ASK PAT: Small trees and Beg Buttons

neil21 asks—

Howdy. Two questions having just moved here from Vancouver’s West End.

1. Why are the street trees so short? Is it just time (but I thought this city was older) or the species? The streets are really hot without that shade.

2. At 6th and Carnarvon, pedestrians don’t get to cross without pressing the button. Even if pedestrians are crossing the same way on the other side.
2b. Also why aren’t your beg buttons those buttonless ones like you have for the bikes? Those are better.
2c. Also why does 6th and C have beg buttons at all? Just let peds cross with green cars always.

Welcome to New West. I would love to hear more about your decision to move here from our western suburb, and your experiences since making the shift. The theme of my answers to the above will be “A City is always a work in progress”. We are now headed the right direction, but have more work to do.

1: (caveat: I’m not an arbourist, but I have a couple of suppositions) First, the trees may be younger than you are used to. The City of New Westminster, with the exception of Queens Park (the neighbourhood) and a few parts of Glenbrooke North and Sapperton, really lost the plot on street trees a few decades ago. It may have been the fashion of the time, the cost of development, a mandate by the electrical utility, or just short-term thinking, but our urban forest was cut back in a devastating way. Our canopy cover City-wide is less than 18%, which is similar to Vancouver, but low compared to much of North America. It was only a few years ago when New Westminster introduced a new Urban Forest Management Strategy, and started to a) proactively protect the trees we have; and b) ramp up plans to plant trees and bring back more canopy cover. Unfortunately, the ultimate results of this will not be seen for another decade or two. That said, although the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today, and we are getting on it.

That said, it is also possible that trees are smaller above ground because they are smaller underground. Trees need healthy root systems to prosper, and our 150-year-old streets and sidewalks and utility corridors mean that the area of healthy nutrient-rich and porous soil around many of our newer trees is limited. This may mean staff decided to plant diminutive tree species to respect the available growing area, or it may be that the lack of soil is keeping the tree from meeting its ultimate size. There is a bunch of new engineering practice around creating “soil cells” as part of new street tree installations, but see last paragraph about 20 years.

2: (Mostly) because the City is old, doesn’t have endless money, and until recently, it wasn’t a priority.

Beg Buttons (the pejorative name given by pedestrian advocates to buttons that must be pushed by pedestrians in order for the red hand to become the white man at light-controlled intersections when the cars get a green light) were all the rage at one time, because everybody important drove, and pedestrians were just another thing that needed to be managed within car spaces to get traffic moving.

Our new Master Transportation Plan, however, prioritizes pedestrians for the first time, so we are working on changing these things. That said, Beg Buttons can still serve a purpose for system-wide traffic management in more pedestrian-oriented urban areas. They can assure that crossing times for wider roads are adequate for slower pedestrians when they are present, and not too long when they are not. They also make the audible crossing signal for the hearing impaired work better. As always, the devil is in the details.

In some places, we still have older Beg Buttons (even old-style small-button ones in place of the larger panel-type ones) in places where more modern treatments would be appropriate. These are being replaced as budgets allow on a priority basis. Every year, Transportation staff do a review of all  identified crossing improvement needs, place some draft priorities on them based on safety, potential to dovetail with bigger projects or adjacent development, and other factors. They pass that priority list through the Advisory Committee for Transit, Bicycles and Pedestrians, the Access Ability Advisory Committee, and the Neighbourhood Transportation Advisory Committee, then spend their budget making the changes. Sometimes that means curb bulges, marked cross walks, lighting changes or updating the signal operations. All of these things are ridiculously expensive, hence the need to set priorities.

In some places, the Beg Buttons will remain (although I hope we will eventually migrate all to the more accessible panel-type ones) because they are a useful tool. If well applied, they make crossing safer for pedestrians, especially in lower-pedestrian-traffic areas. However, when they are not well applied (as you point out a 6th and Carnarvon, and I can point out a few more in the City), they create an impression to pedestrians that are not a priority in our public spaces, and sometimes go so far as to create inconvenient barriers to pedestrians. Perhaps a good example is all of the crossings along Columbia Street in Downtown, where there is an almost constant east-west flow of pedestrians, and pedestrians should see the white walking guy every time cars get a green light.

Ask Pat: Permit times

Someone asked—

I am a rental tenant at [redacted to protect privacy – a downtown Strata building]. I have heard our Strata is considering dissolution & sale of our building to developers. How long does a demolition process take per the City of New West’s permit(s) process etc.?

This is really not a question I can answer with certainty, because I am not involved with these kind of front-counter operations. The short version of your answer is that a Demolition Permit can probably take less than a day or several months (depending on things like the need for hazardous material surveys, Environmental Site Assessments, and safe disconnection from City utilities) but it isn’t the Demolition Permit timing that would necessarily be a limiting factor here.

It sounds like the feeling in your building is that the current building will be demolished and a replacement building built. I suggest that, if this was the case, a new owner would not apply to demolish the building until they had a certainty that they would be permitted to build a replacement on the site. That would likely require a Development Permit, and may even require a Rezoning or an Official Community Plan amendment, depending on what the owner wishes to build. The more of these you add, the more time it takes to get through the process. Those processes also include extensive public consultation, and would likely result in a Public Hearing. All told, these processes can take a year or more. The more complex the project and the more it varies from existing land use, the more complicated and time-consuming these applications go. It is also possible that a developer’s proposal will not be found acceptable by City Policy or by whim of Council, so the wait an be literally endless.

That said, I have no idea what process your building will have to go through, nor do I know what the new owner would plan to build. No application for your address has come to City Council yet. I did a quick scan of the Land Use and Planning Committee agendas for the last year, and don’t see it mentioned there at all (as a preliminary step, any application would likely go to LUPC before it came to Council). I also checked the on-line “Projects on the Go” table, and see no reference to your location, so I am pretty sure no formal application has been made to the City.

In researching your answer, I stumbled upon a report that I am a little reluctant to link to, because it was authored by an organization that has a long reputation of producing dubious reports using sketchy research methods. But for that it is worth, a third party with no reason to make a progressive city like New Westminster look good found that we are comparatively quick in getting new buildings through the approval process. They found that our staff and process are able to process applications faster than most Municipalities in the Lower Mainland: generally in the top 3 or top 5 in the region (depending on the application type). They also found we had among the lowest “Costs and Fees” for a typical application (those fees are ideally set to act as cost recovery). I started by saying I am somewhat separated from front-counter activities at the City, so none of this credit goes to me, but kudos to our great professional staff!

So, in summary, if you are curious about redevelopment plans for your apartment, keep an eye on the City’s LUPC Agenda and the “Projects on the Go” list. Also remember, as a renter, you have rights under the Residential Tenancy Act, including appropriate notice and compensation for being evicted. If you have questions, you should contact those professional staff in our Planning Department. They almost certainly know more than I do. Good luck!

Ask Pat: Climbing (pool) walls

Jason asks—

I’m very interested about how the new pool is coming along and would like to know if there is still opportunity to give input on what amenities go into this new centre.

This coming summer Olympic games in Tokyo will feature a new sport: rock climbing. The climbing event will include three disciplines: sport, bouldering, and speed. 40 climbers (20 men and 20 women) will compete over four days, and the medalists will be chosen based on the combined results of all three disciplines.

I understand that adding a full-scale rock wall, bouldering wall AND speed wall might not be in the budget or have space for it in the new facility. Perhaps only one discipline could be incorporated into the new building… I propose speed climbing. This is because there are already dedicated facilities who offer a wide range of sport and bouldering walls, but speed walls are few and far between. Creating a place for speed wall competition would add a truly unique, exciting, cutting edge component to New Westminster that no other municipality in the country offers. The square footage required of a climbing wall would be fairly minimal as the space needed is more vertical than horizontal. New auto-belay systems are very safe and would allow for individuals new to climbing to try out the sport without needing a partner to belay for them.

We live in a part of the country that offers mountains and the ocean, all in one city. But we all know that it rains for the better part of the year, so why not offer swimming AND climbing in this new state of the art facility?

So my question to you is: What would it take for council to seriously consider incorporating the idea of a speed climbing rock wall into the plans?

The short answer is people need to ask for it, and convince staff it is a good idea. A good case can be made that this improves the overall program in a meaningful way, and makes the entire pool a better grant application. Of course, as always, there is a longer answer.

The Canada Games Pool replacement is a big project, likely the biggest single capital investment the City has ever made. We have spent a couple of years doing extensive public consultations and project planning work – from figuring out a financing model to determining where a new 140,000sqft building can be built without tearing down the old pool first to developing a business plan around what the different major program elements (natatorium, pools, gyms , meeting space, etc.) look like. As we reported last month, we have a pretty well developed plan around these “big questions” and are now working on the next steps: developing a solid senior government grant application and procurement processes.

With clear direction on the bigger questions (square footage, major program elements, buildability), we still have a tonne of smaller questions to answer. I don’t mean smaller in the sense that they are less important, but smaller in that they are more fine-grained details that we need to design, the can hang on the larger framework once built.

I was able to attend one day of  conference out in Harrison last winter where recreation programmers from around the province met to talk about new trends in recreation. It was interesting to hear, especially, how community recreation spaces (centres and outdoor spaces) were changing in Europe. The old-school gyms where basketball and badminton and indoor soccer lines shared floor space between four blank walls were being replaced by more organically-shaped mixed use spaces. They still accommodate the traditional team sports, but were designed to also accommodate adventure playing, climbing walls, and “free play” areas. Outdoor areas where there used to be a soccer pitch within a running track used free spaces to create three-dimensional workout and fun areas, again emphasizing unstructured and creative play instead of just traditionally-structured team sport. It was inspiring, as there was clear integration of traditional sports with spaces designed to be more flexible and share space, and our recreation staff were paying attention.

So when I think about the Canada Games Pool replacement, I see gyms that can house basketball and pickleball, but I also imagine a space designed to have this kind of flexibility. I think a climbing wall would be a great addition, and could easily be fit within that space.

I’m not a climber, so I would need to hear from the climbing community what they would want to see, and to know how it can fit within the space. This should happen soon, as every new and creative use idea (especially ones that appeal to emerging competitive sports) actually strengthen the case for significant Federal and Provincial grants. Could you rally Sport Climbing BC into sending a brief to Council and staff? Let me know!


On a somewhat similar point, I can answer a question for a resident who dropped by my Ask Pat booth a couple of weeks ago and asked about the future of the diving board at Moody Park outdoor pool. As I wrote this answer to you, I see that Staff have come up with a creative replacement plan, so here is the background on that.

The diving board had some structural problems last year, and required repairs. However, the diving board was increasingly an area of concern at the pool, as the depth of the pool and nature of the slope in the tank was such that it did not make our lifeguard staff happy. They restricted head-first diving, and it had been increasingly causing them concern, so the decision was made to not replace the diving board. This is a disappointment to some of the regular pool users.

The good news is that staff have found a creative play element that can replace the diving board, and not have the safety concerns of the springboard. It is an adjustable climbing wall apparatus that bows over the water. Kids and adults can challenge themselves to do climbing moves and try to get to the top of the apparatus, and will splash down in the deep end of the pool if (when!) they lose grip.

I recognize this is not a “competitive” climbing apparatus, but it is adjustable to different skill levels, and should be a fun piece of equipment, and may give a generation of kids a first taste of the newest Olympic sport.

Ask Pat: Elections?

Ed Sadowski asks—

When will we know if you will be running again in the upcoming municipal elections?

Yes, I am running for Council again. Sorry for the delay responding to you, but I did have to do a bit of serious thinking and also put a few things in place so that when I announce my intention to run again, people have a way to contact me and I don’t lose that initial campaign bump on that is (apparently) important.

If you want to read about my campaign, why I am running, what I want to do next term, and why I think you should vote for me, please go over to my campaign website (PJNewWest.ca). It is a little bare-bones right now, but I will be updating and improving it as the campaign goes on. One of my challenges with “launching” my re-election campaign is trying to figure out how I can keep this conversation – 8 years of blogging, hundreds of blog posts, its gotta be a million words by now – and keep it a little separate from the rhetoric necessary for campaigning. The election is in October, but I still have 4 months of work to do before then, so here is my strategy.

This website will pretty much stay the same, with blogs, updates on City stuff, random opinions on topics that interest me, and Ask Pats answered when I get a chance. My Campaign website will talk campaign, will have all of that campaign “why you should vote for me” stuff. My regular Facebook Page will be pretty much as it always was, and my Campaign Facebook Page will have campaign Facebook stuff like updates on where I am going to be, special campaign events, and probably a fair amount of campaign-related opinions. There is no way I am managing two Twitter accounts, or two Instagram accounts, so those are staying as is.

In the meantime, I’ll be out in the community as I have always been, ready to talk about the City and sharing ideas with the citizens of New West. It’s going to be a busy 4 months, but let’s take the time to talk.

Ask Pat: Arenas

Jeremy asks—

What is the current usage rates of our arenas? I see calls for a third area, but I don’t know how often our current arenas are empty, or how many groups trying to book ice time would be unable to do so.

Simple answer is I don’t know, but my reflex answer is that our arenas are well used, rarely empty, but not bursting at the seams. As usual, that answer needs to be put into context of how the City plans and builds new and replacement facilities.

A new facility, be it a swimming pool, a skating rink, or a skate board park, has a capital cost (what it costs to build the thing on the day we build it and over the long term in upkeep and maintenance), and an operating cost (what it costs every year to keep the lights on, staff to maintain the ice and run programs in the facility). Those second costs can be small, like a skate park, which costs very little to maintain once built; or very high, like the old Canada Games Pool, which is a real energy and resources hog.

Conversely, many facilities earn revenue from pool or ice rentals and program fees, but it is almost a fundamental principle of public recreation facilities that the revenue never covers the capital and operational costs. For every person who walks into the Canada Games Pool to swim, take a fitness class, or drop heavy weights on the heads of change room occupants, the City subsidizes their visit by about $2. There is no financial model where a pool with services like the Canada Games Pool even breaks even on earned revenue (otherwise private business would be competing us out of the business, no?),  and models where private companies run ice rinks rarely provide a high level of programming without significant support from clubs and local governments. Many facilities, such as the library, the skate park, or a playground, earn little or no revenue, but are nonetheless important amenities to improve the quality of life of people in a community.

I mix all of these together because building a new facility is never a stand-alone decision. It is *always* about placing things in a priority, which means both understanding the (perceived and actual) demand, and recognizing how existing and new facilities impact your capital and operating budgets.

The demand part can sometimes be recognized by the public and user groups before it comes to the attention of Council, who ultimately hold the purse strings and have to make the priority call. However, lacking a very motivated special interest group, it is much more common that staff who operate these facilities recognize capacity issues or unmet need and bring these challenges to Council through strategic and budget planning. This is the situation with library upgrades, with the Canada Games Pool and Centennial Community Centre replacements, with the expansion of the Queensborough Community Centre, and with the decisions we have made to invest in more flexible (but much more expensive) turf field replacements.

Sometimes, those priorities get shuffled by events. A neighbouring community building a new pool or an event like the Arenex collapse can shuffle the deck, causing us to move priorities in order to assure our program needs are met, and to assure we have the capital flexibility to deal with unexpected needs when they occur. The Arenex is an example of something that we now have to add to our capital budget, and to our planning. The capital cost of its replacement is covered for the most part by insurance, but it still needs to be included in a budget, and we still need to take staff off of existing projects to go through the replacement planning, project management, procurement and design work to make sure we replace it with the right thing. Again, staff time is one more thing that has to sit in a priority list – what work do we delay to rush the replacement of the Arenex?

So back to answering your question. We have not heard from staff that there is a huge unmet demand for ice in the community or the region, at least not in comparison to other unmet needs that have been placed higher in the capital planning priority list. And they would know better than I would, as they are the ones managing the day-to-day resource needs of the community.

That said, with recent requests from some members of the public, Council has asked staff to do a bit of work and better define for us where a third sheet of ice (or other ice allocation improvements) fits on the capital plan priority list, and whether there is a compelling demand case for moving it up. This has to also include some analysis of where ice demand is regionally so we can better understand how the two new ice sheets on our border in Burnaby and two more sheets in Port Coquitlam will impact regional needs. So staff are going to add this work to their work plans, and prioritize it alongside ongoing work to support the Arenex programs and plan the replacement, getting the Canada Games Pool project ready for senior government grants, and all of the other capital works already in our plans. This is a responsible way to approach new capital funding requests, whether they come to us from staff’s understanding of need, or from a data-gathering petition at the beginning of an election campaign.

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.

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.

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.

Ask Pat: Stormont redux?

CH of Burnaby asks—

Have you changed your views on the Stormont Connector now that there is an opportunity to revamp the access to the new Pattullo Bridge? You were against the connector a few years ago. Do you still want all that traffic meandering through your residential areas? 

To your first question: No. And your second question sets up a false premise.

The Stormont Connector is a really expensive solution to a poorly defined problem, as I wrote about at length six (!) years ago. Nothing has substantially changed since I wrote that, except that the plans for Pattullo replacement have shifted from a 6-lane bridge to a 4-lane bridge, and the Port Mann now provides 10 toll-free lanes shifting even more regional traffic to that bridge. If anything, we have less reason to spend billions of dollars building a freeway through the middle of our city, and asking Burnaby to do the same.

Do I want rush hour traffic meandering through New West neighbourhoods? Not really, but I also don’t want a freeway running through the centre of the City, and there is no reason to believe that adding the latter will take away the former.  It simply doesn’t work like that.

So TransLink and the Ministry of Transportation are going to replace the Pattullo with a similar-capacity bridge, and there will be some minor increases in vehicle through-put, mostly related to better designed intersections at each end of the bridge. I think the opportunities New West has through this process are to improve the east-west connections through our City. We can make it safer and easier for Victoria Hill residents to walk and cycle to Downtown or to QayQayt. We can safely connect the Central Valley Greenway across McBride (finally) with enhanced connections to the proposed Agnes Street Greenway. We can vastly improve the public realm around Albert Crescent Park. There are many potential wins here for the City of New West, I just don’t see how a Stormont connector is one of them.

This topic also gives me a chance to give props to North Vancouver MLA Bowinn Ma, whom I was able to chat with at the Pattullo press event on Friday, and who continues to impress with her straightforward smarts and ability to engage on technical topics. It is refreshing to have an MLA speak so clearly and knowledgeably about urban transportation issues as Ma did on twitter last night:

Yep, She gets it.

Ask Pat: Noise

relic57 asks—

Living on the corner of 6th and Victoria, I am one of hundreds of people adversely affected by the relentless construction noise by not one, but two towers underway at the same time. Just as the first one is winding down, the next has started. This is now three straight years of daily noise, often six days a week. The latest, the so-called ‘Beverly’ on the site of the demolished Masonic Hall, is in its excavation phase. It’s bad enough to have to endure the mind-splitting pneumatic drilling through the workweek, but the contractors (nameless for now) have no compunction whatever starting up at 7:00 a.m. Saturdays as well. This is six days a week where the noise can be so intense I am driven from my apartment.

This is not fair to me or the many others living nearby. These developments are not altruistically based, but purely profit driven. If I were to engage in some activity that disrupts a business, I could be liable. But developers can do anything they want, anytime they want, and they can buy their way into disrupting the little guaranteed quiet time people now have with special permits.

I have commented on this on Twitter (and engaged you a couple of times on other matters) and once received a reply from Mayor Cote informing me that the construction noise bylaws were going to be revised this spring. It is now spring. Nothing has apparently changed.

I have lived in New West for four years. The first year was great, the most quiet area I ever lived in. Then the ‘Novare’ started up across the street. Now the demolition of the hall, and work on the ‘Beverly’, literally next door. By the time that is finished, the Bosa twin tower monstrosity on the waterfront will be underway (we can all look forward to the pile-driving echoing up the hill for months or years, can’t we?), and maybe, just for fun, city hall will finally approve the over-height 618 Carnarvon proposal as well, only a block away from me. All together, seven or eight straight years of noise in total, capped by the probable demoviction from my own cheap walk-up once the area is gentrified enough.

So, what’s up with the noise? These bylaws were written when they built one little tower a year around here, if that–not ten. People don’t all go to work elsewhere anymore–they work at home, or they work shifts, or they’re retired. Why put us through this? These towers won’t even ease the accommodation crisis. They’re all aimed at high or relatively high earners–even the rentals.

There is a lot to unpack here, which is part of the reason it has taken me so long to address this Ask Pat that arrived this summer. I will try to concentrate on the sentences ending in question marks, in order:

“we can all look forward to the pile-driving echoing up the hill for months or years, can’t we?”
The Bosa Project on the waterfront will indeed require the driving of piles. However, this issue was discussed with the developer as part of their rezoning process. They have committed to using secant piles instead of sheet piles where possible along the periphery of the excavation. This more expensive technology was used recently for the Metro Vancouver pump station project in Sapperton (the big hole in the ground to the east you can see from the SkyTrain), creating much less disruption to the neighbourhood. They are also going to use vibratory driving of structural piles where viable. This technology is quieter, but does have other concerns around low-frequency vibration and potential impact on adjacent properties, so a Geotechnical Engineer will have to choose when this approach is, or is not, appropriate. Long story short – pile driving will be getting quieter, but won’t be going away.

So, what’s up with the noise?
Construction is noisy. Pile driving is disruptive, but so is pretty much every other aspect of building a modern building – hammering, drilling, pumping concrete and running of heavy equipment. The City has a Construction Noise Bylaw that exists separately from our regular Noise Bylaw, because of the special needs of construction sites, and the (relatively) short-term nature of any single construction site.

A proposal to update in the Construction Noise Bylaw came to Council in July, after Council asked Staff to address public concerns coming from the driving of piles for the two properties on either end of the McInnes Overpass. The update proposal included reducing construction hours on Saturday (you can go here to read the Minutes of the meeting where this was discussed), and discussed the changes in pile driving technology I already mentioned. The final draft of the Bylaw has not yet come to Council. The report indicated that our mid-week construction noise allowance was similar to other cities, but most cities allowed later starts and earlier ends of the Saturday construction schedule. We don’t allow construction on Sundays (except in your own home). So if the Bylaw is updated, I would expect it will bring us more in line with our neighbouring communities.

Why put us through this?
There is a lot of construction going on in the City, which should be no surprise to anyone. The region is growing, and the Downtown Community Plan includes a lot of new suites in order to allow people to live near our highest-service transit hubs. Both the tower recently completed next to you and the Masonic Lodge project went through extensive community review, including Public Hearings three or four years ago. In the intervening years, the regional housing crisis has further eroded the available housing, especially rental housing. Both projects are dedicated rental buildings, bringing (respectively) 282 and 151 rental suites on-line in a market where vacancy is currently 0.3%. It is hard to argue these types of developments are not an urgent need in our community.

Again, I recognize my answer is not going to satisfy you. Aside from stopping or construction of new homes (worsening our regional housing crisis) or regulating construction hours such that their construction is further delayed (potentially extending the number of months that disruptive noise is created while delaying bringing buildings on-line), I’m not sure what solution I can offer. I am open to suggestions.