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.

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.