Hey folks,

It is a strange time, and the energy in the air is strange. There seems to be a cumulative pile of stressors hitting people. Many are directly related to COVID, like concern for the health of loved ones, economic uncertainty, anxiety around public spaces, around work places and planning the return to school. Some are more abstractly connected, like the shift in work-life balance, a lack of festivals and events to pull us out of routine, the re-adjusting of social norms. People have been home to much, isolated too much, concerned too much. Fretting as our neighbor to the south appears to be burning itself down in strange and frightening ways, the reality of climate change hitting hard as the turning point in Arctic climate can no longer be ignored, we seem frustratingly unable, or unwilling, to address a growing pile of local crises: housing, poisoned drug supply, systemic racism…

In many ways, it feels like we are in a time when the status quo is shifting, and no-one is immune from the fear around that. Some like the status quo, or at least prefer it to the uncertainty that change brings. Others are doing the hard emotional and intellectual labour to try to assure that change goes in a good direction, to serve others, to serve themselves, to build a stronger community. Others just spend their time shit posting. We all adapt in the way we know how.

I have felt it. I recognize I am extremely fortunate through this. My family (knock on wood) is safe and healthy, I’m still (knock on wood) able to work, have healthy relationships that provide me support, can enjoy the long bike rides that keep my emotional chemistry in check. But with all that, I am more acutely aware these days of my mental health, of behaviours and thought patterns that are probably not productive, not making me happy or adding to my quality of life. I miss my friends, even if I am still kinda connected to them through social media and occasional walk-bys. I miss community events, group bike rides, chatting with folks at a pub, random social stuff that makes my community buzz for me. But aside from missing things, there is something else. Decisions are hard to get to. Concentration on a task is hard. Sleeping is weird. It is low-level anxiety creeping in on the edges. Not debilitating, but bothersome, so I guess even there I am luckier than some.

All this to say, I’m going to take a bit of a breather in August, and try to do some things a bit different. Mostly, that means I’m going to turn off my Social Media for the month. I haven’t done this since long before I was elected, so it will be a little strange. FOMO is a real part of my mental matrix, and I need to work on that.

We have a couple of Council meetings in August, and I will endeavor to blog those out soon after they happen, as I have for more than 5 years. But other than that, I won’t be responding to Twitter or Facebook, because I won’t be looking at Twitter or Facebook. You can always e-mail me at pjohnstoneATnewwestcityDOTca for City stuff, or at infoATpatrickdjohnstoneDOTca for regular-life stuff. I read them all, respond when I can. Have a good summer.

Be Safe, Be Calm, Be Kind. See you in September.

Ask Pat: That old house

Zack asks—

What is the future for the historic (and seemingly abandoned) house across from the grocery store in Sapperton? If it was revitalized and turned into a community space (like a small library?) it could be quite the hidden gem in Sapperton. Currently it is a dilapidated eyesore

Short answer is: I have no idea. It is private property, so much like every other house in the City, the answer to your question is pretty much up to the owner, not the City.

If you go to the City’s public on-line Interactive Map, you can see that it is actually on a slightly unusual lot that stretches up the hill quite a bit, and it is zoned for a Single Family Detached house (RS-1). The house itself looks a little dilapidated, but it is one of the oldest intact buildings in New Westminster, apparently built in 1877.  As far as I can tell, it is not in the Heritage Register, so it doesn’t have an specific protection, though I image any redevelopment plans would consider if it is preservable.

The City doesn’t really have much control over when or how a property owner plans to sell, fix up, or redevelop within their current zoning entitlement (i.e. replacing the single family house with another single family house). As long as the house is not a public health hazard and hasn’t had extensive work without building permit that violates the building code, the City doesn’t really have much power to force a homeowner to “fix it up” or do anything with it. Even the unsightly property Bylaws are more to do with housekeeping and untidy lawns than in keeping up the building paint, and these kinds of Bylaws are generally enforced only after complaints are received, and with a mind to encouraging compliance more than being punitive.

I don’t know the owner, or their plans. I could speculate that there may be a longer-term intent to develop the lot, as it superficially looks like a pretty attractive location for some mid-size housing, but no applications have come to Council in my memory, so I am only as able to speculate as you.

There are also no plans that I know of right now for the City to buy up properties like this, even if the owner was selling. Our already-aggressive capital plan for the next 5 years doesn’t leave us a lot of room for new buildings or programming spaces beyond what is already planned, and I’m afraid COVID may even slow plans more than accelerate them.

So the long version is also: I have no idea.

Calmer streets

Earlier in the year, I brought this motion to Council, asking that the City be bolder in finding ways to re-level the balance between car use and other users for public space in the City. We had already made commitments in our Climate Action goals that we are going to change how road space is allocated in the City over the next decade. Then along came COVID to shine a brighter light on some of the inequities in our communities, and cities around the world started acting more aggressively on road space reallocation as a pandemic response. The time was right for New West to accelerate the ideas in our Master Transportation Plan.

Early on, there was some rapid work to address pedestrian and active transportation “pinch points”, especially in the Uptown and on a few Greenways. The city was able to quickly create more safe public space downtown by re-applying the weekend vehicle closure plan of Front Street that we already had experience with. Uptown, the BIA asked the City to allow temporary weekend-only opening of some street space for lightly-programmed public space. Response has been pretty positive:

There is a bit of push-back on these interventions, as there always is when status quo is challenged in the transportation realm. Predictably, the traffic chaos, accidents, parking hassles and general mayhem that was predicted by more vocal opposition just didn’t occur. Staff is tracking actual data, but I have made a point to visit these areas often (COVID and working from home has made me into one of those walking-for-recreation types) and have been collecting admittedly anecdotal views of how these sites are working.

There are two more ideas that are being launched for the second half of the summer, and I want to talk about them because they came from different directions, but ended up in the same place, and are also eliciting some public comments right now (as was the intent!)

The City is piloting a “Cool Streets” program that identifies key pedestrian routes in the City for light interventions to reduce the through-traffic load and give pedestrians more space to stretch out. The way these streets were identified for the pilot is what makes this interesting, and speaks to one of my previous lives when I was briefly a GIS geek.

The goal to identify areas of the City where more vulnerable people have less access to green space, shade, and safe waling/rolling routes to parks and services. The approach very much aligns with the City’s Intelligent City initiative by using data-driven analysis to help make decisions. The City used its Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data set to identify areas that met the following criteria: higher population density, lower household incomes, larger proportion of seniors, and lower parks space per capita. Using GIS to “overlay” these layers, they identified area where many of these criteria overlap:

Once the “dense” areas of this map were identified, staff went through looking at the routes that combine connectivity to key destinations (parks and services), where grades were lower and where the most tree canopy cover was available:

They then identified priority routes for “green street” interventions (1, 2, and the west part of 3 in the map below), and extended these along streets that get to key destinations (the east part of 3 and 4):

The interventions here are very light. The roads are not “closed” to cars, but are calmed using ideas drawn from experiences in other cities from New York to Oakland to Toronto to Vancouver. The hope is to create truly traffic-calmed streets where local access by car is still available, but the space is open for people to share and program as they wish. Local streets acting like streets for locals, not as through-fares.

A second initiative was led by a community group in Sapperton. Concerned about some recent close calls on the part of the Central Valley Greenway that runs through lower Sapperton, they surveyed their neighbours and brought a proposal to staff asking if a pinching down of one block of the greenway could be trialed in light of the Streets for People motion. Again, the road is not closed, but signage was installed to discourage through-traffic and removable soft barriers installed.

Both of these interventions are temporary pilots. They cost very little to put in action, and provide valuable data to our transportation planners, while also giving the public a chance to see what changes would look like before we invest in more permanent or expanded road re-allocation.

In her great book Street Fight, Jeannette Sadik-Khan talks about successes in urban residential areas where more local and lower-key interventions like this have occurred. A major part of this is trying some things (lightly, quickly, and cheaply) as a form of consultation and data collection. This allows us to get past the baked-in institutional resistance to change that says everyone has to agree on paper before we even try the most minor change, and before we can test whether a change is a net good. The Summer Streets program in New York was her model of this – feared by many, embraced by almost everyone once implemented, with the fears proving unfounded in the long term.

All that to say, these light interventions are designed to elicit not just public participation, but public feedback. And I have received feedback already. I’ve received e-mail form people very upset that they were not consulted; e-mail form people predicting traffic chaos; and e-mail from people asking if they can do this on their street. My short answer to those questions are, respectively: this is the consultation; the sites selected were local streets, not traffic-challenged throughfares, but staff will be collecting data to assess the impacts on traffic; and not likely this year just because of timing, but if things go well, I hope these kinds of pilots can be expanded in 2021.

So, if you like this kind of intervention, let us know. If you don’t, tell us why. Staff have included in the analysis above other priority areas for Cool Streets that may be implemented in the future, including Downtown and the McBride commercial area in Glenbrooke North. As for the community-driven version, if you would like to see this type of intervention as a temporary or permanent feature of your street, start reaching out to your neighbors (maybe hold a social distance block party?) and talk about it. If you can gather enough interest, maybe the City can make something happen in 2021.  To me, local communities reclaiming space is a major part of making Streets for People again.

Ask Pat: Drinking in Parks

Jeremy asked—

With suggestions from public health indicating that we should be avoiding indoor gatherings this summer, are there plans in the works to allow for alcohol consumption in our parks this summer to encourage outdoor socialization? Also related to this, will parks be open later to discourage groups from going back to ill-advised indoor gatherings?

Agnes Street Bandit asks—

When is New West going to follow suit with North Vancouver, Penticton and much of Europe and allow some forms of drinking in parks? With concerns of social distancing and it becoming clear that COVID is unlikely to be spread outdoors it seems like a no brainer. Without a rule in place it seems like another luxury people with detached homes and a backyard have over folks in condos. Beyond the virus does this not add to making New West a more livable city where the citizens want to enjoy the parks and public spaces without worrying about getting a ticket? As North Vancouver Mayor Buchanan says “…[treat] adults like adults.”

I am actually surprised about these questions. My surprise is that more people aren’t asking and this hasn’t been a bigger topic of conversation in the New West. The shortest answer is that we didn’t prioritize this for this summer, with all of the other stuff going on. I suspect it will happen sooner than later, but not in summer of 2020. As always, there is a longer answer.

The Provincial government a couple of years back made changes to the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Act so that a Municipality could designate a public place, or part of it, as a place where liquor can be consumed. There are some details in here, and I am *not* a Lawyer, but the way I read it, the City could designate part of a park, all of a park, or even the entire City (everywhere that is Municipal jurisdiction, anyway) as a place where it is legal to drink a beer, wine, or cocktail.

There are rules under the Liquor Control and Licensing Regulation, which exists under a similarly-named Act (I blogged about the difference between Acts and Regulations a little while ago). This regulation says that if a City wants to designate such a place for public drinking, they need to post signs that show the outline of the place, the hours when drinking is permitted, etc.

Of course, all of the other rules we have around booze would still apply – you cannot be a minor in possession of alcohol, you can’t be driving an automobile, you can’t be performing brain surgery, and you cannot be intoxicated. Remember, the rule that allows public drinking does not allow public drunkenness.

To designate this place-to-drink, the City needs to pass a Bylaw that fits the criteria set out by the province. A few cities have done it in selected areas of some parks, notably North Vancouver City and Port Coquitlam. Vancouver ran into a typically-Vancouver problem because they have a unique governance structure where the Parks Board strictly has *jurisdiction* over the parks, but the language in the Act specifically says a “Municipality or Regional District with jurisdiction may…” and the Parks Board is neither of those, so they need to get some special clearance from the Province because the legality of the Bylaw could be challenged and that would be a bit of a hassle… so they are working on it. But I digress.

If New Westminster wanted to pursue this, we would need to pass a Bylaw. That is neither a simple nor a particularly complex process. We would have to do all the legal stuff to make sure it is functional (see Parks Board, above) and decide where and how to appropriately designate and sign the place, but we have professional staff who can do this work. That said, when we mess with Parks space and how it is used or allocated, we need to talk to the community and user groups first. I have been through enough Dog Park consultations to know that people in New West take their park space very seriously, and changes need to be approached with a bit of caution and a lot of conversation.

I know that sounds like I’m slipping into bureaucrat speak, especially if you are one (like me) that likes the idea of having the occasional beer or goblet of wine during a picnic. But there is work to do here on two fronts, and we haven’t done the work yet.

First are the legislative questions. One example I can think of is: how does this impact Special Event licensing? If a group wants to have an event (as commonly happens in our City in normal times, like Music by the River or the Pecha Kucha at the Queens Park Bandstand) where alcohol is served with a special event license, can we still do that if this is a designated “bring your own booze” area? There is a provincial rule that says a place cannot have two licenses at the same time, so is “open for drinking” considered a license? We don’t want to put unexpected barriers in place to community groups who use our space for events, and if we designate the Bandshell (for example) as an area where drinking is OK, does that preclude youth events at the Bandshell? These are technical questions, so we should be able to get straight-forward answers as we work through them, but that takes a bit of time and legal review.

What will take more time is talking to the community about where and how much. I have spent enough time on other continents where Protestant alcohol rules are not as common, and could imagine opening all of New West to open carry without chaos breaking out. However, in my role I need to hear from and respect the voices of others who don’t share that feeling. Our goals as a community include being as inclusive and welcoming as possible. We need to consider how this change would impact everyone in the community.

Some people simply don’t want to be around others drinking alcohol. It may be a religion thing, it may be related to trauma people have experienced around alcohol use, it may be people going through recovery from addiction, it may just be people would rather not be in that space. It doesn’t really matter where it comes from, everyone has a right to reasonable access to public space. When we change the standards for public behaviours in a community – and how we use laws to enforce those behaviours – it needs to be the community driving it. We need to find the balance between how different people want to use public space, especially as those wants are often contradictory. some don;t want booze near playgounds, some parent specifically want to be able to have a beer while watching their kids use the playground. The balance is often hard to find.

There is an interesting equity lens on this, as well. How is our current prohibition on public drinking enforced, and how would a more permissive set of regulations (you can have a beer on this side of the line, not on that side) be enforced? We need to talk to our Bylaws and Police staff to talk about enforcement and complaints-response strategies, because our anecdotal history here is that youth and marginalized populations are enforced very differently than white 50 year old middle class picnickers like me.

So with that background, I can say with confidence it’s not going to happen this summer. There was no community push to have it happen this summer, and with the large number of things going on through our Pandemic response, it simply wasn’t a priority. To the best of my knowledge, no staff have it on their current work plan to start this process. Depending on how things go with recovery this fall, we may be able to task staff with doing this work for the 2021 summer season. As always, I cannot speak for all of Council, so I’m not sure how a proposed change would be received, but I think opening up public spaces to responsible drinking is the inevitable direction. I just can’t give you a timeline.

Council – July 13, 2020 (pt2)

The last New Westminster Council meeting before the summer break had a long Agenda. I reported out on the first half a couple of days ago, here is the rest, starting with the items Removed from Consent for discussion:

Update on the City’s Recovery Plan
This is a report on the things we are planning for the fourth quarter of 2020 as part of the anticipated recovery from the pandemic response, set out by the City’s 7 main operating departments. There is a lot of detail in here, and every department is being guided by Provincial Health Orders and the priorities set out by Council in previous meetings.

The biggest news here for many is that the Library will be re-opening in early August, with some adjustments to service and new safety protocols (including an early opening hour exclusively for seniors). Most parks and rec facilities will be gradually re-opening and programming resuming through Q4, but the pace of this will rely on how the public health response shifts. We are still very much still in the middle of the Pandemic, and we cannot anticipate what the case rate or risk will be in October, so this will be a plan in motion.

As each Municipality is interpreting orders a little differently, and each community has different priorities and financial situations, I predict we will spend much of the rest of 2020 with members of every municipality saying some version of “Community X is doing Y, why don’t we do Y?” This will be a challenge to manage form a communications point of view, but seems inevitable at this point.

Anvil Theatre Fees & Charges Bylaw
We are adjusting the fee structure for theater and rental spaces in the Anvil Centre to support re-opening and modified use relating to Phase 3 recovery. As this is a City Fee for service, we need to set the fees in a Bylaw. This biggest part of this change is not that the fees are changing, but that we are giving the Manager of the Theatre more flexibility to introduce scaled fees in response to reduced capacity related to COVID-19 without having to come to Council to get variances.

Interim COVID-19 Food Truck Policy
Some may remember the conversations we had back in 2015 and 2016 about a Food Truck policy in the City. There was a really extensive program to review the community interest in food trucks, to identify potential conflicts, and develop a program that balanced the interests of this emergent business with those of the existing business community. We created a program that took limited uptake, at least in part because it was seen as onerous for operators. We also took some flak for being “no fun” because we didn’t have the food trucks that other communities seemed to enjoy.

Now that people are spending more time enjoying outdoor spaces, possibly because of the pandemic, we have a few more applicants going through the onerous program. Some business owners have expressed concern, as they themselves are suffering and don’t want to see competition showing up in a way that impacts their type of business.

We had a pretty lengthy Council discussion on this. My thinking was very much that we spent 2 years putting together a program that was transparent to all stakeholders and the public. Changing that program now based on a few complaints seems arbitrary and reactionary, and is not in line with the work that people did in 2015 and 2016 in good faith to put together a comprehensive program. It also feels unfair to the operator who went through all of the necessary City hoops and challenges in good faith to get approval to operate as clearly laid out in our Bylaws if we now move the goalposts. If we are going to favour one business type over another, we better have clear policy and make it transparent why we are acting.

Staff made a series of recommendations, trying to thread this needle a bit, and Council agreed to some but not all of them. In the end, we are going to suspend for the summer granting new licenses for operations on City lands, but let existing licenses continue and allow licenses on private property to continue. We are also asking staff to see if they can encourage operators to not locate on a few conflict-causing spots.

909 – 915 Twelfth Street: Official Community Plan Amendment, Rezoning and Development Permit Application
This is a preliminary report on an application to build a 5-story residential building at the corner of Twelfth Street and London in the Moody Park Neighbourhood. It would replace a used car lot and two smaller commercial buildings with 40 homes, including “ground oriented” two-story units. The proposal is to build a highly energy-efficient building (Step Code Level 4). This would also require the purchase of a piece of City land that provides laneway access to one of the existing businesses.

There was some discussion about the role of commercial at grade along this part of 12th Street. This has been an ongoing discussion as far back as the OCP update, and staff are working on a 12th Street Retail Strategy. Everyone agrees that the unique character of 12th Street retail is something we want to help support, but there is some difference in opinion about what the best way to support it is. Storefronts are good, empty storefronts that can’t be leased are bad. Homes along the corridor are good to bring more local customers, but this also needs to be balanced with the need for commercial space. The answers here are neither easy nor obvious.

This is a preliminary application, and Council agree (in a split vote) to allow the application to move forward to public consultation and committee review. If all goes well for the proponent, this would eventually come to a Public Hearing, so no decision has been made yet on the project itself, and I am sure there will be a bunch of conversation about this. If you have opinions, let us know!

100 Braid Street: Zoning Bylaw Text Amendment, Development Permit and Housing Agreement Principles – Preliminary Report
A couple of years ago, the developer Wesgroup and Urban Academy partnered to buy a piece of land near Braid Station and build a new school, with the plan outlined at the time that the other half of the property (the current 100 Braid Studios) would be developed into high-rise residential development in the nearish future. This is a preliminary report indicating that future is approaching. The original rezoning supporting this was completed in 2016, and as market forces and incentives have changed, Wesgroup wants to revisit the zoning. This is a preliminary report, so it is yet to go to public consultation or external review.

They are currently approved to build a 213-foot (21 storey) tower with ~250 strata units, they now would like to build a 390-foot (35 storey) tower with 424 secured market rental suites. There is some provision for below-market rentals, but that is contingent on CMHC support, and is not a commitment being made that is aligned with our Affordable Housing program – it is more a commercial decision made by the applicant. They also want to reduce the number of off-street parking stalls.

Council asked some questions about the Affordable Housing aspect, and about how the Art Space would be managed. The proponent wants to remove some mature trees on City lands to improve “buildability”, and I want to assure that the City is appropriately compensated for this in recognition of our overall strategy to improve the City’s tree canopy. However, it was the uncertainty about the Affordable Housing commitments and how it would or wouldn’t work that ended up compelling Council to ask Staff to fill a few information gaps with the proponent prior to this application moving on to the next steps in public and stakeholder consultation. If you have an opinion, let us know, but there is more work coming on this one.

Emergency Response Centre Update and Relocation Options
The City has been helping administer an Emergency Response Centre to help people without secure housing during the Pandemic. BC Housing has done the real work, the School District really stepped up to permit the use of the unused gym at Massey, and a housing provider bent over backward to get a dry roof over a few dozen people who would have otherwise gone without. There were some neighbourhood concerns raised, and the housing provider took measures to help address those. The good news story here is that people got help when they needed it as an emergency response.

Due to site constraints, the centre cannot be expanded beyond its original permit expiration on July 11th, and the people more recently housed there have been provided alternative housing, some in New West, some not. Meanwhile BC Housing is looking for alternative locations for this type of emergency transitional housing in New West to meet local needs. The un-used Corporate Inn building on 12th Street is being considered, but would need to go through some City reviews under a Temporary Use Permit, and the owner would have to agree to a lease. Let’s see where this goes.

Small Sites Affordable Housing Initiative: Next Steps
The City has had some success with a few small affordable housing projects on our ever-diminishing City-owned lands. We have been looking at a few other sites that belong to the City and don’t currently serve any longer-term strategic purpose. Two appropriate sites have been identified, and we asked affordable housing providers to submit ideas about how they could turn these fallow sites into much-needed affordable housing. The City recently took these initial proposals to neighborhood consultation.

It is important to note – there are no developed projects for either of these sites. The goal is to include what the City calls “below market” (for households earning between $30,000 and $75,000 – think two people working minimum wage jobs) and “non-market” (income below $30,000 a year, akin to one minimum-wage worker or person living on social assistance). Details around size/shape/form of buildings, number of residents at each level of affordability are all still up in the air and subject to the development model the housing providers are giving to the City. If a preferred applicant is found for one or both sites, that would mark the start of the development application process. There are lots of details to work out here, and we will need to balance the community benefit, neighbourhood concerns, and financial viability for housing providers, so there is no certainty these will get built. Work to do!

Pattullo Bridge Replacement Project – Application to Deposit Plan – Charge Holder
I had to google what this is. Seriously – “Application to Deposit Plan”? What does that even mean? What happens if I don’t approve? Do we have any negotiation ability here? If we don’t sign this thing, does the bridge not get built? Should we be asking them for money for this? If we have no decision to make, no options, I cannot imagine any value to this coming to Council. This job is silly, sometimes.

So I took the excuse to ask staff if we are planning to have an open meeting with the Pattullo Bridge project team to discuss some concerns raised in the community around the active transportation links for the bridge. That meeting looks to be coming at the end of the summer.

Uptown Streetscape Vision – Big Ideas and Public Realm Elements
This is a report for information on the long-awaited Uptown Streetscape update. This will define some design principles and larger goals for the transportation realm in the commercial area of Uptown, to support the “Great Streets” vision outlined in the Master Transportation Plan. That’s lots of planning talk for how we want the area to look and work. As we do street improvements and landowners redevelop lots, this will guide what we build, or let them build. The vision can be summarized as more active transportation space, more active sidewalks, better allocated curb space, improves accessibility (universal accessibility as a goal) and more green.

This was somewhat developed before the current COVID temporary measures for road space re-allocation Uptown, but the temporary measures can definitely help inform traffic management implications of these changes. One of the bigger elements is the introduction of a Pedestrian Scramble at 6th and 6th – an intersection where part of the traffic cycle is a period where all crossing traffic is stopped, and pedestrians are free to cross in any and all directions. Most people asked liked the idea, the Uptown BIA has concerns. Improvements of the Belmont Parklet and connecting NWSS to the Crosstown Greenway are also part of the math here.

There is much more here, and it will take time to realize the full vision, but some improvements will be seen in the not-to-distant future.

Cool Streets 2020 – Pilot Project
This is a cool program, along the line of some “slow street” program being implemented around the world right now. Staff have done some work to identify areas and locations where light, quick, cheap interventions can make the transportation realm work better. During the summer, people can lack access to the cooling effects of green space, especially those who live in higher density neighborhoods with limited parks space. Doing a bit of GIS data-analysis, staff identified areas in the City with higher population density, higher seniors population density, lower incomes, and lack of parks space overlap, then identified the “greenest” routes through those spaces. These are identified as “cool streets” – in the temperature sense, not the Fonzie sense. Staff will put in some cheap interventions to those routes signage, “local traffic only” barriers, etc. to encourage people to walk, roll, even sit along these routes. Giving streets to people in 2020. Also cool in the Fonzie sense.

Request for Proposal Re: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Anti –Racism Framework
The City is continuing to work on our internal inclusion work, ensuring we are working towards having a workplace that reflects the community it serves, and addresses systemic barriers within our employment and business practices. This is a body of work that is probably best done by an external consultant working for out HR department, both because of capacity issues and because something like this would probably benefit from the review being arms-length. This is just a report to Council that an RFP for this work is going out and a chance to review the request.

We then had a Temporary Use Permit to issue:

TUP00023 for #8 – 30 Capilano Way
As mentioned in a previous meeting, The owner of a pinball-refurbishing and renting business wants to operate part of their business as an arcade so people can play the games they usually rent out to pubs and stores. This would be a non-conforming use in an industrial-zoned area. As the owner indicates they only want to do it to get over the COVID hump for his business, he is applying for a TUP. He initially applied for a 3-year TUP, and Council last meeting suggested a 2-year TUP would be more appropriate.

We received two pieces of correspondence from neighbouring businesses, both expressing support. Council moved to approve the TUP.

We then adopted a few Bylaws:

Five-Year Financial Plan (2019-2023) Amendment Bylaw 8207, 2020
As talked about earlier in the agenda, the updated 5-Year Financial Plan was adopted by Council.

Anvil Theatre Fees and Rates Bylaw No. 8209, 2020
As talked about earlier in the agenda, the shift to Anvil theatre charges in light of pandemic recovery needs to be in a Bylaw, and here we adopted that Bylaw.

Deferral of Tax Sale Bylaw No. 8210, 2020
As discussed earlier in the agenda, not having a tax sale in 2020 needs to be codified in a Bylaw, and here we adopted that Bylaw.

Inter-Municipal TNS Business Licence Agreement Bylaw No. 8187, 2020
As discussed at some length in earlier meetings, the Bylaw that empowers the coordinated multi-City business licensing scheme for ride-hailing businesses is now law here in New West.

Zoning Amendment Bylaw (230 Keary Street, 268 Nelson’s Court, and 228 Nelson’s Crescent) No. 8164, 2019
As discussed last year, and given Public Hearing back in January, the zoning amendment changes to bring more secured market rental to the Brewery District was adopted by Council now that the agreements have been worked out.

And that was a meeting complete, except for a couple of extraneous Motions, which I will talk about in yet another post, when I get to it.

Council – July 13 2020 (pt1)

The last Council meeting before the summer break (pending emergency meetings, because, hey, it’s 2020, and we may need to address a local response to the meteor impact) had a lot on the Agenda and a lengthy Zoom meeting ensued. I think what I will do is split this report into two, because it is simply too much to write up in one sitting. I will also talk more in a follow up post about the special resolutions, but our business started with moving the following items On Consent:

Amendments to the 2020 Schedule of Regular Council Meetings
Staff are suggesting some adjustments of the Council schedule after the summer breaks, and as we anticipate we will still be meeting virtually in September, so the regular September meeting in Q’boro will be delayed until we can meet again. All this subject to change based on meteor forecast.

Terms of Reference – Grants Committees
We have been working on making our Grant process more streamlined and community-centered. This step will disband the 5 existing community volunteer committees that review the applications, and replace them with three committees that are aligned with the goals of the grants: have more directed focus: Community Livability and Social Equity; Social and Cultural Vibrancy; and Community Economic Activators. We are also re-assigning members of the “old” committees to the “new” ones, and dong a call out to the public to fill the vacant roles in the new ones. If you want to help the City decide how to spend $1M next year in making your community a more inclusive, livable, and vibrant place, watch this site for an opportunity to sign up.

Non-Profit Pandemic Recovery Response
New West has a lot of non-profit (or, I prefer “social profit”) organizations doing a bunch of important work that keeps our community livable. Arts, culture, social support, education, health, housing, so much of the important village-building work relies on these organizations, and they are stressed by COVID at the same time that the need for their work is made more pronounced by the pandemic.

The City has followed up on some province-wide work to connect with our social profit sector and find out what supports they most need, and what role the City has in facilitating that support. Through this, a number of tactics are discussed, and ones that don’t involve a lot of new direct expense for the City (as we are also in uncertain financial times) are moving forward, including facilitating a peer-network approach, and reviewing how we charge for City services like room rentals. There is more to do here, but this is a start. And the appendix of this report gives us a good “lay of the land” look at the City’s non-profit sector.

COVID-19 Pandemic Response – Update and Progress from the Five Task Forces
Here are the every-meeting updates on the action of the 5 internal city task forces. There is some interesting discussion here about how prepared we are for the “second wave”, but mostly these updates show a measured reduction in response activities.

Artist Selection – Queen’s Park Sportsplex Public Art Project
All new City buildings have a Public Art provision to make the space around them better. Generally, a budget is created (proportional to the cost of the building), a Call for Artists is done, and applications (in this case – 10 of them) are reviewed for a short list. Three short-listed artists/teams provide more design ideas and vision, and the Public Art Advisory Committee (a volunteer committee made up of subject matter experts from the community) makes a recommendation to Council. We then have the option to approve or reject the application, after which a contract is drawn up and the artist gets to work. We are now at the “Council approves” stage, which Council did.

631 Second Street: Heritage Revitalization Agreement – For Preliminary Review
This is a preliminary report on an application to subdivide a single family lot in Glenbrook North and build two single family homes on “compact lots”. This one is a bit complicated, because the house is older, but has been modified such that it doesn’t really qualify for Heritage Protection, so it would have to be restored by replacing with replica materials. (Enter the “form and character” debate). There is a lot going on here, with the lot somewhat restricted by access and grade. The eventual proposal would see one house replaced with two houses, each potentially with a basement suite, for up to 4 units where there is currently one (or two?). As a preliminary application, this will now go to public consultation and other reviews. If you have opinions, let us know what you think.

404 Second Street: Heritage Revitalization Agreement – Preliminary Report
This is a preliminary application to put an addition on the unusual butcher/deli business in Queens Park, formalize it current use, and allow some change of signage and awning to reflect its original character. Again, going to community consultation and review. Let us know if you have opinions.

Interdepartmental Working Group on the Overdose Epidemic: Update
There has been an ongoing Public Health Emergency since 2016, related to a poisoned illicit drug supply. It has killed many more people in British Columbia than COVID, and New Westminster is no less impacted than any other community in the province. This is another one of those areas that is, by strict definition, the responsibility of the Provincial Government, but costs related to managing emergency response still fall on Local Governments (Our Fire Service has administered Naloxone to more than 250 people since starting with the program a few years ago, more than 100 times in 2019 alone). The City cannot turn away from our residents being impacted by the emergency, and instead have been a participant in an action team coordinating efforts between Fraser Health and non-profit organizations. This report provides an update on the actions we are supporting, and next steps.

I am not going to bury the lede here: we can save lives with safe consumption sites and with a safe supply. These are both challenging ideas for some members of the community, but the data supporting both of these measures as public health interventions is unequivocal. This public emergency is killing people here in New Westminster, it is time for us to move on the things we know will help, we know will save lives. The direction Council is endorsing here is to work with Fraser Health and community partners to make these happen.

New Westminster Rent Bank Program Funding Renewal Request
The City has participated in the Rent Bank program for a couple of years now. This is a program where people facing temporary financial crisis can borrow money at low cost to cover rent or utility costs to prevent them becoming homeless. Credit Unions provide backing for the loans, and the City provides funding to support the administration of the program, after an initial seed funding contribution. The Province is also providing annual administrative support. The request here is for the City to continue to support administrative support for $35,000/year, which is already in our capital budget, so not new spending. Done.

618 Carnarvon (Urban One Project): Request for Construction Noise Bylaw Exemption
This project under construction on Downtown New West needs to remove and replace a street lamp which is so close to the SkyTrain line that they are not permitted to do it while the SkyTrian is running, meaning they need a permit to do the work between midnight and 5am. They will do this work on the night of July 17.

2019 Statement of Financial Information
Every year we do the SOFI, which reports all of our audited financial information in a standard form. It also reports those juicy details like how much we pay everyone (over $75,000/year – here comes that news story again), how much we paid every contractor in the City (over $25,000) and the expenses of City Councilors. In 2019 I attended the Lower Mainland LGA Conference in Harrison (part of my costs were covered by the LMLGA because I am on the executive), the one-day CivX conference in Vancouver, the UBCM Conference in Vancouver, and the FCM conference in Quebec City. It was a busy year for me conference-wise, which will be a very different story in 2020. I generally report out on my Blog about these events, so you know what I was up to. That was virtually all of my expenses for 2019. Happy to answer any questions you have.

2020 Deferral of Tax Sale Bylaw No. 8210, 2020
Taxes get paid. If a property owner defaults on property taxes, the City is able to required by law to sell the property for recovery of the delinquent taxes. There is a timeliness point to this, no doubt developed to keep the process fair and transparent. However, recognizing that we are giving some room to delay tax payment in 2020 because of the Pandemic, we are also delaying the Tax Sale aspect of the process, to give people more time to address any financial burden the property tax may cause.

Proposed Queensborough Community Learning Garden in Ryall Park
The Changes at Ryall Park around the Temporary Modular Housing project are coming along as the housing itself is ready to open. The opportunity here to bring urban agriculture public lands in Ryall Park is really exciting. The City is partnering with GROWcery Food Network to provide the community garden aspects, and the design will also include an urban orchard to bring food trees. There are a bunch of overlapping community benefits here, from locally sourced food to community-based gardening training and education, and will hopefully be a centre for cooperation between the community and the housing operators and residents. There are lots of partners here, but City staff have really done a great job creating and fostering a vision for this space. This is good work.

Correspondence: New Westminster Police Board letter dated July 7, 2020 regarding a motion regarding reforms to the New Westminster Police Department
I have written a couple of posts about the role of City Council and the role of the Police Board in how the Police are run and funded in the City. Obviously, both bodies have heard the calls from Black Lives Matter and people concerned about the culture of Policing in Canada, especially as it relates to the impacts on Indigenous and Black persons in our community. The Police Board have put together a plan of action and are asking the City Council to take part in the conversation, and Council has responded positively to the invite with the following motion:

THAT City Council work with the Police Board;
THAT the CAO be directed to work with the Police Chief and the Director of Human Resources to develop a comprehensive workplan and budget to implement the motion;
and THAT a Special joint meeting of City Council and the Police Board be held in September to discuss and deliberate on the comprehensive workplan and budget.

More to come.

We then had a Financial Plan Amendment report:

Five Year Financial Plan (2019-2023) Amendment Bylaw No. 8207, 2020
By now, diligent readers will know the City operates under a 5-year financial plan that is approved by Council as a Bylaw, and updated every year. As any plan that projects financial information forward into the next year is likely to need adjustment as estimates are improved or unanticipated financial changes occur, the 5-year plan is also updated within the year as needed to track as close as possible to reality. There is also a big adjustment at the end of the year to rectify our estimates with what actually came to pass. So here is the last adjustment of the 2019 budget, to reflect what actually happened vs. what we estimated. How much changed? That sounds like a fun follow-up blog post…

We reported this out in an earlier meeting and posted it on the website asking for comment. We received none. Council moved to give the Five-Year Financial Plan (2019-2023) Amendment Bylaw three readings and adoption.

…and I think that is all I will report now, more to come tomorrow (or the next day? As I find some time to write it up. In the meantime, go out, get some sun.

Taxes 2020 part 2

The conversation about property taxes is always loudest not at tax time, but when the annual tax rates are announced. Early in the new year, every City Council in BC gets to the part of the annual budgeting process where tax increases enter the conversation.

Most of the rest of the year, Council talks about things they want to do. People come to Council and ask the City to do things. Any reduction in the base level of service is treated as an affront to all that is good. Reluctance to take on new tasks is seen as not supporting the incredible community benefits those tasks will support. Ten months of the year Council is asked to do more; two months of the year, we are told to spend less. That is not a complaint, it is an observation of how democratic government works. It’s the job I applied for.

As a result, discussion of taxes is rarely separated from discussion of ever increasing taxes. It does little to tell people that federal and provincial taxes have been steadily going down in Canada and BC for several decades as more tasks are downloaded to local governments. Property taxes are going up faster than inflation, and some people don’t like it.

Following on my last post, and in my continued quest to compare us to our cohort, I got to digging into the data again. We can again compare the New Westminster experience to the rest of Greater Vancouver through the BC Government stats on property taxes that are available as far back as 2005 here in “Schedule 707”. I will continue to argue (until someone gives me a good reason to think otherwise) that taxes collected per capita is the best comparator of taxes paid across the region. So how does New West compare to the other 20 Greater Vancouver Municipalities in tax per capita of the last 15 years? It’s a bit messy, but here we are:

There are two outliers: West Van has always been highest, Surrey has been lowest. New West is somewhere in the middle, increasing slightly less (by my eye) than average over the decade and a half. The big tends if I try to parse them: Delta and Port Moody rising faster than most (likely related to higher industrial land use and resultant industrial tax “windfalls”); the small communities (Anmore, Bowen, Lions Bay, Belcarra) all seeing recent significant rises since ~2013 (I would suggest they are coming to grips with infrastructure renewal costs they cannot offset with growth); Vancouver bucking the trend a bit, and the rest of us pretty tightly clustered together. If there are reasons for municipal tax increases, they don’t seem to track with politically left or right councils, rich or poor cities, or any imagined east-west or north-south divide.

Using the same BC Government Schedule 707 tables, you can look at how each city has changed in the 15 years between 2005 and 2019. There are three related growth numbers I think are fun to compare: population, value of residential land per capita, and the residential taxes collected per capita:

For the fun of it, I sorted this data by the rate of population growth. Despite what I said just two paragraphs ago, you can see Anmore was the surprisingly-fastest growing municipality over that 15 years increasing by 57%, even faster than Surrey. New West population rose 29% over that time (from just under 60,000 to just under 77,000), which makes us one of the faster growing communities. Lions Bay and Belcarra both lost population over this time. This chart, however, doesn’t show any clear trend relating the rate of growth to the rate of property value increases or tax increases.

This second view is the same data, but sorted by the increase in residential property taxes per capita. New Westminster is slightly below average in increase, as the per capita tax rate has gone up 76% over 15 years, compared to 78% for the average municipality (a tie between Langley Township and Port Coquitlam). New West residential land values have gone up quite a bit more than the average, though. In 2005, there was $84,000 worth of residential property per person, in 2019 that number is $276,000 – more than a tripling in value.

Just for the fun of it, I did the math to create a totally meaningless idea. If there was a (statistically-unlikely) person in New Westminster who owned a proportionate value of land for those 15 years, they would have paid about $7,700 in property taxes over that time, and earned about $192,000 in increased land value. Of course this is only property taxes to the municipality, not to the province (School taxes) to regional government (GVRD taxes), and doesn’t include the fee-for service money the City collects for utilities. Still, I think it argues against the sometimes-proffered idea that municipal taxes have been a significant driver of housing affordability challenges in the region over the last decade and a half.

Taxes 2020

I am returning to a common theme here in the blog, because I like to look at data, and have recently had a resurgence of folks suggesting to me that New Westminster is the highest taxed city in Christendom. Well, maybe only in British Columbia. Recently, I noticed a Councilor in another municipality puffing his own tires about how prudent the tax regime in his City was by calling out New Westminster as specifically worse tax- & spend-thrifts. Which allotted me the excuse for the following subtweet:

That the City that Councillor represented was well to the left of New West in the graph above was left unsaid, as were his name and that of his community, because I really don’t think it is a competition. Moreover, the problem with graphs like above is that they are one simplified analysis, and as I have tried to demonstrate in many blog posts like this over the years (Here with 2019 numbers, Here from 2015, Here where I compared taxes and utility rates, etc, etc. ) there are various ways to compare property taxes between Cities, and any comparison is useless without context. Some more useless than others.

Cities primarily provide services to people. This is why we generally rank the “size” of a City by population, not by square kilometers. The cost of providing services also most closely tracks with population. So when we talk about tax burden, certainly in the sense that our nameless Councillor was talking about it, we are talking about how much you pay for taxes as a resident of the City, which is easily measured by the taxes collected per capita:

The BC Government collects these stats every year, and report out on “tax burden” on a spreadsheet they call Schedule 707. You can read it here. The table above was generated by dividing the 2019 “Total Municipal Taxes” from each City by the population (2018 estimate, because that is what is on the Schedule). New West collected just under $84M in taxes a population of just over 76,000 people, for a per capita tax of $1093. This puts us right in the middle of Lower Mainland municipalities. The average of these per capita numbers is $1123 (New West is a little lower), but the average tax burden is actually $1042 (New West is a little higher).  This makes sense based on the different ways you can calculate the average, but fair to say New West is pretty firmly in the middle of the region.

This first chart compares all municipal taxes, though, and residential property tax – that collected from homeowners and landlords of rental properties – is only a portion of this. We also collect taxes from businesses and industries and utilities and such. Fortunately, Schedule 707 also break taxes down by property class. New Westminster collected just under $52M in residential taxes from those 76,000 residents, which works out to $675 per capita:

As you can see, that puts New Westminster just below average across the region. You will also note the municipalities that leap to the left side of the graph tend to be residential communities with limited commercial and industrial properties. Without those businesses to prop up the expense of the running the City, residential property owners have to pay more. Here is the commercial and industrial taxes collected per capita in 2019:

In this red is “Major Industry” like the Kruger paper plant or big industrial areas like Annacis and Mitchell Islands. Purple is “light industry” like the type of warehouses you drive by on the Mary Hill Bypass or in Port Kells. Green is “commercial”, which means retail, restaurants, malls and office buildings.

As you can see the distribution of this type of development is unequal across the region. Vancouver is the commercial centre of the region, and has oodles of office and retail space downtown and along the Broadway corridor. Delta has Annacis Island and the River Road corridor, that huge industrial reservoir allows them to keep their residential taxes low. As a proportion of property tax collected, New Westminster gets about 38% of its tax revenue from commercial and industrial properties and 62% from residential, which again puts it somewhere in the middle:

Unfortunately, commercial and industrial taxes are much harder to compare across the region. “Per Capita”, as I have used here, feels wrong. Raw numbers or rates are hard to compare because the value of commercial real estate in Downtown Vancouver is very different then the same office space in Langley, with New West somewhere in the middle. The pressures, costs, and relative utility of industrial land varies even more widely across the region. I will try to dig more into that in a follow-up post, because there are a few ways to look at business taxes in New West that make it look like we may be a little out of the ordinary.

But when ti comes to residential taxes, it is clear that New West is neither high or low taxed relative to the rest of the region. And there is a good case to be made that the Lower Mainland of BC has among the lowest residential property taxes in North America. But I’ll let someone else make that case.