9 in 1983, which abolished the regional planning function, the 2007 stripping of local governance of TransLink). Tried as I might, I couldn’t correlate the emphasis on regional planning with anything (resource industry boom-bust cycles, global economic shifts, housing prices, Canucks playoff runs) except with the name of the party forming government in Victoria.

That is part of a larger theme that became common: any plans made by the region for the region exists in a larger context of federal and provincial politics and how larger forces look at the purpose of our region.

It was noted that when Simon Fraser introduced the idea of the river that bears his name to the European colonist social media, there were more than 20,000 people living along its banks between Musqueam and Kwantlen. In a very literal sense, he was the first Gateway project planner. His goal was to push a route for hinterland commerce through to the coast, occasionally stopping to seek the permission of the people living there, but not overly concerned with whether that permission was granted. Two hundred years later, the Gateway has other leaders, but the mandate is little changed. As such, the story of the region can be told as a long series of carpet-baggers pushing past the locals for profit. The livability of the region, the ecology that supports it, the local food web and cultural values of the residents are no more important now to the National Enterprise of getting hinterland resources to tidewater than they were in 1808.

It would be ridiculous to equate our current planning frictions the centuries of cultural genocide that took place in North America; the point is only that the fundamental pressures have had similar vectors for a couple of centuries, even at massively shifting scales. There is no reason to asume that founding narrative will change now, and the best laid local and regional plans will fail if the important decisions that shape the region (Port Mann and Massey Bridges spring immediately to mind) are driven by different people working on a completely different plan.

In the end, the strongest feeling I had coming out of this event was (I sure hope @MsNWimby isn’t reading this) a desire to go back to school. To be sitting in a dialogue with people much smarter than me, bringing disciplines together and sharing compelling ideas that force me to shift my own assumptions about a topic so close to my heart was the most fun I have had in a few years.

Why can’t Facebook be like this?

Council – April 10, 2017

We had a long night on April 10th, as often happens when we have open delegations on an important issue like the Heritage Conservation Area for the Queens Park.

For some of us on Council, we started at 8:30 in the morning with a Canada Games Task Force meeting, so this Monday was spectacularly long. Recognizing that there were ~30 delegates, Council for the most part avoided getting into long discussions with delegates, even to the point where we left some questions hanging somewhat – but we do that to assure everyone gets a chance to speak before midnight. As the two topics of most concern (the OCP and the plan for creating a Heritage conservation area in Queens Park) will both be going to Public Hearing, and there are conversations ahead about that, please don’t take our lack of conversation as a lack of interest in the presentations!

We started the evening with our annual signing of the Parcel Tax Roll:

Parcel Tax Roll
There are a number of properties in the City that pay a little extra tax than everyone else, through the Parcel Tax System, These are members of the Business Improvement Areas (for whom we collect a tax, then turn it back over to the BIA so they can use it to fund their business development and support programs) and some special assessment areas, where neighbours have requested some works and were willing to pay for that specific works (like enclosing a drainage ditch in Queensborough). These are all voluntary programs decided by a special vote of the neighbourhoods.

Every year we need to officially list the impacted properties and let them know what their special charge is, and this provides them, Council, and the general community an opportunity to make any corrections or alterations of the roll. We received no complaints of comments from the impacted property owners this year, or from the general public. So the roll was passed without much fanfare.


Then we began our regular meeting, which started with presentation of the Heritage Week poster contest winners (arguably the cutest Council Meeting of the year) before we got down to business. The following items were Moved on Consent:

Official Community Plan: Draft Development Permit Areas and Design Guidelines
As part of the ongoing OCP work, staff and our external consultants have been working on draft Design Guidelines to inform how the development of new buildings in the City will fit into the existing neighbourhoods. Development Permit Areas are tools Cities can use to facilitate and/or restrict the shape, form, and character of buildings within those areas. There are examples in this report of proposed guidelines for multi-family residential forms in the Brow of the Hill and Sapperton that are lower density than high-rise or even medium-rise buildings, there are examples from employment lands, and a discussion of how development around the Brunette River will meet the requirements of the provincial Riparian Areas Regulations.

There is a lot to chew on here, and the detailed report (the draft form of which I liked to above) is pretty complex. From here, it will go to the Advisory Panning Commission, and will be wrapped up in the bigger OCP Public Hearing process. Council moved to support this path forward.

425 Columbia Street (Columbia SkyTrain Station): Construction Noise Bylaw No. 6063, 1992 – Request for Exemption by TransLink and 200 to 700 Block Columbia Street and Front Street: Construction Noise Bylaw No. 6063, 1992 – Request for Exemption by Metro Vancouver and 1400 to 1500 Block Stewardson Way and the intersection at River Drive and Stewardson Way: Construction Noise Bylaw No. 6063, 1992 – Request for Exemption by Metro Vancouver
All three of these are applications to do work outside of regular banker hours that will require some noisy equipment. The first because you can’t work in the SkyTrain guideway while trains are going by, the second is sewer work that needs to be done on Sunday night, because that when sewer loads are low enough, the third is being scheduled to reduce traffic flow impacts on Stewardson Way. Council approved all three.

809 Fourth Avenue: Application for Strata Title Conversion
This unique development on 8th Street at Fourth Avenue preserved three heritage homes by moving them over a bit, and built a multi-family mid-rise next door, with shared underground parking for all of them. The intent all along was to operate the three houses as Strata ownership, which requires this application process.

Asset Management Strategy Update
The City has more than $1Billion in physical assets like pipes in the ground, street signs, vehicles, buildings, etc. They are all depreciating, and will all need to be replaced or renewed eventually, some long after they have depreciated to “zero value” on paper, some at accelerated rates due to heavy use, obsolescence, or changing needs in the community. We are required to cost that depreciation as part of Public Service Accounting Board standards, but like all governments, there are still some areas where we are reactive to replacing infrastructure (find ways to pay for it when we need it) as opposed to proactive (planning ahead for when assets need to be replaced). Council has identified an Asset Management Plan as one of our priorities. This report is staff giving us a framework on how they are going to achieve that goal.

It is no secret that New West has a bit of an infrastructure deficit: our infrastructure is aging faster than we are replacing it. However, this is true for pretty much every city in Canada, and comparatively, we are actually far ahead of the average or median Local Government. This is due in part to our being a compact city (avoiding the externalized costs of sprawl) and because density increases have allowed us to invest in new infrastructure required to facilitate that growth. Still, a fully integrated Asset Management Program should help future councils better plan and adapt for the changing needs of the City.

This isn’t sexy work, and it is hard to cut a ribbon on an Asset Management Strategy, but the City will be stronger and more sustainable in the future for us doing this work now.

2017 Spring Freshet and Snow Pack Level
Surprisingly, it still looks like snowpack levels across the province are around or below average this year, so the risk of flooding related to the Spring Freshet remains low. Snowpack is only one measure of flood risk – a long cold spring that preserves that snow followed by sudden warming and rains that accelerate melt can still cause problems, but all things being equal, we are less worried this year than in some others.

Environment Advisory Committee (EAC): Master Recycler Pilot Program
The EAC is recommending Council ask staff to support this program, which trains people in multi-family housing to be “recycling champions” in their strata or rental complex. Recycling rates in multi-family housing lags behind that in single detached households, and this type of education program has proven successful in other jurisdictions. The small cost ($3,000) of supporting this program can be absorbed in our solid waste budget, and should result in higher rates of recycling, eventually reducing our solid waste costs. Council moved to support the program.

Railway Community Advisory Panel: Regional Railway Inclusion in Brunette Avenue Interchange Discussions
The RCAP recognizes the City and Railways should be working together to address issues that impact both of our operations, and the potential Brunette Interchange project definitely falls under this category.


The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:

Community Garden at City Hall
A simple request by an established community group (full disclosure – one I used to be the President of!) to place community gardens on the expansive green space in front of City Hall has expanded somewhat.

Staff made the reasonably point that gardens placed in such a high-profile location need to be well designed as they will, like it or not, represent a bit of the “Face” of the City. They have come up with a clever design that works well with the natural slope of the land, and will integrate with some further planned improvements in the area.

There are actually two things going on here – the Community Garden being developed by the NWEP and managed in partnership with the New Westminster Community Gardens Society, for which the NWEP is fundraising and developing, and the park improvements that City has decided to do to support and enhance the Community Garden and City Hall Lawn. Council has already voted to support the former, and this report more addresses how we will make the latter happen.

12 K de K Court Boulevard Trees
This report resulted from a request to remove or otherwise manage trees that are planted in a location that negatively impacts their views. The initial request was for the City to remove or replace the trees, and this obviously raised concerns related to our newly-adopted Urban Forest Management Strategy. Staff has worked with the residents to develop a pruning schedule that can address the resident’s concerns without risking the health and vitality of the trees.


We then had a long Public Delegation and Presentations part of the meeting is not something I usually report on here, as they rarely result in us making big decisions, but rather guide future decisions (which I will report on then). I will say that the topics of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations and Heritage Conservation Area are both creating a buzz in the community, I will be blogging about them separately very soon.

We then addressed a couple of Regular Agenda, items:

Queen’s Park Heritage Conservation Area: Round 2 Public Consultation – Report Back
The conversation here is clearly moving to the next phase, as several months of work in developing guidelines and potential policy directions (based on earlier phases of consultation with stakeholders, the public, and Council) were sent out ot the greater community for feedback. Invitations to the open houses were mailed directly to every household in the Queen’s Park neighbourhood, including links to the online survey, and based on the large number of e-mails in my inbox (both in favour and expressing concern for the draft regulations), a large number of people are paying attention.

Again, I am going to have to hold off on a lot of discussion of this until the Public Hearing, but I do want to encourage people to talk to their neighbours, to get informed, and to let Council know how you feel about the regulations as drafted. This has been a long process over the last couple of years for the citizen Working Group and more than 20 years for heritage advocates in Queens Park. There are Heritage Conservation Areas in many jurisdictions in BC, some more successful than others in balancing the desire for heritage protection with the need to accommodate growth and change.

Demolition of the Pattullo Bridge
It has been discussed before, and will be again, I’m sure, but the topic of what happens to the existing Pattullo Bridge when a replacement is built is not something the City has much control over. TransLink has been pretty clear that the bridge is nearing the end of its useful life, including the underpinnings and foundations, and removal of those pillars from the river is probably required.

That said, I could dream is the City retaining parts of the bridge that are self-supporting and over City lands to create a type of elevated platform or park. These conversations have begun, but it is way to early to say if this is a viable plan. Stay tuned.

Elxn17 – Day 2.

I really have a lot to do in New West these days, but I’m going to take a few minutes here to sum up Day 2 of the provincial election campaign. Because it was too harrowing to ignore, and some of you wise enough to avoid Twitter might have missed some of it.

There was some sort of housing talk in New Westminster today, invite-only for the Real Estate industry, so I wasn’t there, but the weirdness of the news coming out of it makes me pretty glad I wasn’t.

Rich Coleman had a rough day. When asked to provide advice to young people growing up in Vancouver, his advice (Quoted by Frances Bula:)

It didn’t take long for people to point out that teens today also need to pay more tuition than his generation did, have much higher rental costs until they get to that down payment, and have little secure employment due in part to the growth of the gig economy. According to the data crunched by Generation Squeeze, a teen today is more likely to have a teen themselves before they save up enough money for a down-payment in the overheated Vancouver real estate market:

time_to_save_2016 (1)

He followed this up by announcing the BC Liberal plan to address the decimal-number-lower-than-one rental vacancy rate and rental-costs-spiraling-out-of-reach-of-most-workers-in-Vancouver crisis he has largely ignored in his decade as Minister in charge of housing. This would be to give money to people who already own houses – a $20,000 credit to fix up their basement suites.

John Horgan also felt some largess today, announcing the NDP will offer an annual $400 Tax credit to renters. Not enough to offset rental increases, of course, but a bit of a balm to renters who feel the much larger homeowner grant is a subsidy to something they cannot afford to own. The Premier’s quick reaction was to suggest that this would only “line the pockets of wealthy tenants”.

Chew on that for a second: $20K to homeowners = help for renters; $400 to renters  = only helps the rich. Are these people insane?

The housing crisis is nothing new, it has been a slow burn for a decade. But many competing forces have been pouring gasoline on it until it has replaced transportation as the biggest issue in the largest population centres in BC. Our housing system is broken, and Coleman, after a decade, has not been able to come up with a coherent plan to fix it, or even demonstrate that he understands a problem exists.

When managed by “free enterprise”, housing cannot be both a great investment and affordable. If it is the first, it must rise in value faster than inflation plus mortgage rates, otherwise you lose value investing in it. Anything that increases in value that much faster than inflation must soon become unaffordable. Our governments used to manage this issue by building housing for those without access to the capital to invest. They built subsidized housing for the poor and working class, they invested in Co-op model housing so communities could securely work together to provide a wide range of housing, they built student housing and seniors housing. They used to run rental buildings for those with few other options. Then in 1990s came along:

housing

Now we have a fractured and disjointed system. Cities try to help, mostly by providing land and incentives, but with 8% of the taxes of the senior levels of government and increasingly complex Cities to run with that 8%, they are pretty limited in their effectiveness. A large number of not-for-profits and social service agencies try to string together grants and donations to operate what buildings they may be able to secure in this crazy market, then beg for a few crumbs from Rich Coleman to keep them running sustainably. All along, the Government has never provided a strategy, a comprehensive plan, any kind of vision. Random acts of funding are doled out (sometimes to agencies that have already folded for lack of funding!) so the Government appears to be doing something.

If you need just one reason to vote NDP this election, it is to get David Eby into government. No-one in the region has spoken as clearly and forcibly about the housing crisis – even back during last election when everyone else was talking LNG and Transit, Eby knew what issue #1 in BC was going to be by 2017, because his riding was at the front of it. He has brought a rational voice to it, against the insane ramblings of the BC Liberals. This guy needs to be in government:

That said, Eby’s not running in #NewWest. But if you want to meet your local candidates and talk about housing, the local affordable and family-friendly housing advocacy group Yes in New West is hosing an All-candidates event with Tenth to the Fraser on April 28th. It is free, but you need to register ahead of time because they plan to make beer and wine available, and for all the announcements, John Yap didn’t really make liquor laws that much more rational:

newwestvotes

Disgusting (updated)

At some point, a pander to one group of electors goes beyond cynical, and becomes an abdication of responsibility and an offence to the idea of governance.

The BC Liberals platform apparently includes a promise to create a “cap” on bridge tolls – where no driver pays more than $500 per year, regardless of how often they avail themselves of extremely expensive and not-yet-paid-for infrastructure. A great election promise to “put more money in the pockets of hard working British Columbians”, or some such bullshit, but I have to go bullet point to condense my anger about how bad an idea this really is.

  • It completely undermines the Mayor’s Council and the regional transportation plan that they developed. The province has put roadblock after roadblock in place of that plan, while shoveling money to vanity road projects that won’t solve the problem. Just last week they wrapped themselves in benevolent support for the plan with some commitment of financial support of a couple of it’s components. However, it has been clear all along that road pricing and Transportation Demand Management will be major components of the next phases. This cap is a pre-emptive strike against the Mayors, delivered with no warning.
  • This isn’t saving anyone any money. The tolls on the Golden Ears Bridge still need to be paid, because Golden Crossing General Partnership still needs to get paid. Similarly, the tolls on the Port Mann are still owed to TREO, and are already not bringing in anywhere near enough revenue to meet the business objectives of that White Elephant. The Province is going to have to top up these agreements from general revenue – potentially costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, because use of the bridge above the cap – the tolls taxpayers will have to cover – are actually encouraged by this scheme.
  • This undermines the business plan for the Massey Bridge. We don’t know much about the business plan for the Massey replacement, because the province redacted it to the point that none of the business risk was disclosed. However, the Ministry has been clear through the planning and the Environmental Assessment documents that the 10-lane bridge will be tolled. Tolling was not just a major component of the finances, but was fundamental to the traffic forecasts and environmental impacts for the project. This tosses all of those best-laid plans out the window.
  • It undermines the terms of the MOU for the Pattullo replacement. The stakeholders for the Pattullo have an agreement in place that underlies the ongoing project: a 4-lane tolled structure. Tolls are not just there to pay for the bridge, but to balance the traffic demand between crossings and reduce the impact on residential neighbourhoods of Surrey and New Westminster. A commuter cap on tolls shifts this balance, and sets back a decade worth of progress and partnership on this project, just as we were crossing the goal line.
  • It is counter to basic economics. We are taking a scarce and valuable resource, road capacity, and encouraging its increased use to save money. Simply put – the more you use the bridges, the less you pay. It is insane, and contrary to all Transportation Demand Management best practice across the industrialized world. It is separated from reality. It is deranged. Do I need to get out a thesaurus to make my point here?
  • It is not being offered for any alternatives. It will now, once again, be cheaper to drive a car across the Port Mann Bridge than to take transit across it. Just as the province has been dragged reluctantly into bringing expanded light rail to South of Fraser , they are creating a quick incentive to discourage its use, and undermine the entire model, shifting growth patterns in Surrey for a generation, at the most critical point of its growth.

Now, I am writing this about an hour after this information leaked out, so there may be devil-in-details I am not aware of here that will arrive with the official announcement, but that speaks to the point that there has been no consultation with the Mayors of communities affected, no public engagement over a plan that will re-shape the region and undermine so much of what the region is trying to achieve in livability, sustainable development, greenhouse gas reduction, and transportation. How do you recognize electioneering replacing governance? It is a surprise announcement completely disconnected from any other policy, program, long-term planning, or previous action by the government.

This is a flip of the bird to the regional plan (to the very idea of regional planning!) and to every resident of the Burrard Peninsula. It is a cynical pandering to a few ridings South of Fraser, and low-information voters across the province who likely won’t realize they are going to have to now pay through their taxes for infrastructure built on the promise that users would finance it. Not surprisingly, Jordan Bateman is taking a pass on criticizing this specific tax increase, being the original champion for the Port Mann fiasco.

And people will fall for it, of course. Congratulations, BC Liberals. You have raised the art of disgusting panders to a new level.

UPDATE: I was in the room when John Horgan announced out of nowhere that he would end all tolls on the Golden Ears and Port Mann bridges if elected. The closest thing I have to a response was what James Gemmill made succinct on Twitter:  holdmybeer

Gong show

The Minister of Transportation plans a “groundbreaking” ceremony for the Massey Tunnel Replacement, complete with big yellow getting-things-done machines. The fact this “groundbreaking” is not related to any actual work being done on the Massey Tunnel Replacement and the main contracts for the construction work have not yet been awarded is apparently not important, in this exciting pre-election time. Nor was the fact the “groundbreaking” in front of big yellow getting-things-done machines was held 9 km away from the actual tunnel. This “groundbreaking” was going to require some pretty long shovels, but I guess it is long shovel season.

There were protesters at the event, but not many. The “groundbreaking” was early in the morning, pouring rain, in the middle of nowhere and announced with only a few hours warning, so I’m surprised any made it at all. They were irritating enough that the cops were called and the “groundbreaking” had to be moved indoors (read that again).

Quoth Minister Stone:

“We absolutely respect the views, the opinions of folks who do not support this project and we respect their rights to make those views known.”

The Minister reiterated that, despite a few protesters, the project is widely supported, based on three years of consultation with First Nations, Local Governments and other groups. However, noticeably absent from the “groundbreaking” were 21 of the 22 mayors of the region, or anyone representing the City where half the project is located. Even the MLA for the riding on the south foot of the tunnel was absent.

Coincidentally (?), many of the mayors were only a few kilometres further away from the “groundbreaking”, as they were assembled at King George Station announcing that they want people to think about the real regional transportation crisis when they vote in May – long term and secure funding of transit improvements to match the region’s vision for transportation in the decades ahead. Perhaps they feel less “consulted” about regional transportation issues than the Minister suggests, becasue 21 of 22 Mayors in Greater Vancouver are opposed to this project. The Mayors of this region are a notoriously disparate group of characters, and rarely agree on major policy issues or investment priorities, especially when it comes to transportation. We have Mayors who are former NDP MLAs and former BCLiberal MLAs. We have Mayors who are strong supporters of the federal Conservative Party, and those closely aligned with the Federal Liberals and NDP. Despite this, the Mayors (excepting one – which makes me expect if Mayor Jackson was a dentist, she would be that one-in-five recommending sugary gum) are aligned on this issue – they have a clear vision for the region for which they are responsible. They all agree that this massive expense by the province is a bad idea.

They have been “consulted”, they said no. Yet here we are.

I’m not sure if this “groundbreaking”event was paid for by the Ministry of Transportation or the Liberal Party (Ministers are having a hard time telling the difference these days) but the Minister made it clear that this was an election announcement, and that the only way to stop this $4 Billion (and counting!) boondoggle that is not supported by the Regional Growth Strategy, the Regional Transportation Plan, The Official Community Plans of adjacent communities, the Mayors and Councils of the region, or (so far!) the Federal government, and flies in the face of all good public policy in regards to sustainable transportation, climate change, regional land use policy or protection principles for the Fraser River and adjacent RAMSAR protected wetlands, is to vote to get him removed from the job of standing in front of yellow tractors for TV cameras to create the illusion that he is getting-things-done.

As a contrast, here is a clear and principled position of someone ready to help our region define and achieve its goals:

“I think the Massey replacement is a vanity project that is not a priority for the region, it is not a priority for the local mayors… The region wants their regional projects to go forward.” – John Horgan.

The choice is clear.

RED Talks 2017

A few of us from New Westminster attended the RED Talks event in Vancouver last week, and I was pleasantly surprised by the content of the evening. Red Talks are a local rip riff off of the Ted Talks format, put on by the local development community – RED stands for Real Estate Development. However, it wasn’t developers touting their projects or contributions, it was a conversation about building better cities.

20170330_175222

The organizers were cheeky enough to create a bit of a faux-protest motif for the event, whose theme was “Confronting Consensus”, but the talks actually brought a nuanced conversation about development, housing, and the role of consultation as a discussion between the public and decision-makers. There were probably an equal number of jibes at the Real Estate industry as there was at elected officials, and everyone seemed to acknowledge that the current housing situation in Greater Vancouver isn’t sustainable, or even desirable in the shorter term.

I wished that the folks from Yes in New West were there to be inspired by two of the speakers in particular.

Seth Rogen’s academic brother?
Seth Rogen’s academic brother?

Paul Kershaw has his Generation Squeeze pitch down solidly, and has criticism for pretty much everyone involved in creating a housing market where an entire generation is feeling completely squeezed out. His economic stats were pretty compelling, demonstrating how today’s young professionals are in an entirely different economic universe than their parents, with home ownership being well out of reach for even the most responsible savers.

His call to action is pretty simple: Generation Squeeze has got to get organized, then get active, not just to demand better, but to give decision makers (elected officials, for the most part) the information and vocal support they need to make the sometimes difficult policy decisions that are required to shift our land use.

A perfect example of this call to action was personified in Sonja Trauss of BARF (Bay Area Renters Federation), who is taking a pretty active approach in San Francisco:20170330_192115
San Francisco has, arguably, a bigger housing affordability issue than Vancouver, and faces serious challenges increasing housing stock because of resident push-back against any form of density. The simple truth Trauss realized is that traditional public consultation, when it comes to housing development, completely misses the target. People who will live in new housing never go to the public hearings to support that housing, so the only voice heard at public meetings is that of the people who already have housing near the site of the development. In what other instance do we ask the only cohort who do not want a product to comment on the form of the product?

Her organization tries to break this cycle in San Francisco by organizing active feedback by renters and underhoused people to pretty much every development project in the Bay Area, arguing that rapid increases in regional housing supply is much more important than the (inevitable) parochial concerns.

The talks were rounded out by Nick Buettner of the Blue Zones Project and Steven Levitt, the Freakonomics guy.

The Blue Zones idea is familiar to most urban planning geeks – there are places in the world where combinations of built form and behavior results in longer lifespans and higher quality of life. It is intriguing to learn what lifestyle commonalities may be behind the gerontology anomalies of Okinawa, Sardinia, and Loma Linda, California.

Finally, I may have been the last person on earth to have read Freakonomics, which I did over the Christmas break while on vacation. I found Leavitt in person very much like I found the book: Interesting, but slightly frustrating. Leavitt has a bewildering combination of pattern-seeking insight and intellectual laziness. He finds new ways to pull insight out of noisy data, but then seems to lose interest in the complex interactions that may underlie these patterns – he seems to rush from correlation to causation with reckless abandon, which rubs us in the non-dismal sciences the wrong way. Worse, he response when being called out on this tenancy is essentially to say “Meh”.

All in all, an interesting evening that had me buzzing with OCP energy:

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Ask Pat: Medicine Hat

Alice asks—

Is there any reason the Medicine Hat approach of reducing Homelessness in their city can’t be applied to New Westminster? I know it has been said senior gov’t needs to step up but the Medicine Hat strategy involved very little additional funding from senior gov’t. Their population and homeless population appear to be in line with New West.

This is one of the areas of the City’s operations where I have had to climb a pretty steep learning curve. We have Councillors and a Mayor with much more knowledge of this than I do (and some pretty stellar staff, as a bonus), but I’ll take a dive at answering this with that caveat in mind, and keep myself open to correction from those with more knowledge.

Essentially, the Medicine Hat model is based on “housing first” – the idea that if we can first get homeless people into shelter, regardless of how temporary it is, we can get them services they need and start the process of moving them to more permanent and sustainable housing options, and (this is the bigger hope) access to services to help them manage the underlying cause of most homelessness – disabilities, trauma, exploitation, and mental health concerns including addiction. This has been standard operating procedure in New Westminster for a decade or more. So why is Medicine Hat different?

Medicine Hat is a rural community, so it’s 61,000 residents are surrounded by farms and wilderness. New Westminster’s 70,000 people are in the middle of an urban population of 2,500,000 people. New Westminster needs to work along with its neighbours and operate within that reality. That is both an advantage to New Westminster, and a disadvantage.

In Medicine Hat, the most recent homeless count put their numbers at about half the average of the province of Alberta on a per-capita basis. The numbers provided in 2016 news stories estimate there were 875 people moved to supportive housing over the six years of their aggressive program – one for every 70 residents. Extrapolate that to Greater Vancouver, and we would need to facilitate 36,000 supportive housing units in the same period – 6,000 per year. To make this work, the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society received $3.9 million from the province of Alberta (plus about 10% that amount from a combination of the federal and local governments). It is clear the province of Alberta, even during difficult financial times, fulfilled their constitutional responsibility to provide housing. Extrapolate that to the Lower Mainland, and this becomes another boring post about lack of Provincial resources and the terrible priorities of the BC Liberals…

However, there is a persistent problem we have in the Lower Mainland that makes us stand out, and with which “Housing First” is of limited help: the flow of people being forced into homelessness by our out-of-scale housing costs, the erosion of our housing support programs (including the Co-op Housing model), lack of resources for people at risk (aging out of care, coming out of incarceration, or leaving protracted medical care), and our ongoing lack of rental vacancy. To avail oneself of “Housing First” assistance in BC, one first has to be homeless, which is like addressing gun violence by buying bandages: it has a value and is measurably effective, but does not address the source of the problem. This is a terrible way to organize public resources, but more importantly, it completely dehumanizes of the actual problem.

Which brings me back to the Medicine Hat miracle I keep reading about in the news. Considering it is not particularly groundbreaking in approach, and aside from the resources put into it, it’s success is not outstanding compared to many municipalities (including New Westminster), I wonder about the narrative of its success. I do not want to take even the tiniest bit of credit away from the City, the not-for-profits, or programmers (paid and volunteer) who put their lives work into helping less fortunate people, but there is a part this makes me twitchy.

Google any story of the Medicine Hat Homelessness approach, and you hear some version of the same narrative: how the “fiscally conservative” Mayor was convinced to support the program, because it turns out paying to put people in housing saves the City and the Province money in the long run. Now, this is true; so well established it isn’t even a point of debate, but quotes likes this fire my cynicism gland:

“It makes financial sense. That’s how I had my epiphany and was converted. You can actually save money by giving somebody some dignity and giving them a place to live.” – Mayor Clugston

The fact that a leader describes his decision to provide basic human dignity to marginalized residents of his community in terms of its ability to turn fiscal profit is abhorrent to the way I view governance and society. Maybe he is just saying that to keep the Randian libertarians in his town off of his ass, or perhaps it speaks deeply of the state of western Canadian politics and the erosive influence of Calgary School neo-liberal fiscal policy projected by “Think Tanks” like the Fraser Institute on governments at all levels… I’m about to go on a long rant here, so perhaps I will save that for a future blog post… but this economically-driven “come-to-Jesus moment” narrative sound more like cowardice than visionary leadership to me.

Short version is we, in New Westminster, are regional leaders in providing housing support to our homeless residents, and I will hold our success up against Medicine Hat’s any day (not that this is a contest – when it comes to supporting marginalized populations in this country, we are all losing). New West is forging partnerships with senior governments and investing in supportive housing, and we are providing City lands to develop innovative housing solutions. We have incredible staff and NWPD liaisons partnering with an amazing suite of not-for-profit agencies to address the multiple causes of (and solutions to) homelessness at a person-to-person level. We did this before it was sexy, and perhaps we don’t brag enough about it. More importantly, I would like to think we do it not becasue of some fiscal bottom line calculation, but because homeless people in New Westminster are citizens of New Westminster, who deserve representation for their elected officials, and should have the same access to support, dignity, and opportunity as everyone else.

Council: March 27, 2017

Our post-Spring Break council meeting featured a Public Hearing and an interesting afternoon workshop, if you are one of those freaks for whom Council Workshops on infill density guidelines informing Official Community Plans are “interesting” (if they are, you should either go to planning school and get it over with, or watch the video here to get your fix).

The Public Hearing concerned two projects:

260 Twelfth Street Zoning Amendment (Calvary Worship Centre and John Knox School) Bylaw No. 7905, 2017
This project will replace a recently-demolished small church at the corner of 12th street and Third Ave with a larger building to house a private Christian high school. We received a number of submissions in favour of the project (mostly, if not all, parents attached to the school), and a few submissions in opposition.

The project meets the Official Community Plan designation for the site, and the objectives of the Lower 12th Community Plan objectives. The density is a little higher than zoning, but the land use and other aspects of the development are within the intended zoned use. The Advisory Planning Commission and Design Panel approved of the project, and no major concerns were raised by the residents association.

There were some concerns, mostly from adjacent car dealers, about what the project will mean to the number of cars parking and driving in the area (read that sentence again), however the parking and drop off provisions for the school are well within what we should expect for the use, and the School has a pretty aggressive Transportation Demand Management program to get students out of cars. This brought me to suggest that the ACTBiPed might want to review the surrounding bike and pedestrian safety (working with our staff, of course) and make recommendations to Council if there are any changes required to assure the City is doing what it can to promote active transportation by the students.

I’ve said it before, I am no fan of private or religious schools, because I think the potential erosive influence they have on community is greater than the benefits they provide the small portion of the population who are able to use their services, but it isn’t my job as a City Councillor to set provincial education policy. My job in an application like this is to help the community regulate land use through policy. This project meets the stated policies the City has established over a decade or more, so I had no compelling reason to oppose the project.

Council moved to refer the project to Regular Council, where we voted unanimously to give the proposal Third Reading.

43 Hastings Street Zoning Amendment Bylaw (Hastings Street Unzoned Right of Way) No. 7899, 2017
This is a zoning amendment to support apply a zoning designation to an undeveloped piece of road, which will be amalgamated with and adjacent lot to support an affordable housing project. No written submissions were received, but we had one resident come to ask a few questions. As her questions were related more to the housing project (which will go through its own public process), her questions were answered as far as we could at this time, but that is a separate discussion.


Council move to refer to Regular Meeting, where we moved unanimously to adopt the zoning amendment Bylaw.

This brought us to our Regular Meeting, where following the votes on the above projects, we launched into Opportunities to be Heard on three separate variance requests:

43 Hastings Street Road Closure and Dedication Removal Bylaw No. 7898, 2017
This is the actual street closure and dedication of that unopened road to support the affordable housing project above. We received no submissions, written or otherwise, and approved the road closure bylaw.

700 Royal Avenue (Douglas College): Development Variance Permit No. DVP00623 to vary Sign Bylaw requirements
Douglas College wants to modernize the signage on the side of their campus at Royal Ave and 8th Street. The site is a little outside what would typically fit into our Sign Bylaw, so they are asking for a variance to make the sign large enough to be visible and to scale with the wall upon which it will appear. The design is relatively understated (black sans-serif font), and only lighted from wall wash lights.

We received four letters in opposition to this variance, but they strangely didn’t have much to say about Douglas College or the sign itself. They all had a common theme around managing truck traffic on Royal Ave, and I couldn’t find a way to connect their concerns to this sign bylaw variance.

Council moved to approve the variance.

350 Johnston Street: Development Variance Permit No. DVP00621 for Frontage
This is yet another one of those variances related to the rule that a building lot frontage must represent more than 10% of the circumference of the lot – or a rectangular lot can only be 4x as deep as it is wide. For a few spots, typically in Queensborough, the lots are very deep and subdivisions that would normally be fine anywhere else break this rule, necessitating the variance.

We receive no submission for or against this variance, and Council voted to approve it.


We then went into a couple of Reports for Action:

813 Carnarvon Street: Rezoning to Allow a 245 Unit Residential development – Preliminary Report
This is a preliminary report for a proposed development downtown which has yet to go to public consultation, panel reviews, etc., and will end up at a Public Hearing, so I am holding off much commenting on the design or scale of the project for now. The amenity they wish to build (non-market secured rental for retired artists from the performance arts community) is interesting.

Ultimately, we were asked to provide some preliminary guidance to staff towards areas not well defined by existing policy – whether Family Friendly Housing criteria should be applied to all housing, including non-market secured rental provided as an amenity (I argued yes, it should), and how we determine what the amenity value of extra density is on this site. Kinda inside baseball, but rather important as a precedent for how we manage these projects in the future.

This project will be going out to public consultation, watch for an Open House near you!

2017 City Partnership Grant – Appeal from Rivershed Society of BC
The Rivershead Society have an annual event on the waterfront in September, coinciding with their AGM. They applied for a grant and were turned down by our Partnership Review Panel as they had used up all of their budget and this project was not placed high enough in the priority list. They appealed to Council, and we voted (in a split vote, me against) to fund them anyway.


The following items were moved On Consent:

518 Ewen Avenue: Proposed Rezoning from (C-1) to (RQ-1) to Permit Construction of a Single Detached Dwelling – Updated Application for Consideration of Public Hearing
This rezoning request to permit a single family home in Queensborough has been through a long process, and is now off to a Public Hearing in April. I will hold off further comments until then.

1002, 1012, 1016 and 1020 Auckland Street: Rezoning from Light Industrial Mixed Use Districts (M-5) to Comprehensive Development Districts (1002 Auckland Street) (CD-69) – Bylaw for Consideration of First and Second Readings
This rezoning to support a mutli-family development on the steep part of the Brow of the Hill is also going to a Public Hearing in April, so I will hold off comments until then.

Inclusion BC letter received February 17, 2017 regarding the first ever Disability Pride celebration and parade and requesting a contribution
Inclusion BC is based in New Westminster, and is working on a project to bring attention to access issues across BC. Council referred this request for funding to staff.


The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:

330 East Columbia Street (Royal Columbian Hospital) Development Variance Permit No. DVP00624 – Consideration of Issuance
The expansion of RCH is going to result in a lot of permitting and other requirements from the City. We have every reason to help facilitate this, as RCH is out largest employer and a significant part of our long-term planning for Sapperton, but we also have to assure we do proper reviews of the permits and plans to assure community interest is protected.

This DVP will support the design of the first building in the RCH expansion by allowing two small intrusions into setback areas on the west and north sides of the building. The intrusions are small, and integral to the design of the building, so I don’t think there is a large concern here.

I have some concerns about the Brunette Ave side of the building, as we have received two views of what that facia will look like – both contradictory. It will wither be a treed boulevard with sidewalk, or a parking spot for trucks dropping occasional fuel deliveries to the Hospital. I’m curious how these two uses are considered compatible – removable trees?

328 Second Street: Heritage Alteration Permit No. 084 to Build a New House in Queen’s Park – Consideration of Issuance
The HCA process is proceeding in Queens Park, and we are still operating under the temporary Heritage Conservation Period. We have turned down a couple of demolition permits (and have supported a couple), but the Heritage Protection measures also include guidelines to assure new builds are complimentary to the heritage landscape of the neighbourhood. This is the first application we have had that is testing the limits to how those guidelines will be tested.

The house is generally complimentary to heritage character in its massing and form, but the Technical Review Panel and staff expressed concern about the design having two garage doors facing the street, which is not typical of the street or of the Craftsman style, and has implications for the boulevard and street trees that are not in conformance with the existing standards for Second Street.

Council voted unanimously (Mayor Cote recused) to support the staff recommendation that the HAP not be supported, meaning that the architect will need to work with staff to adapt the design to better fit the guidelines.

Walk New West Initiative
The City is working with a residents group called The Walkers Caucus to promote walking in April and May – leading up to Jane’s Walks. One initiative is walkers challenge, where teams will keep track of their steps and miles walked and compete for some fun prizes and bragging rights.

I challenged the members of ACTBiPed to start a team, and it filled so fast I was not able to join a team, so I instead decided to put together a team of Council members – and we will set as our goal, more steps than the ACTBiPed!

If you have a community group, business, not-for-profit, neighbourhood or group of friends who might want to get a little fitter and set some goals for walking in the City, with a chance to get some prizes and motivation, you should sign up here!

12 K de K Court Boulevard Trees
Council Watchers may remember a group came to ask that the City trees on a stretch of the Quayside boardwalk be removed and replaced with smaller trees, as the trees that are currently there are much larger than anticipated when they were put in a decade ago.

I cannot support removing trees to protect views, at a philosophical level. It is 2017, and we have a newly adopted Urban Forest Management Strategy. There may have been some decisions made in the past by staff or council that need to be reviewed in light of this new era – we have not had the time to create new policies and directions for staff under the UFMS, but I can assure you “not cutting trees down to protect resident views” is one of those policies that will be seen as a reasonable response to a strategy designed to reduce the loss of trees.

I’m glad that staff has found a pruning solution that may keep trees closer to the scale that was originally envisioned to meet the aesthetic values of the neighbourhood, without threatening the health of the trees themselves or the cost and risk of relocation.


Finally, we launched into the always-popular Bylaws part of the meeting:

Zoning Amendment (1002 Auckland Street) Bylaw No. 7907, 2017
This zoning amendment to support the multi-family development in the Brow of the Hill was given two readings. This project will be going to public hearing on April 24. C’mon out and tell us what you think.

Heritage Revitalization Agreement (720 Second Street) Bylaw No. 7887, 2017
Council resolved to exempt the new parcels created from 720 Second Street from the statutory minimum frontage requirements set out in section 512 of the Local Government Act (that is, their frontage will be less than 105% of their circumference)

Heritage Revitalization Agreement (720 Second Street) Bylaw No. 7887, 2017 & Heritage Designation (720 Second Street) Bylaw No. 7888, 2017
This Bylaw to permit the subdivision of a lot in Glenbrook North to support the restoration of a commercial building and building of a new house as was discussed a the Public Hearing on February 20, is now adopted. It’s the Law of the Land.

Housing Agreement (295 Francis Way – Affordable Non-Market) Amendment Bylaw No. 7910, 2017 & Housing Agreement (295 Francis Way – Market Rental) Bylaw No. 7909, 2017
These agreements to support secured market and secured non-market rental use for a multi-family development in Victoria Hill, as discussed at the March 6th Council meeting, were Adopted. They are no the law of the land.

Subdivision Control Amendment Bylaw No. 7908, 2017
This Bylaw update that regulates lighting design standards for the City was Adopted. Justice (and pedestrians) should no longer be blind.

And with that we wrapped.

Ask Pat: Taxes – the western suburbs edition

westvandude asks—

I read your property tax comparison article as I was looking to compare West Vancouver to City of Vancouver taxes. For instance if we say what is the total tax paid on a $2.5 or $3 million house in either community (so property tax, garbage, sewer, water, etc) as I always thought City of Vancouver was more expensive…. when you compare Vancouver streets potholes and snow removal it seems Vancouverites are getting ripped off. Where would I find a comparison for total taxes for same value houses?

Hey, wait, this isn’t a New West question! It also sounds like you want me to answer one of those questions that a few minutes on Google could answer. That link I just used is a little old, but fresher information is pretty easy to find. For example:

Go to the City of Vancouver Property Taxes webpage, and it gives you a pretty good summary of what your Mil Rates are, and where they go:

taxes1

Unfortunately, no such page exists that I can find on the West Vancouver property taxes webpage.

taxes2

To find the Mil Rates, you need to dig a bit through the Bylaws until you come upon Bylaw No. 4885, 2016, where the Mil Rates Rates are set out:

taxes3

If we can ignore Metro, School, and other property taxes that don’t go to the City and are set provincially or regionally, on a house assessed at $2.5 Million in 2016, you paid $3,700 to West Vancouver (2.5M/1,000 x 1.4758), and $3,900 to Vancouver (2.5/1,000 x 1.56168). Of course, we also have to, just for a moment, put aside the absurdity of the phrase “$2.5 Million house in West Vancouver”.

Utilities are more complicated. West Van charges Quarterly for water and sewer. Water has a $60/qtr base charge, and rates that go from $1.15 to $1.93 per cubic metre of water depending on how much you use. Sewerage further costs you $32/qtr plus another $2 per cubic metre of water you use.

Vancouver bills for water on a Ternary basis, with about a $31 base charge, and rates that go from $0.95 to $1.20 per cubic metre of water based on season. Sewage costs a further $0.87 per cubic metre of water use. So it sure looks like for most users, Vancouver water rates are quite a bit lower, but it depends completely on your use. If you have typical household use, Vancouver is several hundred dollars cheaper per year.

Notably, West Vancouver charges homeowners a “Drainage Levy”, which is $400 per year for a typical home. Vancouver does not have a charge like this. That extra $400 charge easily exceeds the difference in property taxes between the Cities. And also points out how the deeper you dig into the comparisons between how different cities pay for their public services, you discover that simply saying “Vancouver has higher taxes than West Vancouver” is a bit of a meaningless phrase. This is why I tried to compare what cities collect in taxes per capita, using data normalized a bit by the provincial government. West Van looks pretty expensive when you look at it that way.

Finally, about the roads and pothole thing, you can look at the 2016 West Van budget, and see they have about $100M in revenue every year, and spend about $4.5M on all engineering services (about 2/3 of that spent on roads). Vancouver’s 2016 Budget showed $1,260 Million in revenue and spending of about $75 Million in all engineering services – so about a 33% higher proportion of revenues. Of course, the roads that Vancouver spends money fixing are way more likely to be used regularly by a West Vancouver resident than vice versa. Also note that Vancouver has (almost) the most roads by area and the most road lane kilometres per capita than any City in British Columbia, where West Vancouver has relatively sparse roads. So we are, once again, comparing apples to pineapples here.

New West taxes? We are about average per-household in the region, and are well below average on a per-capita basis. And the potholes this year are terrible, despite the $4.5 Million spent on asphalt annually. That December snow event was pretty hard on asphalt, and that is going to cost us.

Ask Pat: $1 Transit?

Terran asked—

Hey Pat,
Hope I’m allowed to still ask questions even though I don’t live in New Westminster anymore. (I’ll be back once affordability comes back)

Translink recently started asking about transit fares again. This was a long time promise for the compass card that we could better manage the system. The survey is quite overly simplistic but that’s not my question more concern.

My question stems for the comments below the Facebook post they have for the survey. The idea of $1 transit fares comes up. Considering only ~35% of the budget comes from transit fares could this actually be a realistic option? I know I would switch from using my car if I could get to work for only a $1. Would the increased ridership even come close to off setting the huge loss in revenue? Is there even a way to know?

Sure, I’ll give you one free question since you used to live in New West. Wait – was that your question?

As you mention (and I talked about a bit a few weeks ago), TransLink is going through a Fare Review process right now. This is likely in response to the integration of the Compass Card as much as to a newfound opportunity for the next stage of system growth, as the Mayor’s Plan for a decade of capital investment may be back on track.

This review is not intended to boost or reduce fare revenues, only to re-jig the system to make it work better; to make it more “fair” or more user-friendly. The working model is that any adjustment would result in about the same revenue from fares, it will just be collected in different ways. The survey therefore was designed to collect people’s feelings about fare structures such as whether people who travel farther should pay more, or the entire system should be a flat fee, but is basically silent on what the actual flat fee or distance charge would be.

What you are suggesting is not just a “flat fee” model, but one that sets the fee quite a bit lower than it is now, in hopes that it will boost ridership. Considering the purpose of the survey, what would that rate have to be?

TransLink receives a little more than 1/3 of its operating revenue from the farebox, or about $510 Million of a $1.4 Billion budget. Aside from roads and bridges and all the other things TranLink does, they annually have about 240 Million journeys on the multi-modal transit system, or 360 million boardings (obviously, some portion of journeys results in more than one boarding, as a person may transfer from SeaBus to the SkyTrain, or from one bus to another on a single journey). So depending on whether you want to issue transfers or not, you would need to charge $2.15 per journey, or $1.45 per boarding.

So a dollar won’t be enough, but would this simple and cheap fare boost ridership enough to make up for it? At current service levels, there would need to be a doubling in the number of journeys on the system, or a 45% increase in boardings. Anyone riding a SkyTrain during rush hour or standing on a 106 recognizes this is not viable without a significant increase in service levels, which would require investments in the capital part of operations (buying more trains and buses), not just increased operational costs.

Perhaps there is some wiggle room in the idea of flat $2 fares per journey, one might speculate that this would provide a 7% increase in ridership to make up for the lost revenue per ride, but that brings us back to the fairness question: should a person riding the 106 from Columbia Street to Uptown pay the same amount as someone riding SkyTrain from Surrey to Downtown Vancouver? Which type of journey are we trying to incentivize more? These are the questions the current review is trying to address, even at a relatively simple level.

Calculating an optimum fare, one that incentivizes use but also provides enough ridership to maintain a system, is some difficult calculus, even putting aside the political implications of increasing the various tax subsidies to the system (or the massive tax subsidies to the alternatives). I don’t think we are going to get there through this fare system review.

And seriously, we really need to talk about how much you are spending on your car now. If $1 fares would sway you, perhaps you might want to crunch the numbers and see where $2.15 fares put you, financially. The sad reality is that, regardless of how much we subsidize cars, they are still surprisingly expensive to operate if you do the actual math.