Ask Pat: Housing crises

R57 asks:

I’m the one who suggested replacing the Bosa harbour front proposal with reproductions of the ‘Argonath’, and that not enough concern has been shown for the Temple of Doom half concealed in the plans for the 618 Carnarvon development. Over the past couple of years I have documented on Twitter the ongoing development of both condo and rental towers in my immediate neighbourhood: the noise, disruption, destruction of heritage or historic buildings, and so on. Ultimately, however, the greatest impact is on affordability and security for low income people in the downtown core.

I live [near] the development of the Novare tower and the site of the now demolished Masonic Hall. Our building has been sold twice in the past two years. We have now been informed that we are to be evicted for ‘renovations.’ This is from the same landlord who told us, on buying the building, that he planned not to spend a single cent on its upkeep. So, it is very fine to say that revenue from the development of a condo tower–whose ultimate purpose is to make mountains of money for developers and speculators–will partially go into an affordable housing strategy–but what have you actually done?

The last I looked, the city has approved a 42 unit affordable development to go ahead, but that was two years ago. What else? My rough tally, of just the 618 development, and the pointless, unnecessary exercise in megalomania called Bosa Pier West, amounts to about a thousand luxury units, and real, affordable housing available today–zero.

I note that the 618 developers will pay a million dollar penalty for bending the height or density bylaws, is that correct? If that is so, and that figure is still insufficient to build a few affordable units, may I suggest dividing that sum into a hundred individual grants of $10,000 each, which should be sufficient to help stressed citizens to relocate elsewhere here and abroad, and start over? I would prefer Tuscany myself, but Malaysia may be more affordable on my pension.

That’s a bit of a joke, but not much. So, we all have to go somewhere in two months. Any suggestions?

This was sent as a comment on one of my regular Council Report posts a month or so ago, but it raises enough issues (outside of architectural criticism) that I thought it deserved a fuller response, so I redacted a few personal-identification parts, and included it here. That said, I recognize I don’t really have an adequate response, but am thankful for the opportunity to go on a long rant here about the “Housing Crises”.

There is a lot going on in the housing market regionally, and the days have passed when New Westminster – a little tucked away, a little gritty, a little bypassed – could avoid the worst of the affordability crisis. We should have seen it coming. I think we did see it coming as we went through the Official Community Plan process, but while some made the case for urgency at that time, I think our reaction was (with benefit of hindsight) a tepid one.

One complexity of the problem is demonstrated in the inherent dichotomy in your comments: new building around your affordable apartment is seen as part of the problem, and not part of the solution to the regional housing squeeze. I hear a lot more concern from people (notably those who already have secure housing) that there is too much construction in the City. The reality is that growth of the City is tracking along with the Regional Growth Strategy expectations set out more than a decade ago. If there is a difference, it is in that we are building more high-density units and are not building into our single-family neighbourhoods. That is another entire blog rant I’ll have to save for later.

The newest of construction is rarely the most affordable housing, but if we bring in new supply while protecting older supply, market forces *should* result in that older stock remaining more affordable in the medium term. Even this approach creates a bunch of other problems – people buy up the less affordable stock with the expectation that they can knock it down and replace it with a tower and make more money. This is one area of speculation New West has (up to now) been pretty successful at avoiding, and we have not seen a large number of affordable housing units replaced with unaffordable condos. That is by New Westminster policy, not coincidence.

What we have seen is an increase in “reno-vicions” – tenants being displaced as an owner renovates a rental building only to raise rents substantially (doubled or more) once the renovation is done. As a City, we have no regulatory ability to prevent this, but we have been advocating at the provincial level for changes to the Residential Tenancy Act to prevent this. We have also been investing a bunch of resources and time into making sure tenants know their rights when landlords act unethically, and to provide as much support as we can to people when they are displaced. This is an ongoing effort at the City.

Building new homes is a business, and without a reasonable expectation of profit, no-one is going to do it. The construction market right now is crazy, and every construction project is burdened with a significant amount of financial risk. This risk is alleviated by building what they know, by pushing density limits, and by developing a pre-sale market that itself feeds speculation and inflated prices. It’s a vicious circle. It is clear we cannot trust “the market” to fix the affordability problem when the market is a large part of the problem. We need new construction, but we need much more than that.

We also need a supply of new homes not relying on the profit motive to get built. Few charities have the resources to do this work, so that leaves government. The federal government (with by far the deepest pockets) got out of the house-building business back in the 80s around the time we signed a new Constitution Act that put housing in the provincial realm. Since then, we have had a succession of provincial governments, each less interested in building public housing than the previous one. Local governments like New Westminster simply don’t have the resources to do this work when we have less than 8% of the tax revenue of the larger governments, and have our own increasing demands for expanded services and pressing infrastructure needs.

The upshot is that there was virtually no “non-market” housing built in the lower mainland for a good 30 years. At the same time, population has exploded and market housing has gotten completely detached from our stagnant wages (Why is no-one challenging the Chambers of Commerce and Boards of Trade about wages stagnation? ah…I digress). in 2018, it isn’t only the unemployed and the working poor who can’t find housing, it is the “middle class” struggling to find a place to raise a family. Rental vacancies have been stuck under 1% for a decade, and parochial concerns oppose any expansion of housing density into established single family neighbourhoods.

This is not a simple housing crisis, this is a bunch of different and overlapping housing crises coming together in a perfect storm. It was 20+ years in the making, predictable and avoidable, but here we are now. After 2 decades of bullshit neo-liberal responses (“we just need to Build the Economy, so everyone can afford a bigger house!”), the situation has only gotten worse.

So enough whining, what do we do now?

First off, anyone who tells you there is a simple or quick solution is lying or ignorant; probably both.

Clearly, we need to start investing again in non-market housing, like we did in the 50s and 60s when our country and economy were growing. We need to get back into building purpose-built rental buildings, so people who cannot or don’t want to own have a variety of housing available to them at various cost and scales. We need to incentivise the building of more “family friendly” middle-sized housing, and those have to extend into our once- (and sometimes still-) sacred single family neighbourhoods. And we need density around major transit hubs and commercial areas like downtown New Westminster to relieve market pressure. We need to shift our economic incentives (taxation regime, mortgage system, etc.) so that owning a home to live in is easier but buying investment property offers relatively less return. We need to do all of these things, and more. And we need to start doing it with the urgency usually afforded to something called a “crisis”.

I’m not going to shy away from saying that New Westminster, as a City, has been a regional leader in housing policy and investment, punching well above our weight. We have literally thousands of purpose-built rentals coming on line in the next year or two, because we have created an incentive package that makes them financially viable to build. We have managed to hold the line on demolition of older and more affordable rental stock. We have region-leading Family Friendly Housing policy, so there are more 2- and 3-bedroom suites being built. We have worked with service agencies to support affordable housing projects (two on the go, one more in the pipeline) being built on our very limited supply of City-owned properties. We have included an affordable housing component in our Master-Planned Community Developments such as Victoria Hill, and our OCP does open up more opportunities for infill density and flexible development forms. We direct amenity money from new developments into an Affordable Housing reserve fund to provide capital assistance to affordable housing agencies. We employ staff who do housing outreach and step in where (frankly) senior governments have failed, and try to connect residents with housing in any form they need. The brutal reality is that none of this is enough, and we are up against our limits as a local government, both in the resources and in legal authority. We need help. Back to the word “crisis” again.

You make reference (I think) to the bonus density charges made for the project at 618 Carnarvon. That money wouldn’t go to general revenue in the City, but is directed to specific capital funds – 30% of it directly to an Affordable Housing amenity fund, the rest to Childcare, Public Art, and General Amenity Funds to support capital projects like the Canada Games Pool replacement and the Library renovation. The City recently increased the value of these charges (reflecting recent increases in real estate prices), but have not reviewed how we apportion those funds in a few years. It might be time to do that. But even if we took $1,000,000 from that fund, it would only pay for building maybe a half dozen affordable units, if we had a place to build them, and an operator to manage them. As a local government, we simply cannot do this alone, and need to invest our capital in supporting the efforts of others to leverage our contributions into larger things we cannot do on our own.

I am encouraged by the work being done so far by the new provincial government, and hope we can see some serious investment here in New Westminster, and across the region. First in emergency housing to assist the homeless and those facing imminent homelessness, then supportive housing for those whose income doesn’t get them shelter in our market. We need to re-invest in the Co-op Housing model that worked so well 30 years ago, and we need to curtail the speculation market. We need to do all of these thing, and more. It is hard to be patient when so many people are so precariously housed, but this government is essentially starting from scratch, as a policy vacuum has existed in this province for 30 years. It is going to take some time to catch up.

All this is a long way of saying I have little advice for you. You can contact the Tenant Resource Advisory Centre (links/number for them and more contact info can be found here) and find out what your rights are, and what assistance my exist for you and your neighbours. I wish I had better answers. 

It is sad that the Lower Mainland is becoming so unaffordable that dreams of escape are only partially jokes. I have several friends who have left New West in the last couple of years, and housing affordability was a primary motivation for them. Some of them I would describe as pillars of the community. Volunteers, community builders, current and future leaders: the people who make a city into a community. Instead of here, they will now be building community in Winnipeg, in Saint-Lazare, in the Interior of BC. It saddens when people who want to call New West home cannot find a home they can afford here. It also angers me. We need more people to be angry about this to create the political will to make change, and willing to speak out for that change.

Trucks in the City

Douglas College has been running an interesting talk series this year under the banner of “Urban Challenges Forum”. The final episode of this semester occurred on Wednesday night, and deserved a better turnout than it received, considering the amount of social media bits and watercooler shatter we have in New Westminster around the topic: the livability impacts of truck routes and goods movement in our community.

Fortunately, they recorded video of the event, and will (hopefully?) be posting it on line. It is worth the time to see how the four panelists speak about trucks from different viewpoints: an urban systems geographer, a representative of the trucking industry, a representative of the Port Authority, and the CAO of New Westminster, a City that is (arguably) impacted most by the negative externalities of “goods movement” in the region.

I want to give a quick summary of my take-away points before raising the question I never got to raise at the event, partly because of the time constraints, partly because no-on needs to hear from a Politician when actual thinking people are speaking, and partially because I wasn’t sure how to phrase my question in the form of a question*.

Peter Hall (the geographer) reminded us that transportation, by its very nature, makes us selfish, and makes us act in shamefully selfish ways (speeding, tailgating, yelling at others). This is at least partly because it isn’t an ends, but a means, and its hassles are preventing us from meeting these ends. Add to this our general ignorance about freight, and we get a selfish ignorance about goods movement – we all want the benefits, none of us understand why we need to tolerate the costs. Trucking also has many benefits and externalities, and they are not evenly distributed. Altogether, this makes it a vicious political problem, not made easier by jurisdictional overlap.

Matthew May from BST Transport and Peter Xotta from the Port of Vancouver gave similar messages about their respective industries: they need to keep the goods moving in the National Interest. You ask for tomatoes in the store, you need to deal with trucks. You want a vibrant economy, you need trucks and ports. You live in a Gateway, and we will accommodate your community as best we can (even want to make you happy!), but the mandate is to drive the economy.

Lisa Spitale gave a concise summary of some of the interface issues New Westminster has dealt with over the last few decades. With rail and roads encircling the community and a Regional Growth Strategy mandate to be a dense Urban Centre supported by (and supporting) transit, we are a hot spot for the externalities of goods movement, by rail and truck.

If I had a point to make at this event (again, I could not put this in the form of a question), it is that we have *chosen* to accept the level of negative externalities that come with a large number of diesel trucks in our neighbourhoods.

To frame this point, we need to put aside the local-goods-delivery for a moment and talk about the larger getting-stuff-from-Port-to-hinterland-through-logistics-hubs part of this equation. This is what separates us as a “Gateway” city from most other regions, and is the foundation of both the Port’s arguments on this issue and the emphasis of the Gateway Council model that has commonly dominated our regional transportation conversation. But what kind of Gateway have we built?

Here in New Westminster, we host one end of a 114-year-old single-track swing bridge that is the only rail link crossing the Fraser River west of Mission. The City of New Westminster has something like 14km of river shoreline under Port of Vancouver jurisdiction, with about a third of that backed by industrial land, much of it under the Port’s direct control. Much of this land is used for logistics, cross-shipping, container storage, and other aspects of that all-important gateway-to-the-hinterland business. Yet over all of that space there are (2) conveyors moving aggregates and chips on/off barges, and one (1) pier occasionally used to move breakbulk lumber. These are the only location in New Westminster’s extensive port lands where anything is taken on or off of a boat.

The only contribution our Port lands make to the Gateway is providing space to move and store trucks, and facilitate the movement of goods in and out of trucks. Unfortunately, New Westminster is not alone in this.

How we move goods through the region is a choice we make, not a foregone conclusion. For these hinterland goods in containers, we have chosen to use trucks to move a large portion of them intra-regionally. A cynic would suggest that is because building waterfront infrastructure to make better use of short sea shipping and barges is expensive. Upgrading rail infrastructure so a single swing bridge isn’t the only vital link across a river that has seen 30 lanes of highway built across since that single track was installed, is expensive. Relying on roads and bridges is comparatively cheap from the view of the person who has to pay for the initial capital, because taxpayers will often pony up for “congestion reduction” investment, and the other costs (noise, pollution, public safety) are completely externalized, at least partially in the form of decreased livability of our communities.

I’ve made this rant before.

Since 1808 when Simon Fraser first tasted salt in the Sto:lo, there have been strains resulting from the needs of the Gateway to the Hinterland and the needs of the people living on the river’s shores. We can, however, find a better balance between these forces. It must include acknowledging that externalized costs of fueling the Gateway need to be accounted. Trucks are part of a functioning modern society, but their true role cannot be understood as long as we subsidize them over other options.

*I was once at a forum-type event where the request for “question from the floor” was prefaced by this proviso: Your first sentence must be in the form of a question; there should not be a second sentence. I thought that was brilliant.

That New Premier Smell

You may have seen this graphic across the #CDNPoli Social Media this week:

It reinforces whatever political biases you bring into it: Horgan is doing OK; Wynne is a wreck; PEI doesn’t matter. But I took something else out of it, and had to draw my own graph to demonstrate it:

Politics is a hell of a business.

For the rest of us who slept through Statistics 101, an R of .92 is a pretty high correlation, so I can definitively say popularity as a Premier in Canada correlates negatively with time in office. Any Premier above that trend line is doing better than average, any premier below the line is doing worse than average. Arguably, Pallister is doing worse than McNeil on average, but you know which I would rather be going into re-election.

Because in politics, it doesn’t seem to matter if you are above or below the line here. The only lesson to be learned from this graph is that the best you can hope for in Provincial Politics in Canada is to get things done before that New Premier Smell wears off. As years in office accumulate, any successes or victories are quickly weighed down by a legacy of being to blame for everything that may have gone wrong. Inevitably some of that is your fault (no one is perfect) and some is beyond your control, but in politics at the highest level, it simply doesn’t matter.

The only good way out of politics is to recognize when the door has been opened for you, and get out. Problem is, that kind of self-recognition is the first thing to be eroded by electoral success and access to power. Entering politics in the first place requires hubris, time in politics increases hubris, getting out requires absence of hubris. You can see the problem here.

I’m not sure how this plays out at the Municipal level, but I am just going to leave this post here, and hopefully someone will point it out to me when I am considering my 6th term for Council.

ASK PAT: Road Closures.

JF asked—

Pat, what are the City of New Westminster’s policies regarding road closures that impact cycling routes? Is there a requirement for the company requesting the road closure to identify and provision safe detours for people walking and bicycling through construction zones.

This past fall and winter has seen a large number of road closures in the Sapperton area for combined sewer separation and RCH related projects, and another sewer separation project on 7th Avenue near Moody Park. The Crosstown Greenway passes through both of these areas.

Many, many times over the past few months I have encountered road closures on the Crosstown greenway or connecting streets that I utilize. Most of these closures have little in the way of advanced warning and any detours in place don’t have cycling or walking in mind – ie being detoured down an alley onto Braid Street – FUN!

I’m a daily bicycle commuter passing through New West to/from my place of work in Burnaby and easily fall into the capable/confident category of rider. I don’t have any problem being detoured onto Braid or 8th Avenue and cycling alongside traffic moving at 50+km/h, but for a new or less confident rider I could easily picture them saying “forget it. I’m taking the car.” Not exactly the goal for any Active Transportation minded community.

To answer your first question, the City’s policy is that road closures caused by road/utility works are required to be well signed, and that safe alternate routes for all users including cyclists and pedestrians are to be maintained at all times. What you have discovered is that the policy sometimes fall short in practice. This is something I have spent much time ranting about in the past. It is a perennial problem, one that is (hopefully) getting better, but is (admittedly) a work in progress.

There is a *lot* of roadwork going on right now in New West. As you surmised, much of it is related to a sewer separation program accelerated somewhat by winning a federal grant to help pay for some of it. The situation in lower Sapperton has been especially intrusive, as that is where the sewer separation work is most intense along with utility works related to the expansion of the Hospital.

Almost all of this work is done by contractors (a city the size of New West doesn’t really have staff to do works at this scale anymore), and requirements to maintain rights of way and accommodate all types of road users are written right into the tender documents. They hire road flagging crews, do traffic plans, our engineers sign off on those plans, and our engineers sometimes drop by the site to see how things are going. However, these jobs are complicated and worksites are dynamic, so maintaining 100% access is difficult, and traffic plans necessarily shift as the project requires. This is often when the best laid plans get set aside for a bit, and people are inconvenienced. Sometimes, of course, they simply don’t care. Either way, the City needs to be let know.

Often, it results in a call to the Engineering Department or a SeeClickFix entry, an e-mail to a Councillor, or my better half bending my ear over dinner (if it impacted her riding route to work, like it did on 13th Ave last month). This usually means one of our engineering staff goes out there, sees what the situation is, and the contractor (if they haven’t already) are told to make it right.

This is, unfortunately, the reality of this type of work. I simply don’t know how to make it better.

I say that as someone who rides bikes around this city all the time, but I also say it as someone who at one point in his life got paid to stand with a hardhat next to an excavator or drill rig with flagging crews protecting me from traffic and vice versa. Any time you are interacting with heavy equipment, public streets and underground utilities, there are unpredictable conditions you encounter, and you need to make adjustments to plans on the fly, and the impact on traffic is but one (important) aspect of your contingency plans.

I was actually compelled early in the year to drop by the upper Sapperton project when I received two separate compliments from cyclists I know about how well the flagging personnel managed two different conflict situations with a bike route. This seriously never happens – I never get people pointing out when something goes good – so I had to check it out and let the Director of Engineering know. That said, I have also gone through lower Sapperton in the last couple of weeks, and have found through-signage lacking at times.

This is all to say I think we are doing better that we used to on this, as we have updated our policies. Our Engineering Department requires that cycling access or alternate routes must be part of the traffic plan, and that safe pedestrian access routes must be considered prior to starting work. At the same time, it still happens that I run into road works with no warning, and little indication of how I am supposed to route around them.

My best advice, when this happens, is to contact our engineering operations desk (604-526-4691  or and tell them about your experiences. We don’t have engineers on site every moment of the project, and if they don’t know there is a problem, they cannot address it. You can contact me as well, but I’m just going to contact Engineering Operations anyway, so you can cut out the middle man.

If you are into filling out web forms (you got here, didn’t you?) you can also use the SeeClickFix App to report these issues, with the bonus of being able to track how staff respond to them.

Making a complaint to Engineering may help in the short term, but it also helps longer-term. There are a limited number of contractors who do this type of work in the region, and a contractor that receives complaints about their inability to manage our traffic and access requirements is one we are less likely to hire for future contracts. Their ability to address traffic access is part of the quality assessment staff need to do at the end of every contract. That is, ultimately, the only way we will get better compliance.

I just want to say one more thing. This situation is frustrating at the time, but please try to be kind to the persons holding the Stop/Slow paddles at the worksite. Their job is surprisingly difficult and stressful. They often work in terrible conditions (noise, dust, weather, silly hours), and have to deal with irate drivers, angry neighbours and demanding construction managers, while carrying the responsibility of keeping the public and the workers on the site safe – often by putting themselves in dangerous situations. They know you are frustrated, they have little control over the hazards they are protecting you from, they honestly want to get you on your way as quickly and safely as they can.

Council – March 12, 2018

Our Pre-Spring Break meeting had a lot of public participation and delegations, and also came after an afternoon Workshop where we discussed implementation of the Heritage Conservation Area in Queens Park (worth watching the Video if this topic is interesting to you).

Our evening Agenda began with a startling ritual, and the following items being Moved on Consent:

2018 Delegation to Lijiang, China
The City will once again be sending Councillor Williams to Lijiang as part of our Sister City and Student Visitation policies, and will fund this from our International Relations fund. I have my own ideas about where the City could benefit better from an International Relations program than this, but my thoughts are still somewhat half-formed, and I guess I will write more about that after giving them a little more work.

Recommendations from the International Relations Task Force
This is part of what I think we can do better with our international Relations process, and can be a major part of our reconciliation efforts in the City. Recognizing the nationhood of the First Nations in this province is a huge step towards rectifying our common past, and Councillor Puchmayr’s efforts as a representative of the City to build a positive relationship with the Tsilhqot’in is groundbreaking.

I love the idea of holding an event here in the City, in the model of a gathering. I think the spirit of reconciliation would have us first asking representatives of local first nations to permit us to hold this event on Coast Salish lands, and of course to invite them. At the ArtLatch held at the Massey Theatre earlier this year there was an interesting revision of a great meeting that occurred in New Westminster between then-Governor Seymour and the assembled Chiefs of the region and colony. The young artists used transcripts of the meeting to demonstrate how people talking past each other, empowered by patriarchal and colonialist attitudes, stood in the way of communication. The colonial interest in getting business done failed to acknowledge the need to first establish a relationship or even seek a common set of understandings. Too often today, we fall to this same trap.

As a community (and as a Council representing the community) we need to get back to building these relationships and understanding one another. A gathering may give us the opportunity to begin on this new path towards understanding, if we are brave enough to put our egos and preconceived notions aside, and share our stories.

Recruitment 2018: ACTBiPed Appointment
There was a bit of an adjustment of the membership of ACTBiPed coming out of the recruitment for the 2018 committee selection process and scheduling.

Updated Automated Voting Machines Authorization Amendment Bylaw No.7994, 2018
We needed to update our Bylaw that permits the use of those automated ballot-counting machines to align with new provincial regulations and language. Another change was identified since we gave this Bylaw third reading, so we need to rescind that third reading and re-do it with the amended Bylaw. Hey, folks, there’s an election in October!

Queen’s Park Heritage Conservation Area: Official Community Plan Amendments to Remove Protection – Streamlined Application Review Process
With the new HCA in Queens Park, we need a formal process to move houses between categories, to either extend further protection to an identified heritage asset not caught in the first-draft classification, or to reduce the protection of a house that is old, but so heavily modified or degraded that it no longer carries any heritage value. One of the principles established while setting up the HCA was that this should be a transparent process that isn’t too onerous.

The regular OCP Amendment process may be described as onerous. It requires multiple committee reviews, Council approvals, and stages of public consultation. A diligent applicant may navigate this process in 6 months, and will not know the result until after a potentially-confrontational Public Hearing right at the end of it all. The proposed “Streamlined” process would still include committee and Council input, and a Public Hearing, but may be completed within about a 6 week window, by relying on the application meeting a set of requirements and conditions established through the HRA consultation process. This is not about skipping review or ignoring our due diligence, it is about creating a process that makes the necessary bureaucracy operate more efficiently.

2018 Spring Freshet and Snow Pack Level
The spring freshet report is getting slightly worse, with some larger-than average snow packs in the Fraser River Basin. There have also been big snow accumulations late in the season in the Kootenays (mostly those go to the Columbia, not the Fraser). We keep an eye on this to inform our flood preparedness. Nothing to panic about yet, but there is a slightly enhanced interest, as flood risk so much depends on the rate of melt as it does on the accumulation. It is a la Nina year, which would usually suggest a slower rate of melt.

The good news is that local snow packs are high, which bodes well for our summer water supply, but similarly much of this depends of the speed of the melt and how much we need to spill out of our reservoirs in the spring.

Connaught Heights Traffic Calming Plan
We are doing some work to make the pedestrian realm safer and more pleasant in Connaught Heights. This includes improved sidewalks and lighting on key routes, mostly connecting to the 22nd Street Skytrain station (through partnership with TransLink). There will also be some enhancements to the traffic calming measures in the neighbourhoods, coming after extensive consultation with residents and the RA. I’m also glad to see there will be some improvements of the paint treatment on 20th to (hopefully) reduce the blocking of the intersections at 8th and 7th by queuing traffic.

Application for Grant Funding to the Community Emergency Preparedness Fund
We need to update/upgrade another pump station in Queensborough – another one of those pretty-much-invisible but rather expensive capital projects the City is working on. Because this is a primary flood control measure, it is applicable to a provincial grant program to help finance emergency preparedness infrastructure. Let’s hope it gets granted!

2018/2019 Electrical Utility Rates
The City’s Electrical Utility has a long-standing practice of adjusting electricity rates to mimic BC Hydro rates. We buy from BC Hydro at wholesale rates, sell at retail, and with the difference we pay for the infrastructure and capital costs of the utility, and still return a dividend to the City that offsets a few million dollars in taxes.

A few months ago as we were doing budget planning, the Electrical Department provided a forecast of rates going up 3% to match the BC Hydro increase. Then the provincial government applied to the BCUC to freeze rates for a year, which frankly threw our capital planning into a bit of a twizzle. When the BCUC denied the rate freeze (recognizing BC Hydro’s own capital planning needs) it put things back on track for us, for the meantime anyway. So your electricity rates will be going up 3% next year, like everyone else in the province.

The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:

Ethical investment options through the MFA
This idea has already been reported on, but this update includes the response from the Municipal Finance Authority to calls from several municipalities (New West is not alone here) to consider fossil fuel divestment. No need for me to rant again (you can read this if you want to dig into it), but I am glad we are making a little progress in pushing for Ethical Investing options, and am happy to bring this topic again to the UBCM.

It is interesting to contrast this action with recent calls for “ethically responsible” businesses like MEC to stop carrying goods produced by companies who make money selling assault rifles. There are many ways to frame the ethical investing argument, but only one way to frame the alternative view: that it is the job – nay the Professional Responsibility – of our investment brokers to return the highest value possible to fundholders, and anything that constrains their decision making (be it ethical concerns on the part of fundholder or new regulations) may possibly impinge upon their ability to Act Professionally. This, in summary, is how Capitalism flaunts the line between allowing and encouraging unethical practices, from poisoning rivers to selling dangerous weapons to dangerous people.

The City will continue to call on the MFA to explore more ethical investing options, and will also work with our partner municipalities (Victoria is already on board, along with a few others) to get enough capital commitment together to make this happen.

Housing and Social Services Coordinator: Request to Seek Funding for Proposed Pilot Project
This is another one of those gut-check times. I think this City does more than most, perhaps more than any other of our size, on the housing affordability file. Through stellar work by our staff, we have supported a variety of programs to address homelessness and housing affordability. Some may (and do) argue this is something we should leave to senior government, and I wish they provided all of the resources to do the work that needs to be done, but they have not in the past, and I don’t think we can just ignore the gaps that exist in our community.

It is a time that rental vacancy is below 1%, prices are skyrocketing, and when regional pressures are being felt locally. When people face renoviction in this market, are priced out of housing, are transitioning out of healthcare or fleeing unsafe domestic situations – who are they going to call? Federal government cuts to homelessness outreach have taken more than a quarter million dollars out of local outreach funding. This is another gap we can hardly afford to ignore, and our Social Planning folks working for the City have been overtasked trying to cover this.

This initiative would fund at least a part-time position to continue this important outreach work. We have the potential to share a person with another adjacent community with limited resources, in order to save money and provide better connections to a wider range of supports. We also hope that the province will step up and help fund the position. I completely support the need for this position, and hope through partnership we can manage the cost.

Amendment to Water Shortage Response Bylaw No. 6948, 2004 – Revisions to the Water Shortage Response Plan
The regional policies on water shortage are being subtly adjusted to reflect better consumption research and public feedback. There will be a few changes on what is and is not permitted under Stage 1 – Stage 3 water shortages. These rules are developed at the Metro Vancouver level (our water utility is a regional function), but there is a partnership between Metro and the member Municipalities to educate and enforce.

We then went through a Bylaws reading ritual:

Water Shortage Response Amendment Bylaw No.7988, 2018 (Revisions to the Water Shortage Response Plan)
This Bylaw that aligns our Municipal water shortage response plan with the updated regional plan, as discussed above, was given Three Readings.

Electrical Utility Amendment Bylaw No.7998, 2018
This Bylaw that updates our electrical rates to match BC Hydro rate increases, as discussed above, was given Three Readings.

Automated Voting Machines Authorization Amendment Bylaw No. 7994, 2018
This Bylaw that regulates the automated ballot-reading machines we use in the Municipal Election needed some modification to better match the new provincial regulations. We rescinded the Third Reading from last meeting, and did a Third Reading of the amended Bylaw today.

We then had a few pieces of New Business:

Community Health Centres
After another compelling presentation by advocates, and what was frankly a remarkably long conversation around an item that all of council easily supported, Council voted to endorse the Community Health Centre model, and ask the Provincial Government to do something about it (via the UBCM).

Updating the Motor Vehicle Act
Following up on a recommendation from ACTBiPed as endorsed by Council at a previous meeting, we moved to take our support for the Road Safety Law Reform Group recommendations to the LMLGA, and ask the provincial government to update the Motor Vehicle Act to protect vulnerable road users.

Mercer Stadium Skatepark Relocation
Council asked Staff to bring a report as soon as possible on the community consultation for the proposed replacement Skate Park. With the highschool project getting ready to break ground, I am afraid we are going to have an extended period without a skate facility in the community if we delay construction past this summer season. We need to decide whether the location we have is the one we are going with, or if we need to retool, but we cannot delay that decision any longer.

And that brought the meeting to a wrap. Hope everyone has a good Spring Break, and we’ll see you back at Council on April 9!

PAL by another name.

Monday’s Council meeting included a Public Hearing on a notable project on Carnarvon Street. Although it didn’t get much media (social or otherwise) before the Public Hearing, it seems to be getting some now, and there was enough going on at the Public Hearing that I think it is worth some discussion here.

The proposal will bring a new 32-story tower to the downtown tower district with 204 market strata units. The residential building meets the City’s Family Friendly Housing policy by exceeding the minimum number of 2- and 3-bedroom units. The tower will have a 3-story pedestal which will house commercial storefront space and some amenity space, and a little bit of above-ground parking around the back (more on that later). The tower will share the pedestal with a second 8-story tower that will have 66 non-market rental units run by the Performing Arts Lodges Society (“PALS”), a charity that helps provide affordable housing for veterans of the performing arts industries.

Council received two pieces of correspondence in regards to this project, both expressing support. We had 6 people present at the Public Hearing, one expressing concerns that the affordable housing component was not broad-reaching enough, and one local business concerned about the name of the development (see below), and the rest speaking in support (including the proponent, and the president of the New West Arts Council), mostly emphasizing support for the affordable housing component.

The project meets the goals of the Downtown Community Plan, was approved by the Advisory Planning Commission and Design Panel, and appears to be well supported by the community. The project puts density adjacent to frequent transit service and within walking distance of most services. The location also means we can bring new density and affordable housing on line without displacing other low-cost housing.

As one delegate at the Public Hearing mentioned, this is clearly not the entire answer for affordable housing. Far from it. Our regional housing affordability crisis exists at every level: professionals not able to afford family-sized homes; working poor facing demo-viction and rising rents; people with barriers to traditional housing lacking adequate supports, it’s a mess. No single project can fix all of these. What this project does, though, is address one identified gap, and engage a not-for-Profit in helping with that. This project is similar in that sense to the two small affordable housing projects the City is supporting on City lands, each identifying a specific group in need of housing and a service agency taking on the charge to help operate that housing.

The PALS project helps people who have worked on building the cultural quality of our community, and recognizes that people working in the performing arts rarely have pension plans or stable retirement income. By providing space in our community for dozens of experienced actors, writers, dancers, singers, production designers, directors, choreographers (etc., etc.), we promise to enrich our community’s culture. They will be the story tellers, the teachers, the artists that support a vibrant cultural future in New West. I don’t think we can measure the positive impact that could have in our community.

I have expressed concern in the past about Carnarvon Street and its urban expression. I think the Plaza88 development does not address the street well, and is out of scale with the pedestrian space we want to have downtown. I am more enthused by the urban design of this project, as it is well articulated, includes an open public plaza area, and appears to provide lots of eyes on the street, as opposed to a large wall of parked cars behind screens.

At initial readings and again at Third Reading, some concern was raised by some of Council about the parking situation. Between resident and visitors parking, this project will have 275 parking spaces, most of them underground. That is more than one parking spot per unit in a building that is across the street from a SkyTrain Station and walking distance to all amenities. The cost of building these parking spots (which could be more than $60,000 a spot!) must shift the cost of the units in the building – both affordable and not. We need to question why we are spending so much finding warm dry spots for cars when we are struggling to afford warm dry spots for people.

The project was designed to meet the City’s parking minimums, and shifting the goalposts for the developer at this stage in the process would be pretty onerous, and potentially threaten the project. However, this has raised the conversation at Council that our downtown parking standards need an update if we hope to make housing more affordable and meet the goals of our Master Transportation Plan. This conversation will be ongoing, and I’d love to bend your ears for a few hours about it.

Finally, the marketing department of the developer has some work to do, as they had found a great name for the development that was, unfortunately, almost indistinguishable from the name of a young but established business on the same side of the street about a block away. The business owner came to delegate to Council and expressed support for the project (the Arts community supports their own!) but was worried about potential impact on her business. The City has no regulatory role on the naming of developments, and having a legal fight over Trademarks and registered business names will only enrich lawyers and take time. Both parties have had an initial and positive conversation, and felt confident that a compromise could be found, so Council asked that they find a mutually acceptable solution prior to the project coming back to Council for Adoption.

Overall, this project is a net positive. In my opinion there are significant benefits to the community: affordable housing that adds to the City’s cultural diversity, improved public spaces, DCCs, density bonus and VAC money that contributes to community amenities, family-friendly housing diversity, density near SkyTrain, and a refreshed area of downtown bringing supporting customers to our business district.

I just hope those lens flares don’t keep the neighbours up at night.

Council – March 5, 2018

The first meeting in March (I cannot believe it is March already!) started with a special Public Hearing:

Zoning Amendment (813 – 823 Carnarvon Street) Bylaw No. 7974, 2018
This proposal will bring a new 32-story tower to the downtown tower district with 206 market strata units. The building will share a 3-story pedestal with a second, 8-story tower that will have 66 non-market rental units run by the Performing Arts Lodges, a not-for-profit that helps provide affordable housing for veterans of the performing arts industries. I will write a follow-up post on this development, but short version is Council voted to give the project Third Reading.

We then proceeded to our Regular Meeting agenda, starting with a Staff Presentation:

2017 Achievements and Accomplishments
This presentation by senior staff is an annual review of the work done and projects completed. Things are crazy busy in the City right now, partly driven by the (region-wide) pace of growth, partly by Council’s increasingly ambitious plans for moving the City forward in a lot of different directions. I will do a follow-up blog post to talk a little more about this, but short version is staff are running full gas, and I appreciate their work.

The following items were Moved on Consent:

Amendment to the 2018 Schedule of Regular Council Meetings
This minor change in our calendar will permit a workshop on cannabis regulations on June 18th. Please adjust your social calendar appropriately.

215 Mowat Street: Development Permit Application for Façade Upgrades to an Existing Multi-Unit Residential Building
This older Strata apartment building is in need of some significant envelope repairs, and the owners have decided to do some upgrades to the building appearance and landscaping at the same time. The total estimated costs of the repairs is high enough to trigger the need for them to apply for a Development Permit.

The Brow of the Hill RA supported this project, as did the Design Panel, and the neighbours have been notified and have not raised any objections. Council moved to issue the Development Permit.

312 Fifth Street: Heritage Revitalization Agreement and Heritage Designation – Bylaws for First and Second Readings
This Heritage Revitalization Agreement for a house in Queens Park will provide Heritage Designation and significant restoration of a heritage home in exchange for some allowances around a laneway house on the back of the property. Council gave the HRA two readings, and the project will be going to a Public Hearing on April 30, 2018. C’mon out and let us know what you think!

The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:

Intelligent New West collaboration with UBC Master of Engineering Leadership (MEL) Smart City Research Update
This is an opportunity the City has, through the work of our Intelligent City team, to collaborate with UBC and benefit from cutting-edge research on data management and urban systems. They will be looking at innovative ways to make our City work better for our residents and businesses. We have had success with previous collaborations, and want to move ahead with studying three new areas:

• Fast charging infrastructure for Electric Vehicles – assuring the revolution in EVs doesn’t pass the City by, and identifying potential to leverage our Electrical Utility to provide region-leading EV service;
• Modernizing our electrical metering service to allow better data management of our grid;
• Broader public Wi-Fi connectivity – expanding the advantage of BridgeNet to make internet connectivity more available, and more equitable.

Council moved to support this initiative with funding from the Intelligent City budget.

Updated Corporate Energy and Emissions Reduction Strategy – Proposed Vision, Goals and Evaluation Criteria
As previously reported, we are meeting our GHG reduction goals in every sector except our fleet, which was thrown a curveball last year with the protracted snow/ice event and concomitant increase in vehicle mileage for our road maintenance vehicles. Council is not daunted, however, and we plan to set some aggressive targets for the next phase of our CEERS. I will address the fleet issue in the item below where we talked about our shift to alternative fuels.

318 Fifth Street: Heritage Revitalization Agreement – Window replacement
This HRA project in Queens Park will provide Designation of a heritage home, along with some restoration right away and some longer-term restoration/upkeep commitments in exchange for some accommodations for a laneway house at the back of the property. The project has not yet gone to First and Second reading, however, because it is a little hung up on the timeline for replacement of the existing vinyl windows.

There are multiple opinions here about the windows. The Heritage Consultant working on the house has suggested that replacing the functional and high-efficiency vinyl windows (which are not, naturally, heritage-appropriate materials) at the end of their functional life, citing the cost and impact of breaking the envelope of the building and doing intrusive work when it isn’t immediately necessary. Some heritage conservation advocates (including the Community Heritage Commission) wanted to see the windows replaced sooner, or even immediately. Prior to drafting the Heritage Revitalization Agreement between the homeowner and the City (which will go to Public Hearing), Staff asked for some clarity from Council on how far we should push the window issue.

I was concerned we were missing the forest for the trees here, and think the long-term heritage preservation of such a well-cared-for home for the decades ahead is more important than the short-term heritage “win” of replacing the windows right away, as the consummate costs may put the entire project in jeopardy. I am happy with the commitment to replacement of the windows with appropriate wood-frame versions, on a timeframe appropriate for the long term viability of the house – be that end of life or sooner – and securing that commitment with a covenant or in the language of the HRA.

There were several options provided to council, reflecting the varying opinions of the Community Heritage Commission (replace within 10 years), Advisory Planning Commission (replace windows at the end of their service life with heritage-appropriate units), and the proponents (replace street-fronting windows within 10 years, the rest at the end of their service life). After some discussion, Council chose to support the proponent’s proposal, with the addition of a cosmetic treatment of the current windows to address the non-heritage-appropriate colour; a compromise that may slightly disappoint everyone. But I guess we will find out at the Public Hearing.

Queen’s Park Heritage Conservation Area: Implementation Work Program Update and Proposed Direction
Staff continues to work on the incentive programs planned for the Queens Park Heritage Conservation Area, along with development and consultation on some of the other implementation measures promised as part of the HCA.

Several of these proposals were easily supported by Council, but the one part around the process through which homeowners with protected properties could apply to have a preliminary evaluation done of their property to determine if they lack heritage value to the point where they could be moved to Limited Protection status lead to some discussion and clarification. In the end I supported all of the staff recommendations (and all were passed by Council).

This is an ongoing project, and a healthy discussion on Council is important, even when especially when we disagree on some points of language and policy. There is a bunch of work to do yet here, and there are upcoming public meetings on these initiatives, so stay tuned!

1084 Tanaka Court: Development Approvals Process Timeline Update for the Rezoning and Development Permit Applications to Permit a Banquet Hall
The proposal to build a large Banquet Hall on an undeveloped piece of land adjacent to Queensborough Landing is going through an extra level of review, as the proponents have determined the best way to meet their parking requirements is to build a parkade, which is resulting in a redesign of the building shape and form.

Update on the City’s Use of Alternative Fuels and Electric Vehicles
A little while ago, we asked staff to provide us an update on our efforts to shift our fleet to lower-emission and zero-emission vehicles. This is related to the discussion around fleet being the one part of our Corporate Energy and Emissions Reduction Strategy (above) that isn’t hitting targets. Of course, the issue is more complex than just saying “we need to stop buying gas/diesel vehicles”. We have a legacy fleet and the technology available for small consumer cars (like the Nissan Leaf the City has in its pool) is not expanding to other vehicle types as quickly as we may like. Just try to buy an electric (or even plug-in hybrid), pick-up truck. They don’t exist.

That said, technology is shifting fast. Vancouver is testing an electric garbage truck that can do a 10-hour shift on a 2-hour charge, but that is definitely not a mainstream technology, and we cannot yet evaluate the lifetime costs. We also have everything from backhoes to field lawnmowers and firetrucks that are not likely to see total electrification soon. Our Police are doing a good job with propane-hybrid vehicles and new anti-idling practices, and our fire services are now using separate diesel generators to run on-board systems so the drive engine can be shut off during extended deployments. As stop-gap measures, these are great, but not the end of the discussion.

Its not a matter of if we are going to move to a complete low- or zero-emission vehicle fleet, but when. Even if the pressures of carbon pricing (going up!) were more important than the fact it is 20 degrees above normal today in parts of the Arctic, the emergent health impacts of diesel pollution in our communities is enough to make the case for a shift to a cleaner, greener fleet and fleet practices that reduce engine idling and fuel use.

Council emphasized that New Westminster has its own electrical utility (vertical integration!), is a compact City with high population density within a small area, and has a Council that has demonstrated its interest in finding innovative approaches to problems and expresses an environmental ethos – if New West can’t lead the region (or even the country) on this file, I don’t know what City could. Council called on staff to continue to be innovative and see where they can push some limits here to make our fleet cleaner.

European Chafer Management Program Update
The City provides subsidies to people who wish to apply nematodes to their lawns to battle the Chafer beetle and the animals that tear up yards to feast on them. I have some concerns about us continuing to invest in a losing battle here. This is a subsidy to single family homeowners to maintain green lawns, when there are alternatives available, including better turf care practices or alternative lawn covers. The Chafer is not going away, and I wonder about the value of doing this for perpetuity.

Regardless, I am aware that this is a bigger policy discussion, and am happy in the short term to continue the program until we can come up with a better understanding of a long term strategy.

We then moved on to our regular reading of Bylaws:

312 Fifth Street: Heritage Revitalization Agreement Bylaw No. 7979, 2018 and 312 Fifth Street: Heritage Designation Bylaw No. 7980, 2018
These Bylaws that support the heritage restoration and designation of a house in Queens Park in exchange for allowances around a laneway house, as mentioned above, were given two readings. They will go to Public Hearing on April 30. C’mon out and let us know what you think.

Five-Year Financial Plan (2018-2022) Bylaw No. 7992, 2018
This Bylaw that formalized our 5-year financial plan which was given Third Reading on February 19, was formally adopted. It is now the Law of the Land.

Zoning Amendment Bylaw No. 7915, 2017 (for 229 Eleventh Street)
This Bylaw to permit a residential building in the Brow of the Hill which was given Third Reading on January 29th was formally adopted. Please adjust your behaviour accordingly.

Zoning Amendment (Housekeeping) Bylaw No. 7924, 2018
This Bylaw that makes a bunch of language changes to correct our Zoning Bylaw where it is incorrect, unclear, or didn’t rhyme was formally adopted. Please update all of your bylaw dictionaries and related hyperlinks.

And that was another night of Council work done!