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.