Vancouver’s former chief city planner Ray Spaxman: Observations on ‘citizen engagement’

The following e-mail message from former chief city planner Ray Spaxman, May 3, 2017, is reprinted, with his permission. His observations, written to subscribers of his e-mail list, are valid for the present day, and all lead up to an insightful conclusion — all in the context of rezoning and development applications.

ray spaxman
Message from Ray Spaxman follows:

I received the following request for information from a local community group and I thought I would share my response with you. Many of you are involved in one way or another with the issues of honesty and fairness in the presentation of proposals being made to the city and you will be interested and disappointed to see the worries expressed in the request. This is not a surprising reaction to the inadequate communications carried out by the City over the last many years. We have been assured that the new managers want to build back the communities’ trust in the process; That it is transparent, fair and ensures the honest representation of the pros cons and of proposals made to the city and everything is made available to the public.

Here is what I received. I have added my answers in CAPS.
[Note: For easier reading, CityHallWatch converted his CAPS to italics and bolded some key points.]

With the oncoming onslaught of new (rezoning proposals) coming to the Alberni Georgia Corridor, (we) have been trying to figure out a few matters for which we don’t have the knowledge thus the answers for them. Hope you or others might be of assistance in helping us be better informed.

1. Who can ….or cannot sit on UDP (Urban Design Panel)? A participant who has an upcoming application who does not recuse themselves before their development has been presented? This appears to be currying favor with other panelists!

The composition of the panel is set out clearly in its bylaw. It is designed to give representation to design professions, the development industry and a representative from the [Vancouver] City Planning Commission. Any member must withdraw immediately from the Panel on any item where there are in a position of potential conflict of interest. The Panel chair and staff should monitor all such circumstances

2. Who ensures a developer’s plans Open House presentations are accurate? Planners or citizens?

This is a key role for staff. They are there to ensure that the public interest is paramount. Even so, one reason for the public meetings is to ensure transparency and everyone involved in the process has the opportunity to point out inaccuracies. Unfortunately, but understandably, many applicants either hide or are unaware of elements of their design which may not meet the public interest. The language of applications is sometimes complex and not always well understood even by the by the proponents. Staff should have the responsibility to guide applicants and correct errors and omissions. Managers should lead staff in ensuring the rigour required to garner the trust of the public in this important process.

 

3. If there are errors and omissions of facts to the Rezoning application, who has the final say to ensure the facts are accurate?

Staff. (Then the courts.)

Does anyone care?

It did seem for several years that staff did not care, didn’t know or were not appropriately directed by their managers. Hopefully that is now changing.

4. Should a project’s architects be required to be present at a City of Vancouver Rezoning Application Open House?

They should be represented.

5. What are the required basic presentation components of a rezoning application at a public Open House?

The intention is to inform the public about the proposal. Unfortunately the staff has often not been rigorous in its requirements at the open houses which are often simply an opportunity for the applicant to sell the proposal and hide the problems. Like most complex procedures, they only work if the administrators of the programs understand and follow the procedures.

6. Should only the aspects of the development that suit the developer be presented on posters at the Open House? No View, Traffic or Shadow Studies?

It certainly often looks like that. Competent direction from staff can avoid that. Staff has a key role in ensuring a trustworthy experience at public meetings.

7. Should a Rezoning Open House application be focussed on potential purchasers?

It should be focussed on the public matters set out in the city’s bylaws and guidelines. Potential purchasers may be taxpaying public too.

8. Who cares for upkeep of neighbouring and surrounding properties when construction is ongoing? Is it developer, CofV staff, Bylaw enforcement officers?

All of them have good business practice to follow and formal procedures to be followed. As you go down the list it becomes more of an enforcement of bylaw situation. Neighbours have some rights too of course.

*****

Conclusion:

I think we can all see the importance of good leadership at city hall in this process. I believe it can be an excellent process if it is pursued within its formative principles. They are, transparency, expediency, rigorously, fairly and primarily in the public interest as set out in the wealth of formal public policy.

The key here is to re-establish trust in the process from the key participants. They are the applicant, the city staff and the community. In our society they all have rights, they are generally all well motivated, but need to believe their interests are being given fair and competent consideration.

The system works best when it is seen, and pursued, as a win/win process.

 

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