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Bing Thom: He lives on for many people in this city every day

October 25th, 2016 · 3 Comments

I was in a classroom yesterday morning where yet another person, one of a series I’ve heard in the last week, talked about how important architect Bing Thom was to Vancouver.

Alden Habacon, UBC’s senior advisor on intercultural understanding, told the roomful of young people that Bing was the first person to say that Vancouver was essentially an Asian city, something that earned him a lot of negative backlash.

Others I’ve talked to in the past two weeks since the shocking news of Bing’s death came out have mentioned their own last encounters with him: a meeting where he was working with others to preserve and revitalize Chinatown or the lunch at his invitation because he wanted to talk about how academics could get involved in leading difficult conversations about Vancouver’s future.

All of that drove home what I noticed in the first few days, which was the way that Bing was loved by so many different people in Vancouver, people who sometimes aren’t even on speaking terms with each other in this fractious city, people who are bitterly divided on this issue or that issue. But Bing was somehow above that.

My colleagues Adele Weder and John Mackie did lovely tributes to Bing, detailing his graceful buildings (some built, others not) and his strong sense of social responsibility.

But, for many people, Bing’s impact was through his quiet conversations.

That was the case for me. Although I wrote stories about his graceful Sunset community centre, his innovative Surrey public library, his ideas about how to create community in a condo tower on Nelson, his campaign to keep the Vancouver Art Gallery in its present location, it was the non-news talks we had that stick with me.

The last one was in April. Bing called me — somewhat unusual — saying he had something he wanted to talk about.

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City looks at limits to density, mandatory social housing units for new Chinatown projects

October 24th, 2016 · 1 Comment

The efforts to “do something” about Vancouver’s historic Chinatown are never-ending. And it’s not just in Vancouver. Cities from Edmonton to San Francisco are also fretting about what is happening to their Chinatowns, either because they went into decline and are empty or, somewhat the reverse, they are being infiltrated by a host of non-Chinese enterprises who like the funkiness of old neighbourhoods.

The latest in Vancouver: City planners are holding workshops on the next stage of the Chinatown plan, with discussions about some changes that have emerged from the last Chinatown plan.

So, as I note in my story today, that means talks about reducing the density of new buildings (at the moment, there is only a height cap, not a density cap, for both Gastown and Chinatown), about possibly requiring a mandatory percentage of social/seniors’ housing in each building (no bargaining over the land lift), and some other changes intended to make new buildings fit into the Chinatown fabric better.

There will be more to come later. The Downtown Eastside plan talked about making efforts to keep local-serving businesses in place. When that discussion starts to get down to details, it will encompass Chinatown.


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Vancouver takes unusual step of going to court for injunction to stop Airbnb host

October 24th, 2016 · No Comments

Unbeknownst to any of us, city staff tackle Airbnb hosts behind the scenes, letting them know that their ads have been noted and their neighbours have been complaining.

Usually, that’s enough, according to the city’s chief licensing inspector Andreea Toma. But that didn’t work with one particular owner, East West Investments, which owns eight units at a complex called Heather Court on West Seventh.

So the city recently went to court for an injunction just asking the company and its director, Heather Chang, to stop. That took some time. A city staffer monitored the ads for the units for months. And then booked a place and stayed in it for two nights. (My story about the court action here.)

Toma said the city was alerted to the problems at Heather Court by other tenants of East West, which was renting out two of its units through Airbnb and the other six to long-term renters. They were worried that their units would be converted.

Toma has said there will be more of these. I have to wonder how many, considering how much effort it takes to nail just one owner. And no word yet and how successful it’s been.



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New TransLink CEO says he welcomes Uber as a complement to public transit, waves the optimism flag about the future

October 18th, 2016 · 8 Comments

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond has been on the job a little more than six months now. Things have been going mostly well, I’d say.

The volume of anti-TransLink stories has gone down — even though the agency is out doing a public consultation about a $3-a-house tax hike and five- to 10-cent fare hike to pay for some of its part of the 10-year plan.

Desmond, as he’s the first to say, has also benefitted by a change in the winds. The federal government announced its intention to fund 50 per cent of transit projects, in its first phase of infrastructure money, sometime in Desmond’s first week. The province has come on board with an agreement on funding that first phase.

The agency has reportedly sold the Oakridge bus barn for a huge whack of money (BIV has been reporting $450 million), which gives the agency a lot more money to put into the 10-year plan. Revenues are up, as the fare gates have closed.

Our new CEO also is stepping out a little bit in taking firm stands on issues. At a speech at the Vancouver Board of Trade (where I got to do a Q and A with him), he came out firmly supportive of Uber and ride-hailing systems as transportation alternatives that could actually help more people get to transit.

(When I asked him about fears some people have that Uber will set up van routes to skim customers off public-transit routes, Desmond said the local authorities would need to ensure that Uber-type services worked within a framework. Some might be skeptical, given Uber’s willingness to bend the rules and regulations as they expand.) My story on his talk is here.

I asked him about whether the agency risks missing some important deadlines this fall or early next year, if the province doesn’t come to an agreement with the feds about what will happen with second-phase transit funding. He said no worries about that.

I think a lot of Desmond’s positive attitude and good messaging comes from just who he is. I noticed he wrote his own speech for the VBOT talk — handwritten, too. (He also doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I’ve witnessed a couple of withering responses to what he thought were silly questions.)

But I note he’s getting help these days. The PR firm Fleishman-Hillard seems to be on board, prepping him before news conferences and the like.

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First Nations hire one of the region’s savviest development experts to steer projects on their big holdings

October 18th, 2016 · No Comments

You, the general public, may not have paid too much attention to this, but a lot of others on various inside tracks are taking note of the fact that David Negrin, who used to manage development for Aquilini and, before that, Concord Pacific, has been hired by the three local First Nations, who hold a billion dollars worth of land.

My story here has comments by UDI president Jon Stovell about what this will mean for First Nations development in the region — good things, he and others say, because at last they’ll have someone on board who understands who they are but also knows how to deal with the traditional business world.

Negrin has been working with First Nations groups a lot, as Aquilini partnered with some of them (Tsleil-Waututh and Tsawwassen) to do big residential developments.

Many are wondering what Aquilini will do now on that front. The company had hired the sister of Chief Wayne Sparrow, Johnna Sparrow, as an aboriginal adviser, as well as another person from the Squamish First Nation, I’m told. But will they continue their push to do development with First Nations once Negrin is gone. We’ll wait and see.

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As Vancouver’s new chief planner begins his job, architect/urbanist warns about Vancouver’s “toxic conversation”

October 4th, 2016 · 15 Comments


When Vancouver’s new planning director, Gil Kelley, made his first public appearance last Wednesday in a speech at the Vancouver Playhouse, he did so at the invite of an organization called the Urbanarium. One of the group’s key members, architect Bruce Haden, started the evening with a thought-provoking and very candid introduction about the serious challenges facing Vancouver as the city and other municipalities grapple with growth pressures.

These were Bruce’s opening remarks, which I thought were worth circulating.

My colleagues and I recreated the Urbanarium in part because of a profound concern we share about the coarsening of the public conversation over the last few years around city building pressures and opportunities in Metro Vancouver.

In particular, I know there have been many concerns in the design and development community that the Vancouver Planning department has become more risk averse and rule bound than in previous years. In contrast, I know from multiple conversations with citizens engaged in the city building conversation that the level of trust in the planning process is extremely low. So a Director of Planning has often had the near impossible task of being the meat in the sandwich between outraged citizens and outraged architects and developers.

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Thoughts from someone who has pondered Airbnb: Don’t allow tenants to do it; limit the number per neighbourhood

September 30th, 2016 · 2 Comments

Got this by email from a former Nelson city employee and SFU grad student who has spent some time thinking about Airbnb.

As the former City of Nelson employee responsible for preparing its upcoming short-term rental regulations (Nelson is one of the case studies that Vancouver staff reviewed) and as a tenant in Vancouver, I would like to provide my own comments on the proposed STR regulations for Vancouver. I spent four months this summer working nearly exclusively on the STR file for the City of Nelson and I crafted the amending bylaws that Council has tentatively approved. I had a lot of time to reflect on various issues surrounding STR regulation, to say the least.

1. Seriously reconsider the prospect of tenant-run STRs

While I would not go as far as urging you to disallow tenants from operating STRs, I would urge you to give it some serious thought. It is not insignificant. Nelson staff decided, after much thought, not to permit renters to operate an STR. Most leases disallow it and LandlordBC urges its members to ensure their tenants do not do STR. While it is ultimately the tenant-operator’s responsibility to secure permission, by accepting applications from tenants the City is potentially exposing imprudent tenants to the risk of eviction.

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Short-term-rental regulations come to Vancouver, after a big lobbying effort from Airbnb

September 28th, 2016 · 8 Comments

So the city has come out with its proposed new rules for regulating short-term rentals. City report is here and my quickie hit here.

This is already prompting a lot of questions on Twitter, many from people wondering how the city will stop people from declaring that their former basement suites are now part of the main house and they’re just renting out a bedroom in their principal residence, not really converting a secondary suite.

I’m doing a story for deadline so would like to see any other questions and concerns you have about how these new regulations will really work out.

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Empty-homes tax might go even higher than original two per cent proposed, with higher penalties

September 20th, 2016 · 9 Comments

Vancouver councillors debated the proposed empty-homes tax this morning, with some unexpected results. (Well, at least to me, so perhaps I’m clueless.)

The NPA councillors came out AGAINST the tax, which I thought would have been seen as very popular with their base. (See my story for their various reasons.)

And then Vision councillors started making noises about considering an even higher rate for the empty-homes tax than the max two per cent of assessed value that staff had recommended. Plus penalties higher than the current $10,000 that is the most Vancouver can charge anyone for any bylaw violation.

Things continue to evolve.

Along with all that, many more questions and unique scenarios continued to arise. Just to take you through various bits and pieces I’ve now learned:

  • Airbnb doesn’t count as occupancy. So if someone gets audited and they’re not living at the unit, they need to prove they’re renting it out to avoid the tax. And showing revenue from Airbnb rentals won’t count.
  • As long as one unit on a residential (single-family-house-type) property is occupied, the others can be vacant. So someone could live in a laneway house and leave the main house empty and not be charged the tax. An owner who decides to leave a basement suite or laneway house empty won’t be charged.
  • Not decided yet how many months someone will have to occupy a unit to avoid the tax. Kathleen Llewellyn-Thomas, the new general manager of community services, was suggesting nine months might be the cut-off.

Happy to try to answer other questions you might come up with about unique scenarios.

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Proposed new regulations for Airbnb and others coming next week

September 20th, 2016 · 2 Comments

It’s getting confusing, all the new housing taxes popping up here and there. Hope to help you keep it straight, especially since some cases will fall under multiple taxes and regulatory regimes.

(Just imagine a foreign investor who buys a unit in Vancouver and decideds to rent it out only through Airbnb. Three new laws may apply: provincial tax on foreign investors; empty-homes tax on the unit because something rented out as Airbnb doesn’t count as occupancy; and then whatever regs come in for Airbnb.)

Anyhoo, back to the subject at hand. So the city will be proposing some kind of regulatory system for short-term rentals in a report out next week. Details are still being worked out, but from everything I can gather, in my story here, the proposal will restrict any rentals to people who are renting out their primary residences (either a spare room in there or the whole house when they’re out of town.)

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