UBCM 2021

One of the things that kept me too busy to blog last month was the annual Union of BC Municipalities meeting. As with many of my Council colleagues, I attended the meeting virtually, and had a bunch of accessory meetings around the main UBCM meeting events. It’s a little tardy, but here is my slightly Inside Baseball run-down of my extended UBCM week.


Minister Meetings
UBCM presents an annual opportunity for Local Government elected folks (with staff support) to meet with Provincial Government Ministers (and their staff) on pretty much every topic under the sun. Depending on the Local Government and the Minister, this may be asking the senior government for money to support projects, for changes in legislation, for partnership on specific initiatives, to share concerns or to get clarity on programs. As this was a pandemic meeting, and therefore remote, we were not as rushed to meet during and in between UBCM events, so most Minister meetings happened in the week before the actual UBCM conference.

The City had several meetings with Ministers, attended by different members of Council. I was fortunate to be able to meet with Minister of Municipal Affairs, and along with Councilor Trentadue, provide her a summary of some significant Capital Works we have planned- including upgrades to the Massey Theatre and renewing a vision for connecting our Riverfront from the Queensborough to Sapperton Landing. We also talked about a potential for regional coordination of fire boat services.

Though I could not attend, the City also had meetings with other Ministries, including with the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and the Minister of Public Safety in regards to reviewing how we can better address the community impacts of homelessness and addiction and take the load off of Police for this work that really needs a compassionate heath-focused approach.

In my role on the executive of the Lower Mainland Local Government Association, I was also able to meet with Minister of Environment and Climate Change Action Heyman to talk about our members’ recent resolutions regarding the end of CARIP and the need for some more tools to Help Cities Lead and our hopes that the next stage of Clean BC will include these supports.


Resolutions
This session stretched over two days is where Members vote to endorse or not support Resolutions proposed by member municipalities. In sense, this is meant to represent the collective desires of Local Governments across BC, but should usually be seen through the lens of the slightly strange political structure of the UBCM. Any municipality can put a resolution forward, but the Resolution Committee of the (elected) UBCM Executive vets them and prioritizes them for voting, even recommending if Members should vote for specific ones. The voting members are not weighed by population or any such thing – essentially any elected official who registers for the meeting and shows up for the resolution session gets a vote. So eleven possible votes from Vancouver, seven possible votes from New Westminster, five possible votes from Pouce Coupe.

You can read all of the Resolutions here. The City of New Westminster had two resolutions:

NR36: Single-Use Item Regional Regulation

Whereas enactment of bylaws to regulate single-use items by individual municipalities could lead to a mosaic of regulations across the region and in BC, which may lead to confusion and inconsistency for residents and businesses in the sale or distribution of these items; And

whereas greater consistency could be achieved by implementing a regional approach; And

whereas regional districts do not have the authority to establish bylaws or regulations in relation to the sale or distribution of single-use items:

Therefore be it resolved that UBCM request the Province to engage with regional governments to develop legislation which would provide regional districts with the legislative authority to restrict the sale and distribution of single-use items.

NR45: Inclusion of Allied Health Workers to Help Combat the Opioid Crisis

Whereas the opioid crisis and mental health challenges affect at least 1 in 5 BC residents and has been compounded by the COVID-19; And

whereas evidence shows that access to upstream services such as counselling related specialties and physical/occupational therapy decreases opioid use and/or provides better health intervention outcomes, but these are not accessible to many residents as they are not covered and are much too expensive through fee for services; And

whereas communities are currently struggling to meet the needs of our residents, between funding of community programs and increased mental health calls for first responders, which already comprise between 20-30 percent of local government expenditures and are not often the most appropriate service to support people in crisis:

Therefore be it resolved that UBCM request that the Province expand access to and funding for allied health professionals, particularly mental health counselling specialties and physical/occupational therapy related specialties, through expansion of team-based care through not-for-profit delivery including community health centres, available to all BC residents regardless of their immigration status and income, throughout the province; And

be it further resolved that the Province increase support and funding for Peer Navigators as part of the BC Mental Health and Addictions Strategy

Members of the UBCM voted to endorse both of these motions.

I was also there to champion two resolutions from the Lower Mainland LGA:

EB35 Help Cities Lead

Whereas emissions by buildings account for 40-60 percent of a community’s green-house gas (GHG) emissions, and current actions in British Columbia to reduce GHG emissions from buildings are insufficient to achieve the province’s GHG targets for 2030 and 2050; and

Whereas the November 2020 mandate letters to ministers include direction to provincial ministries to move forward with three of the five policy measures included in the Help Cities Lead campaign to drive GHG reduction in British Columbia’s building sector:

Therefore be it resolved that UBCM call upon the provincial government to immediately introduce legislation supporting the three measures identified by Help Cities Lead and addressed in ministerial mandate letters: GHG requirements for new buildings, PACE financing, and home energy labelling; and

Be it further resolved that UBCM call upon the provincial government to introduce empowering legislation to permit local governments who so choose to implement the remaining two measures identified in the Help Cities Lead’s campaign: GHG requirements for existing buildings and building energy benchmarking.

NR32 Renewed Vision for Fraser River Estuary

Whereas the Fraser River Estuary is a diverse and productive ecosystem, supporting over 100 species at risk, including salmon and southern resident killer whales, and, is under increased development pressure and impacts of climate change, including flooding of industrial and agricultural lands, and would benefit from a regional planning approach that balances the needs of the ecosystem, people and the economy; and

Whereas Indigenous people have lived in and stewarded the Fraser River Estuary since time immemorial, and know the various species, habitat, and ecosystems as integral to their existence and identity, and are integral to the planning and governance of the of the Fraser River Estuary:

Therefore be it resolved that UBCM call on the federal and provincial governments to allocate the necessary resources and appropriately fund and support a renewed Fraser River Estuary Management planning process that will collectively protect the ecosystem of the Estuary through inter-agency collaboration; and

be it further resolved that the planning process includes, but is not limited to: First Nations, federal government and provincial governments.

Both of these Resolutions were also endorsed by the Membership.


Conference

The other part of the UBCM is all of the stuff you would usually have at a conference: Workshops, panel discussions, and Plenary sessions where we get speeches from important people, from John Horgan to Rick Mercer. I would have to say one difference this UBCM compared to some previous events was the openness of the NDP cabinet members all the way up to the Premier, even taking Questions from the (digitally) assembled crowd, instead of just doing a speech. It may be my bias, or it may have some relationship to our coming out of the peri-Pandemic times and the virtual nature of the meeting, but I get the sense that the shine is not off the NDP (yet?) for most local government officials, and the reception to them was warmer than in previous years, and with previous governments.

Unusually, I was on a panel this year (see photo above) talking about the Heat Dome event, what went wrong locally, and what it means for decision making ahead. I also attended a few other sessions, including a Town Hall led by the Minister for Local Government with a few other members of cabinet on Building Resilient Communities (which was frustratingly neoliberal in its definition of the problem, and its proposed solutions), a Workshop on Climate Action and the Municipal Pension Plan that turned out to be an hour of excuses about why they won’t do the fossil fuel divestment many of their members want. (Ugh).


The 2021 UBCM was virtual. The organization put together a really strong on-line portal to access the event, and it ran super smooth. The public face of the platform was so seamless and functional, it must have only been possible with a bunch of sweat, stress, and chaos behind the (digital) curtain. So kudos to the organizers for achieving that, and i hope the folks who made it work get the thanks they deserve.

Although I missed having those important informal social connections with my Local Government cohort from across the province, I did walk away from UBCM, once again, recharged and excited about the work ahead. So many leaders are doing incredible work to support their communities, finding local approaches to global problems, it makes sharing both the successes and the frustrations so important. Especially over the last 18 months, it has been easy to get discouraged or disheartened about the challenges. Challenges seem to be piling up everywhere, from Vancouver to Pouce Coupe. But knowing there are so many people dedicating themselves to making their corner of the province work better, be safer, more prosperous, and more just, gets me back in the mood that we can make a difference.

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.

Ask Pat: Ferry & Fixed Link

John asked—

Hi, Pat. I have read everything on your blog over the years, and support all of your ideas for a more equitable/human distribution of public spaces. Now that the pandemic has shown how fragile the Q2Q link is, I must ask if the idea of a fixed pedestrian bridge has been re-opened. I know that there were legal concerns regarding use of the existing rail link as an affordable solution, but, is it just possible that there may be a change of heart in that direction?

It’s not really a change in heart, because it wasn’t heart that prevented the bridge from being built.

I agree that the COVID situation caused us reflect over what the QtoQ ferry is meant to be, and how we value its operation. This conversation was a frequent one during the use restrictions, and is an ongoing source of angst in the Queensborough community. Recently, I was part of a Queensborough Residents association meeting with MP Julian, MLA Singh and School Board Chair Dhaliwal where this discussion came up again, and I thought to myself “Self, you have that Ask Pat just sitting there, you ever going to write an answer?”
Sorry it took so long.

The story of the fixed pedestrian bridge has not changed much since I wrote this long explanation of the pitfalls of the project, and the same problems remain. There is still some unspent DAC funding (although the Casino being closed for two years may impact that), but nowhere near enough to build the project. The engineering challenge of building it high enough for the Port Authority to permit it, yet keeping it accessible (i.e. less than 5% grades) remain problematic. The use of a swing or bascule bridge significantly increases build and operational cost (including, most likely, full time staffing).

The issues with using the existing train bridge are not just legal. Naturally, the Houston-based owner of the railway is reluctant to take on the liability of having a large piece of pedestrian infrastructure they don’t own attached to their bridge, but that could be overcome with insurance and agreements. There is a question of how to attach a pedestrian sidewalk to a 105-year-old bridge, but I think engineers could come up with something that works. The real problem is that the existing train bridge, with only a few metres of clearance over the river, has a default setting of “open” for boats to pass through, and only “closed” when a train passes, which is on the order of once a day. This would not work for a pedestrian link, for obvious reasons. The Port will not permit the change of operation of the bridge to default “closed” (permitting pedestrian crossings) with limited “openings” when a boat passes, for a number of reasons, including the increased collision risk on the river.

A pedestrian bridge can’t work like the existing train bridge – it must be much higher above the river, unless the Port and Marine Carriers can be convinced to change their regulatory requirements. There is nothing in it for the federally-regulated Port or Marine Carriers to agree to this. Our problems are not their problems, and they have authority.

That said, this still needs to be our medium- or long-term vision. Increasingly, our communities (not just New West, but every community on the River and marine coast) is seeing the waterfront as a place for people, not just a place for industrial activity. And as I have lamented in the past, too much of this prime riverfront industrial land us being used for industrial activities that in no way connect to the river. So building a fixed crossing is going to take more than money and vision, it is going to take partnerships across the region to help pay for it, and to shift the mindset about the River as a transportation challenge.

So, in the meantime we have the QtoQ Ferry.

Which brought us to the conversation through COVID times about how far the City was willing to go to support this service. The early response was to suspend the service for two reasons. Much like the Library, we did not know if we could operate safely and within unclear provincial health restrictions. And much like the Canada Games Pool, we simply couldn’t justify spending money on running it with the very low number of people who were going to show up to use it, as other transportation modes (transit and cars) shut down suddenly. Eventually, the health restriction issues were worked out (with protocols and reduced capacity), but the ridership was slow to come back, which led to, what I think, was a really healthy discussion at Council.

The essence of the discussion was (to me, at least, I shouldn’t talk for all of Council) whether the QtoQ was a vital transportation link or a nice to have community amenity. In my mind, if it was the latter, then I was not interested in us funding it at a time when our finances were so uncertain and the priorities were piling up in COVID response. However, as I was convinced we needed to see it as the former, it only became a discussion of how much we can afford to fund. A few adjustments of schedule were made, as people’s commuting patterns were shifted by the pandemic, and the service that worked best before was probably not the service we needed after.

The QtoQ is never going to pay for itself in its current format. The small ($2) fee to ride it does recover some money, but much like the Canada Games Pool or the Queens Park Arena (or Public Transit, for a regional comparator), the QtoQ is a community benefit we have decided to invest in, and we spend some of your property taxes running it.

If you value it, the second best thing you can do is let Council know. The best thing you can do is take the Ferry as often as you can and put your $2 down to show this transportation link is valuable. Demonstrating to partners (TransLink, Metro Vancouver, Port of Vancouver, senior Governments) that a link here is valued by the residents and helps with regional active transport network is the best way to build on the service to make it more financially secure, and to demonstrate that the fixed link deserves to be built.

Ask Pat: Vacant Land Tax

Boy, its been a while since I did one of these, and there are a few in the queue. Sorry, folks, I really mean to be more timely with these, but to paraphrase Pascal, I don’t have enough time to write shorter notes. No Council meeting this week, so maybe I’ll try to knock a couple off. This was a fun one:

T J asks—

Has anyone proposed some kind of empty lot tax to encourage developers or property holders to activate the properties into some kind of use? Prime example corner of 5th Ave & 12th St but many others throughout downtown we noticed over a weekend walk.

Yes, people have proposed it, but it currently isn’t legal.

Municipalities in BC are pretty limited in how they can apply property taxes. For the most part, we are permitted to create tax rates for each of the 8 property classes assessed by the BC Assessment Authority (Residential, Industrial, Commercial, Farm, etc.), and all properties that fall within a class are assessed the same rate. That means Condos, rental apartments, townhouses and houses pay the same mill rate because they all fall under Residential Class, and big box multinational retailers pay the same mill rate as your favourite mom & pop haberdashery. Local Governments aren’t permitted to pick and choose preferential tax rates within those categories to, say, favour Mom & Pop over the Waltons, or favour Rentals over Condos, or favour improved lands over vacant lands.

Since the tax you pay is based on the assessed value, owners actually pay less tax on vacant land than on “improved” land, because the assessed value of the land is a combination of the value of the land and the value of the buildings upon it. Playing around in the BC assessment website, you can see sometimes the building is worth as much as the land, in some cases the building value is close enough to zero that tax essentially only relates to bare land value. Therefore, investing in land improvement on vacant or derelict properties increases the assessed value, and increases property taxes. In a sense, the current property tax system incentivizes keeping an investment property unimproved.

Best I can tell, the Provincial Speculation and Vacancy Tax does not apply to vacant or derelict properties – but don’t take that as legal advice (this is a blog post, not official communications from a tax professional), though the BC gov’t website is a little vague on this specific point. Maybe you will have more luck than me getting clarity from the legalese.

Interestingly, the City of Vancouver’s Empty Homes Tax does apply to vacant properties that are designated for residential use. Vancouver was given that ability through an amendment to the Vancouver Charter, so it is not applicable to municipalities regulated by the Community Charter like New West, and the province doesn’t seem interested in expanding it to other cities (see below). Regardless, as this tax is designed to incent owners to bring vacant residential property in to use, it would also not work to encourage the activation of the commercial properties like you mention in Downtown New West.

But your question was whether anyone has proposed this? The way Local Government leaders would propose this is to send a resolution to the UBCM meeting asking the Provincial government to change the legislation to make it possible. If the majority of Local Gov’t elected types at the UBCM convention vote to endorse this resolution, it becomes an endorsed resolution – an “official ask” of government. My quick review of just some recent UBCM resolution sessions turns up resolutions in 2016 (“B3- Vacant Land Taxation”), 2017 (”B91 Tax on Vacant & Derelict Residential Properties”), 2018 (“A3 Modify Speculation Tax: Local Government Vacancy Levy”), and 2019 ( “B19 Extension of Vacancy Taxation Authority to Local Governments”) all asking for some form of taxation power for vacant land, all endorsed by the membership of the UBCM.

Every year, the Provincial government responds to these resolutions, usually with some form of “we’ll think about it”. This excerpt is from their response to the 2019 resolution:

So, yeah, don’t hold your breath.

That said, as the Provincial Government notes, Local Governments do have some ability to fine derelict or unsightly property owners, though it is a somewhat onerous and staff-time-consuming process to demonstrate nuisance, and the Bylaw does not extend to our ability to say one must build a building on a lot. You are entitled to own an empty grass field or an empty gravel parking lot, as long as it doesn’t constitute a nuisance. Any attempt to use this Bylaw authority as a de facto tax would surely not survive a court challenge.

New Westminster does have one special power, though, and it is found in a unique piece of Provincial Legislation called the New Westminster Redevelopment Act, 1989. I would call your attention to Section 3 of the Act, as it is a bit of a Mjolnir-like piece of legislation. But that is probably best saved for a follow-up blog post as we talk about the current situation in Downtown New Westminster.

Ask Pat: 22nd Street

GM asks—

Hi Pat, found you website and it is a hidden gem! So many great content. My name is Gilbert and I’m about to move New Westminster from Coquitlam. I’m about to purchase a house near 22nd Skytrain. I heard about the 22nd master plan and thought it could be good opportunity for me to enjoy the commute while ride along the development with the city. Do you have any insight on that area? Looks like the city suspend the OCP due to pandemic. Thanks in advance!

Right off the bat, I need to say: Ask Pats are bad places to ask for real estate advice. Besides me just being really slow to respond (sorry!), these are my blogged thoughts, not official City communications. Any speculations I may make need to be recognized as just that, and not something to base important decision-making upon. If you bought a house in New West, great! If you are selling one in New West, hope things go well. But for the love of all that is Hyack, don’t use this website to inform either of those decisions!

The area around 22nd Street Station is known as Connaught Heights, and is an interesting neighbourhood. It is the “last piece” of New Westminster, in that it was not even an official part of the Municipality until 1968, which is why it is slightly out-of-phase with the rest of the West End. One way this has manifest is the lack of sidewalks. Before the local economy went (to use the technical term) into the crapper around 1970, the City generally built sidewalks on all its streets. The 1970s downturn meant investments like this slowed down, and by the time it recovered we were into the modern “get new builders, not taxpayers, to pay for new infrastructure” phase of civic planning. With so little new building in Connaught Heights, it mostly didn’t get done. (The City has started a program to build sidewalks in Connaught Heights as part of the new Master Transportation Plan, supported by TransLink and starting with a new one up 21st Street).

There is other strange legacy stuff in Connaught. The BC Hydro right-of-way where a major over-ground utility line crosses sort of diagonally thought the neighbourhood leaving a somewhat fallow “green space” that some residents use for recreation. The re-alignments of the Queensborough Bridge landings, the swath the SkyTrain runs though, the cut of Southridge Drive and the weird connections to “old Marine Drive” make Connaught a bit of a stand-alone island of a neighbourhood from a transportation sense. This was made more so by varying ideas about traffic calming introduced over the years.

Whatever the cause, the neighbourhood hasn’t really changed in form since the Skytrain station was installed in 1985. It is still mostly single family detached homes, with one low-rise apartment building, a big church and a little school. It’s worth noting homes are still being replaced on a fairly regular basis, but always with larger lot-maximizing houses. This is not resulting in “growth” in the traditional sense, as the Connaught neighbourhood has essentially the same population it had 20 years ago (in the most recent census in 2016, Connaught was the only neighbourhood in New Westminster to shrink in population).

This is relatively rare for neighbourhoods with SkyTrain stations in the middle of them, and at odds with the regional emphasis of Transit Oriented Development. There are a few other stations with single family homes across the street 35 years after station opening, but with the possible exception of 29th Avenue in Vancouver, no transit hub has been as persistently low-density as 22nd Street.

Why? Someone smarter than me wrote a theses on the topic. It is especially interesting to read Chapter 6 of that thesis where a bunch of reasons why are discussed. Turns out the reasons are myriad, including City plans that didn’t encourage change, the difficulty of assembling single family lots, and a general sense that the community would resist significant change:

Sign on the lawn of a house about 20 feet from the main entrance to 22nd Street station.

In the Current Official Community Plan, most of Connaught Heights is listed as a “Comprehensive Development District” whose land use purpose is described as:

In a way, this makes it similar to the Brewery District or the Sapperton Green area. The vision would be to create a single “Master Plan” for the area so that new housing, utilities, amenities, and transportation can all be planned together. There is a map in the OCP that gives some preliminary vision of the neighbourhood, with mixed use centered on 7th avenue, with the RH and MH being high density (towers), RM being middle density (likely 6-storey) and RT being ground-oriented townhouse style:

However I need to emphasize this is a very preliminary guideline, and through the Master Planning process, a more refined land use plan would be developed, taking into account transportation, amenities, interaction with the SkyTrain and adjacent road network, protection of green spaces, etc. etc. It may end up very different than this map, or even different than what pops out of the Master Planning, as priorities and economics change over the life of a long-term project like this. The initial plans for the Brewery District did not anticipate the shift to Purpose Built Rental that the community has seen, for example, and we have still to work out some details of the last building on that site.

The difference between this and the Brewery District or Sapperton Green is that the latter are owned by a single company, so the work to create this “Master Plan” could fall on them, with guidance from the City and engagement with the community. 22nd Street is still single family homes with separate owners, so if a Master Plan is to be developed, it will fall on the City to do that work. The OCP outlines a plan to start that work:

As you suggest, that planning work has been kicked down the road a bit. Partly because of limited staff resources, and Council’s decision to emphasize different work like supporting affordable housing, rental protection regulations, and supporting development review for projects already in the application process. This was more recently punted further down the road when we had to re-prioritize work in light of COVID and some other emergent policy development areas.

So, the area will change, lawn signs notwithstanding, but I really don’t know what the timeline is. Either the City will develop a Master Plan and the development community will respond by assembling lands to bring it to fruition, or the development community will find some unlocked value in the area and force the matter by assembling ahead of time and drive the Master Planning. However, a lot of pieces have yet to fall into place, and as we see the slow pace of development in Sapperton Green or perhaps a more similar parallel the “Eastern Node” in Queensborough, this type of change can take a long time.

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!

Population 2020

Statistics Canada’s population estimates for 2020 are out, and there is a bit of news coming from them. Maybe more “confirmations” than “news”, but it is interesting to look into our assumptions of how the region is growing compared to the data. As a Local Government elected type, I am actually more interested in how the population is growing compared to the predictions used to develop the Regional Growth Strategy that guides development in our City and the rest of metro Vancouver.

First, the headlines. New West grew fastest (as a percentage of population) of any Municipality over the 2019-2020 year. Residents will recognize the reasons for this, with a couple of fairly high profile residential developments coming on line in the last year and a half, including a couple of major Purpose Built Rental projects. Our being in first is likely a one-year blip, but our growth rate since the 2011Regional Growth Strategy was created is among the highest in the region, only behind Surrey, Langley Township, the Tsawwassen First Nations Lands and Electoral Area A (which is mostly UBC endowment lands). But the growth rate isn’t the whole story. We added just over 15,000 people in the last 9 years, compared to more than 120,000 in Surrey and 80,000 in the City of Vancouver proper.

How does this relate to the Regional Growth Strategy? That document was approved by all Municipalities in Metro Vancouver back in 2011, and serves as the master regional planning document. In order for our region to plan new utilities like water and sewer services, flood protection, green space needs, transit and roadways, we need to predict how many people are going to be living here in the decades ahead, and where in the region they are going to live. So the strategy includes growth predictions for 2021, 2031, and 2041 produced by demographic experts who do that kind of thing. As we close in on 2021, we have an opportunity to see if the predictions have so far got it right.

The newest Stats Can numbers are for 2020, so we can compare the actual change over 9 years with the predicted change over 10 years from the RGS:

Here are the headlines I pull out of this. Metro Vancouver predicted the regional population would increase by 18% over 10 years, it has increased 16% over 9 years, which puts us pretty much on track to be within 1% of the estimates. That’s pretty good. However, before looking at the breakdown by community, I want to project the growth rate of the last 9 years to one more year so we are having as fair a comparison to 2021 goals as we can (until after the 2021 Census, which should be available a year from now):

You can see that the population growth of the region is less than 1% behind what was predicted, meaning about 22,000 fewer people moved to the region than expected – not bad for a decade-long population trend for almost 2.8 Million people, especially as the factors affecting this (immigration, global socio-economics) are largely out of the control of local and regional governments. The difference in how this growth was distributed across the region is a different story, and this is something local governments have more (but not ultimate) control over.

That last table might be easier to digest in comparative pie charts:

Edit: To @MarkAllerton’s point, this may be a better graphic? 

Aside from Electoral Area A/UBC, you can see a few cities have exceeded their growth targets, and perhaps there are no surprises which ones: North Vancouver City (densifying its waterfront and the Londsdale corridor), Maple Ridge (a fast-growing suburb supported by lots of new freeway infrastructure), New West (growing a transit-oriented urban area), and Surrey (growing both its transit-oriented City Centre and its freeway-supported suburbs). Vancouver marginally exceeded its growth target as did White Rock and Delta. In raw numbers, Vancouver added 21,000 more residents than predicted (sorry, Councillor Hardwick!), where Surrey added 18,000 more residents than predicted and New West just over 4,000 above the goal.

Who didn’t meet their target? Again, the Tsawwassen First Nation is a bit of an anomaly, and for that matter so are Belcarra and Anmore, whose tiny population counts are irrelevant to regional trends. West Vancouver – the only significant municipality to actually lose population during this period of unprecedented growth – should surprise no-one that they didn’t meet even their meagre Regional Growth Strategy targets. Perhaps the bggest surprise is how far behind the Tri Cities are in comparison to their goals. All missed by more than 10%, even as they received the biggest regional transit investment of the last decade in the Evergreen Extension. Coquitlam is more than 20,000 residents short of the regional target – a number very similar to the number of extra residents that moved into Vancouver.

This is interesting, and is a conversation we have to have as a region as we look to update the RGS in the next year. Perhaps in the context of the first suggestion in a recent Op-Ed by Delta City Councillor Dylan Kruger (note: Delta is really close to its targets, though those targets are a little light due to lack of transit infrastructure planned that direction), where he suggests the region should:

“Tie provincial and federal grant dollars to achievable municipal housing targets. We can’t keep spending billions of dollars on SkyTrain projects without guarantees that cities will actually allow transit-oriented development”

I suppose we could ask Metro Vancouver and senior governments to tie their City-supporting grants and benefits (new Metro Vancouver park money, Provincial and Federal Active Transportation funding, transit capital funding, Green Infrastructure funding, etc.) to municipalities meeting and exceeding the regional targets that those Municipalities already agreed to. It is the Municipalities who are building the housing that our region demonstrably needs that will also feel the greater need for green space and sustainable transportation investment to support those residents. However, there is a significant chicken-and-egg problem, as we would need to see the building on the ground prior to approving the amenities, as Municipalities have proven a willingness to renege on growth commitments once they get their baubles, and I cannot imagine how the region would introduce penalties for local governments doing this, and the regional fray that would result.

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.

Projections

I want to talk about this picture.

Because it triggered for me something that has been banging around in the back of my head for a few years, and I have not really known how to relate it. When it arrived a few years ago thoughts like this were too catastrophic to fit into our world view. Maybe our world view is changing, but I’m not sure about it.

At the time, I was on the Metro Vancouver Utility Committee, which is a committee of local elected officials that get together to discuss the operations of the water and sewer infrastructure of the region and review capital plans for the Metro Vancouver Board. (This has been replaced after the 2018 election with separate Liquid Waste and Water committees). As was our mandate, we were doing long-term planning for the region’s water supply. Really long-term, like 50 – 100 years.

This is important, because major water infrastructure like our three big reservoirs, the dams that support them, and the pipes and pumps and stuff that move a billion litres of water around every day is really expensive stuff. Once installed, it may be in the ground for a century or longer. In a rapidly-growing region with land constraints like Greater Vancouver, big decisions about how, where, and when we invest in this infrastructure are important.

To inform that planning, we needed to include projections about climate change. Beyond just being hotter in the summer, and the potential for less snowpack, we need to consider impacts on ENSO and other global climate systems that may drastically shift when and how much rain falls in our watersheds so we are capable of storing the right amount. We had science types who study this stuff in universities for a living providing models for us.

The subject matter experts were able to, I think, provide a pretty good summary of what we know, what we don’t know, and what we don’t know we don’t know about the climate are we project to 2100, about 80 years in the future. There were several chuckles around the table from comfortable elected people “I’ll be dead then! Har Har!” which is its own telling moment, but I digress.

Scientists being science types, they spent a lot of time talking about uncertainty. There are a variety of models, none of them perfect, and subtle adjustments of what we put into the model can have big impacts over decades. Will the world meet the Paris Agreement goals? Will the economic growth of the last decades continue? Will Elon Musk invent the Mr. Fusion? All of these are external things climate scientists cannot predict, but they can make projections based on different amounts of greenhouse gasses going into the atmosphere. From those they can infer the impact on temperatures, sea and air circulation patterns, feedbacks positive and negative. They have several different models, and into each they can add several emissions scenarios, and they end up with scores or hundreds of different results.

These projected results are not random, though. They cluster. They reinforce each other as often as they differ. In the report we were given, there were three distinct clusters in projecting the temperature impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Greater Vancouver. As is the wont of planners and engineers, they hope for the “best case”, plan around the “middle case”, and have contingencies for the “worst case”.

Looking at a “middle case” for 2100, they made some iterations around our watersheds, how the hydrology of them will be impacted, how spring rains vs. summer rains impact storage need. All to figure how we will assure we can supply water to a City of (I can’t remember the number now, but for the sake of moving the discussion along let’s say it was) 4 Million people. Great, we put our stake in the ground, and have something to plan around. If things change, we will adjust, but this is the point we adjust from.

I put my hand up. “If the annual temperature increases by that much, what does that mean for the trees we are protecting in the watersheds? Can they tolerate that change?”

The answer was “outside of our current scope”. Not the topic of this discussion. We moved on to reservoir design options.

But it doesn’t take much research to discover that, even in the “middle scenario” provided, we are looking at temperatures that are outside of the habitat range of the Douglas fir, the western hemlock, the sitka spruce, the red cedar. The trees will likely die.

Sitting in Metro Vancouver’s offices, you could look over at the North Shore Mountains. It was hard to imagine what Vancouver will look like in 2100 with those trees dead or dying. To most of us, those green mountainsides reaching to rocky peaks define Vancouver. So much so that the City has expensive and complicated “view cone” programs to assure that people’s view of that green expanse is protected by policy. I’m not sure anyone is really thinking about what it means if they are gone.

Maybe it’s too hard to imagine. Just another bummer on the pile, and I’ll be dead by then. Or maybe our current sepia-toned sky should prompt us to imagine why we have made this choice.


Thanks to Mr. Mathew Bond for permission to lament over your photo.

RCH, TDM, LOS. Oh My!

I raised some concerns about the Royal Columbian Hospital expansion project in Council this week, and I thought it would be worthwhile expanding on the issue here. This is a unique development in the City, and that takes a bit of unpacking what a rezoning really is to explain where we are now. So background before gripes:

Usually, a rezoning in the City is a negotiation between a private land owner (commonly a development company) and the City. They want to build a building that doesn’t meet current zoning, usually bigger than permitted or a different use than permitted. The City looks at a rezoning proposal as an opportunity to negotiate value to the community. We ask what the benefits to the community may be (housing, affordable housing, amenities, tax revenue, infrastructure renewal, etc.) and what externalized costs may be involved (traffic, sewer capacity, green space loss, etc.). The job of the rezoning process is to maximize those benefits to offset those externalized costs. If we ask too much, the developer can’t pay the cost, so they take their ball and go home. If we ask too little, we are eroding the community and passing costs on to future generations.

Clearly, RCH is different than other “developments”. This is a provincial government project, a significant health asset for our community, and an important development for the entire region. RCH is also the City’s largest employer and the heart of the Sapperton community. The City wants an expanded RCH, the expanded health care capacity, and the good jobs that come with it. We want the spin-off economic effects of health services and support businesses in the neighbourhood. To balance that a bit, Fraser Health has a significant investment in the physical assets on site, and moving the hospital out of Sapperton is not something anyone would seriously consider. so this is already a torqued negotiation.

On top of this, it is important to remember that Municipalities, and our Bylaws, exist at the pleasure of the provincial government. Fraser Health (as an agency of the provincial government) is going through our rezoning process because that is the community expectation codified in bylaw, and it is the right thing to do to assure their work addresses the needs and wants of the community. However, they don’t strictly need our approval. They can grant themselves an exemption to our bylaws and build what they want. But I take on good faith that their desire is to meet the needs and expectations of the community they serve, and going through the rezoning process is an example of that.

In the review of first and second reading of the rezoning on Monday, I expressed my opinion (speaking for myself, not all of Council, of course) that Fraser Health failed to meet the expectations of the community, and indeed their own policy goals, in how they designed the transportation realm around the new hospital. Along with the rest of Council, I voted to support First and Second reading, but I added an amendment making some specific asks of Fraser Health, and tried to make clear my support for further readings will be contingent on how they address these serious concerns.

OK, on to the gripes.

Royal Columbian Hospital is the only hospital in British Columbia built immediately adjacent to a rapid transit station and on a regional Greenway. Beyond that, it is located in a City that has made serious commitments to Climate Action, has signed onto the Declaration for Resilience in Canadian Cities, and has both an Official Community Plan (OCP) and a Master Transportation Plan (MTP) that speak to moving us past motordom. Yet, the largest employer in the region has brought us a plan that serves to entrench the private automobile as the primary form of transportation to a facility meant to serve the region for decades ahead. That is a failure to set a building into appropriate context, a failure to design, and a failure to lead.

It is 2020; we need to do differently.

Since Fraser Health first brought plans for the hospital upgrades to us a couple of years ago, the City has pointed out a fundamental design flaw. The building literally turns its back on the Skytrain station. Though the project team as tried to address this issue by creating a somewhat uninspired back entrance plan where pedestrians can go through a parking garage entrance and find and elevator to a back hallway, the plan for access shows pedestrians and transit users are an afterthought to the transportation plan.

Indeed the hospital is being built immediately adjacent to a SkyTrain Station – less than 30m from the weather-sheltered exit from the transit station. However, a pedestrian walking or rolling  to a primary entrance must travel 500m, up a hill, around the entire bulk of the building, and through a parking lot. Attempts to make this route universally accessible (with a grade less than 5%), would add significant distance in the form of switchbacks to this route. It also involves an at-grade (non-signalized?) crossing of a road that is both designated a truck access and a vehicle access to the parking garage. So it is on Transit, but turns its back to transit.

I have also spent a couple of years relating concerns about the potential impacts this project will have on East Columbia if we don’t do it right. The City’s clear and long-established plans call on East Columbia through Sapperton to serve as a “Great Street”. According to our Master Transportation Plan “Great Streets require planning and design that goes beyond the typical street function of supporting through traffic. Planning and designing Great Streets means providing characteristics that make streets destinations – places for people to be, instead of places to move through”.

I appreciate the work Fraser Health and City Staff did to assure the streetscapes along East Columbia are mixed mode and modern, but that is spackle over a flawed foundation. We need to re-align this map to assure that Brunette Avenue – acting as the regional road and regional truck route it is and is meant to be – becomes the primary connection to the Hospital for large trucks bringing goods to the hospital, and for drivers who choose to drive to the hospital from the wider region. Simply put, East Columbia cannot achieve the goal of being a Great Street if it is expected to carry the bulk of this regional traffic.

That means we need to change Brunette Avenue, and that is something that will require partnerships with TransLink (who should get this) the Ministry of Transportation (who will need to be dragged kicking and screaming), as this part of Brunette is both Major Road Network and a regional truck route. Senior Government transportation staff are going to say that installing a safe intersection at Brunette in the vicinity of the Hospital will impact Level of Service for all the through-traffic that the route serves. I do not doubt that, but wonder again whether we are using the right measures to assess the function of our transportation network. Fraser Health should be making this case to these provincial agencies, not the City. But here we are.

With all of this in mind, I asked that the City ask Fraser Health to commit to three things before adoption of the rezoning:

• A seamless and universally accessible connection to the SkyTrain Station befitting a primary entrance to the hospital as part of to the current design;
• Developing a plan to shift all transport truck access from E Columbia to Brunette Avenue; and
• Developing a plan to shift the primary access for regional automobile traffic onto Brunette Ave instead of E Columbia.

Now, an argument could be made (indeed was made in Council) that this was all too late and we cannot ask Fraser Health to change course on such a major project at this late stage. If we are unreasonable now, are we jeopardizing the entire project?

Allow me to retort.

Nothing I said at the meeting should be a surprise to the Project Team, or to Fraser Health. Every opportunity I have had to talk to Fraser Health about this project over the last few years – at ACTBiPed consultations, in the Transportation Task Force, at Council presentations, in their open houses, I have made these points. They have heard it reinforced by our Advisory Planning Commission and through our transportation planning staff. This policies driving this are baked into our City’s planning and transportation documents. We have been banging this drum all through the consultations, Fraser Health has been dancing to a different beat.

This is doubly frustrating because this is also at odds with Fraser Health’s own direction in regards to the role of motrodom in Public Health. Fraser Health knows that climate change is a public health challenge that is exacerbated by automobile dependency. As the region’s leading trauma hospital, RCH is fully aware that automobile dependency is a leading cause of traumatic injury, and automobiles are the #1 cause of death for young people in Canada and around the world. Sedentary lifestyles, asthma exacerbated by air pollution, urban heat island effects, the direct and indirect health impacts of the social and economic harm posed by automobile dependency, etc. etc. That cars are bad for public health is not a controversial idea.

So what role does such a large employer and a large service provider in the community have in moving past motordom?  When it comes to a rezoning and developing a new asset for the next century, they should look at the clear goals set out in Official Community Plans and Master Transportation Plans and try to address those. When that developer is a provincial government and provincial Health Agency, they should also determine if their plans address the Provincial Government’s own stated goals about climate, about auto dependency, about smart growth and sustainable communities. When they all coincide, we shouldn’t need a pipsqueak council using zoning laws to force/cajole community investments towards those goals.

I do recognize that Fraser Health has made some commitments to Transportation Demand Management (TDM) related to the hospital expansion project. However, those seem to have been driven by a need to address the cost of building parking, and making the case for parking relaxations. I fully support those TDM measures, and appreciate to commitment, but the design of the building and surrounding transportation network does not enhance these TDM measures, and undermines their ultimate effectiveness.

They can do better, and we need to do better. It is 2020, and the planet is in peril. This is the decade we change the status quo to address climate, or the decade where we abandon future generations to their fate. If we choose the latter here, we are going to need a bigger hospital.