(Updated Jan 6 on RGS, etc.) What does the future hold for communities, neighbourhoods, taxpayers, and everyone in Vancouver in 2013? Will it be a similar to the 2012 year in civic politics? Below CityHallWatch provides a summary of items already on the radar regarding Vancouver City Hall and Park Board, and speculates on others. Expect some surprises. This year is the mid-term between the 2011 and 2014 civic elections, so the civic party in majority may try to force through unpopular decisions with the intention of trying to patch things up in the final months before the next election. Communities will have to remain on their toes this year and be ready to respond quickly in each other’s support. Tell your elected officials that you want transparent government fully accountable to and truly listening to neighbourhoods and the public, not surprise deals made behind the scenes and sprung upon the public with a few days of advance notice. The public is also encouraged to watch closely how mainstream media cover these stories, and to press media owners, editors, and reporters to go beyond the official press releases and ask tougher questions of our elected officials. Pick a topic below and ask media to investigate and cover items you feel are a media blind spot. Executives and members of civic parties are also encouraged to ask questions and hold their boards accountable.
The struggle between Park Board and the Community Centre Associations (CCAs) that jointly operate Community Centres will play out. Stuart Mackinnon’s op-ed in the Province shows how City Manager (Penny Ballem) is involved (see Mayor’s people behind power grab in parks). Will new Joint Operating Agreements between Park Board and the CCAs be satisfactory for all parties? Will the City make a money grab for CCA surpluses? Stay tuned as Park Board Commissioners are put in the hot seat.
With much fanfare, the Mayor’s office announced on October 25th, 2012 that “50 social housing units [are] to be built right away” at Little Mountain. Planning staff verbally revealed additional details on November 24th (writeup here), yet no official plans about this fast-track development are available on the City’s website. How quickly will construction start, and what deals were made in the background? Officials have made assurances now that the low-income tenants won’t be evicted from the single remaining social housing building while the rezoning process is ongoing. The entire rezoning of Little Mountain will likely move forward, but will this be resolved so it is amenable to all parties (Holborn, BC Housing, neighbouring residents and the City)? How much money will the Province make from the sale of the land? Could lessons learned with this case prevent similar mistakes from being made at Heather Place? Also, note that the nearby Little Mountain Adjacent Area Rezoning Policy will be coming before Council in early 2013.
The Viaducts Study will probably come up early in 2013. The report will likely be revealed in a ‘shock & awe’ fashion, placed on the Council agenda just a few business days before Council is set to decide. It will then be passed by the majority party on Council with no significant public review. Little information has been made public on the upcoming recommendations aside the watered-down, single-solution option presented last June to the public. We are aware that a formal Freedom of Information request on the Viaducts Study options yielded an outright refusal. Prediction: City staff will recommend taking down the viaducts, with that being the one and only option shown to the public, then the recommendation will be passed and heralded with fanfare and spin. Questions: Will there be further modifications to the agreements with Concord Pacific over Creekside Park? What will be the impacts on views from the proposed highrise construction and from turning part of the viaducts area into condo towers? Are the $100 million cost estimates realistic and who will pay for them? Who is really profiting from the removal of the viaducts? Have discussions with stakeholders been done in a fair and transparent fashion, with the public interest foremost?
A Council decision on the proposed Public Bike Share will also come up soon. Prediction: It too will pass unaltered, possibly with a big PR campaign from City Hall. Questions: Will there be public discussions on the actual contract, or on how to measure and mitigate any harm done to private bike rental companies? Will there be transparency in the bidding process? Will issues around taxpayer and public exposure to possible cost overruns, and the eastside versus westside inequality in distribution of the bike share be addressed? Will a cost/benefit analysis be prepared and released to the public? Can a meaningful dialogue based on facts alone take place — a dialogue that isn’t polarized? (Note: Many CityHallWatch contributors are cyclists, and also expect transparency in civic processes).
In 2013, the Arts Community will be debating the future of the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG). The relative merits of distributing the collection over multiple sites will be weighed against the possibility of constructing a new dedicated Art Gallery for $300-$400 million (see Globe & Mail article: Big-name artists square off over the Vancouver Art Gallery and Vancouver Sun: Realtor/art collector Bob Rennie throws art gallery a curve with proposal for multiple sites). The option for distributing the VAG collection would entail the construction of new art gallery space at the base of new highrises in return for greater density — a potential boon for developers involved. The City will apparently make a decision in February on whether to lease a 2-acre site for a new gallery located between Dunsmuir, Georgia, Cambie and Beatty Streets (the former Greyhound bus terminal). A word of caution: in both scenarios high towers may be advocated by some of the parties involved — to offset development costs — and this move would have impacts on views and shadowing. However, it’s also possible that a deal is made without any preconditions, especially in the run-up to the May 15 provincial election. (Note: For comparison, $563 million was spent on the new BC Place stadium roof).
The W2 Community Media Arts Centre is in financial limbo and a resolution of the current status is expected within weeks (see 24 Hours Vancouver: W2 arts hub locked out of Woodward’s). Questions: Will the City evict W2 from Woodward’s, will they chose to examine the finances of the organizations using W2, or will they forgive the organizations’ debts and increase the subsidy for the space? Will any details be made public on the City’s decision to lock the W2 arts hub out after so many years? Will W2 move to another location instead?
Now we turn to the four official Community Plan processes now under way in the Downtown Eastside, Grandview-Woodland, Marpole, and the West End. These processes are entirely controlled and the plans are effectively being written by the City’s Planning Department. We have observed that citizens are not very actively taking part as partners in the process. This low level interest contrasts dramatically with the CityPlan process during the 1990s — up to 200 city staff were assigned to the process at one point, 400 citizen groups participated, 8,000 displays were presented, over 40% of households participated citywide, 80% of respondents supported the outcomes — and the concept of a city of neighbourhood centres. But today, grassroots pushback is almost guaranteed from the residents when the plans are revealed, with just the two weeks notice promised by the Mayor. Community awareness in that the plans are underway appears to be very low. We get the sense that among the citizens who actually know about the processes, a small minority are really aware of what is at stake. Questions: Will the planning department and the City change course and raise the profile and depth of the planning processes? Will the city really try to reach out broadly to communities and let them know what is at stake? Will the staff-written Community Plan documents provide adequate detail? Will the City give communities more than the minimum two weeks (three were promised for DTES) to review the final documents? Action: Citizens and communities need to heighten their involvement in each Community Plan processes, and communicate with others across Vancouver, to get acceptable results from the processes. The recent experience of the community with the Mount Pleasant Community Plan, its outcomes, and current implementation process, leaves much to be concerned about.
The topic of the Olympic Village finances will resurface. The City of Vancouver may need to consider writing down ten of millions of dollars (or perhaps hundreds of millions) worth of losses. The City Manager signed away the CoV’s $1 billion mortgage on Millennium properties back in 2011 without any explanation (see Billion dollar boondoggle? City manager lets Millennium off the hook for $1 billion mortgage). On Olympic Village finances, reporter Bob Mackin noted in Three years later, more questions than answers:
City manager Penny Ballem gleefully showed off a list of properties in an April 8, 2011 presentation that Millennium agreed to give the city. She claimed the city would recover between $56 million and $70 million but end up with a projected $48 million loss once all condos were sold in the next couple of years.
Perhaps in 2013 Ms. Ballem will update taxpayers on the current status of this debt and also provide information on the sales of properties the City seized from Millennium. The Olympic debts could be part of the reason behind a recent credit rating agency downgrade of Vancouver debt. Paradoxically while units are still unsold in Olympic Village, city council still keeps granting developers additional increases in height and density in the area for private units. This can be witnessed with the recent upzoning of Onni‘s development at Quebec and 1st Avenue from 150 to 231 units (and an earlier 488 unit rezoning at 105-167 West 2nd). People should be concerned that the additional condo units will compete directly with the City’s unsold inventory just a couple of blocks away and about increased losses that will eventually be footed by taxpayers.
The controversial Interim Rezoning Policy will come back to council by June 2013, likely in the form of a more permanent policy adopted by the majority party on Council, removing the word “interim” and in effect increasing height and density along along all arterial roads in Vancouver. The interim policy calls for up to twenty applications as a trial, but we believe it instantly grabbed the interest of potential land speculators, who could bid up land prices and have the perverse effect of reducing housing affordability. Questions: Will the policy again be written in secret without meaningful public input? Will the public get more than a few days of advance notice before the policy goes to Council?
Other major policies coming up will the critical Regional Context Statement (RCS) that every municipality in Metro Vancouver (GVRD) must pass by July 29, 2013 to comply with the the Regional Growth Strategy. The RGS was negotiated behind closed doors, with no public oversight and virtually no media attention, and eventually ratified by the Metro Vancouver Board of Directors in July 2011. It is the most important land use policy ever adopted in the region, and affects every aspect of land use, with a 30-year time horizon to 2040. The RCS will be a detailed document determining land use in Vancouver. So far Vancouver City Hall has not offered any avenues whatsoever for public discussion on the RCS, though we suspect that City staff and certain elected officials are consciously and quietly fitting pieces into place through the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability, Interim Rezoning Policy, Transportation 2040, and Community Plan processes. (And it has been a media blind spot — search Google News today and discover the “regional context statement” only appears 6 times, with only one relating to Metro Vancouver, and not one about Vancouver.) The municipality of West Vancouver is currently at work with working groups to feed into their RCS for Metro Vancouver (West Vancouver had its first meeting on an Upper Lands Review Study on December 11th, and working group meetings are planned for January 8th and 15th). Question: When (if at all) will Vancouver City Hall start to inform and consult with the public in a meaningful way about the Regional Growth Strategy and Regional Context Statement? Will the public get just three business days before the RCS goes to council?
In 2012 there was mention of a City-wide plan (see City-wide plan update at Vancouver City Planning Commission Nov 7, 2012. Watch out! Huge plans afoot, under the radar). Questions: Will this City-wide plan gain any momentum behind the scenes this year? If so, will the City take steps to ensure meaningful consultation? Will a City-wide plan be used to rezone large tracts of the city by stealth?
Now we turn to some specific rezonings on the radar. Under the Interim Rezoning Policy a proposal on Dunbar Street by Pacific Arbour is likely to come forward. Meanwhile, the rezoning of Beach Towers with a major infill project will likely go to a public hearing around February 2013 (a density of 4.32 FSR is requested while 2.2 FSR is the maximum allowed under current zoning; the existing 4 towers at the site already exceed this value with a 3.42 FSR). The Beach Towers proposal is only even being considered as a project grandfathered under the STIR (Short Term Incentives for Rental) program. STIR is yet another example of a City policy with vast implications (attractive incentives for developers, costs for communities), being used to support spot zonings. It was passed with just a few days’ advance notice by the majority civic party, with no advance public consultation.
The rezoning of the Avalon Farm property for 52 units of housing will likely be before council around March or April 2013. A number of Cambie corridor rezonings will also be coming up at Public Hearings. Aside from the development proposals mentioned above, a number of other possible rezoning projects to watch include:
- 2220 Kingsway in the heart of Norquay (three 14-storey towers and podium on the former Canadian Tire site, by Westbank Projects Corp., with Henriquez Partners Architects)
- the 2818 unit mega-redevelopment at Oakridge Centre that includes 42 & 45-storey towers among 13 additional towers and buildings
- 611 Main Street (17-storey tower in Chinatown)
- 633 Main Street (16-storey tower in Chinatown)
- the 550′ Burrard Gateway proposal (with significant view impacts)
- the 51-storey, 497′ tower beside the north Granville Bridge head (requires the sale of public land to proceed, it also would spoil many public views of the North Shore)
- 320 Granville Street (a 25.5 FSR tower across from Waterfront Station)
- the 3002-3036 West Broadway rezoning at the Toybox site under the Secured Market Rental Housing or ‘Son of STIR’ policy
- 750 Pacific Boulevard (Plaza of Nations) for 1700-2000 housing units on site that includes the current Edgewater Casino
- an 8-storey building south of City Hall at 2806-2850 Cambie Street
- the 14-storey rezoning at 41 East Hastings
For a full list of rezoning applications please see the City’s website here.
The Edgewater Casino may need to be relocated soon. Readers may recall that back in 2011 during the Public Hearing there were claims that Casino workers will lose their jobs if Edgewater doesn’t relocate by 2013 as the lease will be up. We’re expecting Edgewater’s lease to be extended as construction work has yet to start on the approved relocated site for the casino, beside BC Place. The new Casino complex may still proceed; people have noticed fencing placed around trees at the site and this may be a precursor to construction (see photo below). Speaking of BC Place, the bright supersized electronic billboards are still functioning, in clear violation of the City’s sign bylaw, and annoying nearby residents. Will 2013 be the year when the city puts its foot down and forces PAVCO to turn off or dim these billboards?
We predict that the City will continue to move towards less transparency in their attempt to “streamline” planning processes. Clues on the general direction of the city can be found in the November 15, 2012 presentation to the UDI (or Urban Design Institute) by Brian Jackson, General Manager, Planning and Development. Dissecting and deconstructing Mr. Jackson’s comments would take an entire article, but it appears the City intends to move toward even less community involvement and more toward centralized, top-down control. Expect further protests and pushback from the residents in the upcoming year. Proposals requiring leasing and/or selling of public land for private benefit will be before Council (Granville Loops, Arbutus Ridge) and perhaps at Park Board (Kitsilano Boathouse Restaurant) and School Board (Kingsgate Mall) site. The impacts of large political campaign contributions from the past two civic elections to the two main political parties (Vision Vancouver and NPA) will still be felt in the upcoming year.
People should continue to ask the open question of whether elected officials are truly serving public interests or the financial interests of a relatively small elite who have special access to decision-makers (applies at all levels of government). If there is collapse in the city’s finances from a slowdown in tax revenues or from a significant decrease in development permits (and fees) will cutbacks in services be inevitable? Are there adequate contingencies in the budget for shortfalls?
We predict that protests movements will not vanish — recent examples include Occupy Vancouver, Idle No More and Casseroles (Quebec students). Rather, the failure of public officials and bureaucrats to listen to the public, and the continued dismantling of democratic checks and balances at City Hall will likely help protests gather steam. It is likely that income disparity will continue to grow between the “haves” and “have nots,” street homelessness will continue, and housing will remain unaffordable. Inequality is an issue that won’t away in 2013. Ultimately it appears that the city’s policies perpetuate the status quo. Is an entire generation of youth being disenfranchised by a city they cannot afford to live in? Is there a population trend away from Vancouver towards neighbouring municipalities? Will City officials at last look seriously at the quantity of speculative money from overseas on land here?
As we start 2013, we have many questions. Stay tuned for CityHallWatch coverage as the year progresses. We welcome submissions, volunteering inquiries, suggestions, and tips, to citizenYVR@gmail.com.