The Urban Academy Meeting

We had a council meeting on May 4 (insert obligatory apology for being so late getting this out). We had a Closed Session, a Committee of the Whole meeting, and a few other things on the Regular Meeting agenda, but this meeting was dominated by the Public Hearing on two Bylaws that supported the proposed expansion of the Urban Academy campus in Queens Park. More than 6 hours of delegations and a very packed City Hall (the photo above is the overflow outside of the packed Council Chambers).

Not intending to bury the lede, the proposal was voted down by Council, six votes to one. I was the one.

I have complete respect for my Council colleagues. I have not asked them about the places where we disagree, and there is no reason for me to try to pick apart or translate their votes or their reasoning. Instead, I can only speak for myself, and say I disagreed with the majority vote here, and provide my reasoning for why I voted the way I did.

I did everything I could to learn about this project, and that started before the election. I attended an open house at the Olivet Church. I met with the Chair of the UA Board and with the Principal. On more than one occasion, I took a walk by the school (without warning the school) during the morning drop-off time to see how the traffic worked, and interacted with the Qayqayt traffic. I attended a QPRA meeting where the topic was discussed, and another private meeting in a home in Queens Park with about a dozen neighbours who opposed the project. I had conversations with people from the Advisory Planning Commission, the Queens Park and Downtown RAs, staff in the City and professionals who do heritage restorations. I went into all of these meetings and discussion to learn, not to tell people what I think or give advice. I tried to play the “devil’s advocate” in those conversations, with the intent of getting people to see the other side better.

I also received a lot of correspondence on this project. I have read and replied to more than 100 e-mails (remain neutral in my responses, cognizant of the upcoming Public Hearing), and have read about 50 more, to which I have yet to reply (sorry, folks, I’ll try hard to get back to you). I received written correspondence on old-fashioned paper, had a few Social Media exchanges.

The hardest part was the conservations with a person I consider a friend, and a community leader in New Westminster, who was heartbroken when her family was displaced by Urban Academy as they bought the neighbouring property and started handing out evictions.

Even after all of this, I can honestly say I woke up on Monday morning unsure about whether I supported the project.  I changed my mind three times between showering and shaving on Monday. I was struggling to understand how to put a project like this into a context that would allow me to make a decision that I could defend.

When I ran for Council, I told people they may not agree with every decision I make, but I will always provide a rationale, will do the research required to make an informed decision, and will do what I think is best for the future of the community. At the time, the Whitecaps Soccer proposal was front and centre with its lawn sign battles and divisive public hearings. However, this is the first time during my term on Council where I really felt the power of that type of divide. There were passionate communities for and against, and there simply was no middle ground to be found. So I couldn’t make a “gut” call or follow the crowd, I had to find something to hang my reasoning on.

Looking back at the Public Hearing, I know when I made my decision – when it solidified in my mind. I listened to the 60-odd delegates and took 8 pages of notes, but it was one delegate, somewhere in the middle, that created the context I needed (I won’t declare here who it was, but will send that delegate a thank-you email). At that point, I started to pare away the things I could not decide on, and get down to the things I could.

For example, I do not question the appropriateness of the HRA process. This project met the criteria and the spirit of an HRA as laid out in City policy and bylaws. Further, there was an impression created during the debate that an HRA is some sort of run-around of the “normal process”, giving the proponent a shortcut to approval. This is simply not true. An HRA requires the same committee reviews and public processes as a traditional Rezoning and Development. An HRA actually includes an extra assessment on heritage value and an extra committee review to discuss this. The heritage benefits of an HRA become part of the negotiation when it comes to variances or amenity contributions, but that is, as we learned, at the pleasure of Council, who are free at any time to say “no deal”. Staff and the Community Heritage Commission felt this was an appropriate application of the HRA process, and the process was applied properly. I cannot vote against a project because people don’t like the process the Proponent followed when that process was set up and supported by Council.

Another part I really had a hard time putting weight into for my own decision was the personal testimonials of all the parents about how good they thought the school was for their kids (here is the part of this blog where I lose any potential “political gain” I may have received by supporting the project). This rubbed against my personal conviction that Public School is a cornerstone in our civil society. Yes, Urban Academy provides unique programming not available in the public system, and the parents that run it take efforts to open their school to those who could not traditionally afford or have access to a private school, but I fundamentally believe those resources and efforts should be put towards making our public system a more effective and inclusive one. I do not support two-tier education. However, that discussion has to happen at the Provincial level, and within society as a whole, and cannot be decided on a case-by-case basis around the Council table during a rezoning application.

That leaves us with the topics that (in my opinion) are the sole duty of City Council – land use and urban planning. To be fair, many arguments against the proposal were around land use and urban planning. I just failed to find them compelling. Which I guess is going to take some explaining.

At the most hyperbolic, it was suggested that the expansion of Urban Academy would have a “devastating impact” on the Queens Park neighbourhood as one of the most valuable collections of heritage homes in British Columbia. I all honesty, I found this idea ridiculous. Not a single heritage home was being demolished or threatened, and the impact on the few adjacent ones was so minor that a direct neighbour who owned one of these heritage homes was a vocal supporter of the project. The location of this project is at the periphery of the historic Queens Park neighbourhood, immediately adjacent to an 11-story concrete building with zero heritage value, and on the same block as two other three story walk-ups with a similar lack of heritage value. As far as impact on the neighbouring community, I liken it to Queens Park West, the commercial Building at 5th Street and 6th Ave that effectively transitions the heavily-commercial 6th and 6th area and the high-rise residential Legion Manor to the adjacent heritage residential area.

Far from a “devastating impact” on the Queens Park neighbourhood, I saw the Urban Academy project as having some impact on a small number of residents in the Queens Park Neighbourhood. From a land-use planning perspective, it is those impacts I need to weigh against the benefits to the community of approving the project. As no project in the City, from Sapperton Green to my replacing my back fence, is truly “impact free”, we cannot set zero impact as the standard. We do, however, have to have an honest discussion about the impacts, and how they can or cannot be mitigated.

The mass of the proposed new building was an oft-expressed concern. The increase from an FSR of 0.38 (for the School site) and 0.85 for the existing apartment building to a combined 1.27 is a significant increase, especially when compared to the residential properties to the north with lower FSRs (generally below 0.3). However, the property directly to the south has an FSR of 2.36, and that includes the large parking lot area adjacent to it. The next two apartment buildings to the east are 1.96 and 1.41. Aside from the single family homes on far the east end of the block, the expanded school would still have had the lowest FSR on the block, which on a pure numbers basis, represents appropriate mass for the site.

Unfortunately, the layout of the property and the preservation of the existing heritage building pushes the new mass to the north part of the lot and around the periphery, which may (as was argued by the school) reduce the noise and disturbance of a regular school on adjacent residential areas, but it does make the mass feel bigger than it is. The proponents took significant measures to reduce the massing impact to the north side, shifting the building south, installing a regulation-width sidewalk in Manitoba Street for the first time, reducing the total floorspace area (especially of the top floor) and creating a more articulated and softer interface. All things considered, I think the resulting building was appropriate for the space.

The concerns about the safety of the school, including the suggestion that children would be imperiled by a sunken gym or that access to the school was inadequate, were not concerns I shared. The building was designed to meet the BC building and fire codes for the number of students it planned to hold, just like the semi-sunken gym at Qayqayt School and the fully-sunken gym at the Century House Youth Centre. These are important questions to be asked, and are part of the responsibility of the architects, City inspectors and Fire Marshall, and no public building (especially a school) will receive its occupancy permit until these concerns are addressed.

The lack of adequate play area was another issue of concern to the neighbors. Again, I leave this concern to the childhood education professionals at the school and the parents who choose to send their kids to the school. They argue that the rooftop, paved surfaces, gym and play areas are adequate for their needs, and it isn’t for me or concerned neighbours who don’t send kids to the school to measure this.

The occasional use of Tipperary Park and other community green spaces is not something I see as a threat to the greater community. Parks are places set aside for community use, and Tipperary is never, even on the sunniest Farmers Market Day, crowded enough to make it unusable. Kids playing in a City-owned park is something this City should be excited about, not something we should see as a potential threat to our livability.

Looking at the proposal at a high level, I saw a reflection of the reality of modern compact school design in a dense urban area. Schools and other institutions are no longer going to be the sprawling low-rise complexes surrounded by acres of green grass that we grew up with. Land in a City like New Westminster is too valuable, and there are too many cost pressures on people operating these facilities, be they private or public sector. In the bigger urban planning context, this is the type of use that is absolutely appropriate for transition space between higher-density to the south and single family with a heritage character to the north. A school this size adjacent to a residential area is not unusual in urban areas across North America, and the scale, density, and character is common in those Northern European countries we look to for examples of high-livability urban planning principles.

I can see the benefits that this type of institution could bring the City, including jobs (this school would employ more people than the Fraser Surrey Docks Coal Terminal!) and the economic impacts of having school families using adjacent services (one just has to count the numbers of UA uniforms at the spring and fall Farmers Markets in adjacent Tipperary Park). I also see the broader community benefits of an arts-infused school program (I just wish our public schools were funded enough to provide the same opportunity). If the school fails due to an inability to grow, I cannot imagine what other use will come along for the site that will provide the same long-term stability and community benefits without similar or higher impacts on the neighbourhood.

Indeed, there would have been impacts on the neighbourhood, which brings us to the real issue at the middle of this discussion: cars. With all due respect to the Lancers, when is the last time any truly contentious topic in New Westminster didn’t come down the movement or parking of cars? Yes, the Urban Academy creates traffic, and they fully acknowledge that. They have also proposed several approaches to dealing with the traffic they will generate; from shifting school start times to developing more comprehensive carpooling and bussing program and using a code of conduct to designate “exclusion zones” to protect more sensitive neighbourhood areas. Unfortunately, it is difficult for the City to secure these voluntary approaches through the HRA/Rezoning process.

This is a school, which are institutions that have always lived in residential areas. There are traffic snafus around all schools, from the over-crowded 8th Ave sidewalk by NWSS to irregular road rage issues around Lord Tweedsmuir and Qayqayt teething issues. The nature of how we move kids to and from schools today (which few will debate is completely bonkers compared to when we were kids) creates twice-daily traffic challenges in the immediate area. We can work to mitigate those, but they will never go away. Traffic is an organic system that will adapt in ways we cannot foresee, but we can plan, manage, and adapt through partnership between the City and the Proponent. Which is the way we address traffic issues with other schools (partnering with the School District and PACs), and commercial developments (partnering with the developers and commercial operators). We do this through planning, infrastructure investment, education and enforcement (collectively known as “governance”).

To protect livability, which (to be generous) is the real issue people are talking about when hyperbolically discussing neighbourhood “traffic chaos”, we cannot only work on a project-by-project basis. Livability related to traffic needs to be addressed city-wide and region wide. I could go on at terrible length about this (as I have in the past), but this is why we need to implement the new Master Transportation Plan, emphasize pedestrian safety, alternative modes, and neighbourhood livability, and why we need a YES vote in referendum, so we can get on with building a regional system that supports our efforts to protect the livability of Queens and Third, and every other residential intersection in the City.

Urban Academy had a multi-faceted plan to reduce traffic loads, and made some solid suggestions around how to reduce neighbourhood impacts. The work they did satisfied the City’s Engineering Department, who has the professional expertise to review these things, and would have to pay for any costs related to the traffic. If there were specific issues that cropped up (i.e. student drop-offs in inappropriate places), then a combination of infrastructure adjustments, signage, and enforcement can manage that. Yes, Urban Academy would have neighbourhood traffic impacts, and yes, I believed they could be managed.

This leaves me with the issue of the evictions of the tenants of 228 Manitoba. I had several conversations with a tenant who felt bullied, belittled, and disrespected through the entire process. She lost the home in which she raised her family, and was both heartbroken by the loss, and felt violated by the treatment she received. When I discussed the eviction process with the Proponents, they clearly had a different view of what transpired, and felt they had bent over backwards to accommodate residents and met and exceeded their requirements under the Residential Tenancy Act for these situations. This was clearly a horrible situation, and I have no reason to doubt the experience of the tenant, whom I have known for several years and for whom I have a lot of respect. However, I cannot in good conscience use this terrible experience as a reason to deny an otherwise acceptable HRA application.

I see my role in making decisions not by counting polls, comparing the thickness of petitions (referenda are a terrible way to apply public policy), or weighing personal anecdotes, but to honestly measure the merits and costs of a project and vote based on that measure. I also think that those who disagree with me, and those who do not, deserve an explanation for why I vote the way I do. I am open to hearing your opinions, because at 6 months, I am clearly still trying to learn my role here.

10 comments on “The Urban Academy Meeting

  1. One of your main points is that this proponent’s concept will be the school design of the future in urban areas. IMHO, that is exactly the opposite of what can be approved where the City has declared a heritage area. It is a heritage area for a specific reason so to insert a futuristic design is going against your own governance policy. Maybe anywhere else in the City but not there. Thanks for explaining your decision though.

  2. Not sure I follow. There are many houses from different eras and with designs ranging from 1970s specials to hyper modern (similar to the concept for the school) in Queens Park proper that council saw fit to approve. And how can you suggest that something you find so offensive be fine for elsewhere in the city? There are other heritage areas in the city. Sapperton is actually older than Queens Park and look at all the modern buildings going in there (for example the E. Fry expansion, which was a far more radical re zoning than UA asked for). As usual, one law for Queen’s Park and another for the rest of N.W.

    1. To clarify, I meant this as a reply to Kay Johnson – sorry, I hit the wrong reply button, Patrick.

  3. I applaud Councillor Johnstone. Thank you for keeping your personal ideology (private school vs. private school) in check. It does not belong in a decision making process such as this. I was shocked to see some of the responses from the other Council members. I really appreciate your support. I have to wonder how many of those in opposition who argued against the loss of low income housing would feel if one was built adjacent to their million dollar houses. I feel Steven Galloway’s letter was bang on with respect to the real issues and in regards to some members of the Queens Park neighbourhood. Surely the ” Me” generation is thriving in the 50+ set. I hope I never play politics with the lives of young families and future generations b/c it doesn’t suit me and my lifestyle.

  4. The decision hit me very personally because it now means that my child, who has a severe special needs and can’t attend public school, can’t be educated in the city he’s lived in his whole life. To me, the message from council was: “if your child can’t hack it in public school, leave our city. You aren’t welcome here.” That’s not the message anybody intended, of course, but it’s the one that was sent.

    I agree that Queen’s Park wasn’t an ideal location, but it was the only option. Urban Academy tried desperately to find another site in New West — the city where it was founded 15 years ago; the city that most of its students call home — and wasn’t able to. It’s only shot at staying here was to expand at it’s current site. It will need to leave New West now and my family will have no choice but to follow.

    Patrick, I know that providing a source of education to New Westminster children with special needs wasn’t the reason you voted yes, but I thank you nonetheless.

  5. Councillor, I applaud your willingness to recognize the need for transitional structures, the need for more realistic approaches to density, and the fact that traffic is a problem in New Westminster as a whole, not just in particular areas.

    As for issues around the heritage area … there are indeed other heritage areas. The other areas just don’t have as much money. We live in a part of the world in which population densification isn’t just coming, it’s here, and the pressure is going to increase many-fold over the next 10-20 years. However old and well-preserved they may be, single-family homes on huge lots with maybe 4 people living in them are a terrible use of residential land. Rather than the City demonstrating its commitment to heritage preservation over and over again as seems to be demanded by residents of the area in what seems a rather one-sided conversation, perhaps there should be equal responsibility for the residents to justify taking up so much space, beyond just stewardship. One might even think there would be some eagerness among residents to compromise and embrace change as a means of bringing continued relevance to an outmoded form of land use. I guess we’re not there yet, but it’ll have to happen eventually.

    As for the apartment building on Manitoba Street – I have great sympathy for anyone who was negatively affected by Urban Academy’s purchase of the property. This is just speculation of course, but I figure the school will need to sell the property now. As I understand it, the lot is currently zoned Medium to High Density. So it may be that local residents will end up being neighbours to an 8 to 10 storey multi-unit residential building rather than a bigger better Urban Academy. Presumably that’s preferable somehow.

    1. You’re right on the money, Katey (no pun intended). Additionally, regarding the apartment on Manitoba street, my understanding is that apartment was never designated low-income housing. It had fallen into disrepair (I understand there are mold and asbestos issues), so people with enough money to afford something better wouldn’t live there. It is unfortunate that those on low income have so little to choose from and must take a unit in a building that is really not fit for habitation. I’d like to know where all the designated low-income units actually are in this city. I’d like to know how many designated low-income units are in the many high-rise condo buildings that have sprung up in the city over the last 10 years. I find it somewhat hypocritical for council to condemn a small school trying to do something good in the world for removing low-income housing, when they themselves haven’t negotiated enough low-income units with the major developers who are building here. IMHO.

  6. Wow! A politician who actually undertakes to understand the issues at hand AS WELL AS understanding the role of municipal government! What a breath of fresh air. Thank you for your tireless efforts, Councillor–it could very well be an incredibly frustrating 4 years ahead of you but your voice is needed here in New Westminster ever more so. #patrickjohnstoneformayor

  7. Thank you Councillor Johnstone for your vote for the project and your clear explanation. I too wish we had a public school system that better met the needs of teachers and children. But just as it is the governments job to balance the budgets and make the best decision for all factors, it is a parents job to make the best decision for their child’s care and education. I can’t fix the public school system, but I can send my children to the best school I can find that satisfies my standards of what education and community should be.

    I am not sure if the city or the Queens park residents that rejected this proposal have any idea what they’ve done. They have made it clear that while they regard the displacement of 8 residential units a shameful atrocity, they simultaneously have a ‘wasn’t me’/hands off attitude towards displacing Urban Academy’s staff and families. While opponents to the proposal sit smug and satisfied with the decision, 160 CHILDREN And THEIR Families are now faced with a precarious and uncertain future. Ridden with more angst than I can express. My personal devastation is palpable, now multiply it by 160 children, their families and all of the UA staff.

    Urban Academy stepped up and aided the residents of the apartment building (both financially and logistically) to find suitable new homes. Will the City do the same for Urban Academy, Or is displacement only a tragedy when it conveniences Queens Park naysayers?

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