təməsew̓txʷ

Wow. It’s really happening. After more than a decade of planning, we are finally opening the doors on təməsew̓txʷ Aquatic and Community Centre.

I don’t want to write too much here, I want the images to tell the story. Even more, I want you to go down to təməsew̓txʷ and see for yourself what an incredible facility the community has built.

The Grand Opening is June 1st, but as we slowly open the doors and bring programming to the new facility we have had a couple of opening events.

The first was a thank you to the teams that made this happen. This included Mayor Cote, who lead the Council through some of the most challenging consultation, design, and decision-making that led us to this day. It was wonderful to be able to celebrate with Councillors Puchmayr, Harper, Das and Trentadue, who each had a role in the development of this project. From the first decision that a new facility was needed, through public consultation, initial design, more public consultation, procurement, and the final go-ahead in 2020, these leaders were there to help guide us to today, and deserve a victory lap of the pool, and the gratitude of the community.

We also got to thank the team that made the vision a reality. The architects at HCMA, the project managers at Turnbull Construction, and the builders at Heatherbrae. They worked with our stellar project delivery team at the City to deliver this project within weeks of the planned opening and within 5% of the original budget.

If that sounds like I’m hedging “On Time and On Budget”, I want to walk you through the headwinds this project faced. Council had to make a procurement decision at the peak of the 2020 COVID pandemic – a time of unprecedented global economic uncertainty. We were guided with expert advice and (it turns out) incredible foresight to procure then the market conditions could not have been better. Since then, the news tells us of a protected regional labour action affecting the concrete industry, a global supply chain crisis, unprecedented regional construction labor shortages, and the highest construction inflation rates of a generation. Through all that, this incredible team brought this project home – an absolute gold medal performance.

And it is a beautiful building. An integrated and connected aquatic, fitness and community complex, physically and demographically accessible to all, and a new social hub and community destination. Two pools, one ready to support inter-regional competition, one more fun and accessible for a broader community of users. Two hot tubs sauna space, all accessible change rooms. Two gymnasia, dance rooms, meetings rooms, fitness area twice the size of the previous buildings, and a community living room connecting them all.

The first aquatic centre in Canada to achieve the Canada Green Building Council Zero Carbon Building-Design Standard, and designed to follow the Rick Hansen Foundation Gold Accessibility certification which considers people of differing levels of physical mobility, as well as addresses gender and cultural sensitivities.

The City’s largest ever capital investment, now having the keys turned over to an operation team who have already spent months staffing up, training up, and learning how to work in this new space. All of this required coordinated efforts across city departments, from Finance, to engineering to Parks and Recreation. There are a lot of kudos to hand out here.

The community has a new heart. I hope you head over there and check it out, because it belongs to you. The “dry side” is open now, the aquatic centre side will soft open on May 14, and there will be a Grand Opening celebration on June 1. All the info you need is available here.

This happened

Every week or so I put out a newsletter to subscribers. Usually Wednesday. It’s generally shorter-form than my posts here, provides updates on what I’ve been up to, with occasional opinion and politics. It’s free, no hassle to subscribe, just hit that “newsletter” link up at the top of the page.

Here’s a hint in what was in last week’s newsletter, where I wrote a bit more about these things:

Opening of an affordable housing project in the Downtown.
Business Roundtable with the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions on the City’s Three Crises Response Pilot.
Vaisakhi events, including a tour of Queensborough Gurdwara.
…and a walk in the Park that passed a baseball game.

Sign up here to find out more, and to keep track of what’s happening.

Mixing Business

As a follow-up to my Council report from last week, there were two items I promised to circle back to, like how I circled back to the preposition at the end of that sentence.

English teachers will find that last sentence fun. Hi Mom!

The two items spoke to supporting local businesses and streetscapes. We had a report on Bill 28, and the opportunity for us to explore whether Bill 28-style property tax relief might be a useful tool for our community, and we had a motion from Councillor Nakagawa to review our development and zoning policies to better support local community-serving small businesses. Both of these linked back to some recent chatter in the community around street-level commercial spaces, with people wanting to see more experiential retail and entertainment, and less service and office, to “liven up” the street (I got through all of that without mentioning dentists once). So I want to unpack each item a bit and discuss not just what a city/council can do, but more about the varying ideas about what a city/council should do.

Bill 28 – Property Tax Relief Legislation
I have written quite a bit over the last 9 years about how property tax works (examples here, here, and here). This new legislation changes this a bit for one category of properties, allowing us to provide some short term (5 year) property tax relief for some commercial property owners.

To review, the City sets tax rates, but the tax paid on property is based on BC Assessment Value, determined by “Highest and Best Use” – not necessarily the current value of the property, but the value the property would have if the owner sought to maximize that value. The change with Bill 28 is pretty specific, limited to properties where the “Land-value ratio” greater than 0.95, which means the value of improvements on the land (the existing building) is less than 5% of the total assessed value of the property. Where it is flexible is in how the local government can apply tax relief, and how much.

Some folks would suggest any tax relief for business is good, but we need to be clear this tool provides us a potential tax shift – giving one type of taxpayer some relief transfers that taxation to other taxpayers – not an overall decrease in the revenue on the part of the City. We are taking a more cautious approach here, because not only are there more devils in details, there are likely perverse incentives in there as well.

There is a general feeling that high lease rates and tax rates make it harder from small neighbourhood-serving business to set up shop, and that is surely a factor. The diversity of business types on Twelfth Street is almost certainly a product of low per-foot lease rates. So one part of the thinking here is that if the lease cost (including taxes) was lower, we would more likely get smaller, more diverse, and more interesting business types setting up. Instead of dentists (there, I said it).

One potential challenge with the Bill 28 approach is the recognition that property owners pay taxes, not business owners. Sometimes a business also owns the property they operate out of, but for most small neighbourhood businesses in New West a lease is paid to a landlord. It is the common practice for the landlord to pass the property tax bill directly to the tenant (through “triple net leases”), but there is nothing in Bill 28 or elsewhere that forces a landlord to pass any tax relief savings down to the small business person, so a tax incentive may not get to the small business types we are trying to support, and might actually make the situation worse for the business owner, but better for the Landlord. It may also be a disincentive to upgrading, repair, or improvement of marginal buildings, reducing the attractiveness and safety of commercial spaces.

The City of Vancouver is the only City that has taken on a Bill 28 approach, and we are going to hope to learn from their example as staff bring some data and analysis back to council to see if this approach can be made to help. It may be a useful tool, if we can wield it creatively enough.

Ensuring that ground level retail spaces in new developments prioritize community-supporting businesses and organizations
This motion from Councillor Nakagawa was a bit more all-encompassing, and completely within our jurisdiction. It was asking that the City “review and refresh current policies relating to ground level retail” and “develop policy to ensure that future ground level retail spaces in new development are built to prioritize community-supporting businesses and organizations in alignment with the retail strategy.”

When people ask what Council can do to assure a (insert type of business you want to see) opens in a specific location instead of a (insert type of business you don’t want to see), I often retort with the question: are you sure you want to give me the power to do that?  Council has some power to restrict different business types through zoning, but do you really want 7 elected people picking and choosing the businesses in your downtown? Are we the wisest ones to choose this, or is this somewhere we need to ask “the market” to address? Clearly there is a huge spectrum between completely hands-off and being so prescriptive that we end up with streets full of unleased spaces because Council of the day fails to understand the market. Personally, I would love to see a small hardware store downtown. But we had one for a few years, and it was really great, but it was not supported enough to stay open and now you can buy discount shoes in that spot. The reasons for that specific store closing may be complex and global (as they were part of a nation-wide chain that changed its focus and has now closing many Big Box offerings across Canada as well). The City saying “only hardware stores here” would not change those global forces, and we would likely have an empty space in its place, and angry landlord, and a decaying business district. That said, we do exercise limited powers to restrict uses like cannabis or liquor stores (for example) to address perceived or suspected risks.

Nothing against dentists, but mine is Uptown and on the second floor, which is probably a better space for the kind of use that doesn’t really “activate” the street or lead to good walking-around experiences. One thing we can all agree is that a street is more fun to live near and shop on if we have a variety of interesting retail and service experiences along it. As part of our Council Strategic Priority Plan, we talked about supporting a people-centered economy, supporting retail areas that address the needs of the local community.

When Starbucks made a global decision to close thousands of stores including Columbia and 6th, people lamented this loss. Since that time, three new coffee shops have opened downtown, and the old Starbucks location is a popular Italian deli. There are literally dozens of businesses Downtown that were not there at the beginning of the Pandemic, and there is not a lot of lease vacancy. By many measures, the business environment Downtown is pretty healthy. Still, the community is engaged in a conversation about retail mix, though it’s not clear how the community wants to get there.

There are two policy areas inherent in this motion we can look at. We can look at how we approve new street-facing spaces in new mixed use developments like 618 Carnarvon, where a brand new dentist office is opening in a space where folks might have wanted to see a coffee shop, or boutique, or other more experiential use. The other is to look at policies that rezone existing spaces to limit the variety of uses possible when businesses turn over, much like we do with liquor stores. To traditional businesses this sounds like a lot of “red tape”, and may result in an incredibly complex zoning bylaw that makes it harder for any business to find the right space. One can imagine this resulting in any new and innovative business types wanting to set up in town having to come to Council to ask permission, because their specific type that doesn’t fit the Bylaw. We went down that path with a video-game arcade that wanted to serve alcohol – and it was a massive pain in the ass for staff, a difficult challenge for the business owner who felt unsupported, and left everyone feeling soured. And that was for a business idea that that everyone on Council liked!

There is a guy I have had lunch with (Hi John!) who suggests the City should simply open more restaurants downtown. I don’t think it is that simple, because I don’t know what the role of the City is in doing that. Restaurants are permitted in almost every business storefont on Columbia Street, there are no rules or regulations preventing them from opening now. At the same time, we cannot force the landlord to kick out the current tenant and put in a restaurant. Reducing taxes of set-up costs will not have any positive effect on a restaurant business model that it doesn’t equally have on a nail salon or dog grooming business model. Further, we are limited by Section 25 of the Community Charter (the part that says it is illegal for a City to “provide a grant, benefit, advantage or other form of assistance to a business”) from directly incenting a specific business owner to do a specific thing. We could, I guess, buy up the land and start leasing it to the business types and business owners we like, but I’m not sure that is the best role of a City government.

All this to say, there is an interesting bit of policy work we can do here, but we are also limited in our powers by legislation and common sense. This also speaks to and augments existing work we are doing around the recently-adopted Retail Strategy.

COP28 part 3

I have written a couple of posts now on New Westminster’s presence at COP28, and the experience of the Local Climate Action Summit. I’m going to try to wrap up this series pulling highlights and major themes that came out of the event instead of daily run-down, because this blog series is already 5,000+ words and because there were a LOT of topics covered and incredible speakers:

Aside from the LCAS, every day had overlapping conference events at different locations; it was simply impossible to attend them all. I spent some time at Bloomberg Green Forum, at the Canada Pavilion, at the Urbanization Pavilion and EU Pavilion, and other event sites. My criteria for choosing what to attend was partly geographic (see my first post about the expansive site), but I tried to attend events that spoke to local climate action (inspiration!), financing the transition (where’s the money?), innovation in electrical grid upgrades (very relevant to New West), and “Just Transition” discussions that spoke to what that means in the “developed world” context (this is one area where, interesting enough, the US is way ahead of Canada in many ways).


The global challenge to get a new energy grid built was an interesting theme. A place where some technical challenges need to be solved (and a better place for our innovation investment than CCS in my opinion). The core of the issue is that the world needs increasing amounts of electricity, and the cheapest ways to generate electricity, by far, are solar and wind. However, these sources rely on an integrated grid and grid storage technology that has technical, logistical, and even jurisdictional barriers to implementation. Coal and gas are dirty, and increasingly expensive, but they are easy, so the Global South and most rapidly-growing economies are still seeing them as a viable way to achieve their development goals. The grid is the problem, and there are lots of people looking to fix it, but will it be a public grid? (more on that later)


The Canada Pavilion had some interesting sessions. Don Iveson (former Mayor of Edmonton) led a panel on Canada’s National Adaptation Strategy (where I first heard the term “mutli-solving the polycrisis” as a description of local government climate response, and I will be repeating it) that included the Federal and Provincial Environment Ministers, along with local government represented by FCM and the Mayor of Regina. One interesting framing presented was that Climate Mitigation is primarily an energy problem, where Climate Adaption is primarily a water problem: drought and flooding are the two horsemen of this new apocalypse for Canadian cities. Rest assured, the message to the feds out of this conversation was (am I getting repetitive?) local governments are on the frontlines, and can do this work, if given the resources.

Another excellent presentation at the Canadian Pavillion was on the integration of land use with climate action, addressing how local government land use decisions impact our climate goals. Here I met Serena Mendizabal from Six Nations in Ontario (alas, 2023 Mann Cup Champions) who is doing interesting work bringing First Nations into the energy transition space, and developed a Just Transition Guidebook to help guide governments toward more meaningful Indigenous involvement in local climate action.

As I mentioned earlier, there were some sessions I attended with City Staff, and some where we went our different ways to cover more ground. The more technical aspect of staff’s work here really benefited from their ability to network with their cohort across North America, and even Europe and South America. They also had a chance to get facetime with FCM staff who hold the strings to the Green Municipal Fund, and staff in both the Provincial and Federal Ministries. That relationship building, and the ability to share our successes and our challenges – and demonstrate to them that we are a City committed to doing the work – will pay back in a huge way as staff move forward in implementing the Seven Bold Steps in New Westminster.


On our final day, I attended the Ministerial Meeting on Urbanization & Climate Change. This is where we stood (well, sat) shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the LMGA constituency to make our calls to the collected Ministers of Environment and negotiators from national governments around the world. In a weird coincidence, as I recently wrote about him in my Newsletter (subscribe here!), I sat next to Ravi Bhalla, the Mayor of Hoboken (the “New Westminster” of the New York Metro Region) during this session. I have already mentioned the Call to Action and Open Letter in the last post, so won’t repeat that here, but the dialogue with this group of Ministers was promising.
Also on our last day, we were able to attend the daily briefing of the Canadian negotiation team. This is where the representatives of the Canadian government (Minister Guilbeault and Canada’s Chief Negotiator Michael Bonser) update invited attendees on where the negotiations are, and then spend most of the hour taking questions from the audience. In the room were several stakeholder groups, including Elizabeth May (I didn’t notice any other federal party representatives, but I would be surprised if they were not there), representatives from Provincial Governments (again, I didn’t notice any BC Provincial elected types, though I assume staff from the Ministry of Climate Action and Environment were present), Labour groups, business constituencies, and activist groups. I’m not sure if it is a coincidence or a sign of something different happening in Quebec, but the activist questions to the Minister and negotiation teams were mostly delivered in French.
This was a really informative session for me, and gave insight into how the sausage of putting language to these international agreements is done. They spoke of early success (the Loss and Damage Fund secured on day 1), the failure to secure a food systems agreement, and the role the COP President had put on Canada to “find a landing zone” on Fossil Fuel phase-out (which even given hindsight, is not clearly a win given the weasel words included). Being Canadian, the most common answer to questions from the floor (which were almost all asking for more aggressive action and for Canada to lead in calling for it) was some form of “Yep, we hear you, that is consistent with our position, and we are working on it”.


The feelings brought home from 6 days at COP28 are complicated, but can be summed up in the Good, Bad, and Concerning.

Under “Good”, I am left with the positive feeling that local governments are On It. There were so many examples of local governments and inspiring local leaders doing to the work and building sustainable cities through a Just Transition lens. It was constantly repeated (and I’ll repeat here) that urban areas represent 80% of global GDP and 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and we are at the front line of climate action. At the same time there is pressure from the grassroots for local governments to meet and exceed Paris targets, because local governments from Langkawi to Bogota know that the actions needed to meet targets are the same actions that are going to make our cities cleaner, greener, more healthy, and more affordable to operate and protect.

On the “Bad” side, I don’t leave the conference convinced we were going to make it. I didn’t feel the national governments feel the same urgency that the scientific community is telling us we need. They all speak of concern, we heard many give addresses, from the Prime Minister of India to the President of Kenya and the King of Tonga, they all spoke of urgency, but then the language informing the negotiations gets much more nuanced. The timelines offered for fossil fuel phase-out (with even that bet hedged by talking “unabated emissions” and reliance on the CCS pipedream) or ending the construction of new coal power generation felt unambitious when the gavel fell on the 12th. The Global Stocktake told us clearly that the timeline for 1.5C is passing us by, and 1.77C might be the new ambitious target, and I’m not even convinced our collective national governments are there yet.

The “Concerning” part is a bit more about the nature of the conversations at so many of the panels and workshops, and this speaks a bit to the large presence of Global Capital in the room. There is a strong  neo-liberal drive to get private capital involved at every level in the transition, especially in the Global South, where transition plans seem to bypass any public ownership of life-sustaining assets. I’m not a global finance guy, and cannot pretend to be, but a new language of colonization is apparent when we hear the entire conversation about reliance on private capital from Europe and America in the desire to build a modern energy grid to serve Africa, where wind and solar resources are ample, but the lack of a grid is a real development bottleneck.

The media and pundits loved to criticize the Oil Industry lobbyists being at COP28, but we all know what their game is. Everyone knows there is no viable path to a sustained climate unless we end the unabated emissions of fossil fuels, so let the producers hear that and be part of that conversation. It is the ubiquity of private capital from the Global North that is seeing a profit opportunity in energy transition in the South that is more concerning to me – as the language sounds just as extractive as past colonial discussions of the Global South. Maybe I’m too cynical, but when talk of Africa arose at COP28, at times it sounded like a new Berlin Conference. And with so much of the LGMA conversation about Just Transition and the need for climate solutions to also solve deep inequity problems, I cannot help but wonder how we will solve inequity through the privatization of – or the keeping private of – the next generation of public goods.

This stood in contrast to the LGMA call for local and indigenous-informed action, and maybe that is where I will close this too-long reporting out, quoting Call to Action 10:

Pursuant to their budgets, legislative and executive actions, and leadership mechanisms, subnational governments are publicly accountable institutions. Through the acknowledgement of their role in the Paris Agreement and Glasgow Climate Pact, they also play a key role in driving and engaging their communities into global action. From business to parliamentarians, from civil society to academics, from trade unions and farmers to indigenous communities, from faith groups to generational and gender equality advocates, we invite all stakeholders to consider their subnational governments as their ally in responding to climate emergencies.

COP28 part 2

In my last post, I wrote about how New Westminster was invited to COP28, and what the landscape of COP28 looked like. In this post I am going to write about the role of Local Governments at the event, and detail the Local Climate Action Summit that opened the conference.

The invitation came from ICLEI, which was the key coordinator of the LGMA (“Local Governments and Municipal Authorities”) Constituency to the UNFCCC. They worked with two other organizations, C40 Cities (who managed the travel logistics of Mayors and senior staff from more than 100 cities around the globe) and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. This is already a long series of posts, so best to follow the links if you want to know who those organizations are and why they exist.

The goal of the LGMA is to influence the UNFCCC negotiations, empowered by the preamble of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which calls on all levels of government to work together, and the Multilevel Action Roadmap put together in 2019. As a Constituency, we put forward a COP28 Position Paper (link here) with a 10-point Call to Action that is delivered to the national level government negotiating teams. The hope is (as is spelled out in their mandate) that these Calls to Action will be integrated into the deal that is struck by the end of COP28. This Paper and an accompanying Open Letter (link here) is delivered through a Ministerial Meeting, but before that, we had a conference to attend.

For us Local Government types, the first part of the COP28 program was a two-day conference-within-a-conference called the Local Climate Action Summit (“LCAS”). This was held in several sites within the COP28 Blue zone, but focused on a pavilion called the LCAS Hub. The LCAS was hosted by the COP28 Presidency, as a part of the commitment the UNFCCC has made since the preamble to the 2015 Paris Agreement to include all levels of government in addressing climate change. COP28 represented the first ever LCAS, and it was opened by the COP28 President Dr. Sultan bin Ahmed Al Jaber, by the Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, and the Chair of the Board of the C40 Cities (and former Mayor of New York) Michael Bloomberg.

The attendees of the LCAS were Mayors and senior Climate Action staff from several hundred cities around the world. There were local governments from every continent, ranging in size from megacities like Rio De Janerio to small cities like Yellowknife. There were perhaps a half dozen from Canada, with New Westminster being the only municipality in British Columbia represented. The program was intensive and pretty typically conference-like with panel talks, some interactive table-top learning sessions, and lots of opportunity to network and share with local leaders from across the globe. I can’t write everything here, but I will try to summarize a few key takeaways.

In his opening remarks, Secretary General Guterres talked about the importance of this COP in it presenting the first Global Stocktake, while making it clear that conferences aren’t the solution to the existential threat we face, only local action will get us there, and local governments are key to that. Urban areas are where 80% of global GDP is produced, and where 75% of global greenhouse gasses are produced – cities are where the environment and the economy overlap. At the same time, this is where the impacts of climate disruption are being felt the most – floods, droughts, heat waves, and climate-driven human displacement are all impacting urban areas. Cities are the front lines of this battle, and must be the front line of the transition. Most importantly, local governments are closest to the people governments serve and understand the context of change for their community in a way national governments cannot. So while national governments can make deals and drive policy changes, the only way they will achieve on their promises is if they support (and fund!) the local level governments in doing the work.

Panel discussions were as varied as the Cities represented. In Tokyo, the feeling was that solutions will be found in technology (“SUStainability + HIgh tech = SUSHI” was the Japanese tag line). The dynamic and brilliant Mayor of Bogota, Claudia Lopez, spoke of the need for Climate Justice to empower people in need through the transition. There are economic and empowerment benefits to be found in transitioning to low-carbon cities, especially in the developing world and global South. These opportunities need to flow to the many marginalized and under-supported people seeking opportunity in those cities if we hope for the transition, and the communities, to be sustainable. From Cordoba, Argentina, we heard about programs to empower and train youth to do the physical work of transition – from converting streetlights to LEDs to developing stronger local food systems within communities and keep money flowing within the local economy. Most agreed local governments were doing what national governments simply can’t, and were doing it faster than national governments can even imagine.

It was interesting to converse with the Mayor of Copenhagen, and hear their presentation as one of the “Coalition of High Ambition Actors”. On the face, the numbers for Copenhagen and Danish cities sound impressive – they are on target to reduce GHG emissions by 76% (from 1990 levels) before 2030, and 97 of the 99 largest municipalities are on the same track (compare that to the New West and CleanBC Goals of 30% – 50% by 2030 depending on the sector). However, this is driven mostly by the decarbonization of their electricity sector – they are closing coal plants and phasing out all other fossil fuel generation. Compare this to a jurisdiction like BC where 99% of electricity is already non-fossil-fuel, we are not ever going to match their “reduction” numbers. (for context, Danish net GHG emissions per capita are about 10T/yr, compared to about 12 for BC). At the same time, Mayor Haestorp-Andersen was a bit envious of BC’s LGCAP program, by New Westminster’s access to Low Carbon Fuel Credit funding and a climate levy to fund climate action, and even of BC and Canada’s (perhaps tepid, possibly tenuous?) Carbon Tax models. Senior government funding of local climate action is one place we in B.C. are leading over even progressive and high ambition jurisdictions like Denmark.

A theme across many cities was cars, and this is a place we are definitely NOT leading in BC. The transition to EVs is a distraction to the need to shift how and why we move across urban space. In Bogota (where car free days are not just a block party, but occur city-wide), they are serious about the redistribution of road space and are investing in all alternative modes. Mayor Hidalgo of Paris spoke of the “peaceful revolution” happening on the streets of her City as active transportation is taking the space away from congested traffic, with massive air quality, noise pollution, and safety benefits coming on top of GHG reductions. The Mayor of Tirana framed the automobile as anti-child when so much more is spent by his residents on cars than on children – many in his city were spending 30% of their income “raising a car”. He said when he was young, they threw out the Communist dictator, tearing down his statue from the centre of the City, and previously-unheard-of private ownership of automobiles became a symbol of their new freedom. Now, the car itself is the new dictator lording over the centre of the City, preventing them from having the freedoms and economic prosperity they seek. Erion Veliaj, welcome to the War on Cars.

There is another tell in here – “removing cars form the roads” is the almost universal metric in assessing climate action. City X talks about planting Y number of trees, and calls it “equivalent of removing 10,000 cars from the road”. City A builds a new waste resource recovery plant that captured biogas “equal to taking 50,000 cars off the road”. Once your ear is tuned to it, you hear this measure everywhere. This is perhaps unconscious jealousy of places like Bogota and Paris, where they skip the middle man.


The conversations were wide-reaching, but always seemed to come back to youth. One of the quotes stuck on my brain was “Youth don’t believe in action plans, they believe in action”. From Makati to Missoula, there were stories of youth driving climate action in local communities, calling for climate justice, and seeking support to get more work done. This is not an unfamiliar theme in New West, and I was able to share the stories of Babies for Climate Action and the Monkey Rebels, two local ad-hoc organizations centering youth and pushing us towards more aggressive climate goals, while also holding our feet to the fire to achieve them. As part of an Innovation Studio workshop for Mayors, we were given some tools to better understand a 3C “Codesign – Coproduce – Cogovern” model of engagement, effective at giving youth the opportunity to learn and be active in designing the city of their future. We also learned of a fund available to help finance this work (we’ll see if we can tap into that here in New West). In the meantime, I am going to think more deeply about my role as Mayor in empowering young leaders in our community to replace action plans with climate actions.

The LCAS was intense, and a conference worth the time to travel to on its own. In my next post, I’ll try to sum up as briefly as I can the rest of the COP28 program for local governments, and leave you with some thoughts about the good, the bad, and the ugly of COP28.

Housing & Bill 47

I have been writing a series of posts about the changes in how housing approvals are regulated in BC as the provincial government rolls out a series of new legislation. I previously wrote about Bill 44 and multiplexes here, then about Bill 46 and the introduction of ACCs here. This is part three, which could have a profound effect on the shape of New Westminster in the decade ahead:

Bill 47: Transit Oriented Development
This bill requires local governments to designate Transit Oriented Development areas around rapid transit stations and other designated transit exchanges where higher density residential development must be permitted and residential parking minimums cannot be applied. By the letter o the legislation, we will need to update our Official Community Plan to designate TOD areas at all SkyTrain stations by June 2024.

As with other aspects of what’s been introduced, I think this is a transformational change that will make our region more affordable, more sustainable, and more livable, and it probably could have been introduced 20 years ago. But I am afraid we don’t have the human resources available to do an optimal job of implementing it by the deadline.

The province is prescribing a minimum density for these TOD areas, saying the local government can permit more density, and any property owner can choose to build smaller than the prescribed minimum, but the local government cannot restrict density to below the minimums. There are details in how density is distributed with prescribed minimum Floor Space Ratios, but for most folks it is easier to envision building heights. Within 200m of a Sky Train Station (red circles below), heights up to 20 storeys will be prescribed. Within 400m (yellow circles), the minimum is 12 storeys, and within 800m (the green circles), buildings up to 8 storeys will be pre-approved. Here are what those TOD zones look like in New West:

As far as the 200m and 400m TOD zones go, this will not be much of a change for New West excepting the 22nd Street Station area (though this looks aligned with where we anticipated the 22nd Street visioning going) and a bit of Sapperton around RCH. Our Downtown zoning is already in this scale, and aside from Sapperton Green, there isn’t a lot of developable space in Sapperton within the 400m circle that isn’t already being built up. The 800m TOD zone, however, could have huge implications for the West End, the Brow of the Hill, Queens Park and Sapperton.

The implications of Queens Park are perhaps most intriguing. Much of the Queens Park Heritage Conservation Area south of Third Ave is within the 800m TOD area. It is unclear to me at this point if this regulation will supersede a Heritage Conservation Area, but for complicated mechanical regulatory reasons, I suspect it will. I am equally suspecting that Designated heritage properties will be exempt, meaning the extra protection offered properties in Queens Park that have had HRAs applied will be important. But I am perhaps getting ahead of myself and the regulations, so we will wait for clarity when those arrive.

The second part of the regulatory change is that all residential parking minimums will be removed from TOD areas. The City will still be able to require commercial parking and some accommodation will be developed to allow cities to require accessible parking for people with disabilities, but overall the number of general parking spots in new residential will be determined by what the market determines it needs, not regulatory minimums.

This will significantly reduce the cost of developing near SkyTrain stations, and is aligned with the City’s Climate Action plans and the provincial CleanBC transportation goals. I am generally in favour, but again there will again be devils in details. It is unclear what this means to goals for off-street EV charging, and what this will do to increase the need for already over-prescribed public EV charging. This will exacerbate pressure for street parking and increase conflict in communities around precious curbside space. Allowing “the Market” to dictate parking need tends to assume people make rational choices, such as only owning the number of cars for which they have parking, and experience indicates this is not how people behave. Further, the “market” relies on pricing signals, and the amount of grief we get for $50 annual parking passes for street paring in some neighbourhoods suggests people aren’t that enamored with market solutions when they are used to getting something for free.

Finally, Transit Oriented Development assumes that there will be transit service at those stations. That assumption will be tested in the year ahead, as TransLink needs a new financial model to sustain its existing service level, even as transit is back to pre-COVID crowding levels, and the Province holds the levers that will allow the system to survive. As this TOD plan rolls out across the region, it is clear maintaining the level of service we have currently won’t suffice, and the $20 billion Access for Everyone plan will need to be funded to keep up with ridership growth.

With those caveats, I will sum up by saying I am glad to see that we have a provincial government who is willing to take serious moves to address a decades-long housing crisis. For a city like New West that has already been doing so much in housing, meeting and exceeding our Regional Growth Strategy targets, getting region-leading numbers of new Purpose Built Rental built, while protecting the most affordable housing, it is positive to see that the load is going to be spread more widely across the region. These are the kind of moves that housing advocates have been calling for, but probably gave up expecting from a provincial government in Canada.

There will be devils in the details, there will be hurdles and potholes on the way, but a decade from now we may look back at David Eby’s first year as the time British Columbia finally took the housing crisis seriously. Yes, the shape of our neighbourhoods will change, but the change will probably be more gradual that you think (there are only so many developers and builders in the region, and they are mostly already working hard), and ultimately, we will have stronger and more resilient communities because of the changes.

Housing & Bill 44

There has been a *lot* going on in the housing file in BC over the last month. The announcements have been fast and furious from the Ministry of Housing and the Premier, and the responses from Local Governments, housing advocates, and status quo defenders have been all over the place – from this being the worst overreach in provincial history to a long-overdue response to a crisis 20 years in the making. My own feelings about it are similarly all over the place, so I figured I would take some time to unpack it all from a New Westminster perspective, and from the perspective of a local government elected person who has been advocating for serious action on the housing crises.

Maybe I should do one of those caveats where I say “all of this is my opinion, not the official position of the City or anyone else on Council”.  An additional caveat may be that this is all a work in progress, as the province has not provided the enacting regulations yet. Local governments have been told that more details on implementation of the legislation along with instructions and guidelines are coming over the next few months. So the thoughts below are preliminary, and I reserve the right to be corrected in point of fact or event point of intention as this new landscape evolves.

I will go through by headline legislation, dealing with one piece of legislation in each of three separate blog posts. At the same time, recognize that these are overlapping measures in how they will be applied by Local Governments. They aren’t as separable as described here, and need to be viewed holistically. So with that in mind, the first blog post is:

Bill 44 : Multiplexes and more!
There are several components to Bill 44, but the short notes are that it brings to an end the most restrictive form of residential zoning – single Single Family Detached zoning – and requires local government to permit 3, 4, or 6 units per lot. It also takes away the local government’s ability to require off-street parking for these developments when they are near frequent transit. This bill also requires Local Governments to complete standardized Housing Needs Reports, to update their OCP and Zoning Bylaw by the end of 2025 to accommodate the need outlined in that HNR, and prohibits Public Hearings on residential development aligned with the Official Community Plan.

I’ll start by saying all of these are (in my opinion)  good ideas. Much of this reflects good planning principles. We should be structuring our OCPs around a defensible analysis of housing need, and the OCP should be the part of the community planning process where the bulk of community consultation and input should occur, not the Public Hearing. The question put to the community can then be “how do we want to accommodate the need?” not “How do we feel about growth?”, because the latter has more often than not resulted decisions that don’t address the realistic needs of the community or region, and therefore a Plan that falls short in addressing a crisis. It is also clear that the era has ended where single family living on a 5,000+ square foot lot in the middle of a dense urban core is attainable for most people, or sustainable in the cost to service those lots.

Then come the details.

For New Westminster, this is mostly going to mean 4 units will be permitted as right without rezoning on every current “single family” lot. I use that term in quotes because most lots in New West already permit three units – a main house with a basement suite and a laneway/carriage house – although there are a variety of restrictions on overall size of the combined units and each component. We use the Development Permit process to manage the size, shape, and scale of laneway/carriage houses, based on guidelines developed through a lengthy process involving a lot of public consultation. We also permit (through Rezoning, Heritage Restoration Agreement or Development Variance Permits) some variance on these guidelines on a lot-by-lot basis.

Remember, the end of “Single Family Zoning” does not mean the end of Single Family homes. You will not be forced to build a fourplex if you would rather build a house, and you will not be forced to knock your house down to build a fourplex. These changes increase the variety of housing types that can be built, they don’t take options away.

So the switch from 3-units to 4-units might not seem that big, but the work to develop new replacement guidelines on what can be built is actually a significant piece of work. Everything from set-backs (how close to a property line you are allowed to build), maximum heights, FSR (Floor Space Ratio – how many square feet of living space you are allowed to build relative to your lot size), maximum lot coverage (we currently only let you cover half a lot with a building or impermeable surface – change that and you need to change how our storm drainage network operates) will need to be worked out through guidelines. There are engineering and utility considerations to all of this, and more important details than you might think. We may need to set standards around how driveways cross sidewalks (we don’t want driveways every 33 feet on major roads or greenways), how solid waste receptacles will be stored and picked up by the City, and how we will address our Tree Protection Bylaw, etc.

All this to say, there is a lot of work to do to build these guidelines, and it matters a lot to how the City functions if we don’t get them right. This is also work that impacts not just our Planning staff, but folks in Engineering and Parks and Open Spaces. Our overall desire to have public consultation around the shape of guidelines that impact every neighbourhood is another timeline challenge. As currently proposed, we need to do all of this by June, 2024 – 6 months after the regulations that point us here are released in December. That is an incredibly tight timeline, and I fully anticipate we will not able to make it.

New Westminster is still a smallish city, and our planning department is a small team. We don’t want to move people off of new development approvals, affordable building projects, and major projects like the 22nd Street Visioning process to do this work, because those projects could bring hundreds of new units on line every year, while four- and six-plexes may bring on dozens a year in the most optimistic model. The long-term benefits are huge, I worry about the short-term capacity issue.

The deadline for a Housing Needs Report is December, 2024, and I am more confident we can get this done, as it would build on one we recently completed. We have yet to see what the Province’s “Standard” HNR looks like, but there is already a grounding for this work. One potential challenge here is that we, like many medium-sized cities, relied on a consultant to help with some specialized components of this work, and those consultants may be harder to hire (and more costly) when there are 100 municipalities on BC all clamoring for the same work on the same deadline. I’m not sure there are enough people in the province trained to do this work. I would hope the Province would look to the “Naughty List” of cities to be prioritized here, and may relax the deadline for cities like New West who have already been meeting their needs targets if there is a capacity crunch next year. We shall see.

Once we have the HNR in hand, we will need to update the three OCPs in the City (Yes, we have three – the main one, and separate ones for Queensborough and the Downtown) by December 2025 so the OCPs reflect a plan to meet those identified needs. This is a relatively straight-forward process, and should be doable, though again the public consultation part will be the critical path. Last time the City completed an OCP re-write, it took us two years because we really invited the public in for a conversation about the future of the City. I don’t see a reason to do less his time around, especially as how the OCP is going to inform the shape of zoning more now than before, with so much pre-zoning of higher density areas. We will not have two years to do this, so it will be an intense period of public engagement. And intense means staff resources and stressed out community wishing to engage.

The impact this will have on current OCP-related projects like the 22nd Street Visioning, Master planning the Lower 12th Street area, or Sapperton Green is unclear at this time. There is a similar concern here as with the HNR about province-wide resources available to do this work. Significant OCP re-writes often require consultant support for economic modelling, public consultation, utility planning, and such. If 100s of Municipalities in BC are doing this all at once, it might be a very good time to be graduating from planning school.

Coming next – Bills 46 and 47…with maps!

Motions and eMobility

I mentioned in my last Council report that I was going to follow up on the discussion Council had about speed limits on sidewalks. This one is going to be a little more editorial than a usual council report so I’ll start with a repeat of the caveat I have attached to previous blogs: everything you read here is written by me and not Official City Communications. I have no editor (isn’t that obvious?) and nothing here constitutes the official policy or positions of the City, of Council, or of any other person. If you disagree with me, that’s fine. No hard feelings.

The motion that came to Council, in its entirety, was this:

WHEREAS the City of New Westminster has been lowering speed limits on roadways to help increase public safety and reduce injuries; and
WHEREAS these speed limits do not apply on sidewalks and pedestrian safety is a top priority for the City of New Westminster; and
WHEREAS non-insured electric motorized scooters and other similar modes of transportation using our sidewalks can reach high speeds; and
WHEREAS an impact between a pedestrian and high speed motorized mode of transportation can cause severe injuries;
BE IT RESOLVED THAT staff report back to Council regarding the operational and budget considerations pertaining to the implementation of a by-law that would impose speed limits on our sidewalks to help reduce the risk of pedestrian injuries.

The ask seems simple – a speed limit on sidewalks. But governance isn’t simple. Or more precisely, the simplest bits of governance have been taken care of, and what is left for us work out are the complicated bits around the edge. It’s not really clear where is this motion coming from other than an anecdotal conversation, nor is the actual expected outcome. I ask curious folks to watch the video of the conversation Council as there may be a few answers in those exchanges that I missed. And of course, the video evidence is a less biased retelling than what I will inevitably write here.

Let me first set the context, and provide the Coles Notes of the homework that ideally should have come before this motion came to Council.

The City has a Street and Traffic Bylaw. It clearly defines E-bikes (based on the Provincial Motor Vehicle Act definition of motor-assist cycles) as bicycles. If you are on a provincially-regulated E-bike, you are protected as, and have the responsibilities of, a cyclist. There is also a clear definition of Mobility Devices, which are “scooters” and motorized wheelchair type devices used to give mobility options to people with disabilities, and those are clearly regulated as “pedestrians”. That is, if you are in a motorized wheelchair, you are protected as, and have the responsibilities of, a pedestrian. All other devices with wheels fall under these clauses:

6.19 A person on inline roller blades, roller skates, skateboards, longboards or other similar means of transportation must not operate such conveyance:
6.19.2 while on a Sidewalk, footpath, walkway or Multi-Use Pathway without due care and attention or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the Sidewalk, footpath, walkway or Multi-Use Pathway.
6.21 A person on inline roller blades, roller skates, skateboards, longboards or other similar means of transportation, shall ride in such a way that it will not interfere with a Pedestrian lawfully on or using a Sidewalk, footpath or walkway

Now, none of this mentions motorized devices, though it is easy to interpret that kick scooters fit under this and are thus regulated, or that they are not mentioned, and are therefore completely illegal.

Of note, this has nothing to do with roads. This only regulates sidewalks and multi-use paths. The provincial Motor Vehicle Act regulates what can be on our roads, and these devices are clearly illegal unless part of the Provincial Electric Kick Scooter Program, where they are made illegal on sidewalks unless specifically permitted by local community Bylaws, which must also provide protections to pedestrians. The on-street speed limit provided by that program is 24km/h, which is less than the 30km/h that E-bikes are permitted, but still significantly faster than even the fastest walkers (Evan Dunfee’s average speed in winning a Bronze Medal in Tokyo for Olympic Speedwalking was 13km/h). So e-scooters are not legal on New Westminster streets, and on sidewalks the Streets and Traffic Bylaw already gives a method for Police and Bylaw Officers to regulate their safe use, without adding yet another arbitrary and more difficult to enforce speed limit.

My point is, this is a complicated situation, not a simple one. There is already a complex regulatory environment. That is why the City is already taking a good governance approach to it. The City adopted an e-Mobility Strategy last year after extensive community consultation. Included in that strategy are some specific actions (edited here for brevity):

Develop an education campaign for safe use and benefits of eMicromobility: The City will develop educational resources on the benefits and correct use of eMicromobility modes consistent with guidelines and messaging used by neighbouring municipalities, TransLink, and Metro Vancouver.

Advocate for changes to the Motor Vehicle Act to provide clear guidance on eMicromobility: Some eMicromobility devices, such as e-scooters, are currently illegal to operate in the province, except where there is an escooter pilot project underway. Therefore, the MVA should be updated to provide clear guidance to support and regulate safe eMicromobility use. The City will advocate, to update the MVA accordingly.

Collaborate to develop clear regionally consistent safety guidelines and requirements for eMicromobility: The City will collaborate with neighbouring municipalities, TransLink, Metro Vancouver, and Province to develop consistent guidance on where eMicromobility devices are permitted, and to develop regulations such as establishing maximum speeds to support safe use [including] regulating modes by their maximum speed and weight.

Monitor e-scooter pilot programs and assess opportunities for New Westminster: The City will prepare to integrate e-scooter use into its existing transportation corridors when provincial guidance comes into place [and] monitor provincial regulations, outcomes and lessons learned from the e-scooter pilot in the province and other jurisdictions [and] leverage these learnings to develop educational materials and guidelines to ensure e-scooters can be used safely

So there is already a plan to address in a more comprehensive way the education and regulation aspects of eMobility in the community, but it will have to be informed by other actions happening at the provincial and regional levels.

Does this sound like we are moving too slow, because of the imminent threat being posed to pedestrians? I am going to suggest no, we are moving at an appropriate pace given the scale of the threat. These devices are new, and new things are immediately identified as threatening including concerning anecdotes, but do we actually know how big a threat speeding scooters are? There is no data from the BC CDC or ICBC on this, and the latest research I can find from the National Institutes of Health suggests they are annoying, but not a cause of significant trauma or death for non-users (though all studies seem to recommend separate infrastructure, like a AAA mobility network as the best solution to conflicts).

For more context, we had a debate a couple of weeks ago on exploring our Bylaw powers to protect people from dying in a heat dome, as 28 people in our community did 2 years ago, and several amendments were introduced by the mover of this motion to delay that process. Less urgency there, when the threat to vulnerable people is clear and demonstrated. A conversation in this Council meeting about intersection safety related to known actual real measureable risk in our community resulting in multiple deaths a year caused by an old familiar technology – cars – was somewhat waylaid by marginally-associated questions about e-scooters in what I can only interpret as some sort of rhetorical prep for this deliberation. No call for urgency there.

What was clear was a regional TV and Radio media campaign to call attention to the motion prior to Council even having an opportunity to deliberate about its strengths, weaknesses, or priority. Through all that, and through the subsequent discussion at Council, there is no evidence the proponent of the motion did any homework to understand the complexity of the existing local and provincial legislation, or the efforts the City is already undertaking to address e-mobility in a holistic way. I suppose those details are not important to the evening news byte.

In the end, Council added a component about Education and approved the motion, because it is specifically in line with existing staff work plans in the eMobility strategy. After all of the news and deliberation – there is nothing new here.

On the Curbside

The second item from last Council Meeting I promised a follow up on deserves a deeper dive for a very different reason than the last. In this case, the public policy and outcomes are comparatively simple to understand, even if for some they are counter-intuitive.

There was a motion brought to Council that would not only cost the City significant revenue on the order of $1 Million, but also stands in contrast to our City’s Official Community Plan, Master Transportation Plan, Downtown Parking Strategy, the recently-adopted Retail Strategy, our Climate Action goals, and various other city policies.

Under the guise of “supporting local business”, the proposal was to provide free street parking for an hour in all business areas, expand free evening parking, and make parking free on Sundays. Besides taking a significant chunk out of our parking revenue (which would presumably need to be offset by Property Tax increases), there is simply no evidence that free street-parking initiatives like this help local retail businesses in urban communities like New Westminster. The studies have been done, the evidence does not exist. The idea of free street parking may be populist, but it won’t work.

It’s not just me saying this, and nothing makes New Westminster unique here. I like to paraphrase/quote Donald Shoup, the acknowledged global expert on exactly this topic and author of “The High Price of Free Parking” when he says the curb lane on a commercial street is some of the most valuable land in any city. It is the biggest mistake a city can make to take that most valuable land and give it away, for free, to cars. Underpriced street parking drives traffic congestion, it drives emissions, and it makes a place less pedestrian friendly. It also, ironically, acts to make parking less available and harms the businesses it purports to serve.

Like most things involving cars, free parking works great until everyone wants to use it. This is because cars are massive consumers of space compared to their utility when compared to any other mode. You can have abundant available parking or you can have free parking, you cannot have both without turning the majority of your public space into parking lots. This works (at abhorrent cost) at suburban malls, but in dense urban city centres, the space simply doesn’t exist to make it work without loss of all of the things that make a community walkable and livable.

This is why the City of New Westminster, much like Vancouver and other modern cities, work to adjust commercial street parking rates based on needs assessments and the principle that correctly priced parking makes it more available for critical users, and properly prioritizes it in the hierarchy of needs for that most valuable curbside real estate.

In practice, this means setting a price for street parking that is higher than adjacent off-street parking. If street parking if free or too low priced, it will immediately be overwhelmed, and the off-street parking that was expensive to build and maintain will be underutilized. Ideally, on-street parking prices should be set so about 15% of spaces are open at any given time. Price it too low and people will circle the blocks in frustration not being able to find parking. When this motion first appeared in our Council agendas, I went down to Columbia Street on a regular Friday afternoon to see where our parking utilization rate was. I found about one empty parking space per block – or about 90% utilization. This is of course anecdotal, but there was no sign that pricing is out of scale with idealized price. This is because the price is based on a well-developed and evidence-based policy.

The City spent significant time putting together an updated parking pricing policy in 2019, including consultation with the business community, and that policy clearly lays out priorities and goals of the community, and sets a pricing policy to move us towards those goals over a 5-year implementation period. Let me quote from that October 2019 policy document:

“On-street vehicle parking is a valuable resource in urbanized communities, especially in commercial districts, around major institutions, and near rapid transit stations. Like other economic goods, when parking supply and pricing are not managed, demand for on-street parking often exceeds the amount of street space available. Complicating this issue is the growing demand for existing and potential designated curbside uses, such as transit stops and priority measures, taxi and ride-hailing zones, loading zones, accessible parking, car-share parking, protected bike lanes and bike parking, bike-share and other shared micromobility docking areas, parklets, and so forth. These uses – all of which are consistent with the City’s sustainable transportation and other goals – will continue to constrain the finite supply of onstreet space for the storage of personal vehicles.”

But our parking pricing strategy does not exist in a vacuum. It builds on the principles of the Official Community Plan, the Master Transportation Plan, the City’s Downtown Parking Strategy, our Community Energy and Emissions Plan, and other city policies. All of these are undermined by an arbitrary motion that re-prices this valuable public resource on a whim or a political promise.

In my opinion, this motion only represent bad public policy, it is regressive public policy that will (and this is actually the bigger point) not achieve the goals it claims to seek. I was not able to support it, nor was the majority of Council.

It is perhaps a coincidence that this motion arrived at Council as I was finishing reading a great book on this topic. Not Donald Shoup’s bible of parking policy, but Henry Grabar’s “Paved Paradise” which somehow makes the discussion of parking policy interesting and funny. The subtitle claims that parking explains the world we live in, and as you read he clearly makes the case that “parking is the primary determinant of the way the place you live looks, feels, and functions”.

We have work to do to make our curb spaces work better in Downtown New West, Sapperton, and Uptown. This work is ongoing through updates to our Master transportation Plan with a new area of focus on “curbside management”. We need to create better accessible parking for those who require accessible spaces, we need to change our pick-up/drop-off spaces to recognize the new emphasis on direct good and food delivery, we need to finds c at the curb for new mobility, for improved transit efficiency, for placemaking. This work will help businesses in our business districts, and it will help our residents better and more safely connect with those businesses. This is where the where the good public policy that supports local businesses is found. Alas, it doesn’t have the populist cachet of “free parking!”

HRAs and HCAs and Housing Priorities

There were two items I promised follow-up from last council meeting. This one deserves a deeper dive because it was a complicated conversation that resulted in a complex discussion at Council with several amendments and re-directions, all because the public policy and eventual outcomes were not obvious.

This is a result of a decision back in 2021 by Council to put a “freeze” on HRA applications in the Queens Park HCA, and a staff recommendation that we now lift that freeze.  And yeah, those acronyms are confusing. So I’ll try to unpack.

The residential neighbourhood of Queens Park has been designated a Heritage Conservation Area (“HCA”); one of the largest in the province. Because of the unique and provincially-significant collection of pre-1941 single family homes that meet the standard of having “heritage” merit, the neighbourhood and the Community Heritage Commission recommended the City put in an HCA a few years ago to provide extra protection to those homes. If you really want the background, here is my blog post from when it occurred.

Heritage Restoration Agreements (“HRAs”) are a planning tool that can be (and are) applied anywhere in the City. They are rather like a rezoning, in which a property owner asks to do something that is not permitted in the current zoning (i.e. build a duplex on a single family lot) in exchange for providing some value to the community or meeting some City policy goal. In the case of HRAs, it is essentially a rezoning where the “value” being exchanged is the permanent preservation of a heritage asset.

It is important to note that “designation” of a preserved heritage asset under an HRA is the highest level of heritage protection available to local governments in BC, and a much stronger level of heritage protection than is offered to the pre-1940 “protected” houses in the HCA. For this reason, alterations of heritage properties in the HCA usually come about through an HRA. If the owner of a pre-1940 HCA-protected house in Queens Park wants to make an exterior alteration, add a carriage or laneway house, lift the building to put in a full basement or put in dormers that increase the livable square footage of the home, they come to the City to ask for an HRA. Through an extensive review to assure the heritage merit is protected, and through a  (by regulation) Public Hearing, the Council either permits the change in exchange for “designation”, or does not. HRAs are also used outside Queens Park, but within Queens Park HCA they are essentially the only tool to allow alterations of pre-1940 homes, so they are more common there while other neighbourhoods are more familiar with other rezoning tools.

Since the adoption of the HCA, some members of the Queens Park community felt that HRAs were being applied in a way that was not complimentary to the HCA principles. I’ve heard criticism that HRAs were being granted with no benefit to the community, that they were an “end around” of the regular rezoning process. I don’t agree with these assertions, but they did lead to a few fractious HRA Public Hearings, and staff suggested we “pause” the processing of HRAs in Queens Park for a bit of time to let some policy work be done to update HRA principles across the City.

Unfortunately, this HRA process work has been repeatedly delayed by staff shortages and Council’s decision to prioritize other housing work – putting together affordable housing applications, an inclusionary housing policy, 22nd Street Area master planning, and applications coming that will help us meaningfully address the critical housing needs identified in our Housing Needs Assessment. Frankly, the HRA work was going to take up too much staff time and consultation energy for the value (and number of housing units) they provide the community during a housing crisis. Because of this, the “freeze” on new HRAs in Queens Park has dragged on for two years. Staff brought this report to us recommending we lift the freeze, because the work to update the HRA system (now wrapped into a more comprehensive Infill Density Policy Review) is not resourced to happen until 2025.

This is a question of balancing procedural fairness (people should be able to apply for rezoning or HRAs and understand the process that is available for them) with the common-good and heritage protection principles of the HCA.

During the conversation at Council there was a proposal to refer this question to the Community Heritage Commission – an advisory commission the city has to bring subject matter expertise to exactly this question: how to best evaluate heritage merit and balance its protection against other City policy and priorities? There was also a suggestion that applicants caught up in the “freeze” in 2021 be unfrozen to allow them to proceed with HRAs if they are still so inclined, but to maintain the freeze otherwise until the policy work is completed. Finally, the recommendation from staff to lift the freeze was put on the table, with the proviso that HRA applications not be prioritized over more critical housing work reflected in our Housing Needs assessment and overall housing policy direction.

This was a lengthy conversation, and I don’t want to speak for others at Council here, because the votes were split in different ways as we moved through the amendments, and everyone clearly had different comfort levels on this balance we were trying to strike. Instead, I will speak to my motivations for voting as I did.

When the HCA was introduced back in 2017, I supported in on the strict proviso that it would not stop all housing change in Queens Park – that the HCA should work to facilitate heritage-informed development of more housing diversity in Queens Park, and not act as a tool to prevent housing diversity in the neighbourhood. In the blog post I linked to above, I said it this way:

“the HCA policy cannot stop all development, infill density, or other ways of increasing housing choice in the Queens Park neighbourhood. We need to accelerate our work towards increasing laneway and carriage house infill, stratification of large houses if they wish to re-configure into multi-family buildings, and protecting the multi-family housing stock that already exists in Queens Park. The HCA as adopted will not prevent that progress,”

On a similar vein, I voted against the HRA freeze in 2021 because I felt it shifted the balance too far towards stopping the evolution of Queens Park by not even allowing change if it worked to improve heritage asset protection.

My position has not changed much here, and I voted with the slim majority of Council to lift the freeze, as recommended by Staff. I was not opposed to referring to the CHC for feedback prior to the lifting of the freeze, but that was defeated by another slim majority of Council. I also support the general direction to staff that we don’t need to prioritize this type of low-density infill at this time, and that is NOT consistent with my previous feelings and votes at Council.

Simply put, we are not in the same place now as we were in 2017 when we approved the current Official Community Plan. At the time, infill density was seen as an important part of our housing strategy, to bring more affordable but still market “family friendly” housing diversity in the community. In the last few years, land values in New West have grown to the point where infill is going to play less of a role in meeting our housing needs in the next few years, as higher-density forms re going to be needed to hit that lower-end-of-market and family-friendly sweet spot.