The Footprint of Highways

April 5, 2020

The activists of the City of Vancouver are rightly proud of keeping highways at bay, more or less, in our city.

The always reliable Visual Capitalist has a feature today on the cost certain US cities paid for allowing the growth of highways. They share bird’s eye views of Oakland (1946-2020), Providence (1955-2020), Miami (1961-2020), and Cincinnati (1955-2020), which were swept along in the highways movement:



They note:

“Since 1987, there have been more than 20 urban highway segments removed from downtown cores, neighborhoods and waterfronts, mostly in North America. The pace of removals has picked up significantly and an additional 10 highways are now planned for removal in the United States. During the COVID-19 pandemic, American cities have seen their traffic plummet. Rush-hour trips into cities are taking nearly half the time while some are not even commuting at all. While this situation is likely temporary, it is offering a moment for reflection of how cities operate and whether the car should be at the center of urban planning.”

Many of us hope that Vancouver lives up to its historic role, cancels the demolition of the viaducts, and ignores the call to build a brutal urban highway — in all but name — in its place.

Fear and Loathing In Lotusland

March 11, 2020

Yesterday on Twitter, Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung wrote:

“Attn all Vancouver #smallbusiness & businesses. If you are having a real challenge with City of Vancouver permitting, I’d like to hear from you to hear the problems firsthand, as well as try to help. My Council email is & my phone is on City web.”

She was responding to numerous conversations that morning about how City of Vancouver permits and licensing are difficult. expensive, and frustratingly time consuming.  A journalist noted:

“I tried to write about this two years ago and couldn’t get any businesses to go on the record. They were fearful it could further delay their permits!!”

This seemed to be a not uncommon feeling and the words “petty” and “fear” were frequent.

I have a good friend who had a very lengthy, expensive, and frustrating experience a year or so ago when he was renovating an in-law suite. I asked him if he would speak with Councillor Kirby-Yung. His reaction:  “I would be happy to do that but it would have to be anonymous,” and he went on to describe issues he could expect from City Hall staff if he were to make his feelings public.

How can we have gotten to this state where an entrenched bureaucracy in our beautiful City can instil such fear in successful business people and tax-paying citizens who are just trying to improve their lives and their properties? What is going on here? Why is the City Manager allowing this to happen?

I wish Councillor Kirby-Yung the very best results with her inquiries, and would close by making it clear that calling out inefficiency is not a sign of disrespect to staff; but failure to root out the problem IS disrespectful to the tax-payers of Vancouver.


How Power Works

March 4, 2020

Let us imagine a situation where a developer, probably supported by CoV Planning, wants to build a structure that will change the very nature of a neighbourhood; a tower, say, in an otherwise low rise commercial/residential area.

When the plans are made public, there is outrage by many residents and they form a small volunteer group to oppose the development. Over a period of weeks, they knock on doors, hold public meetings, and collect 5,000 signatures on a petition.  When they know the development is about to go before Council in a public hearing, the opposition group sends their petition into City Hall.  At the same time, the developer gets three of his friends to write letters of support for the development.

When the Public Hearing opens, the City Clerk announces to Council that one piece of correspondence has been received opposing the project, and three pieces have been received in support. The fact that the “one” piece represents 5,000 neighbourhood residents is deliberately obscured.  Councillors (and the general public and media) are thereby led to believe that most people support the project.

That’s how power works in our City.

Reformist Councillor Colleen Hardwick has submitted a Motion that proposes a number of important reforms to City processes, including making sure that the number of residents signing a petition are properly recognized, and that the opinions of residents are valued rather than discounted.  The Motion comes before Council on March 10th. It is yet another attempt to re-balance power at City Hall: pushing more power toward voters and the elected Council and away from an entrenched Staff.

I urge everyone to write to Council supporting these vital changes that will help invigorate our local democracy.


Update:  Thanks to Carlito Pablo of the Georgia Strait for the detailed coverage of the other aspects of the Motion.

A Councillor Listens!

February 21, 2020

An interesting group of Grandview residents and business people met today with Councillor Colleen Hardwick.  This was one of her 50 Neighbourhood Talks to ensure that every neighbourhood in Vancouver is aware of, and become involved in, the City Plan process.  It was very much a working group meeting, expanding from the historical review of planning that Colleen had presented at GWAC earlier in the month.

I am sure an official reporting out of the meeting will be available soon but in the meanwhile I can say that a lot of ground was covered — both in presentations by Colleen and Lewis Villegas, and from the active back-and-forth discussion that included everyone present.  The flaws in the recent Grandview Woodland Community Plan process were aired, the business owners in attendance repeated their oft-said but no less valid issues with the slowness and cost of City permitting and the zoning-taxation regime, and almost all the attendees complained that the Community Plan was not being followed, with too many spot rezonings, additional heights, etc.

The accuracy (or otherwise) of the population estimates used by City staff to sell more development was discussed in detail, as was the City’s over-reliance on CAC funding. Specific local issues such as the Broadway/Commercial area and the Venables/Commercial intersection were discussed as outstanding issues of local concern, and there was a lively discussion about the housing types needed to meet the reasonable needs of local population increase.

It has been an age since we had such an adult conversation with anyone from City Hall.

My clearest takeaway from the meeting is the need for the neighbourhood to once again actively organize itself in preparation for the City Plan, more changes to the GW Plan, and the next civic election.


Defending the Auditor General for Vancouver

February 10, 2020

Regular readers of this blog, and most anyone interested in improvements to Vancouver’s civic governance, will recall that, almost single-handedly, Councilor Colleen Hardwick succeeded in pushing through City Council a motion to establish an office of the Auditor General.  In my opinion, and in the opinion of others that I respect, this is a matter of fundamental reform, introducing a degree of transparency to a system that today shields staff (and often Councillors) from the consequences of their actions.

It is such a fundamental reform that it seriously disturbs the technocratic power structures that have governed us for years and offers our elected representatives a far better shot at changing the system to meet their constituents’ wishes than we have today.  And that potential disturbance to their charmed lives caused — and continues to cause — certain City Hall staff and their political allies to fight like hell to stop or radically weaken this initiative.

I am hearing rumours that Councillors Boyle, Carr and Fry are working hand in hand with the City Manager to emasculate the office at the very least (who knows if those rumours are true?), and I am hearing that even some of Councillor Hardwick’s NPA colleagues are wavering in the face of staff’s self-serving but firm opposition to more openness in government.

I hope that everyone in Vancouver who is interested in government transparency and efficiency will email City Hall and make sure they know that we are watching and eagerly awaiting a fully-functioning Auditor General for Vancouver.

Last Night’s GWAC Meeting

February 4, 2020

Image: Stephen Bohus


I attended the monthly GWAC meeting last night, along with about 60 others.  Councillor Colleen Hardwick gave an excellent presentation that took us through the history of urban planning in Vancouver, and then focused on some areas where she is determined to improve the consultation process.

In her historical review, Colleen moved forward from the Bartholomew Plan of 1927-1930, noting that the sale and subsequent development of the “Expo lands” was the tipping point for the commodification of land in our city. She noted that throughout the 1980s and 1990s, numerous local community plans and vision statements (City Plan) were developed. However, this historical knowledge was essentially lost with the wholesale replacement of senior City staff when Vision Vancouver took over Council and hired Penny Ballem as City Manager. City departments that had developed a deep understanding of the neighbourhoods of Vancouver were shuffled around, broken apart or lumped together, and fresh managers out in place.

Since then, we have had a build for growth strategy rather than a build for need plan, and Colleen demonstrated quite forcefully that we have been — and continue — building more housing units that the anticipated population increase would suggest are required.

There were quite a few questions from the floor, the majority of which wondered what the point of the efforts put into the Grandview Woodland Community Plan was if Council continues to change the Plan on a spot rezoning basis without neighbourhood-wide consultation.  There was also some renewed interest in wards (rather than at-large elections), though Colleen expressed herself as not convinced of their efficacy.

Colleen as a sitting Councillor is constrained by the City’s Code of Conduct in what she can say about current senior staff; therefore, I will step into the breach.  She made the point, quite correctly, that experience and historical knowledge were shown the door when Vision came to power and replaced the staff.  I would argue that the current staff are continuing to execute Vision’s development template — regardless of the political changes that saw Vision eliminated from Council in 2018 — and it is about time Councillors took control of the agenda from the staff, replacing all those that remain recalcitrant.

It was a good meeting, I thought, and saw some interesting back-and-forth between speaker and audience.

It should be noted that this was NOT one of Colleen’s planned 50 Neighbourhood Talks. The official Grandview Talk will be on February 20th, details tba.

Councillor Colleen Hardwick at GWAC

January 30, 2020

The next meeting of the Grandview Woodland Area Council is on Monday 3rd February at 7:00pm.   The speaker this month is Vancouver City Councillor Colleen Hardwick.

The only urban planner on City Council, Colleen has been an active opponent of the City’s planning policies and processes.  Moreover, against vigorous opposition from City staff and their minions, she recently managed to get Council to approve the establishment of an independent Auditor General’s office to ensure that, over time, that Vancouver tax payers get good value for the decisions made by Council.

Colleen is a keen proponent of a City Plan to rationalise development in our growing metropolis.  However, she wants to make sure that the people of Vancouver have more say in the future than the tenured staff at City Hall. In furtherance of this,

“Colleen plans to visit every neighbourhood within the boundaries of the City.  In each case, she will meet with organizations within neighbourhood boundaries including but not limited to residents’ associations, BIAs, community centers, heritage, and faith-based groups to take a detailed look at where to best accommodate growth of approximately 1,000 new dwelling units per neighbourhood over the next decade.”

Note that this meeting is scheduled to take place in the Activity Room above the Britannia Ice Rink.