Ask Pat: Wards

KJ Asks: Hey Pat, why don’t we have wards in New Westminster? Is that the only way we can get a Councillor from Queensborough?

Your timing is a little off. The discussion of a ward system usually come up some time during municipal elections. It is often raised by a neighbourhood group that feels it gets less benefit from City Council largess than it deserves (so, pretty much every neighbourhood), with the suspicion that a ward system would help.

In many jurisdictions in Canada, municipal councilors are not elected “at large” to represent the entire City like in New West, but are elected to represent a single neighbourhood or group of neighbourhoods called “wards”. Instead of voting for your favourite six from across the city, you vote for one from your neighbourhood only. For some reason, this is not common in British Columbia, and excepting Lake County (which has 4 wards and two “at large” councilors, to the chagrin of some, there are none in BC. Surrey is looking at it, though.

Section 53 of the Local Government Act makes it possible for a City to pass a bylaw to switch from the default “at large” system to a “neighbourhood constituency” system, with no specific requirement for a referendum to make the switch, though the Provincial Government does need to sign off on the change. Running a ward-based election is a little more complicated (efforts need to be taken to make sure voters are voting in the right neighbourhood) and potentially a little more expensive, but there is no technical reason I can find why a City couldn’t do it.

There have been some suggestions made about why cities shouldn’t do it. Mostly, it is argued that the ward system actually reduces the diversity of representation and provides more power to established political systems/parties. Those are balanced perhaps by arguments that local neighbourhoods may have more direct representation, or at least the majority of the people in that neighbourhood do. I guess there has been enough written about this by others that I’ll leave it to you to decide which system is better, and that is not the question you asked.

What I’m more interested in is what wards might look like in New West if we went that way. In theory, we would try to have balanced population in each ward and do our best to keep traditional neighbourhoods whole. Having 6 council positions and 71,000 residents in the last Census, that would mean about 11,830 residents per ward. The problem is, we have 6 Council positions and something between 10 and 15 neighbourhoods, depending on how you choose to chop them up. Even the City’s OCP, there are two “neighbourhood maps”, neither of which align with the current list of Residents Associations. So there is definitely some ambiguity going in:

So I decided to have some fun with the 2016 Census data, which breaks the City into something like 92 census tracts. The tool census mapper by Jens von Bergmann makes it easy to look up various census data at different scales, so I relied on that data. I used to be a GIS guy, but don’t really have GIS tools at home to do this eloquently, so I took the data from census mapper and did a little traditional pen and paper work (I knew I would finally use that Geography degree!) and simple drawing software to sketch out what wards (if New West had them) might look like.

Gerrymandering aside, my basic first task was to think of how to clump neighbourhoods. My first attempt was to start at each end (Queensborough and Sapperton) and draw a ward for each of them that expanded to get as close as possible to the magic 11,833 number within the existing census tracts (71,000 residents divided by 6). Clumping downtown and Quayside together made sense to me, and the rest I just tried to draw lines that split up the middle third by population without too many squiggles in lines and trying to keep traditional neighbourhoods intact. It was not easy. Here are my 6 wards with the 2016 population:

One of the surprising things to come out of this exercise was to see how populated the Brow of the Hill is, even compared to Downtown and the Quayside or Sapperton. Alternately, Queens Park would need to append all of Victoria Hill, Fraserview and a significant chunk of the Brow to meet the population threshold required to fill a Ward.

One thing people may not realize that Section 118 of the Community Charter says a City of New Westminster’s size should have 8 City Councilors. Apparently, when New West hit the 50,000 population threshold about 20 years ago, they had a plebiscite about adding to the size of government, and you can all guess how that went. But if we were to shift to a ward system, it may be a good time to review what a Council of 8 would look like so I did a bit of a map with wards of ~8,875 residents:

In some ways, this works a little better. Queensborough would have a case for its own ward, and clumping Fraserview/Victoria Hill with the east end of Downtown makes more sense to me than clumping it with Queens Park.

Of course, population is growing faster in some neighbourhoods (Queensborough and Downtown) faster than others (Connaught Heights actually shrunk in population between the last two censuses), so future shifts to a ward system would shift a little to reflect this. I also wonder how we would ever create a transparent and fair ward districting system, because if former-GIS-guy City Councillor doing it using Microsoft paint based on 5 year old Census data is not the perfect system, I’m not sure what is.

There is also the small problem of my being the second most popular Councillor in the Brow of the Hill.

As for the Queensborough question, I would make two points. First, there is nothing in the Local Government Act that says a representative of a ward needs to live in that ward, though it would surely be an advantage electorally. Even without a ward system, I would suggest for a person from Queensborough to get on Council, they would need to run. Going back through the last 4 elections, 46 (!) people have run for City Council in New West, some multiple times. Only one of those people (to the best of my memory – I stand to be corrected here) lived in Queensborough. That’s not good odds. Alternately, looking back at the last three elections for School Board Trustee, 32 candidates have run, only one person from Queensborough has run, and she won handily in her first attempt. So the odds are good?

Ask Pat: Making Home

ASP asks—

Hi Pat – What are your thoughts on Kennedy Stewart’s pilot project to build up to six housing units on lots zoned for single-family homes? Also, do you think something like this could work in New West?

I will avoid wading into City of Vancouver politics here, but if you buy me a beer (post pandemic) I might regale you with my strongly held opinions about the way this was handled from a political point of view. Today, I’ll instead try to answer the questions from a public policy side. I have not done the deepest dive into this (see all the caveat-form ass-covering below) but am basing my critique on the proposal as outlined here on the Mayor’s own website.

Skipping past the “pilot 100 lots first” part of it, the big idea was to pre-zone standard single-family lots in Vancouver to allow up to 4 living units in what I assume would be a fourplex or clustered townhome configuration. The new building would operate as a kind of Co-op ownership model where the price of three of the units were based on market prices (which would be, presumably, less than the Single Family Detached house it replaced) and the price of the fourth would be tied to some regional determination of middle-income affordability for initial sale, and for perpetuity through a Section 219 Covenant on title or other mechanism. In some larger lots, this could be expanded to 6 units (4 market, two moderate-income).

To assess this, I want to break it into two parts, while recognizing they are intrinsically linked: land use and affordability.

Land Use
There are about 40,000 Single Family Detached homes in Vancouver (data from here), out of a total of about 280,000 households, yet SFD is by far the most dominant land use by area. It is likely that most of these SFD have more than one dwelling unit in them, be that a basement suite and/or a laneway house, with varying levels of legality, but it still means less than a quarter of the living units cover a vast majority of the residential land in Vancouver.

I have sometimes pushed Gordon Price’s buttons on this, as he speaks frequently of the “Grand Bargain” inherent in the politics of urban planning in the Lower Mainland for the past couple of decades: we will allow bigger towers, mostly on SkyTrain lines, as long as you keep your hands off of the sacred and ill-defined Neighbourhood Character of our single family houses. I suggest that the “Cities in a Sea of Green” narrative of the Livable Region Strategy has boiled down to more localized “Towers in a Sea of Single Family Houses”. This unfortunately has far-reaching effects on housing variety and flexibility, the cost of providing things like utility and transportation services in a community, and the viability of our communities.

We have already accepted (tacitly at first, but now more formally) that basement suites and carriage homes are acceptable, and that they provide a valuable from of more affordable housing that the region would be hard-pressed to function without. With the overall shrinking of the size of families even compared to 20 years ago (never mind the Vancouver Special peak of the 1970s) the reality is that many of our Single Family Detached neighbourhoods are shrinking in population, even as the region’s population swells. Corner stores, community schools, recreation leagues cannot operate on a shrinking population base, especially if we continue to shift our mode of travel from the private automobile to more sustainable forms.

So putting four small families in well-designed compact homes of the 1,000 square foot scale on a single 4,000 square foot lot (FSR 1.0) with 50% lot coverage is, in my mind, a preferable form of land use than similarly-sized single family homes with a legal basement suite. Maybe not everywhere, as no one housing form solves all of our housing needs, but in huge swatches of that RS-1 zoning map, this change would make for better, stronger, more resilient, and equitable neighbourhoods.

Affordability:
When a random Vancouver-Special-having single family detached lot in East Vancouver has $1.7 Million in land value and $100K in improvement value, it is hard to see how “working class” affordability fits into this model. The mortgages required to buy a starter home like this costs something like $6,000 a month, which puts the annual mortgage cost perilously close to the median annual pre-tax income of Vancouver families (about $75,000). If we think of an East Van Vancouver Special as a luxury only 5% of the population can afford, then we perhaps have to talk about why we are allowing the vast majority of the residential land to be preserved for this use?

Of course, many of these houses provide for an increasingly inequitable form of serfdom where basement suites act both as “mortgage helpers” for the gentry, and limited-franchise housing for the peasantry. This proposal would, I think help in closing that gap by introducing a more equitable Co-op type model at the single-lot scale.

This relies on a few things that are uncertain, which is why I suspect the Mayor’s proposal was for study and piloting as opposed to wide-spread adoption. Making these projects economically viable so a median income family mortgage fits the market component housing would require them to be salable in the $700,000 range. This may mean pre-approved design (we could call it a “New Vancouver Special”) and perhaps even some training of the building community to find the most efficient way to build a Step Code compliant building of this scale and form.

I would also throw in a caveat that cities have become reliant on development to fund the infrastructure expansion to support population growth – and I’ll use the building of better sewers here as my example. Going from 35% to 50% lot coverage means we need to address things like storm run-off at a different scale. It also means sanitary sewers have to be upsized or we will need to shift building codes to reduce the volume of sewage generated. When a City permits the building of a high-rise or even low-rise apartment building, we can suck tens of thousands of dollars out of each unit in the form of DCCs and CACs to pay for this work. With thousands of individual small projects across the City (if we are going to treat these small projects like we currently do replacement single family homes), the balance between keeping those re-builds affordable and providing the necessary infrastructure backbone is even a bigger challenge. I suspect it can be done, but there are details to be worked out here. This needs work.

The other big caveat is the potential loss of a stock of low-income housing in the form of those legal and illegal basement suites in single family homes across the City. In theory, the one-subsidized-unit-per-lot part of this plan will offset that, but I want to see some numbers. The limited franchise of the renter in the illegal basement suite situation is still better than those people being unhoused in a rental market with persistent sub-1% rental vacancy. Though I resist the whattaboutism of expecting any single new housing policy to solve all housing problems, we do need to put the policy into the context of the multiple housing crises in our region. In practice, I suspect the uptake of this type of new housing would be slow to start, giving time to assure we are building appropriate supportive housing for anyone displaced – but this only adds to the urgency of building that type of housing instead of taking away from it.

Would it work in New West?
It would work differently, but I’m not sure it could work. And again I’m going to try to avoid the politics of it here (I have no idea if the community or Council would embrace this idea) and try to look at it as a policy.

Land values in New West are still quite different than in East Van. A standard lot in the West End of New West has an unimproved value of about $1M, and in Lower Sapperton closer to $800K (to pick two neighbourhoods of mostly-single-family homes where you could see something like this work). So off the bat you may think it would be easier to pull off here, especially as you consider our median family income is about the same as Vancouver’s. However, this also means knocking down an old house and building a new SFD on it (with a carriage house & basement suite, as we currently permit) can already provide three residential units at a buy-and-build price that is still in reach for a wider range of income levels, though still not the median income earner. You would have to compete with that option to convince a builder to invest in the build of a new four-plex or six-plex model.

This would make it more imperative that savings could be found and risk reduced through streamlined approval and standardization, which is complicated in New West. We have a rich diversity of “standard” lot sizes here: 130×50’ in Queensborough and the West End, 120×50’ in Connaught Heights and Glenbrooke North (unless you have a lane, then 100×50’ is typical). Sapperton is typically 45×112’ or 40×100’. Though Upper Sapperton may make the most sense, their lot dimensions and slopes may make it most difficult. We also have some aging infrastructure problems (such as ongoing sewer separation work) and some building-on-steep-hill problems that impact building costs and make standardization harder. Finally, I think having 10% of the population and revenues of the City of Vancouver makes it harder for New West as a City to do some of the planning and design work to make this the most viable option, and would still be a less attractive market than Vancouver for private industry to do that work. It is much harder and riskier for New West to be the bleeding edge on a program like this.

The Vancouver Special was developed in Vancouver (and adopted in some adjacent communities) because it was a governance and market response to needing a bunch of affordable-ownership housing during rapid growth. I like where this proposal went, because it applied that kind of thinking to our current housing situation. To answer your question in TL;DR form (after the fact!): I like the idea, I don’t know if it would work, but I wish Vancouver had given it a try.

As a final caveat, I want to say I am almost perfectly the wrong person to ask about this. I am not a builder, a professional planner or a land economist, but am an elected official expected to approve policy based on the best advice of these professions. That probably means I am speaking here from a Dunning-Kruger knowledge nadir. I would love to hear more experienced people talk about this model, and point out the complications I am too knowledgeably unaware of.

Ask Pat: Smoking fines

ThRe asks—

Hello Pat, Where can I get specific data about fines to smoking bylaw offenders in New Westminster? Thank you

Smoking Bylaws are a bit of a funny beast, because there are more than one enforcement bodies that stick their nose into where you can or cannot smoke. A few years ago, I did a bit of a dive into smoking bylaws around New Westminster Station and some of the “nuisance behaviours” at this primary entrance to the City. I learned that in some areas smoking was prohibited by the TransLink regulations and Transit Police were the enforcing authority, in others the City Bylaws applied, and Bylaw Officers were the relevant authority, and in other areas such as patios and buffer around the doors to restaurants Provincial Health Authority enforcement staff were the relevant agency, but could only apply fines to the proprietors who failed to stop smoking in the public plaza, not to the actual smokers, presumably putting the Mall Cops in charge of any kind of active enforcement. Knowing which side of a metal strip on the ground or how many metres you were from a doorway was important to know who is supposed to enforce the Bylaw in that particular spot. We also apparently cannot enforce smoking bylaws within strata buildings (such as on your residential balcony) as that is something that the provincial Strata Act manages.

Add to this that smoking enforcement is by its nature difficult as it is an ephemeral act, so with overlapping and gap-prone administrative boundaries I would assume actual fines are very, very rare.

The City’s smoking Bylaw is available online: Smoking Control Bylaw 6263, 1995 (last updated in September 2018) lays out the details of what we can enforce in the City. The actual fines for violating the Smoking Control Bylaw are found in the Bylaw Notice Enforcement Bylaw 7318, 2009 (last updated in August 2020), or the Municipal Ticket Information Bylaw 8077, 2019 (last updated in August 2020). And there is a difference.

“Bylaw Notice Enforcement” is a local administrative fine process, run completely by the City. We use this for a bunch of smaller offences (it is limited by Provincial Law to fines under $500) and would be familiar to anyone who has gotten a parking ticket. The adjudication process is run by the City, which is easier and cheaper than relying on provincial Courts. Your ultimate appeal measure would be to come to Council if you disputed it (or the Provincial Ombudsperson, I guess, if things went really bad). Here are the available Smoking fines under that process:

The “Municipal Ticket Information Bylaw” process relies on the Courts, and is more akin to a speeding ticket. You can, if you wish, go to court and appeal to a judge, and they are able to determine an appropriate fine given your situation, up to $1,000. The fun part here is that it turns out pretty much anyone with a badge has the legal authority to enforce it (though City Councillor is suspiciously absent from the list):

So those are the ways Smoking Bylaws may be enforced in the City. If you are more curious about how often or where this enforcement happens, and how many fines are actually collected, You are asking the wrong guy. I would first suggest you contact the City’s Bylaws Enforcement division and ask if they collect this data, and if they are free to share it.

The City is subject to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA), which is a funny two-part set of provincial regulations, one part giveth, one part taketh away. A good way to think of it is that the City must share public information under FOI unless they are strictly forbidden from sharing it under PPA. In practice, the City has to determine if there is Privacy Protection component to any information it shares,  which means staff need to comb through it and skim the privacy protection parts off. It is probably important to note that Council is completely separated from this process – except we are sometimes requested to provide information such as our correspondence. The City has professional staff who are well versed in FOIPPA who do those reviews, and under the act, the City is permitted to bill anyone asking for that information to cover the cost of that staff member’s time. It’s not a perfect system, but it is the system we have.

Ask Pat: Blogs

JL asked—

Are you aware of a blog similar to the one you run but focused on the city of Richmond?
I have grown to love New West in my 5 years here and am sad to leave. I really want to let you know how much I appreciate the time you take to write these entries on the council meetings and topics related to the City of New Westminster. They are very informative and make me feel more connected the city. Frankly, I think a monthly (bi-weekly?) email newsletter similar to your blog would be an asset to the city’s residents.

In short, no. I don’t know anyone in Richmond doing this. Actually, I don’t know very many City Councillors doing stuff like this, which makes me wonder why I am doing it, to be honest.

I love that there are a few Councillors more actively engaging the public in interesting ways. Nathan Pachal in Langley City has a more concise blog than mine covering what happens on his Council, Mathew Bond in North Vancouver District (@mrmathewbond) has been live-tweeting Public Hearings to enlightening effect. There are some real Local Government stars like Christine Boyle in Vancouver who blogs and uses other media to tell the stories of Council work and of her vision for bigger change, but I see nothing of the sort in Richmond. A few blogs that were very active in the months before election, and silent since, seems the trend. There are likely a few more active Facebook pages, but not much else.

In my experience (disclosure: I used to work in Richmond City Hall) Richmond is a strange place politically. Where else can a candidate can run for the Conservatives in opposition to oil & gas development in one race, be endorsed by an NDP candidate in another, then after a half dozen tries, be elected when running on a slate with a Green Candidate? With the public generally disengaged in local politics (aside from the Steveston neighbourhood preservation activists and a few very tight ethnic- and religious<-based cliques), and a pretty popular and non-controversial Mayor, it was really hard to know where the public was on issues. So, maybe once you get there, you can figure it out and report out to us?

That is kinda how this all started for me here. It was back in the heady days of the 2000s when everybody had a blog. I was blogging on other stuff around my environmental activism and loving my adopted community of New West. A brief period of time between when Letters to the Editor and Calling into Your Local AM Radio Station were replaced by Facebook comment threads and Podcasts, the blog was a medium where anyone with an opinion could start a conversation with people they had never met. I do cringe a bit in reading some of my early stuff, because I really didn’t know how the City worked (I sort of still don’t, but I’m getting better). The upside is I actually earned a great network of friends in New West though this thing.

I told the story here before, but my inspiration was actually Jordan Bateman. Before he became and anti-tax Reaganite crusader for Economic Freedom™, he was a tax-and-spend City Councillor like the rest of us. Even during his spendthrift Councillor days, he was still much further over to the right side of the political spectrum than I, but I did admire his blogging prowess. While serving on Langley Township Council he did something akin to what I am doing now, reporting out on the activities of Council. You didn’t have to agree with him politically to appreciate that he at least provided justification for his positions, which to me is the most honest way to approach this work.

Eventually, Jordan flew too close to the sun. One day he used his blog to publicly criticize his own BC Liberal Party (he worked for Rich Coleman) over their inconsistency on the HST issue, and within a few days was forced (chose?) to print a retraction and apology, one that was weirdly unclear about what he was apologizing for, other than making Finance Minister Colin Hansen look bad for pointing out that the Finance Minister looked bad. Shortly after that, Jordan’s blogging days (and apparent political ascendency in Langley) were over.

I have completely failed to take the obvious lesson from that. After a few years of blogging and becoming increasingly political in New West, I threw my hat into the ring for Council. At the time, a few people suggested the blog thing was going to be a political liability, but I swore I was going to keep doing it. I am perhaps naïve enough to think that in the local politics realm, people value honesty and transparency, and the risk of pissing people off who don’t agree with you on political points is by far offset by the trust-building of being open and honest.

I don’t know about all of the discourse that happened out there in the community during the last municipal election, but there was at least one candidate for Council who tried to leverage a few cherry-picked quotes out of my blog to campaign against me. Not having deleted any of my old posts, it was easy enough for me when challenged on what I said to point at the cherry picked posts and “here is where I am transparent, and here is where my opponent is being disingenuous”. It didn’t help that the opponent was himself a municipal affairs blogger who deleted all of his old blog posts before running – which somewhat undermined his claims about transparency and openness. Anyway, the upshot of that funny situation was that I got a lot of positive feedback from people I didn’t even know read my blog, and I’d bet a few voters were made aware of my blog via my opponent’s campaign and turned out to vote for me thanks to it.

However, we can still learn from Jordan’s Icarian moment to remember politics don’t happen within a bubble. Before being elected, I was pretty critical of the Harper Conservatives because I am an environmental scientist and saw the damage he and his policies were doing to environmental science and the environment (Damage Mr. Trudeau is, alas, reluctant and slow to undo). I also became critical of the Christy Clark BC Liberal party as she steered the ship in strangely Harperian directions. I admired the work that Jack Layton did, and have a tonne of respect for Peter Julian and Judy Darcy, and have written about this in my blog. I have even made clear my voting intent in previous provincial and federal elections. That has not, however, stopped me from being critical of the NDP at times (I still think they are 100% wrong and cynical on the topic of road pricing, for example). I have even provided firmly-worded suggestions to how they could do better when I feel like they deserve to hear it. The only evidence I ever got that they were listening is once when I was writing about the flaws in the Public Hearing process when applied to critically needed supportive housing, I get a note from (then Minister for Local Government) Selena Robinson letting me know she read it, she heard me, and was aware of the issue. I think some of the temporary changes made during COVID reflect these concerns, and I hope post-COVID we can keep some of these changes.

Anyway, I am aware that the comments my electoral opponent pulled out a few years ago that were not complimentary to the NDP or the swear words that Stephen Harper sometimes drew out of me are probably career limiting if I aspired towards senior government, so I’m not sure why anyone else elected to public service would do this, and in a way understand why so many City Councillor blogs go silent shortly after they are elected.

Problem is, I’m stuck now. After 6 years in office and 500+ blog posts (on top of the 450+ posts I wrote before getting elected) I can’t quit now. I got elected saying I was going to keep blogging about things in the City, and here I am, until the internet goes away or I get booted from office. To be honest it is getting to be a bit of a timesuck of questionable value, as unfortunately people simply don’t engage in blogs like they used to (see how few comments I get compared to the old days), and long Council Agendas, even when reduced down to 4,000-word blog posts, don’t fit the culture of Facebook (or, shudder, Reddit). So, it is good to hear someone reads them, and I’m not just shouting into the void.

This speaks to another problem that I don’t pretend my Blog can solve, and that is the trend towards lost accountability in local government. With the hollowing out of local newspaper newsrooms and the consolidation of news media, we have very little coverage of the day-to-day workings of City Hall. A single reporter in New West with a much wider beat than City Council cannot keep up with the wide range of issues we are dealing with. New West is actually lucky to still have that reporter – many Cities are going without. It is hard to keep track of what is happening locally, and blogs (or, it being 2020, Podcasts) are not the answer, especially when they are written by people like me who necessarily have a bias and do not have the training or professional responsibility to manage that bias like we expect (perhaps idealistically) from capital-J Journalism.

So good luck in Richmond. Support your local newspaper. Start a blog, or a podcast, or your own newsletter.  Let us know what’s happening over there. I worked there for 8 years, and was never able to figure it out.

Ask Pat: Variety pack!

I have some questions that have been sitting in the queue for an embarrassingly long time, so let’s blast through these:

Christa asks—

Has the City ever considered ending the New Westminster Tennis Club’s lease in Tipperary Park so that the clubhouse facilities could be used by the larger public? It would be a great facility for so many non-profits and/or community events.

The Tennis Club is one of several organizations that lease City-owned space (at little or no cost) to operate a non-profit society that provides some identified benefit to the City. Off the top of my head: the Tennis Club, the Curling Club, and the Lawn Bowling Club all operate buildings (the assets belonging to the club members) on City-owned land. The City sees this as a benefit because the club members (through their dues, volunteer boards, and sometimes paid staff) provide recreation opportunities to residents and visitors that the City doesn’t have to pay to provide. There are other buildings in the City (again, off the top of my head, the Art Gallery in Queens Park, the Bernie Legge Theatre, the Hopper Building) that belong to the City, but are used primarily by one non-profit community group, again for a purpose valued by the community. Each probably has its own history and reason for the tenure being what it is.

In my time on Council, there has never been a discussion about taking these places back from the organizations that operate them, though occasionally we have had discussions about lease terms, or are sometimes asked to consider some capital support for building maintenance (I don’t remember the tennis club ever asking us for support).


MoreEVOsPls asks—

I have been an Evo member for quite some time, yet, as I stand here (in front of MY strip of sidewalk, btw), there is no Evo in sight. If there has not been Evo parked in front of my house for more than 72 hours, will the City relocate one to my personal residence?? What is the city doing to displace private cars with Evo cars on our roadways? 😉

I see what you did there.


Ola asks—

I was wondering if you can tell me about the noise levels around Nelson’s street at Sapperton.

Not sure which noise you are talking about. Brunette is a regional truck route and a part of the Major Road Network, so changing the use of those roads is a regional issue. There is also some ongoing development of the last phases of the Brewery District mixed-use development going on, which will no doubt be a noisy construction affair, just as building the current Nelson Crescent buildings was.

However, I suspect the biggest issue is late-night train horns as trains cross the level crossing at Cumberland and Spruce. You can go to the City’s Whistle Cessation page to see the details of the work we are doing to get those whistles silenced. I wrote about this a few years ago, and yes I am frequently hearing from people about it. I still cannot give you any real timeline for when those crossings will see cessation of whistles, they are complicated from a design and safety point of view, and we need to get partners onside rowing the same way (TransLink in the case of Spruce, Metro Vancouver in the case of Cumberland, and no less than Transport Canada, 5 rail companies and assorted other rail agencies for both) and investing their time and energy. It took time Downtown, we are almost there in Quayside, we have some complicated crossings in Queensborough (but thankfully only one rail company to deal with there), but the three crossings in Sapperton are definitely the hardest nut to crack.


DM asks—

What’s going on with the new <EDITED> housing unit to be built in the 800 Blk of 6st.?Across from new high school.

Generally, inserting what could be read as a racial slur gets the question tossed into the delete file, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, as I can’t square the possible racist implication of the term with this application, so maybe I am missing context.

I have not reviewed the application in detail because it went to the Land Use and Planning Committee, not all of Council. As it is a preliminary application that will, if it progresses, likely see a Public Hearing that involves not just a Rezoning, but a change in the OCP, I am keeping an open mind to the merits of the application. I will say that deeply affordable housing is hard to come by these days, and not many applications come before us looking to build affordable housing at this scale in New Westminster, so I think it is worth us having the conversation about it.


Lisa asks—

I am wondering if instead of having city workers mow the grass on boulevards and ditch sides the $ and labour could be put to more needed uses such as cleaning playground equipment regularly and making park facilities more accessible while still maintaining 2 meter distances. My 12yr old suggested there could be hand washing stations like at petting zoos. Of course there are logistics, and perhaps issues surrounding union described job descriptions, so that’s why I’m asking. What is the reason something like what I described cannot be done? It seems like a better use of already stretched resources, that servers a greater need.

I guess I would say those sorts of re-allocations of staff did occur all through our COVID response, and many kudos need to go to staff and their unions, who completely changed their work life and took up the charge to do things they were never expecting to do. Back in January, no-one in the City was a pandemic ambassador helping people navigate parks area restrictions, how they would stretch the pedestrian space of the McInnes overpass, how they would operate our many public washrooms under a public health order or coordinate Zoom Public Hearings. For a while there, everyone was making it up as they went along.

To your example, there was definitely some shifts in how things like grass maintenance occurred, and there were staff shifted to new cleaning tasks. However, it turns out that mowing grass was really important to COVID response, because so many people were going outside in small groups and picnicking in numbers like we never had before – no doubt a result of limited sit-down restaurant service and people being home more often and needing to get out for fresh air. The last 6 months have been full of lessons like this. The discussion of how much and how often to clean playground equipment was definitely a discussion with public health officers, and our management staff had to do the risk-management math relative to just closing equipment down for a few weeks. These were tough decisions, but when you are in public service, putting public safety is always paramount.

Finally, there are some maintenance tasks you just have to do. Some open watercourses (“ditches”) need to be cleaned on a regular basis to maintain a base level of water storage and protect communities from flooding. Freshly-planted trees need a lot of watering, and established trees a lot of pruning, and as we put these tasks off, there is a compounding cost as the trees then need replacing. So much of what staff do is essential service if we want to have a livable community, and when COVID protocols made changes in how staff teams work, it is a real challenge to keep up. A day missing in a trash pick-up cycle is noticeable for weeks and staff scramble to catch up. As Newman says: the mail never stops, Jerry.

Ask Pat: That old house

Zack asks—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Pat: Drinking in Parks

Jeremy asked—

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

Agnes Street Bandit asks—

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASK PAT: Sidewalks

Still getting caught up on queued ASK PATs. If you have a question, click that ASK PAT spot up in the right corner there. I’ll try to answer them succinctly, but I am likely to go on a digression, which takes a while to write so I get behind and here we go again…

Jim asks—

I thought that the City had a policy for barrier free sidewalks. If you look on the south sidewalk on Seventh Avenue – a greenway – you will see that the new utility box covers resulting from the recent work were placed right in the middle of the sidewalk. I don’t think that they need to be there as I think that there is room between the sidewalk and the private property for the utility boxes. They are plastic, not metal, but they still make the sidewalk uneven and in a few weeks when the snow comes they will ice up and be a barrier.

There is a worse example in the Moody Park entry plaza at 6th Ave and 8th Street. The recent work there was capped off by a metal utility box cover that is in the main travel path for pedestrians and was installed with a slope. This one is slippery in the rain. I believe that none of these utility box covers needed to be placed in the sidewalk. So, what happened?

I’m not sure I agree with you. I suspect if a utility box cover is placed on a sidewalk, it is because it needs to be within the corridor of a significant piece of linear infrastructure, be it a pipe or an electrical conduit. More likely, they need to be at the intersection of two major pieces of linear infrastructure, which severely limits their location. I can name several unfortunately-located box covers, from the sidewalk on Eighth Street near the entrance to the Lawn Bowling Club to the half-in the bike lane force ewer main cover on Columbia Street just east of 4th. I would suggest all of them need to be pretty much where they are.

That stretch of Eighth Street has a lot going on under your feet. There is a fiber optic conduit right-of-way, a buried 3-phase electrical distribution line, a concrete Storm Sewer gravity main, two separate combined-sewer gravity mains, and two separate potable water supply mains. For all I know, there may be private utility lines as well (BC Gas, Telus, Shaw, etc.). All of them have specific offsets from each other that must be maintained, can’t be too close to property lines or under power poles or interfere with each other. Their location now is a result of almost a century of decisions about rights-of-way and avoidance of conflict and need to upgrade as the City grew. All this to say, they are really hard to move now.

Your point is taken, though, that the surface treatment of these necessary pieces of infrastructure need to consider walkers, rollers, and people with mobility challenges. They should not be trip hazards. At times they are installed to be flush and as integrated as possible to the driving lane or sidewalk, but settle differently or swell up from frost or are damaged by heavy machinery. I would suggest efforts to make them visually “blend in” are probably a bad idea, as a changes in surface texture or material should probably stand out as warnings for those with cognitive or visual impairments. They certainly should not be slipperier than the adjacent sidewalk, even when wet.

I can ask staff about what type of standards exist for these installations, and ask what we do as far as inspections after contractors install them. If you have a specific one that you think needs repair or constitutes a hazard, the best response is to report it through SeeClickFix or drop a line to Engineering Ops and see what transportation staff say.

That said, I do want to take this opportunity to address this letter to the local paper, because it is related. As the writer suggests, more people are walking because of COVID, and more people are noting places where sidewalks are in disrepair. Confirmation bias is a powerful thing, but the City has recognized the need to increase its sidewalk repair and upkeep budget for a few years now, and are putting money into the problem at an unprecedented rate.

As we implemented the Master Transportation Plan adopted in 2015, we have prioritized pedestrian spaces. A major part of this is spending the money to assure every sidewalk at every corner in the City has an accessibility ramp. This is not a minor thing, and it was not inexpensive to do, but as the first “quick win” to improve pedestrian spaces, we prioritized that spending. New Westminster is the only City in the Lower Mainland that has achieved 100% corner ramp cuts. Some are admittedly older design, and resources as now being put to updating some of these older ones to bring them to modern standards.

We are also spending more than ever on updating and improving sidewalks and crosswalks. Our current Capital Budget has more than $7 million dedicated specifically to pedestrian improvement projects. This is above and beyond the investments we are making in Greenways and Great Streets (where improved pedestrian spaces are part of the bigger project) and the improvements that we implement to coincide with lot development. This is a huge increase over what we spent on pedestrian improvements only a decade ago. We have some catching up to do, and this work is expensive, but we are getting it done.

That said there are often local spots that degrade quickly because of frost, vehicle, or root damage. If they create a trip hazard or accessibility barrier, the best way to assure fixing this ends up in someone’s work plan is to do a SeeClickFix report or contact Engineering Ops as I linked to a few paragraphs above.

ASK PAT: Brews & Patios

Wes asks—

Why can’t a brewery get a non-temporary patio in New West?

Has anyone in city hall ever been to Portland (or even Port Moody)? Every brewery literally gets rid of their parking lots and replace them with picnic tables and umbrellas.

They can. It is a bit hard for me to answer this question directly, because there are only two breweries operating in New West, and that makes it challenging to talk  about general City policy without uncomfortable references to specific cases. This is probably not the appropriate medium to talk about specific sites when those are private small businesses in the City. So I’m going to try to make this as general as possible to be fair to those owners.

Yes, I have been to Portland. I know most other members of Council have been to Portland. Some even attended the Livable Cities Conference there last year and have brought back ideas to make New West weirder. There are aspects of the Portland streetscape that the Mayor can’t stop extolling. I’ve also sipped beers on sunny patios around the world, from Montreal to Hue to Lesotho to Cologne. I’ve never heard of Port Moody, though.

New Westminster has allowed patios for the three main categories of food and beverage businesses (Food Primary restaurants, Liquor Primary pubs, and Manufacturer breweries) for some time , and many of them across the City have patios. However, the City is not the only regulatory body involved in licensing these spaces, and often there are complicating details between City zoning bylaws, provincial liquor licencing, and a variety of other rules that apply to businesses, especially the strange amalgam of light industrial activity and hospitality that is represented by breweries with tasting rooms.

I can’t talk about how it works in Portland, because I have no idea how their regulatory regime works, but I’ll try to outline my understanding of the local regulatory environment while avoiding any direct reference to any specific businesses.

In pre-COVID times (when this question was asked, and yep, I’m slow with answers these days), the City had a Sidewalk Cafe policy, guidelines, and a process in place to approve said patios, and on-site patios (those that are on private property of the pub/restaurant) were permitted in all commercial zones in the City. Sometimes a zoning variance would be required to change parking use to patio use (as amount of parking is regulated by zoning), but there was a process to do this, and I don’t recall Council ever saying no. There would also have to be an expansion of the liquor licence, which is provincially regulated and comes with requirements around access and fencing and such, because non-drinking people in BC must be strictly separated from drinking people or else… uh… chaos, I guess.  There are some other details that may be City Zoning or may be Building Code that can get in the way: for example, the patio has to be accessible (ramps less than 5% grade, 2m wide access points, etc) or number of washrooms and accessible washroom consistent with the occupancy of the room, but again those details can usually be worked out.

If the above require zoning variances, then that may trigger a need for some sort of public process – a public consultation or Opportunity to be Heard, and this makes sense. If you live next door to a restaurant, and they decide to put 50 guests outside making noise until 10:00pm every night, you may have concerns with that above and beyond and concerns you may have had, and it is only fair that you have an opportunity to bring those concerns to Council. Of course, Breweries are generally in industrial areas where this is not as much of a concern.

Finally, if a business wanted to put a patio on City land (the sidewalk, a public parking spot, etc.) then there is another step around the need to licence public space for private use. They need to pay a licence fee, there are insurance and liability issues to clear up, and the City has to decide if there is a public benefit served by this use of public land. Again, this all sounds like a hassle, but it is important when allocating public resources that it is guided by some kind of policy or at least a transparent set of principles and to assure transparency, fairness, and (frankly) accountability.

We are now in COVID times, and things have changed. Most notably, the Provincial Government has made some changes to how patio spaces for business with liquor licences are regulated, in an effort to support recovery for these businesses. The changes will allow near-immediate licencing for “temporary” patios to the end of October as long as it doesn’t increase the overall occupancy capacity of the business (which makes sense, as physical distancing requirements are making it hard or businesses to fit their occupancy limits inside). By doing this in a temporary way to the end of October, it gives business a chance to get going right now, and time for them to get more permanent plans in place if that is the way they want to go.

At our last Council Meeting, New Westminster Council made some changes to our zoning bylaw to further support these “temporary” applications, and further established some strong policy guidance to give staff the clear direction that we want to support the opening of patios asap. This sounds a little self-congratulatory, but in reality, City Staff did a great job putting together the documentation, providing clarity about the rapid changes in the regulatory environment, and bringing local business associations onboard with a regime that works for them. This guidance document shows the straightforward pathway to opening a patio in time for this summer’s patio season.

This effectively kicks the ball down the road to the end of the 2020 patio season, but it also gets patios up and running ASAP, and gives us time to get things in place for more permanent changes. As a bonus, and also gives us a chance to “try out” a process and see what works or where the process needs adjustment, which is really the most effective form of public consultation.

ASK PAT: NWSS safe biking routes

I have a bunch of queued up ASK PATS. Sorry, folks, some have been here for quite a while. Things have been busy, and priorities at Council have been shifting so fast and furiously that I have let these linger. I am going to try to clear the queue here in the next little bit. So the answers may be shorter than usual. But probably not, because I like to go on about things…

Don asks—

NWSS safe biking routes need some help. One of those problems is the car traffic cutting through the gas station at 6th and 8th. Perhaps if barriers were installed on the double yellow lines on both those streets would improve safety and traffic flow. Is this possible?

Maybe. That is a pretty “operational” question, and I frankly don’t know the technical requirements when it comes to installing mid-road barriers. I suspect come of those flexi-posts would reduce the number of illegal turns here, but I have also seen drivers do some pretty bizarre things to get around them. Jerks gotta jerk. As this is a more technical operational question than a Council Policy one, you may want to enter it to SeeClickFix or drop a line to Engineering Ops and see what transportation staff say.

As for bike routes to NWSS, we are working on it. The building of the new High School has given us an opportunity to review how cycling and pedestrian connections to the High School work. With the “main entrance” for the School shifting form 8th Street to 6th Street, there will definitely be a shift in how students get to the school:

An older drawing o the proposed new school site I cribbed from this source. Some stuff may have changed since then, but I wanted to show the lay of the land, and this works.

The City has worked with the School Board and project delivery team on this. The first priority is assuring safe and accessible pedestrian access a the two main “entry points”which will be mid-block on Eighth Ave (“C”) and mid-block on Sixth Street (“D”). The pathway across Eighth Street through the existing school site (“A”) is also identified as important, but will be addressed in the future as the demolition of the existing school and design of the memorialization area will delay works on that side. Light-controlled intersections, crosswalks, and sidewalk upgrades are planned at “C” and “D”.

The City is also committed to assuring there is a safe separated cycling route from Seventh Ave (part of the Crosstown Greenway) to the school. By the time the School opens, that will be a separated path along Eighth Street to Eighth Ave, a new intersection treatment at Eighth and Eighth, and improvements of the pathway past the Massey Theatre.

The Connection of the Crosstown Greenway to the Sixth Street entrance to the school property is going to be designed and implemented as part of the Uptown Streetscape Vision, which will redesign all of Sixth Street from Fourth Ave to Tenth Ave. This is currently going through some stakeholder engagement, but is a bigger road redesign project that will not be implemented by the time the School opens.