Transit Riders and Pedestrians work too!

I was happy this morning to hear the local radio media reporting on this press release from the Delta Chamber of Commerce. Not because it is a “good news story”, but because it indicates Chambers of Commerce are starting to see the light about bigger transportation issues in our Cities.

This is a refreshing change from the old-skool Board of Trade argument that business just needs a wide road with many lanes and plenty’o’parking to succeed at business. In the coming decades, there will need to be ways for customers and employees to get to your door besides parking a car in front of it.

According to the report behind the presser, the people who actually operate within industrial areas and business parks are noticing that their staff is having a hard time getting to the auto-oriented developments being offered by our city planners. They are finding their lower-wage employees are demanding a sufficient pay rate to support running a car, which at about $7000 per year (according to CAA) is more than a third of the entire pre-tax income of a minimum-wage worker. There is also an increasing number of higher-skilled and higher-wage employees who are wanting better options than being shackled to a car for their daily transportation (a group within which I include myself, and a startling number of my professional colleagues and friends).

So the owners and operators of these business parks, like in the Tilbury district of Delta:

on Annacis Island:

the Richmond Port lands:

or Horseshoe Way:

…are trying to operate in areas where bus service is infrequent, does not fit shift hours, does not connect well to rapid transit, and is located a long way from residential areas. Even the infrequent bus service is limited in coverage, forcing transit-users to walk long distances on roads commonly built without sidewalks, and crowded with large trucks and poorly organized parking systems.

Just go to Google StreetView and wander around those neighbourhoods, it is a pedestrian disaster:

The Chambers above call out TransLink for not providing more comprehensive service to these areas, but that is only part of the problem. They should also be calling out on their local Municipal Councils, Transportation and Planning departments to design these “business parks” with accessibility in mind. There appears to be a legacy of bad planning here we are currently saddled with, but look at at this brochure for Surrey’s newest, most exciting business park opportunity: notice anything missing from the “features”? There is one bus that runs through this park, the 531, which provides 30-minute service from 6 in the morning to 9 at night. Marginal service at best, and if you are the guy sweeping the warehouse after the crews leave at 5:00, you are driving home at midnight. But you won’t see that in the flashy brochure. Is that TransLink’s fault, or Surreys?

Also, it isn’t just warehouses and industrial sites: the slab-walled business parks in places like the Knight Street area of Richmond have high office vacancy, not because they are not Class-A space, or because the rates are too high, but because the location between highway offramps in the ‘burbs (even the really-close-in ‘burbs) is just not where people setting up Class-A-desirous businesses prefer to be anymore. These entrepreneurs and corporations would rather be in Yaletown, on the Broadway Corridor, or even (dare I say) New Westminster – because there they can attract the best talent, and have happier employees, partly because the transit service is frequent, but more because you can walk outside at lunch and have a choice of eateries, or run errands at local businesses. Life is too busy these days to rely on a car. You can’t get anywhere in a car on your lunch hour.

It is worth noting, these things represent New Westminster’s competitive advantage. Even our worst-serviced areas, which happen to be the low-wage labour areas (the warehouses and big box retailers of Queensborough), they still see better, more frequent service and are more friendly pedestrian environments than most industrial-warehouse wastelands in Greater Vancouver. This is why the addition of 230,000 square feet of Class-A office space in Sapperton is good gamble for Wesgroup, and 130,000 square feet of Class-A is a good gamble for the City.

But that’s a topic for another Blog post.

Bicycle Lane Obstacle Course #3

In light of comments from someone whose opinions matter, I thought I would clarify the purpose of these posts a bit.

I am always first to point out that my bike route to work is pretty good, an example of what should be available to more people in more places. I don’t get all that concerned about the few little issues that pop up – because I am cognizant of how difficult it is to operate a City, and manage all of the little things that crop up, not to mention the hassles that typically go with living in a big urban area with 3 million other people.

So when they are tearing up a road to replace a water line, that doesn’t bother me. When they need to drill holes in a road and close a lane, and have lots of signs and flag persons, and I have to wait a minute to get on my way, that’s part of the deal of getting to use the infrastructure. Most drivers roll with that, and so do I when riding.

Sometimes commercial vehicles, for whatever reason, need to block a lane for an extended period of time to do their jobs. When that happens, they apply to the City for a temporary road closure permit, and set up appropriate safety flagging, signage, etc. The City I work for does not charge for this: the permits are free, a service your tax dollars provide. When driving or riding, you see these things as necessary and accept them as part of City life.

That’s not what I’m talking abut here. What I’m talking about is things we find in the bike lane that would never happen in a driving lane, or at least would be met with outrage by drivers, but is commonplace in the bike lane, or as it is typically viewed “the shoulder of the road”. Daily dodging people pulling into the bike lane to pass on the right is par for the course. Until they kill me, I’ll just get used to it.

So when I complained about this commercial vehicle blocking the bike lane during rush hour, it was not just him being there, it was because we know he would not block the car lane during rush hour, and it is not like he had no alternative: this is the commercial loading zone less then 20 feet away where he chose not to park, because the bike lane was just too convenient:

But here is the best example I have found yet, one I griped about earlier, but fits as probably the model example of the Bicycle Lane Obstacle Course, one worthy of BLOC post #3:

damn cyclist, swerving all over the place, and not even wearing a helmet!
Can you imagine a lit sign in the middle of the driving lane asking people to “Ride Safely!” that cars had to swerve around? What if it forced you to get out of your car (“dismount”) and push your car around the obstacle, or maybe to hop onto the sidewalk and dodge pedestrians, to get through safely – hey, its only a few seconds of your time… then you can get on your way!
So I hope to show examples of how good cycling infrastructure (all photos so far show good, well planned bicycle lanes) goes terribly wrong by missing the details, or through general lack of acknowledgement that it even matters.

Show and Shine – a trip through Car History

Showing how behind the times I am, here is another post at least two weeks late…

Yes, I went to the Show and Shine here in New West. Sapperton Day(s), FraserFest, SummerFest, the 12th Street Festival: they all have their charms, but the Show and Shine is really the biggest one-day event we have in New West. The sheer numbers of people downtown and the scope of the whole affair is daunting. Kudos to the Downtown BIA for a great show.

I can’t avoid the irony that the biggest “Car Free Day” we have in New Westminster is, in fact, and Ode to the Car, in all its forms. However history of Columbia Street and Downtown New Westminster is, in many ways, drawn from the history of the automobile.

Columbia was built in the 1850s for horses, wagons, and pedestrians. It hosted electric streetcars for local service from 1891 to 1938, and Interurban electric passenger rail from 1892 to 1950. During this time, the rails shared space with increasing numbers of cars, and it was the increase in cars that brought Columbia to the fore.

The building of the Pattullo in 1937 brought more cars (and the end of local streetcar service along Columbia), and around the same time a bunch of what we would now call “stimulus money” was used to expand Kingsway from a small rural road to a major urban throughfare. Thus began the “Golden Mile” era of Columbia Street, as it became a major regional shopping, business and entertainment district, peaking at the time when Car was King.

Clearly, traffic wasn’t a problem in 1953. Nothing but free flow here in the good old days.
(photo courtesy the Province, via KnowBC)

Like most Kings, the Car giveth, and the Car taketh away. First the Interurban was gone, leaving an almost 40-year gap in train service. Then by the late 1950s, another phenomenon began to rise: the car-oriented shopping centre (soon to evolve into the Mall). If American Graffiti told you everything you needed to know about North American culture at the end of the ‘50s, then Mall Rats told you the story of the end of the ‘80s. The “Golden Mile”, after only a few decades, started to tarnish. Drivers went to places like Oakridge, and Lougheed, and Lansdowne; shoppers drawn to their massive free parking lots and climate-controlled browsing opportunities.

Not that Downtown gave up without a fight. They built a Parkade in 1959 to compete directly with the burgeoning shopping centres. In 1964, the Trans-Canada Highway was built way over on the Port Mann Bridge, stealing yet more attention from Columbia. Downtown New West doubled down on parking, increasing the size of the Parkade.

Alas, there seemed to be no stopping the forces at work. It wasn’t the lack of parking that was killing Columbia Street, but change in lifestyle and shopping patterns. New Westminster’s Golden Mile was yesterday’s news.

The first sign of resurgence came 20 years later with the arrival of SkyTrain and the Expo-86-funded Westminster Quay. Along with a waterfront Casino, a new hotel and the relocation of Douglas College, but for whatever reason, the momentum didn’t hold. Maybe poor City planning, inexperience on how to exploit the growth, the damn NDP, who knows? Maybe it was because despite the new improvements, Columbia Street was just not that nice a place to be in the 80s. Fast forward another 20 years and a few well-timed and well-placed developments, along with a significant road diet have changed that. A major shift came when Columbia Street once again turned from a place for cars that barely tolerated people, to a place for people where cars are tolerated. Things are booming again.

Still, one day a year, we turn the street back over to the cars, with a vengeance. And this year, the crowds were phenomenal. The beer gardens were full, the food carts had line-ups, the streets were just less than uncomfortably crowded, and the sun was out with bare midriffs everywhere (unfortunately, mostly expansive and belonging to middle-aged men). Somewhere around 100,000 people on Columbia Street easily make this the busiest day of the year downtown. It was a great opportunity for the Downtown BIA to show off Columbia Street, and they did a great job.

Of course, to support the visiting crowds on the busiest day of the year in Downtown New West, the Parkade was free. It was advertised as being free, there were cops manning the barriers at 6th Street and 4th Street so that people could drive easily into the Parkade, with signs showing just how free it was. So was I the only one not surprised to find it was not only free: it was mostly empty.

All 4 photos above taken between 1:00pm and 2:00pm on July 8, 2012.

Again, I ask the merchants of downtown, if on your busiest day of the year, when all of Columbia is turned over to public space and you could not comfortably fit more people downtown; when the Parkade is free and duly advertised as such; when the free Parkade remains is mostly empty: isn’t it time to recognize the Parkade for the white elephant it is? Can we now accept that it is time to move past the Parkade, and recover the potential human space it supplants? Can we now stop saying it is necessary to support business growth in the City?

Oh, yeah, the Cars. As much as a I appreciate the level of effort that goes into keeping them valve covers so brightly polished and chroming those headers, American muscle cars and over-wound rice rockets don’t do much for me. My personal best-of-show choice was this perfect combination of design, agility, and elegance: Porsche 356 Speedster.

Cruising the Golden Mile in 1959 – this would have been my chariot of choice.

The MUCF-Tower & Section 85 of the Charter

After my last post where I expressed some distaste for the way these faux-referenda operate, I have had a few conversations with people over the process, and tried to understand it more. This was partly prompted by the comments added to that post by the man in the centre of the issue, James Crosty, and questions raised by the person who is commonly becoming New West’s lone voice of reason, Jen Arbo.

First, Crosty was clear to point out he is not opposed to the MUCF, as long as it is fully funded by DAC, or the office Tower, as long as it is privately funded. He is rightly concerned about a mounting pile of debt the City is accumulating. He is not opposed to the Bylaw, just that the electorate’s ability to vote on this issue is being bypassed with this quasi-referendum system. Although it seems pretty clear he is opposed to the Bylaw – because he doesn’t want the City borrowing $59Million, and that’s what the Bylaw is for.

I am pretty sure I agree with Crosty on many of his points, if not all of the facts. However, the rub here is not just facts, but outcomes. Part of the problem (as Jen astutely pointed out) being we have little access to the facts, and even less understanding of outcomes, throughout this process. How can we possibly be expected to make an informed decision?

Just to be clear: nothing I am writing below has been verified by any staff member at the City, nor any elected official at the City, so even the “facts” below should be treated with a big bag of salt grains. I have chatted to a few people more knowledgeable than I, and have read over the relevant legislation, but this is my interpretation of what is happening or could happen. The opinions and ideas below are worth exactly what you paid for them. I encourage you to go out and get your own info, and to challenge me on anything I write below that is factually incorrect. I think you should approach Crosty’s information with the same healthy skepticism. Three points to start:

DAC Money: The City is not sitting on a pile of DAC cash to build things with. There is no DAC vault below the Mayor’s Office or a DAC bank account from which the Mayor can write cheques. DAC funds are provided on an annual basis up to 2019 based on gaming revenue. This money is “guaranteed” to the City, as long as the Casino hits its revenue targets (the Casino has shown no signs of not hitting its revenue targets).

With the agreements in place, various projects can be built using the DAC funds, the MUCF being one of them, to the order of $35Million (well, more like $43 Million, but that’s another discussion). However, for the City to get their hands on that $35Million $43 Million, they first have to spend the money, then apply for reimbursement after the project is completed. This is a hassle for the City, as it is not so good for the guys pouring cement in onto the hole on Columbia Street on Monday morning. The cement-pourers want to get paid now, not in 2013 or 2014, so the City needs to borrow money from the Municipal Finance Authority to pay today’s bills in order to complete the project so they can get the money from the DAC funds upon completion. Alternately, they can take money from their reserves, but that money is already earmarked for other purposes (see below), and locking it up now would limit future flexibility in its use. It may even run the reserves too low, and may hurt us in the interest earned on any reserve funds (for example, the City has an MFA Bond fund earning over 3%).

This raises the question: is that $35Million $43 Million really “debt” just because we are borrowing it until the day, a year or two down the road, when the cheque from the Casino clears? It is clearly “borrowing”, so it invokes Section 178 (short-term borrowing) or Section 179 (long-term borrowing) of the Community Charter, depending on how the City’s finance department structures the repayment. That said, if there is a clear, foreseeable, and guaranteed payback scheme not involving taxpayer’s money, and out of it all we get a big asset, I have a hard time calling this irresponsible debt.

Referendum: The implications of the referendum are hard to comprehend at this point. Section 85 of the Community Charter refers directly to Part 4 of the Local Government Act. The legalese gets a little dense, especially as it talks more about elections than referenda, but the process is about 80 days (presumably, once they get and elections office up and running). I imagine it would cost $100K or more, which is not budgeted money, so you can call that operational cost right out of the taxpayer’s pocket. As for more specific questions (how much would the City be able to spend on the “Yes” campaign? Could they buy $1 Million in advertising? ), I frankly have no idea. Anyone out there know?

If the Bylaw fails: If the referendum was to be called and people vote for the lending Bylaw, then I guess we just wasted a bit of time and money, but Democracy is rarely quick or cheap.

If the people vote against the lending Bylaw, then I suppose it is back to the drawing board when it comes to financing the MUCF building and other projects in the City.

The Report to Council that outlines the accounting strategy is available online, for your perusal. Although I suspect they did not anticipate this was very likely, they did include a contingency sentence:

“If the Alternative Approval Process is not successful [translation: if Crosty collects 4500 signatures], the City would need to consider alternative funding solutions, including deferring projects in order to ensure City reserves are available”

So I don’t feel bad not knowing what happens if Crosty gets his 4500 signatures, and a referendum fails. I don’t think the City knows.

Friday’s newspaper article suggests that the MUCF and Tower would proceed, they would just need to find another way to fund it, likely drawing down reserves or from money in other parts of the budget. They are not going to stop building the Tower, not because Council chooses to ignore the people, but because the concrete is currently being poured: at this point, they really can’t stop building the tower.

The idea, once floated by Councillor Puchmayr, of building the MUCF and “capping it”, until a partner is found for the Tower might have been a good one at the time, but I doubt it could happen now. A large building like this is an integrated unit, built from the ground up as one piece. While it is possible (at an increased costs with significant engineering challenges) to only build half a building, bring it up to code for occupancy, then add on the other half later, you really need to have that as your plan on day one. Everything from how you manage groundwater removal in the base to how you construct your elevator shafts, sewage systems, HVAC systems, building envelope, and electrical infrastructure are based on a single integrated design. It is highly unlikely the building was designed to be built half-at-a-time, so it may be neigh-impossible.

The public discourse has to acknowledge that point: regardless of the number of signatures received, or the results of a referendum that may arise, the Tower is going to be built on the MUCF. If the City’s money supply is cut off, then it will not be the MUCF-Tower that gets hurt, it is other infrastructure spending.

It should also be noted, the $59 Million is not all going to the Tower. The Bylaw we are as of yet not getting to vote for includes lending for roads and parks maintenance and other things. This (as Crosty pointed out in his comments) is a bit of bookkeeping. The Municipal Finance Authority lends money at very good rates (currently 1.73%) for Municipal capital projects. The fact the City can build the building based on those rates makes the business case better for the City than any developer who didn’t have access to these rates. Problem is, the City cannot use money lent at that rate for commercial purposes. So they need to use reserves funds for the commercial part of the building, and the MFA lending will be used to finance capital works projects, like roads, parks and sewers, that would usually be paid from those reserves. For people who wish government would be more business-savvy and run more like a private enterprise, here you go.

Even then, the $59 Million is not just for the Tower. The total budgeted cost for the Office Tower part of the project is $33 Million. It is hard to imagine the City will never recover any of that money, and more likely than not, they will recover all of it and make more. That is the risk the City is asking taxpayers to take. So don’t get baffled by $59 Million, or $88 Million, or other numbers bandied about.

And finally, that $59 Million is a maximum number, there is no guarantee that the entire amount will be needed. If a partner is found for the Tower sooner than later, if DCC funds increase (and therefore more reserve money arrives), or if efficiencies are found at any step in the MUCF-Tower project, then the City may not borrow the full $59 Million (as they ended up not borrowing the full amount they were allowed to for the Moody Park Pool, leaving $1.5 Million of potential credit on the table).

Through my reading and discussions with people, I am not really all that concerned about the lending Bylaw itself. I would like to see more of a business case made by the City, but talk to any commercial realtor, and Class-A Office space on top of a SkyTrain line is looking like a sure thing, investment-wise. This building should be a real winner.

But (here is my big But getting in the way): I still can’t shake the feeling that I hate the “alternative approval process”, and the way the City, by need or by design, has launched it during the summer, with very little fanfare (note, the only reason you have heard about it at all is that Crosty raised the alarm), and then have made it difficult for people to distribute and collect signatures, from refusing to provide the blank forms requested to refusing to disclose how many signatures have been dropped at City Hall, making the goal post hard to see.

That said, before I fill out a referendum form (we have until August 7, and you can get the form here, print it off, and drop it at the City Hall Mailbox, addressed to “Legislative Services”), I want to know the outcome either way. Does anyone know?

Bicycle Lane Obstacle Course #2

As I said in edition #1 of this series, my bike commute is pretty good. For a decent amount of the trip, where I am parallel to a significant but narrow rural road where speeding is endemic, there is a two-way separated bike path. The path is not perfect (the white bollards are virtually invisible during winter rains when oncoming car lights are present, and the driveways provide lots of blind opportunities to get nailed), but it is a pretty progressive piece of infrastructure, and the risks it presents can be managed by most riders.

Unless, or course, someone chooses to park in the middle of it. Makes me want to call the cops, except:

I should note, the officer was not (evidence suggests) responding to an urgent request, had no emergency lights on, and was not doing a speed trap (based on the normal 80km/h flow on the 50km/h Westminster Highway). He was just doing normal parked-on-the-side-of-the road-cop-stuff (idling and poking away at his computer). Something he could easily do in a legal parking spot 100m up the road, one presumes, or 500m up the road where there is a proper shoulder that isn’t a separated bike path, or at least not right next to a no parking sign.

Agendas and Mandates

I’ve been thinking a lot about representative democracy lately.

It is easy to feel, to quote Kent Brockman, “Democracy just doesn’t work”, when you are an Environmental Scientist and you watch Stephen Harper systematically destroy Science and the Environment.

Ms. NWimby, once again, is the voice of reason, and is only incredulous at my incredulity about how far the Harper Government has gone, and how fast. “What did you expect?” she says, “He’s doing what he was elected to do.”

Is this what he was elected to do? In theory, we elect a government to lead by setting policy that is well informed, balances needs, and achieves the goals that the people want to see achieved. (Idealist, yes, but stick with me here). The alternatives are to run a populist party (give the people what they want, whether it is good for the nation or not) or an ideological party (one based on a set of rigid principles that cannot be bent for any reason regardless if the results are what was intended, damn the facts ).

If you listen to Reform Party Strategist Stephen Harper, he was all about people wanting open, accountable government, and all he wanted to do was make Ottawa follow the will of the “the people”. Reform were the ultimate populists when he was drawing up policy in the 80s.

But he isn’t a populist now, and it is pretty clear that his decisions are not made out of a desire to develop good effective policy based on the best science or analysis of the situation. You cannot do that and at the same time cut yourself off from information.

That leaves ideology, and he has, at least since taking power in 2006, worn his ideology on his sleeve: business good, taxes bad. “European-style socialism” the worst. He hates all forms of communism except the profitable Chinese style. He is an open admirer of the United States, and sees the current slow disassembly of their civil society as path Canada would be well served to follow. (<—opinion)

So we shouldn’t be surprised, nor should we expect him to change course even if all of the doctors in the country protest his position on health care for refugees, if all the scientists in the country gather at the gates crying about the death of evidence, when a group of former Conservatvie minsters line up decry the decimation of environmental laws. He wasn’t elected to represent health care professionals, scientists, former Ministers, evidence, or even public opinion. He was elected to support his openly expressed ideology.

Everyone was so worried about Harpers “hidden agenda” that the weren’t paying attention to his declared agenda. And here we are.

So although I disagree with almost every position Harper has taken, and lament the loss of science and data the future leaders could have used to guide good policy, I cannot blame him for doing it. It is his job in representative democracy, and he was elected by us, knowing that was what we were getting. Shame on us.

What I can criticize him for is showing no respect for the electoral system through which he receives his mandate. It is clear there was, at the very least, a systematic dirty tricks campaign during the last election. It was probably not enough to change the overall result, but enough to demonstrate a profound institutional disrespect for the ballot box within the Conservative party.

Again, we should perhaps not have been surprised, as when it was clear the electorate was ready to turf the conservatives from office a few years ago, he prorogued parliament over the Christmas break when it would create the least fuss. Technically, this was not illegal according to parliamentary law, but it was a serious violation of the spirit of parliament, the spirit of representative democracy, and a shitty thing to do.

But I’m getting pretty tired of pulling my hair over the Federal Conservatives. They are a bunch of jerks. Time to move past and make best. However, there have been a couple of recent events in New Westminster that may better relate to this tension between popularity and ideology, and the spirit of representative democracy.

I haven’t said much about the Elizabeth Fry development in Sapperton. I think Will Tomkinson covered the topic very well for 10th to the Fraser, and outlined effectively the political quagmire that it became.

I think this is a situation where there was lots of blame to go around for it becoming such a difficult situation.
The Lower Sapperton neighbourhood took a strong position against EFry, but didn’t seem to have time for any compromise. Nothing wrong with having a strong opinion, and they ran quite a campaign, but they really had a hard time defining exactly what their main issue was. Yes, they sounded “NIMBY”, but their message was confused by using a whack-a-mole technique or issue raising. They were apparently concerned about crime, parking, shadowing, commercialization, the integrity of the OCP, parking, Kelly Ellard, noise, parking…

EFry, on their own account, did not make a strong public case to directly address the concerns raised by the neighbourhood. Whether they felt the concerns were legitimate or not, an OCP amendment is a BIG DEAL, and they needed to go the extra mile to try to get a number of neighbours on board. No doubt EFry does good work, and area vital part of the social fabric of a community, but there is also no doubt the programs they offer have less favourable impacts, and their decision to develop in a way that challenged the OCP should fitfully come with responsibilities to meet the spirit of the OCP in neighbourhood impacts, even if you don’t meet the letter of the OCP. Hopefully, EFry will take this opportunity to prove their detractors wrong and become the best neighbours that Lower Sapperton could have.

That is all past now, the only question left is: what is Council’s responsibility here? There is little double the majority of lower Sapperton residents opposed the EFry application. There is also little doubt that the vast majority of delegates at the marathon council meetings (at least those who do not work at EFry or use their services) were opposed to the project. If you are the type who thinks Council’s role is to represent the whim of the majority on every topic, then clearly they made the wrong choice.

There are at least two other sources of information that Councillors can use in deciding how to vote: information and ideology.

As I said, I was only a passive observer of the events around EFry, but it is possible that council were convinced by evidence that the programs are so needed, that the overall good of the community will be so well served by having them, and the impacts on lower Sapperton can be so mitigated, that they were compelled by the evidence to approve the project in spite of public outcry. That is an important part of representative democracy – electing someone with the foresight and leadership skills to do what is best for the “Greater Community”, even against hyper-local, short-term, or uninformed opposition.

I don’t know if this was the case in the EFry situation, I’d like to think so. However, I think it is safe to say that the other “i” did have a role in how council made the decision.

Without picking names, some of the members of New West Council have ideological positions that they wear on their sleeves as proudly as Stephen Harper wears his. You can call it socialist, or Marxist, or liberal (all terms that can complimentary or pejorative), and you either like them or dislike them for this very positions. Simplified, it is the idea that Government has a role in improving the lives of people, especially those on the margins of society. Like it or not, council candidates that espouse this opinion do very well in local elections. They do not hide this ideology, and they get elected, suggesting that representing that ideology is part of their mandate in Council. When called on to demonstrate leadership against possible public backlash, that is the mandate they have to fall back upon. Really, that is the “representative” part of democracy.

Was The EFry decision based on information or ideology? I don’t know, as I didn’t follow the case that closely. I suspect it was a little of both.

There is another decision that may not have (yet) received the vocal public backlash of EFry, but speaks to mandates and democracy: the MUCF funding and James Crosty’s burgeoning campaign to force a referendum on the issue.

I should say, I am generally in favour of the MUCF. As much as I would have liked the office tower to have been built with private money, I understand the position Council was in when the development deal fell through. I share their opinion that the building is too important to the ongoing renaissance of Downtown to let it fail. With the promise of Class-A office space on top of a SkyTrain line, a central location in the region, and the sweet terms the City can negotiate from the Municipal Finance Authority makes the business rick seem pretty minuscule.

However, the Community Charter creates some pretty specific rules about how Cities manage their finances. One rule is that any Municipal Council cannot borrow money for any term longer than 5 years without a specific mandate of the populace, unless for a prescribed purpose. This sensibly limits any one Council from forever indebting a City, before an election can come along and the teeming masses can toss them out.

So if your City needs to borrow, say $59million over 20 years, they are to seek a mandate from the populace, the most obvious way of doing that is through a referendum.

Cities are reluctant to hold referenda every time they have a long-term project, especially in the anti-tax anti-risk financial era in which we currently reside. Referenda are a hassle, expensive to run, and limit the ability of Councils with specific mandates (be they based on information, ideology, or both) from getting things done. So a City can take the opposite tack: assume everyone agrees unless they take effort to oppose it, kind of a “reverse-billing” referendum. And that is where we are at today in New Westminster, much to James Crosty’s chagrin.

This is not the first time the City has done this reverse-billing thing, and it is not even the first time I have raised an issue about it, but I clearly don’t have the issue-raising prowess of James Crosty.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: the current system of putting notice to the public and asking them to, essentially, fill out a ballot if they oppose the lending, is a legitimate one under the Community Charter, but (and I strongly agree with Crosty here), the City is going about this in a crappy way.

The City has put a couple of notices in the City page of the local newspapers, buried between local zoning variances, park events, and safety notices. There are a few thousand words of random legalese, which very few people are likely to read, followed by an invitation to come to City Hall during business hours, read a six-page legal form, then fill out a form, declaring your opposition. A mandate for opposition requires 4,500 individual electors to each come to City Hall during a one-month period in the middle of the summer (a usual dead zone for public consultation).

Demonstrating that this is not a true referendum, there is no funding for organized opposition to the initiative, nary is there time to get one organized in the middle of summer. In fact, according to Crosty, the City will not even provide and adequate number of the 8×11 sheets required to be filled out for any such group who wished to organize around it. If anyone wants to go to the Quayside or to Royal Centre and try to sign up electors, actually spread the word to the electorate who may oppose the long-term borrowing of $59 Million (almost $2000 per taxpaying household) they need to self-fund, and then print their own ballots!

Council only had one meeting between when these notices entered the local papers and when the “voting period” closes, and when Mr. Crosty attended that council meeting to raise these issues, he was (according to Crosty… and the streaming video evidence is not around to counter his claims) cut off after a short period of time, and was denied the opportunity to have his concerns addressed by Council or by Staff in a public forum –the only public forum available for a private citizen to raise concerns about this “referendum”.

You can be for or against the MUCF; with or against the current council: it really doesn’t matter what your ideology is on this one. This is a crappy run-around referendum that surely fits the letter of the Community Charter, but clearly violates the spirit of the Charter.

A Bit of Vacation

There are many things in New West I wish I was writing about right now, but instead I am busy enjoying life.

I just attended a High School Reunion (my own),

Amongst the things I am too old for, we can add my Grad Jacket and nightclubs.

…and spent some family time in the Kootenays.

I also got in a great bike ride and a short hike.

Somewhere off in the background, the ancestral Johnstone Family Home.
In the foreground, a suffering bastard feeling the Kootenay heat.

The hike also provided an opportunity to add to my long list of animal photography failures, as we ran into a rather large and surprisingly cinnamon-coloured Black Bear. Lucky he was too engaged in berry and shoot gorging to bother us too much as we wandered away nosily, but not before I was able to embarrass the makers of Canon cameras and lenses with this pathetic effort:

I am really not very good at this.
Back to regular blogging soon.

Plaza88: the Sandwich Maze

A few months ago, the Plaza88 retail development opened to some fanfare. The new pedestrian mall wrapped around an old SkyTrain station represented an exciting new phase in the renewal of downtown New Westminster.

I blogged my initial impressions at the time, with a post that got picked up by a long-forgotten regional blog portal, and received both positive and negative feedback, mostly because my post at the time was both positive and negative. My impression at the time was: so far OK, let’s see what happens when they open the rest, and bring on the Theatres!

Since then, I actually went to the Theatres on opening weekend, saw some Avengers beat people up, and I had a pretty good experience. Big comfy seats, decent sized screen, and they don’t turn the volume up to 11. You can’t buy a pint in the Theatre, but you can a few steps away at Hops Pub, so that’s good enough. Nothing but good stuff there.

There is also a smattering of new businesses filling the gaps on the mezzanine and concourse level. The public space in and around is getting more comfortable as it gradually becomes less of a construction site and more of a human space.

The biggest problem now, however, is the sandwich signs. Following a low-burning Twitterstorm led mostly by @matthewlaird, as the numbers of sandwich signs has been creeping up towards corn-maze density and the pedestrian experience has become more daunting.

The City, coincidentally, has been reviewing their Sign Bylaw, and a report to Council this week raised the issue of sandwich boards and their impact on pedestrian space. Problem being, the pedestrian space in Plaza88 is kind of a City street, and kind of private property, there seem to be competing opinions about who is responsible and if this or any future Sign Bylaw would even apply.

Really, I think the best approach here isn’t bylaw enforcement, it is for the potential customers to put pressure on the businesses at Plaza88 to make their pedestrian space more friendly. So this post is in that spirit, with a photo tour of the concourse to see what the problem is.

How bad are the sandwich signs? I dropped by Plaza88, entering from the Quayside Drive pedestrian entrance and walking to the 8th Street exit, and counted no less than 57 sandwich boards (not including the one in the middle of Quayside Drive). Fifty-seven in a ~150m-long concourse. That is close to three times the number of actual businesses open in Plaza88, although admittedly, at least 8 of the signs belong to Safeway alone.

Approaching from the west, the sandwich signs are not too obtrusive, as there are only
a few and there is lots of pedestrian room. 
Strangely, most are in front of the business, like they are trying to catch the eye of passing
drivers… as if walkers would not turn their heads 15 degrees to the side…
Like I said, right out front. But, hey, no real problem to walk around one sign. Still looks cheap, though.


Moving towards the SkyTrain station, the signs are starting to get denser, some
advertising businesses I cannot see immediately behind them.

? ?

Density going up, at least 8 in this view, three belonging to the Theatres. 

? ?

West entrance of Safeway, almost blocked by a phalanx of sandwich boards…

? ?

…but spin around the other direction, and the real maze begins. So from this point,
4 identical Safeway boards blocking your way to and escape route from the visible front doors.

Glad to report a hardware store opening in Plaza88. Just kidding.
At the east end, the Corn Maze is complete. Note about 20 boards here, running right through the
pedestrian concourse, and no less than 4 identical Safeway boards blocking your view of,
and complicating your access to Safeway’s Front Door!

Sp please, Degelder Group, Plaza88, Safeway, whoever the hell is making the choices here, can you please do something about this ridiculous sandwich sign arms race? With the new businesses, the concorse is starting to look better and has a lot of offer. There is huge potential here to make it inviting in a more natural way than throwing and obstacle course of advertizing.

Then bring on the Indian Restaurant.

Bicycle Lane Obstacle Course #1

I’m starting a new theme here on NWimby, this will be the first edition of a (hopefully) very short series. It occurred to me a few days ago, for obvious reasons, during a ride to work.

I ride my bike to work occasionally-to-regularly, depending on various weather and life-management issues. This has me crossing half of New Westminster and half of Richmond. As far as bike facilities, I have absolutely nothing to complain about. I have a 21km ride each way where about 5km are on completely separated bike lanes, about 7km are on traffic-calmed Greenway with sharrows and very little traffic, about 8km are on busier roads with well-marked bike lanes, and pretty much all of the connections and traffic lights have some cycling infrastructure, or though of bicycle infrastructure. My work has a secure bike locker system, showers, most of what I need. Kudos to New West and Richmond for this.

I can ride this trip door-to-door faster than Transit can do the same job, so I am withholding any TransLink Kudos.

However, the bicycle commute is not without challenges, as I have written ranted about before. But something I have noticed with the increase in bikes lanes in our everyday lives: how well used they are by people not on bikes, and how little design or maintenance issues often turn a great investment in cycling infrastructure into an unacknowledged hazard for cyclists, often in a way no driver of a car would tolerate in a “real” road lane.

So this is my little reaction to that. I will be posting regular photos of things I see on my bike commutes, loosely collected under the title: Bike Lane Obstacle Course.

BLOC #1. I present for your consideration: