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TransLink minister muses about a new kind of development tax to support transit … and mayors are worried

February 16th, 2017 · 2 Comments

There’s been vague chatter for months now indicating that the province has its eye on the profits developers are making as they build towers next to SkyTrain lines (calling Derek Corrigan at Brentwood) as a possible source of revenue for big new spends on transit.

But TransLink Minister Peter Fassbender amped up the temperature on that lately by going public with talk about a “transit-supporting levy” that has been proposed (among other things) at a couple of roundtables he’s held recently.

Every mayor I talked to said it’s worth having the discussion about taking back some of the windfall land-value increase that developers get along those lines and using it for transit.

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said any discussion about a funding source that can be counted on as an ongoing and reliable source of transit money is worth having.

But the mayors are anxious. First off, they see that money as unequivocally theirs, not the province’s. They come up with the official community plans, they do the work of shaping where density will go, they take the heat from residents who don’t like those plans. They want control over that money to decide which community services it should go into.

Secondly, for cities like Surrey, the idea of adding on yet another tax to development, when it is struggling already to attract developers to its projected new downtown, is worrisome. My stories on this are here and here.

Mr. Fassbender said he doesn’t want to go into the cities’ piggy-bank and there is no discussion of where the revenue will go. But there are only a few options, as anyone can see.

The province can do what cities have asked for already last December, and create a new development cost charge whose money would be dedicated to transit. (Cities have that already for roads, water, sewer and park acquisition.) And then the province could say, Yes, all that money is yours. And since you have it, your share of all transit projects should be higher. (Currently, since the Trudeau government stepped in, the share is 50 per cent federal, 33 per cent provincial, 17 per cent municipal. The cities have said it should be 50/40/10, given the share of the tax pie each level has.)

Or the province could say, let’s talk about splitting it and we’re open to adjusting the share each of us pays based on that revenue.

Or it could just take part of it and use it for the standard 33 per cent it has always maintained is its fair share.

No one really knows which way this discussion is going. We await more news.

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As condo fever continues, gas stations, banks, mini-malls disappear

February 7th, 2017 · 6 Comments

I write about, I think, some fairly weighty issues that deserve public attention. But, I have to say, nothing seems to attract attention like when I do a story about disappearing gas stations. I guess it speaks to people’s sense of how the city is changing.

At any rate, I did a story a while ago about Shell putting its gas station on Georgia, across from the Bayshore, on the block, a site that surely has to be attractive, as developers race to build designer-y new luxury towers there. (White Spot patrons next door, I would get those Monty mushroom burgers while you can, because I can’t imagine White Spot resisting the pressure for long.)

More recently, I did another story about Shell putting up another five stations for sale on the west side, all prime locations for low-rise apartment buildings, I would think.

Their site at Broadway and Alma, in particular, I can see becoming a new little hub on the west side. There is a development proposal for the mini-mall kitty-corner from there. (True Confections fans, get your hits in now.)

There’s a mini-mall backing onto that gas station (facing 10th). And Land Developments owns the empty lot on the southeast side of 10th and Alma, with development planned soon, I’m sure. Alma Village, here we come.

Those aren’t the only places to go. Small bank branches, mini-malls around the city are being eyed.

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Living with roommates at 30+, sometimes with babies added

February 6th, 2017 · No Comments

A fun assignment recently, to take a look at the prevalance of room-mating as the housing crunch continues unabated.

There’s no doubt that the phenomenon of sharing is on the upswing in many high-priced cities. I remember reading a story from London that said the big dream for young people there was not their own apartment, but just their own bathroom.

I had noted in other stories I’ve done recently how many millennial couples I’d come across who were sharing an apartment or a house with a third person. But, for this story, I stumbled across an even more extreme example of the room-mate phenemonon: two professional couples, each with a young one, sharing a four-bedroom house.

That was along with people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s taking to the room-mate life, finding benefits not just in the money-saving, but also the extra company, the sense of security, and the expanded set of friends.

My story here. (Makes me wonder if any of will get to live alone until we hit the old-age home.)

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Vancouver starts spending additional tax money it collected to tackle drug-overdose crisis

January 19th, 2017 · 13 Comments

The first round of spending to tackle the drug-overdose crisis adds up to $2 million, mainly to staff an additional medic unit, to create a new community policing station for Strathcona, and to train more city staff in Naloxone use.

The next $1.5 million available is still unallocated, although staff are looking at things like creating supervised drug-consumption sites in some of the Downtown Eastside residential hotels, where most of the overdoses and deaths are occurring. (More on this from social-policy director Mary Clare Zak in my story today.)

The city report will be debated next Tuesday or Wednesday (the latter, if there are speakers from the public who want to address the issue). I’m wondering if the tone will be any different, after the news yesterday that the death count from overdoses reached 914 last year.

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TransLink kicks off its first service bump in a long time, amid many questions about when the big chunk of federal money will arrive

January 19th, 2017 · 2 Comments

TransLink is going to be rolling out many, many announcements about improved service in the next while — all aimed at reminding people that their tax money is going to good use. They had their first on Tuesday. (My story here.)

But amid the celebrations over more cars for Canada Line service, 15-minute service on the SeaBus, and other such add-ons, there was also a cloud hanging over the announcement because the federal government appears to have slowed down in its rush to provide transit funding. In fact, Liberal MP Jonathan Wilkinson made an odd remark at the announcement about funding decisions being on hold until mayors come up with a solid plan — something they did two years ago.

Local mayors had hoped to see something specific about phase 2 funding by now. At the moment, though, it appears as though nothing will be announced until the federal budget is set in late February. That means that negotiations with the province can’t really begin until after that. And the province will be entering election-campaign phase by April.

For Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, both hoping to show their voters that transit dollars are here by the time the municipal elections roll around in 2018, this is all bad news, as it likely means no real funding agreement will be reached before fall — all of which delays the real work on the big Broadway and Surrey rapid-transit projects by a year.

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B.C. Liberal Party’s high-profile fundraiser, Bob Rennie, steps back, saying he’s done his job

January 16th, 2017 · 3 Comments

I’ve been covering B.C. politics for more than 30 years. In that time, the fundraisers for various parties have been part of the scene. But none of them has achieved the high profile or hostile public reaction that Bob Rennie has. (Back in the Gordon Campbell days, Marty Zlotnik used to be the chief fundraiser. People would talk to him occasionally, but he was never in the spotlight the way Rennie has been.)

Now he says he’s stepping back. (My story here.) He’s raised pots of money for the party, the Liberals are in good shape, and he’s going off to do other things.

There’s already been speculation on Twitter that his “resignation” is somehow connected to the New York Times story published last week about the unfettered campaign fundraising in B.C.

But Rennie has been talking about quitting the fundraiser job for a while, though I’d always understood that he was going to stop after the election. As I said on Twitter, I’d be more inclined to believe that, if there is any hidden agenda, this an agreement between him and the party to remove some of the fuel in the anti-developer fire that has been licking at the Liberals’ doorstep in the last two years, as people have grown more resentful about the local crazy high housing prices.

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The tiny-house movement gets a boost in Vancouver from two dedicated advocates

January 16th, 2017 · 1 Comment

In the way that journalism works, the germ of this story sprouted at a public meeting where I was a moderator. The panel was focused on housing as a human right. But there were a lot of young people in the audience who were hungry for more — they were looking for practical solutions to Vancouver’s housing dilemmas.

Among them were Anastasia and Sam, quoted in this story, who have gone beyond just individual interest in tiny houses to trying to create the momentum and focus for the change needed to permit them in local cities.

They’ve created a website to collect information and they’ve made connections with city planners, post-secondary institutions, and other housing advocates. I’m not sure how long it will take them to get anywhere (the two city politicians I talked to were interested but, I’d say, a bit wary) but they are definitely taking all the right steps to start a wave.

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Lower Mainland cities learned many lessons from 2008/2009 snowstorm, but not enough to make this round perfect

January 4th, 2017 · 50 Comments

Spent the day yesterday collecting stories from people about their experiences with the snow/ice situation, as well as phoning as many municipalities as I could to find out how things were going.

It was interesting to hear how many city staffers talked about the big changes they made after the multiple snowfalls that turned into ice sheets in the winter of 2008/2009. My story on what they had to say here.

But that didn’t eliminate all the problems this time around, especially in Vancouver. As I outline in the story, Vancouver seems to be getting the most complaints and for particular reasons, likely why they’ve decided to throw 300 extra staff at sanding and salting roads and sidewalks and dealing with garbage/recycling pick-up.

  1. It has more laneway garbage pick-ups than any other city and laneways have been the hardest roads to access.
  2. It turned over recycling pick-up to the industry group, Multi-Material B.C., in October, which contracted it to Smithrite. That meant Smithrite wasn’t that familiar yet with the routes in Vancouver. (Different from Coquitlam, where environmental-projects manager Verne Kucy said he had heard few complaints about recycling pick-up, likely because Smithrite has been working in Coquitlam for several years. Coquitlam also has very few lanes.)
  3. It has many more people who expect to be able to walk and cycle around all streets.

Likely more info to come on whether there were other things Vancouver could have done to improve conditions in the past four weeks. For sure, MMBC managing director Allen Langdon says the company, MMBC and Vancouver staff will have to sit down after this is all over to talk about how to work together better.

As he pointed out to me, “Our ability to access some areas is wholly dependent on their ability to plow and sand alleyways and therefore their plans for future situations like this will have a major impact on our plans and ability to cope with those situations.”

In the meantime, many regular citizens have been unimpressed. Below are some of the messages I received yesterday.

[Read more →]

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Portraits of hidden parts of B.C.’s Chinese immigration history

January 4th, 2017 · No Comments

Through a young friend, I was alerted to the interesting photo project being done by Gu Xiong, a professor of art history at UBC. He has been shooting pictures of some little-known sites that were important to early Chinese immigrants to the province.

Even though I thought I knew a lot about that history, I had no idea that an island near Sidney had been designated as a leper colony for some Chinese residents in Victoria or that families stored the bones of their dead relatives here while waiting to ship them back to their home villages in China.

I was familiar with the Cumberland Chinatown because, through pure chance, we camped near Cumberland this summer and I discovered the odd memorial to the Chinatown, which is now nothing but forest after the settlement was burned down in the 1960s.

Here are some of the photos that Gu has shot, along with a bit of background from me.

After publication, I got a note from a local historian who added this information.

Cumberland’s Chinatown population is incorrect. The 3000 number is a ‘folk’ myth which I grew up hearing (I’m a descendant of Cumberland’s Chinatown). In its heyday, the 1920s, the Chinatown had perhaps 1500. Prior to Vancouver becoming the terminus of the CPR, Victoria, New Westminster, and Nanaimo had the largest Chinese populations.
Additional commentary about Cumberland is problematic. The photograph of ‘Jumbo’s cabin’ has no explanation to say that it was moved to its current location by the roadside, which is adjacent to the entrance to what was Chinatown. The false front buildings of Chinatown businesses in ‘downtown’ are replicas, so were not moved into town! As well, the statement “people made a new, independent home completely separate from the Caucasian settlement” seems to suggest that choice was involved. The Chinese lived where the mining company permitted them to, specifically, the poorest land (swampy) available.
For additional info on Cumberland’s Chinatown, go to: https://cumberland.ca/coal-creek-historic-park/

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TransLink scores with $440-million sale of Oakridge bus barn

December 21st, 2016 · 3 Comments

We’d all been hearing the chatter for half a year that TransLink had sold this prime site at 41st and Oak for a significant sum, far more than it had originally anticipated five years ago.

That was seen as one more piece of good news for the agency, giving it a lot more money to put into transit improvements in the 10-year plan, helping to leverage in provincial and federal dollars.

The official announcement came late yesterday, causing many of us to scramble. Strange they put out such an important piece of news so late in the day. My story here, after having managed to get hold of a few people by deadline.

The announcement mostly confirmed what Bob Mackin and Frank O’Brien enterprisingly winkled out of someone back in mid-October for Business in Vancouver, though no mention in the TransLink announcement of the Kunyuan involvement they detailed.

This is obviously a huge windfall for TransLink. I did see people commenting on Twitter that it was another lost opportunity to provide affordable housing, with some suggestion that TransLink should have turned over all or part of the site for social housing.

I’m always interested in hearing my own arguments shot down by those more knowledgeable, but that seems so problematic to me — asking a transit agency to accept less money for desperately needed transit improvements in order to house more low-income people.

Both accessible transit and cheap housing benefit poor people. Forcing governments or their agents to choose between the two is some kind of cruel game. In a better world, one with a strong stream of tri-government support for housing and the same for transit, presumably we wouldn’t even be discussing that Sophie’s Choice.

For the record, the developer will be required to provide 20 per cent of the buildable space for affordable housing. What that means, exactly, is still to be defined. And it’s an open question who will build it.

Shaadi Faris, the vice-president of Intergulf (one of the two partners), said currently the developer isn’t required to build the units, just provide the land. However, he said it’s still possible that the city will work something out with the developers where they do in fact build it for some negotiated price, as that would be an efficient way to proceed.

BTW, for those thinking there is NO provision for affordable housing on the site, here is the city policy that was passed last December. As you’ll see, it calls for a mix of housing that provides for seniors, families, people with mental health and/or addictions problems, rental and more. I expect people will be holding feet to the fire on this.

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