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

Miner improvements?

I went on a bit of a rant last week in Council on pedestrian crossings, and it is worth following up a bit here to expand sometimes on the things I rant about. In this case the subject was something we can all agree on – making pedestrian spaces safer in the City – but the details of the discussion outline how difficult it can sometimes be, even when everyone is on the same page. The hill on Richmond Street provides a great case in point about how we want to do things differently, but are stuck with a bad legacy to clean up. And that costs.

The Fraserview neighbourhood is somewhat unique in New Westminster. Most of our community is based on a well established and dense street grid that reflects how humans move around their communities – a layout that is “human scaled”. The Fraserview neighbourhood was developed out of the abandoned BC Pen site in the 1980s, which was the Canadian peak of auto-oriented suburb design. This is not the fault of the council or staff of the time, or of the people who live there now, but a result of where we were and how we valued space as a society in the 1980s.

The buildings on this map are coloured by the decade they were built. See Sapperton and Queens Park with a blend of ages and traditional dense street grids, Fraser View with 1980s houses (red) and 1990s condos (blue) with the suburban road scheme so sexy at the time.

At the time, New Westminster built this strange little auto-oriented suburb in the gap between two dense urban community centres. Since the primary built form was “house with a garage facing the street and a private yard in the back” (note this is a generally unusual built form in New West!), the streets were designed with the same exact mindset – they will be used to move cars between garages, and not much else.

This resulted in some road design ideas that were the opposite of current thinking. Instead of straight lines and a dense grid to connect pedestrians, we build a meandering “arterial” road connecting capillaries of culs-de-sac. Of course these are ostensibly “family neighbourhoods”, so we kept the speed down to 50km/h by putting up a sign, and left plenty of road space for road-side parking and car passage. The curvy hill part of Richmond has wide 20m right-of-way between property lines, but the road profile part (travel lanes and sidewalk) are a pretty typical 14.5m. This feels wider partly because the sidewalks are less than the 1.8-2m wide we would shoot for in 2019, there is no buffer space between the sidewalk and the road, and the parking spots along the road are unmarked and not very heavily used. Add this up, and you have no visual “friction” giving drivers cues to slow down. Wide roads tell people to drive fast, it is human nature.

This is how the road was built in the late 1980s:

I like to think if we were building the road today, it would more like this:

But that is just a representative cross section. There is another issue that makes the pedestrian experience even more uncomfortable. If you look at the intersection of Richmond and Miner, where staff were asked to evaluate placing a crosswalk, you see the corners are rounded off to facilitate higher turning speeds:

The technical term for this shape is “Corner Radius”. In this diagram you can see the curb follows a curve with a radius (blue) of about 8m, and the effective turning radius (tracing the track a vehicle would actually use for a right turn) is closer to 15m. By modern standards, this is a crazy wide corner, more suited for a race track than an urban area. Reading up on modern urban streets standards, curb radii smaller than 1m are not uncommon, and radii bigger than 5m (15 feet) fall under the category of “should be avoided”.

The impact of such a wide radius is bigger than just facilitating faster turns, it also creates a variety of sightline problems. See how far back the stop line is on this corner? How far around the corner can a driver practically see? This results in the confusing stop, creep forward, peek, make aggressive move intersection action that opens up opportunity for driver error. This is made worse when there is no clear demarcation of where the parking zone ends near the intersection. Our Street and Parking Bylaw says you can’t park within 6m of the nearest edge of an intersecting sidewalk or crosswalk, but it is less clear where that 6m buffer is when the sidewalk geometry is like this. moving the stop line further forward creates a conflict with pedestrians trying to cross the street at a rational place – where the curbs are closer.

For pedestrians, these big radius corners increase the crossing distances, expanding the time that someone (especially a young child or senior citizen, who travel slower) is exposed to traffic. Crossing Richmond Street at this intersection, the distance between curb cuts is almost 20m, where the sidewalks are only 11m apart a few meters outside of the intersection:

So what do we do? There are lots of useful guides like these great NATCO manuals that show how an intersection like this can be made safer for pedestrians. We can narrow the road at the intersection, paint new crosswalks, and reduce the turning radius through curb bulges:

But my bad painting skills here represent couple of hundred thousand dollars in concrete, road paint, asphalt, curbs, soil, planting and storm drain realignment (never mind a complete re-design of Richmond Street to pull it into the 2000s as I showed in the cross sections above; that would cost millions). And this is one intersection in a City with more than 1,000 intersections, some better designed than others, some more used than others, some with worse safety records than others. I want to change this specific intersection tomorrow, but who is going to come to Council and ask us to raise property taxes by 0.3% to do it? And why do it here and not at the intersection that bugs you in front of your house?

All this to say that some changes are going to be made to Richmond to improve pedestrian safety, and three other intersections (8th Street at 3rd Avenue, 12th Street at Queens, 6th Avenue at 11th Street) that have been prioritized for this year’s Pedestrian Crossing Improvement program, totaling about $200,000 in work. The work is, necessarily, incremental, and because of that it is never enough, and never fast enough.

Be safe out there folks.

Active Transportation

I know I haven’t blogged about this week’s Council meeting yet, I haven’t had time to edit and get the post up. It’s coming, I swear. In the meantime, I want to get this out, because it has been in my outbox for a little while and it has suddenly become time sensitive.

The Provincial Government is asking the public about active transportation. I have been known to criticize the Ministry of Transportation in the past about their approach to “cycling infrastructure”, but I am going to hope that this is the start of a new approach. You have until Monday to answer their questions!

If you are too busy to write your own thing, you can go to HUB and fill in their form letter, but as an elected person, I like to receive input that brings something new – a 1000-person petition is not as powerful as 100 personal letters that each bring different nuance. So I encourage you to take a few minutes and fill in the answers yourself. If you want some inspiration, here are my answers I will submit this weekend:

Question 1: What does active transportation mean to you and how does it fit into your life?
Active transportation means healthier, safer, happier communities where youth are safe to ride a bike to school and the elderly are comfortable walking to the grocery store. It is about replacing fossil fuel dependence with transportation independence. When we build the infrastructure to support active transportation, we give more people the freedom of choice in how they move around their community, reduce their reliance on volatile international oil markets, keep more of their money in the local economy, build resiliency in our communities and connections between neighbors.

Question 2: What are some of the challenges in your every day life that prevent you from moving towards using active transportation modes? What are some of your concerns about active transportation?
As an active transportation user, and a local government decision maker, the biggest challenge I face is addressing the “gaps” in our systems that make active transportation less safe and less comfortable. I am lucky to live in a compact, dense community where most services are a short walk or bike ride away, but so many of my neighbours still feel it is unsafe to make the journey unless surrounded by two tonnes of steel, which in turn reduces the perceived safety for other community members.

Too much of our active transportation infrastructure is developed as baubles attached to the side of new automobile infrastructure. Sidewalks, crosswalks, overpasses, cycling lanes, and transit supports are evaluated in how they support or hinder adequate “Levels of Service” for automobiles, while the high LOS goals (fast, uninterrupted vehicle travel) acts to make active transportation space less safe and less comfortable. An overpass over a busy road is seen as a pedestrian amenity, when it actually serves to provide more space for automobiles to have unrestricted travel. The trade-off is usually a longer more difficult journey for a pedestrian and introduction of a new barrier for people with mobility challenges. We need to see active transportation alternatives as a solution to community livability, not as a hindrance to the flow of traffic.

Even the language of “transportation” vs. “active transportation” reinforces the idea that using your feet and your own body to move around is somehow lesser than – a secondary consideration to – using an automobile. I have to explain to people that I use transit to get to work, I use a bike to run errands, I walk to City Hall, like that is some sort of radical action instead of a rational and normal way for a person to live in on a modern urban city. Let’s switch that default, for the good of our communities, the good of our budgets, and the good of our planet.

Question 3: What is the most important action that government could take to promote active transportation? What is unique in your community or region that needs to be considered?
Of course, funding. Local governments are straining to provide services as our infrastructure ages. We receive 8% of the tax revenue in Canada, yet own more than 50% of the infrastructure. This inequity is sharpest when it comes to transportation infrastructure. Billions flow for highways and bridges that direct automobiles into our communities (with, admittedly, the requisite active transportation baubles attached), but the local improvements to help us move around within our communities are tied to expectations about “Level of Service” for those automobiles. The cycle is vicious.

My community has one of the highest active transportation mode shares in the province. New Westminster is a transit city, it is an easy city to walk in and the revolution in electric assist bicycles means that residents no longer need to be athletes to manage our hills. We have some of the lowest car ownership rates in Canada. This is not an accident, the City has a dense urban fabric that puts most services near where people live, we are concentrating our growth around these transit hubs and working to make our pedestrian spaces safer and fully accessible. Yet we are choked by through-traffic that makes all of our active transportation spaces less safe and comfortable. This load means we need to spend millions of dollars every year in maintaining our asphalt to provide the level of service through-traffic expects, while struggling to find the thousands of dollars to build better cycling, pedestrian, and transit-supporting infrastructure.

We need help making our transportation system work better for our community, but as long as that transportation funding is tied to our ability to get cars moving, to provide high automobile “levels of service”, we are putting out fires with gasoline.

ASK PAT: Parking Bylaws

Susan asks—

According to New West’s by-law for the parking of vehicles 4.9.1 – any New West resident can park their vehicle(s) on any residential street (except areas requiring permits, or metered parking) for as long as they wish as long as their vehicle has valid insurance.
In Burnaby & Vancouver, the by-law is more specific and requires that any vehicle cannot park for more than 3 hours in front of a residence unless the residence is the actual property of the parker.
If another New West resident decides to leave their vehicle parked in front of another residence and does not move it for week/months, there is nothing Parking Enforcement can do.
What is the process in requesting a change to this bylaw?

You basically have it right. Our Street and Traffic Bylaw makes it illegal to park a car for more than 72 hours where there are no other parking restrictions, unless you are a resident of the City. As long as your vehicle is not derelict, is insured, and is not a commercial vehicle heavier than 5,500kg, the road is yours to store your vehicle for free as long as you can find a spot.

I have vague memories of the last time we upgraded the Streets and Traffic Bylaw, and at the time staff recommended that the 72-hour restriction be applied to everyone. Checking my notes, it was in the March 23, 2015 Committee of the Whole meeting where some members of Council argued that this was unfair, and that residents should be able to park for free for as long as they want. I disagreed at the time, and continue to disagree.

That said, I doubly disagree with the Burnaby approach, where the public land in front of your house somehow belongs to the resident of the house that happens to be in front of it. That land does not belong to you, it belongs to the public. Putting up barriers, cones, milk crates, or buckets to protect it as a personal parking space like this is similarly against the law.

Here is an unpopular opinion: there is no shortage of parking in New Westminster. There are local shortages of the free or very low-cost public parking that people prefer, but every house in New Westminster has a garage or parking pad (regardless of whether they are actually used for car storage) and every new multi-family building is built with more parking than the residents use. And outside of a few special events and around churches on Sunday Morning, there is generally no lack of street parking. When it comes to resident parking and nw buildings, we are simply building too much.

There was even a recent Metro Vancouver study on parking availability whose highlight point was that across the region “Apartment parking supply remains excessive relative to observed utilization”. Here are the first two key findings:

As mentioned in an opinion in The Record a few weeks ago, there is a real cost to this. Underground parking is expensive to build ($50,000+ per spot) and an alleged lack of parking is a common reason residents oppose new housing in their neighbourhoods, making housing more expensive for all. But I now I realize I’m drifting pretty far from the nature of your question…

The process to change the Bylaw would be to ask Council to do it. Ask Pats, as fun as they are, do not represent official correspondence with Mayor and Council, so you could write a letter to Council (here are the links about how you do that). Try to keep it relatively short and respectful, and explain the rationale for why you think the Bylaw should change. Any member of Council could take the concern to Council and ask staff to follow up, though there is no guarantee. Alternately, you can come to Council yourself and make your case as a Public Delegation at most Council Meetings, and again, Council may or may not act, but it can’t hurt to ask.

(draft) Budget 2019

I guess we knew this was going to be a tight budget year for New Westminster, as it is for most Cities in the lower mainland. The shift in MSP / employer health tax has impacted many municipalities hard, which I will talk more about below. Combine that with our aggressive capital plan, regular inflationary increases in costs, and constant demand for new services, and the tax increase is higher than some would have liked this year. That said, I actually would vote to make it a little bit higher, and indicated so to Council. Here is my rationale.

The current proposal is for a 5.28% increase in property taxes. That is about a $117/year increase for the “average” household. For perspective, the “average” household in New West is a $1.2M house that went up in value over the last year by 9%, or about $100,000. Condos went up a little more than houses overall, so the tax increase for condo owners will be proportionally higher than for detached house owners. The City has no control over that, it is just how the market works.

For the purpose of explanation, it is helpful to break that 5.28% into component parts. The numbers below are my back-of-the envelope estimates drawn from the kinda complex budget documents (you can see a staff report here), and of course the budget has not been passed yet, so the numbers may change. All that to say nothing below represents official numbers or communications, but this is close enough to an accurate breakdown to foster conversation:

1.8% is directly attributable to the shift in the MSP and employer health tax. This could be viewed as downloading: increased local government costs that will be funding something that should be paid from provincial and federal coffers. However, I generally reserve that for when we shift the burden for a service to local governments, not just the cost – an oft-mentioned (by me!) example is underfunding the provincially-funded ambulance service so that our locally-funded Fire and Rescue staff need to cover the load. regardless of what you call it ,the effect is the same. We and other cities have challenged the province to not apply this to local governments, and we lost that fight. So here we are, and need to budget for it.

If you want to take a more positive look at (spin of?) this tax increase, remember that it is a result of phasing out of the MSP system. That means the $40 or so that this 1.8% costs the “average” household is easily offset by the $1,500 the “average” New West household saves in reduced MSP fees. If that is no help, then at least recognize this is a one-time event, and that there will actually be a slight reduction in City costs next year as the final MSP phase-out occurs. That means we will be starting the 2020 budget year ahead of the game by about $300,000.

4.23% is direct growth and inflationary pressure – increased wage and supply costs related to just doing what we do every day. This goes up both because of because of inflation, and because the population City is growing at a rate of about 1.6% per year, so we need to do about 1.6% more stuff. Add to this inflation a little above the 2.0% projected CPI increase (don’t get me on a rant about how the CPI “basket of goods” does not fairly reflect the inflation of running a municipal government) and the projected 2.5 % wage growth across the region. Much of this increase is locked up in contracts with our staff, which have annual increases built into them. Of course budget time usually results in some on-line trolling of City workers. For the record, I no not think our staff is underworked or overpaid. Wages in New West are a little below the regional average for municipal governments for people in comparative roles, and our ratio of exempt staff to union staff is about 13%, which is slightly below the average of comparable sized municipalities (a fact that is directly counter to the rhetoric used by some during the recent election).

-2.46% That’s right, this is a negative. The growth part of above means that there are more properties / people to pay taxes and more services bought from the City. The taxes from new construction and increased other revenues allow us to actually reduce the overall tax rate by about 2.5%.

1.2% is related to new spending. This is all new staff positions and operational and capital costs related to things we do now that we didn’t do in the past. This is “discretionary spending”, the money we get to haggle over at this point in the budget cycle. And haggle we did.

The reality for us on Council is that people rarely ask us to do less. Every week, people come to Council asking the City to do something more, be it paint more crosswalks or plant more trees or give more to a local group to help run a festival or provide homelessness outreach. Nine times out of ten, we want to do it, and often I see the strained look in staff’s eyes as they are the first to recognize that we don’t have the capacity in our budgets or room in staff work plans to do this, and they are going to have to come back to Council with hat in hand, asking for the resources to fund what Council has already said we want them to do, or to ask us which of the existing programs or services we should cut. It is only the week of budget that everyone asks us to spend less, but aside from “finding efficiencies”, I never hear specific programs that people want us to cut.

The “nice to haves” in the budget reporting this year added up to more than $2 Million, and would have put us well over a 7% tax increase. This means we did not fund some of the things I would have loved see happen this year in the City.

To give you an idea of what kind of new spending we did approve, here are a few line items from the report:
• $122,000 (equal to 0.15% tax increase) to hire two new staff to ramp up the tree maintenance and planting program as we move forward with Urban Forest Management Program;
• $80,000 (0.10%) to bring in some expertise to guide us through our Truth and Reconciliation process;
• $225,000 (0.28%) to run the QtoQ ferry service year-round;
• $54,000 (0.07%)for a part-time Facilities Project Manager to help us make budget and timing on a couple of our bigger capital projects;
• $100,000 (0.13%) for a full time program coordinator to carry the Intelligent City program forward for one more year;
• $65,000 (0.08%) for a Special Events program coordinator to help for community partners to run events like Fridays on Front.

0.5% The final piece of the budget increase this year is the Capital Levy. We introduced this special line item last year as a buffer for our increasingly extensive capital plan. The big item is, of course, the replacement of the Canada Games Pool and the Centennial Community Centre, which will blow a $100 Million hole in our budget. This is a big enough story, and this is already a long enough blog, that I am going to hold off commenting more on the Capital Plan until a follow-up blog. Short version: I think we should be putting more into this Capital Levy and keep it at 1% this year, but the majority of Council did not agree.

What we have now is a proposed budget framework, subject to some last-minute number crunching and adjustments by finance staff. There will be a budget bylaw (and new 5-year financial plan) prepared, which will come to Council for deliberation, though the real debate happened in workshop last week (see the video here). Of course, we always invite public comment and delegations to come speak to the budget and let us know how much they appreciate the hard work staff and Council do to manage the City’s finances responsibly. Alternate opinions are also welcomed.

Ask Pat: Omnibus edition!

I had a few Ask Pat questions in the queue, and it being Family Day Long Weekend and all, I figured I would answer them all in one fell swoop. Have a question about the City, Council, Politics, music or fashion? Hit the red button up there to the right and send it to me, and more likely than not will answer it, hopefully before you forgot you even asked it!

RK asked—

I was in Winnipeg this last Christmas for a few days, and when I visited the public market at The Forks, I saw they had craft beer/wine stall set up in the main food court area, where people could buy a drink (served in glassware) and then enjoy it at any of the tables in the market, not just a roped-off area. Are you aware if there are legal restrictions on such a business opening in the River Market? It seems like a great and space-efficient way to not only add more life to a market but also complement the existing food-service businesses. And perhaps it was just the time of day that I was there, but I didn’t notice any roaming gangs of drunkards smashing up the place or terrorizing young children.

I’m not one to speak for the River Market. They are a private business with a business model that works for them. They have been pretty successful at activating the Market Hall, and I have enjoyed many, many events there over the last few years. It is also one of our community’s great “Third Spaces” where you never know who you will meet or the conversation you are going to have when you get there.

I also may not be completely up to date on the changes to BC liquor laws as they pertain to public spaces, but I think the Market would probably be able to license the common spaces as you suggest. However, this would very likely limit their flexibility in how they operate the space, and strange things like security measures and temporary license suspensions to accommodate special events would probably be more hassle than it is worth. The owners and operators of the Market are pretty entrepreneurial and creative, so the best evidence I have that the inherent hassles make it not worth doing is the fact they are currently not doing it.

That said, have you been to Fridays on Front? There was even a Christmas Edition under the Parkade this year. There were shifts in provincial liquor laws that allowed this to happen, and it took a bit of vision to put New West at the leading edge of activating those changes. I think the Downtown BIA (with some support from the City) has done a great job demonstrating that public market spaces can have an open license for adult beverages available without chaos ensuing. I’m old enough to remember the craziness that used to come with public drinking in BC in decades past, and the cost of managing that craziness made some great events go away (I’m looking at you Seafest Vancouver Seafest, Pentiction Peachfest, White Rock Sandcastle festival). I think the attitude around beer and wine have changed as our society has matured, though the transition away from puritan prohibition-era liquor controls is a slow one.

And as of the leading edge of current regulation, there are no special event licenses envisioned for cannabis, but I’ll hold that conversation off for a future post.


JJ asks—

are you the person that sides with justin trudeau of political correctness? Jaywalking the word to be remove? Stop the left wing removement!

[Sic] Dude, if you think Justin Trudeau represents some sort of left wing of Canadian politics, we are not conversing from the same frame of reference. My disappointment in his election in 2015 was very much tempered by the knowledge that Harper was headed for a long-overdue trip to the political wilderness, but I was also disappointed that Mulcair decided to tack towards the centre and got “out lefted” by Trudeau on the campaign trail (though that was not the only NDP campaign mistake last election). Clearly people were ready to move left politically, and voted for progressive ideas like legalization of cannabis (done), electoral reform (shamefully abandoned), and feminism (the jury is out on this one). Predictably, Trudeau swung right after the election and abandoned many of the most left-progressive ideas upon which he campaigned, from climate action to reconciliation, and his record is almost indistinguishable from Harper’s Conservatives on these files. Gord Downie would be disappointed. I am becoming less and less of a Trudeau fan as time goes on, and look forward to calling him out on his failures in October, but I will not make the mistake of looking for him to my left.


FB asked—

If i find someone isn’t sorting garbage and i take a picture as proof is it violating his personal information or privacy?

I’m not a lawyer, and know better than to give legal advice. If you have a problem with how someone is managing their waste stream , and suspect that they are contaminating the recycleables or compostables, there is good reason for you to take action, because this type of contamination costs the City money, or your Strata potentially lots of money, depending on how your waste is managed. I might suggest that friendly attempts at education might get you further than surreptitious incrimination. They may just not know better, as the rules for waste sorting are sometimes complicated and constantly shifting.

If this is going into the City’s waste stream, you can contact our Engineering Operations folks at 604-526-4691 or engops@newwestcity.ca. If you are in a Strata or a rental, please let your building manager know and ask them to take action. It is their job, and they will save money in the long run if they have a well-organized waste stream that assures as much waste as possible is diverted from the landfill.


Jenni asks—

How do I find out information about previous renovations done to my home before I purchased it? The previous owner simply said that all of the work was done before they purchased the home. Is there an archive of building or renovation permits that I can search?

Hey, I actually know the answer to this one! The City has an online tool where you can search for all kind of details about the property you own, or snoop on your neighbor if that is more your thing, because permits are public information, and the City has a pretty open approach to sharing data that belongs to the public.

If you go to the City’s website, and look for “Property Inquiry” under the Online Tools section, you get a slightly-ugly but super-functional interface that allows you to get an online report that tells you all sorts of info about your property. For the fun of it, I searched for my house and found a bounty of info about my lot size, the amount of tax I pay, and even that the Business License for my consulting hussle is up to date (redacted a bit to make it one step harder for stalkers to find out where I live):

You can also get a list of all the permits for the property:
Here I can see three permit numbers: the original building permit was from 1940, my rear sundeck was built in 1987 with a valid permit, and I can see the permit I took out for my bathroom renovation project I did two years ago.

Of course, there are no permits there for the renovation of my basement that probably happened in the 1980s, or of the attic conversion that happened around the same time, or of the transition my house clearly went from knob-and-tube electrical to modern insulated wiring. It is possible that permits were not required, or the owner at the time didn’t get a permit, or the City has lost the records. This just to say that the City knows what the City knows, and you should not assume the data you get from these searches is a definitive record of the work done in your house.

Ask Pat: Protecting Trees

Someone asked—

I’m curious about the tree protection bylaw that was introduced a few years back. The amount of protection barriers around the city is quite high and frankly questionable. The city of New Westminster neither supplies the materials to build these barriers, nor do they facilitate the recycling of either wood or barrier fencing. In fact, the orange barrier fencing is not recyclable at any Metro Vancouver transfer stations. How have we come to having to contribute substantial, single use construction waste, both plastic and wood, to landfills in order to protect trees that in many cases are not in harms way. I challenge someone to accurately estimate the amount of waste we are creating. We are cutting down trees, so we can build a barrier around another tree and then throwing the wood away . It’s all a bit of a head scratcher imo.

Yep, that is a good point.

First off, let’s go over how we got here. New West adopted an Urban Forest Management Strategy back in 2016. At the time, the City’s tree canopy was measured to be about 18% of landcover and trending downwards. The City set a goal to increase this cover to the North American average of 27% over 20 years. To do that, we need to do two things: Stop cutting down so many trees (during a time when we are densifying our neighbourhoods!) and plant more trees. The Tree Protection Bylaw is primarily about the former, but if well administered will also help with the latter.

When the City introduced the Tree Protection Bylaw, we did so building on the existing Bylaws that exist around the region. Why re-invent the wheel when other nearby communities have already taken a test drive? This allowed us to get out of the gate quicker, but also resulted in a few parts of the Bylaw that didn’t really work so well in our local context, so we have been making some changes to the Bylaw as we go along, and have made some adjustments in how it is implemented. This happened in a context where (frankly) not all of Council was on board agreeing that a Bylaw was needed, or felt that the protection provisions were too strict. I don’t agree with that position, because I think trees are fundamentally important to the livability of our community – the more the better – and the cost of protecting them is easily offset by the cost benefit to the community.

One of the aspects common to most tree protection bylaws is tree protection fences at construction sites. The idea is that a fixed temporary fence line to protect the branches and critical root zones of protected trees when construction happens around them. This is to stop the occasional (usual accidental) bumping over of a tree by an excavator, or the excavation of tree roots required for the tree to remain healthy. Sometimes they are located away from any visible excavation work, however this is likely because they are located in a location identified as a likely laydown area for building supplies or fill or drive alleys for construction vehicles – loading critical root zones can be almost as damaging as excavating them.

These fences – staked-in lumber with polypropylene safety fencing – is pretty typical of these bylaws. It uses materials typical to construction sites (i.e. doesn’t introduce something builders aren’t used to) and are relatively durable and cheap to put together. They do, admittedly, look a little overkill in some applications, but they are definitely on the cheap & easy solution side of things.

However, you do point out rightly that they seem pretty wasteful. Most scrap lumber at construction sites is kept out of the standard waste stream, it is commonly “recycled” into wood products used to fire turbines and generate steam or electricity. The polypropylene, however, seems destined to the landfill. I’m not sure it is a substantial proportion of construction waste for a typical project, but there is no reason for us to add more.

I have had a preliminary discussion with city staff about this to understand the need a little more, but will follow up to see if there has been any effort to explore alternatives. I suspect temporary modular fencing might be much more expensive (so we will get backlash from builders already irritated by the need for tree protection), or if the City can suggest alternative materials, or even provide at a cost-recovery rate recyclable materials that meet the needs of the Bylaw, the industry, and homeowners. Thanks for the idea.

Bylaw 8085

For the second week in a row, we had a Council meeting where many people came to speak to a bylaw that is meant to reduce the incidence of renoviction in the City. Ironically, this week’s bylaw has much more far-reaching implications than the very limited rezoning discussion of the previous meeting, but we had nary a landlord or members of the development community come to speak against this move. We did, however, have a large number of people come to speak about the real human impacts of renoviction in our community, and remind us why these kinds of aggressive actions are needed.

As a bit of nuance, this was not a Public Hearing as constituted by the Local Government Act, like we had last week. This was an Opportunity to be Heard. We effectively operate these like a Public Hearings in New West, but they don’t have the same regulatory baggage. In short, it is a non-regulatory opportunity for the public to either send us a letter or come and speak to Council on a point of public interest.

Business Regulations and Licensing (Rental Units) Amendment Bylaw No. 8085, 2019
As I said about last week’s Bylaw to protect 18 properties in the City with Rental Tenure Zoning, we are going to need many more tools to address housing affordability in the City. This step is another bold measure that will give the City more ability to protect people who are precariously housed. This and last week’s bylaw are part of a larger Rental Housing Revitalization Initiative that will provide both metaphorical carrots and sticks within our legal authority to protect safe, secure, and affordable housing in the City and hopefully mitigate the current rental crunch and its impact on lower-income residents.

The step being adopted here is to use a tool that is not typically considered when dealing with land use tenure: our business licensing powers. Cities typically look at demo- or reno-viction through a planning context, which invokes zoning or building bylaws. However, it happens that all businesses operating rental buildings in the city require a business license to do so, and we have great flexibility in how we administer our business regulations, as long as they are fair to all businesses. Our staff have found a creative way to apply these regulatory powers to create new protections against renoviction.

Nothing on this Bylaw prevents renovation of older rental stock buildings. Instead, the Bylaw requires that the building owner provide the City a demonstration of the efforts they have taken to accommodate the residency needs of tenants prior to the City providing them a permit to perform a major renovation that requires tenant displacement. This may include providing them alternative accommodation, providing them priority to rent the same unit after renovation, or other methods to assure the resident is not made homeless. This also gives the City the ability to determine if a renovation even requires tenant removal or not.

The City can apply fines and/or a business license surcharge if these conditions are not met, and those charges may be built upon each other. We can even pull a business licence if the violations are egregious enough. Of course, exceptions are considered for life safety improvements, immediate repairs necessitated by an emergency or natural disaster, or other reasonable causes.

Much like the previous Bylaw, this change will not stand alone, and indeed the few criticisms I have heard of the Bylaw are based on thinking that it does. We cannot stop renovating our older building stock, or the most affordable housing in the City will eventually become the least livable. This is why these Bylaws exist within the framework of a wider Rental Housing Revitalization Initiative. The entire program includes an updated Rental Replacement Policy to create clear guidelines for the development community about how and when we would address the replacement of any rental stock lost through development, and an incentive program through fee and tax reductions to encourage and make more affordable the renovation of older buildings.

This is a comprehensive program that will help assure there continues to be market rental in New Westminster that is safe and livable, but stays at the affordable end of the market rental scale. This, in turn, is enhanced by the admittedly less-affordable new rental stock that is coming on line in the City which will help on the supply side and hopefully put downward pressure on market rent costs. Of course, this also relies on all three levels of government working together to bring more non-market housing on line, because “the market” will never supply the type of affordable housing needed by those 500+ families currently on the waiting list for supportive housing in New Westminster.

The work goes on. Housing affordability is a pernicious problem and we are indeed in a crisis situation in the Lower Mainland. I am proud to sit on a Council where we support taking bold action, and thank our staff – planning, business license, and legal – who have worked to find creative ways for the City to address the problem. Mostly, though, I want to thank the residents of New Westminster who live in rental buildings (44% of our residents!), some of them in somewhat precarious financial situations, for uniting and bravely bringing your voices to Council so that we have the political support to do the right thing, and so that the rest of your community can understand why the need for bold, progressive housing action exists.

Bylaw 8078

The Public Hearing on Monday was well attended, with a couple of dozen people presenting on both sides of the issue. We received a significant amount of correspondence going into the public hearing, and some media attention after. I am going to try to outline here what decision Council made, and talk about my motivations for voting the way I did. You might want to put on some tea.

The Bylaw being debated, Zoning Amendment [Multi-Family Residential Rental Tenure] Bylaw No. 8078, 2019, changes the zoning of 18 properties in the City to a new designation called “Residential Rental Tenure”. This new zoning type was recently permitted by the provincial government to provide local governments another tool in addressing housing affordability. Twelve of the properties are City-owned lands, and no one raised any concerns with this. However, the remaining 6 are multi-family buildings that have always operated as rental buildings, and though each building is owned by a single entity (Corporation or Limited Partnership), they have carried Strata title for many years. This detail is important to what the City is trying to achieve here by this slightly clunky method, and that requires some background.

The City has had a moratorium on stratification since the mid-1970s, which means buildings operating as rental in the City have not been able to shift their title to Strata and convert to condos. This was enacted to protect the affordable rental housing stock in the City, and has been largely successful. Last year a building in the Brow of the Hill that had operated for 40+ years as a rental was sold, and the new owners renovicted the tenants and sold off the condos as individual units. When the City looked into this apparent violation of the moratorium, it was discovered that the building had always been titled as Strata, though all of the units belonged to a single owner who had operated as a rental. The moratorium did not apply, and there was nothing the City could do to prevent (effective if not literal) stratification of this rental building.

In doing this research, staff discovered that there were 6 other buildings in the City, representing about 250 rental suites, where a building was built as purpose-built rental before the Strata Title Act was implemented in 1966 or was stratified at the time of construction and has operated as a rental building since that initial construction. These six buildings could potentially do a similar conversion to condo units, violating the spirit of the moratorium, and the City would not have any ability to prevent this.

The reasoning behind applying the new zoning to these 6 buildings was to create a disincentive to the stratification of these buildings (I use that term recognizing the buildings are already strata title – so perhaps “effectively stratify” would be a more accurate description?). The property owners who delegated to Council, and their supporters from LandLord BC and the development community, argue that this was an arbitrary “downzoning” of the properties, that the City has stolen value from the property owners in a capricious way that will chill the market for future development in the City. The tenants and their supporters who delegated were glad that the City was being creative and proactive in preventing eviction of renters from their affordable homes.

But don’t let me put words in their mouth, you can watch the video here.

I have spent a couple of weeks thinking about this Bylaw and its implications, reading 50+ pieces of correspondence, and listening to Public Delegations. In this, I have compiled a long list of things I would like to say about it, but risk veering off onto a long stream-or consciousness rant about affordable housing and things that we within and outside of the City’s jurisdiction and how those often do not overlap so well with things that are within our duty to our residents. That may still happen below, but I am going to try to keep this short (Too Late!) and hit on only three points.

1: This Bylaw does not stand alone. This Bylaw is one tool the City has, and we are applying it in a very limited way to address one small part of the vast spectrum of housing affordability. It isn’t going to make new apartments more affordable and it is not going to protect all affordable apartments from renoviction. It wasn’t meant to do those things. It is going to create a disincentive for renoviction for 250 rental homes in our community. Whenever the City or another government does any small move to address a regional housing affordability crisis, the public response gets bogged down in “whataboutism” about the other problems we are not solving. The housing crises are a complex problem affecting every level or housing, and it will take a combination of tools to make housing secure for everyone in our City.

2: This action was not arbitrary. Much of the rhetoric from the development community and other opponents of this Bylaw suggested this was an arbitrary act by Council that this was applied in a random way, and would send a chilling message to developers that New Westminster was no longer a safe place to invest in new rental housing because this may happen to them. That is hyperbolic and not reflected by the reality of what this Bylaw does, or how this Council operates.

The Bylaw was applied to 12 City-owned properties to send the signal to the community and future councils that the priority for those lands should be purpose-built rental and affordable rental. It was also applied to 6 privately-owned properties that are not protected by our 40-year-old moratorium on conversion of rental buildings to condominiums. Although it does not change the tenure of the current buildings, it does remove some incentive to convert these buildings into condominiums like happened to the building I mentioned above.

We have a current incentive program to encourage developers to build purpose-built rental in the City. It has been somewhat successful, and there have been something more than 1,000 new rental units opened in the City over the last year. All of these developments occurred because the City offered the developer some incentive to make it economic for them to build the rental, in exchange for the developer entering in to a “Housing Agreement” with the City, which secures the use of the building as a rental for (typically) 60 years. We are expanding our incentives for building non-market affordable housing as part of new developments, and you see the initial results of that now. There is no reason why this more recent Bylaw to limit future use of 6 stratified buildings that have always operated a rental, has any impact on how those incentivized rental developments occur. The economics for those developers has not changed.

3: There was a reason to act. Renoviction has been the one part of our affordable housing crisis that we have not yet found tools to address, and you would have to have been in media blackout not to know how this issue has been impacting our community. If you need a primer, read this, or this, or this, or even this.

I know that the owners of the buildings impacted by this Bylaw have assured us that renoviction was not part of their plan for their properties. Thee UDI and LandLordBC representatives came to Council and said none of their members ever do renovictions. Everyone who came to Council to argue against this Bylaw said that they would never support renoviction – they all agree it is an unacceptable situation. Yet renovictions are happening in our City, in at least 15 buildings representing more than 340 units – 340 affordable homes – in the last three years. And it is pretty obvious why.

As an elected official, I hear form these residents. I live in the Brow of the Hill, these people are my neighbours. I see them at coffee shops, and they literally knock on my door and ask me what the City can do to help them. For the last couple of years, I have pointed them at City resources, connected them with our Social Planners and other support organizations, tried to made sure they knew their rights, and the responsibilities of their landlord. I tell them we are advocating to the provincial government to get more tools to help them. I tell them we are making progress, that more tools are coming, and I hope they can hold on. Looking at my neighbour Laverne when she tells me about the real fear she has about becoming homeless after 28 years in the same apartment and telling her there is nothing I could do but she should try to hold on hits me hard. This shit gets personal really fast.

I didn’t get into this job to be a housing advocate. I am an environmentalist, a sustainability guy, an active transportation advocate, someone who wants to see activation of our public spaces. Those were my fights to have. But if four years on this job doesn’t make you an affordable housing advocate, you have no soul. so now this is the fight I have to have.

Here we have a case where staff have identified affordable units that are potential targets for eviction, and the provincial government has provided us a tool to address that risk. All this during a housing crisis that is hitting New Westminster hard. We have been talking about the crisis for a few years, it is time we started acting like it is a crisis. The provincial government is taking steps, and so are we (including considering a few more bold moves at the February 4th Council meeting). The only way we will get out of this crisis situation is by challenging the status quo and taking action when it is available to us. The status quo is residents on our city being priced out of the City – priced out of one of the most affordable cities in the lower mainland. And I cannot stand still while that happens.

Bullies

I’m on vacation, I’ll be back next week. However, this letter to the editor of the Burnaby Now entered my social media feed, and much to MsNWimby’s lament, I had to take a few minutes to pen a retort. I thought of sending it to the Burnaby Now, but I thought it would look weird for a New West City Councillor to get something like this published in a Burnaby newspaper, so instead I’ll just post it here.

Letter: Why can’t bullied kids just get with the program?

Editor: Last weeks’s Burnaby NOW had a letter from Diane Gillis raising important questions about why pedestrians don’t work harder to protect themselves from getting hit by cars. I think it provides a great platform to offer similar safety tips for youth suffering from another well-identified danger in today’s society: schoolyard bullying.

It does not matter who is right and who is wrong in schoolyard bullying – it is the bullied child who is at greatest risk of injury or psychological trauma.

Sadly, there are too many children who do not understand or know of what they can do to avoid bullying. I chair the communications subcommittee of my local Concerned Parents of Athletic and Cool Children chapter, and we coordinate anti-bullying messaging for our children, and those who do not qualify. At the November CPACC meeting, we discussed ways to reduce bullying.

All children should consider these anti-bullying safety tips.

  • Wear more attractive / fashionable clothing so the cool kids will not notice your lack of flair. If wearing professional-sports-team-branded clothing, be especially aware of the sports franchises preferred by the local cool kids.
  • Don’t go to places where bullies hang out, like malls, schools, or outside.
    If you have to go to those places, look out for bullies.
  • If you see a bully, run away really fast.
  • Don’t make eye contact with bullies.
  • Don’t use your phone and/or headphones, or carry anything of value while walking where bullies might spot you.
  • If a bully approaches you, hand them your lunch money and beg for mercy.
  • Wear a helmet.

Something I think is telling. Yesterday afternoon at about 3:30 p.m. – just after school gets out and when most kids were playing sports or hitting the Mall – as I was driving past a schoolyard in Burnaby, I saw a skinny, nerdy kid getting taunted by a group of pretty cool-looking kids.

When I saw his Minnesota Wild t-shirt, his last-year’s Walmart Nikes, wire-rim glasses and his clarinet case, it was all I could do to stop from yelling “Hey Nerd!” and slapping the little loser myself.

There is a lot more to the concerns of many of us regarding keeping all kids safe from bullying. And as long as we can continue to blame the victim, none of us will ever have to recognize our own personal responsibility to keep our community safe for all, or even acknowledge what the real dangers are.