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City manager Penny Ballem is gone; internal staff memo here

September 15th, 2015 · 46 Comments

This went out to staff in the same few minutes as the news release.

Staff team,

Today City Council has voted to initiate an important senior leadership transition for the City of Vancouver, and I want you to have the full details right away.

Dr. Penny Ballem will be concluding her service as Vancouver City Manager after nearly seven years of exceptional service, and a comprehensive global search process will soon be underway to select a new leader to fulfill that role.

Dr. Ballem has driven transformative change across the organization in her time at City Hall, and she has demonstrated outstanding commitment to the City of Vancouver and all of its residents. She was instrumental in the remarkable turnaround of the finances of the Olympic Village and a successful winter Olympics, delivered innovative policy leadership on a wide array of City priorities, and successfully managed a billion-dollar organization that routinely ranks as one of the best places to work in Canada.

As we look toward making continued progress on Vancouver’s most significant priorities though, Council has decided that our city’s toughest challenges will benefit from a new approach and a fresh perspective.

An international search process will soon commence to select a new City Manager. In the interim, Sadhu Johnston will serve as Acting City Manager. In his six years as Deputy City Manager, Sadhu has been instrumental to Vancouver’s Greenest City progress and our innovative economy, building on his wealth of prior senior administrative experience in Chicago, where he also served as Chief Environmental Officer.

We have an incredibly experienced and dynamic staff team at the City of Vancouver. I cannot thank you enough for the remarkable ways that this team serves our city every day, and I am very confident about how we can expand Vancouver’s success as one of the greenest, most innovative, and most inclusive cities in the world.

On behalf of my colleagues on City Council and everyone at City Hall, I want to thank Dr. Ballem for her extraordinary service to Vancouver and the lasting contributions she has made to the future of this city.

Thank you and see you soon,

Gregor Robertson
Mayor, City of Vancouver


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Competition heats up for multi-family sites in the region — locals say new offshore bidders part of it. But are they?

September 9th, 2015 · 7 Comments

Fresh off the UBC beat, I seem to have gotten embroiled in a few real-estate stories the last few days.

The talk of the town the last few months (well, really, since the Cambie corridor exploded from single family to multi-family, but even more so now) has been the intense competition for multi-family sites around town. I heard about it when I was working on the story I did about land assembly a few months ago. Brokers and developers in Surrey and Vancouver were talking about a new wave of investors. Then an architect mentioned the land assembly going on in North Vancouver, being done by some very young new offshore investors who were buying up homes around lower Lonsdale.

My stories this week explored some of that. Colliers came out with a report today about the jump in sales values of multi-family sites.

I also went looking for one of the “offshore” buyers being talked about. It turned out he was not quite as offshore as I’d imagined. Yes, Kevin Cheung is getting his equity stake from his dad’s development business in Shanghai. But he lives here, went to Churchill and UBC, and he and his wife just had a baby at St. Paul’s last week. So … a kind of new Vancouverite, with a foot each in two worlds. The story here.

I’m sure you all have a lot of thoughts about this. If we could keep it civil and factual, much appreciated.



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What Vancouver mayor is doing about the refugee crisis

September 7th, 2015 · 32 Comments

Organizing a forum for tomorrow at city hall. Warning: This is a small room, so won’t be much room for the public, who are specifically invited, unless the venue gets changed. Seems a bit odd to me, as does the timing — a few days after other mayors have been in the news, speaking out (Nenshi) or getting attention for efforts they’d already been making earlier (Tory), and also with one day’s notice. Kinda scrambly. News release below

Mayor Invites Public to Forum on Syrian Refugee Crisis

As part of the mobilization of mayors across the country to support in the humanitarian crisis facing Syria, Mayor Gregor Robertson (who also serves as the Chair of Canada’s Big City Mayors’ Caucus) is inviting the public and key stakeholders to a public forum at 7 pm. Tuesday September 8 at City Hall.

Chris Friesen, Chair of the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance (CISSA-ACSEI), will be joined by senior officials from Immigrant Settlement Services and Eyob Naizghi, Executive Director of MOSAIC,to share background information with the public, many of whom wish to help but are still unclear as to what are the various actions they can take to help address the crisis and assist those in need.

The invitation is open to anyone who wishes to attend. The City hosts the Mayor’s Working Group on Immigration and the Vancouver Immigration Partnership, whose members form part of the mobilization of civil society in Vancouver to address key issues facing immigrants and refugees. The work on the Sanctuary City which has taken place over the last year in the city will be a solid platform for launching an initiative to help with the Syrian refugee crisis.

When: 7 pm. September 8th, 2015
Where: Town Hall meeting room, Main floor, Vancouver City Hall
Who: Mayor Gregor Robertson and City Council, Chris Friesen – Chair of the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance (CISSA-ACSEI), and senior officials from
Immigrant Settlement Services and Mosaic.


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Turbulence, controversy at one of Vancouver’s largest employers: UBC

September 3rd, 2015 · 3 Comments

UBC has become the subject of rampant rumour and speculation since president Arvind Gupta’s surprise resignation was announced Aug. 7. (He had told the board he would resign a week earlier, July 31.)

That’s been preoccupying my time the last couple of weeks, especially since the city is in its August lull.

For those who missed it, here’s the major feature I helped report for the Globe, trying to understand what happened behind the scenes. I have to say, we still don’t totally know. Even Gupta’s most ardent supporters (and fiercest critics) haven’t been able to tell us exactly happened in the last few weeks between him and the board of governors.

And, because everything is so secondhand, most observers are still trying to reconcile the diametrically opposed viewpoints on Gupta. One, that he was a brilliant innovator with a very aggressive plan to remake UBC who was done in by a micro-managing or conservative or corporate (take your pick or combine all three) board and board chair, who were being lobbied by powerful deans. Or two, that he was a brilliant innovator with a very aggressive (but vague) plan to remake UBC who was done in because he alienated people, was weak at administration, didn’t line up allies before he tried to take on the powerful deans, etc etc.

And here’s a follow-up from today, what some of the university’s prominent donors have to say about the situation and whether it will affect their inclination to give in the future.

There’s been no shortage of other reporting and commenting.

Gary Mason in the Globe and Daphne Bramham at the Vancouver Sun have both been flagellating the university for its lack of openness. UBC defenders, including interim president Martha Piper, have weighed in on commentary pages. UBC mathematics professor Nassif Ghoussoub, a friend of Gupta’s who has been particularly dismayed by the entire response at the university, has been blogging about the issue at Piece of Mind.

I know some of you may think of it as just an entertaining House of Cards-style drama for the one-per-centres in town. But UBC is one of the city’s and region’s largest employers. It’s also a job-generator, with the creativity and start-ups that spin off from its research. What happens there matters to all of us in a way.

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The sharing-the-pain economy: The Uber and Airbnb ground war in cities

August 12th, 2015 · 68 Comments

I’m currently staying at an Airbnb-type apartment in the Mission district in San Francisco, ground zero (as I’ve discovered since I booked it) of current North American angst over the transformation of former working-class neighbourhoods into tourist parks. In June, I stayed in an Airbnb in Marais, another hot district, where one disgruntled resident had hung a banner outside his apartment: “Non au resto-toit.”

Do I feel guilty? Somewhat, although I try to allay it by not staying at places that appear to be run by agencies, only at real apartments where the owners are out of town temporarily. (Though I sometimes misjudge.)

I’m not a regular Über user. I did go down and experiment with it in Seattle for the purposes of the story I’m linking to here, but have been unsuccessful in getting anyone to pick me up here in San Francisco. I see the cars swarming around on the map, but they never stop for me. Perhaps, like Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, I’ve achieved a bad rating (maybe my article helped with that?) or maybe they just didn’t like the places I was going.

In spite of that, I am a part of this confused new alleged sharing economy, which is not the old tool libraries or communal farms of old, but more about monetizing the assets that middle-class people have and want to maintain, using the magic of a technology broker.

Intellectually, I recognize the problems. But as a traveller, I’m addicted to the way home-sharing agencies allow me to experience travel a different way. (And that all started before Airbnb. I began, as did so many people, with straight-up home exchanges through HomeLink 20 years ago. I moved on to renting apartments through all the little rental agencies that proliferated before Airbnb stomped onto the scene. Then it was VRBO. And now Airbnb, which I have come to like because the listings are quirkier and more often in real homes, not agency-furnished “vacation rentals.”)

A lot of us are in that boat. So are city governments, which are dealing with residents and businesses who love and hate Airbnb, love and hate Uber.

I got a chance to look at the whole issue in depth (thank you Matt O’Grady at BCBusiness for this great assignment), although it was a bit crazy-making as new information and new developments kept popping up every day. (Like Karen Sawatzky’s great initial study on Airbnb in Vancouver.)

Long after I’d filed my piece, I was heading for the airport in Paris, where my taxi driver told me he’d just been part of the strike over Uber the last four days. “L’economie sauvage,” he said with disgust, along with a lot of other explanations about why Uber was so bad for everyone. (The company withdrew from the Paris market shortly thereafter.) And I could see why he felt so strongly. Clearly the taxi business had done well by him. He talked about taking his family on ski trips in the Alps, to a resort in Valencia for the summer — his job was helping support a pretty middle-class life.

This is an evolving story. I keep waiting for the new chapters. In the meantime, here is where we were at in the summer of 2015.



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Vancouver looking for a new chief planner again after only three years

August 3rd, 2015 · 25 Comments

This is a week old but I was in an internet challenged zone after I filed my story, so here it is: The Brian Jackson retirement/resignation, which I know many in this group will have thoughts on, especially about his remarks that ex-city staff were extraordinarily interventionist as they lobbied against various decisions of his department.

I should note that one group who was coming to have some respect for his work was developers, after he lobbied to have the community amenity contributions extracted by the city for rezonings set to a standardized level, at least along Cambie, so that property buyers (and sellers) would have some idea in advance of how much of the land lift they’d have to hand over to the city.

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Reading the smoke signals: The viaducts will be coming down

July 23rd, 2015 · 127 Comments

There’s been no official announcement or news release or staff report yet, but it looks as though the city is headed to a vote on taking the viaducts down, with planners and engineers recommending it, after having gone out and dug up all the new information council asked for two years ago.

As my story in the Globe says, community and business groups are hearing the summary of this new information from city staff, which all appears to be buttressing the argument that the viaducts should come down (would cost $50/60 million to make seismically sound, new commuter route connecting Expo Boulevard to a new Georgia Street extension would only add a few minutes in commuter time, etc etc).

I’m attaching here, besides the story, the PowerPoint that is being used at the community group talks. Not a lot of detail, but it does add a few interesting new bits and bobs of information.

Vancouver’s Viaducts JWG Jun22 Planning PDF



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Metro Vancouver moves to Stage 3 water restrictions: What creative strategies are you using to save water?

July 21st, 2015 · 132 Comments

I worked on commercial fishing boats for six seasons, in my 20s, where water was a precious thing.

We sometimes went out for two or more weeks, knowing we had to survive on the water in the tank. We turned off the tap when brushing our teeth, except for the brief wetting between scrubs, re-used our cooking water in multiple ways, and were just generally miserly about washing. (Yes, it could get as bad as you’re imagining.)

With Metro going to Stage 3 restrictions, I’m hoping everyone is taking these approaches. I’ve heard of some creative ones the last couple of days, like Lindsay Brown rigging up a system to re-use her bathwater. (I’m trying to figure out how to do that from my very high second-floor bathroom, which would entail running a hose over the back porch roof. Hmm.)

Anything wonderful you all have come up with?

You may also use this site to post addresses of people still watering their lawns, by the way, as part of the effort.


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The post-plebiscite transit mess: Surrey, Vancouver look to self-financing, mayors’ council on verge of blowing up

July 16th, 2015 · 28 Comments

In the aftermath of the resounding no in the transit plebiscite, yes, it’s a mess out there.

Mayors are looking at self-financing their big projects in Surrey and Vancouver. (And even Delta is considering using its own money to run some needed buses.) Senior execs are being fired at TransLink, and there are calls for even more change. And the future of the mayors’ council is up in the air.

I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in the conversation among Transportation Minister Todd Stone, Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson today.

Here are the details of all the Translink/transit-related statements and events in the last week.

Surrey mayor mulls taking back gas taxes to pay for light rail here.

Mayors mull whether and when to quit TransLink; North Vancouver’s Darrell Mussatto is done already. Here

Senior execs get toasted and observers say more needs to happen than just that. Here.

And, last but not least, Vancouver mayor talks about the options city has for paying its share of the $3-billion Broadway line here.

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Are you now, or have you ever been, an economist?

July 10th, 2015 · 40 Comments

A short, funny, thoughtful read here.

The “but you’re not an economist” line gets thrown around a lot. Its purpose is simple: discredit the target and imply that their views should be ignored.

And a typical dictionary definition here.



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