Opening Doors

I finally had a little time to condense down a bunch of thoughts and notes about the Opening Doors report that was delivered to the Provincial Government last year. I read the report when it came out last summer, and noted how it landed in an overstuffed news cycle to be almost ignored by anyone who wasn’t already a housing wonk. I might have winged a bit on line at the time, but I was not overall as critical as some of my neighbours across Tenth Ave.

Last month we held a Workshop at New West Council to talk through the report recommendations with staff support, and prepare a more formal response to the provincial government (you can watch a video of that meeting here and see the report and presentation City Staff prepared to inform that workshop here). This brings me to my regular warning that the comments that follow are mine, not the official position of New Westminster City Council or anyone else, and you might want to watch that video to see some of the more nuanced discussion other Councilors brought to the discussion.

The report needs to be put into the context of how and why it was created. It was an Expert Panel put together to provide advice to the BC and Federal Governments (delivered to the respective Ministers of Finance, notably) so it weighs heavily on things senior government can do. The Experts on the Expert Panel were, perhaps shockingly, bereft of municipal experience, and their decided expertise in finance and property development resulted in their firm application of Maslow’s Hammer. I also chagrin that the progressive *economic* quick wins proposed were the only part of the report that the senior government Ministers of Finance rushed to make comment on – and that was just to say no to them at the moment they were proposed.

But I’m already getting ahead of myself. Let’s look through the major policy directions proposed, from the municipal perspective. There were 5 major themes, and 23 recommendations, and you can read through them all if you like, but much like the conversation we had at the Council workshop, I’m going to summarize by order of government, because we all have work to do to address what is a national crisis at this point.

Things the Feds can do:
The roots of our current homelessness crisis are found in the early 1990s when Paul Martin looked at the comparatively modest housing cuts under a decade of Mulroney, and decided he could do better. The 1994 Martin budget got the federal government right out of the business of building housing. When a rapidly growing and urbanizing country like Canada goes from building 15,000-20,000 social housing units a year to less than 1,000 there are going to be devastating effects. And here we are.


So, with the Feds having the, by far, deepest pockets, it is not surprising that the one thing the Feds could do first is start using those funds to build housing. To quote directly:

the federal government make long-term funding commitments, as was done until the mid-1990s, rather than offering short-term capital grants. We recommend that the scale of these funding commitments reflects what is required for the construction of new social housing units to return to historic levels, when nearly 10% of all national housing starts were social housing units

There are also great recommendations here about making Federal Lands available for housing in high-demand communities, giving the non-profit housing sector more tax incentives, harmonizing programs that may speed housing being brought on-line (like federal/provincial/municipal building codes, fire codes, energy efficiency codes, etc.). But, still, someone has to pay for the housing that the market is not going to provide.

There is also a recommendation around incentives that stands out to me:

federal and provincial governments create a municipal housing incentive program rewarding the creation of net new housing supply wherever demand occurs… their primary purpose is to recognize municipal costs incurred in growing the housing stock and reward growth of housing supply where it is needed.

This addresses straight-on a significant downloading concern all Cities have in investing in affordable housing. Given an historic lack in Federal and Provincial funding (only beginning to be abated now), creative cities looking to be proactive have tried to leverage local powers to get housing funded. This means directly spending on housing, giving our limited land base up to affordable housing projects, or leveraging affordable housing as a community amenity attached to new market housing. This last one definitely has populist appeal, because it makes people feel we are making the “greedy developers” pay for it, but the reality is we are simply taking money that would have otherwise been used to pay for other community amenities – parks and recreation centers and libraries – and as we dip into those resources, we lose public support for growth, because we cannot provide amenities that assure a denser City is livable and full-service.

So this recommendation seems to suggest that Cities that meet housing growth targets are prioritized for federal funding. I actually hoped it would go a little further and suggest that federal infrastructure granting programs like ICIP should specifically hinge on high-demand communities like New Westminster meeting their housing targets.

Things the Province can do:
When Martin/Chretien gutted federal funding for housing in the early 1990’s, BC stayed in the business of building housing for another decade or so, until the Liberal Government of Gordon Campbell put an end to that in 2002. Though programs are now coming back in a meaningful way, we are left with a big gap of 20 years of underbuilding to our needs.

All of the points above about what the Feds can do also apply to the Province – they can provide funds, land, and incentives. Though their pool of funds is somewhat smaller, they are in the right place to note and be proactive about regional needs, and indeed the money saved by giving people safe, secure homes comes right back to the Province through savings in health care and other social support spending.

One aspect of this that is somewhat missed in the panel report is the opportunity for the Province to get back into the business of supportive housing. By the current model, the Province may provide funding to private developers to include affordable housing in their market housing proposals and/or provide funding for the not-for-profit sector to deliver and operate the housing. This is based on the neoliberal idea that government saves money by paying someone else to do something instead of doing it themselves. This is the model that brought us disastrous results when a pandemic hit the care home sector, and a model we still somewhat resist for healthcare. But this is still an operating assumption for housing that adds complication and uncertainty to the delivery of housing, and makes it harder to get housing built.

This report skates around the demand side of the equation. I know this is a politically charged discussion in a growing country with ambitious population and economic growth models, and I am not going to delve into the fanciful economics of a certain UBC landscape architect or the xenophobic ravings of familiar populists. Instead, I would suggest the place where demand management comes in is the federal and provincial taxation structures that reward the commodification of housing, while at the same time providing no benefit to renters or those who are unhoused. For whatever reasons these various structures (homeowner tax credits, capital gains exemptions for housing, etc.) were developed years and decades ago to encourage people to buy and stay in houses, they no doubt provide a perverse incentive during a housing crisis where most cannot afford the ticket to entry while taking hundreds of millions of dollars out of the government’s coffers that could be better applied to providing housing to those in need. This is the part of the Expert Panel Report that senior governments rushed to say they were not going to enact. See recommendations 21 and 23:

21.…make changes to tax programs to bring the treatment of renters and homeowners into closer alignment. This would include reviewing the impact of the capital gains tax exemption on principal residences… and extending comparable support to other forms of wealth building;
23. …phase out the Home Owner Grant. Monies saved from this should be used to fund social housing in addition to the commitments made in the 10-year plan.

Alas, the Culture of Contentment assures that no government, no matter how progressive their campaign, will be willing to address this disparity any time soon.

Another important piece missing from this report is the need to protect renters and keep people from becoming homeless in the first place. Again, the Province has made tentative steps in the right direction here, but is not where the City of New Westminster and other local governments have been asking them to be in stopping renovictions and demovictions.

Things for Local Gov’t to do?
I’m going to mix together our Regional and Local government parts here, and only note that the Expert Panel Report skips regional government altogether, though they are a significant provider of affordable housing in the Lower Mainland and other regions of the province. They are also the level of government that sets regional land use and housing policy, but we’ll get to that.

The part to remember is that this is a report to senior governments, and the question here is more “what can senior governments to do to either compel or make local governments approve more housing faster?”. This might sounds strange to many in New West, where we are meeting (and slightly exceeding) our regional growth strategy targets for housing, rental and affordable housing, and population growth. If anything, I feel people are starting to feel a bit of growth fatigue related to construction impacts. However, we are one of the few municipalities hitting these targets (as I talked about at length here), and housing demand is still far outstripping availability – so what can the province do to get those other municipalities to keep up?

Right off the bat, we know the first recommendation doesn’t work:

the B.C. government impose statutory time limits to all stages of the property development process, municipal or other, for all types of development. Similar limits imposed
in Ontario and Alberta can serve as examples

Putting an artificial timeline of, say 90 days on a Rezoning application as Ontario did, fixes nothing. The arbitrary nature of the limit belies the complexity of many rezonings, ignores that even the Province cannot commit to providing referrals within that time limit (in the case of EMA freeze-and-release provisions, or MOTI approval for development near highways as only two examples), effectively undermines the ability for an elected Council to do what the Community elects them to do. It reduces a local government’s ability to evaluate and benefit from land lift related to rezoning, and undermines any principle of meaningful community engagement over development. The net effect is that most rezoning applications would be turned down, not that most would get approved faster. It does this all while adding a new layer of bureaucracy – the tribunal through which applications not meeting timeline could be appealed.

Fortunately, more of the recommendations around introducing “affordability adjustments” to the Housing Needs Reports, aligning our OCP updates with these needs reports, provincial streamlining of development permitting processes province-wide and the such, are doable, reasonable, and would likely have wide-spread buy-in by municipalities, though they may take some work on behalf of all parties.

An identified theme is that Municipal and regional housing targets actually have to come with some force. We are dealing with a regional problem, and need to solve it regionally. There are a variety of sticks and carrots the Provincial Government can apply, and a lot of funding incentives for infrastructure to better support the pressures cities face as they densify. Indeed, changing how the province incentivizes growth would also result in significant greenhouse gas reductions and reductions in the cost of many different forms of service delivery. There is a big win in here, but it would require some political courage to step into what local governments (and regional governments) see as their turf. When half the mayors in the region are elected on straight-up or veiled promises to curb growth, political battles would no doubt ensue, but a crisis like this does not allow half of the region to say “not our problem” as has been the reality for a decade. They know who they are.

There are two aspects of how Cities approve housing that the Provincial government can definitely influence, as they are regulated at least in part but Provincial regulations: how Cities finance growth, and how our permitting programs work.

On the financing side, the report includes this recommendation:

conduct a full review of local government revenue sources and spending responsibilities… includ[ing] consideration of additional or enhanced funding sources for infrastructure and amenities that are more predictable and do not rely on rezoning or the development process. Preference should be given to means that capture land value through taxation, rather than homebuilding

To frame this a bit, Municipal governments collect Development Cost Charges (“DCCs”) on new growth, Voluntary/Community Amenity Contributions (“VACs” or “CACs”), and a whole raft of different fees and changes on development. It’s a bit of a complex mess, and outside of DCCs, not particularly well regulated. This creates not just cost, but uncertainty and complexity for builders and great variances across the province and region. One recommendation would be for the Province to clean some of this up. perhaps by expanding the DCC program to make it more flexible and reduce the reliance on VACs/CACs. This sounds easy, but is actually something that would have to be addressed with great care, as the balance between community and private benefit from growth (never mind the public perception of that balance) is precarious and dynamic, and Mencken warned us about seemingly simple fixes to dynamic human problems.

The second aspect of change could be in the permitting processes themselves. Given the financing issue is managed (see above),then strategic pre-zoning takes a lot of risk away from builders, and reduces the time taken to get from planning to occupancy. This type of strategic pre-zoning probably doesn’t want to occur until we have a funding model established to assure the community knows it is getting its share of the inevitable land lift (and Cities have a way to fund the parks, playgrounds, roads, theatres and libraries that make the community livable), and stricter and clearer design control is in place, as the City will functionally be ceding much of that control when it gives away zoning. There are incremental changes Cities can make in the short term (like New West, where we have given Development Permit authority to staff without an extra trip to Council), but some major shifts in the permitting process that are recommended (like reforming the problematic Public Hearing) would require changes to provincial legislation.

The summary
We have a housing affordability crisis because we are not building enough homes to meet demand. We have a homelessness crisis because we are not building enough non-market and supportive housing to provide appropriate shelter for people who are forced out of the bottom of the market as prices rise. These are two overlapping crises that require parallel approaches to fix.

The first problem is related to a complex mix of jurisdictional and political roadblocks, some easier to overcome than others, but even with the existing legislative framework and tax structure, municipalities can build to meet demand now. some of us are. If the Regional Growth Strategy is any guide, Municipalities like the City of North Vancouver and New West have shown that the solutions are available, but some municipalities simply don’t want to take part. We need to level that playing field.

The second problem is much easier to solve. Build housing for people who cannot afford to be in the market, like this country and this province did in the decades between WW2 and Mulroney/Chretien austerity, or as the Baby Boom generation calls them, the Good Old Days. Fortunately, this easier-to-solve problem can go first, and even the most reluctant local government can’t stop it if the senior governments are committed to fixing it. As a bonus, it takes the pressure off of the harder to solve supply/demand problem of market housing. But to solve that second problem, we first need senior governments to be more honest about the goals of our economic policies, while local governments need to be more honest about whether they actually want to solve the problem.

This report, for its strengths and weaknesses, could open doors to some of those more truthful conversations.

Council – Jan 10 2022!

A New Year, the same old Council Meeting report blog, starting with the same old “sorry I’m late, but things are busy!” lame excuse. Our January 10 meeting had a fairly light agenda, but started with a big presentation from staff:

Budget 2022: Five-Year Financial Plan 2022 – 2026
This is the last step in our annual budgeting process, the approving of a Bylaw that sets out the five-year financial plan as required by provincial law. There are lots of details here, and I should probably pump those over to a different blog post – coming soon!

Joy and Whimsy Initiative, Director of Parks & Recreation
2021 was a hard year for community. Not just our community, but the very idea of community. Many of the organizations and institutions that pull us together were struggling with shifting Public Health concerns as we stepped out and back into pandemic response. It was also a year where many of the Climate Change cheques we have been writing for 100 years started to get cashed in unpredictable but totally predicted ways. Trust me from the correspondence I receive in this job, people are anxious, uncertain, stressed. They need reason to smile.

Fortunately, the City’s grant process to community groups pivoted to help support events and ideas that drew community together within the limits available, and the City’s own Arts and Culture and Parks and Recreation folks developed programs to add to the joy and reduce a bit of the heaviness of the year. This report form Staff outline the successes of the programs. I heard a lot of positive feedback from the community about these small programs, and thank the community partners who helped make this happen.

The following items were Moved on Consent:

Heritage Revitalization Agreement (323 Regina Street) Bylaw No. 8304
This homeowner in Queens Park wants to build a larger-than-permitted Laneway House on a largish corner lot in exchange for permanent protection of the existing house. This will go to Public Hearing, so I’ll hold my comments until then.

Rezoning Application for Duplex: 122 Eighth Avenue – Preliminary Report
This homeowner in Glenbrooke North wants ot build a largish duplex where there is currently a smaller house. This is just a preliminary report to see if Council has any red flags, and it will have to go through consultation and committee review, and possibly a Public Hearing, so I’ll hold my comments until then. Frankly, I’m wondering why a property development that requires no variances from what is permitted even has to go through this onerous process, and why the density being proposed in such a high-services neighbourhood is so low.

Rezoning Application for Infill Townhouse: 337 and 339 Keary Street – Preliminary Report to Council
A developer want to build 9 townhouse-style homes on two lots in Upper Sapperton, and this is a preliminary report to see if Council has any read flags before it goes to consultation and detailed review. This looks like a positive family-friendly “missing middle” approach, the only unfortunate part being the space and livability loss due to the need to accommodate cars. Alas.

Update regarding Downtown Livability Strategy
I brought a motion to Council back in October, asking staff to be proactive at addressing some short-term and longer-term livability issues in Downtown. This is an update report on short-term measures that have been rolled out in the last few months. Primarily the interdepartmental team (Engineering, Police, Fire, Bylaws, Planning) have been emphasizing tactics (things we can and need to do now) over strategies (things we think we might want to do). These include ramped up outreach to people living unhoused, have worked to connect with and support the businesses operating downtown, worked with partners to respond to the impacts of mental health and addiction on residents, and have worked to improve cleanliness and improve access to public toilets. Staff have been re-assigned and had hours adjusted to make these things happen, and there is a constant effort to evaluate and shift how things are done to get better results. There is also some medium-term work being addressed, such as better coordination with TransLink on the station areas and looking towards more permanent public toilet options.

There is a lot here in this report, but I’m really proud of how all the departments of the City are working together to best support the entire community here, and how partner agencies from the BIA to BC housing are engaging. It is ongoing work, but we are already seeing results. Now if Metro can get that damn sewer project out of the way…

Uptown Active Transportation Improvements Projects: Design and Engagement Update
After a *lot* of public engagement, we are at a place where staff are comfortable moving forward with some concrete changes to the Crosstown Greenway and connecting this to the High School – a key Active Transportation connection. There has been a monumental amount of engagement here with alternate models demonstrated, it is time to get to work.

Some of the work is going to be done using less expensive material and a relatively rapid response (similar to the Agnes Street Greenway) that nonetheless provides protection for active transportation users. There will also be some loss of parking, which will no doubt disappoint some folks, but these corridors are vital for pedestrians, for transit users, and for cyclists (the transportation modes prioritized in our Master Transportation Plan), and displacing a few parking spaces is consistent not only with the MTP, but with our OCP and the City’s Bold Steps on climate action. If we are not willing to give up a block or two of reduced parking to achieve safe, protected, accessible active transportation, then we will never get there with any of those plans.

The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:

Alcohol in Parks Program: 2021 Review
This report outlines the public feedback received on the alcohol in parks program last year. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive (more than 80% or respondents approve the program – a higher proportion of respondents than even told us they took advantage of it!) There is a slight bias towards expanding the program vs. shrinking it. Staff also did not note any increased workload, enforcement, or other problems. They are recommending keeping the program where it is, and looking to improve litter and recycling opportunities related to the areas of parks where the program is offered.

Amendments to the 2022 Schedule of Council Meetings
Staff have recommended a slight shift in Public Hearing dates, and I did not agree with this change, preferring we keep with the original schedule. With these changes we would have 7 ½ months without a Public Hearing. I don’t know what projects – affordable housing, rezonings, new developments – are on the queue for that period, but I am not comfortable with the risk of creating a backlog at a time when we are still facing a housing crisis, an affordability crisis, etc. The city needs to keep working and moving this important work forward.

BC Superweek Pro-Cycling Series: New West Grand Prix
There is a *lot* of uncertainty in regards to whether the Grand Prix can happen in 2022. As this race is part of BC Superweek, which is a professional event relying on Continental-level talent coming to BC to compete, we just don’t know what Public Health and travel restrictions will be in place in July. That said, it is unlikely that an event in Downtown New West can happen in 2022 as a couple of construction sites are in the way and the schedule for the Pattullo Bridge road closures in not yet certain.

So we have asked Staff to not yet give up on the race, but to continue to engage with the Superweek team to determine what a timeline to certainty is, and when we would have to commit time and resources if we chose to go forward in 2022. At the same time, Staff are asked to evaluate alternate locations for 2022 if the (epic, hilly, and unique) Downtown course is not viable. As talked about above, I want us to not shrink away from events if they can happen safely, as I think people need a reason to get together and celebrate their City.

So we are not committing to do it yet, but we are not yet committing to not doing it.

We then read some Bylaws, including adopting the following:

Development Cost Charge Reserve Funds Expenditure Bylaw No. 8307, 2021
As discussed on December 13, we need a Bylaw to authorize expenditures from the City’s Development Cost Charge reserves – the money developers give the city to pay for the infrastructure needs related to growth. This is that Bylaw, and it is adopted by Council.

Finally we had a Motion from Council:

Smoking Bylaws Review Mayor Cote

THAT Council request staff to conduct a review and scan of smoking bylaws in municipalities in British Columbia and report back to Council with a preliminary assessment and options to enhance New Westminster smoking bylaws.

We made a few changes to our smoking bylaws around when the federal government legalized recreational cannabis, but these bylaws are a bit complex, here and in every other jurisdiction. We get quite a few complaints about nuisance smoke, so it is definitely timely for us to have a review and compare our Bylaws to what is happening around the region, and to see if there is anything further we can do to reduce these conflicts.

And that was it for the first meeting of 2022. Happy New Year everyone.

Assessment stress

The first week of January is when the BC Assessment Authority releases their annual report on property values, including your personal assessment and regional trend data. More often than not, this is followed by some hyperventilation on line and in the media: How the hell does this keep happening? How unaffordable can housing get? What can be done? I’ll avoid those topics in this post* and let the media and pundits answer those in the way that serves their interests best. I just want to talk about New West, assessments, and taxes, since Council is going to be talking annual property tax increases on Monday.

The City is working towards a budget with a 4.4% tax increase. I’ve written about how we got to that number, and will write more after next week’s meeting, but until then I am going to assume that is what Council is going to vote for, and use that number as a placeholder to talk about the below.

A 4.4% tax increase does NOT mean your property tax bill will go up 4.4%. It might, but it is more likely to go up a little more or a little less than that, depending on what type of home you are paying taxes on, and how its assessment compares to the average across the City.
Here are the numbers from the BC Assessment authority for the “average” property in New West:All residential properties went up 13.1 %, but Single Family Detached houses went up more than this (21%) and Condos went us much less (8.2%).Since tax increases are based on the average value, this means taxes will be going up more for most SFD, and less for most Condos. Indeed, at the current proposed rate, the average Condo may not see any increase at all.

I’m going to use fake numbers to demonstrate how this works, because that level of detail is unnecessary to make clear how this works, and complicated math makes explanation complicated. This really isn’t that complicated. However, I note there are two confounding factors I need to mention here, because they matter. The City adjusts its tax rate based on all assessed land values, and I am only dealing with residential here, and am ignoring commercial and industrial. Also, I am only dealing with the part of your property tax bill (63%) that the City sets and collects, the blue part in this pie chart:

The rest is set by the province, and the City neither has control of it nor sees the money, so I can’t talk too much about them except to note they are there.

Ok, with those caveats aside let’s imagine the City collected $100 Million in taxes last year, and the combined value of all the properties in the City was $10 Billion. The City would need to set a tax rate (called a “mill rate”) of 10 to collect those taxes. This is the math:

($10 Billion in properties) / $1000 = 10 Million;
($100 Million in taxes) / 10 Million = (mill rate of 10)

As a property owner who owns, say, a $100,000 home, you use the mill rate like this:

($100,000 property value) / 1000 = 100;
100 x (mill rate of 10) = ($1,000 in taxes)

So lets then lets assume the next year the City Council decided it needed $104.4 Million to run the City, and therefore property taxes have to go up 4.4%. If the property values didn’t change at all, this would be simple, as the Mill rate will go up 4.4%:

($10 Billion in properties) / 1000 = 10 Million.
($104.4 Million in taxes) / 10 Million = (mill rate of 10.44)

But lets imagine, instead, that the City gets a report from the BC Assessment Authority that says the combined value of all properties in the City went up by 10% over that year. That changes the math:

($11 Billion in properties) / 1000 = 11 Million.
(104.4 Million in taxes) / 11 Million = (mill rate of 9.49).

Taxes went up, but the mill rate went down, because the inflation in property tax was lower than the inflation in property values. This will be the case in New West in 2021 where average values went up 13%, but taxes are only projected to go up 4.4%).

Now, we can talk about how that change in mill rate impact individual properties, becasue they do not all go up in value the same as the average. If in the last example (average property increase of 10%, tax increase of 4.4%) the property you own increases in value the same as the average, then the mill rate applies to you exactly as it does to the average, and you end up paying 4.4% more taxes. But what if your house goes up 2x as much as the average, and your neighbour’s house doesn’t go up at all? You end up paying a different amount of tax:

(remember, I’m using pretend numbers to make it easy to spot trends. Really, a typical home in New West was a little over $1 Million last year, the mill rate was 2.829, meaning a little under $3,000 in Municipal property taxes were paid on that home)

This will happen across New West this year. As the BC Assessment report that I mentioned in the opening showed that SFD houses went up 8% more than average of all city wide residential property values, so the 4.4% tax increase for the average SFD will be in the order of 12%. At the same time, the average Condo value increased 5% less than average, meaning that property taxes for the “average” condo should go down a little bit. If that doesn’t seem fair to you, all I can say is I didn’t invent the system, I just report it.

*(supply and demand; very unaffordable because the most comfortable are being made more comfortable through this; we can start building differently)

Addendum: The New West Record points out that the BC Assessment news release says the “typical” SFD home in New West went up 24% in value, which is a different number than the 21% they have in their Market Trends table or their interactive map (where my table above is from). Not sure what that is about, maybe a typo, maybe a mean-mode-median thing. Anyway, take the exact numbers with a grain of salt?

Ask Pat: Electric Update

Alvin asked—

Not sure if this has been asked before but I was wondering Why New West has municipal/private electric vs Bc Hydro like our surrounding cities? Speaking with friends from other municipality, it seems New West has a higher cost per household? What are the pros and cons of having New West Electric? Thank you!

Yes, this has been asked before, and I answered here, so I suggest you click over there and read that first, because I’m not writing it all again. But that was more than 5 years ago, and the numbers have changed as has some of the governing philosophy. I’m on the Electrical Commission now (though, I hasten to remind folks, I don’t speak here for the City, or for the Electrical Commission; these are my own thoughts, not official communications!), and know a bit more about these things, so maybe a bit of an update to that post is in order.

New Westminster has had its own electrical utility since 1891, when a wood-fired steam turbine started spinning dynamos to provide street lighting in the City. Notably, a group of concerned citizens challenged the City’s legal authority to do this, and went all the way to the Legislature to complain about this extravagant spending (along with the ferry service to Surrey, the public library, an the waterworks), but the New Westminster Light Department prevailed, and 130 years later here we are.

What hasn’t changed: the New West Electrical Utility (NWE) buys electricity at wholesale and sells at retail. The difference between the two is mostly used to operate and invest in the utility, with leftover “profit” that is put into City coffers to add to operations of the rest of the City and offset some property taxes. In the 2020 Budget Reporting (the most recent available online, alas), you can see NWE made about $51M in sales, had about $39M in operational costs (mostly buying wholesale power), and invested about $7M into Capital upgrades (like that new substation in Queensborough), meaning about $5M was put into City operations. That’s $5M less property tax the City had to collect to provide services, or about $160 per household.

What has changed since that 2016 piece I wrote are the electrical rates offered by BC Hydro and NWE. BC Hydro rates are set by some confusing combination of the utility figuring out how exactly much money it needs, the provincial government telling them they can’t have that much, and the BC Utility Commission picking a number based on those two factors. As such, electrical rates have been unpredictable in the last few years, increases being promised, then being reduced, making longer-term financial planning difficult. The NWE process is the Electrical Commission determining how much they need to operate, and Council generally passing a Bylaw to support that (though Council have the power to not approve rate increases). In recent years, the Commission and Council have been more comfortable decoupling a bit from BC Hydro rates as a standard comparison to a model where they assure the capital needs of the Utility are secure for the future (see big substation build in Queensborough) and that rate increases remain more stable as opposed to big increases one year and smaller increases the next. With the BC Government getting support from the BCUC to reduce scheduled rate increases, BC Hydro is in a situation where rate increases are being deferred into the future.

The upshot of that is that NWE rates are currently going up slightly faster than BC Hydro Rates, though we fully expect BC Hydro will need to catch up to us in the near future. This was demonstrated with the following graph in our recent Council budget deliberations:

I note that 2023-2025 rates, both BC Hydro and NWE, are speculative right now, and BC Hydro will face the need to pay for some significant infrastructure soon, so it is generally thought BC Hydro will catch up to NWE within the current 5-year plan. In the meantime, we have some capital expenses that cannot wait (did I mention that big substation in Queensborough?) and will be able to re-evaluate comparative rate increases on a year-by-year basis.

The upshot of all this is that rates for NWE have gone up a bit compared to BC Hydro. I drew a comparison chart back in 2016, and did my best to recreate it using the proposed 2021 rates: 

The shape of the chart has not changed, but the gap has increased a bit. That means for the “average” household in New West (assuming their energy consumption is the same as the average for BC) pays about 14% more for their electricity every month than the BC average. This gap gets lower the more energy a household uses, in that BC Hydro’s scaled rates “catch up” to NWE rates. The difference, again for the “average” household is about $160 a year, which almost exactly offsets the “average” property tax savings per household. Rate differences for households more than a standard deviation from “average” – who use much more or much less than average monthly electricity – are are probably pretty small. All “averages” are in quotes here, because I don’t want to get into the discussion of means and medians, or the differences between a $500,000 condo and a $2,000,000 house when it comes to property tax burden and electrical consumption, but it is fair to say the structure we have now slightly benefits larger households, but perhaps incentivizes electrical conservation.

Even if the rate gap is such that there is no longer a financial advantage to having our own utility, there are arguments for the utility aside from financial. By owning poles and rights of way, the City can leverage that for its own purposes, from BridgeNet to negotiating with Telecoms for pole space. By selling electricity to transportation providers, we have access to Low Carbon Fuel Credits to fund climate action. The structure of the Utility may lend itself to a more efficient operation of a District Energy Utility. Because of NWE, we have ability to manage our own Net Metering, allowing people to co-generate and easily sell their rooftop power to the grid, and even allowed us to create two successful and operational Solar Gardens for those without sufficient roof space. There are also opportunities for NWE to lead, as the community and the province shift to electrification to meet our Climate Action goals, such as piloting Street Light EV charging or rolling out Heat Pump incentive programs to get homes off of fossil gas. We also have one of the most reliable grids in the province, with faster response to power outages, and fewer and shorter outages than in most places in the Province.

Ask Pat: Bike Storage

ASP asks—

Hi Pat – Looking forward to the AAA bike network coming to NW in the next 5 years. I’m looking into an e-cargo bike for our family but my biggest blocker is bike storage. I live in a building over 50 years old that does not have secure bike storage (but I have 2 parking spots that I don’t use since we don’t have a vehicle…). Wondering if there’s anything that the city of New West can do to incent existing stratas to invest in better secure bike parking? Or allow owners to convert their parking stall into secure bike parking without having to get approvals? On a related note I also wanted to see if there were any plans to convert on street car parking spaces to secured bike parking/storage? Even if this was a paid service that would be something hugely beneficial to us.

Oh, boy, you got me writing about bicycles. Better put on a pot of tea.

If we can get Council to commit to completing the AAA network, End of Trip facilities (EOT) are clearly the next big infrastructure challenge when it comes to supporting active transportation. With the shifts in the types of devices people are using, it is clear that even the best plans of a few years ago are not going to be sufficient if we really want a wider mode shift in the community. So let’s go through a few of the new challenges, and how a Local Government can help solve them.

Bike theft is currently a huge problem regionally, in a way that car theft was 20 years ago. I seriously doubt that our Motordom-entrenched law enforcement and insurance agencies are going to get as proactive in battling bike theft, so the arms race of tougher locks and more secure storage options are really our only option.

Bike storage at home is another area where multi-family needs a different approach than the single family detached home. Bike rooms in the traditional sense are a basement room with a few racks, mostly filled with dust-accumulating Canadian Tire specials with two flat tires, hard to access, not particularly secure, and really inconvenient to use. Meanwhile, apartments are not built large enough to store a couple of bikes, and random Strata or Rental rules inexplicably restrict bicycles in hallways and elevators.

As with many other structural changes in housing, we can do more about new housing than the existing housing stock, so the City is able to create new standards for Bike Storage rooms, like New West did a few months ago. The City is currently making a suite of changes to the Zoning Bylaw to make sure our Zoning requirements align with our transportation goals. We can do this through zoning because of the exceptional powers zoning gives local governments, and that includes adding “red tape” like this. Here is the plan for the current changes (from the October 18 Council report):

In November, we adopted the Stage 2 Bylaw changes that make bike parking locations as convenient as possible for users, improve security given cost of e-bikes and other non-conventional bikes, ensure oversized (e.g., cargo) bike sizes are better accommodated in new housing.

Of course, that does nothing for the existing building stock, and the City has really limited powers here. Bike rooms in the traditional sense don’t work- not big enough, not secure enough. Getting a strata or rental company to invest in making them function better is a really, really hard. Stratas have a lot of power, provided by the Province, to set their own Bylaws. It is difficult for a City to enforce in that space, and I honestly don’t know if the City could force a Strata to provide better accommodation to cycle storage, you need to take that up with your Strata Council. Though the City has recently had some success using our business regulation powers to change how rental property owners operate (to prevent unnecessary renoviction), It was a challenge, and I’m not sure the City is going to push that leverage to regulate bike storage rooms.

Storage in underground parking also presents security challenges, and similarly runs up against Strata or rental bylaws. I have even heard (anecdotally) of the Fire Department recommending against storage of stuff in general (and cycles as a subset of “stuff”) in underground parking garages during fire inspections, though it would be difficult to argue that the most flammable bicycle (I’m looking at you, Vitus Carbone) presents less of a fire risk than the most modest automobile fuel tank. However, if we put aside how to get there, I think the most affordable and secure solution for most of the exiting building stock is secure bike lockers in existing underground parking garages.

As far as incentives? The City is pretty limited by the Community Charter as far as giving financial or tax incentives to individual Stratas or rental companies that would encourage them to provide better storage solutions, but perhaps the best we can do is get out of their way if they want to take this path, such as allowing them to reduce the amount of parking they have on site if they convert that space to cycle storage options. Though I would argue incentives to Stratas willing to invest in secure cycle parking is a better idea and more equitable than investing in incentives for individual bicycles like some communities are piloting.

Creating better public short-term storage solutions is also something the City can do. Some of our Parklets have attached cycling parking, and that is definitely something we can do more of as we work on Bold Steps 2 and 7 in our Climate Action Plan. I’d also love to see more the bike locker type storage that TransLink has been doing for years, where the security of storage problem is fixed, even if their lockers don’t really work for your cargo bike types.

Finally, bike share solves part of this problem. The North Shore communities got ahead of us on this pilot program, but we are watching closely how it works out. E-bike share reduces the need for people to invest in expensive and hard-to-secure vehicles, and allows them to instead spend a few dollars a trip on the most common type of e-bike trip – a kilometer or two to a relatively nearby rapid transit or shopping destination. New West is uniquely located along a heavily used transit line, with hills separating much of our community from it, and a high enough multi-family housing density to make a program like this work.

But all of this also relies on us getting that AAA network built so more people feel safe using these devices. This needs to be baked into our 5-year financial plan, similar to how Victoria got their network build over the last few years. Shifting how we move around to meet our livability and climate goals will rely on both of these.

Ask Pat: Street trees

AM asked—

Curious to know where the city is at with it’s tree planting roll out for street trees. Sapperton residents would appreciate and benefit from some shade. I live on Simpson and have been asking for street trees for 5 years. Many thanks

Short answer: As far as I can tell, New Westminster is on pace, or slightly ahead of pace, on the tree planning strategy approved in 2020, and the good news is that Simpson Street is a high-priority street for planting, so you should hopefully see new street trees in the next year or so.

The City is planting a lot of trees. This followed on a few years of working on an Urban Forest Management Strategy that is one of the things I am most proud of during my time on Council. After decades of a slowly eroding tree canopy, the City committed in 2016 to turning that tide, and going from 18% forest cover (measured in 2014) to 27% cover by 2035.

A 9% increase in tree cover might not sound like a lot, but it would require an additional 8,500 trees planted on public lands and 3,300 trees planted on private lands. That means more than 800 new trees a year, not including the trees we needed to replace any lost through development and natural tree death. There are four strategies to get there: A proactive Tree Bylaw to protect as best we can healthy mature trees on private property; incentivizing private tree plantings through tree sales and promotion; investing in urban reforestation where opportunities arise such as parklands; and committing to an aggressive Street Tree planting program. The last two of these are supported by our 2020-2030 Tree Planting Master Plan.

That plan is a great read, and I like how staff prioritized different parts of the City for faster planting. Recognizing that tree cover is inequitably distributed round the City, and that it would be better if we more evenly distributed that social, health, and economic benefits of tree canopy cover, staff used a GIS system to map out a few measures. Along with measuring areas with less trees, they also prioritize multi-family neighbourhoods to put more people near trees, neighbourhoods with more seniors, and areas more susceptible to Urban Heat Island effect. Overlaying those layers, and higher vs. low priority areas stand out:

It is also worth noting, this isn’t just about going out with a back hoe, digging a hole, and plopping a sapling in the hole. Trees need some significant support to prosper in urban areas, especially in the first few years. With asphalt and concrete everywhere, there is not enough healthy water-and-nutrient-providing soil around a tree in many areas, so a soil cell needs to be constructed to give the roots a chance to establish. Trees are sensitive to drought and frost and wind until they get established, so they need watering, they need pruning, and other care in the first few years. If we lose 10% of the new plantings every year, we are doing pretty well. They also need to be planted mindfully so they don’t tear up the sidewalk next to them, or mess up the sewer lines under them. And with climate change, we need to be cognizant of the species planted and the diseases and pets that are endemic. For our tree strategy to be successful, we needed staff dedicated to this work.

Fortunately, we are getting grants both large and small to help us with this work, and are committed though our Climate Action Strategy to continue to fund this work. It also helps that we have both staff and a Council who recognize that planting a tree today is an investment worth making so we have a better community 20 years down the road.

As for that block of Simpson Street between Columbia and Richmond: there is an identified paucity of street trees there, which means you will be getting those street trees sooner than some of the rest of Sapperton. It’s that red block in the picture above. Of course the overhead power lines are on the north side of the road. That means more diminutive trees on the north side but the south side should be able to host full-sized trees, and provide a lot of shade across the street. I’m assuming (but don’t know for sure) that there are no utility conflicts under the boulevard that would limit root fecundity. And it looks like the City is planning hop hornbeams and Chitalpas. So spring flowers to boot!

Ask Pat: Encapsulation

TJ Sport asks—

Hi Pat, great blog.

From researching the OCP and Downtown Community Plan it looks like Front Street generates a lot of noise pollution and significantly reduces the air quality for residents due to the freight trains and trucks that use it. There have been talks of eventually encapsulating the train tracks and Front Street and even the zoning bylaws or OCP states the buildings should be compatible with encapsulation. Toronto looks to be doing something similar and placing a park on top.

I realize that encapsulating tracks and Front Street will be very expensive and is likely decades away (Frankly I’m skeptical that it’ll happen in the next 25 years) Any idea what the City has in terms of timeline, vision and potential land use on top of the structure? If the idea is dead in the water/a pipe dream/no longer part of the City’s vision what are the City’s plans to address the safety, noise, and pollution in the downtown area?

Short answer is the idea is no longer part of the City’s vision for the waterfront.

Over many decades, there were various vague plans to build over the rail lines on the waterfront and/or Front Street. I’m not sure when this idea was first floated, but with the de-industrialization of the port and re-imagining of the entire downtown waterfront and Quayside starting in the 1980s, a lot of visions came and were either realized or went away when a new vision came along. Looking through old City planning documents from the last half of the Twentieth Century, you can see some of the encapsulation schemes that were sketched up. Some frankly fanciful.

It was never (to my knowledge) costed, and it was not clear who would pay the monumental cost. Its also not clear if the railways would agree to encapsulation or if the Ministry of Transportation would agree to a regional truck route that did not permit hazardous materials (because they are not allowed in tunnels). I don’t think anyone was concerned about what happened to the businesses and historic buildings that face Front Street. The vision seemed to rely on the entire waterfront, from the River Market to the Pattullo Bridge, being converted to residential towers, at least a dozen of them. These were pencil-sketch concepts, and I’m not sure there was ever a real understanding how to get there.

As recently as 2010, the conceptual idea was still bouncing around, as it worked its way into the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan – the planning document that serves as the Official Community Plan for the area below Royal Ave. When the new OCP was adopted in 2017, the Downtown Community Plan was included as an Appendix – as placeholder until a new Downtown Plan was developed. And it included this:

Since then, events have unfolded, and these became the proverbial best laid plans. I would suggest the one event that was more significant than any other was the demise of the North Fraser Perimeter Road (NFPR).

To understand the encapsulation idea, we need to understand the NFPR. There was a vision around the Turn of the Century (can you believe that phrase applies to 20 years ago!?) to shift more of the riverfront landscape of the Lower Mainland to “goods movement”. The so-called Gateway Program  required the building of two limited-access high speed freeways, presumably to service trucks, but open to all traffic on either shore of the river. The South Fraser Perimeter Road was built, the NFPR was not. Primarily because of the horrifying impact on New Westminster.

The vision for the NFPR was 4 lanes, limited access, from a new expanded Brunette Interchange to the Queensborough Bridge connecting east and west to (not really clear). This may not sound so bad if the road is encapsulated from Elliot Street to Third Ave as suggested in the clip above (requiring, I note, the longest road tunnel in Canada), but what about east and west of there? There also existed the not-insignificant problem of pinch points like the historic Station building (Kelly O’Bryan’s) and interface with the SkyTrain guideway. Between the (federally regulated and not going anywhere) rail lines and other not-easy-to-move infrastructure, there simply wasn’t room for four lanes of traffic, buried or otherwise.

And there was the wider context of what it means to our community. If encapsulation addresses noise and fumes downtown, the NFPR only increases noise and fumes in Sapperton, in Fraserview, in the West End. And as more lanes always induce traffic, the knock-off traffic impacts on our surface roads would, if every other example in the history of building roads in cities has demonstrated anything, destroy the livability of many parts of the community within the noise-and-exhaust shed of the NFPR itself. Don’t get me talking about the Braess Paradox and Induced Demand.

The NFPR was a bad idea, and needed to be killed. It was killed in 2011 when TransLink proposed spending a couple of hundred million dollars on a key eastern connection to United Boulevard, and the community recognized it for the community-destroying freeway plan it was. I am really proud of the community who stood up to stop it, and the Council of the time (long before I was elected) that made it clear to senior governments that this was not on. We literally saved the City back in 2011, and TransLink went on to fund better things, like MOAR SKYTRAIN.

So without the NFPR, a different set of decisions had to be made. When it came time to invest in maintenance and upgrades to the Front Street Parkade, the lack of an NFPR meant we were able to right-size the structure by removing the older half of it, daylight some business fronts, and create a new public space. When the design for the Larco Parking Lot (now Pier West by Bosa) was being re-evaluated, we no longer wanted or needed an elevated podium cutting people off from the River, and were able to leverage another couple of acres of public park space for the Downtown. As we adopted whistle cessation downtown, as we design a new accessible pedestrian overpass to Pier Park, as we look at upgrades to the McInnis Overpass, as we plan greenway improvements along Stewardson, etc. etc., it is about planning for something that fits our community needs and connects our community better, not accommodating 4 lanes of high-speed truck traffic to slice our community in half, using an unbudgeted, difficult-to-realize, and half baked encapsulation idea to soften the blow.

The language in the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan has not been updated to reflect this change, but the planning we are doing around downtown certainly has. For the better.

Ask Pat: flood plans

BillB asks—

If my reading of the City of New West website is correct, the Floodplain Management Strategy – Feasibility Plan is 10 years old. It also says that the City prepares for the possibility of flooding on “an annual basis”. In the light of recent floods in the area, and climate change at large, should New Westminster be doing more to prepare and prevent the likelihood of flooding?

The short answer is probably yes, in that recent events from the Heat Dome to the Fraser Valley flooding has demonstrated that there are gaps in local and regional emergency response schemes, and it might be worth a pretty comprehensive review. But I’m going to put that larger “emergency management” part aside here, because you asked specifically about flooding. I think we are in pretty good shape for the *likely* flood scenarios in the near future, but it gets murkier the further out we look.

As a caveat, I’m a geologist and physical geographer by academic training, but I am not an engineer. That means I know a little too much about the physical causes and mechanics of flooding (I can wax eloquently about Reynolds Number or identifying back-basin deposits in the rock record) but not quite enough about the engineering practice of managing floods. So nothing below here should be thought of as engineering advice or advanced engineering knowledge. You gotta pay somebody with a P.Eng. for that.

The Floodplain Management Strategy really addresses one type of flood risk we have in the City, that of freshet flooding of the Fraser River. We have another couple of risks not directly addressed by that strategy: seasonal or flash flooding on the Brunette River, and localized intense storm events like recently occurred causing minor localized flooding on Quayside Drive, which I would call “upland” floods, because they are not caused by the river rising so much as water not getting to the river fast enough. They all need different approaches, and the risk factor of each will be impacted differently by Climate Change.

As far as the Fraser River flood, this is the area I think we are most prepared for in the medium-term. The oft-mentioned survey of dike conditions report from a few years ago, circulated more widely during the current Fraser River flooding episode, makes New West look pretty good, comparatively. The Crest Elevation and Dike Assessment ratings are generally fair to good, comparable to Richmond and very far ahead of most other municipalities along the river. There has been a lot of work done since that 2005 report to improve both the dike (mostly along with new adjacent developments) and the ability to pump water out and over the dike during intense rain or if there is some local wave wash overtopping during a Freshet flood event. Just in the last couple of years, we have spent millions on upgrading the Wood Street and Boundary Road pump stations to bring them up to modern capacity need and seismic standards.

That said, from a geography sense, Fraser River freshet floods are not likely our biggest concern on this lower part of the river. Here, the water height varies more by tide and storm surge cycle than by freshet cycle. The concern to plan around is not a single spring freshet that is larger than others (like the 1894 or 1948 floods), but a significant low-pressure storm coming though during a king tide around the time of higher-than-average freshet. It is perhaps macabre to think about it, but am 1894-style freshet will likely cause dyke breaches from Hope to Langley, and this extra water storage capacity on farm land and in those more vulnerable communities may serve to reduce the danger further downriver like Queensborough and Richmond. Dike planning needs to be holistic and address the entire estuary, and that is the most common call for every community along the Fraser. There is even a model in place, we just need to fund it.

The Brunette River is a bit more complicated. It has a different freshet than the Fraser River and it is more prone to intense local storms, but the lower reaches are also impacted by flood stage in the Fraser. There are very few homes impacted by a Brunette River flood, but the Braid Industrial Area may definitely be affected, and there are areas of it not protected by any meaningful dike. This is an area where the City puts a lot of emphasis on tiger dams and sandbags if floods are predicted, but the complexity of the jurisdictions here (rail lines are federally regulated, cannot really be “raised” and rail beds are pretty permeable to water; a large part of the waterfront belongs to the Port of Vancouver, so we couldn’t dike it if we wanted to) meaning proactive measures are much harder to coordinate.

Upland floods from intense storms are much harder to predict, and the engineering solutions are daunting. There is only so much underground storm sewer pipe capacity, and though we are currently investing a lot of money in new storm sewer infrastructure, there is always a cost/benefit math around adequate capacity for very low-recurrence events. We are also investing more on “green infrastructure” such as groundwater infiltration, permeable surface treatments and trees, in hopes we can locally capture more of the storm water and reduce the “peak” of the most intense storm flows. But none of this fits in the Floodplain Strategy.

Where the report you read talks about “annual basis” planning, that means every year (starting in the late winter) we get regular updates on snowpack and predicted melt rate across the Fraser River basin. That is modelled into predicted flows in the month ahead, and we prepare flood response based on those numbers. If the freshet forecasts start to look floody, we start procuring and organizing response materials (tiger dams, sandbags, sand, pumps, etc.) well ahead of time. In my perhaps hazy recollection of 7 years on Council, we have gone so far as to deploy sandbags in the Brunette River area once, and had no river-sourced flooding. So the “annual basis” is around temporarily protecting low-lying areas and prepping for a flood if it is likely to occur, and in no way replaces the medium-and longer term dike upgrades, pump capacity, and storm sewer investments we need to do.

Now, about Climate Change. In general, engineering practice now accounts for it, in as good as they can. Though that means different things for each of the different risks. Add to this a major challenge of estimating or modelling the various impacts Climate Change will have on everything from local storm intensity to snowpacks in Cariboo.

The current models suggest intense rainfall events and rain-on-snow events will become more frequent in our part of the world with climate disruption, both likely to increase the frequency and possible intensity of upland floods and Brunette floods. I guess the upside is that these are likely to be more localized with limited damage (which doesn’t make you feel any better if it is your home or business that is local damaged).

Research from a few years ago (and I honestly have been not keeping up, so this may have changed) suggests that peak freshet flows in the Fraser may actually be lower on average, even as annual average flow goes up a bit over the next 75 years. So floods that meet our design levels may actually become less frequent.

The problem is, we are in the tidal range of the river, and sea level rise will most certainly impact New Westminster. The current Provincial Guidelines are to design dikes for a 50cm increase in sea level, putting dike standards where we previously expected sea level change to get by 2050. More recent research (for example, by the Research Council) suggests we will be past there by 2050. The detail of raising dikes an extra 50 cm is actually not a small one, but at least New West is not alone in this. Which is why many communities (including New West) are calling for a return to basin-wide flood and landuse planning along the shores of the Fraser River Estuary in a FREMP-like model as I linked to above.

The elephant in the room is the worst case scenario, and this is a global concern, not a New Westminster one. If we have 50cm of sea level rise by 2050, we can and are planning for that. Some of that adaptation will be expensive, but we can see how to get there. By 2050, we should have an idea of how to address 1m sea level rise anticipated for 2100, though that will bring new engineering challenges, and perhaps some uncomfortable discussion about triage: what lands we protect, what lands we abandon. However, worst case scenarios for sea level rise past 2100 are dire, and frankly very difficult to plan around. The planet with 3m of sea level rise is a very, very different planet. Most major cities are at least partially inundated, most currently ports are no longer functional. The global economy is not the one we have today. From an engineering perspective, this is not something we can plan for, and the people planning today will not be the ones planning for that eventuality.

This is why we still, while facing inevitable climate change, need to work to reduce the scale and impact of climate disruption. The battle against Climate Change is not over because it is now inevitable, the race is now afoot. Every tonne of carbon we keep out of the atmosphere today is a reduction in inundation we will see post 2100. So in that sense, our long-term flood management plan is probably best seen here.

Ask Pat: The River’s Edge

I said I was going to spend some of the holidays clearing the Ask Pat Queue. Here we go with the first one from a drummer of some note:

Heflip asks—

The development on front street along the river’s edge…the underground portion being well below water level…is this a smart idea? Some engineer somewhere thinks so I suppose. I guess we’ll find out if it sinks or not.

I assume you are talking about the Pier West project currently under construction at the foot of Begbie Street. Indeed, the history of the site, going from 5 towers to three to two, from over 1,000 units to under 700, from an elevated parking pedestal to below-grade parking, and the attendant public benefits is outlined in this previous blog post from around the time the current iteration was approved.

But you asked about engineering and water.

Yes, engineers think it is a fine idea, if a bit complicated and expensive. I am not an engineer, or even an engineering geologist, but I know just enough to recognize the engineering of this site probably looks more challenging than it is. The building is not built on soft riverside sediments, but is within them, and rests on a series of piles driven into well compacted glacial sediments and pre-glacial rocks (probably Huntington Formation?) that are not as far down here as people might think. Around the Lower Mainland and the world, there are many buildings on piles in much similar or more challenging conditions. Just in the photo above, there is the Alex Fraser Bridge, every tower on the New Westminster Quayside, and the dynamic loads of those container cranes at silos at the port.  The engineering of doing this work is really, really well understood by people who do that work, and seismic standards for this type of construction are remarkable. The buildings will almost certainly not “sink” any more than any other building built in the 21st century in the Lower Mainland.

Secant piles that will keep the underground garage and the river from interacting. Those numbers are “feet to the bottom”. They go a long way down.

The portion that is below grade is the parking structure, both for the building occupants and public parking for the adjacent park and commercial areas. By pushing the parking below grade, we were able to negotiate more than 2 acres of public park and waterfront boardwalk space, which will be a huge shift in how the Pier Park operates. The City will finally have a realized riverfront plan.

Parking “below the river” is an interesting visual, but again, not as challenging as non-engineers may presume, and not that unusual. Many of the buildings in the Quayside on New West have parking garages that are below the top of the river, especially during flood stage. The Secant Pile wall you can see on the site is a well-established construction technique that is very well understood by generations of engineers by now. The location of this structure is perhaps dramatic, but most large buildings with significant underground garage structures are in a similar situation, in that the lower levels of the garage are below the groundwater table, and are surrounded by water-saturated soils that would love to flow into the garage. Some manage this by actively pumping away the groundwater. But more commonly now, they just build the garage as a “bathtub” that is effectively waterproof, with a few sumps and pumps to address any minor leakage or seepage.

The building is also built to the currently required flood level, including anticipated sea level rise effects related to climate change during the life cycle of the building. But that gets us talking about floods and sea level rise, and I have another Ask Pat in the queue about that, so stay tuned.

Council, December 13, 2021

This Council report is late. Because there is too much going on, and too much ugly news dragging me down. I’ve had a hard time finding the emotional energy to sit down and write this up. But it’s the last meeting for 2021, and we can put this doomscroll of a year into the books and move on to building good things in 2022.

We also had an afternoon workshop where we talked about the City’s response to the Opening Doors report, but that’s going to have to go I go in a different blog post, because boy I have opinions. The evening Council meeting started with a presentation of the Draft Budget 2022, which I will also have to delay to a longer stand-alone blog, because boy do I have opinions. So this blog will be reserved for the other things on the stuffed Agenda, starting with this presentation:

People, Parks & Pups – A 10-Year Strategy for Sharing Public Space
We have our first comprehensive city-wide strategy for dog parks and amenities for the something like 40% of the people in New West who have a dog. There is some good reading here, and it was a big body of work for Parks and Rec staff, with a multi-tier consultation to get us to this point which is a landmark for the City. The result is a framework for the next 10 years of work the City can do to make people and dogs better companions in our public space, including some short-term actions you will see in the year ahead.

We then passed the following items On Consent:

22nd Street Station Area: Bold Vision Work Plan
The City is going to re-launch the planning project for the 22nd Street station area. This is one of the things that got delayed by COVID, as planning staff were shifted to helping with pandemic response work supporting vulnerable populations and businesses. This is one of the few stations in the legacy Skytrain line that is still surrounded by single-family homes, and that is not consistent with the City’s or the region’s long-term growth vision. A rough outline of the densities imagines here was included in the OCP update a few years ago, but we are now thinking a little bolder.

The plan is to put this design and visioning exercise to a design competition, with hopes that we can see a landmark plan that will teach and inform the future of planning in the region. Initial ideas around this comprise a compact, transit-oriented, climate-focused, “eco-neigbourhood”. All of this tells me that we cannot achieve our goals with a traffic calmed or car-light community, but that there is an opportunity here to build a truly car free community. If we want to set a new standard, that is the path I could envision, and indeed the only one that achieves our stated goals of being net zero or positive impact on climate. This could be exciting, if we are brave enough to make it so.

Acting Mayor Appointments for January to October 2022
We trade off Acting Mayor duties, to cover for the Worship in case he cannot do the mayor-like things. I get February and March, so in case he slips out of town for Spring Break, I better update my Class 4 License.

Construction Noise Bylaw Exemption Extension Request: New Westminster Interceptor – Columbia Sewer Rehabilitation
This Project is delayed because of persistent heavy rain events, which cause surcharges in the sewer line (water pressure so high that it fill and overflows the pipe if given an opening) that prevent the work from happening. This is pretty disappointing, as the impacts of them being there are being felt even as they are standing around not doing the work that can get them out of there.

Covid-19 Task Forces: Update
Our regular task forces update: the exceptional work staff is doing to address the impacts of COVID and health restrictions on the various parts of the community.

DCC Expenditure Bylaw No. 8307, 2021
Development Cost Charges are money we collect from developers to pay for infrastructure needs related to population growth. Because they are strictly regulated, and must be spent on identified projects, a Bylaw is required to authorize spending the DC funds on the projects they are defined for.

About $500K of the $2M cost of the boundary Road Pump Station upgrade came from DCCs. About $250K in water main upgrades in Q’boro came from DCCs, as did $500K in transportation upgrades in Q’boro. On the Mainland, a little more than $200K in transportation improvements were funded through portions of 6 projects. $185K was applied to the debt from waterfront park land acquisition in Q’boro, and $360K for the same for the Pier Park purchase.

Downtown New Westminster BIA Extension: 2022 – 2025 – Revised
The BIA is a self-funded organization of the members. All downtown business owners pay a tax to the City that is transferred in whole back to the members for them to spend on business improvement initiatives of their choosing. Again, this is a provincially regulated process. Up to now, the BIA tax has been based on business frontage – paid based on in the linear feet of frontage for the lots. This makes sense if the primary expenditure of the BIA is streetfront improvements, but the BIA is a much more complex and dynamic organization now, and the way property development happens now values street front differently (with things like “air parcel rights” becoming more common).

On conversation between the BIA and City staff, it was decided to shift to a tax rate based on assessed value. This will not change the amount of money the BIA gets, only how the tax that funds it is distributed between their members.

Heritage Designation (125 Third Street) Bylaw No. 8306, 2021
The owner of this house in Queens Park wants to have it Designated, which is a higher level of protection than currently offered by the Queens Park HCA. This requires Bylaws that require a Public Hearing, so we are setting that up.

Heritage Revitalization Agreement: 802-806 Eighth Street and 809 Eighth Avenue – Preliminary Report
This project would see a heritage house in the Moody Park neighbourhood preserved, and a pretty unique stacked townhouse style development placed on some amalgamated lots. This represents a slightly unusual “missing middle” approach with stacked three-bedroom townhouses and single-level accessible studios integrated together, for a unique housing mix totaling 18 new units where there are currently thee houses. This is a preliminary report, and will go to Public Hearing, so I’ll hold my comments until then.

Metro 2040: Land Use Designation Amendment Requests
Surrey wants to make a few changes to the regional growth strategy. Two are minor and non-controversial. In the third, they wish to convert some farm lands outside the Urban Containment Boundary into warehouses in an expansion of the Campbell Heights light industrial area. This would represent a pretty significant shift in one of the region’s most powerful planning tools, putting pressure on farmland and green areas outside the UCB, for seemingly questionable regional benefits. They need some consent from the Regional Government to edit the Regional Growth Strategy in this way. As a City and a signatory to the RGS, we are sending them a note of concern about the inconsistency with regional plans around farm protection, green space protection, containment of the Urban footprint, and climate and environmental strategies for the region. Let’s see where this goes.

Metro Vancouver Integrated Liquid Waste and Resource Management Plan: Sewage Rate Allocation
We pay Metro Vancouver ($10.2 Million in 2021) to take our wastewater and treat it at the treatment plants. That cost is going up because the complexity, cost, and regulations around those plants is going up. The region wants to shift how they set that rate, and it will mean cities like New Westminster (Burnaby, Vancouver, a bit of North Van – essentially the “oldest” parts of the Metro region) that still have legacy Combined Flow sewers (where storm water is mixed with sewage and it all goes to the plant in one pipe) will pay more.

All cities with Combined Flow sewer systems are furiously working to separate the systems at some substantial cost. In New West in 2021 alone we are spending about $4M on sewer separation. Over the entire system, we are investing $27 per linear metre of sewer on rehabilitation and upgrades of sewers, and sewer separation represents the bulk of this spending. This is about 8x the regional average investment per linear metre. If we have to spend more to dispose of the water we collect, that will erode our ability to keep up this level of investment, meaning we will no longer be able to meet our goal of complete separation by Metro Vancouver’s timeline. So their “incentivizing” us to do sewer separation, they are eroding our ability to pay for it.

So we are asking them to reconsider.

Queen’s Park Farm Transition – Community Engagement Summary
The Queens Park petting zoo was closed by COVID, though discussion about the future of the site began before that, as standards for keeping and caring for livestock have changed and the operation of the Petting Zoo was going to have to change to keep up. So the City launched a public engagement process to help guide the decisions we are going to have to make about the space. We heard from hundreds of people through on-site engagement, Be Heard New West, workshops and on-line forums, surveys and other correspondence. Several themes emerged, from nostalgia about the petting zoo to concerns about animal welfare. There did seem to be a consistent desire to keep the area oriented towards agriculture and food systems education, and that animals should be a component of that. Parks staff will use this to guide some ideas for the upcoming season.

Recruitment 2022: Appointment of Committee Chairs and Liaisons
We are updating our Committee roles for the last year of the term. Read ‘em and weep.

Rezoning for Passive House Triplex: 817 St. Andrews Street – Preliminary Report
This is an interesting project in The Brow of the Hill that doesn’t fit neatly in any of our Zoning bylaws. It would turn a single house on a largish lot in to a triplex of three family-friendly units build to Passive House standard, which is about as efficient a building as you can build. This is a preliminary application, it will be interesting to see how it goes and how the community reacts to this type of modest density increase in a real mixed-density part of town. If you have opinions, let us know.

Update on the Implementation of the COVID-19 Booster Vaccination Program in New Westminster
Vaccination rates in New West are really high, and we have been lending City facilities to Fraser Health to make sure residents have as much access as possible. Now that we are into the booster cycle of the provincial vaccination program, we are looking at what role the City will play, aside from the ongoing drop-in clinics at Century House.

The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:

Climate Action Key Performance Indicators: 2020 Baseline Data
Another Part of Climate Action and accountability. We committed to act, we set some aggressive goals, we burned Climate Action into our workplans for every department, and we integrated Climate Action into our budgeting process. But if we cannot measure our progress or be held accountable unless we have metrics. Adopting these metrics took a lot of work, because they need to be meaningful, they need to be measureable, and we need to know where our data is going to come from. For example, it would be great to ask that carbon from car exhaust is halved by 2030 compared to 2010 baseline, but we have no way directly to measure car exhaust generated in the City (can we fund a correlation spectrometer? Maybe put it in a geostationary satellite?), and we certainly don’t have accurate date going back to 2010. So we can find a way to measure that, or we need to find reliable proxies, or we need to set a different metric.

This report outlines the “Key Performance Indicators” we will be using to track, monitor, and report on our progress towards our climate goals. We will establish and update a Climate Action Report Card, and will update and adapt it as new metrics become available.

Multiculturalism Advisory Committee: International Holocaust Remembrance Day
The City will light up the Anvil Centre in Yellow to mark this memorial date. Still waiting for staff to bring us that policy on when and how we light up buildings, but until then, we’ll do it this ad hoc way.

Queensborough Historic Area Drainage Update
This is a update on engineering works ongoing to address the chronic minor flooding in a low-lying residential part of Queensborough, as came up in the last Council meeting. As drainage requires an integrated network, the preliminary works have included increasing drainage and pumping capacity around the periphery to the tune of $8 Million (some funded by DCCs, see above), and a measurable improvement in the system has been noticed. Now engineering has to get more into the middle of the area and address the many small ad-hoc “improvements” performed along property frontages, all on City lands (not private lands) but not done by the City. Many of them hinder the ability of the drainage system to convey storm waters efficiently. This means unregulated driveway widening, retaining walls build to “square” the open channel, and culverts of sub-standard design. The report was really just an update for our information.

Recruitment 2022: Library Board Appointments
We have also moved to appoint 5 new Library Board members for two-year terms. I am really grateful to community members who take on these volunteer roles and help guide policy for such an important facility two facilities in the community.

Signalized Intersection Policy
This has been an interesting bit of work Staff has done, working with the Sustainable Transportation Committee. The City has not had a signalized intersection policy to guide how we prioritize the many conflicting desires when a signalized intersection is installed or improved. Without policy guidance, these intersections tend to be designed based on local needs at the time, and don’t necessarily reflect the City-wide transportation goals or the priorities set out in our Master Transportation Plan. As such, unless the improvements are part of a bigger plan, Level of Service for drivers is probably over emphasized over pedestrian wait times (as one example).

The new policy now prioritizes the safety and comfort of pedestrians, the removing of accessibility barriers, considerations for bus efficiency and reliability, and will prioritize improvements in areas where we are trying to encourage active modes (greenways, around schools and SkyTrain station, etc.). This is good progress, and is part of what I think we need to see more of – integrating the Master Transportation Plan priorities into all City operations just as we do Climate Action priorities.

Social Inclusion, Engagement and Reconciliation Advisory Committee Terms of Reference
As we continue to right-size the advisory committee structures at City Hall, this is a new working committee designed to keep our reconciliation and social inclusion actions on track. Term of reference means we can have a committee now!

And we read some Bylaws, including adoption of the following:

Arts Commission Repeal Bylaw No. 8297, 2021
The Bylaw that shifts our Arts Commission and the Public Art Advisory Committee into a single entity, the Arts Advisory Committee, as discussed in our Nov 15 meeting, was adopted by Council.

Electrical Utility Amendment Bylaw No. 8303, 2021
Engineering User Fees and Rates Amendment Bylaw No. 8301.2021,
These Bylaws that set utility rates for 2022 was adopted by Council

Revenue Anticipation Borrowing Amendment Bylaw No. 8300, 2021
Our annual cash-flow-protection temporary borrowing Bylaw, as discussed in our Nov 15th meeting, was adopted by Council.

Heritage Revitalization Agreement (515 St. George St) Bylaw No. 8262, 2021
Heritage Designation (515 St. George St) Bylaw No. 8263, 2021
These Bylaws to allow heritage designation and a laneway house in Queens Park, as discussed at the Nov 22nd Public Hearing, were adopted by Council.

Heritage Revitalization Agreement (208 Fifth Avenue) Bylaw No. 8271, 2021
Heritage Designation (208 Fifth Avenue) Bylaw No. 8272, 2021
These Bylaws to allow heritage designation and an infill house in Queens Park, as discussed at the Nov 22nd Public Hearing, were adopted by Council.

Finally, we had Motion from Members of Council

Endorsement of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty

WHEREAS the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2021, Code Red for Humanity, confirmed that without radical reductions in carbon emissions this decade, temperature rises above 1.5 degrees Celsius would be inevitable and irreversible and the credible threat of unstoppable, self-accelerating global heating; and
WHEREAS changes in the City of New Westminster’s climate are already being felt, including the summer heat dome, a pattern of hotter/drier summers, increased exposure to wildfire smoke, and increased frequency and intensity of heavy rain which impacts food security, infrastructure and the well-being of the entire community; and
WHEREAS all members of our community will be impacted by the health and safety risks of fossil fuel expansion, but those impacts will be most particularly experienced by those who live with socioeconomic and health inequities—including low-income individuals and families as well as those experiencing homelessness—Black, Indigenous, and people of colour, youth, seniors, people with disabilities, and especially people who live at the intersection of these identities; and
WHEREAS the City of New Westminster declared a climate emergency with an accompanying plan of 7 Bold Steps, and is committed to a just energy transition to green infrastructure and industries that will create jobs and rapidly decarbonize our economy; and
WHEREAS a new global initiative is calling for a Fossil Fuel Non- Proliferation Treaty that would end new fossil fuel exploration and expansion, phase out existing production in line with the global commitment to limit warming to 1.5°C, and accelerate equitable transition plans,

THEREFORE IT BE RESOLVED THAT the City of New Westminster formally endorse the call for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty; and THAT the City of New Westminster write to the BC Minister for the Environmental and Climate Change Strategy, the MLAs for New Westminster and New Westminster-Queensborough, the Federal Minister for Environment and Climate Change, the MP for New Westminster-Burnaby, and
THAT that the following motion be sent to the Lower Mainland Local Government Association:

WHEREAS the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2021, Code Red for Humanity, confirmed that without radical reductions in carbon emissions this decade, temperature rises above 1.5 degrees Celsius would be inevitable and irreversible and the credible threat of unstoppable, self-accelerating global heating; and
WHEREAS climate crisis impacts are already being felt in our communities, including the summer heat dome, a pattern of hotter/drier summers, increased exposure to wildfire smoke, and increased frequency and intensity of heavy rain which impacts food security, infrastructure and the well-being of the entire community;

THEREFORE IT BE RESOLVED THAT LMLGA formally endorse the call for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty; and
THAT this motion be sent to UBCM for endorsement.

That’s a lot of words, but in essence, we are signing on to the call for the end of fossil fuel expansion with many cohort communities in the Lower Mainland and across Canada, and are using our lobbying power to senior government to amplify that call.

And that was the last meeting of 2021. I will try to get to writing up a bit about those two topics I skipped a bit above, and clearing the queue of unanswered ASK PATS that is getting a little embarrassing, over the holidays. Be careful out there, find joy in spending time with the people closest to you, and lets all think of the good things we can do in 2022.