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Could Ugly Broadway become a beautiful swan? City says yes

July 7th, 2020 · No Comments

There are going to be many changes along Broadway in the coming years, as the subway goes in, 99 buses no long roar along both sides of the street, density of some description is added (once the new city plan or Broadway plan is decided on), and more residents and businesses are added to the area.

It’s been a utilitarian traffic corridor, except for one brief stretch through western Kitsilano, for a long time. But it doesn’t have to be like that forever, as city engineers told me for a recent story.

Text below for those who don’t want to link

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Some of Canada’s transit systems crushed at getting riders. And that was their weakness in pandemic

April 27th, 2020 · No Comments

Some of you might not have seen my latest transit story because it ran in the Alberta pages of the Globe. But it’s relevant across the country.

I looked at the difference between Edmonton and Calgary and, it turned out, that explained some of the differences in other parts of the country. It explained by Vancouver’s TransLink, one of the most successful transit operations in the country, was the first to have to make massive layoffs. Toronto, even more successful, was second. Winnipeg, which has healthy ridership too, also had to lay off and Calgary is looking at it if things go on much longer.

Why? The answer is in my story, here and text pasted after the turn. [Read more →]

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As vulnerable as people in care homes, but no plan to help protect them yet: The homeless, sheltered, living in SROs

March 16th, 2020 · No Comments

People who care for the homeless and those living in the worst conditions (shelters, SROs) are frantic about the lack of resources and preparation for the vulnerable group they serve. My story here and in text below.  [Read more →]

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Why so many vacancy signs on Vancouver shopping streets? Some are small businesses waiting weeks or months for permits

March 9th, 2020 · No Comments

People love their neighbourhood small businesses. Politicians say they’re the lifeblood of the community.

But one of the most perplexing parts of covering city hall is hearing the constant stories about how this or that small business went through hell to get a minor commercial-renovation permit. Some just give up; others grit their teeth and spend tens of thousands in rent on their empty spaces. It’s been a problem since I started covering cities 25 years ago and no one seems to know how to change it.

In the meantime, here’s my Globe story on the bizarre mazes some have to run and what the consequences are. As the economy gets battered heavily this year, cities’ ability to foster small businesses instead of hobbling them will be key to maintaining a healthy city.

Full text below

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Budget angst hitting cities across the land as taxes go up to pay for things other governments skipping

December 5th, 2019 · No Comments

Budget and property-tax-increase time is never a fun period in the year.

But it’s feeling especially fraught this year, as there are big debates and objections and announcements about big new hikes in various cities. It seems to me that it’s all a product of the secret burden cities have been carrying for years, where they are being left to absorb the financial cost of many social issues that the provinces and federal government used to be responsible for. Housing, especially, but all kinds of other issues, including mental health, drug addiction, immigrations, transit support and more.

Vancouverites are setting their hair on fire over a proposed 9.3-per-cent increase, which would come on top of 4.5 per cent last year. My story here and various takes here, here, and here. (The CBC story says it’s the biggest in a decade but City Hall Granny here, aka me, has been covering budgets for 25 years and I don’t recall one that high in all that time.)

You’ll notice that in the last of these, a former city employee, is about how the tax hikes are related to how much the city is now spending to try to create affordable housing. Yes, people, been saying this for years, that, as much as many support the construction of new affordable housing, it is putting a huge load on cities, which have nothing but property taxes to pay for it.

Opinionators everywhere are weighing in on whether Vancouver property taxes are higher than other cities, lower than other cities, or what.

Toronto is about to go through the same, as conservative-leaning Mayor John Tory, after resisting the idea for years, has now come out proposing big tax increases to pay for more housing and transit.

Calgary is having its own struggles over property-tax increases after giving a big chunk of money for a stadium and now having to deal with the predictable backlash as taxes rise for basic services.

And, in Surrey, it’s kind of a reverse problem, where longtime zero-tax-increase advocate Mayor Doug McCallum and his remaining band of supporting councillors have passed a very tight budget, with only a 2.9-per-cent increase, which means no new police or firefighters and a restricted menu of community-service improvements. That is producing its own community backlash.

 

 

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Plan by Squamish Nation for unique, super-dense development on False Creek sets off wave of praise

November 12th, 2019 · No Comments

So, we kicked off last week with the story that the Squamish Nation has updated its plans for the land it owns around the south end of the Burrard Bridge, with a project that would have 6,000 units in 11 towers, one of them 56 storeys.

My story in the Globe and the follow-up story are here and here. Text below.

There’s been a huge wave of interest and response to the story, with calls coming in to Squamish Nation councillor Khelsilem from across Canada and even Britain.

For some people exasperated with city rules, the plan is being welcomed almost vengefully, like a giant middle finger to the city’s planning department.

Others are simply fascinated by the architectural design, which has echoes of First Nations themes, and the unusual approach.

I should note that not everyone is thrilled, like Vancouver Councillor Colleen Hardwick. Apparently there are also a lot of exchanges on various Facebook pages that express a lot less enthusiasm for the project than what is being heard more publicly.

As I noted in a series of tweets later in the week, there are many questions still to be answered. But it’s going to be a fascinating ride.

BTW, for the many of you asking, the other big pieces of Vancouver land under First Nations control will not have the same freedom as this piece of Squamish land. I triple-checked with the city on this and they said:

Hi Frances, here’s the info on this.

The three projects you had asked about (Jericho lands, Heather lands, Liquor Distribution branch site at Broadway/Renfrew) which are being led by MST Development Corporation (“MST DC”) on behalf of the MST partnership, are owned by corporations and are not on federal or reserve lands.  As such, the development of those lands will be subject to all municipal laws and by-laws in respect of use and development of land.  For developments of this scale, the normal process would be a high level policy statement, rezoning and then the development permit and building permit process.  There will be extensive public engagement in this process and public hearings in front of Vancouver City Council for the rezonings.  This is unlike the proposed Senakw project which is on Squamish Nation reserve land and as such Squamish Nation’s land use planning jurisdiction applies and not the City of Vancouver’s.

 

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Cities say they’re making big changes by allowing duplexes, triplexes in former single-detached-only homes. But how is that working out?

November 5th, 2019 · No Comments

Cities like Minneapolis and Portland are getting huge coverage in the U.S. for saying that they are ending the restriction of single-detached-only homes in large areas of their cities. Vancouver is part of that movement in Canada.

But, as I discovered when I went to do a follow-up story on how this is all working out, the duplex “revolution” is still very constrained by the fact that planners and politicians don’t want too much change to be visible to existing neighbours. So these new forms of housing are being restricted in size, which means the units are significantly smaller than what most people say is needed for real family-sized housing.

My story from the Globe is here and in text below.

As I mentioned also in my tweets, one of my small side discoveries in doing this story was how accessible land records were for Minneapolis.

While I was there a couple of weeks ago, I asked for an example of a triplex that’s been built. I was pointed to 3450 Grand (although it’s technically not legal yet, since the council there is only just finalizing all the motions/bylaws needed to change the zoning.)

While I was walking down the street to get pictures, I noticed that there was actually a small apartment building just two doors down.

Here are a couple of pictures, one of the triplex under construction, one of the apartment down the street, courtesy of Google.

 

It took me about three minutes to get all kinds of details on both of them, so I could include sizes in my story. If only we had that here in B.C., where it costs $10 per search if you are looking electronically. (Yes, it is free if you go down to a B.C. Assessment Authority office and look on one of their three computers, as long as you are retired and have all the time in the world.)

Here are some shots of what I found for the Minneapolis properties, the triplex and the apartment building down the street.

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In honour of the Internet’s birthday: The time I discovered the Internet in 1993

October 30th, 2019 · No Comments

Way back when, I was a social-issues reporter at The Vancouver Sun. No one really knew what that meant. It wasn’t supposed to be traditional social issues, but more like trends and social-science research.

I can’t remember how I got started on this talking through computers network thing. I believe it might have been Larry Kuehn of the B.C. Teachers Federation who got me interested in it.

At any rate, I worked for a couple of weeks on a feature in the fall/winter of 1992 that was hundreds of words long. My editors clearly thought I was embroiled in one of my kooky obsessions with the obscure. They cut it down considerably and finally ran it in January 1993, just to humour me, I think.

That was my first dip into the world of the internet. Interesting now to see how it seemed like such a force for good back then. I thought of it again when I heard the radio interviews and read the stories yesterday about the Internet’s “birthday.”

THE INVISIBLE CITY OF COMPUTER NETWORKING: Social activists discover networks offer a sense of power, solidarity: [1* Edition]

 

Bula, Frances.The Vancouver Sun; Vancouver, B.C. [Vancouver, B.C]02 Jan 1993: B3.

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Vancouver’s big suburb to the east makes plans to create a downtown

October 29th, 2019 · No Comments

Apparently Google loved my story about Burnaby, Vancouver’s beloved neighbour that has served as its bedroom community for decades, is going to create a downtown at the mega-fortress-mall of Metrotown. (Full text attached below)

Burnaby did originally have a kind of town centre at Edmonds, but that sort of disappeared in the 1970s, as the city moved to a “four town centres” approach to planning as part of the big strategy to develop a set of interlinked regional town centres so that everyone wouldn’t have to jam into downtown.

As I discovered when I wrote the story, there were dreams back then, though, that Metrotown would be more than just a sprawling mall when it was redeveloped from what it had been, an industrial area of grocery warehouse and distribution buildings like those of Kelly Douglas. See this lovely report from Norm Hotson, back in the day.

It’s going to take 40 years or more for this re-make of Metrotown to be completed, so not holding my breath for an instant transformation, but it will be a pleasant difference to see more effort go into making an attractive public area in and around there over the years.

It was always puzzling to me and others how Burnaby seemed to require nothing from developers, who put up towers next to Lougheed or around Metrotown with apparently zero requirement to try to make the immediate precinct attractive or walkable. Gilmore Station, gah. Former mayor Derek Corrigan, who could be so assertive (ahem) on other issues, didn’t appear to want to push them on it. And, of course, developers loved it, talking about how easy it was to do business in Burnaby.

But, as this report approved Monday by council demonstrates, it looks as though there’s going to be a different approach now.

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Metro Vancouverites on the move: Walking more, taking more car trips to shop, car-pooling more

October 10th, 2019 · No Comments

Like many reporters, I just love census data and census-like data. So it was Christmas Day when TransLink released its big set of data from its 2017 “trip diary,” a massive study the agency does every five years to monitor how people are getting around in the region.

Lots of great info to ponder. Their data is here if you want to check out your own municipality. My story is linked here and text is pasted below.

One thing I was curious about was how this data matched the data that Vancouver, the city, collects. Vancouver also does a trip diary but uses a different methodology. While TransLink has 28,000 different households doing one day each, Vancouver tries to follow the same 2,000 households year after year to see how their patterns are changing. (Because Vancouverites are so mobile, they lose quite a few every year.)

The two sets of numbers showed a lot of similarities: the lowered share of the pie for solo car-driving is about the same, as is the increase in walking. But Vancouver data has noticeably higher numbers for walking and biking (Vancouver has 28.5 per cent of the share is walking; 7.3 per cent for biking. TransLink’s diary has 23.4 for walking, 3.8 for biking) and lower numbers for car passengers, i.e. car-pooling. TransLink has it as 12.4 per cent of total trips; Vancouver data is only at 4.9.

Transportation planner Winston Chou says that may be because Vancouver is still relying on people responding by landline, which skews their numbers older. They try to compensate by weighting their results, but he said they likely need to move to a different contact methods to get more young people in their sample.

In the meantime, story below.

Raphael Titsworth-Morin walks everywhere from his Fairview apartment: To work downtown, to shopping nearby, to movies or restaurants, to business meetings as far away as the University of B.C. – a 90-minute walk even at his brisk pace.

“Some of my friends find it comical the extent to which I’m willing to walk around the city,” says Mr. Titsworth-Morin, a 29-year-old web developer who moved to Vancouver four years ago from Halifax.

But he has found he prefers walking over crowded buses and rapid-transit car lines or biking. He used to commute a lot that way in Nova Scotia, but found he didn’t enjoy it so much in Vancouver when the rain is pouring and his workplace has no bike facilities. And, he mentions, his girlfriend has started walking more, too, in spite of bad knees, also because of the crowds on transit.

Mr. Titsworth-Morin is a living illustration of one of a number of trends emerging in Metro Vancouver, when it comes to how people get around the region, that were underscored when the region’s transportation agency, TransLink, released preliminary results recently of its massive “trip diary” count.

That census-like diary got people in 28,000 households over three months in the fall of 2017 to record for a day every trip they made, for what purpose and how. It was the first “trip diary” conducted in the region since 2011. The results showed the number of people walking for work, shopping, entertainment and school is up by an amount that surprised even veteran transportation planners.

“We saw very significant gains that we did not anticipate,” said Geoff Cross, TransLink’s vice-president of planning.

Walking trips went from an average of about 650,000 a day in 2011 to 1.1 million in the region. The propensity for walking is particularly high among 25- to 34-year-olds, at 100,000 trips a day, with the 35-44 group just a hair behind.

They include people such as Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, 52, who walks many days from his condo near the Granville Bridge to city hall in Mount Pleasant, graphic designer James Gemmill, 50 (South False Creek to everywhere), non-profit founder Heather Piwowar (Fairview to the West End and back), downtown office worker Karen Ho (walks home to Mount Pleasant regularly) and former city councillor Andrea Reimer (Mount Pleasant to all over the city), who said she now walks more than she used to. Like Mr. Titsworth-Morin and his girlfriend, it’s partly because the transit lines are so crowded.

“It’s gotten pretty crazy and pretty much all the major lines,” she observes ruefully.

And, while the increase in Vancouver was notable (283,000 walks a day in 2011 to 484,000 in 2017), the numbers also more than doubled in West Vancouver (7,000 to 16,000), Coquitlam (20,000 to 48,000), and Richmond (40,000 to 80,000). Even sprawling and suburban Surrey, often seen as the place of unavoidable car travel, saw walking increasing from 89,000 trips to 158,000 trips a day.

Mr. Cross said some of those gains reflect the changes many suburbs are seeing as they work to create new walkable neighbourhoods.

“There’s a lot to be said for their land-use policies and the growth around transit.”

The TransLink trip-diary study acts as a kind of vascular ultrasound done every five years on the region’s transportation veins and arteries. It allows planners to see what is working and what is not in terms of getting people out of single-occupancy cars, and showed a wealth of other trends that planners are just starting to interpret.

The share of people making trips by car went down from 59 per cent to a previously unheard-of 55 per cent – a change that prompted many initial interpretations that traffic had declined in the region.

But the absolute number of car trips and kilometres travelled soared as the region’s population increased by about 200,000 to 2.5 million. The number of people driving solo around the region jumped 14 per cent from 2011. In 2017, solo drivers made 4.4 million trips a day out of a total 7.9-million daily average in the region.

However, the number of people riding as passengers in cars increased by about 30 per cent, another surprising finding. For years before that, there had been a steady decline in car-pooling since 1994, when it accounted for a fifth of all trips. The drop led planners to discount it as a long-term factor. Current TransLink plans don’t even mention car-pooling as a strategy for reducing congestion.

The share of transit trips remained about the same, which meant about 130,000 more transit trips than in 2011, but the increase barely kept up with population growth. (Mr. Cross said the results from 2017 don’t show the huge increase in ridership TransLink has experienced the past two years as service has improved significantly.)

Biking was also flat.

The numbers reflect changes in Vancouver’s economy, as the region went from mid-recession in 2011 to booming in 2017, said Mr. Cross.

Online shopping, it appears, has not killed off anyone’s propensity for going to stores. Shopping trips increased by almost 50 per cent over those years, going from about 950,000 a day to 1.4-million. So did having-fun trips. They went up 30 per cent, to just more than a million a day.

And people are travelling more in general, for more kilometres.

Jasmine Garcha is a typical example.

Ms. Garcha, 29, is a Simon Fraser University grad and nutritionist with her own business. So she travels all over the place from where she lives in Cloverdale to meet clients or teach, including faraway Kitsilano.

Her family also owns a construction business and is doing a lot of work in North Vancouver, so she goes there sometimes to help out her father and brother. And she schedules some medical appointments there.

She can walk to one grocery store and one drugstore near her home, but, for anything more, has to go to Langley.

All of that means many trips and a lot of driving.

Ms. Garcha lived in Brisbane, Australia, recently and took transit everywhere there, because even the suburban transit lines were so numerous and so fast. But it’s nearly impossible for her to even consider transit where she is, she says.

“When I did trips into Vancouver, I used to take SkyTrain, but if I was coming back late, I didn’t want to get off and have to wait for the 502 [bus] at night.”

She – and transit planners everywhere – are hopeful that an eventual SkyTrain link to Langley might help commuters such as her and create a big jump in transit ridership. But that’s many years away.

For now, she drives everywhere, mostly by herself – as more than half of people in the region still do.

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