Downtown

I put forward a motion last Council Meeting regarding revitalization of Downtown, and I thought I would write a bit of a follow up about my thinking in working with Councillor Trentadue on this motion. The motion was seconded by Councillor Trentadue, and supported by all of Council, but it is always important for me to remind folks that what I write here on my blog reflects only my thoughts, not necessarily those of my colleagues on Council. Though my ideas on this have been informed by some really enlightening discussions with business owners downtown and members of the BIA.

It has obviously been a difficult last year and a half for many in our community. This in no way makes us unique in the Province or in Canada, but I want to recognize that the results of the Pandemic hit the historic Downtown of New Westminster at a time when there is already a lot going on, both good and bad. Perhaps that requires a bit of a step-back to look at Downtown New West as a Regional City Centre, and what makes it unique.

The City of New West has committed to the Regional Growth Strategy shares with the other 20 Municipalities that make up Metro Vancouver; a plan aligned with the TransLink Regional Transportation Strategy. A keystone to both of these plans is the increase in new density in identified Regional City Centres – with Downtown New Westminster being one of those identified centres. The vision for these centres is higher density mixed use (commercial, office, retail and residential) at high-service transit nodes to reduce reliance on cars. As a result of this plan and our exceptional Transit-centric location, Downtown New West is becoming one of the densest and most rapidly-growing residential neighbourhoods of the region. Being one of the few such centers with a strong historical walkable street scale, it is also one of the regions of the Lower Mainland most reliant on Transit, and least reliant on cars as a primary transportation mode.

Indeed, since the Downtown Community Plan was developed, we have seen significant residential growth, especially in the last few years, with some key developments coming on line. With more recent emphasis on Family Friendly suites, Purpose Built Rental, and Affordable Housing, there is a much richer and dynamic residential mix in the community as ever. This is even extending to there being more young families buying in the older and (slightly) more affordable units in Quayside. In short, population is booming Downtown, which should be good for local-serving retailers.

At the same time, we have had some significant setbacks. The loss of a portion of the Pier Park was probably the highest profile, and definitely reduced the public space amenity for Downtown residents, but the more recent loss of the building that housed 4 businesses on Church and Columbia was a real punch in the gut. This came after we lost an anchor retailer as the Army & Navy closed their last 5 locations. At the same time, the great work the BIA has done over the last decade to activate the street and draw people into Downtown through events and directed promotion has been hamstrung by Pandemic restrictions. And, though I am optimistic about the medium-term benefits of some of the larger developments currently under construction in the downtown, the ongoing impact of construction noise and disruption is further eroding livability at a time when these impacts pile up. And then there is the damn sewer work.

I would argue that the role of Downtown New West are a Regional City Centre makes it fundamentally different than our other (still important and valued!) commercial strips like historic Sapperton, Uptown, Ewen Ave or 12th Street. I would also argue that Downtown is facing a different set of challenges than the City’s other commercial areas, and needs a different and more proactive approach. And it needs it soon.

There are some interesting contrasts in Downtown. There is actually not an abundance of leasable retail space available right now for a new business to set up in. Indeed, there are a few businesses doing really well downtown, and at times the streetscape is really inviting. There is, perhaps surprisingly, a fair amount of office space in all three class levels yet office vacancy is under 5%, which is one of the lowest office vacancy rates in the Lower Mainland. At the same time, there are vacant storefronts in buildings that have been verging on decrepit for a long period of time, creating significant “gaps” in the retail environment. Finally there are sites like the Copps store site (still a hole 8 years after that devastating fire) and the Kyoto block empty lot right across from the Anvil Centre (empty 7 years after Council last saw a development proposal) that seem to need motivation to get activated.

The motion here is not to put pressure on existing business operators in the downtown – they are doing their best in tough times. Nor does the City have real power add specific retail businesses residents might like (be that a hardware store or a haberdashery). What we are asking is for staff to suggest tactics the City can apply to get these underperforming lots and derelict buildings activated. Though I (of course) have ideas, we really need Staff guidance to let us know what the suite of regulatory tools we have, as the relationship between a Municipality and any business is strictly defined in the Local Government Act and the Community Charter. We appear to have some special powers under the New Westminster Redevelopment Act that we have not yet exercised, and I would love to understand that fuller.

We also may need to have a conversation about street-level retail/commercial space having an amenity value we can apply in new development proposals. I would also love to see us evaluate radical parking relaxations for new buildings on Columbia, in light of the Transit-Oriented Development goals of the neighbourhood. The prohibitive cost and significant risk related to digging deep holes for parkades may be a barrier to innovative builders interested in making something cool happen on Columbia, and the value represented by that parking may be better applied at assuring buildings support other goals in the historic downtown.

These are my opening thoughts, I really hope in further conversation with the business owners, our City’s great Economic Development staff, and the wider community, we can bring some confidence back that Downtown New West will be a walkable, livable, full service community that supports its growing population.

Heat Dome

We learned another new term this year. High-amplitude waves in the Jetstream, Rex Blocks, compressed high pressure zones: the details are complicated to us common folk, but well understood to atmospheric scientists. One thing is clear – this Heat Dome anomaly is one we are likely to see more often as anthropogenic climate change becomes anthropogenic climate disruption.

But I don’t want to talk about the causes, I want to talk about what happened, and what we do now.

Here in New Westminster, dozens of people died. We don’t have a complete accounting yet, and the coroner will no doubt report out in a few months when the horror of the situation has passed, but there may have been more than 40 “excess deaths” in New Westminster in the 4-day period of highest heat. Neighbours of ours, residents in our community. People who died in their home because it was too hot for their body to cope, and because they couldn’t get to help, or didn’t know they needed help. Or (alas) help was not available.

There were a few stories in the news, but aside from the horrific loss of Lytton, the news cycle around the Heat Dome has already begun to pass, which frightens me. More disasters are pushing it out of our mind. Is this the “New Normal” of living though COVID and an ongoing poisoned drug supply crisis – us becoming desensitized to mass death stories? With 900+ COVID deaths in our Health Region, 100+ opioid deaths in our community, does a few dozen avoidable heat-related deaths register? Do we even know how to get angry about this?

We talked about this in Council last week, and it come up in the UBCM executive meeting with the Minister of Municipal Affairs I attended on Friday. As we are contemplating the immediate impacts of wildfires, and the further-reaching effects of wildfire smoke, the conversation about what went wrong during the heat emergency is feeling lost in dealing in this week’s emergency, which will lose time to next week’s emergency. I lament that is what climate disruption looks like in practice.

We will get a report in Council on how we can update our emergency planning, and the Coroner will likely issue a report on provincial and regional responses, but I want to concentrate for now (and sorry, it has taken me some time to think about how to write this) on what happened here, in our community, especially in my neighbourhood of the Brow of the Hill, where many “sudden deaths” occurred.

New West Fire and Rescue and New Westminster Police responded to an unprecedented number of health emergencies and sudden death calls. We know the ambulance service failed – they simply could not dispatch people to calls fast enough, as there were not enough ambulances and crews available. This meant people at 911 couldn’t leave calls, and lines got backed up, causing E-Comm to fail. Firefighters were challenged to keep up, as they could not pass medical calls over the ambulances that were not arriving. As our fire trucks are not medical transports, Fire crews took the unprecedented step of calling taxis and having a member accompany patients to Hospital in that cab, so crews and equipment could move onto the next call, leaving our Firefighters under-staffed as many had to wait in the hospital for patients to be admitted, because the emergency room was slammed. Even as fire and police struggled to keep up and attend to “sudden death” calls, the coroner service phone lines were overwhelmed and at one point stopped responding.

It was a cascading failure, a demonstration we were simply not ready, as a City and as a Province. People died, leaving behind families and neighbours traumatized by the lack of response. I am afraid first responders were equally traumatized, as they had to operate in a broken and failing system that didn’t allow them to do the work they are trained for and dedicated to doing – protect and comfort the residents they serve. Instead, they spent three days in the stifling heat surrounded by the suffering and death of people they wanted to help. I cannot imagine, but once again, they deserve not just our recognition and gratitude, but a response  – a way to fix this so they don’t have to go through it again.

Like many of you, I heard anecdotes about people who were in dangerous situations, and people who helped them out. A community member encountering an elderly man on the street who was disoriented after shopping for himself and his house-bound wife, with no access to cooling centre support because information was not available in his native language. A neighbour who saw a hyperthermic woman sitting in the driver’s seat of a car parked in front of his house, and took her in to cool in his basement overnight because she didn’t know of anywhere else to go and her apartment was not sustainable. Every neighbour-helping-neighbour story reminds us of the importance of community and compassion, but overshadows the story of the many people who surely fell through the cracks and were not lucky enough to have a good Samaritan help them through.

The City has a Heat Emergency plan, and it was invoked. Cooling centres were opened, communications around how to recognize and address heat stress and hyperthermia were distributed in the traditional way, outreach to impacted communities was initiated. City staff in community centres and first responders were prepared to operationalize the plan, carried water and ice and expected to be helping people. It turned out to not be nearly enough. I can be critical of the 911, Ambulance, and Coroner service failures and ask the Province to get this shit figured out right away, but we need to recognize at the same time the failures here at the local level.

First off, we learned (much like the rest of the Lower Mainland) that a plan that works for 32 degrees does not work for 40 degrees. This Heat Dome event was exacerbated by the high overnight lows – for a couple of days, temps never got below 25 degrees at night, so there was no opportunity for apartments to cool down or for people to get a comfortable sleep and build resilience. Cooling Centres that operate from 10:00am- 8:00pm are simply not enough in this situation. We have to figure out how to provide 24 hour centres, and how to staff them. We can also expand the opportunity for outdoor cooling with fountains and misters and tents, and the logistics of making them safe and accessible.

We also were not as effective as we need to be at communicating the seriousness of the heat situation. This was not a “regular” heat emergency, it was something different, and we should have seen that coming and taking measures to tell the community that. There is a language barrier (several, actually) we need to overcome, but there is also the physical barriers to getting information to the front doors of people who live in apartments, to getting information to people in the Uptown and Downtown commercial areas, and encouraging people to connect with their neighbours and the people in their buildings. Indeed, we may even want to regulate that building managers check in with every tenant at least once a day during a heat emergency, and provide resources to residents. This may be as lifesaving as regulating fire alarms.

This is so much our climate chickens coming home to roost. Our Emergency Planning (and this is reflected in the Emergency Response exercises performed in the region, where these plans are tested and refined) has traditionally centred around floods and earthquakes. The SARS outbreak added pandemic planning to that suite (which we were fortunate to have as we began our response to COVID) and Lac-Mégantic caused us to update our rail hazardous incident planning. We have cold temperature and warm temperature response plans, but the current scale of climate disruption is clearly going to lead us to re-think what a regional emergency is. Heat Domes and smoke events like last summer are going to need a new approach.

It is hard for government to admit we failed, but there is no doubt we did here, as a City and as a Province. We should have been better prepared, and we need to be better prepared. We need to communicate better and differently, and we need to assure First Responders are resourced to do the job of supporting people in dangerous times. We have work to do.

Bold Steps 2021

Another great news story coming out of our Council meeting last week (and to contrast from my generally sour recent social media persona, because there is a lot to be frustrated by out there right now) was an update on the City’s Bold Steps Work Plan for 2021.

Like some other jurisdictions, the City of New Westminster declared a Climate Emergency. Like a sub-set of those jurisdictions, we are taking concrete actions in addressing that Climate Emergency, in practice and in policy. Far from being an empty declaration, it was immediately followed by Council asking staff to come up with an actionable plan and viable targets – 2050 targets to meet the IPCC goal that our Country agreed to, and more important 2030 targets that require immediate action to achieve.

I feel strongly those shorter term targets are important because they require us to act now, to put the necessary changes in to our work plans and budgets in 2021 if we hope to get there. It will be hard to hold me and my Council cohort accountable for a 2050 climate target missed (As a Mayor entering his 7th term, I’ll be untouchable!), but we will know if we are on track for 2030 in the next couple of years, and will know if our actions today will get us there.

We have talked quite a bit already about the 7 Bold Steps the City as put forward, but there is a nuance in how they exist within two overlapping magisteria (h/t Stephen J Gould) known as the Corporate Energy and Emissions Reduction Strategy (CEERS – what the City does with its own operations) and a Community Energy and Emissions Plan (CEEP – what the residents and businesses in town do). If we have 90% control over the former, we only have 10% control over the latter, and it is the much bigger nut to crack. That said, working with senior governments, we can create the right conditions for the entire community to adapt to a low-GHG economy.

The report we were provided outlines the many actions our Climate Action team and other City Departments will be undertaking in 2021. I’ll take the opportunity here to share some brief highlights from each of the 7 Bold Steps:

Carbon Free Corporation. Obviously, there are two big parts of this: our fleet and our buildings. We are replacing the CGP (our highest-emission building) and are shooting for a Zero Carbon standard for the replacement, while prioritization of retrofits and upgrades for the rest of the building stock is an ongoing project. The Green Fleet roadmap will allow us to shift to GHG-free vehicles as they become available, and assure we have the infrastructure to support them across our organization.

Car Light Community. The biggest part of this work will be shifting more spending to support Active Transportation (pedestrian safety improvements, transit support, and greenways), but it also means updating our development planning to assure we are building communities where active transportation is a viable option for more people.

Carbon Free Homes and Buildings. Two ways we can support lower-emission buildings in the City are through updating or accelerating our Step Code implementation to require that new buildings meet higher standards, and continuing to support the great work of Energy Save New West. (Did you know ESNW one of the longest running and most comprehensive community energy efficiency and GHG-reduction programs in Canada?) to help residents and businesses upgrade their own buildings and save money on energy. We are also supporting the Help Cities Lead campaign, asking the Provincial Government to give local government more tools to encourage and support a more efficient building stock.

Pollution Free Vehicles. Our biggest role here will be to support as best we can adoption of electric vehicles (e-cars, e-bikes, e-whatever comes next) by making sure we have adequate public charging, and support the installation of chargers in all new buildings.

Carbon-Free Energy. The inevitable shift from GHG-intensive energy sources to low-carbon electric power puts the city in a unique situation, with our own electrical utility. We need to update our electrical infrastructure to facilitate that, starting with our Advanced Metering Infrastructure project.

Robust Urban Forest. You may have noticed boulevard trees popping up across the Brow of the hill neighbourhood especially, we are going to keep moving ahead on that commitment, along with trying to find more opportunities to protect trees through development.

Quality Public Realm. This is one aspect of the Climate Action plan that includes adaptation to the climate change already inevitable even if we globally meet our 2050 goals. We will be doing climate risk mapping to inform that adaptation, along with other programs that may not seem like climate action (like improving road safety around schools) but is actually climate action (because it makes it more likely people won’t drive to school).

There is other work that spans all 7 Bold Steps, and indeed many of the things above overlap between steps. It is important that we have included these actions in our 5-year financial plan, which means our budget matches our priorities. But even more important, every department in the City has a role, and knows its role. The next 10 years are going to be transformational and require a culture change in how the City operates. Having everyone on board and padding the same direction is the only way we will succeed.

FREMP 2.0?

I’m going to try herd not to be too political here, but there has been something brewing that intersects both with my City Council life and my being-a-Professional-Environmental-Scientist life. As is typical in both, I have had several conversations with lots of different people over the last year or more about this, but while I was talking, others were doing, and one of those get-it-done people has put together an event where people who both talk smarter than me and do more than me are going to talk about what needs to be done if we want to be smart about doing things.

I’m talking, of course, about FREMP.

The Fraser River Estuary Management Program was, for almost 30 years, a non-profit agency funded by all three levels of government that supported responsible development and environmental protection along the Fraser River Estuary – essentially from the ocean to the Mission Bridge. Along with a sister agency called the Burrard Inlet Environmental Action Program (“BIEAP”), this was an organization that brought stakeholders together to coordinate planning, protection, and development of the federally-regulated shorelines of the Lower Mainland.

This coordination meant that when there is a change in industrial use along the waterfront, when a community suggested a project like the proposed Pier-to-Landing walkway in New West, or when environmental remediation or compensatory habitat projects are needed, there was a “one counter” approach that allowed a coordinated review by the three levels of government and relevant First Nations. It was easier for each of the government agencies, because they knew where everyone else was on projects. It was easier for proponents because they could speak to one agency and not get mixed messages from different levels of government. It was better for the estuary because impacts and compensation could be coordinated based on a plan that sought to balance the many pressures on the system. As a bonus, all of the works along the river would provide data to an invaluable repository – data vital to inform future planning and to help us understand the health of the ecosystem.

FREMP wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t deserve to be killed. As part of the now-legendary gutting of Canada’s environmental protections under the Harper Government, the Federal contributions and support for the program were cut. This matters, because with all the interagency overlap in Burrard Inlet and the Fraser River, ultimately they are federally regulated. When the Port and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans could no longer participate, the Provincial Government ministries followed their lead, and the agency was folded, leaving local governments in a bit of a lurch. The Port was tasked with environmental reviews within their narrow jurisdictional parameters, and every project was going to have to find its own path. Regional coordination was no longer coordinated. Project proponents are on their own. There is no longer a cohesive regional environmental plan for the Estuary of the most important salmon river in Canada, or for the Burrard Inlet.

The situation is shitty, and has been shitty for long enough. Several stakeholders along the river, including local governments, environmental organizations, and First Nations are talking about what I hesitate to call “FREMP 2.0”. As you may read into the above, there is some political baggage around BIEAP- FREMP, and though it was valuable, it was not a perfect design. The discussion now is around what would a better FREMP look like? There are two important components, and the interaction between the two is obvious.

The first is a return to inter-agency review and coordinated regional planning in the estuary. A one-counter stop for project applications, and a clearing house for project details and data. This will benefit local governments hoping to revitalize their waterfronts, or protect valuable industrial land-use areas. It would also serve developers and industry who would have a clearer, more predictable path to project approval, mostly by having clear understanding of the stakeholders to be engaged. Ideally, it would also make it easier for First Nations to manage the constant demand for consultation feedback by providing them the resources they need to assure their concerns are addressed, and by assuring the knowledge they carry about the history and present of the river informs planning discussions.

The second is to provide oversight to the health of the estuary ecosystems. This would mean coordinated habitat protection and restoration, and a return to collecting that important data depository of the current and future health of the river that sustains us. Part of this is understanding the changes in the river that are coming with climate change, and developing strategies to address future flood risk, ecosystem services, and water quality concerns.

All this to preface: if you care about the Fraser River, development along the river, and the protection of this unique ecology, you may be interested in this free Webinar being put on by the Climate Caucus next week. Coquitlam City Councillor is the main organizer and moderator, and she has three brilliant panelists who know much more than I about the ecology of the Fraser River, the threat, and opportunity. This should be a great introduction to the conversations that no doubt lie ahead for the Metro Vancouver region. Join us!

Assessments 2021

Assessments are here. For those who own homes, this means a letter arrived in the mail telling you what the assessed value of your property was on July 1, 2019. It also tells you what the assessed value was over the previous three years. Some people are very upset to find their property has gone up in value, which means their property taxes are going up. Others are very upset that their assessed value has gone down, and their investment is losing value. At least, that is what I glean from Social Media, but maybe I need to get out more.

I have written before about the relationship between property assessment and property taxes, and about how the assessment process works, so this will be a bit of an update/summary of those posts. A bit of redundancy, but with new numbers.

First off, your assessment does impact your property taxes, but not as directly as you may think. The City has not passed a 2021 budget, so I do not yet know what the 2021 Property Tax rates will be, but in our last discussions, we seemed to be settling towards something like a 4.9% increase over 2020. I will round that up to 5.0% for the purposes of this discussion as long as we can all agree that is speculative and the numbers may change between now and when you get the bill.

That 5% means the amount of revenue the City will receive in property taxes from existing taxpayers will go up 5%, but it does not mean the cheque you write in July will necessarily be 5% higher than the one you wrote in 2020. First off, it only impacts the portion of property taxes that the City gets to keep. Last year, your residential Property Tax Bill looked like this:

So 58% of your property tax goes to the City, 35% to the provincial government through the School Tax, and about 7% to other agencies regulated by the provincial government. Everything else I talk about below here relates only to that to-the-City portion of the tax bill. To find out how the School Tax is set or how the BC Assessment Authority spends it’s 1%, you need to go to someone else’s blog. All this to say if the City put your municipal property taxes up by 5%, the amount of money you pay only goes up about 2.9% (that is, 5% of 58%).

If you look at your Property Assessment letter, you will note that the average change in property values in the City of New Westminster was a 3% increase. Because the City calculates its property tax rate based on this average value, a 5% increase will be based on this value. If your house went up in value by the average, then a 5% tax increase means the municipal portion of your property tax bill will go up 5%. The relationship between these two numbers is linear, so to calculate your potential increase, subtract the average value increase from your own value increase, and add the 5% increase the City is proposing:

My assessment (1940 SFD on a 5,300sqft lot in the Brow) actually went down by 11% since last year. So my Municipal taxes would go down by (-11)-(3)+5=  –9%.

My friend in Sapperton (1920 SFD on a 4,000sqft lot) saw her assessment go up by 20% over last year, so her Municipal taxes would go up by (20)-(3)+5= 22%.  Yikes.

Assessment is a dark science, and every year there are weird local effects of property values in one neighbourhood going up or down relative to others, and it is not always clear what the causes of these changes are. A recent example is the Heritage Conservation Area in Queens Park which was either going to cause housing prices to go through the roof and make the neighbourhood forever inaccessible to young families, or was going to crater the value of the houses dooming young families to inescapable debt, again depending on which Social Media account you followed. The reality is, it had little perceptible effect when compared to similar properties in Glenbrook North or the West End over the last 5 years. The market is bigger than one neighbourhood.

Properties actually sell “above assessed value” or “below assessed value”, a metric that is often used as an indicator of a market trend, since assessments are always at least 6 months old. However, it is important to remember that, in aggregate, things just don’t shift as much as they do in one-off conditions. If the person up your street who spent $50,000 on a new kitchen sells their house, they are likely to get more than the neighbour who has a black mold farm in the basement, even though both houses may look the same from the outside. Assessments are approximations of how the “typical” or median house of the size, age, and lot dimensions in your neighbourhood should be valued, not an evaluation of your wainscoting. Individual results may vary.

If you think your increase or decrease this year is unfair, there is a process to appeal your assessment, but you can’t dawdle. Local governments have to know the official assessed values by April so we can set our tax rates and get those cheery bills into the mail, so the Assessment Authority has to provide official numbers by the end of March. Therefore you only have until February 1st to file an appeal, but if you think you might want to do so, you should contact BC Assessment immediately and get the details about what you need in order to make that appeal. The important part is that the onus is on you to provide evidence that the appeal is wrong, not vice versa.

Making Hay

I’m not the only one who blogged a Year in Review. At the risk of giving them a little more Streisand Effect attention than they deserve, local political Council Watchers have risen a bit from the political shadows to throw a little light mud towards City Council. I would normally let it pass without comment, except that a comment by their sole elected member is misinformed and misinforming in a way that I think undermines the work of Council and the School Board. So I’ll risk a retort.

In her year-end letter to the community, Trustee Connelly suggests the following:

The truth of the matter is that since the Trustee was elected in 2018, the City has altered the Official Community Plan with exactly four amendments:

OCP Amendment Bylaw #8156 (to remove Heritage Conservation Area protection from 7 houses, on account of their lack of heritage value);
#8122 (To support the Heritage Conservation the Slovak Hall at 647 Ewen Ave);
#8151 (a housekeeping bylaw to fix some designations that didn’t match current use); and
#8145 (to allow a Childcare operation in a hall attached to a church on Sixth Ave).

Of those, only one involved an increase in density: the Ewen Ave amendment permitted the building of 5 townhouse units in exchange for permanent preservation of the Slovak Hall. The Sixth Ave amendment was to permit the addition of 114 childcare spaces to a Heritage-protected church location, and the housekeeping amendment was to fix minor errors included in the original OCP regarding four properties – including one (ironically?) requested by the School District.

But the OCP is older than the tenure of this School Trustee, as it was adopted in 2017. So let’s test her assertion against all of the amendments made before the Trustee was elected:

#7956 (allowing childcare spaces on vacant City land in Queensborough);
#8025 (preservation of heritage single family houses in Queens Park);
#8021 (44 units of Temporary Modular Housing for women in need of support in Queensborough);
#7982 (appending a small portion of commercial land to a Townhouse and Childcare project in Queensborough);
#8039 (requiring builders of new mutli-family buildings provide EV charging infrastructure);
#8042 (expanding the Heritage Conservation Area in Queens Park).

So, to reframe the Trustee’s concern: the City has “alter[ed] their new official community plan to accommodate more densification and growth” by a grand total of five (5!) family-friendly townhouse units and a Temporary Modular Housing project to support women facing homelessness. The question may be asked: which of these OCP amendments would she have asked Council to vote against?

I know what you are going to say: “What about all the towers!?” And that is a fair question. What about them?

In the time since the Trustee was elected, there have been two high rise residential developments approved in New West. The first was a 237-unit building in Uptown which was the first major residential development approved in Uptown in more than a decade. It was also recently amended – without added density – to go from mixed strata and rental to 100% Purpose Built Rental – filling a dire need in our community. The second was an increase by about 190 units at 100 Braid to support a shift from Strata to Purpose Built Rental. Other than the units in these two towers, there have been fewer than 80 dwelling units approved through rezoning in two years in a City with more than 34,000 dwelling units in the midst of a regional housing crisis. To be clear, none of these rezonings required altering the OCP. All of those units were fully in alignment with the existing Official Community Plan. They were also in alignment with the Regional Growth Strategy approved a decade ago by New Westminster in conjunction with all 22 regional municipal governments and the Provincial Government, who funds the building of new schools.

The Trustee is free to argue that the City is growing too fast or changing in ways she doesn’t like, if that suits her political motivations (though I would note the sum of all approvals above represent a growth rate of less than 1% a year). But it is disingenuous to claim OCP Amendments are instruments to create growth. They are actually the responsible governance response to growth, and looking at the examples of OCP amendments in New Westminster, are more likely to *restrict* densification through Heritage Conservation than actually support it. Even the rezonings  are not examples of City Council forcing new population to move into areas underserved by the School District, but the building of much-needed housing in areas consistent with a decade-old regional plan and and Official Community Plan that the School District was not only consulted on, but provided meaningful feedback to.

No doubt there are challenges related to regional population growth for School Districts, and anticipating how growth impacts the School District is a significant aspect of how the City reviews development plans. This is not a “particular challenge for New Westminster“, but common across the growing region. That is one of the reasons we have a Regional Growth Strategy and an Official Community Plan in the first place.

This is also why we have Section 476 of the Local Government Act that specifically requires Local Governments to have this consultation with the Board of Education. The Trustee would like “a coordinated effort to accommodate this growth as it translates to schools” and I retort with Section 476 of the LGA, and the active role the School District has taken in the OCP and OCP Amendment process. We do this not just because it is the law, but because it is a good idea. We do it so when the School District is planning, for example, a replacement for McBride Elementary, the School district and their funders in Victoria know what capacity is needed. This is also why Council has been supporting the School District in their aggressive capital plan over the last decade, bringing new schools on line and anticipating their needs in the decade ahead.

I recognize that part of politics is making hay.  Political Science is often about finding local wedge issues and figuring out how to use them to separate yourself from *them*. But when your argument is disconnected from the way governance works (both in practice and in legislation) then it seems disingenuous. Maybe it’s a dog-whistle, maybe it’s just misinformed. I’m not sure which is worse. We all want the residents of the City to have access to great schools, and the Board of Education and City Council have a good working relationship based on an honest understanding of the pressures we both face, and a strong desire to deliver on those needs. Happy New Year.

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.

Defense

I have written a few times about the Trans Mountain Pipeline project. I have strong opinions about it that have developed through the years.

At some point in my past I worked for an organization where my job was to provide technical support to an intervenor to the National Energy Board approval process, so I have way more knowledge about this project that is probably healthy. Yes, I have read the application, yes I have read the business case, yes I have watched the story of the pipeline evolve. My opinions about the project have been formed by my emersion immersion in this process, not Twitter memes or PostMedia opinion pieces.

I continue to assert it is the wrong project at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons. It will threaten the ecology of important parts of the province, including one of the most ecologically sensitive parts of New Westminster. The business case for the pipeline is a house of cards with a foundation of bullshit. If realized at the scale that the proponents aspire towards, it will blow Canada past any semblance of the commitment we made to the world in Paris. It is an embarrassing ode to a failed economic model and an icon to lack of leadership.

Fair to say, I’m not a fan.

Just last week, the reactionary Marxist hippies in the Parliamentary Budget Office told the Parliament of Canada and the Prime Minister that the pipeline is unlikely to meet its financial targets if the country plans to meet its climate targets. These were the climate targets that the Prime Minister feigned to make “law” just a few weeks before. I am not one to say “we need to choose between the environment and the economy”, because that is a false dichotomy too often used to delay climate action, but it is clear that if we are going to meet 2050 climate targets, we need to stop investing in the 1950 model of “the economy” (take that as a warning, Massey Bridge Replacement proponents). The time for special pleadings is over.

There is other news around the TMX recently, from their workers imperiling others on New Westminster city streets to the workers imperiling themselves on the worksite, but I’m not above kicking this mangy cur when it is down. So when the BNSF police (yes, a multi-national corporation with headquarters in Houston has armed police with the power of arrest roaming the streets of British Columbia) served an injunction on land defenders that have been placing themselves in the way of the deforestation of riparian habitat in the Brunette River, it is perhaps surprising that only one reporter bothered to file a story about it.

Health researcher and physician Dr. Takaro and a group of concerned citizen have been occupying space near the New West / Burnaby / Coquitlam border since the summer. The pipeline project seems to have tolerated them for a few months, but removing the trees they are occupying now appears to be on the critical path of getting the oil to tidewater, so the injunction was served last week and the Corporate armed forces of BNSF and CN, with support from the RCMP, tore down the camp an forcefully evicted the residents. As a response, the land defenders and Dr. Takaro have filed a request to the BC Supreme Court to have the injunction set aside, citing the flawed NEB process that empowered the approval in the first place.

All this as preamble to say I am proud out City Council is clear in its support for the land defenders, as our concerns in regards to this pipeline and its location in the Burnette River riparian zone have not been addressed – not in the original NEB process rammed through by the Harper Conservatives, and not in the fake “review” offered by the feckless Trudeau Conservatives once they gained control of the process. Council released this statement today:

New Westminster Council continues to be concerned about the location of the new Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (“TMX”) within the sensitive riparian area of the Brunette River;

As an intervener in the flawed National Energy Board process that led to the approval of the TMX project, the City of New Westminster has not been satisfied that TMX sufficiently addresses the imminent and long-term risks to the Brunette River, its unique habitat, and species at risk, including recently-rejuvenated local populations of chum and coho salmon, and the endangered Nooksack dace;

New Westminster Council continues to be concerned that the TMX project is at odds with Canada’s regulated commitments under the Paris Agreement to reduce global Greenhouse Gas emissions and limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius;

New Westminster Council stands in support of the land defenders currently acting to protect fragile riparian habitat near the Brunette River through peaceful protest and occupation of federally regulated lands, and ask that the injunction preventing this action be set aside.

All I’m asking for…

Transportation is one of the biggest files in provincial government. Though annual operational spending on the operations of transportation (transit, ferries, roads total just over $2 Billion) in BC is an order of magnitude lower than the Big Three of Health, Education, and Social Services, the combined annual capital expenditure of transport and transit (also about $2 Billion) is actually higher than any other service area in provincial government.

Transportation spending and policy also have huge impacts on two of the issues that all (rational) parties agree are top-of-the-heap right now: housing affordability and climate action. So why is there so little meaningful transportation policy, aside from stuck-in-the-1950s asphalt-based solutions? The two major parties do admittedly spend a little time arguing about who will build the shiniest new freeways or save drivers the most on their insurance costs, and the Greens transportation policy is a vapour-thin “support” for sustainable transportation. It’s dismal.

This is not to say the two major parties are equivalent on transportation. Far from it. The BC Liberals spent 16 years doing everything they could to punt transit spending down the road, including wasting everyone’s time with a referendum to decide if we would fund such a basic public good while racing to fund the biggest freeway boondoggle in BC history, and promising to fund another. The NDP, for as much as I hate their stubborn refusal to understand road pricing and its necessity in growing and constrained urban areas, have at last prioritized transit expansion.

The best evidence for this is that the TransLink area is receiving much more federal capital funding per capita than any other region in Canada right now, partly because we had the shovel-ready “green” projects, but mostly because our Provincial Government quickly committed to matching funding at a scale no other Province would. SkyTrain to Langley and UBC fans may (rightly, in my mind) argue this is still not enough or soon enough, but it is more than any other region in the country is building right now.

But that’s not what I’m here to whinge about.

As vital as transit is to our growing region, it is the Active Transportation realm where we are falling behind our global cohort. This last year has made it painfully clear to local governments in urban areas. As we shift how we live, shop, and work in the post-COVID recovery, and as there has been a quiet revolution in new technology for local transportation, cities simply cannot keep up. We spent the best part of a century reshaping our Cities around the needs of the private automobile, but we won’t have decades to undo that. We need to quickly re-think our infrastructure, and re-think our policy regime if we are going to meet the demands of the 21st century urban centre and our commitments to address GHG emissions. This is our challenge. The province could help.

I see no sign that any provincial government understands that, and none look prepared to address it. The NDP are the only one that has put together stand-alone policy on active transportation, so kudos there, but it simply does not go far enough. No party in this election is talking about helping local governments make the transportation shift that we need to make, or what the vision forward is.

So now that we are through the first part of the election and are deep into the lets-try-to-keep-them-awake-with-Oppo-research-mud-slinging second act, I thought I would sketch out my ideal Active Transportation Policy. Free for the taking for a Provincial Party that cares about the transportation needs of the 65% of British Columbians who live in large urban areas (though these policies may be even more useful for the people who live in smaller communities less able to fund their own Active Transportation initiatives). Share and enjoy!


Funding:
The Provincial MOTI should have a separate fund for Active Transportation infrastructure in municipal areas. Using the projected cost of a single freeway expansion project (the Massey Tunnel replacement) as a scale, $4 Billion over 10 years is clearly something parties think is affordable. This would represent about 15% of MOTI capital funding over that decade.

If handed out through grants to appropriate projects to local governments across the province on a per-capita basis, that would mean up to $57 Million for New West – enough to complete a true AAA separated cycle network, triple our annual sidewalk and intersection improvement program, and still have enough left over to pay for the Pier-to-Landing route. It means Burnaby would have the money to bring the BC Parkway up to 21st century standards and connect their other greenways, it would mean Richmond could finally afford to fix the bucolic death trap that is River Road.

Give the Cities the resources to make it happen, and it would make British Columbia the North American leader in active transportation infrastructure. For the cost of one silly bridge.

Active Transportation Guidelines
Update and adapt the Active Transportation Design Guide with new sections to address new needs in transportation: new devices, new technologies, and reduced speeds of automobiles.

Make the guidelines standards that local governments must meet to receive funding above, and make requirements for all new MOTI infrastructure in the Province. No more bullshit hard shoulders as bike lanes, fund infrastructure that works.

Legislation:
Repeal and replace the 1950s Motor Vehicle Act following the recommendations of the Road Safety Law Reform Group of British Columbia, starting with the re-framing as a Road and Streets Safety Act to emphasize the new multi-modal use of our transportation realm.

Immediately reduce the maximum speed limits on any urban road without a centreline to 30km/h, and give local governments the authority to increase this limit where appropriate.

Introduce measures to regulate and protect the users of bicycles, motorized mobility aids, e-bikes, scooters and other new mobility technology, including a Safe Passing law and regulations towards the clear separation of cycles and motorized cycles from pedestrian spaces along with clearly mandated rules and responsibilities for use to reduce conflict in multi-use spaces.

Education:
Implement driver knowledge testing with licence renewal. The Motor Vehicle Act has changed in the 30 years since I was last asked to test my knowledge of it (self-test – what are elephant feet, and what do they mean?) and it will be changing much more in years to come. Written/in office testing for all drivers with every 5-year renewal is a first step, and road testing for those with poor driving records will do a lot to bring back a culture of driving as a responsibility not a right.

Fund cycling and pedestrian safety program in all schools, similar to the cycling training the City of New Westminster funds through HUB.

Enforcement:
A comprehensive review of the fine and penalty structure for Motor Vehicle Act (or it’s replacement) violations, to emphasize more punitive measures for those who violate the Act in ways that endanger vulnerable road users.

Empower local governments to install intersection and speed enforcement camera technology and provide a cost recovery scheme for installation of this type of automated enforcement for municipalities who choose to use them.


That’s it. Engineering, education, and enforcement. Operational costs are mostly directly recoverable, and the capital investment is not only small compared to the MOTI capital budget, it is in scale with the mode share of active transportation in urban areas. The legislative changes are not free, but the resultant savings to ICBC and the health care system of reduced injury and death should be significant.

We can do these things. We should do these things. Our cities will be safer, more livable, and less polluting. This is an area where BC can lead, we just need someone willing to lead.

Protectors

There is something else that has been going on in New West (and right next door in Burnaby) for several weeks that is not getting nearly enough attention. There have been a small group of people, led by Dr. Tim Takaro, leading a peaceful occupation of the Trans Mountain Pipeline right-of-way through the Brunette River riparian area. If you live in New West, or if you are concerned about the role your federal government plays in addressing Canada’s shameful climate change legacy, you should care.

It is possible in 2020 that many of us are feeling “protest fatigue”. After the Climate Strikes of last fall, the actions in support of the Wet’suwet’en in the spring, the seemingly unstoppable 24-hour news of protest and counter-protest around Black Lives Matter and Indigenous rights movements, the nation south of us in such a downward spiral, all while we are living under the fogbank of a global pandemic – how many people have capacity for another call to action or protest against injustice right now? For anyone who even gives even the littlest shit about the state of the world and future generations, it can all feel crushing. Not because this doesn’t matter, but because everything freaking matters.

Some people I talk to about this are lamenting (or sometimes celebrating) that the pipeline is fait accompli. The Federal Government has dropped its your money into it, the pipe is bought, the court cases are exhausted. Even as the dark reality of questionable financial viability dawns on us, and the guy who bought the pipeline slinks from office to find other opportunities to mess with global capital, the sunk cost fallacy is pushing us forward into a $12.5 Billion investment in stranded carbon assets. But that’s global macroeconomics and climate denialism, what does that have to do with us here in little old New West?

As I have talked about before, the new Trans Mountain pipeline is going to move more than half a million barrels a day of oil products through the Brunette River, just meters from the New Westminster border, and just before the Brunette flows into New Westminster and discharges to the Fraser immediately upstream of our waterfront. I say the new Trans Mountain Pipeline, because here in the Lower Mainland, they are not “twinning” or “expanding” the existing pipeline, they are routing a second pipeline kilometers from the existing one (which will still pump away as it always does). The new route passes through the most sensitive riparian area of the Brunette: a river that a small group of underappreciated local heroes spent decades bringing back from an industrial sewer to a place that hosts spawning salmon again. The new pipeline is proposed to dig through the very riparian area that supports those salmon and a rich diversity of other flora and fauna, one of the few remaining natural streams in the urban sprawl of the Burrard Peninsula.

So here we are again, another small group of dedicated people protecting a legacy for generations. With time a’ticking and construction equipment staging, they are occupying the space in the hopes that their presence will prevent the felling of trees and clearing of brush and digging of trenches. There has not been much mention of this protest that has been going for more than a month, aside from a couple of early news stories when Dr. Takaro initially went into the trees.

The protest came to the attention of New West council as the occupants were using lower Hume Park for staging some of the activity, it being the nearest open public assembly place to the protest site. Although the actual occupied site is in Burnaby, the crossing of North Road and the Brunette River is a jurisdictionally-challenging spot, where Burnaby, New West, and Coquitlam meet and the federal railways have some policing powers (don’t start with me about how multinational corporations have armed policing powers in Canada –that’s another rant for another time). So it is worthwhile to point out that the three municipalities have taken varying approaches to the TMX expansion.

New Westminster was an intervenor in the Environmental Assessment, strongly opposed the project and its re-location to the Brunette watershed, and have supported legal challenges to the project. Burnaby’s opposition to the project has taken them to the Supreme Court of Canada. Coquitlam has said “show us the money”.

As a City Council, we have received no formal correspondence from the pipeline project team since the federal government took over the project. After formally opposing it for a list of technical reasons in 2017, we received a letter in response from (then) Minister Sohi in 2018 letting us know they received our letter, but they had just bought the entire project, so they are moving ahead.

My reasons for opposition to this project are informed by my participation in the original Environmental Assessment process in a technical role, and honed by my role as an elected official in an impacted community. I have been at this long enough that I remember the Harper-led federal government listening to our concerns before telling us they don’t care, then tearing up the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and Fisheries Act to prove the point. In hindsight, that seems more honest than the Trudeau-led federal government lying to us about accountability, promising to end subsidizing oil and gas, and then throwing our chips down on the biggest oil company bailout in Canadian history. I wonder where Minister Sohi is now, after so much was invested in trying to protect his lonely Alberta seat.

Anyway, I’m ranting.

The protest is ongoing in the woods just west of the North Road, south of the Highway 1 overpass, but you may see a few people spending time staging or handing out information in lower Hume Park. Drop by and say Hi if you are in the area, send them some support if you like. Maybe you might want to let your elected representatives know if you think building a pipeline to expedite bitumen sand development in the face of a Climate Emergency is a thing you want them to spend your money on in 2020, or whether you value healthy salmon habitat in your community.