Talking Turkey With Developers

February 28, 2014

About three months ago, the Urban Development Institute, the development industry’s trade body, invited me to speak as part of one of their lunch panels.  It was about community engagement.  Today was the second part of that conversation, with a panel made up developers and their aides, giving the industry’s perspective on engaging with the communities.  Once again I was invited, this time as a guest.

Bob Ransford was once again the moderator.  The panelists were Virginia Bird who works for developers securing support for their projects, Beau Jarvis and Deanna Grinnell both of Westgroup Development, and developer Marc Josephson.  The room was busy and the standing lunch — a great opportunity to network — was excellent as usual.

All of the panelists were keen on early engagement with the neighbourhoods, with face-to-face meetings, identifying potential issues and getting on with dealing with them, and sticking with the community partners through the entire project even if that is ten or twenty or more years.

However, in conversations before and after the session, many of them agreed that many — perhaps most — developers shy away from early contact, scared perhaps of what they’ll hear.  I noted that developers ought to be intelligent enough to recognize that finding out problems in the beginning is a lot easier and cheaper to deal with than five minutes before they want to put spades in the ground.

They said they need a degree of certainty and often don’t get it; there were a couple of examples given where the projects were entirely in line with community plans and city policies and yet still were rejected, by either the neighbourhood or the City who didn’t give them the political coverage they felt they were entitled to after they had followed the rules. I am obliged to note that projects that follow established zoning and guidelines rarely cause major controversy.  Problems usually arise when the developers are seeking a rezoning against the will of the community.

Still, it was good to meet with them and share our ideas.  We need to do more of this.

By the way, today was perhaps the finest weather day of the year so far, with clear blue skies and bright sunshine.  That seemed to make the views from the 34th floor of the Hyatt even more spectacular than usual.

City Council v. The People

February 28, 2014

The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods has written to Mayor Gregor Robertson about the scheduling of important public hearings:

The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods is writing to ask that you urgently reconsider the City’s recent decision to schedule vitally important public hearings during inconvenient daytime work hours. These scheduled hearings include significant and controversial rezonings for the Oakridge Centre Mall project, for Casa Mia in Southlands, as well as contested spot rezoning proposals in Kitsilano and other neighbourhoods.

The Coalition notes that public hearings held during traditional working hours severely limit the ability of most citizens to attend, imposing barriers to public access to City decision-making that are inconsistent with the recent publication of the Mayor’s Engaged City Task Force Report.  In particular, these hearings fail to meet any of the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2)’s core values that were included in the Task Force’s recommendations.

The Core Values define the expectations and aspirations of the public participation process as follows:

1.    Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.

2.    Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision.

3.    Public participation promotes sustainable decisions by recognizing and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including decision makers.

4.    Public participation seeks out and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision.

5.    Public participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.

6.    Public participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.

7.    Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.

However, these ideals appear to have been ignored almost entirely by the actions of Council in scheduling these hearings.  Public access, input, and influence are priorities officially accepted by Council. These should be honoured and fulfilled.

Mayor Robertson, you stated on January 30 this year that “I’ve heard the concerns people have raised over how City Hall engages with residents. There’s no question we can do better.” We ask you to confirm those fine words with concrete action.

The Coalition understands that evening and weekend hearings are inconvenient for Councillors and City staff but notes that this is the people’s business and the people’s convenience too.

In another development, yesterday the City issued a 400+ page report on the DTES Community Plan which contains, I understand, substantial changes from the previous documents.  Residents are being given less than two weeks to analyze this massive document, and will have just five minutes to speak to Council about it.

This is a Council that claims to be interested in community engagement!  What an undemocratic farce.

A Good Day

February 27, 2014

I had a wonderfully productive day today.  I discussed stories from Grandview’s seniors, had dealings with some of Commercial Drive’s fine merchants on this beautiful late winter day, had a lunch debate with a friend that was full of intellectual variety, wrote a letter to Mayor and Council, and had a press release approved by groups from across the city.   I also first-drafted my next article for BC History, answered more than 50 emails, and cooked a fabulous dinner.

Is it any wonder why I don’t bother to spend time on the negativity that some people use their time wallowing in?

Update on Bike Lanes

February 26, 2014

I just had a furious call from Sarah Fiorito who organized the bike lanes meeting on Monday night.  She claims my report completely misrepresented the meeting.  I told her that I stick by my report. Anyway, she said they would soon be posting the video of the meeting (I assume she meant audio as I don’t recall there being any video cameras in the room).  I told her that was great because then people could make up their own minds.

In her call to me she said there was only one isolated mention of a campaign against businesses and the BIA. That is certainly not my recollection. It is true that she was pushing for a positive campaign to change the minds of anti-bike lane businesses, but she wasn’t the only one speaking and others were more negative in their attitudes.

The only complaint of hers that I take seriously is my mention that “safe for all ages” bike lanes means ugly concrete slabs.  I had asked her about that after the meeting and she had indeed said that their preferred method of separation was to have a lane of parking between bike lane and traffic — not the blocks.  Fair enough, but my comment about “safe for all ages” being code for concrete blocks (as opposed to painted lines) was based on the general discussion of physical separation methods that predominate on bike lane chats on Twitter and elsewhere.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I have my own concerns about the parking lane separation design on a two-way street like the Drive where buses and bus stops are so important.

Her extremely aggressive tone with me on the phone today certainly got me riled up.  However, we are all entitled to our own opinions and views about what happens and what we see.  When she posts the audio of the meeting, I will be glad to post a link to it.

Four More Years? God, No!

February 26, 2014

In a move that surprises no-one that has been following the muncipal scene, the Provincial Liberals will table legislation this year to elongate civic terms to four years.  In other words, the Vancouver election in November this year will be the last one until the end of 2018.  Whoever we get this year will rule us for what will seem like an eternity. And, if it is the wrong crew, Vancouver will never be the same again, with huge towers approved throughout the City and disrespect for neighbourhoods and residents becoming even more the norm than it is today.

Vision Vancouver personnel lobbied the Union of BC Municipalities hard to get the UBCM to change their previous position and vote for four year terms.  Their pals in the Liberal Party listened to them.

This extension to municiopal terms is a part of a much larger plan to move power away from the people.  We have the unelected Translink Board being given powers over transportation and land use in our city, and the unelected Metro Vancouver controls a wide range of other important services.  Being unelected, neither of these bodies see any reason to listen to the voice of the people.  The benefits of municipal government are best seen when the people retain a close control and can influence officials; yet we are moving ever farther from that ideal.

We will get longer terms but we will have to wait for finance reform because Vision doesn’t really want it.  In other words, fat wallets will still be able to fund the parties without limit for another five years and Council will remain beholden to the paymasters for the forseeable future.  NPA, NSV, the Greeens, and COPE have all issued formal statements in support of expense limits.  Vision hasn’t.  Why is that?

Another issue:  Why has the media not been covering the extension of municipal terms, thus enabling the public to have their say before the fait acommpli?  A number of civic groups advised local reporters weeks ago that this was likely to happen, but have you seen ANY stories about this in the run-up to the announcement?  None. Why the blackout on this story?  Does it have anything to do with who pays the big real estate ads in the main newspapers?

In some countries, corruption involves public officials putting public monies into their own bank accounts.  The corruption that money has on our system is far more subtle and impersonal, but just as insidious and damaging.

Saving Ukraine’s History

February 25, 2014

The Global Investigative Journalism Network has published a fascinating story about a small group of journalists are saving and releasing tens of thousands of previously secret papers from the fallen Yanukovch regime.

A small group of local journalists discovered papers floating and sinking in a reservoir on the ex-President’s estate:

“The reporters then did something remarkable. They made a decision to cooperate among all the news organizations and to save first and report later. It wasn’t an easy decision. But it was clear that if they didn’t act, critical records of their own country’s history could be lost …

“At one point more than 50 people were there trying to help. Food, supplies, rides, and other needs were being continuously supplied by people supporting the work. The reporters had to systematically separate, dry, catalog, and photocopy every page. Meanwhile, every knock on the front door set off alarms in the compound as people expected the police to try to eject the citizen brigade. Armed protestors arrived to help secure the compound. Negotiations between protestors and government officials provided a backdrop. In moments of rest, the journalists  read – not for their stories but to figure out where other documents might be. On Monday, reporters headed out to Suholucchya, a hunting club frequented by Yanukovych’s cronies, and Honka, Yanukovych’s main house. The process is still ongoing.”

Great story.

Bikes On The Drive

February 25, 2014

I went to a very interesting meeting last night organized by Sarah Fiorito and a group she has formed called the Commercial Drive Action Group. There were about 40 or more packed into the Britannia boardroom, nearly all of whom were young and active and keen to be cheerleaders for bikes, biking and bike lanes.

Chris Brunlett (the cyclist on Twitter sans paraeil) gave an introductory essay which had a lot to say about alternative uses for streets and sidewalks.  Then Sarah Fiorito, who was well prepared and researched, gave a thorough and well-illustrated presentation.  We then had about an hour of Q&A and discussion.

The admitted purpose of the meeting was to generate political pressure to support those City Councilors (i.e. mainly Vision) who support bike lanes.  It was also to generate a campaign against the BIA and its members that oppose bike lanes.  One fervent disciple even suggested a boycott of businesses that would not support bike lanes; but that wasn’t taken up.  Other suggestions included building parking structures at each end of the Drive — boy, they would be attractive!

There was a messianic fury about it all but, once I raised the issue of the difference between the Drive south and north of First, it became clear that Sarah and her followers, at least, would probably be happy to restrict radical action to the section south of First.  Eliminating two lanes of car traffic was the favourite proposal.

The key phrase they use is a bike lane that is “safe for all ages and skills” which is code for bikes lanes separated from traffic by god-awful ugly concrete blocks.  That’s an issue for me.  If we ever did get a car-free Drive (which would be my long-term preference), those things will be really expensive to remove.  In the meanwhile, they will get in the way of pedestrians crossing the street.

There was some talk of telling the BIA to be in touch with the BIAs where bike lanes have already been launched.  However, the Drive is different from each of those in Vancouver so far: the Drive is a two-way street with bus stops; not a situation faced to date downtown or on Burrard Bridge.

I also have trouble visualizing the design.  As I understand the concept for south of First, the outer lanes on each side would be bike paths, with the next lane for parking, and the third lane for traffic.  If that is so, how do the buses operate?  Are pedestrians forced to cross to the middle of the street to board the bus?  This design seems problematic in spades.

I only decided to go at the very last minute given the snow, but was glad I did in the end.

Fog At Sunset

February 23, 2014

Fog at Sunset_web

Our City of Disrespect

February 22, 2014

I’m sure that most of you by now will be aware of the proposed massive re-development of Oakridge.  This is a a development that will change the centre of our city for ever if it goes ahead, with a forest of huge towers and the first ever “public” park situated on the roof of private building.

Te redevelopment is described by the City in the following terms:

  • Two floors of Retail and Service Uses, which would double the amount of retail on site;
  • Over 424,000 sq. ft. of Office Uses;
  • 2,914 Residential Units (including 290 units of social housing and 290 units of market rental housing);
  • Eleven residential towers with heights between 19 and 44 storeys and three mid-rise buildings between 9 and 13 storeys in height.

The whole thing is profligacy on a massive scale, designed to feed the profits of the large developers involved, and as a way of introducing downtown-style high-rises into central Vancouver.   The sop is 290 social housing units (the other 290 mentioned are market rental, so no different from all the others) and $140m in “community amenities” which the City should be supplying anyway.

Important though this proposal is, our City Council has decided that public hearings and the public display of the amended by-laws should go ahead at a time that is as inconvenient as possible to most Vancouverites, thus depriving them of their right to speak to the issue directly.

Public Hearings begin at 2:00pm on Monday 10th March at City Hall.  The vast majority of voting-age Vancouverites are fully employed and thus unable – except at a loss of wages — to attend hearings on a Monday afternoon.  That is no doubt why they call them at that time.  The proposed by-laws will be available at City Hall on weekdays only from 28th February between the hours of 8:30am to 4:30pm.  Once again, exactly when most people will be at their work.

This is deliberate and it is a sign of the extraordinary disrespect in which this Council holds the ordinary men and women of our city.  I am sure it is inconvenient for Council and staff to meet in the evenings and on weekends; but there are just a few of them, and there are hundreds of thousands of us.  Surely our needs should come become theirs.

Catching Up Post

February 21, 2014

Yesterday afternoon I spent a long time in a formal interview with the sociology student I met at the beginning of the month. We covered a lot of ground and I was impressed with his knowledge and industry.  We covered some of the material from my book, but he also obliged me to compose a lot of my thoughts on the Drive in the 1970s, 80s and 90s that I am still researching in prep for the next book.  A very useful exercise for both of us, I believe.  He is currently waiting to hear back from the graduate schools he has applied to.  I hope he gets what he wants.

Last night, I thoroughly enjoyed the latest meeting of the Grandview Heritage Group. No contention, no egos, just useful and interesting discussions with intelligent people.  More of that, please.

Finally, in the catch up category, I received my new passport in the mail today.  That was just seven working days since I made the application.  Well done Canada!

Debunking the Myths of “Vancouverism”

February 21, 2014

I had an interesting morning today, having been invited by a UBC prof to meet with a group of ten “urban planners” from Thailand who were interested in hearing about community engagement.  We met at SFU Harbourside, and I brought along Fern Jeffries from the False Creek Residents’ Association.

The Thais, it turned out, consisted of four hotel owners from a small resort, along with six local city officials including the Mayor and their senior Planner.  They had spent the last few days meeting with Vancouver and Richmond City folks, Translink staff and developers, all of whom had regaled them with the joyous wonders of “Vancouverism ” — high density and even higher towers.  Today, Fern and I explained to them the other side of the “Vancouverism” coin — top-down planning that ignores the desires of local residents, and which changes skylines and lifestyles to the benefit of the developers rather than the people.

After the meeting downtown, the Thais, the prof, and I took SkyTrain to Commercial & Broadway to show them the Transit Oriented Development zone that would bring 30+ storey towers to our low-rise neighbourhood. (Here are some of them on the trip, with Prof Peter Boothroyd of UBC in the second image):

Thais 1Thais 2

They had visited the station under the auspices of Translink the previous day. I gave them a different view, I am certain.  We walked a block or so into E. 10th and I showed them a typical Grandview street of detached houses.  I believe they were genuinely shocked that such a beautiful and livable street could be under threat.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable time with a very pleasant group.  I hope we may have leavened the pro-tower stuff that our City planners and developers would have stuffed them with.

More Signs of Spring

February 20, 2014

The first signs of spring are upon us!

In that little bit of Parker Street that dribbles west of Commercial Drive are a couple of trees that are showing off precocious blossoms.


More unusual, though equally welcome, is the replacement of the grass verge on the southeast edge of Grandview Park.  You may recall that this was torn up by City Engineering to be a gravel parking spot during the Great Food Truck Controversy of 2013 (gosh that seems so long ago now).  The truck is now gone (hopefully not to be replaced) and now the physical evidence is being removed.

park verge

Community Mailboxes: Good or Bad?

February 20, 2014


CUPW_SUPERMAILBOX_version2_singlepage copy2

Stories As Policy Input

February 19, 2014

There were a couple of very important meetings in Grandview last night. Obviously I couldn’t be at both and so I will post later about the Eco-Density meeting that a number of kind correspondents who did go have written to me about.  I chose instead to go to COPE’s Rent Control Forum at the Grandview Calvary Baptist Church.

The meeting was arranged by Sean Antrim and COPE’s Housing Committee, and was moderated by Rider Cooey. The panelists were Maureen Burke, Theresa Diewert, Patrick Stewart, Garth Mullins and Jon Leah.  About fifty people filled the small hall.

COPE meeting panelThis was a policy forum immersed in story telling, and certainly none the worse for that.  As Wendy Sarkasian has written: “People relate to stories more than to data, evidence or directives … When stories are shared, each person gains a new perspective.”  And so it was last night.

Maureen Burke told us the harrowing story of her renoviction from the Aquilini apartment building on Adanac.  From this she led us to understand the weaknesses of the Residential Tenancy Act and the need for a Housing Authority and an Ombudsman to assist renters.

Theresa Diewert regaled us with stories of homelessness and displacement.  She noted that Grandview is (or has been) both welcoming and affordable, but she fears for the neighbourhood as condos are planned and built.

Architect Patrick Stewart spoke of his upbringing in care and interlaced Aboriginal issues with the failures caused by our lack of a National Housing Strategy.  He opposed the “scattered sites” policy being pushed these days as destructive of community.

Garth Mullins talked about all the types of accommodation he has lived in since moving to the neighbourhood.  He noted that the Drive itself has gentrified since his earliest days here, where simple coffee shops have become chains, and political spots like La Quena have been transformed into yoga studios. He decried the need for tall building, noting that they inevitably became the centers of widening ripples of social and economic displacement.

The last speaker, Jon Leah, gave us the sad story of a senior having to move from her own home to an apartment in a co-op which, having started with great hopes, has itself become old and fragile and somewhat unsafe.  She believes that forms of rent control will allow seniors to age in place, and wants to see some guarantees against eviction.

These were all moving stories, stories that generated thoughts of change and thus of policy.  It will be interesting to see how COPE puts this information together.

What Do They Have To Hide?

February 19, 2014

In a previous post, I asked what politicians could ever object to Clr. Adriane Carr’s motion to make it easier for Vancouver residents to find out how each City Councillor voted on each issue.  Well they found reasons enough.

“Too expensive”, “too much work for staff”, “not important enough,” were just some of the quotes (you can see them all here).

Vision Councillor Tim Stevenson — yes, the same guy we just spent a bunch of money on to send on a trip to Sochi for a photo op for his next campaign — called the whole idea of making this information more readily available “pie in the sky.”  He said, “I haven’t had people knocking down my door to do this.” The City staff shouldn’t be burdened with this effort, he said.  I guess not when there are endless more condo towers to plan and build and livability to destroy.

Frankly the NPA was no better.  Clr. Elizabeth Ball said this should go ahead, but only “if staff decide this is a good idea.”  Is this a final admission that Penny Ballem and her staff are running things at City Hall and not our elected representatives?

In the end, Andrea Reimer who was in the chair relied on a letter opposing the idea from the Vancouver Public Space Network (VPSN).  The VPSN is a City-funded front organization meant to deal with public space and amenities, not City Hall governance and accountability.  Why should their letter be taken more seriously than the letters sent in by Vancouver citizens supporting the motion?  Letters which, Adriane Carr pointed out, had not been forwarded properly by staff.

Finally, knowing it would look bad to actually vote it down, the motion was “referred to staff”, buried until it is too late to matter.  This is a disgrace for an administration that claims to support transparency and accountability, but just another day of mis-management for Vision Vancouver.

Date for the Calendar: The Future of the Drive

February 19, 2014

A group with the name of the Commercial Drive Action Group has called a meeting for 7:00pm Monday evening at the Britannia Boardroom. Their pitch begins with:

“Are you interested in helping Commercial Drive become a more vibrant, human-centric high street? Does the prospect of having additional crosswalks, wider sidewalks,and bike lanes on Commercial Drive get you excited?”

Personally I think the Drive is already extraordinarily vibrant and human-centric.  That’s what makes it the Drive.  Sure, there are a few small changes that would make it better, I guess, but certainly nothing major.  Even the City Planners, not renowned for their keen neighbourhood insight, recognized that large changes to the Drive would not fly and would, doubtless, cause more harm than good.

The balance of the Action Group’s pitch is strongly oriented toward the imposition of bike lanes. The less I say about that the better, perhaps, other than I am a supporter of bike lanes in many places, but the Drive — especially north of First — is certainly not one of them.

However, I will attend the meeting and I encourage everyone else to join in the conversation.

Talking About The Weather

February 19, 2014

Anybody living in Vancouver knows that it just poured down with rain yesterday morning. Sheets and sheets of the stuff.  Luckily, it had stopped before I went out to a meeting last night but on the way home, walking through Victoria Park, one of the bocce courts was completely flooded, looking in the dark just like a lap pool or a koi pond.

Today, on the other hand, was my perfect weather — cool and brisk and dry, with a blue sky and sunshine.  To be honest, I’d be happy if we had 365 days a year of this.

After a long walk down the Drive, I sat outside Britannia Library in the warm sun, enjoying the day.  I shared the bench with a fellow about my age who had come to Canada from Eritrea in 1984.  He spent the first couple of years in Edmonton before moving to Vancouver just before Expo.  We talked about the weather and I suggested the cold in Alberta must have been a shock after coming from the Horn of Africa.  Not so much, he said, as in the winter in some parts of Eritrea the water freezes on the ground.  However, what was a surprise to him was that snow fell from the sky!  We laughed.

It is a good weather day.

Another Dent in Vision’s Hegemony

February 18, 2014

At last night’s Vancouver Parks Board meeting, the Vision Vancouver majority withdrew their plans to put an ashphalt bike lane through Hadden Park.  This after months of controversy, mass meetings and, finally, a law suit that halted construction.

“We’ve heard clearly from the public that there is significant concern with any proposed changes to Hadden Park,” park board chair Niki Sharma said in a statement.  That’s stretching credulity to the limit because the loud public concerns were expressed before Sharma and her crew made the original decision to proceed with the damaging plans.  What really tipped the balance was a calculation that they couldn’t win the court case launched by residents.

As a statement from the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods said last night, it is necessary

to point out that meaningful community engagement before the original decision was made in this case would have prevented the expense, inconvenience, and embarrassment of a court challenge. Along with the changes to the STIR program brought about by the legal challenge launched by West End Neighbours, it seems that City Hall is only willing to act on residents’ concerns when required to do so by court intervention.

The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods can only hope that our elected representatives quickly change tack and begin to listen to residents instead of judges.

Bravo to the local residents who stood up to the Parks Board, showed up in numbers to protest, and helped fund and manage the lawsuit that finally stopped work that most neighbours clearly did not want.  The Hadden Park case, the STIR law suit, and the delays and amendments forced on the Marpole and Grandview-Woodland Community Plans show that people power really can make a difference even against a Council majority as disengaged and obdurate as the one we have in Vancouver today.

There are just 269 days left before the next municipal election.

Look Out Ukraine!

February 18, 2014

Today could be a bad day for the opposition in Ukraine.  There are reports on Twitter that metro stations have been closed in downtown Kiev and the gathered crowds have been told to leave the streets or face brutal repression.

I am watching Espreso TV — Maidan Live, but it is difficult to follow without knowing Ukrainian.

Here is a list of other Ukrainian TV stations.

Geek Love

February 17, 2014

I just finished Katherine Dunn’s very dark novel Geek Love.  It was my third time through. I read it first in 2000, when it was given to me by the ever-loving as something to read on the plane to and from Wichita, Kansas, where I was courting her.  I read it again perhaps five years later.  There aren’t many novels I’ve read three times, so it clearly had an affect on me.

It is hard to call Geek Love anything but deeply twisted and darker than dark, chronicling the story of the Binewski clan.  Ma and Pa Binewski, proprietors of a failing traveling carnival, set about creating their own brood of extreme human oddities who make the carny famous and prosperous as their living freak show moves through small-town America.  The tale takes us across decades as the strange family dynamics play out between the strange siblings and their parents.

The novel is filled with extraordinary characters and bizarre incidents, richly imagined and brilliantly drawn. Murder, sex, and cultish megalomania reign almost unchecked by compassion and tenderness.   This is Gothic on steroids.

Ms. Dunn has not written another novel since she published Geek Love in 1989, though another one has been promised for almost 25 years.  I’m not sure I could handle another one like this!