With the new Transport 2050 plan out and the goal of lowering speed limits in urban areas to 30km/h, what is the expected timeline for those changes to take effect in major New West arteries? (Royal, for example). Also, regarding the 850 km of protected bike lanes, is there an estimation of how much of that will be devoted to our city? Is there a timeline and map in the works? The official plan for the city reimagines Columbia street beautifully, but I wonder when will we actually see those changes applied. (Not a complaint, I know it takes time for these things to be approved and worked on). Thanks for all you do, Pat.
Indeed TransLink has adopted a new long-range plan that creates inspiration for the region’s transportation in the decade ahead. And there is a lot in there:
The theme is “access for everyone”, and there are laudable goals:
And there are 350 pages of this. If I can get my minor complaints out of the way, it leans a bit too much into unproven tech solutions and benefits of unlikely automated vehicle adoption. My slightly bigger complaint is that it leans much more on other orders of government doing their bit to see the plan succeed, with not enough emphasis about what TransLink can do and should do with the power it holds. But I want to get those gripes out of the way, because it is overall a good and forward-looking plan that draws a positive vision for regional mobility. So I encourage you to thumb through it, because here I’m going to only talk about your questions.
The proposal for reducing urban speed limits is outlined under a section where the plan looks toward a Vision Zero approach to reducing fatalities and deaths in our transportation system. The plan calls for:There is a good defense for going in this direction in the plan, and to Active Transportation advocates, there is nothing surprising there. 30km/h saves lives, and makes shared spaces on our City streets much more comfortable for all users. It also allows us to start re-thinking how we design our streets. I talked a bit about that back here when it came up in Council, and New Westminster is one of a group of Municipalities advocating for the Provincial Government to make the change to 30km/h default speed for neighbourhood streets. We have also started to transition roads in select areas around town to 30km/h, and there are promising signs the Province is looking to make it easier for Municipalities to do this.
Which all raises the point that TransLink can advocate for this, but has no power to legislate speed limits. It will be up to the Provincial Government to loosen up the regulatory control on speed limits in the Motor Vehicle Act, and individual Local Governments to adopt these new relaxations.
That doesn’t mean that TransLink adopting this as a policy direction is meaningless, though, as one limit on Local Governments more widely adopting reduced limits is the Major Road Network. These are roads across the Lower Mainland that are shared jurisdiction between Local Governments and TransLink. In practice, that means TransLink gives local governments some maintenance money for them in exchange for some regulatory control over them. If we want to add a new intersection with traffic lights or add a left-turn bay or reduce lane widths or speed limits, we need approval from TransLink to make those changes. The Major Road Network includes the blue lines on this map:
So, if we want to make (your example, not mine) Royal Ave 30km/h, we would need permission from TransLink, and if 30km/h meets their strategy goals, that should make it easier to get that permission. But to be honest, I don’t think Royal will be a priority for that change. At this point, the push for 30km/h is concentrating on neighbourhood roads, collectors, greenways, and pedestrian-dense commercial streets – a work in progress that will advance greatly in the next year or two I hope. The regional arteries like this are not likely to see any change until we actually adopt a Vision Zero strategy, instead of just talking about as something we aspire towards. More on that later.
On the 850km of bike lanes, there is a map in the TransLink plan:
…and my back-of-envelope calculation of this puts it at about 24km of New Westminster, mostly the existing Central Valley Greenway, Crosstown Greenway, and BC Parkway, but with some notable “gaps” in the existing system patched. There is no timeline (except “2050”), and there is no established budget for any of it. But it is an aspirational target, and with senior governments getting into the funding-active-transportation game and municipalities ramping up their work, it is good to have a regional framework to hang our efforts on.
If you are looking at what New West is going to look like in coming years, I put forward a motion passed unanimously by Council in October to start the work on planning a AAA network in New West, which I wrote about here. Staff and the Sustainable Transportation Task Force are engaged in doing the preliminary work of designing what that local network should ideally look like – because the sketches in my blog are just sketches on a blog, and designing these routes requires more thorough analysis by actual experts. You should expect the City to be coming out to the public with some consultation on this in the months ahead. I would suggest the TransLink network will be a major part of our core network, but not all of it. Like speed limits, it’s good to know they are on side.
As for Columbia Street, There are some fresh ideas for the area around New West station and a few key traffic management and public realm improvements on paper, but I can’t tell you the timeline for those. There is some money in the 2022 Capital Plan for some works at the foot of Eighth to improve the pedestrian realm, but the rest will compete on the priority list with improvements in other area. Our capital plan is aggressive, because there is a lot going on.
Finally, I don’t want to get back to complaining, so I’ll try to frame this as an observation triggered by my re-reading the Transport 2050 Plan in preparing this post, because this isn’t a TransLink problem so much as a North America problem. We are much better at talking about Vision Zero than we are at actually understanding it. You can read more about it here, but I am afraid we are starting to use it as a slogan, when it needs to be a change in mindset.
As an example, the Translink plan is to reduce traffic-related fatalities by 5% a year and to zero by 2050. Currently, about 100 people die in traffic fatalities in the region every year, and 40 of those are vulnerable road users (pedestrians, cyclists, or people just standing in a bus stop when a car plows them down). The cynical part of me sees this as planning for 95 deaths next year, and planning for 60 deaths in 2030, etc. This looks particularly unambitious (and slightly macabre), and unambitious considering there are true Vision Zero jurisdictions about the size of Greater Vancouver that have *zero* Pedestrian deaths in the typical year. Yes, they exist.
This is not on TransLink to fix – it will take coordination between all levels of government, a pretty fundamental shift in the Motor Vehicle Act, a shift in how we enforce traffic safety, a new approach to managing investigation of traffic deaths to better understand the causes, and re-engineering parts of our transportation system based on those results. But it is that coordinated effort that defines a Vision Zero approach. The vision is for zero deaths right away, not 30 years from now. 30km/h is part of it. Safe AAA bike networks are part of it. But unless we lose the attitude that people dying from car “accidents” is an unavoidable part of our society, they are going to continue to die at increasing rates. I want us to do better, and I’m afraid the provincial government’s emphasis on reducing the cost of driving is working against this.
This is the part of my regular blogging out of what happened in Council this week where I apologize for not getting this out sooner. However, my actual-paid-work schedule was busy this week and I have a couple of other meetings related to another project in the evenings that made my week go away remarkable quickly, and I woke up Sunday Morning after losing an hour of sleep realizing I haven’t done this yet. So here we go. The Agenda was not very long, but we had a lengthy discussion related to our guest:
Presentation: New Westminster Interceptor – Columbia Sewer Rehabilitation Update – Construction Noise Bylaw Exemption Extension Request: New Westminster Interceptor – Columbia Sewer Rehabilitation
The major sewer renewal project Metro Vancouver is running in Downtown has been going on longer than anyone wanted, and it is a disappointing situation. A representative from Metro Vancouver came to our meeting to outline some of the reasons why the project is still lagging on.
It is worth noting that this is a difficult piece of engineering. Slip-lining new pipes into a very old existing sewer that is in terrible condition is not without risk or challenge. However this option was chosen over a complete excavation over the entire project length, which would have been massively more disruptive to Columbia Street. The project ran into supply chain issues, Omicron apparently set them back a bit, and equipment got stuck in the Atmospheric River road closures last winter. Hopefully to worse is behind, but Council was able to express the frustration we have heard from the community, and the Downtown BIA were able to attend to express their own concerns directly to Metro.
As it stands, the strategy for the slip-lining is going to change, and instead of installing the bulk of new pipe at the current location near the foot of Eighth, they are going to move a bunch of it up to Blackwood and do a secondary install there. This means moving most of that pipe up there (which is a significantly disruptive activity, as heavy equipment is needed and traffic needs to be re-routed), waiting for an appropriate weather window, and getting the work done. Once the pipe is in the ground, there will be several weeks of follow-up work where new manhole and connections will be installed. If all goes well, they hope to be off the street completely by the May long weekend.
Hope. There is no certainty in this work, and little rending of garments will get accelerate it. Metro has added some senior oversight staff to assure the contractor is doing their upmost to get along with it, but uncertainty is the only certainty any time you dig a hole in a 150 year old city. Council granted another extension to the construction noise exemption so that they can (if needed) work through the night to get this done.
Metro also made some commitments to improved communications with the business community as the project proceeds. This is increasingly important as the Downtown BIA are already planning some summer events on Columbia Street, and Pride is starting to plan for a triumphant return to their street fest – and plans now cannot be subject to uncertain availability of space in June or July. Yelling at the pipe won’t make it install faster, but communication to stakeholders is becoming more vital as summer approaches.
We then moved the following items On Consent:
Amendment to the Corporate Records Management Program Bylaw 2022: Electronic Signature Policy
Last meeting we approved in principle these changes to allow digital signatures on some official city records. This is the Bylaw that empowers that. You can read through the report and see when a digital signature suffices, and when a wet signature (ew!) is required.
Construction Noise Bylaw Exemption Request: 81 Braid Street (Braid SkyTrain Station)
TransLink is updating the water line to the alleged Braid Station. Some of this work has to happen at night to not disrupt transit services, requiring a Construction Noise Bylaw exemption.
Covid-19 Task Forces: Update
These updates we have been getting through the pandemic response are getting shorter. There are still important supports being provided, but it is starting to look more and more like the pandemic-specific responses are morphing into the kind of supports vulnerable populations require regardless of pandemic state.
Fraser Health Authority Community Health Specialist: Proposed New Role
The City, School District and Fraser Health have a partnership through which we try to embed a “healthier community” lens into the work our planning department does. This has mostly been through a joint committee that met quarterly and brought a Fraser Health public health professional into our planning process for new policies and programs. This proposal is to take the next step and embed that Fraser Health employee into our planning department to serve as a resource for all City employees on the public health implications of policies and programs. We get a lot of examples of “downloading” public health costs to local governments, this is an example of Fraser Health investing in making the City more effective at improving Public health, which is a really positive thing to see.
Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act Report for 2021
The City is subject to the Provincial FOIPPA, and must adhere to the regulation in how we address FOI requests and protect the privacy of people whose information we may store or distribute. Provincial changes to the FOIPPA this year impact how we do our compliance.
The City generally gets about 80 FOI requests a year, mostly from insurance companies or lawyers doing their due diligence on various claims or cases that may or may not include the City. This is not a huge number, but does take quite a bit of staff time to be compliant. One change to the provincial FOIPPA this year was to allow us to charge for the request. We are not going to implement a fee, as the number of requests we get is small and manageable, and the perceived barrier of the non-refundable fee outweighs any benefit in the efficiency of running the system at the current rate of requests.
Heritage Revitalization Agreement (1324 Nanaimo Street) Bylaw No. 8290, 2022 and Heritage Designation (1324 Nanaimo Street) Bylaw No. 8291, 2022 for First and Second Readings
The owner of this house in the West End wants to subdivide and build a small infill house on the new lot created, in exchange for heritage protection of the existing 1944 house on the site. This proposal will got to a Public Hearing, so I will hold my comments until then,
Patio Program Update
New West, like some other cities, created more flexible programs to facilitate patios on public land (the sidewalk or parking lot in front of a business) and private land (private parking lots adjacent to existing restaurants) as the Pandemic hit the service industries, and as Provincial legislation around permitting liquor licenses was similarly relaxed. This was mostly well received by the public and businesses, partly because the City already had a pretty flexible and inviting program, the provincial relaxations just made it work easier. The Province has noe replaced their temporary changes with a clearer long-term licensing framework, and the city is adapting its program to align with that, and to assure longer-term concerns (building standards to assure spaces remain accessible and people don’t get hurt), while keeping fees really low and the process simple and familiar. Kudos to the Engineering, Economic Development, and Planning folks for making this happen quickly and smoothly. Summer is approaching…
The following item was Removed form Consent for discussion:
Heritage Revitalization Agreement (102 Seventh Avenue) Bylaw No.8312, 2022 and Heritage Designation (102 Seventh Avenue) Bylaw No. 8313, 2022 Bylaws for First and Second Readings The owner of this house in Glenbrook North wants to subdivide and build a small duplex on the new lot created, in exchange for heritage protection of the existing 1941 house on the site. This proposal will got to a Public Hearing, so I will hold my comments until then.
Then we had the following Bylaws for Adoption:
Local Government Elections Procedures Amendment Bylaw No. 8311, 2022
This bylaw to allow for mail ballot voting and elector registration by mail and to introduce changes to the definition of special voting, was Adopted by Council. I guess there is an election coming. Better start thinking about that…
Parks and Recreation Fees and Charges Amendment Bylaw No. 8319, 2022
This Bylaw that makes minor changes to our 2022 Parks and Rec fees was Adopted by Council. Spring outdoor pool season is starting soon!
And that was the work for Early March. Sorry it took so long to get here. Have a good Spring Break!
What do you think of the news that B.C. prepares to remove some housing approval powers from local governments? There are no denying that getting permits from a city is slow and difficult. I’m not sure whether take powers away from local government is good or bad, but in your opinion, how New Westminster can do better on issuing new permits?
I have been thinking a lot about it, but I don’t yet have any answers. This is mostly because Minister Eby has been rather vague about what types of changes he is looking to implement, and the target needs to be well understood to avoid unintended effects. I’ll try to unpack what doesn’t fit in the headlines.
First, I need to note my comments are from the point of view of a member of a City Councils that is meeting our regionally-agreed-upon commitments to building new housing. We have leadership and staff that have weathered the challenges of meeting our Regional Growth Strategy obligations in approving new Purpose Built Rental, market housing, and family friendly housing, while we are finally cracking the nut on new “missing middle”. We have not just approved new non-market affordable housing, but have made City lands available and fast-tracked approvals to assure that when funding arrives for non-market housing, we are inviting it in, and we have made clear we want more funded in our own back yard. We did this without massive expansion into greenfield (because as a 150+ year old City, we don’t have much greenfield) and without massive displacement of vulnerable residents from the older, most affordable housing in the City.
That is not to say New Westminster doesn’t have more work to do, or that the crises are over, only to note that the work we have done in the last decade is region-leading (if the City of North Van will share the podium). This work has not been without push-back from some of the community. Every day we hear as much from people telling us we are going too far, too fast, as we do from people asking us what we are doing to address housing. Have you looked at Facebook recently?
At the same time, we are a City of just under 80,000 people in a region headed towards 3 Million. With only 3% of the region’s population, less than 3% of its tax revenue, and much less than 1% of its land area, New Westminster is not going to fix the regional housing crisis. The region is thousands of units a year short of approving what is needed to start to stabilize the market, and are thousands of non-market units short of what we need to provide stability to the most vulnerable populations. So when facing push back or predatory delay, I can see why the Minister responsible for Housing is getting hot under the collar, and is ready to start swinging a big stick to get municipalities to do their job.
Without the benefit of more detail about what that stick looks like, I am concerned that the perception being created (as it may not be what he intends, only the way he is being interpreted in the media) is that of threats, and I can only hope from the New West perspective that Minister Eby will find carrots to compliment that stick.
People in New West know what we need to help the new housing find broader public support in the community; we know what those carrots are. Clear financing for new school locations; support for transit and funding for active transportation to reduce the traffic loads new growth would bring without those investments; prioritizing existing infrastructure funds supporting everything from sewer upgrades to library expansions to new park space, so communities meeting their regional commitments have the upper hand in grant applications. And, yeah, legislative tools to give well-meaning Municipal Councils and staff the flexibility to approve good projects faster.
How can we do better on issuing new permits? The question is really wide-reaching, so the best answer is equally far-reaching. If the conceit of your question is that New West is not building fast enough (and I’m not convinced your entire community agrees with you there) then there is work we can do to accelerate the process. I have had long conversations with architects designing new apartment buildings to homeowners doing relatively small infill projects, and there is no doubt they feel there are approval steps or consultation standards that are not obvious in why they are needed. Developers will tell you this extra time costs them money and pushes up prices, but accelerating the process may cost the City money (as we would need more staff), or compromise important policy goals, so there is clearly a balance to be found. I think the best shorter-term improvement is in creating more certainty about the time for approvals. But again, Development is complex, and we have a culture of public engagement in New West that is difficult to rush.
The one assumption to put aside, however, is that the Province can meaningfully force an acceleration of these processes. Unless the province removes from Municipalities the one ultimate authority they hold – zoning – it will be wielded by different Municipalities to achieve the policy and political goals of the community. And, alas, constructive delay of change is a policy goal of some local governments. As a Lawyer, Minister Eby certainly understands that removing zoning power opens a Pandora’s Box of problems, because zoning authority is interwoven with local government and provincial government regulations. A single example I am professionally very familiar with: without local government zoning control, the entire provincial contaminated sites identification and management system will have to be redesigned. There are scores of other Provincial and Municipal regulatory systems that are similarly buttressed by zoning. Unpacking that would be a very difficult process.
That is not to say the Province is powerless, far from it. I think that Minister Eby will need to be surgical and strategic about the sticks he wields, though I would not begrudge him wielding it to get our region back on track to addressing our overlapping housing crises. I only hope he also brings those carrots, because local governments need community support to do good work, and long-term benefits of meeting our regional commitments to housing are becoming a harder sell to the comfortably housed who vote.
We had pretty short Council meeting on Monday, were out of there in under an hour. All that was on the Agenda was for us to approve hundreds of affordable housing units, accelerate the process to approve more, empower the Downtown BIA, expand opportunities to vote in local elections, and a few other things. With all that, we didn’t have anyone come to delegate at open delegations.
We started by moving the following items on Consent:
Downtown New Westminster BIA – 2022 Business Promotion Scheme Budget Approvals The BIAs are a creature of provincial regulation. They are self-organized and self-identified groups of commercial property owners with a distinct geographic boundary that charge themselves a tax and use the revenue of that tax to promote themselves though street improvement, events, promotions, etc., collectively a “Business Promotion Scheme”. The role of the City is to collect that tax on behalf of the BIA though an empowering Bylaw and give it to them. The Community Charter also says the Council must approve their business Promotion Scheme.
The Downtown New West BIA has a strong organization, and has always been a great partner to the City, and our values and vision are clearly aligned. Even as COVID set a bunch of their well-laid plans back a bit, their new Strategic Plan looks forward to a more prosperous next few years.
Renewal of Downtown New Westminster Business Improvement Areas – Results from Notification of Affected Property Owners
As we just covered, the BIA is a creature of provincial regulation (the Community Charter) and our role as a City is to collect their tax and turn it over to them. As they are doing their once-every-4-years renewal of their mandate, we need to update the Bylaw that allows us to collect that tax in the manner and of the amount that the BIA members request. We are also required to assure the BIA organization is supported by the membership in this tax structure, so we mailed notice to every member and put an ad in the newspaper to request their consent. 251 Members were notified, 2 members were in opposition to the Bylaws, representing 2% of the tax assessment value. This meets the threshold for approval of the Bylaw.
Electronic Signature Policy
In the City we need to sign things sometimes to make them official. Our existing policy needs to be changed to allow digital signatures to suffice, and the policy needs to outline what constitutes a sufficient digital signature. Details, details you may say, but a City is a regulatory organization, and details like this end up with a lot of wasted time in courts if not followed through. Also, “wet signature” is such a weird expression.
Parks and Recreation Fees and Charges Bylaw Amendment for 2022
We had recent reports on filming in the City and expanded aquatic offerings in light of the failure of the Canada Games Pool. In both of those reports, we discussed and supported changes in fee structures. Those changes require an amendment of our Fees and Charges Bylaw, which are offered now.
The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:
2022 Spring Freshet and Snow Pack Level
About this time of the year we start to get monthly snowpack reports to inform our flood planning. Looks like the snowpack for the wider Fraser basin is a bit above average (108%), but well within the range of normal. Freshet flood risk as complex math of snowpack and pace of melt related to spring weather, so not much to report now except nothing exceptional.
Amendments to the Election Procedures Bylaw 2022: Mail Ballot Voting and Special Voting Opportunities
When it comes to local government elections, the rules are made locally within the standards set out by the province. Soon after the last election, we asked staff to review what went well, and where we may improve voter engagement and voting opportunities. This included surveying all of the candidates in the last election who were not successful.
The idea of being able to vote by mail was raised by the public and some candidates. Recent changes in the Local Government Act related to COVID make it easier for a local government to permit Vote by Mail. Back in 2021, Council asked staff to bring a report to outline the required bylaw changes and resources to make it happen. The bylaw changes to allow mail-in ballots are actually pretty simple in comparison, but voting by mail is actually a complicated and staff-intensive process that must happen on very tight deadlines. There are security issues to deal with, it is possible we won’t know the result of the election on election day (as the mail-in ballots cannot be opened until polls close), but these are surmountable.
Staff is also suggesting changing the wording for our Special Voting Opportunities Bylaw. As it stands, we set up SVOs at seniors homes and hospitals where the residents would not reasonably have an opportunity to get to a voting booth because of their living situation. The language reframes the SVO from being limited to hospital-like settings, and opens the opportunity to anyone who has a special barrier to the regular voting process. As the elections are run by the Chief Electoral Officer and not Council (for obvious reasons) it will be interesting to see how this is operationalized.
Both of these changes I am happy to support, though there are cost and staffing implications. Democracy ain’t free.
We then Adopted the following Bylaws:
Downtown New Westminster Business Improvement Area (Primary Area) Bylaw No. 8288, 2021 and Downtown New Westminster Business Improvement Area (Secondary Area) Bylaw No. 8289, 2021
As discussed above, the Bylaws that empower the continued existence of the Downtown BIA were adopted by Council.
Zoning Amendment Bylaw (Miscellaneous Amendments) No. 8287, 2021
This amending Bylaw that makes a variety of small clean-up changes to our Zoning Bylaw as discussed back in November, was adopted by Council.
Official Community Plan Amendment Bylaw (City-wide Crisis Response) No. 8285, 2021 and Zoning Amendment Bylaw (City-wide Crisis Response) No. 8286, 2021
The amendments to the OCP and Zoning Bylaw to provide a more rapid response to address homelessness in the City, as given a Public Hearing on December 6th, were adopted by Council.
Official Community Plan Amendment Bylaw (350-366 Fenton Street) No. 8281, 2021 and Zoning Amendment Bylaw (350-366 Fenton Street) No. 8282, 2021
The amendments to the OCP and the Zoning Bylaw to provide for Affordable Housing on City-owned land in Queensborough, as given a Public Hearing on December 6th, were adopted by Council.
Official Community Plan Amendment Bylaw (60-68 Sixth Street) No. 8283, 2021 and Zoning Amendment Bylaw (60-68 Sixth Street) No. 8284, 2021
The amendments to the OCP and the Zoning Bylaw to provide for Affordable Housing on Provincially-owned land in Downtown, as given a Public Hearing on December 6th, were adopted by Council.
So a quick meeting with some important process made.
Happy Family Day Weekend. It gave be a chance to catch some breathe and look at my Ask Pat queue. The first one I found is pretty long, so I edited it back a bit and will break it into three parts:
Hi Pat, I’ve been inspired and challenged lately by the book, A Good War, by Seth Klein, about how we can look to how Canada responded to WWII as an example of how we could mobilize the country to respond to the climate emergency like an actual emergency.
Not a question yet, but let me interject to say: Me too! I have not only read it, I have marked up, flagged, and taken extensive notes about it:
I did this because I had the challenging job of interviewing Klein as part of the 2021 Lower Mainland LGA conference. The book is incredibly well researched, and so full of both historical facts and compelling ideas that engaging the author in a conversation about it is a bit intimidating to a lowly Earth Scientist. But it definitely tells a different story that we usually read about WW2. Not of the soldiers that put on uniforms, but of the leaders in government and in industry that saw an existential threat and – in less than a year – completely restructured the Canadian economy to address that threat. Perhaps as amazing (and I’d suggest a better comparable to the Climate Emergency as we come out of a global pandemic) how once the threat was abated, the country immediately and completely restructured its economy once again to stop making so many weapons, and to instead assure people had education, jobs, homes and pensions in the post-year period.
The historical record is amazing, and Klein does a good job drawing parallels (and addressing contrasts) to the current existential threat, and does not leave the question of why we are unable to respond as we did then unexplored. Perhaps surprisingly non-partisan and clear on the positive role capitalism can play in driving change (though he spares little empathy for neo-Liberalism), he nonetheless makes a clear case that it is only bold leadership that is missing. It’s a good read, and a good message.
It seems clear that we need to get off of fossil fuels FAST to really make any significant impact in slowing/limiting climate change. The City of Vancouver has some ambitious goals to get homes to switch entirely away from natural gas, and I’m wondering if other municipalities like New West will soon follow?
Some municipalities like New West are signaling that goal (see Bold Step 3: Carbon Free Homes and Buildings), but Vancouver is in a unique situation, which is why this is an area they are able to take real leadership. Because of their unique enabling legislation, the Vancouver Charter, that City has the ability to regulate its own building code. That means they have the authority to say “we will not permit gas appliances in new builds”. New West and other Municipalities do not have that power. We would need the province to grant us this ability.
Lacking this stick, we still have access to some carrots. This means local government programs to coordinate or add to senior government and industry incentives to switch to electricity. We can also use the greater flexibility in the Step Code to incent change to carbon-free energy. The Step Code is a provincial energy efficiency standard applied to new buildings. Local Governments have the authority to choose which “step” new buildings have to meet, each higher step meaning higher efficiency of the building, but also meaning higher building cost and possibly other compromises in the design of the building. A creative use of the Step Code would allow builders to build a less efficient building (therefore saving money) if they choose only non-carbon appliances for the building. The resultant building may use a bit more energy over its lifetime, but with New West’s electricity effectively zero-carbon, this might be a good bridge to accelerate the transition off fossil gas. This is the path New West is following, starting with “Part 3” buildings, and (knock on wood) coming to other building types soon:
I checked out the EnergySave New West page and can see that there are a bunch of rebates being offered for energy efficiency upgrades, but I was surprised to see that many of them are actually incentivizing changes that still rely on natural gas. If we need to get off of burning fossil fuels period to address climate change, why are we still talking about energy efficiency upgrades that don’t actually achieve that? I’d love to get your thoughts on this. Thanks for your time and for your great blog!
Yes, there are still incentives for people who want to get more efficient gas appliances such as modern furnaces and instant-water heaters to replace hot water tanks. Energy Save New West points people at incentives offered by the City and those offered by the Province, BC Hydro, and Fortis. Though the City does not specifically incentivize gas appliances, we do point people to incentives that exist to encourage them to install more efficient gas appliances.
The debate about whether “more efficient fossil gas appliance” is an appropriate idea right now in light of the climate emergency is definitely a live debate. I know where Seth Klein would fall on this, and I might lean that direction myself. But there are specific and financial barriers to some people going full electric right now, and the gap is not filled by available incentives. For someone with a gas instant water heater and gas stove, switching to electric may require significant upgrades to the electrical system in the house to accommodate the high amperage demands of those appliance types, and a new line and transformer connection for the house at a cost much higher than the appliances themselves. Providing incentive to reduce overall gas use still pays GHD reduction dividends, but I hear you about the incrementalism.
We need to get off fossil gas, and I’m afraid programs like 30by30 are at best stop-gaps until we get to that point, at worst speedbumps slowing that transition. Through my work as the Chair of the Community Energy Association, I have seen first hand how Fortis (who is one of our members) has tried to define and redefine what its role is in this seemingly inevitable transition. They are indeed pushing the envelope on the efficiency of gas for buildings, including a pretty remarkable Deep Energy Retrofit program with serious resources behind it. But I sense a more fundamental shift in their business model is going to be needed if they want to prosper through this time.
That said, I have also noted how BC Hydro has adopted a bit of a cheeky attitude when discussing the need to transition from gas to electricity:
As we have all learned by now, by the time any public debate gets to the TwitterSnark stage, the solutions will soon be in hand. Right?
Nothing makes Valentine’s Day more special than a few hours spent meeting with the loveliest City Council in the Lower Mainland. We are back to “hybrid” style meetings, with a few of us in chambers and a few on-line, and the public are able to attend in person again, so come on by some Monday. It would be good to see you. We had an Agenda that really went to the dogs (that’s a joke! Scroll down to see why!), starting with consideration of a Development Variance Permit:
DVP00691 for 520 Eighth Street
As discussed last meeting, the owner of this 56-unit rental building in the Brow of the Hill wants to add 5 suites in underused above-ground parking spaces under the existing building. They need a variance not for the density or units, but for reducing the amount of parking below the zoning requirements. In exchange for this variance, they are agreeing to a housing agreement with the City that secures rental tenure for the property for 60 years or the life of the building – whichever is longer.
My reflex reaction to this type of application is that we are in a housing crisis and need more secured market rental much more than we need more parking spaces. Looking at the details of the application, it is clear these are surplus parking spaces to what the building needs. More than half of renters in New West don’t own a car, and that is a growing trend, especially with car-sharing and other options now available for people who might sometimes need a car but don’t want the cost and hassle. This helps balance the amount of parking with the amount actually needed, and secures 61 rental units at the affable end of the market.
We received no submissions in regards to this application, and Council moved to approve the required Variance.
We then moved the following items On Consent:
Construction Noise Bylaw Exemption Request: 660 Quayside Drive (Bosa Development) If you have been downtown, you will note the 660 Quayside project is moving along. The daycare and commercial building looks topped out, the west tower is out of the ground, and the underground by Pier Park is coming along. Much like when the West Tower was done a few months ago, the East tower needs a “monolithic foundation” pour – a lot of concrete needs to go in at once to avoid seams in the foundation, and it is likely this continuous pour will take longer than typical work hours, requiring a one-time noise bylaw exemption. The actual date is a bit weather-dependent, but notice will be sent to adjacent residents.
Local Government Election 2022: Appointment of Chief Election Officer and Deputy Chief Election Officer
I don’t know if you have heard, but there is a Local Government Election coming up in October. The way local elections work in BC, the Province sets the rules, but leaves it up to each City to run its own election as it sees fit within those rules. The first order of business is to appoint someone to be the Chief Elections Officer, and it has been practice to make the City Clerk that person, as the work is similar – managing a bunch of people who are unclear on the rules, and making sure the rules are strictly followed.
Peer Assisted Crisis Team (PACT) Pilot Project Update
The City is collaborating with the Canadian Mental Health Association on a PACT pilot project. This follows up earlier acknowledgement that people suffering from a mental health crises in our community need a new approach other than the limited options Police currently have which has traditionally been to take the person to the hospital or jail, neither necessarily equipped to address sometimes very complex issues. The PACT project would see mobile crisis intervention teams (a Mental Health Professional and a trained Peer Crisis Responder) responding to mental health calls as an auxiliary service to the Police.
This is going to take a community to be successful, so not-for-profit and faith-based service providers, police, government social service and health service agencies and First Nations will be engaged in a community planning table. We also need to hire a Coordinator to move this forward through engagement and into implementation. This is ground-breaking in BC, though there are similar programs finding success in other North American jurisdictions, and well understood best practices. I’m really proud that our Council has supported this work, and that the community partners are working with us to bring this to reality.
People, Parks & Pups: A 10-Year Strategy for Sharing Public Space
There are lots of dogs in New West, with something like 40% of households having a dog. We have several Off Leash Areas (OLAs), much less park space dedicated to dogs by area and per capita than Vancouver (for example) but more than Surrey (for example). Of course, these comparisons are difficult because of the urban nature of the City, but we have also had a bit of an ad-hoc approach to new OLAs. This strategy brings a more holistic approach. 50 recommendations covering 15 different aspects of making better spaces for dogs and their people. If you are a dog person it’s probably worth a read, as there is a lot of great goals in here: an off-leash area within 1km of most residents; a better more integrated approach to dog waste; better strategies to reduce dog-people conflicts; better design of OLAs to make them more accessible and more fun.
This is a decade-long plan, but some of the early work is already in the City’s Capital Budget and will be rolled out soon, like the accessibility audit of the existing OLAs and the first “Puppy Parklet” Downtown. Woof.
Provincial Community Economic Recovery Infrastructure Program Funding Approval for the Riverfront Tugger – Community Gathering and Play Space
You might have notice the three little tugboats and rubberized scramble/play area where the Exop86 Tugger used to be. This was a pretty big piece of work, as the piers and decking around Tugger needed significant repair and upgrade with the removal of old steel bulk. But the City got financial support from the province (which is why this report arrived, as we have to officially authorize spending that money we were given on the thing for which we were given it). We were also given a substantial donation from the Rotary Club of New Westminster in recognition of their late member and New Westminster doctor and humanitarian Irwin Stewart. In honour of his work on pediatric hearing care, there is a bit of an Easter-egg in the design of the play area involving those colourful pipes. Kal Tire also donated through their Kal’s Replay Fund, allowing the installation of the recycled rubber surface for the scramble area. Have fun!
Revised Public Art Policy
The City has a Public Art Policy that needed an update after a decade. This is a little bit administrative (we are clarifying roles and procedures), and a little bit foundational (we are establishing guiding principles and adjusting our Artist Selection Process). There is a good body of work in this update, worth a read if you want to know the hows, whys and whats of Public Art in the City.
The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:
Construction Noise Bylaw Exemption Extension Request: New Westminster Interceptor – Columbia Sewer Rehabilitation
The major re-piping project downtown has gone on too long. This project was supposed to be off our streets by now, and some of the important work we need to do downtown seems stalled by this project taking up space. That said, this is as important a piece of work as it is complicated, and I recognize I have no idea what the engineering challenges may be, even as my patience is running out. I walk downtown almost every day, and that pile of pipes in front of the Anvil Centre doesn’t seem to be shrinking, leading me to believe that progress is not being made, which had me concerned. But it appears the pipes are ready to get moving, as the massive amount of prep work before the actual pipe slip-lining work is now at the point where the pipes can go in.
So we are extending the Noise Bylaw exemption they need to do that slip-lining work, and the sooner it gets done, the sooner we can get them out of there and give the streetscape back to the businesses and residents of downtown.
Still, this project timeline has expanded more than we expected, and considering the high profile and impact of these works, and the concerns Council and the BIA raised as Metro Vancouver began consulting with us on this work, I thought it was timely to ask Metro Vancouver for an update on the timeline. I asked for three points of clarification: when they will be out of there, what efforts are being taken to accelerate the work to assure they finish in a timely manner, and what extra mitigation is being considered for businesses and residents of downtown considering the extended timeline.
We will be expecting a follow-up report next meeting, but the good news since the Council meeting is that slip-lining is proceeding this week, and that pile of pipes should be going away soon.
Filming Activity in 2021 and Proposed Filming Fees for 2022
The Film industry has been impacted by COVID-19 like everything else, and City revenues from film permits has gone down from the Pre-COVID average of about $800K/year to about $600K in 202. Note, these are Gross values, as film permits include providing some services to the film industry which cost the City some money to provide – though we do have net “profit” from having this activity in town. This is also aside of the spin-off economic benefits to local residents and businesses that the industry brings, which is more than $1 Million a year.
This report also includes planned fee changes based on the first review of our fees in 5 years, and comparison to industry standards around the region.
We then adopted some Bylaws:
Heritage Designation (125 Third Street) Bylaw No. 8306, 2021
This Bylaw to designate this 1905 House in Queens Park and preserve it for posterity was adopted by Council.
Heritage Revitalization Agreement (323 Regina Street) Bylaw No. 8304, 2022 Heritage Designation (323 Regina Street) Bylaw No. 8305, 2022
These Bylaw that permits the construction of an infill house along with the designation of the existing 1928 house in Queens Park to preserve it for posterity was adopted by Council.
Housing Agreement (520 Eighth Street) Bylaw No. 8273, 2022
This Bylaw that secures rental tenure for 60 years or the life of this building (whichever is longer) was adopted by Council.
Finally, we had a Motion from Council:
Support for Bill C-229 – Banning Symbols of Hate ActMayor Cote
New Westminster City Council endorses MP Peter Julian’s Private Member’s Bill C-229 – Banning Symbols of Hate Act.
We received correspondence from MP Julian seeking endorsement for this bill recently raised at the Parliament. The recent events in Ottawa has put this issue on the front burner but I do want to mark there has been some local action by residents (perhaps most vocally, Kevin McConnell) asking for action like this based on some local events and historic sales of Nazi-themed paraphernalia in New West. Council voted to send our endorsement of this bill, with a caveat regarding the need for some cultural nuance in some of the symbolism typically related to hate in our culture, and the need to differentiate that use of the symbol from some traditional or very culturally distinct uses of the same symbols before they were appropriated by hate groups.
And that was all for the Valentines Edition of the New West Council Report. Please share with those you love the most.
The 2021 census data is starting to trickle out. The first release of data is on population and housing, which is obviously a hot topic in the Lower Mainland. This means there are a lot of news stories about what has changed since last census in 2016. However, because of the work I do, I prefer to look at the change over the full decade since 2011. This is because 2011 was the “baseline” population level that the 2040 Regional Growth Strategy for Greater Vancouver is pegged. Since every municipal Official Community Plan was developed in context of the 2040 RGA, and since we are currently updating to a new 2050 RGS, I thought it would be good to re-look at Greater Vancouver population change in comparison to the RGS with the new census data.
Regular readers (Hi Mom!) might remember me doing something like this last year with the 2020 Stats Can population estimates. As it turns out, actual counts are more accurate than estimates*EDIT – see below*, and an update is required. Here is the table of Municipalities with 2021 Census population sorted by the rate of growth since the 2011 Population used for the Regional Growth Strategy (yes, I excluded the minor Municipalities like Anmore and Electoral Area A, for simplicity, laziness, and because I can).
Where to start? Overall, the region (excepting those small Munis ignored above) grew by an overall 11% over that decade, falling far short of the predicted growth of 18%. This means there are at least 157,000 fewer people living the in Greater Vancouver than expected. Only three Municipalities added more population than the RGS expected: Maple Ridge, the City of North Vancouver and White Rock. That last one might be a surprise, but remember White Rock had the lowest predicted growth over the decade, and so their growth being on par with the regional average put it way above what was expected.
Note that North Vancouver District and Port Moody have essentially not changed in population over the last decade (though found two very different political pathways to this lack of change) and West Vancouver lost population. The overall result is that every region of greater Vancouver fell short of the predictions, excepting the Northeast corner of the regional district.
The story locally is that New West also surprisingly fell short of the RGS goals, though only by a small amount. Nonetheless our 17% growth rate was one of the fastest rates in the region. This is perhaps more remarkable when you note the only Municipalities growing at a faster rate happen to be the 3 easternmost ones – those with the greatest access to greenfield into which to sprawl.
Which bring us to the other New Westminster headline of this census release: New Westminster being touted as the major municipality with the second highest density in Canada. This is interesting, but I may argue this is a bit of an artifact of the data and political jurisdictions.
We are surely a dense urban community, which is a natural result of being the nucleus of a rapidly growing urban area for more than 150 years. Our footprint is compact (under 16 square kilometers) and we don’t have farms or large undeveloped areas of forest, having chopped most of those down about 150 years ago. Our urban form was mostly established before the automobile era, and was not extensively re-drawn with Motordom.
However, this does not make us that different from many older urban areas of Canada. But in looking at the data, we need to remember that satellite centres of Toronto or Montreal are amalgamated into one larger municipality. Shown at the same scale using Censusmapper.ca and population density data, it doesn’t immediately appear that New West (as a 79K population commuter suburb of Vancouver) is much denser than, say, the arguably comparable (population 72K commuter suburb of Montreal) neighbourhood of Verdun.
I’m not ready yet to say what it all means, as there is more data and mapping to come out. However, New Westminster is part of a region facing a long-standing housing availability crisis, and more acute housing affordability crisis. We may be bringing on supply as fast as anyone in the region (and faster than most) but at 79,000 people, we are still only 3% of the region’s population, and addressing the supply crunch is going to take more than New West can do alone. We need more action across the region.
At the same time, I am proud to say that New West is bringing in not just supply, but a diverse type of supply. Market condos are meeting the region’s most aggressive Family Friendly Housing policies. We are approving more Purpose Built Rental than we have in decades, and we have truly affordable housing options being built across the City as fast as the funding for these units becomes available. Though the value of land has shifted regionally past where rowhomes and townhouses represent “affordability” for most families, we are starting to see a big uptake on this type of build in traditionally Single Family parts of the City, and this long-standing gap in supply is finally being filled. We are also bringing this supply on while protecting the more affordable housing in the City, for the most part avoiding the mass displacement of people from existing lower-cost housing through strong policy. We have a lot of work to do, but we are on the right track.
*EDIT *: TIL: I’m completely wrong on this point. Census population estimates may actually be a more accurate count of the number of residents living in a municipality, because they account for the way the census systematically undercounts. Read more here, if you care. Fascinating!
The January 31 #NewWest Council meeting was a great blend of old and new, all done virtually because this plague keeps sticking around. The agenda was fairly light, but we started with two always exciting Pubic Hearings, both on heritage houses in Queens Park:
Heritage Designation: 125 Third Street
This property owner wants to “designate” their home in Queens Park, which results in a higher level of preservation than even the Heritage Conservation Area under which this house is already protected. Designation is the highest level of protection we can do in local government in BC for property we don’t own, and for all intents and purposes prevents the building form ever being demolished. This designation does not include an HRA, in that the homeowner is not asking for compensation through a zoning relaxation or other benefit, but this designation does not preclude them applying, in the future, for some changes of the land such has the building of a laneway house or changes to the building, but it would have to align with the Heritage Conservation principles inherent in the designation.
We received three written submissions on this application and one person spoke in favour. Council moved to give the Designation Third Reading, which means we supported it.
Heritage Revitalization Agreement 8304, 2022 and Heritage Designation 8305, 2022: 323 Regina Street
The owner of this house in Queens Park wants to build a laneway house, and is asking for two variances to allow that to happen, for setbacks and to allow the laneway house to be bigger than guidelines (1420sqft instead of 958sqft), in exchange for Designation of the main 1928 house which permanently protects it. The extra square footage of the laneway house is basement, so the effective surface expression will be similar to a typical 958sqft accessory building that meets the guidelines.
This project has changed a bit since first proposed, including a reduction in the size of the laneway house, based on earlier public feedback and committee review in the City. We had 10 written submissions and about a dozen people present at the Public Hearing, with a mix of support and opposition. Some concerns were raised about the restoration that had already occurred on the house, but the Community Heritage Commission supports this project, as the work previously done on the existing house meets the Standards and Guidelines typical of heritage restoration. There was also some concern about the density on site, though it meets the guidelines for above-ground massing, though it is located on a corner lot, so the laneway house faces the main road more than the lane.
Ultimately, the variances here are reasonable in my opinion, and the opportunity for intergenerational living and added housing diversity in Queens Park is aligned with our goals in the City. Council voted to support the application and give it three readings.
In the Council meeting that followed the Public Hearing, the following items were Moved on Consent:
Covid-19 Task Forces: Update
This is our regular update on work that staff are engaged in towards supporting the community during the COVID pandemic, with an emphasis on vulnerable populations.
Heritage Review Policy Update: Buildings on the Heritage Inventory
The Community Heritage Commission made a recommendation that we shift a bit how we review the heritage merits of buildings likely to face demolition or renovation through permit applications at the City. Every building that is older than 100 years is reviewed when an application comes in, and if there is heritage merit to the building, the potential for Heritage Restoration as part of the application is reviewed. This change would add “all building on the Heritage Registry” to this list, adding about 89 registered by less than 100-year-old buildings to this review process. This may actually simplify our internal process slightly, as it takes two separate streams in city processes and amalgamates them.
Housing Agreement Bylaw and Development Variance Permit to Vary Residential and Visitor Parking Requirements: 520 Eighth Street – Bylaw for Three Readings
This existing apartment building wants to convert some parking spaces to residential units. The building will go from 56 homes to 61 homes, but the parking count will go from 62 spaces to 49 spaces. As per our existing parking policy, the 5 new units don’t need parking, but the loss of existing parking does require a development variance. In exchange, we are entering into a Housing Agreement to secure all 61 units as rental for the life of the building or 60 years.
There units will be small, with the front partially below grade, they will be at grade at the back, and will be at the affordable end of the “market rental” scale (though not, regulated “affordable housing” where rents are set below market value by regulation). We have seen a few applications like this a parking need reduces in the rental market. The only variance here we are being asked for is the parking (not the building form, FSR, or anything like that). Council moved to give notice it will consider the development variance permit.
Recruitment 2022: Appointments to Advisory Committees, Commissions, Boards, and Panels
Staff brought recommendations to our last closed meeting on applicants for the various Advisory Committees in the City. Council approved the recommendations, and this is now released to the public. The City has taken greater effort to account for diversity in life experience and neighbourhood in our committee appointments, and though it is always positive to see new people signing up to join committees, but it is also sad to see some people not returning after having contributed their time and energy. Thank you to everyone who volunteers in to helping staff and council make better decisions for the entire community.
Summer 2022 Outdoor Aquatics Plan
With the CGP out of service, staff have been looking in how much we can practically expand the outdoor pool season, and did some public engagement to test the public’s interest in an expended outdoor season. Moody Park will be opening in April, and Hume (due to ongoing maintenance of the building) in June, while both will be planned to operate until October.
There are some details to be worked out with outdoor tented or shelter areas (because many pool users, especially youth, are accompanied by parents or other supporters when they attend the pool) and area heating for change areas or spectator areas. Unfortunately, completely covering a pool with a bubble as some suggested is prohibitively expensive, as much because it would involve some complicated HVAC / air handling engineering required by building and health codes, but hopefully we can make other areas a little more comfortable in mixed weather.
And the following item was Removed from Consent for discussion:
Canada Games Pool Fitness Centre Relocation Plan
As we all know now, the Canada Games Pool had some unexpected mechanical and structural failures that make it unusable. Not just the pool, but the water management and drainage systems that make it impossible to operate the fitness areas as there are no useable bathrooms, showers, or even hot water to clean and maintain the building.
The fitness equipment in the pool, from free weights to treadmills and elliptical trainers and other gym machines, were very heavily used by the wider community, even through various COVID-related restrictions. So staff were charged with the task of finding a way to make this equipment available to the community in our limited available community spaces without interrupting existing programs (fitness programs and pickle ball for the most part) using those other spaces.
The gym at the Centennial Community Centre is one of the few spaces in the City that can accommodate the range of fitness equipment currently at the CGP, however there are programs that operate out of that gym, and after some initial investigation of this option, it was made clear by the community that those programs are valued. So Staff found creative solutions to assure all of those programs can continue to operate at the same capacity as they have for the last few years. Some will move to a separate room in the Centennial Community Centre, some to the Centennial Lodge in Queens Park, and some to Century House. Herbert Spencer School is also going to help us out to host some community Pickleball.
The closure of the CGP is unfortunate, and untimely. We really hoped to keep it running until the TAAC was opened, with its expanded gyms and activity rooms that would allow us to grow these programs. Fortunately, staff have done an exceptional job shuffling the decks, and partners from the Arts Council (who do some programming in the Centennial Lodge), the Century House Association, and the School District have helped immensely in assuring every program has a home and secure place to operate.
Then we read some Bylaws including adopting the following:
Five-Year Financial Plan (2022 – 2026) Bylaw No. 8308, 2022 290
As previously discussed, the five year financial plan was adopted by Council, formalizing our budget for the upcoming year.
Zoning Amendment Bylaw (Bicycle Parking) No. 8231, 2021 295
As discussed back in October, these amendments to modify bicycle parking requirements and bicycle facility design standards for new buildings were adopted by Council.
Finally, we had a Motion from Council:
Maternity/Parental Leave, Councillors Trentadue and Nakagawa
Whereas the Local Government Act, Community Charter, and New Westminster Council Procedure Bylaw do not provide maternity and/or parental leave rights to elected officials; and Whereas the absence of maternity and/or parental leave for local elected officials specifically disadvantages persons considering running for office and, hence, is a systemic barrier to attracting more diverse and representative candidates to local government; and Whereas an elected official may want to take maternal and/or parental leave from their position and it is currently unclear as to this leave availability. It is unreasonable to expect the Councillor to have to rely on Council deliberations or “hope” that their request for leave will be accepted officially; Therefore be it resolved that staff report back on options that would include common entitlements for maternity and/or parental leave for elected officials in the City of New Westminster following the birth or adoption of a child.
In recent work with UBCM and the Lower Mainland LGA, this has increasingly been seen as an overdue change. We are not the first community to take this step, but I think when we talk about removing systemic barriers to the work of representative government, this is often an overlooked area. I very much support this, and also strongly support us having strong policy guidance on this so people considering this work are not put in a position of uncertainty, and that leave options are not something only available at the whim of a council.
One of the changes we have made in the City in recent years is moving the budgeting period up a little, meaning we are able to get the 5-year Financial Plan bylaw through Council in January, where we used to do it a little later in the spring. The true deadline for us to get this work done is the annual financial reporting deadline to the province that comes in May, but it is better practice for us to do this work earlier in the year so that staff can more easily develop annual work plans around an approved budget, which will hopefully lead to some efficiencies and make it easier to get things done in City Hall.
Council gave first readings to the 5-year financial plan last meeting, which means the budget is, effectively, passed. The headline (4.4% tax increase) has already been told, but I promised to write a bit more the Budget and how we got there. The 2022 budget part of the 5-Year Financial Plan looks like this:
On the revenue side, we are anticipating an overall 8.9% increase in revenues over the 2021 budget, with the increase in property tax revenue at 4.4% (after all, only about 37% of the City’s revenue comes from property taxes). As has been much discussed, New West is unique in having an electrical utility, so that $50+ Million in annual revenue always makes it look like our revenue per capita or per household is higher than other cities in the lower mainland, when we are usually about average after adjusting for the Electrical revenues, but that’s a topic for another blog post.
On the expenses side, this is where the City is spending that money. 2022 Expenses are about 4.8% higher than last year:
The biggest change this year in our General Fund (the part property taxes go toward) is to insurance rates. As always, we are subject to inflation on everything we buy, and inflation was high this year for the things cities like to buy, from fuel to lumber (our “basket of goods” is quite a bit different than the CPI). So a tax increase equaling 2.7% (out of the total 4.4%) is a combination of negotiated wage increases in the 2% range and inflationary increases in the cost of the business of running a City. On top of that, the same global insurance market situation that has caused your Condo and/or house insurance to skyrocket is also impacting the City. We will be paying $1.5 Million more on insurance in 2022 than 2021, which adds another 1.6% to the tax increase on that line item alone. We had a few service enhancements adding up to the equivalent of about another 0.8% increase, but saved some money in not operating the CGP and staff found some other savings in internal functions, meaning we effectively offset most of that 0.8% with savings.
On the utility side, we are seeing a continued trend toward increases higher than CPI, driven by increases in regional utility service costs and our need to keep the local assets maintained. I wrote about how our Utility funds work with some flow charts to show where the money goes a few years ago here, and though the numbers have gone up a bit, the effect is the same. Notably, both in the Water and Sewer we are a little ahead in both capital spending and building up our reserves than we were back when I drew those diagrams, so the financial health of the utilities is improving faster than expected, which I hope translates to a moderation in rate increases in the years ahead.
With $262M in Revenues and $216M in Expenses, we end up with a budgeted $46M increase in financial equity. But it would be premature to call that profit, because diligent readers will remember my constantly talking about our aggressive Capital Plan, which requires us to be converting that equity into capital assets, better translated as “building stuff”. The big number to note in the reconciliation of assets part of the table is the $170M in Capital expenses. it bears repeating that this is the big year for a couple of capital projects. We are budgeting $54M in 2022 towards the təməsew̓txʷ Aquatic Centre, almost $43M in upgrades to the electrical grid (including a new substation in Q’boro and replacing all of our meters), $7M in road rehab and $6M in new mobility lanes. If you want details on everything, look at the tables of planned capital expenses starting on page 64 of this report (warning – it’s a big download). It’s all there. More graphically, the $170M 2022 budgeted capital pan looks like this (with the black square representing $1M):
So, the City may plan to put $46M into reserves this year, but we also plant to take $76M out of reserves to pay for about half of that capital plan. This is based on a strategy that balances between drawing from reserves (“spending our savings”), borrowing against the asset value with long-term debt (“securing a mortgage”), and getting others to pay for it (grants form senior governments, money from developers through DCCs, etc.). I’ve written about how municipalities approach this balance in this older blog post. In practice, the balance looks like this:
So to wrap up, the City of New West is once again somewhere in the middle in the region as far as tax rate increases, has weathered the economic uncertainty of the pandemic, and is moving ahead aggressively with some long-awaited capital improvements.
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.
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.