…on the bike race

I didn’t want to write this blog post, for a few reasons.

First of all, I hoped that we would be building excitement right now for a bike race in Uptown a month from today, but that is not going to happen. Secondly, I had hoped that the process through which we got here was respectful and transparent enough that I would not have to engage in after-the-fact record straightening, because my doing so will be perceived by some in the community as my being unnecessarily confrontational, accusatory, or “political”. I hope I can demonstrate that is not my intention, as apportioning blame is not my interest, improving the process is.

My disappointment that the race is not going forward in 2016 has been shadowed by my disappointment that withdrawal of support for the road closure is being characterized as an arbitrary and capricious decision by City Hall. The quote

…the City of New Westminster, for unspecified reasons, has unilaterally cancelled the Hyack Grand Prix…”

does not fairly reflect my experience, and I have to address it.

For context, I was pretty excited about this race, and even attended a couple of organizational meetings to see if there were any potential hiccups I could help smooth out at City Hall, and so I could be more in the know in case Council had any questions or concerns. I didn’t have time to join the organizing committee, but hoped there was a way I could (with my limited free time) help out. I was actually looking forward to spending May 28th volunteering at a corner with my FR Fuggitivi friends and enjoying the race.

I should avoid speaking for the City, staff, the rest of Council or the Festivals Committee (I don’t serve on that Committee), but every impression I got from Council and Staff is that they were enthusiastic about this event, that there was good potential ROI for the City, and that there was no reason it should not happen. I never heard anyone at 511 Royal Ave speak against the idea.

It did become clear in early March, however, that some of the groundwork had not been laid to get the race going. Nothing was critical yet, but there were a collection of small issues that were not being addressed in a timely manner, giving staff reasons to be concerned about the organizing committee’s capacity to get them done in time. Most of them looked like details that were a little behind but were not yet on the “critical path”.

There were some negotiations on the course layout and safety issues, where I (frankly) was on the side of the organizers in negotiating with the City, but that was a discussion I felt was going to work out fine when CyclingBC folks were able to provide their professional guidance. There were issues around asphalt that were worked out, etc.

However, the sticking point became the road closures and impacts on the local neighbourhood. Closing several blocks of roads in the middle of the City on a Saturday has the potential to impact residents and businesses in unanticipated ways. Between the parade and the bike race, these closures were stretching to 8+ hours. If you ran a service business that had limited access to its front door on your busiest day of the week, you might be concerned (alternately, if you ran a pub or restaurant with a thousand people outside of your door all day, you might be exited!). If you had no access to the driveway of your house for 8 hours on a Saturday, you may equally be concerned. God forbid if you had a concrete pour on your construction site or a backyard wedding planned that day.

No problem, the City does this type of thing all the time. We have street festivals, we have parades, we do utility work. There are protocols for communicating with residents and businesses, assuring organizers have approval from them (or not) and that those approvals are crystal clear about what the type and duration of the disruption will be. It is clear with the organizations running these events that this is their responsibility, and although the City will provide guidance, the leg-work to get this work done to the satisfaction of the City is up to the organizer. It is simply a resource issue for a small municipality.

There will (almost) always be a small number of people who oppose the closure for whatever reason, valid or not. As the event is something the City and Council supports, staff are ready to deal with that small number. If there are a small number of residents or businesses that oppose it, we will talk to them, try to figure out how to accommodate their needs, make adjustments, or even (at times) tell them to get over it, because this is coming, and your neighbours all want it, so heads-up!

In early March, it was becoming clear that this consultation with the neighbourhood was going slowly, partly because of resource limitations of the organizer, partly because of some communication problems between the organizer and the City, and partly because of some disagreements/negotiations around expectations. This aspect of the organization was becoming the critical path, because if public notice was not completed to a level that made the City comfortable, then the City was not going to dump a bunch of resources into the following steps, knowing that the event may not go on. Again, limited resources require careful governance of those resources. Timing of this consent is also critical because the City needed time to manage those few residents or businesses that may not agree, to be fair to those people.

Through March and into early April, there was a significant back and forth between staff and the organizers, it was clear that the organizers felt they were doing an adequate job in this outreach, and staff were not as confident. Deadlines, first soft then firm, were set and passed. When the Festivals Committee reviewed the level of preparedness for the event, this critical gap was identified, and the Committee recommended to Council that we consider cancelling the event. Staff felt that this work had dragged on too long, and there was limited time to complete a long list of critical next steps.

The week after that recommendation was challenging for me, for staff, and for the organizers. I personally contacted the organizers in order to better understand the situation form their point of view. I had other concerns about the event (management of timing, parking arrangements for racers, a few course layout concerns, etc.) but I honestly thought they were going to get over this gap with liberal application of shoe leather, elbow grease, and salesmanship. I had enough experience with smaller bike races in my earlier days that I know how things can come together at crunch time.

I met with staff and looked at the public outreach data they were using to make their assessment, and I agreed with them. I was sent data from the organizers, and was challenged to rectify the two datasets and change my opinion about staff’s assessment. I arranged for a meeting with the organizers and representatives of the Festivals Committee to sit down and discuss how the data the organizers provided did not fulfill staff’s expectations about public contacts. following this, there was yet another meeting the between staff and the organizers to further compare notes. I cannot emphasize enough that all of this took place in an effort to make the event happen. We burned a lot of staff time (and overtime), at a level we would not have done for a commercial enterprise, film company, or most other volunteer events. City staff bent over backwards trying to see the situation through the organizers’ lens, and I feel they tried earnestly to get to a place where they could responsibly recommend further support.

Councillor Harper (representing the Festivals Committee) and I took the extra time to set up and attend these meetings, to dig into the data, and to consider the options. In the end, we had to agree with staff that moving ahead in 2016 was not the responsible thing to do. It didn’t serve the City, the organizers, or CyclingBC.

At every step of the way here, we were in communication with the organizers, and the City repeatedly made clear what its expectations were. There was nothing capricious in the decision, nor should it have been surprising to the organizers. I think staff made the right call in a difficult situation, and I support them, even if it means we cannot have an event in 2016 that I was very much looking forward to.

I hope that we can try again in 2017, and through this experience we can tighten up the way we set and address the City’s expectations. It appears we need to start consultations earlier and perhaps the City needs to set firmer deadlines instead of only giving guidance. Lessons were learned through this.

I think the relationship between the City and the organizers, clearly fractious in the past, was in this case business-like and respectful up until the end, and I hope this disappointment does not erode the progress made. That is part of the reason I was reluctant to write this blog post, as I don’t want fuel thrown on a spark. However I equally cannot stand silent while the motives and professionalism of the City’s staff, Committee, and Council are questioned in the social media. I think there are things the City could have done differently, but there are definitely things that the organizers could have done better, and should have done better. I own a bit of this, as I was probably not as proactive as a self-assigned liaison as I could have been, especially earlier in the process. However, both Hyack and the City were pushing the envelope a bit, getting into organizing an event they had little experience with, and I think it was valuable learning experience. I hope it pays off with a great event in 2017.

That will require a continued business-like relationship and respectful communications on both sides.

Can ya help a City out?

People who read this blog are, I presume, more interested than most on how the City of New Westminster operates. Unless you are here to correct my grammar (note this sentence fragment), or out of some sense of obligation (Hi Mom!). Since I got elected, there isn’t even that “What crazy thing is he going to say next?!” aspect, and I hardly even swear anymore. So unless you are just stockpiling my comments to undermine my political future, I am thinking you care a little more about the City we know and love than the rest of the masses.

Since you care so much, I also presume you want to help make things better, or at least shape aspects of the City into something more to your liking. According to some guy named Ipsos, New Westminster residents are a pretty contented lot (except when stuck in traffic), but if we don’t strive for improvement, stagnation sets in, and we and up like Eddie Murphy zipping up a fat suit, wondering where the it all went wrong. So here are three things you can do in the next couple of weeks to make this City better, with increasing levels of commitment.

The Survey: The City is currently running an on-line survey around Public Engagement. We are asking people how they interact with City Hall, and how they want to. This includes the full range of “engagement”, from informing residents and businesses about what the City is doing all the way to collaborative decision making, where we assure that stakeholders in the community are truly listened to in making plans and forming policy. Hit that link above, and give 5 minutes of your time to answer some simple anonymous questions, it is the least you can do, so do it now!

The Workshop: The City’s “Our City” Official Community Plan update project is ongoing, and we are now at a point where we need to have a conversation with the community about housing types. Currently, 95% of the housing units in New Westminster are either apartments or Single Family Detached houses. We have a distinct paucity of the “in between homes” – townhouses, row homes, du-, tri- and quad-plexes, or carriage/laneway homes. The new OCP will hopefully open more opportunities for these types of housing options.

I live in a Single Family Detached in the Brow of the Hill, one of the more affordable parts of New Westminster. When we bought it something like 8 years ago, I joked “it’s a little old, in a slightly sketchy location, but we can almost afford it”. Truth be told, it has turned out to be a sold house causing us very few problems, and I absolutely love my location halfway between Uptown and Downtown, with a 5-minute walk to the SkyTrain (alas, the walk home is 10-minutes – can’t do much about the hills in this town), and have great neighbours. Recently, however, three relatively modest 1930’s vintage homes on my block, ones you would have traditionally considered “starter homes” for young families or “fixer-uppers” have sold for more than $800,000. The ongoing regional housing affordability crisis keeps creeping up into higher and higher income brackets, and New West is not immune.

One approach to help young families grow in our community is to provide a rich diversity of housing types, those “in between” types that balance affordability with a large enough living space for kids and their accoutrement, and maybe just a small patch of grass or garden, without the bells and whistles (and costs) of a single family detached.

However, the process of fitting these housing types into our exiting single family neighbourhoods is concerning to many people who already have their Single Family Detached dream. They worry about parking, about green space, about visual intrusion and proximity, and about the oft-cited but difficult to define “character” of residential neighbourhoods. This is the conversation we need to have right now.

It should be a good conversation on November 7th, whether you are a young family looking to move out of the two-bedroom apartment and into something roomier, or you are a family in a Single Family Detached wondering what carriage homes or duplexes would mean to your block, you should come out and help the City understand your needs and concerns. It is free, you will get fed, but you need to register to take part. Do it now.

The Committee. Finally, if a 5-minute survey or a 6-hour workshop (with lunch!) isn’t enough for you, the City is currently doing its annual call-out for Advisory Committee volunteers. There are no less that 22 separate Advisory Committees, Boards, or Panels where you can serve the City by showing up to anywhere from a few to a dozen meetings per year (depending on the committee, see the 2015 schedule here to get a sense of the workload). You get to give us advice on specific policy ideas or other happenings in the City, and can really influence how decisions are made, mostly by having closer contact with the people (staff and elected) who are making the decisions about how our City runs.

Go to that list above, check out the Terms of Reference for the Committees, and see what might pique your interest. You can serve on more than one, and as competition for some of the Committees is pretty fierce, you might want to apply for several.

So if you are tired of sitting on your front deck, shaking your fist at the passing clouds, and writing angry letters to the editor, start making the City yours by taking part in shaping it. You will feel much better, learn a bit more about how the City works, and maybe meet some new , interesting, like-minded people.

UPDATE: I was told that this Saturday’s Our City event is completely booked full, which fills me with joy. That so many people are willing to spend their Saturday talking “Urban Planning” and helping inform the future of the City reinforces my love for this community and its desire to engage! If you didn’t book, don’t panic, because after the Workshop, the show is going on the road. The dates are:

Nov. 10, 1:00–4:00pm            Century House

Nov. 12, 5:00–8:00pm            Sapperton Pensioners Hall

Nov. 14, 1:00–4:00pm            New Westminster Public Library

Nov. 18, 5:00–8:00pm            Unity in Action Church

Nov. 21, 9:00am–12:00pm     Sapperton Pensioners Hall

Nov. 28, 9:00am–12:00pm     Connaught Heights School

Opening Streets

Much like this earlier post, I want to address a common use of language that has been bugging me of late: that around “closing” streets to hold events. It is a convenient term we use in a City to organize traffic management, emergency planning and engineering needs, but it is wrong. It implies that our streets are only there to serve people driving along them, or for temporary storage of your vehicle while you are off doing other things. There is so much more we can do with our streets when we stop worrying about “closing” them, and start creating better ways to “open” them.

Last weekend, I was at the New West Pride Street Party on Columbia Street, where two lanes of road was indeed closed for 10 hours so that people could walk, sit, talk, drink, dance, shop, share, eat, sing, and celebrate. I defy anyone to look at this picture of Columbia Street (which I borrowed from Bif Naked, because her view was better than mine!) and tell me that street is closed:

A photo posted by Bif Naked (@missbifnaked) on

This weekend, we are doing it again, with 70 food trucks and (if last year’s event is any evidence) tens of more thousands of people will be enjoying themselves on Columbia Street. These are not just New Westminster people, but folks from around the region coming to New Westminster to add to the vitality of our downtown, support local businesses and entrepreneurs from around the region, and hopefully discover that Downtown New Westminster is a great place to spend some time, not just a place to drive through.

closed

I also noted a news story this week about the Royal City Farmers Market plans to move uptown for their winter market season. The story mentions “Belmont Street will be closed to traffic from 11 am to 3 pm”. This statement is only true if you define “traffic” as cars. I am willing to bet that there will be more people using Belmont Street for those 4 hours every second Saturday than on any other day – it is just that the “traffic” will be on foot. By being on foot, they are more likely to stop, to shop, to talk to their neighbours and enjoy a laugh. People can, just with their presence, bring several hundred square metres of dead asphalt to life by making it a place of human interaction and commerce, not  just a place for cars to drive and park.

Language matters, so let’s stop talking about a day where tens of thousands of people flood onto our streets as a “Road Closure”; let’s start calling it a “Street Opening”.

Art in my absence

I’m going out of town this weekend!

Yes, I am actually leaving New Westminster for a weekend. I’m visiting my favourite Mom-in-Law on Saturna Island and giving a talk at the Gulf Island National Park Reserve sunset stories series on one of my favourite topics.

That means I am going to miss one of New Westminster’s best annual events – so I am making up for it by encouraging you to attend in my place and give the organizers my regrets.

The New Westminster Cultural Crawl is happening Saturday and Sunday, has been powered by the indomitable Trudy at the Van Dop Gallery for 12 years now. The Crawl is an opportunity for you to have a New West weekend staycation, and interact with literally dozens of artists across several venues. It is self-guided, no stress, and many events are interactive, so like the best of Staycations: all fun, no pressure. It doesn’t matter what neighbourhood you are in, and there is enough variety to keep everyone entertained.

Yes, there are a lot of galleries, including the incredible Van Dop, the Arts Council one in Queens Park, where the current showing explores local LGBTQ artists (fitting for the start of next week’s New West Pride week), and the amazingly popular 6th Street Pop-up space brought to you by everyone’s favourite brick & mortar shop. There are also various other ways to interact with art and artists. I may be biased, but I share Gord Hobbis’ opinion that the craftsmanship in old bicycles is a beautiful expression of art. There will be a family-friendly outdoor movie at Port Royal Park, an interactive celebration of Irving House’s 150th birthday, and the entire City will be, apparently, awash in “Capital” Teas.

The entire program is available here, so stay near home, enjoy some creative local artists, have a cuppa tea, and be inspired by your neighbours.

As a bonus, if the artists inspire you and/or your kids, take that inspiration out on a concrete wall! Another amazing young community leader has coordinated a fun opportunity to help beautify a bit of Downtown. You and yours can take a paint brush and add to a mural to a currently-uninspiring concrete wall. This is a neighbourhood-driven neighbourhood improvement project that will leave a fun legacy, who couldn’t support this?

Or you can came to Saturna Island and snooze through some boring former academic droning on about geology.

shovelin

PS: I’ll be back for the Rainbow Flag Raising at City hall on Monday, and hope to attend several of the New West Pride events, but maybe I’ll go on about that more next post…
PPS: Except to say if you like Whitecaps soccer, and who doesn’t, you can get discount tickets and a pre-game party in New West by going to the Pride Kick-off this Satruday! Enter here, and use the promo code PRIDENEWWEST.
FPS: And you should probably also pick up some tickets (while they are still available) for the 80’s and 90’s Dance Party at Match Pub next Friday. They are ridiculously cheap, and the Starlight Casino is a huge supporter of New West Pride. More on this next week, but I didn’t want to wait until tickets are sold out!

Pride

When the City decided to support our growing Pride Celebration week this year by painting a crosswalk with the rainbow symbol of Pride, the reaction was immediately positive. Aside from mentions in the local and alternative media, and a huge splash on social media, there was no big press rush or ribbon-cutting unveiling. It was a small but meaningful gesture, and we are far from the first community to do it.

@MsNWimby and I decided to take walk by after dinner yesterday so she could see it for the first time, and I was at first buoyed, then dismayed, to see a small crowd gathered taking pictures. Yes, somebody had splashed some household paint on the crosswalk, and all of the sudden, the regional media was interested.

I think it says something about where we are in Canada in 2015 that a City displaying an important symbol of inclusion, diversity, and acceptance is smaller news than someone defacing that symbol. Some might use this to critique modern media’s tendency to tell us what is bad in the world instead of what is good. I prefer to look at it from a more positive side.

The symbol of the Rainbow Flag was once a revolutionary one, born of the historic struggles for acceptance of homosexuality. The rainbow as a symbol of diversity and inclusion grew out of San Francisco as that City became the bulwark of “Gay rights” in the post-Hippie era. As is typical with symbols that challenge orthodoxy, many tried to ban it or belittle it. Fortunately, through the struggle of new generations of activists and community leaders, our society evolved, and the meaning of the flag has evolved with it. It is not just about “Gay rights”, or even homosexuality anymore; it is about recognizing that people are different. Colour, size, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, kinks – nobody is “normal”, because in a society of individuals there is no “normal”. Even I, as a hopelessly Wonderbread white, straight, monogamous, middle-aged, cis,  professional male, exist within a spectrum. The rainbow flag reminds me that the privileges once bestowed only upon those within my narrow band of the rainbow must now be enjoyed by all, or we don’t live in a just world. Unfortunately, we do not yet live in that just world.

The good news yesterday was that several people were around the crosswalk when the elderly vandal started slopping paint on it. They were quick to contact the NWPD, who were quick to react, and the gentleman was quite literally caught white-handed. A couple of quick phone calls, and City engineering staff were able to get a clean-up crew out there before the paint had fully dried, minimizing the damage. I’m really proud of our Police and Engineering staff for their quick response, such that by the time the first TV camera arrived on scene, the mess was already disappearing.

I was also happy to see that when the vandalism lit up the social media, the reaction was again almost universally supportive of the rainbow sidewalk. Many people were disappointed that the vandalism had occurred, and some even expressed anger about it. My first Tweet was this:

Capture

In hindsight, that probably sounded angrier than I was, as mostly I felt disappointment. It was later I learned the vandal was an aged man whose faculties may not have been completely intact. There is no doubt the act was deliberate, and the man should have to pay restitution to the taxpayers who paid for the policing and clean-up, but I mostly felt sorry for the man who felt so desperate to remain in his own, narrow band of the Rainbow.

With the benefit of 24 hours, and thinking about the elderly gentleman who performed this flaccid protest, I’m reminded of the words of a great leader:

“Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

Perhaps, as some have suggested, we shouldn’t be angry at the gentleman who saw this as his only way to express himself. Instead, we can be hopeful that he will see that he is only fighting against a more just world. We can also be optimistic about a future where we don’t need this symbol anymore. We aren’t there yet, but we have come far enough that an act against the symbol is bigger news that the displaying of the symbol itself. We are moving in the right direction, and if we handle this right as a community, the step backward represented by this gentleman’s rash act can be far offset by the steps forward taken by the conversation his act precipitated. As was posted on Facebook last night by another New West resident: “We all need to paint more rainbows in the world.”

I hope you all come out and enjoy New West Pride August 8-15th. It is going to be a great series of events, culminating in the Pride Street Party on Saturday the 15th. Get your picture taken with the crosswalk, and use it to start your own conversation.

Coldest Night

Walking with Councilors Harper & Puchmayr, Mayor Cote, and MLA Judy Darcy as part of the “Council of Champions” team at the 2015 Coldest Night of the Year walk for Seniors Services Society. Raising funds for a good cause is a little easier on the west cost, where the “Coldest Night” featured a spectacular sunset and flowers blooming along the Quayside boardwalk!