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One taxpayer’s suggestion for the Olympic village

January 12th, 2009 · 15 Comments

Should be lots of fun today, with a public council meeting scheduled for 2 at city hall on the Olympic village. I’m sure Suzanne Anton is practicing her punches right now, with coaches on all sides. If I’m not mistaken, it will be available to watch on the city’s website, so all of you who still have jobs can watch from your computer screens at work.

Much hinting that the province is going to get involved, which I think was the point of the whole news conference on Friday — to prod them into it.

Anyway, I had this letter forwarded to me from a reader, Peggy Watkins, with her suggestions about what to do with the village. Maybe some developer/architect types can weigh in on whether this is even an option, given the state of completion of the design work.

Dear Mayor and councillors,
The latest financing crisis for the Athletes’ Village should be taken
as an opportunity to rethink the future of this significant
development. Let’s get back to the drawing board and create a really
interesting, vibrant and livable neighbourhood.

The economic conditions have changed significantly since the project
was originally developed and building began. To say the least, the
luxury condo market has softened. But instead of seeing this as a
problem, let’s see it as an opportunity to go back to square one and
rethink and revitalize the plans for this community after the
Olympics.

Let’s put together ideas from city council, staff, housing and
community groups and the public and come up with a truly visionary
concept for this area’s future. What I see is a truly mixed and
vibrant community. To achieve this we need three types of housing;
co-op and social housing, low-end market housing and market housing.
The co-op and social housing could easily be built and operated by
existing agencies. The low-end market housing would probably need a
new program that would allow modest income households to buy a home by
supplementing down payments or providing mortgage guarantees. A small
number of the housing units could be set aside for market housing.
This community would also need amenities such as community centre,
library, daycare, parks, art and live performance spaces, etc. This
vision should be realized through partnerships with the provincial and
the federal governments and community agencies.

Let’s use the challenges we face with this project as opportunities to
build a truly vibrant, diverse and cosmopolitan neighbourhood. Let’s
build a vision and create a community that will become an important
part of the fabric of Vancouver life.

Peggy Watkins
Vancouver BC
V5N 1G9

Categories: City Hall Talk

  • urb anwriter

    With all respect to Ms Watkins, and to her ideas, I don’t think the time exists to examine, let alone fulfill, her position. Having been involved in endless meetings on the Woodwards project, my nails bit to the quick as I sat at Council to see if it would actually be approved, my experience suggests the Olympic Village will continue just the way the drawings indicate.

  • Dawn Steele

    In theory, a great idea. The challenge, I suspect, will lie in how much can actually be changed at this late stage, given the tight completion deadline and how far ahead you actually have to plan these things.

    You might be able to change details like luxury finishes, to leave out some of the “extras” or perhaps even to substitute more of the low end units for higher-end ones, depending on how much concrete has actually been poured and how much has already been ordered/paid for. I don’t think you have time to go back to square one and re-think this, though.

    People who actually build these things for a living would be better placed to comment on what flexibility you are likely to have at this late stage of the game, but we have to realize it is VERY late in the game to be thinking of major changes, unless you can house some athletes somewhere else and simply scale back what’s going to be ready for 2010.

  • LP

    This is for condohype:

    From Francis: “Much hinting that the province is going to get involved, which I think was the point of the whole news conference on Friday — to prod them into it.”

    From the Sun: “The City of Vancouver is quietly approaching the federal and provincial governments for assistance in refinancing the city’s Olympic Village. It needs a bailout.

    On your wonderful cartoon from Saturday, you indicate that I’m claiming a conspiracy. In fact I’ve never talked conspiracy, just political posturing. Please note at the time I said it was brilliant – in no way is that slamming Gregor and his NDP allies – quite the opposite actually.

    If/when the provincial government gets involved, you will see it will take less then a millisecond for Harry Bains and Carole James to jump all over the Liberals for their awful handling of this and the cost to the taxpayers across the province.

    This will undoubtedly score them points in the next election with anyone starting to worry about the price tag of the Olympics – and rightly so.

    All thanks to gaining back control of Vancouver City Hall. Had the NPA been in place, this may have been kept under wraps until after the May election, saving the Liberals some votes.

    As a foot note: I’ve never said that this will not lose any money, I’ve only said I believe $500M is far too high and not taking into account all the intricacies of the deal. I still believe there are too many hidden details to estimate a loss at this time

    I believe our Mayor’s statement Friday was more about politics than finances and the chess moves going forward will illustrate my point.

    Oh and seriously, there is no way Quatchi is a conspirator. Anyone that wears earmuffs just doesn’t have it in them. Now Miga on the other hand, I don’t trust that one. It’s always the ones you wouldn’t expect….kinda like Gregor.

  • jesse

    LP, I can’t see how a bailout from any political party is palatable. Look at the size of the screw-up. EVEN at $500MM (or more!) the City can absorb this when you see its weight compared to its operating and capital budgets. It will hurt for sure and mean reduced services and possibly higher taxes in the future. (From a certain perspective higher taxes relative to incomes is a certainty if the City makes poor economic decisions like this one)

    I think you’re right that the political climate is unfavourable for a bailout given the City is not really in dire financial straits. Partisan politics will undoubtedly play a role as well. As should the concept of moral hazard and instructional atonement.

  • The reader’s vision isn’t too far off what Millennium Water is, so I can’t see why a redesign is needed even if it were possible, which it isn’t. Millennium Water project mixes rental, social and market housing. It contains retail and community space. The market housing side is priced accordingly; it’s really expensive because this is an expensive project to build. Very little of what makes the project costly has to do with the “luxury” finishings like granite countertops. It’s the build and design that’s pricey. This building is additionally expensive because of sustainability features, as developer Michael Geller has pointed out and Frances has reported. I can’t imagine public consultation going against sustainable design, so there’s no getting around the 10 per cent extra charge involved in going green.

    LP, I hear ya. My reference to conspiracy was a bid at humour and not a fair representation of your good points. I love being over the top when it comes to King Gregor. (In my post about Vision’s win in November, I reported our new mayor held the secret to cold fusion.) Absolutely there’s political posturing at work. In a few days, once the news calms down, I hope to write about how politicians use “outrage hype” to their advantage.

    But Miga as the villain? Never! No sea-bear is capable of wrongdoing!

  • LP

    Jesse,

    They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Just think about it. If they don’t help, it hurts them in Vancouver City ridings, if they do, it hurts them across the province.

    Either way, the political posturing has effectively put GC and the Liberals in a tough spot and the NDP are going to gain by it, no matter what they do.

    I believe, and time MAY tell, that Gregor coming out Friday was as much about throwing a bone to the NDP saying thanks for his political success, as it was like a coach calling out his players to the media (see Alain Vignault).

    My analogy is akin to Francis’ statement that this was to prod the prov into helping. Use the media whenever they tell you to go ‘piss off’ or ignore you in private.

    The difference here is that it has done some harm to the reputation of the city. The beauty in all of this is that Gregor and his innocent boy looks and charm will get away with this brand of politics when someone like GC or SS would have been harpooned for it.

    It makes him and/or his ‘conspirators’ brilliant adversaries for anyone wanting to jump in the ring with them.

  • jesse

    LP, I hear what you’re saying however a bailout is typically reserved for those that without it would be in dire straits AND the economic fallout sans bailout would be greater than the bailout amount. I just don’t see it here, given its scale relative to the City’s budget.

    The only way is for the City to play hardball and legitimately threaten to not complete the project. The City would look the fool but, financially, it’s the right thing to do. How much is Vancouver’s vanity worth? How about the province’s? The country’s? Let’s see who steps up with the cash, either for the bailout or “future considerations”.

    Perhaps this is a general manager problem, not a coach.

  • jesse

    LP, I think one consideration is that Vancouver is full of renters who do not directly feel the hit if there is no bailout. Politically, Vancouver is not strongly Liberal anyways so I would expect kowtowing to the Liberal’s traditional base outside of the city proper instead of a lost cause within. JMHO.

  • LP

    jesse,

    Can’t disagree with you there. The Sun just posted a story that the mayor has asked the prov to amend the charter, giving them the ability to obtain a $458M loan, without going to a referendum which is currently required. It appears the legislature would need to be recalled to do this.

    GC is supposed to respond to the request at 2pm, and if granted, the NDP will have their soapbox. And I would bet the debate flows from what is happening with Villagegate to other perceived Liberal Olympic blunders.

  • gmgw

    What Ms. Watkins is proposing would essentially duplicate the long and hard work of the SE False Creek Working Group (I may not have the name exactly right), a committee of citizens with diverse backgrounds– architects, consultants, naturalists, planners, real estate professionals, members of assorted grassroots and community groups, et. al.– which met regularly for several years before spade ever touched soil in SEFC. They were mandated by the City Planning Department to come up with a community-created working plan for what SEFC could and/or should be. Their final recommendations were similar to what Ms. Watkins envisions, though of course much more detailed. Those recommendations were duly submitted to the City, who thanked them for their years of hard work and then proceeded to ignore most of their proposals. If you want to assign blame for the developing SEFC fiasco in all its aspects, look no further than the NPA and their head clown, Mayor Sullivan. SEFC could have been so much more than the comfortable community of wealthy yupsters the NPA decided that they wanted to see down there. That it is on the verge of turning into a major financial disaster can certainly be laid at their feet, but they have to take responsibility for its planning shortcomings as well.

  • fndbt

    Anyone remember that the original plans for the site actually included a lot of social housing / co-op housing, along the lines of what was done with False Creek West / Fairview slopes in the ’70s? A 30/30/30 split?

    Peggy’s suggestion is excellent, and similar plans for the site were put together after many years of community consultation and planning.. then chucked out the window in the first action the new council (under Sullivan) took in 2005.

    Hundreds of people showed up at that council hearing, and the argument against the original plan was that the city would have to dip into the endowment fund to the tune of around $14 million. The NPA felt that plan was a waste of money at the time, and Sullivan steamrolled the vote through, despite much opposition.

    Now it might be argued that such a plan would guarantee more of a loss, as the subsidy would increase now that the development has already been built out as mostly high-end, market housing. The non-market component is tiny, at that fateful council meeting it was decided the plan should ‘aim for’ 12% non-market housing.

    Alternately, if the city is ‘on the hook’, wouldn’t it be better to be on the hook for something that provides more of a civic service, instead of just a lost investment in high-end free-market real estate?

    Perhaps the units shouldn’t be sold, but rented, until the next time the market is hot.. just like any other real estate speculator would do.

  • APF

    Too bad that the media and all the NDP syncophants are being sucked into this “political” hype and how innocent and smart so called ‘boy wonder’ Gregor is! This mess would not have occured if there had not been the economic meltdown. Period. Any one with brains can see that. However, since the last council is deemed so incompetment by the COPE/Vision types, why has not Tim Stevenson, Heather Deal, George Chow and Ray Louie, along with David Cadman, not accepted their share of the blame. No excuses, if it was so terrable, why did they vote for it? Also, if they are so stupid as to now know what it was all about, they should resign because they are rather stupid and don’t have what it takes to be on council.

    Too many ‘can be’ ‘ could be’ ‘might be’ in the so called report. I guess this is why Judy Rogers was fired… so their syncophant Penny Ballem would spin this situation that is the best for the COPE/Vision gang!

    Total politics and I predict that this issue will blow over as it unfolds as it will not be as bad for the city as the issues of incompetence come along after three years of the nuts running the nut house!

  • Dawn Steele

    APF, so if the city accountant takes our tax dollars to the casino and loses more than he can replace because of an unusual run of bad luck, then it’s not his fault that taxpayers are left holding the bag because, according to your logic, how could he have predicted that?

    The issue is not the statistical probability of the current meltdown, it’s the fact that the City took the risk – to the tune of $875 million in taxpayer dollars or whatever it takes – to deliver more luxury condos downtown. And clearly, back in 2006 or 2007 when these deals were made, clearly Fortress was aware enough about the possibility of just this sort of meltdown and prudent enough to cover their bets by demanding the guarantee.

    It’s not that city officials couldn’t have predicted a bad run at roulette but that they took our money to play in the casino in the first place.

    And what’s truly upsetting, IMHO, is that they did so by signing deals with a developer and his financial backers that essentially went: “Heads you win, tails we lose.”

    This has nothing to do with “wonder boy Gregor” being smart (though he’d better be getting good advice, if we’re going to find our way out of this mess) but about what advice was given to City Council in the last 2 years or so that got us into this mess. Judy Rogers and her staff have a lot to answer for, I think.

    I’d also love to know how many other elected officials and senior bureaucrats in the previous administration (or their spouses or kids or numbered companies) have a personal stake in those Millenium condos besides former mayor Larry Campbell? How much did they pay & who financed it? How many were wined and dined or accepted gifts and favours from Millenium or from Fortress. How much was declared? What sorts of political donations were handed out?

  • peggyw

    There’s a couple of things I would like to clarify about my letter. I know that my ideas are not new to this project. The original plans did involve a better mix of housing and more community amenities (brought in by the COPE/VV council). This plan was gutted by the NPA council as soon as it came into power in 2005. I remember how saddened and angry I was about that.

    Also, I don’t think it’s too late in the game to rethink what this community can become after the Olympics. Sure, the immediate issue is building the Athletes’ Village but we still have time to revitalize the post-games plans.

    I was hoping that the federal and provincial government might see this as an opportunity to use “stimulus” funds to create a real legacy for the city of Vancouver and its citizens. If they are going to have new money to address the affordable housing/homeless issue, then why not use that money to buy into this project for the long-term solutions to these problems.

    I know that I may seem idealistic but how many times does a city get a chance to build a community from scratch? With the economic times we’re in, govt. seem agreeable to put money into infrastructure so why not think BIG!

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