Ask Pat: Permit times

Someone asked—

I am a rental tenant at [redacted to protect privacy – a downtown Strata building]. I have heard our Strata is considering dissolution & sale of our building to developers. How long does a demolition process take per the City of New West’s permit(s) process etc.?

This is really not a question I can answer with certainty, because I am not involved with these kind of front-counter operations. The short version of your answer is that a Demolition Permit can probably take less than a day or several months (depending on things like the need for hazardous material surveys, Environmental Site Assessments, and safe disconnection from City utilities) but it isn’t the Demolition Permit timing that would necessarily be a limiting factor here.

It sounds like the feeling in your building is that the current building will be demolished and a replacement building built. I suggest that, if this was the case, a new owner would not apply to demolish the building until they had a certainty that they would be permitted to build a replacement on the site. That would likely require a Development Permit, and may even require a Rezoning or an Official Community Plan amendment, depending on what the owner wishes to build. The more of these you add, the more time it takes to get through the process. Those processes also include extensive public consultation, and would likely result in a Public Hearing. All told, these processes can take a year or more. The more complex the project and the more it varies from existing land use, the more complicated and time-consuming these applications go. It is also possible that a developer’s proposal will not be found acceptable by City Policy or by whim of Council, so the wait an be literally endless.

That said, I have no idea what process your building will have to go through, nor do I know what the new owner would plan to build. No application for your address has come to City Council yet. I did a quick scan of the Land Use and Planning Committee agendas for the last year, and don’t see it mentioned there at all (as a preliminary step, any application would likely go to LUPC before it came to Council). I also checked the on-line “Projects on the Go” table, and see no reference to your location, so I am pretty sure no formal application has been made to the City.

In researching your answer, I stumbled upon a report that I am a little reluctant to link to, because it was authored by an organization that has a long reputation of producing dubious reports using sketchy research methods. But for that it is worth, a third party with no reason to make a progressive city like New Westminster look good found that we are comparatively quick in getting new buildings through the approval process. They found that our staff and process are able to process applications faster than most Municipalities in the Lower Mainland: generally in the top 3 or top 5 in the region (depending on the application type). They also found we had among the lowest “Costs and Fees” for a typical application (those fees are ideally set to act as cost recovery). I started by saying I am somewhat separated from front-counter activities at the City, so none of this credit goes to me, but kudos to our great professional staff!

So, in summary, if you are curious about redevelopment plans for your apartment, keep an eye on the City’s LUPC Agenda and the “Projects on the Go” list. Also remember, as a renter, you have rights under the Residential Tenancy Act, including appropriate notice and compensation for being evicted. If you have questions, you should contact those professional staff in our Planning Department. They almost certainly know more than I do. Good luck!

Ask Pat: Climbing (pool) walls

Jason asks—

I’m very interested about how the new pool is coming along and would like to know if there is still opportunity to give input on what amenities go into this new centre.

This coming summer Olympic games in Tokyo will feature a new sport: rock climbing. The climbing event will include three disciplines: sport, bouldering, and speed. 40 climbers (20 men and 20 women) will compete over four days, and the medalists will be chosen based on the combined results of all three disciplines.

I understand that adding a full-scale rock wall, bouldering wall AND speed wall might not be in the budget or have space for it in the new facility. Perhaps only one discipline could be incorporated into the new building… I propose speed climbing. This is because there are already dedicated facilities who offer a wide range of sport and bouldering walls, but speed walls are few and far between. Creating a place for speed wall competition would add a truly unique, exciting, cutting edge component to New Westminster that no other municipality in the country offers. The square footage required of a climbing wall would be fairly minimal as the space needed is more vertical than horizontal. New auto-belay systems are very safe and would allow for individuals new to climbing to try out the sport without needing a partner to belay for them.

We live in a part of the country that offers mountains and the ocean, all in one city. But we all know that it rains for the better part of the year, so why not offer swimming AND climbing in this new state of the art facility?

So my question to you is: What would it take for council to seriously consider incorporating the idea of a speed climbing rock wall into the plans?

The short answer is people need to ask for it, and convince staff it is a good idea. A good case can be made that this improves the overall program in a meaningful way, and makes the entire pool a better grant application. Of course, as always, there is a longer answer.

The Canada Games Pool replacement is a big project, likely the biggest single capital investment the City has ever made. We have spent a couple of years doing extensive public consultations and project planning work – from figuring out a financing model to determining where a new 140,000sqft building can be built without tearing down the old pool first to developing a business plan around what the different major program elements (natatorium, pools, gyms , meeting space, etc.) look like. As we reported last month, we have a pretty well developed plan around these “big questions” and are now working on the next steps: developing a solid senior government grant application and procurement processes.

With clear direction on the bigger questions (square footage, major program elements, buildability), we still have a tonne of smaller questions to answer. I don’t mean smaller in the sense that they are less important, but smaller in that they are more fine-grained details that we need to design, the can hang on the larger framework once built.

I was able to attend one day of  conference out in Harrison last winter where recreation programmers from around the province met to talk about new trends in recreation. It was interesting to hear, especially, how community recreation spaces (centres and outdoor spaces) were changing in Europe. The old-school gyms where basketball and badminton and indoor soccer lines shared floor space between four blank walls were being replaced by more organically-shaped mixed use spaces. They still accommodate the traditional team sports, but were designed to also accommodate adventure playing, climbing walls, and “free play” areas. Outdoor areas where there used to be a soccer pitch within a running track used free spaces to create three-dimensional workout and fun areas, again emphasizing unstructured and creative play instead of just traditionally-structured team sport. It was inspiring, as there was clear integration of traditional sports with spaces designed to be more flexible and share space, and our recreation staff were paying attention.

So when I think about the Canada Games Pool replacement, I see gyms that can house basketball and pickleball, but I also imagine a space designed to have this kind of flexibility. I think a climbing wall would be a great addition, and could easily be fit within that space.

I’m not a climber, so I would need to hear from the climbing community what they would want to see, and to know how it can fit within the space. This should happen soon, as every new and creative use idea (especially ones that appeal to emerging competitive sports) actually strengthen the case for significant Federal and Provincial grants. Could you rally Sport Climbing BC into sending a brief to Council and staff? Let me know!

On a somewhat similar point, I can answer a question for a resident who dropped by my Ask Pat booth a couple of weeks ago and asked about the future of the diving board at Moody Park outdoor pool. As I wrote this answer to you, I see that Staff have come up with a creative replacement plan, so here is the background on that.

The diving board had some structural problems last year, and required repairs. However, the diving board was increasingly an area of concern at the pool, as the depth of the pool and nature of the slope in the tank was such that it did not make our lifeguard staff happy. They restricted head-first diving, and it had been increasingly causing them concern, so the decision was made to not replace the diving board. This is a disappointment to some of the regular pool users.

The good news is that staff have found a creative play element that can replace the diving board, and not have the safety concerns of the springboard. It is an adjustable climbing wall apparatus that bows over the water. Kids and adults can challenge themselves to do climbing moves and try to get to the top of the apparatus, and will splash down in the deep end of the pool if (when!) they lose grip.

I recognize this is not a “competitive” climbing apparatus, but it is adjustable to different skill levels, and should be a fun piece of equipment, and may give a generation of kids a first taste of the newest Olympic sport.

Council – July 9, 2018

The last full Council Meeting before we take our summer break (back in late August – in the meantime, I’ll have to find something else to write about) had a fairly full Agenda that started with an Opportunity to be Heard

Temporary Use Permit TUP00017 for 620 Third Avenue
I recused myself from this conversation, not because of an actual conflict of interest, but more because of a standard practice when a member of Council’s home or property are very close to an applicant’s, there may be a perception of unfair bias. There is no hard-and-fast rule about how close it too close, but this property is only few doors down from my home, and it is always better to err on the side of caution when it comes to perceived conflict.

This application is from Westminster House, who would like to operate a supportive housing facility for young women recovering from addiction in the Brow of the Hill neighbourhood near their other properties. We received some correspondence on this (all in support, though some concerned about the need for a painted crosswalk or other safety improvements at this corner), and I can’t comment on how many came to the Opportunity to be Heard, because I wasn’t in the room!

Council voted to approve the Temporary Use Permit.

We then moved onto a Report for Action:

Recreational Cannabis: Summary of Consultation, Proposed Regulation Framework, and Next Steps
Following up on our previous workshops and other discussions about the local regulatory framework on cannabis legalization, Staff came with some final discussion on the work they plan to do over the summer to get our local regulatory regime worked out. The City has been having, I think, a pretty fulsome discussion of a local regulatory regime around the legalization of cannabis, and Staff now has a good framework to put together some model Bylaws and changes to existing Bylaws to make the transition as smooth as possible.

We had a few of open houses for the general public in June, along with one targeting the local business community. Neither was overwhelmed with response (indicating, I think that people are not as worried as perhaps us regulators are about impacts), but some positive feedback was provided to staff. We also had an on-line survey, with more than 300 responses (and I love that staff provided a concise summary of over- and under-represented demographics in the consultation, this is really valuable info for a detail geek like me!). Here is where we are at:

Locations: The City is putting a 200m distance between cannabis retail locations, and are creating a 150m buffer from schools and other “child-centric” land uses. The only change made to the map proposed by Staff was to remove the 150m buffer from our core Downtown business area (although the 200m separation would still apply).

Business licenses: The rules around business licensing will very closely parallel those for liquor stores, in regards to external appearance, staffing, hours of operation, etc.

Manufacturing: as suggested earlier, will be limited to M-2 zones that provide appropriate security and other site characteristics.

Cultivation: the City is not going to make any rules above or beyond the ones by the provincial and federal government regarding growing your own for personal use.

There was quite a bit of discussion around the rezoning process that we will undertake. It will not be a quick one by the look of it, and will eat up quite a bit of staff resources. I hope (and asked staff to evaluate) some sort of group rezoning application process to avoid the duplication we will see with a number of first-time applicants. With extensive public consultation (Advisory Planning Commission, Resident’s Association, Open House, Public Hearing, etc.) for each individual applicant after a year doing public consultation on where we will and will not allow these operations seems incredibly redundant, a draw on staff resources, and a burden for the community.

We also had quite the discussion about whether “first come- first served” for the limited number of initial applications is fair, or whether we should have some objective/subjective evaluation of application quality, or even a lottery system for initial applicants that meet some minimum threshold of application. This speaks to procedural fairness, and wanting to incentivize local entrepreneurship over global multinationals (to keep more of the benefits in the community). It is a tough process to wrap ones head around.

In the end, we came up with some advice for staff, and will see how that pans out at the end of summer when we hope to have these regulations drafted into Bylaws.

The following items were Moved on Consent:

Status of 2015-2018 Strategic Initiatives – Update for First Half of 2018
Staff are reporting out (as they are wont to do twice a year) on progress on the Strategic Initiatives that Council identified for this term. From a Council point of view, most of the work for this term is done. We have three council meetings until the election, and the last two will no doubt be clouded by the pall of that oncoming storm. That said, staff are still working away, and summer is a time when a lot of actual work gets done in the City, as time- and effort-consuming council meetings and public consultations head to the back burner.

BC Penitentiary Cemetery – Interpretive Signage and Unveiling Event
There has been an ongoing effort to recognize the BC Pen cemetery. It is a place where predominantly marginalized people were buried, including hard criminals, and it is difficult for some to think about these graves as something worth memorializing and saving, but this is an important piece of our History as a City and a province. The court and penal systems, imperfect today, were generally atrocious in the early part of the last century, especially for people of colour, for the indigenous population, and foe people with mental illnesses. Our ideas of what constitutes “society” today is different than it was then, and it is worthwhile for is to spend time contemplating those changes and what we can learn from them. New West is a compassionate city, and a historical City, and respectfully memorializing this site could be thought of as a encapsulation of that.

An interesting side-point for a Child of the Kootenays is the Doukhobor names of several men who died in prison the 1930s. I suspect (but can’t be sure) that these men were part of the 1930’s crack-down on “un-Canadian activities” in the D0ukhobor community that occurred in the area around my home town. Alas.

Recruitment 2018: Seniors Advisory Committee Appointment
There is a change in one of the community representatives to this committee.

Recruitment 2018: Restorative Justice Committee (RJC) Appointment
There is a change in CERA representative to this committee.

Recruitment 2018: Parks and Recreation Committee Appointment
There is a change in SD40 representative to this committee.

Recruitment 2018: NTAC Appointment
There is a change in MVHRA representative to this committee.

509 Eleventh Street: Remedial Action Requirement Update
We had a longer discussion about this problem property back in November, and this report is an update on enforcement actions. It is problematic, the many steps we must go through to take action on someone’s private property, but staff are carefully working through the process and assuring that we are following a defensible path.

838 Ewen Avenue (Modular Housing): Development Permit to Facilitate a 44 Unit Housing Development with Support Services for Women – Issuance of Development Permit
The Temporary Modular Housing project in Queensborough requires a Development Permit, but that permit does not require a complicated public process following the rezoning because there are no outstanding variances in the development. Council just needs to agree to issue the Permit, which we did.

Naming of the Interim Multi-Sport Facility
There is going to be an “Interim” facility built in Queens Park to replace many of the functions of the Arenex, and it needs a name. As it is interim, I am ok with the fairly innocuous and descriptive name “Queens Park Sportsplex” as proposed by Staff. I am sure a nickname will develop organically (Sporty McSportsface?)

315 Fifth Street: Development Variance Permit to Vary the Height Requirement – Consideration of Opportunity to be Heard
The property owner here wants to finish a basement, which requires lifting the house so it is a little more than a foot higher than permitted in the zoning. This requires a variance, which will require a public process. There will be an Opportunity to be Heard on August 27th, if you want to come out and tell us what you think.

The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:

Preparation of a City Theatre Policy –Workplan
With the City currently the owner of two performance theatres, and potentially the owner of three if the plan for the future of the Massey pans out, we need an plan for how to get the most value out of these assets. The discussion of how to balance the desire to support local artists, students, and arts programming, while also providing stages for major performances, and balancing the revenue stream to minimize the amount of subsidy the City needs to provide while still meeting its goals- that takes some strategic thinking. This report provides the workplan for developing that theatre strategy.

Official Community Plan: Launch of Phase Two of the Infill Housing Program
As the next phase of policy work coming out of our new Official Community Plan, staff is looking at ways to accommodate more flexible housing options through allowing different infill density types. This could include more duplexes on smaller lots that traditionally used for duplexes and more common subdivision of single family lots into more compact lots (think 25-foot lots instead of 50 or 60 foot).

I think there have been some significant changes in the region and in New West since 2016 when we adopted the OCP. The regional housing crisis was percolating around our edges then, we are fully immersed in it. The $1Million line for single family homes has swept through New West, and how we measure “affordable” or “family friendly” family housing has changed remarkably in just two years.

The work plan here includes several steps around one of the more modest forms of infill density, including economic analysis of the viability of it in the current land price environment. I’m not a land economist but I would need to be convinced by one that making a single family house in to two single family houses will solve any of our most pressing problems. We need to have a more frank discussion about more middle-density housing further from the arterial roads if we hope to build the flexible, affordable, and accessible housing stock for the next generation. So I asked that staff expand this economic analysis to take a renewed look at the economics of the “next step” of infill – tri- and quadraplexes, cluster homes, and other alternative forms that can maximize flexibility of some of our single-family-detached areas.

The ground is moving so fast on land value. We need to not be afraid to challenge some of the assumptions make two years ago when we finalized the OCP.

302 Twelfth Street (Key West Ford): Development Permit for Building Addition and Façade Improvements – Council Consideration of Issuance
Key West are great community partners in New Westminster, and am glad to see them investing in making their commercial space more viable. They came to the city to ask for a Development Permit, and have worked on it for a while.

The corner of Third and Stewardson is an aggressively pedestrian-unfriendly location, with heavy traffic and not a lot of room between the Key West fence and that traffic. And because the SkyTrain ROW and the railway, this is the only pedestrian crossing of Stewardson for more than a kilometer and a half. It is an important pinch point for pedestrians, and a horribly uncomfortable and arguably unsafe one. Through this application, Key West has given a corner cut that should improve the pedestrian experience at that corner.

Pile Driving Technology: Consideration of Restrictions on the Use of Diesel Impact Hammers over 30,000 Foot Pounds – Bylaw for First, Second and Third Readings
The City is essentially banning the loudest form of pile drivers, those that use a diesel impact hammer to advance the pile. This should result in a measureable reduction in pile driving noise in the City.

Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure Outstanding Referrals: Update and Five Related Bylaws – Consideration of Readings and Public Hearing Waiver
These are five recent rezoning-type Bylaws that, due to a procedural SNAFU related to determining the buffer distance from MOTI infrastructure, missed having appropriate Ministry of Transportation review. So we need to back them up and do them again, excepting that we do not have to go to Public Hearing again, reasonably assuming that the public engagement process for these application was fairly met in the original process.

We then finished up with the regular run through of Bylaws:

Zoning Amendment (1050 Boyd Street and 1005 Ewen Avenue) Bylaw No.8033, 2018;
Zoning Amendment (1102, 1110, 1116 and 1122 Salter Street) Bylaw No. 8034, 2018;
Zoning Amendment (630 Ewen Avenue) Bylaw No. 8035, 2018;
Zoning Amendment (420 Boyne Street) Bylaw No. 8036, 2018; and
Wood-Boyne Street Road Closure Bylaw No. 8037, 2018
As mentioned above, these five rezoning bylaws that are being re-launched in order to correct a procedural mistake in relation to Ministry of Transportation consultation were each given two readings.

Building Bylaw Amendment (Pile Driving) Bylaw No. 8030, 2018;
Bylaw Notice Enforcement Bylaw Amendment No. 8031, 2018; and
Municipal Ticketing Information Bylaw Amendment No. 8032, 2018
These Bylaws that makes diesel-impact hammers for pile driving in the City and set the appropriate fines, were given three readings.

Five Year Financial Plan (2017 – 2021) Amendment Bylaw No. 8023, 2018
This Bylaw that updates our five-year financial plan was adopted by Council. It is now the law.

Official Community Plan Amendment (838 Ewen Avenue) Bylaw No.8021, 2018; and
Zoning Amendment Bylaw (838 Ewen Ave) No. 8022, 2018
These Bylaws discussed at the last Public Hearing that permit the building of a 44-unit Temporary Modular Housing project in Queensborough were Adopted by Council.

Utility Commission Bylaw No. 8029, 2018
This Bylaw that updates the name and mandate of our Electrical Utility was Adopted by Council.

And that was the last meeting of the spring session of Council. Our next regular meeting is in late August, meaning Staff can get some work done without being hassled by Council! Have a good summer!

Council Top 3!

This is episode 2 of my hopefully-regular pre-council list of what I think are going to be the most important three items on our Council agenda tomorrow* in no particular order, so you can decide if you want to tune in.

#1: TUP for 620 Third Ave
I have recused myself from discussion on this topic, because it is close enough to my house that there may be a perception of conflict of interest. Regardless, Monday will have an Opportunity to be Heard where the public can provide feedback directly to Council on this proposal to allow (on a temporary basis) supportive housing for youth recovering from addiction in this Brow of the Hill residential property.

#2: Recreational Cannabis: Summary of Consultation, Proposed Regulation Framework, and Next Steps
There has been a lot of conversation about cannabis regulation in the City, including a recent Council workshop. This report outlines the results of this work including a summary of public open houses and surveys, and outlines the regulatory framework staff is endorsing going forward, in preparation for Bylaws to be approved by Council at the end of the summer, in time to meet the October 17 date set by the Federal Government for legalization.

#3: Presentation from the Art Council:
The Arts Council of New West does a tonne of the heavy lifting on great events in the City, including their major role in organizing the three cool events this last weekend (Music by the River, Fridays on Front, and the New West Craft Summer Night Market that spanned the QtoQ this year. New West is a Fun City, and that Art Council are a major part of that. They are coming to Council to present their Strategic Plan for 2018-2021, and get Council updated on what they are doing! (this is a good day to update your summer even calendar!)

*footnote: The funny thing about Council: it is almost impossible to predict what three items will rise to the top and get the most debate/ public feedback / media coverage, so these are only my guesses. For a full prediction of the entire Council agenda, go to the agenda!

TMH and the Public Hearing

We had a Public Hearing on Tuesday, and I have gnawed the ends off of a few metaphorical pencils thinking about how to write about it. Partly because it was an emotional night for a great many people, including members of Council. So I’ll start by talking about the facts, and save the emotions for after the fold.

The Public Hearing was to evaluate an OCP Amendment and Rezoning to permit the construction of a 44-unit supportive housing project on City land in Queensborough. This project is funded by the provincial government’s rapid response funding program, where capital and operational cost of a temporary modular housing (“TMH”) building will be covered by BCHousing, if a local government can provide land it owns (for a 10 year lease) and a reliable service agency agrees to operate the facility.

The City went through an extensive search for an appropriate site, and several sites were evaluated in Q’boro and other New West neighbourhoods. Of the three “short listed” sites, only the site at 838 Ewen Avenue was found to be viable. After some initial feedback from the community, we did some more evaluation of a second site in Queensborough, but again found it was not viable for reasons I discussed here. In short, if we wanted to take benefit of the rapid response funding, and have a TMH project in New Westminster, the Ewen Ave site is the only location.

Going into the Public Hearing, we received about 200 pieces of correspondence, and almost all of them were in favour. There was also an electronic petition circulated in the neighbourhood that opposed the project. The Design Panel, Advisory Planning Commission, and Community and Social Issues Committee all voted to support the project. I attended the public open house back on May 1, and heard concerns expressed by some residents, and also had some of my questions answered about the project. I had meetings with people who expressed specific concerns about the site, and the project in general, and also had many conversations with people who supported it, including many people who approached me at the Queensborough Children’s Festival two weeks ago. Along with other members of Council, I did a tour of the similar (but larger) TMH project in a residential Marpole neighbourhood that received significant public attention when it was proposed, but has been operating for more than four months without significant issues.

All this to say I had a *lot* of information going into the Public Hearing, but I was not sure what feedback we would receive, and only hoped for a rational and respectful conversation about concerns and benefits. In the end, we had about 80 people delegate to Council, with a majority in favour of the project. Even if we separate the presentations from the proponents (BCHousing and E.Fry), there were still as many community voices speaking in favour as opposed. That said, Public Hearings should not, in my opinion, be about raw counts of Pro vs. Con presenters, but should be about the weight of the arguments when seeking balance between benefits and costs of any project.

Fundamentally, this is a land use issue. The question before Council was whether this is an appropriate use of the land. This being the only piece of City land available does not by itself make it the right place for TMH. Every land use decision is about balancing positive and negative impacts, including opportunity costs. This lot was purchased by the City along with an adjacent piece of land a couple of years ago from the owners of the previous gas station on the site (demolished in 1991). It had recently been used as a construction staging and supply stockpile during the Ewen Avenue reconstruction, but is currently bare gravel. The location is close to the Queensborough Community Centre, adjacent to a bus stop with fairly regular service, and about 800m from major shopping. The service providers think the site is a good balance of being close to services but also in a residential area.

I am cognizant of the green space concerns, but do not see this project as a significant takeaway from Ryall Park. The lot is about 1,430 square metres, which is less than 2% of the Ryall Park area (when you include the Community Centre and adjacent playing fields, but not including the schools). Despite some comments I heard during the Public Hearing, Queensborough has more green space by area and per capita that the City’s average, made even more so with improvements over the last decade related to Port Royal Park, Old Schoolhouse Park, and greenway improvements along the waterfront. I am protective of the City’s green space, and agree that many neighbourhoods need more (which we are working on), but every discussion about green space is about balancing the opportunity costs and other community benefits.

A lot of the conversations and research over the last month has been around a “risk” argument – the argument that the residents of this housing will pose a greater risk to other park users than any other resident of a house or townhouse in the area. We met with BC Housing folks and reviewed the Community Advisory Committee and PAC minutes from the Marpole project and adjacent schools. We have talked to law enforcement and support agencies. We did everything we could to learn what the experiences in other locations were in relation to these concerns, talking to people who have dedicated their careers to providing assistance to people in need of housing. I could not find any evidence that this project will create some exceptional risk to neighbours or other park users. Quite the opposite, the evidence is ample that an amenity like this improves the lives of people in our community, and makes our entire community stronger.

Council each had their own reasons to support this project moving forward (and you can watch the video here, I don’t want to speak for others). For myself, I believe this is an appropriate location, the only location in New Westminster where this valuable amenity can be rapidly built, and I am convinced this project can and will be a positive for the entire community.

Now for the hard part.

This Public Hearing was soul-crushing. There is no other way to describe it. A week later, it is still causing me a mix of feelings, most of them negative. I cannot get over what was an overwhelmingly negative experience for every member of the public who attended – those in favour of the project, and those opposed. But I don’t know how we take a project that elicits so much emotion and provide outlets for people to speak from their hearts and their minds such that they feel heard or understood without the antagonism that was displayed. I believe in community consultation, and in representative democracy and responsible governance as a force for good… this was none of those, and I feel heartbroken about how the event unfolded.

One thing that was made crystal clear to me: the Public Hearing process is broken. This structure demanded by the Local Government Act is almost perfectly designed to create an 11th hour all-or-nothing us-vs-them divisive conflict event where opponents face off and speak past each other instead of providing a safe, inclusive, and collaborative conversation about the relative merits or costs of a project.

The structure is such that it makes it difficult for Council members (who must remain open minded through the process in order to act semi-judiciously in the ultimate decision making) to moderate the debate or pre-empt the conflict. Staff must balance on the razor’s edge of providing factual information about a project without appearing to be advocating for a project that must have had enough public policy merit to get as far as the Public Hearing. The delegates at any Public Hearing are almost exclusively people who feel strongly for the specific project, or are strongly opposed to it. This is evidenced by the fact that most Public Hearings are sparsely attended – you have to feel personally affronted to bother going out on a Monday night to speak at a boring public meeting. Of course, the stronger those feelings, the less likely one is going to accept or appreciate new data or varying opinions provided at the Public Hearing. And as it is always a last-minute winner-take-all debate, there is very little opportunity to learn, or discuss the larger policy implications that underlie a project, from affordable housing policy to transportation demand management to voluntary amenity contributions and urban design principles, because those are bureaucratic-sounding and technocratic solutions that are lost in the fog of parochial personal concerns and emotional battery. That is a terrible way to make decisions in a complex world.

I wish a week later I had suggestions, a model for a better way, but I don’t. I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know how we have a more nuanced discussion with the general public about any new project that comes down the pike. I don’t know how we provide space for the somewhat-interested and potentially-benefiting to engage when so much of the space is taken up by the personally aggrieved. All I know is that the current model of the Public Hearing doesn’t work. As currently structured, it is an affront to representative democracy, a barrier to good decision making, and a terrible form of consultation. It divides at a time when we should be coming together. It needs to change.