Price Talk

I was fortunate to be able to attend the taping of a Price Talks podcast. It was a real transportation policy geek fest (and, alas, a real sausage fest). Jarrett Walker is a transit planning consultant, an author, and an academic with an incredibly cosmopolitan view of urban transportation systems. He has worked on 4 continents, and can see the universal truths expressed in the great variety of built forms in cities around the world. The conversation was wide reaching, from Coriolanus to Elon Musk, from the inescapable geometric truths of urban transportation to aesthetic as a guiding principle in urban planning. There were dozens of quotable nuggets in the talk, some I will be chewing on for a long time as I think about how to apply them to my neighbourhood and community

My favourite nugget, however, was the 4-minute summary of ride hailing and its impact on communities. You can skip to 1:09 to hear this as part of the Q&A at the end of the evening, but to fully appreciate his answer, you need to hear his earlier discourses on the phenomenon of Elite Projection, and how it is the scourge of most North American transit planning.

Walker is much more profound on this topic than I can ever be, but the short definition of Elite Projection is the tendency for the most wealthiest and most influential minority in a population to think what is good or attractive to them is best for everyone. It exists throughout hierarchical decision-making, and once you open your eyes to it, it is everywhere. In urban transportation, it is manifest in Musk’s The Boring Company and in “cute streetcar stuck in traffic” approaches to urban transit world-wide. There may be a few local examples: here, here, or even here.

The heart of his argument about ride hailing is best summed up in this quote (based on his observed experience in American cities where it has rolled out):

…it has been a great way to draw out the worst aspects of elite projection, because people who can afford it have become addicted to it, [and] expect as a matter of course that it will be available… [but] like anything to do with cars, it only works as long as not many people use it.

Part of the problem is that providing mass transportation in an urban area is not a profitable business. It never has been, and never will be. Uber and Lyft are losing billions of dollars a year, their underpants-gnome business plans being propped up by venture capital silliness, while they can’t even pay living wages or provide basic workplace protections to the people doing the labour (we aren’t allowed to call them “employees”). At the same time, they cut into public transit revenues while increasing traffic congestion making those transit systems less reliable, pushing customers over to the ride-hailing industry, exacerbating the impacts. He doesn’t even touch on how ride hailing demonstrably correlates with less safe roads for people in cars, pedestrians and cyclists, but he doesn’t need to.

The warning for Vancouver is that the introduction of ride hailing could be “really terrible” for our traffic systems and our livability, for obvious reasons. The promise of ride hailing is that it reduces parking demand by increasing traffic congestion – this is not conjecture, but the demonstrated experience around North America. That is no win at all.

For you Uber fans out there, Walker does provide a clear policy recommendation about how we can make ride hailing work in our jurisdiction without externalizing these real impacts, but I guarantee Francesco Aquilini and Andrew Wilkinson ain’t going to like it…

Give it a listen, it is a great conversation:

A Night with Jarrett Walker: Building Human Transit with Shakespeare, String & Elephants in Wine Glasses

Ask Pat: 660 Quayside

Back from vacation, refreshed and ready to rock 2019, and no better start than banging off a couple of Ask Pats!

Jeff asks—

How long will the Waterfront detour at 660 Quayside be in place? For the entire duration of the build or are they getting the Waterfront walkway done before the full project gets underway? More importantly, where could I find this information? I see a lot of info online regarding the 660 Quayside project, but nothing about the required closures / detours.

The project at 660 Quayside, known as Pier West, is going to be a big, disruptive construction project. There is no way around that. Everything I write below is based on my current understanding of the project plan, but need to add the caveat that any construction project at this scale will no doubt see some changes and adjustments as they go along. The reality is that there will be a variety of factors (ground conditions, the regional building market, unknown unknowns, etc.) that will impact any timelines being proposed so early in the process. And quite often a lone City Councillor is the last to find out about things like this.

What I do know is that the developer agreed to delay the start of the project and adjust their construction staging to better accommodate the needs of the community, both by delaying the closing of their existing parking lot until the River Sky project has an operating public parking lot, and by adjusting how they do their major dig so that the inevitable closure of the railway crossing at Begbie Street is as short as possible.

There is some good news here. When this project is complete, it is going to be transformative for our Riverfront. What is now a pretty scrubby parking lot will become a newly-designed and better working Quayside Drive, two residential buildings and a daycare/commercial building, a completed waterfront boardwalk/esplanade connecting Pier Park to the River Market, 2 acres of new public greenspace expanding Pier Park to the west, and a new accessible pedestrian/cyclist overpass from the Parkade at 6th Street over to the expanded park. There will be a few surface parking spots around the base of the new buildings, but the bulk of the parking will be below grade (including something like 80 public parking spots), assuring that views of the Riverfront from Front Street and the intersections at Columbia are improved over now – we have avoided a big above-ground parking pedestal that can overwhelm public spaces. I think the project is going to be a great addition to the City’s Riverfront.

Between then and now, however, the entire 3.5 acre site is going to need to be excavated. Dug up, fill and contaminated soil removed, shored and sealed, and underground parking and mechanical spaces built. There is no way around the need to build a “bathtub” to accommodate the new landscape and underground parking. To make the situation worse, a big section of Quayside Drive that connect the River Market area to Begbie Street does not belong to the City (it has belonged to the owners of 660 Quayside for as long as anyone can remember, with the City has operated the road on a right-of-way). That area is going to be dug up to re-align the streets and build access to underground public parking. There no way to do this that isn’t disruptive, but the disruption will result in a great Riverfront improvement.

With that background, we can get to the essence of your question. The agreement the City has with the developer is that access to the west end of the existing Pier Park needs to be maintained. Until the Sixth Street overpass is built, that means that some form of pedestrian walkway needs to be maintained from Begbie Street. As installing sheet piles secant piles along the waterfront is an early part of the project, the access is not likely to be along the waterfront, but through the parking lot as it is now. Once the overpass is built and the bigger dig begins, you will need to cross at the Begbie intersection, go along Front or Columbia Street to access the Pier Park via the new overpass. How long this type of diversion will be in place is not an answer I have for you right now, but expect it to be for more than a year.

Secant piles being installed today. These are going to keep the underground garage and the river from interacting.

I suspect as the project moves along I will be able to give some better answers to some of these questions. Right now, the buildings are approved as far as zoning, and they have a partial building permit for the shoring and piling work currently happening (you can track this kind of stuff on the City’s “Projects on the Go” page) but a lot of the other details around the construction are still being worked out. Any kind of work like this that includes the River will trigger a bunch of Federal and Provincial environmental hoops for the builders to get over, work on the overpass and intersection means the Railways are going to be involved, and of course there will be legal agreements around rights of way and access relating to the redesign of the Begbie Street and Quayside Drive intersection. The developer has, up to now, shown a great deal of patience and willingness to work with the community (including the River Market, who are being impacted the most here), and I think that, in recognition of the high level of disruption this project may cause, Council will have reason to be kept more aware of progress than with a typical building project.

I don’t have a site contact yet, but once the project begins in earnest, I expect that there will be a person at the construction company who will be able to answer inquiries from the public. In the meantime, best to send specific requests to our planning department at the City (follow this link for the contact info)

Ask Pat: Setbacks

“Jean-Luc” asks

I live in a new condo building that abuts right onto an older building. I’m not sure how the developer got away with building right to the property line. Needless to say, the owners of the other building were not happy with us, and really, it’s not what we envisioned either. What is the minimum distance requirement between two multi-family dwellings…if any?

It depends. And unfortunately, the better answer is buried in a complex and arcane document called the Zoning Bylaw. The Bylaw was originally adopted back in 2001, but has been significantly modified such that the latest version consolidated to include all changes up to July, 2018 are cobbled together into not a single pdf, but a website that links to a relatively well-organized list of several pdfs that you can access here:

https://www.newwestcity.ca/zoning-bylaw

In there you will find a 9-page list of amendments, in case you care to see the evolution of the Bylaw over 17 years. You will also find an introductory document that lays out the format of the Bylaw, including 22 pages of definitions and the names of the 75 “districts” into which the City is divided, each with their own specific rules. Telling, but not surprising if you have ever been to a Public Hearing about a rezoning, this launches off with then 22 pages of parking requirements, before a bunch of seemingly-random but no-doubt-logical-at-the-time rules about things like garbage and recycling storage facilities and satellite dishes… alas.

There is also a little bit in this section about setbacks – the required distance behind a property line where buildings can be constructed, but here it is a strange list of specific spots that were probably put in place for location-specific requirements like utility offsets or traffic sightlines. If you want to know how close you can build to your property line or how close your neighbour can build to it, you probably need to get into the specifics of the zoning district that applies.

To do that, you go to the Zoning Map (sorry, you probably need Silverlight to do that, because it is 2018), and see what zoning district applies to the spot of land you care about. Just open the map, zoom/scroll to your location and click the property, a table with zoning on it should pop up (I circled in red):

Then you need to go to the comprehensive list (7 documents, 400+ pages) of zoning districts to see what the specific rules are. All this to say, there is no single rule, but a set of rules and local exemptions apply, so everything I say here is general and the only relation it has to your specific case is that it almost certainly doesn’t apply to your specific case. Zoning is complicated.

In generality, for single family homes the “side setback” is 10% of the lot width or 5 feet, whichever is less, but never less than 4 feet, although it may be possible for some non-wall to “project” into this setback in special cases. That not clear, but about the clearest case you can have.

Condo buildings vary in their zoning type, depending on what type of building they are (townhouse or small apartment building or tower?). Some fit snugly in a Townhouse or Commercial District designation, others are “Comprehensive Development Districts”, which are stand-alone zoning rules developed to support a specific development at a specific site – and therefore have an address attached to them. The nearest one to where I am sitting now is the one I clicked on in the map above, which is CD-20: Comprehensive Development District (246 Sixth Street). This was put together in 2008 to permit a 16 storey residential tower with commercial “live-work units” at grade, now called 258 Sixth Street, just to complicate matters. It has no set-back requirement at grade, but setbacks above 9.14 metres (i.e. starting on the fourth floor) of 2.5m at the streetscape sides (to reduce the “mass” of the building as it appears from the street), 14.2m at the rear and 7.1m on the neighboring-building side (both to reduce the proximity to current and potential future residential buildings).

When you look at the building you can see that the lower part of the side was build, as most commercial buildings are, to butt up against a future adjacent building, while the upper parts are built to provide a bit of space between future residential areas:

The reality is that the fixed rules are more commonly treated as strong “guidelines” based on best practices. For example, the general practice for towers is to have more than 30m between the “towery” parts of towers, and in commercial areas the best practice is to have no space between buildings at grade in order to create a cohesive, attractive, and safe commercial frontage, where gaps don’t make any planning sense (like this spot I recognized recently in downtown Port Coquitlam but failed to take a photo of, so thanks Google Street View):

Every Comprehensive Development District has its own character, as does each neighbourhood. Its shape and form of any planned building is impacted by the buildings that are adjacent to it and by the future vision of the neighbourhood based on longer-term planning guidelines like the Official Community Plan. However, all of these guidelines can be overruled by bringing a Development Plan and appropriate Zoning Amendment to Council and convincing Council there is a good reason to vary from the guidelines. Sometimes this means placing a tower towards one side of the pedestal in order to reduce the viewscape conflict with an adjacent building, sometimes it means the increasing the size of a setback in order to provide some community benefit like improved pedestrian realm or emergency vehicle access. These are the complicated maths that often require months or years of negotiation between our planning staff, the landowner, stakeholders and the community.

Perhaps that is the part of the entire development-approving process that most of the public don’t understand when they see a project come to Council for a Public Hearing. They see Council approving or denying a specific building, but in actuality it is a large and complicated stack of compromises (by than landowner and the City) and potential benefits built up over those negotiations that Council eventually is asked to approve or not approve.

So your building may have allowed zero setback as part of its zoning, or a zero setback may have been something the City wanted as part of the development to create a more amiable streetscape in the long term, or a zero setback may have been something the developer of your building wanted to maximize the amount of square footage they could sell. Likely at least two of these are true, or else it would not have been built like that.

Ask Pat: Two projects

In the spirit of getting caught up, Here are two Ask Pats with similar answers: “I don’t know”.

mmmmm beer. asks—

I appreciate the transparency your blog offers. I just have a quick question. What ever happened to the Craft Beer Market that was supposed to go in at the New West Station. Is that still moving forward?

Shaji asks—

Firstly, thank you for getting back to me on my question about Frankie G’s 😊
Secondly, there are many of us residents at the Peninsula and Port Royal in general wanting to inquire about the plans for the Eastern Neighbourhood Node. I know there were some extensive discussions and planning sessions between the City and Platform Properties. We also have noticed that some ground preparation work has started. Any updates that you can share on what work has started, what are the prospects and what are the timelines for this project. Thanks 😊

Yes, the answer to both of these questions is “I don’t know”.

The Craft Beer Market was a proposal that came to Council for a Development Permit back in July of 2016, and was proposed for the empty lot across from the Anvil Centre at Eighth and Columbia. You can read the report starting on page 348 here. It was brought to Council as a Report for Information, and the next steps were to be Design Panel review and some public consultation, then staff would bring a Development Permit bylaw to us for approval or rejection. I remember the conversation about the proposal being generally positive (see the Minutes of that meeting, Page 13 here), but we have not, in my recollection, seen any further reports.

The Eastern Neighborhood Node that would connect Port Royal to the rest of Queensborough with a mix of residential and commercial property has been the subject of several meetings. The most exciting part of the proposal (and the part that led to some discussions around the layout of the site ans stage of development) was the allocation of some 50,000 square feet of neighbourhood-serving commercial. This would bring (it is hoped) a small grocery store a some basic services to the booming Port Royal community. There would be some land assembly required, as (again, to the best of my knowledge), the developer does not own all of the land required to make the development work, and some pretty significant utility and drainage engineering needs to be done to support the development.

Both of these speak to how complicated development can sometimes be, and to the fact that Council is not directly involved in some of what makes development happen or not happen in the community. We can, obviously, say “no” to a development proposal that requires variances or zoning changes, but once we say “yes” to a development we really can’t force the developer to build. Even the “yes” we give a developer does not typically contain a timeline to completion. As plans are developed, construction costs are calculated, compromises are negotiated, and market forces are navigated, sometimes the math ends up not working out for the proposal we see at Council, and it never happens. Commonly, those things occur in a way that Council would never see. If there is no decision for us to make, no plan or change of plans for us to approve, we are most likely in the dark about the details of what is holding the situation up.

Both of those proposals have some very public-facing companies involved. They may be able to answer your questions better than I can. As a general principle, I think getting retail happening on the eastern end of Queensborough and that empty lot at Eighth and Columbia activated would be great things for the City, and for our residents. I don’t know how I can make either happen faster than the landowner plans to invest. I can tell you that there is no action that I know of that Council has taken to slow down either proposal.

Ask Pat: Bent Court

I have been tardy on Ask Pats. I have this other project going on, and have taken the Ask Pat thing analogue a bit to reach more people. However, there are a few in the queue here, and I am going to spend a bit of my Thanksgiving weekend trying to get caught up. Enjoy!

Chris asked—

Hello,

In an archived memo back in 2016 you posted this regarding the future study of Bent Court.

Bent Court: This area is interesting, a mixed residential and commercial district that is zoned for high-rises, although it is unlikely that anyone would build to that scale here. Staff is recommending a special approach here that can incentivize the preservation of the heritage homes, whether they be used for residential or commercial.

Can you help clarify why it is unlikely that ” anyone would build to that scale here”

Bent Court is a bit of an anomaly. The comment you hearken back to was part of the OCP discussions, where we recognized a few areas in the city that didn’t fit into a bigger area-wide picture very well. The West End and Massey Victory Heights are pretty internally homogeneous, but areas like Lower Twelfth Street and Bent Court are not easily defined, nor is it clear what land use will be most successful there.

Bent Court is mostly a collection of heritage-aged houses, many of them converted to some sort of commercial use. They are immediately adjacent to the uptown commercial area, but also serve as a buffer to the residential areas of Brow of the Hill. There is currently one project being (slowly) built on this site where a heritage house is bring preserved and a 6-story residential building is being built. Even they project caused us some challenges, as determining what a full compliment of parking should be for an area like this that is walkable, but not that close to SkyTrain is a difficult estimate. Street parking can sometimes be at a premium, but many of the apartment buildings nearby have largely underutilized parking. Alas… parking…

My thought in that statement about building to full high-density at Bent Court (in C-3 Zoning, this means Floor Space Ratio of over 5, mixed-use commercial at grade, residential above) was my own feeling that the economics and difficulty of assembling land to make it happen make it unlikely in the current market. Each of the lots is worth more than $1 Million now, to build to the scale of the adjacent mixed-use towers, one would have to assemble a dozen properties. Some (or most) of these properties have some potential heritage value (which adds some uncertainty to the approval process), and are currently returning commercial lease rates that make them economically viable as they are.

That said, there is a lot of development going on right now across the region, and I am not a land economist, so I may not be reading the market well. Not long after I wrote that statement, a real estate company put signs up suggesting land assembly and high rise development are viable options. That doesn’t mean it is going to happen, nor has there been an application for any kind of rezoning or development permit arrive at Council, nor is it clear how staff, Council, or the community would approach such an application. A Bent Court Area Study is planned for 2019 as part of the ongoing OCP Implementation Plan, and this will provide a little more robust economic analysis than my speculations above. Stay tuned, because there will no doubt be opportunities for community input at that time.

I could imagine Bent Court as a pretty special place. Co-op ownership, preserve the heritage houses, convert them to live/work units where artists can set up studio space and live on their studios, add a few food and drink opportunities and some clever marketing, and it could become a unique mini-artisan village of regional importance. However, one doesn’t have to be a land economist to recognize at a million dollars a lot, it would be neigh impossible to make this work unless one had small fortune to dig into… any patrons out there?

Renovictions

There was a meeting this week hosted by the Vancouver Tenants Union in my Brow of the Hill neighbourhood. It was to address the culminating “renoviction” crisis in this area, and to hear from people who may be facing renoviction. As I said in my previous post, this is the hardest question for me to address as a City Councillor, and this meeting was at times heartbreaking (see a good summary in the Record here). These are my neighbours (quite literally in one case), they are scared, and we heard a lot from them at this meeting.

The background to the meeting is the work that the Vancouver Tenants Union are doing around the region to provide support to people who are facing renoviction. They are one resource that can assist people in appealing eviction notices, in making sure tenants’ rights are protected to the letter of the law. They have been working mostly in Vancouver, but have also done some work in other areas in the Lower Mainland, and see New Westminster as a current “hot spot” for renovictions.

Whenever this issue of renoviction comes up, there is a common refrain that we need to give landlords the ability to maintain and renovate these lower-cost buildings, or they will quickly degrade into slums. We hear that many of these buildings are approaching end-of-life, and the increase in rent is necessary to fund the renovations to keep them standing. The VTU are presenting data that this is largely a red herring, and I am going to dig deep into one example they use. So grab a tea and comfy seat, this may go on a bit:

If you prefer TL;dnr versions: The current renoviction surge in New Westminster is mostly the result of investors extracting healthier returns for their portfolios by throwing low-income people out on the street. This is not an unfortunate result of unavoidable events – this is driven by greed for profits. And they aren’t even subtle about it.

The building-systems-reaching-end-of-life situation does occur. We get applications every couple of years for a building that fits this description. However, we are now seeing a huge increase in numbers, and dozens of buildings in New Westminster are now facing some form of renoviction, most owned by the same small group of land-flipping corporate entities. There is significant evidence that this is a profit-driven activity.

As a single case in point, the VTU provided me a copy of a sales brochure for a commercial property in New Westminster. I have done what I can to remove the actual address from this to protect the privacy of the current residents, but suffice it to say this is a ~40 year old three-story walk-up typical of New Westminster’s ample affordable rental stock. The real estate agent is offering this “renovators dream” for sale for $3.5 Million, which is $500k over assessed value. Here is a redacted image of page 2 of the brochure:

I would love to go through this pamphlet and pick out the numerous flaws in fact in here, (“The area has gone through a major resurgence with the redevelopment of St. Mary’s Hospital into condominiums” – The St. Mary’s site is currently an elementary school and public park), and speculative fiction about potential increases in suites, but making fun of sales-fluff seems seems pedantic, so I will concentrate on what we can glean from the prospectus. (highlights are mine:)

This shows 13 rental suites (one illegal, or “unauthorized” in the parlance of sales), with three of them vacant to “to help streamline the improvement program”. The other 10 are single-bedroom and renting for between $735 and $850 a month. This includes free parking and cable, and some landlord subsidy of the electrical (likely for common areas, heating, etc.). The building is netting $67,278 a year, which is a Cap Rate of 1.9% per year based on the $3.5M sale price. For some reason they are not renting out two legal suites in a market where rental vacancy is under 1%, but add that revenue, even if it meant a concurrent 20% increase in expenses and you can turn in an extra $16K, bringing the Cap Rate up to 2.3%. This is less than the expected return for a serious real estate investor, but in no way is this building losing money. As a bonus, the Residential Tenancy Act allows annual rent increases greater than inflation – these numbers will only get better over time.

Now shift over to the “Potential Rent” column. It shows an increase in rents ranging from 100% to 135%, renting the illegal suite, charging for parking, all of the electricity and cable, and all of the sudden your Cap Rate is a very attractive 6.6%. Note that nothing in this prospectus mentions the cost of significant renovation, and the sales pitch seem to suggest the building is in good shape, with recent heating and electrical upgrades. So the proposal is to more than double the rent and not increase costs at all. I guess I am mostly shocked that they have no shame just putting that right out there in the middle of a housing crisis.

The VTU have found a number of buildings in New Westminster in similar situations, and have been tracing the ownership of the corporate entities who are – and there is no finer point to make than this – making a healthy investment strategy out of throwing low-income and vulnerable people out on the street in the tightest real estate market in the country.

Arguably, there is nothing illegal going on here. People are allowed to buy buildings and make money renting them out. If this building needs significant upgrades (or, if the landlord just wants to do upgrades such that they require the suites to be vacant), they are totally within their rights to throw those people out, provided they give appropriate notice. It becomes legally grey if they just do superficial upgrades as an excuse to evict residents. However, there is currently nothing the City or the Province can do to prevent this activity from taking place, and when the decision is to turn a small profit into a bigger profit by making vulnerable people homeless, then we are into a question of morality, not law.

The City is working hard to identify these properties, as are the VTU. At this point, all we can do is try to contact the residents and assure they understand their rights under the Residential Tenancy Act and what supports exist for them if they are insecure in housing. The VTU is working to get people in these buildings organized, and help guide them through the appeal process that exists under the RTA if they feel they were unfairly evicted, but need all of the information and support they can get. The City has no power to refuse building permits in these cases, if the landlord even bothers to apply for a permit.

Ultimately, we need to change the regulations to protect these vulnerable people from predatory rent increases. This is most likely to come from the Provincial government. At UBCM last year, the City of New Westminster put forward a resolution (endorsed by the membership) that read:

be it resolved that UBCM urge the provincial government to undertake a broad review of the Residential Tenancy Act including, but not limited to, amending the Residential Tenancy Act to allow renters the right of first refusal to return to their units at a rent that is no more than what the landlord could lawfully have charged, including allowable annual increases, if there had been no interruption in the tenancy;

Although some changes in the RTA were made in May to give renovicted tenants more notice and compensation, we are still short of where we need to be, and renovictions are an emergent crisis in New Westminster. I wish there was something we could do, because being in a meeting with 50 people feeling the stress and recognizing some of them may become homeless, after all of the work this City has done and investments this City has made to protect and enhance our affordable housing stock, only because of a lucrative investment opportunity being sold here, is enraging

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!

TMH and the Public Hearing

We had a Public Hearing on Tuesday, and I have gnawed the ends off of a few metaphorical pencils thinking about how to write about it. Partly because it was an emotional night for a great many people, including members of Council. So I’ll start by talking about the facts, and save the emotions for after the fold.

The Public Hearing was to evaluate an OCP Amendment and Rezoning to permit the construction of a 44-unit supportive housing project on City land in Queensborough. This project is funded by the provincial government’s rapid response funding program, where capital and operational cost of a temporary modular housing (“TMH”) building will be covered by BCHousing, if a local government can provide land it owns (for a 10 year lease) and a reliable service agency agrees to operate the facility.

The City went through an extensive search for an appropriate site, and several sites were evaluated in Q’boro and other New West neighbourhoods. Of the three “short listed” sites, only the site at 838 Ewen Avenue was found to be viable. After some initial feedback from the community, we did some more evaluation of a second site in Queensborough, but again found it was not viable for reasons I discussed here. In short, if we wanted to take benefit of the rapid response funding, and have a TMH project in New Westminster, the Ewen Ave site is the only location.

Going into the Public Hearing, we received about 200 pieces of correspondence, and almost all of them were in favour. There was also an electronic petition circulated in the neighbourhood that opposed the project. The Design Panel, Advisory Planning Commission, and Community and Social Issues Committee all voted to support the project. I attended the public open house back on May 1, and heard concerns expressed by some residents, and also had some of my questions answered about the project. I had meetings with people who expressed specific concerns about the site, and the project in general, and also had many conversations with people who supported it, including many people who approached me at the Queensborough Children’s Festival two weeks ago. Along with other members of Council, I did a tour of the similar (but larger) TMH project in a residential Marpole neighbourhood that received significant public attention when it was proposed, but has been operating for more than four months without significant issues.

All this to say I had a *lot* of information going into the Public Hearing, but I was not sure what feedback we would receive, and only hoped for a rational and respectful conversation about concerns and benefits. In the end, we had about 80 people delegate to Council, with a majority in favour of the project. Even if we separate the presentations from the proponents (BCHousing and E.Fry), there were still as many community voices speaking in favour as opposed. That said, Public Hearings should not, in my opinion, be about raw counts of Pro vs. Con presenters, but should be about the weight of the arguments when seeking balance between benefits and costs of any project.

Fundamentally, this is a land use issue. The question before Council was whether this is an appropriate use of the land. This being the only piece of City land available does not by itself make it the right place for TMH. Every land use decision is about balancing positive and negative impacts, including opportunity costs. This lot was purchased by the City along with an adjacent piece of land a couple of years ago from the owners of the previous gas station on the site (demolished in 1991). It had recently been used as a construction staging and supply stockpile during the Ewen Avenue reconstruction, but is currently bare gravel. The location is close to the Queensborough Community Centre, adjacent to a bus stop with fairly regular service, and about 800m from major shopping. The service providers think the site is a good balance of being close to services but also in a residential area.

I am cognizant of the green space concerns, but do not see this project as a significant takeaway from Ryall Park. The lot is about 1,430 square metres, which is less than 2% of the Ryall Park area (when you include the Community Centre and adjacent playing fields, but not including the schools). Despite some comments I heard during the Public Hearing, Queensborough has more green space by area and per capita that the City’s average, made even more so with improvements over the last decade related to Port Royal Park, Old Schoolhouse Park, and greenway improvements along the waterfront. I am protective of the City’s green space, and agree that many neighbourhoods need more (which we are working on), but every discussion about green space is about balancing the opportunity costs and other community benefits.

A lot of the conversations and research over the last month has been around a “risk” argument – the argument that the residents of this housing will pose a greater risk to other park users than any other resident of a house or townhouse in the area. We met with BC Housing folks and reviewed the Community Advisory Committee and PAC minutes from the Marpole project and adjacent schools. We have talked to law enforcement and support agencies. We did everything we could to learn what the experiences in other locations were in relation to these concerns, talking to people who have dedicated their careers to providing assistance to people in need of housing. I could not find any evidence that this project will create some exceptional risk to neighbours or other park users. Quite the opposite, the evidence is ample that an amenity like this improves the lives of people in our community, and makes our entire community stronger.

Council each had their own reasons to support this project moving forward (and you can watch the video here, I don’t want to speak for others). For myself, I believe this is an appropriate location, the only location in New Westminster where this valuable amenity can be rapidly built, and I am convinced this project can and will be a positive for the entire community.


Now for the hard part.

This Public Hearing was soul-crushing. There is no other way to describe it. A week later, it is still causing me a mix of feelings, most of them negative. I cannot get over what was an overwhelmingly negative experience for every member of the public who attended – those in favour of the project, and those opposed. But I don’t know how we take a project that elicits so much emotion and provide outlets for people to speak from their hearts and their minds such that they feel heard or understood without the antagonism that was displayed. I believe in community consultation, and in representative democracy and responsible governance as a force for good… this was none of those, and I feel heartbroken about how the event unfolded.

One thing that was made crystal clear to me: the Public Hearing process is broken. This structure demanded by the Local Government Act is almost perfectly designed to create an 11th hour all-or-nothing us-vs-them divisive conflict event where opponents face off and speak past each other instead of providing a safe, inclusive, and collaborative conversation about the relative merits or costs of a project.

The structure is such that it makes it difficult for Council members (who must remain open minded through the process in order to act semi-judiciously in the ultimate decision making) to moderate the debate or pre-empt the conflict. Staff must balance on the razor’s edge of providing factual information about a project without appearing to be advocating for a project that must have had enough public policy merit to get as far as the Public Hearing. The delegates at any Public Hearing are almost exclusively people who feel strongly for the specific project, or are strongly opposed to it. This is evidenced by the fact that most Public Hearings are sparsely attended – you have to feel personally affronted to bother going out on a Monday night to speak at a boring public meeting. Of course, the stronger those feelings, the less likely one is going to accept or appreciate new data or varying opinions provided at the Public Hearing. And as it is always a last-minute winner-take-all debate, there is very little opportunity to learn, or discuss the larger policy implications that underlie a project, from affordable housing policy to transportation demand management to voluntary amenity contributions and urban design principles, because those are bureaucratic-sounding and technocratic solutions that are lost in the fog of parochial personal concerns and emotional battery. That is a terrible way to make decisions in a complex world.

I wish a week later I had suggestions, a model for a better way, but I don’t. I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know how we have a more nuanced discussion with the general public about any new project that comes down the pike. I don’t know how we provide space for the somewhat-interested and potentially-benefiting to engage when so much of the space is taken up by the personally aggrieved. All I know is that the current model of the Public Hearing doesn’t work. As currently structured, it is an affront to representative democracy, a barrier to good decision making, and a terrible form of consultation. It divides at a time when we should be coming together. It needs to change.

Counting Lanes

The Canada Games Pool replacement project is moving along. We have just completed a second round of public consultation, and one group have taken this opportunity to encourage the City to do more than the initial concept plan that resulted from the work to date. As they spent some time delegating to Council and have got quite a bit of messaging in the media (social and otherwise), I figured I would write a bit about how we got here, and my understanding of the request.

A couple of years ago, this Council made the decision to replace the Canada Games Pool (CGP) with a modern facility instead of investing tens of millions of dollars in replacing end-of-life components of the existing building and mechanicals. This has led to a lot of work on planning for a new facility, from figuring out what the “program” of the new facility needs to be, what it will cost, where it will fit on the site, and other technical and financial considerations. This has included two lengthy conversations with the public and stakeholders.

There are a few points that constrain our opportunities here. Council agreed with strong advocacy in the community that the existing pool cannot be torn down until the new one is built – we cannot afford to have a lengthy period without the swim programs and other amenities that the CGP provides. It was also determined that replacing the late-life Centennial Community Centre (CCC) at the same time would provide worthwhile synergies and assure continuity of programming. Finally, an extensive analysis of locations around the City brought the conclusion that the existing location had many advantages, and that the cost of moving the pool to a different neighbourhood just didn’t make sense, financially or for the disruption it would cause.

This is recognizing another limit on the current site, in that the front parking lot of the current pool was built on the upper reaches of the Glenbrook Ravine, which was filled in the 1960’s, burying a regionally-important sewer line under it. We cannot build above that sewer line (due to Metro Vancouver owning a right of way that excludes any construction), and moving it would cost a significant portion of what a new pool costs, so that further constrains the site. However, preliminary design and architectural work demonstrates that we can fit a decent-sized (~115,000 square foot) facility on the site immediately to the south and west of the existing pool.

Another thing Council did was tour new pool facilities across the Lower Mainland. We visited the Edmonds Community Centre, the Hillcrest Community Centre, the Poirier Complex, the West Vancouver Community Centre, and more. We also had an extensive tour of the current Canada Games Pool. On all of these visits, we are able to talk to the operators and project planners to talk about what works, and what doesn’t. Most interesting was to discuss what they would do differently if they were to start a pool replacement project from fresh. A few of us even scheduled a visit to a larger pool facility in Gatineau when in Ottawa last year, and have been tracking new pool facilities across the region to understand who is doing what.

Of course there have been a tonne of conversations here in New West with the pool user community, and people who don’t currently use the pool, but might like to except for its lack of serving their needs. There was both formal consultation and more informal meetings with stakeholder groups (such as the Hyack Swim Club). A few of us on Council also went out and did a few days of door knocking in the neighbourhoods around the pool to better understand what people think about the current pool, what they know about the replacement plans, and to hear if the budget freaks them out.

I have to say the most consistent feedback I received was that the current pool is not as inviting to families and community use as other more modern facilities. Part of this is the somewhat aged structure (described by some as dank and stuffy), but also the lack of play space and the colder water temperature (which makes it better for competitive swimming) that makes it harder for families to enjoy the space together. We also had feedback that the gym was too small and not comfortable because it shared humid and warm airspace with the pool. We also heard from a significant user group that they loved the humid, warm gym environment. A very small number of people valued the diving towers and the water slide, but most wanted more flexible spaces. The value of the pool as a community amenity and the programs run by our recreation staff were a consistent theme, but when it came to details, there was a wide diversity of opinions. I have no idea who you are reading this, but I bet at least one point I raised above is something you disagree with, as is the reality of public consultation.

The process to filter through this feedback included working with an architect experienced in building these types of facilities and measuring out what different program components would add as far as square footage and cost. The cost part, of course, includes the cost to build the facility, but also a business case based on the needs of a rapidly growing community. This means determining the capacity of pools, changerooms, gym facilities and such needed to accommodate (increasing) anticipated users. The operational costs are put into context of the potential for revenue generation and revenue growth. New Westminster is a relatively small city with challenging infrastructure needs, and it became clear that the budget was going to drive part of this conversation – we are going to build the best pool we can, but simply cannot afford to build everything that everyone wants. We knew hard decisions were going to have to be made.

Amalgamating the public feedback and other data, and coming up with a program to fit as many needs as possible, was a challenging process. The report on the first round of consultation and the reasoning that led to the proposed program, can be read here. It is this program that the City took out for a second round of consultation last month, and we have yet to receive a report back at Council about the results of the consultation; that is the next step here.

This is the background to the Hyack Swim Club’s appearance at Council to delegate on their needs and desires for the pool. I don’t want to put words in their mouth, but the message was that the proposed program is inadequate for holding the scale of meets that they think we can attract. We could still hold regional meets up to the level that the current facility can host, but we could not host national-level meets that are currently only possible at Kamloops and Victoria. In the media (social and otherwise) this has been characterized as requiring the addition of two more lanes, which sounds pretty minor, but there are hints it is more than this. So I’ll take a bit of time to put some context around that specific issue, recognizing this is at topic I am still learning about, so I stand ready to be corrected.

One big decision in any new civic pool facility is – do you build a 25m or 50m pool? The emphasis on fitness and lap swimming, including the legacy of the Hyack Club, is the reason the City suggested a 50m pool instead of a 25m pool (or even two 25m pools, which would be similar in cost to the one large pool, but provide much more user flexibility, which is the decision Richmond made with the new Minoru complex project). The demand analysis described above suggested that New West could meet anticipated swim demand by building a 25m 10-lane pool and a secondary leisure pool. It is the legacy of competitive swimming at the pool that led to the alternative 50m pool plan being considered.

The current pool is 8 lanes, and the proposed program would also be 8 lanes, with 2.4m lanes. The proposal also includes a much larger leisure pool that can accommodate some lane swimming, but also have the amenities people come to expect from a community pool serving families and other leisure users. So, contrary to some social media reports, we are not proposing a smaller pool that we currently have, but one with a functionally-similar main tank, and a significant second tank. It is my understanding (and I stand to be corrected here, as I have some reading to do!) that the Hyack Swim Club’s request is not just for two more lanes, but a deeper main tank, a much larger secondary tank with potentially less family / leisure useability, a significant increase in deck space for stands, and perhaps some other functional changes. The full proposal needs to be evaluated for fit and cost (capital and operational).

If I was to express frustration about this process, it is that the competitive swimming community always advocates for 50m pools whenever a new pool is built, but there never seems to be a pool built that satisfies their needs. Hillcrest and Grandview are just two recent examples of 50m pools that were built to accommodate a vocal competitive swimming advocacy group, but are(according to the presentations we received at Council) inadequate for competitive swimmers. The proposals for the new Harry Jerome complex in North Vancouver is going through a very similar conversation today (note – that “editorial” in the newspaper is actually a paid-for sponsored ad, which is its own weirdness), and I hear from the recreation operators that there are simply too many 50m pools being built in the region.

In summary, the conversation is ongoing here in New Westminster, and it is great that the Hyack Swim Club has been working to inform Council about their needs. I have had some correspondence from them since the Council delegations, and they have provided me some reading material to review. I hope to gain some better understanding about the details and (importantly) the business case implications involved in meeting the Hyack Swim Club’s expectations while not compromising what the rest of the community wants from a recreation facility. This conversation is not at all a setback for the project, but a perfect example of why we do public consultation. Our goal is (as it always has been) to have a project definition ready for when the Federal and Provincial government open the application window for infrastructure grants, and though there has been no confirmation of that date, we are in a good place to work out these details in time to make the window.

More to come!

MC Podcast!

A couple of years ago, a few new City Councillors from “the suburbs” of Metro Vancouver were invited to take part in a City Conversation at SFU, a program that brings people together over a brown-bag lunch at SFU Downtown to talk Urbanism. It was fun, and got us all speculating over a beer about how we can find an excuse to do this again. Then someone (I think it was Mathew Bond) said “Podcast”.

Two years later, almost to the date, we have a Podcast! It’s called Metro Conversations, and you can listen to the first 6 episodes at iTunes and GooglePlay. But first a little context.

Our initial idea was to repeat the City Conversations model: 1-hour conversations with a small panel of subject matter experts with an intimate audience, facilitated by the Council of Four (myself, Mathew Bond, Kiersten Duncan, and Nathan Pachal). We record these conversations, and put them out as Podcasts.

We also thought we could fill the space by also sitting down occasionally for a “Metro Chat”, where just the four of us discuss an Urbanism topic. The idea here is that we are elected people who are not subject matter experts, but can provide a bit of a bridge between experts and people interested in what goes into making a more livable city. We also bring context from our local parts of the region, as Urbanism too often emphasizes the urban centre and that is where it is more easily embraced. As we will explore, it is around the edges that the benefits and impacts of modern city-making are really felt.

As will be readily apparent to listeners, we are not professional broadcasters, but we are passionate about our communities, and love to talk about Urbanist topics and how they impact our communities.

We have a half-dozen episodes up and running, and a couple in the can that we are working on as far as making them audible. This is our first try (we could even call it “Season 1”?) and are hoping to hear form people about what they like, what we need to do better, or what topics you want us to tackle if and when a Season 2 is organized. So please tune in, and let us know what you think by going to our Facebook Page and providing us feedback.

There are People to Thank:

SFU Public Square for the grant and their (paid!) interns for doing a bunch of the busy work and coordination that we simply would never have completed if you left it to four City Councilors who live all over the place and have full time jobs and long lists of commitments that make our working together on anything difficult. This was only possible through the Public Square.

Michael Alexander from the City Program at SFU for pulling us together and giving us the inspiration to try something different.

Random #NewWest peeps Wes Kinna (for masterfully helping with sound at live events), Stephen O’Shea (for creating a cool distinctive sound for intro/outro), and Christa MacArthur (for lending us her distinctively non-distinctive accent).

The Network Hub in New West, the District of North Vancouver, City of Langley, City of Port Coquitlam, and City of New Westminster for hosting spaces for us to hold conversations.

And all of our guests and audience members who made the live conversations work.