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More change coming to Chinatown: development sites for sale, sky-high residential rents

August 12th, 2016 · 4 Comments

A sharp observer alerted me yesterday to more signs of change in Chinatown: two key sites (the venerable Tosi’s at 624 Main and the Brickhouse/empty lot/student hostel/Jimi Hendrix shrine assembly at Main and Union) for sale and a new rental building with rents starting at $1,267 for studios.

My story on that here, complete with a chance to observe a slice of life at Tosi’s yesterday afternoon.

But more to do on the changes in Chinatown in the future. Chinatowns everywhere are struggling to figure out how to thrive. There have even been stories from San Francisco, a Chinatown that I thought was among the healthiest, about the proliferation of vacancies.

On another front, one thing I didn’t get an answer on from the city by deadline is how the new Albert Block can charge so much in rent. It was approved under the Rental 100 policy. According to that policy, the rent on an eastside studio can’t be more than $1,260.

At any rate, for those of you who love Tosi’s, Angelo figures he’ll still be operating for about another year at least. (That seems right, as any buyer would likely want to apply to rezone for the higher density and that will take some time.)

So it’s a good time to hop on down with some cash to get your Italian cooking supplies. He had an excellent caciocavallo cheese yesterday, something I’ve never even heard of before.

BTW, to get more about the history of Tosi’s, read my Vancouver Sun pal John Mackie’s excellent story from 2011.

For those wondering, there is no heritage designation for the Tosi’s building. I checked that with the city.

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Vancouver snags a second high-profile employee from San Francisco

August 10th, 2016 · 6 Comments

What is with all the people getting hired from the States to work here? It’s a flood. (At least the San Franciscans can cash out with enough equity to buy a trailer in Abbotsford here.)

This is the latest, a big hire for the engineering department, according to internal memo.

To all staff in Engineering,
I am thrilled to welcome Marisa Espinosa as the new Director of Departmental Services.
Marisa’s career spans multiple years of public sector experience in transportation and land use planning, operations and policy analysis in both Canada and the United States. Active in the industry, Marisa is a graduate of the American Public Transportation Association’s Leadership APTA program which identifies leaders in the transportation field. In addition, she is a former Board member of the Women’s Transportation Seminar, an international organization that supports the advancement of women in transportation and infrastructure.
Marisa recently served as Senior Manager for Citywide Planning with the City and County of San Francisco and prior to that worked for Translink. Marisa served as Senior Manager of Strategic Planning, at TransLink, leading the development of the Mayor’s Council Vision for Regional Transportation Investments, and was responsible for major infrastructure planning as well as system planning.
Marisa believes that building leadership is a fundamental element of a successful operation. She spent several years in the leadership development field, coaching professionals and community-based organizations. Prior to her work at TransLink, Marisa served as the Manager for Planning and Research for the San Mateo County Transit District where she worked on bus, rail, rail station and bicycle planning for major capital projects in the San Francisco Bay Area, and as Manager of Strategic Policy Initiatives at the San Francisco MTA, the seventh largest transit system in the United States, leading strategic planning, and integrated transportation and land use for capital projects. Marisa has degrees in policy, politics and economics from Stanford University and in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles.
In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, and volunteering for leadership and environmental groups. She would welcome you to say hello, and is thrilled to be working with the City of Vancouver team.
Marisa will begin September 12th.
Please join me in welcoming Marisa to the City of Vancouver!
I would also like to thank Kim Kennedy for doing an excellent job in the acting position for the past many months as the recruitment process took place. Kim was instrumental in keeping a number of major initiatives moving in the Departmental Services Division. Thank you Kim!

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Younger generation gets activist to look for new housing solutions

August 10th, 2016 · 1 Comment

Catching up on some stuff here, but all still relevant.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the group of younger people that has coalesced into a kind of pro-density group called Abundant Housing, partly inspired by the YIMBY groups that are springing up in other cities — San Francisco being the first. They are showing up at council meetings to support new projects in the city, especially rentals. (One group of projects they don’t support: Burnaby condo developments built by tearing down the low-cost apartments there.)

In an unplanned coincidence, Kerry Gold wrote (also in the Globe) about the young people who started the group Housing Action for Local Taxpayers, which has focused much more on the demand side of Vancouver’s wacko housing problems.

These two groups represent a new wave of activism — albeit from different perspectives — from young people who feel like the housing system and policies in the region really aren’t working for them.

All of us should be watching to see where these articulate and impatient-for-new-solutions groups and people end up — my guess is they will increasingly have an influence over how the region is shaped in the next 50 years.



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Vancouver picks new head of planning from continent’s other unaffordable city, San Francisco

August 2nd, 2016 · 12 Comments

This just out from the city.

City appoints Gil Kelley as the General Manager of Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability

Today, the City is announcing that Gil Kelley will serve as Vancouver’s new Chief Planner and General Manager of the newly created Department of Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability.

Gil has been appointed by City Council to fulfill statutory responsibilities of the Director of Planning under the Vancouver Charter and will lead the City’s work on all city planning visioning, policy, urban design, and major development negotiations. He will be a voting member of the Development Permit Board and a member of the Corporate Management Team.


The newly created department of Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability will also have the City’s Sustainability Group integrated within its mandate, which will support the effective implementation of the City’s Greenest City Action Plan (GCAP), Renewable City Strategy and green building initiatives.

“Vancouver is known throughout the world as a leader in urban planning and design, and being a sustainable, livable and inclusive city,” says Mayor Gregor Robertson. “As Chief Planner now responsible for Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability, Gil will help take Vancouver to the next level in becoming a greener, more affordable and inclusive city. Gil’s extensive experience in cities like San Francisco and Portland is highly valuable at a time when Vancouver is facing an affordability challenge like never before, and we are thrilled to have him join our team at City Hall.”

“Vancouver’s Chief Planner has long been one of most challenging and important positions in our city. Vancouver has a global reputation for world class urban planning,” said City Manager Sadhu Johnston. “Gil will be charged with rejuvenating that legacy and ensuring that Vancouver is a livable, green, equitable and more affordable community as we continue to grow and evolve. Gil’s experience supporting affordability will be a great addition to the City’s efforts to be a more affordable city.”

Gil assumes leadership of the City’s efforts to address public policy issues related to land use and city planning. Gil will be charged with charting a course for a proactive planning program for Vancouver, including:
* Supporting work underway to update the City’s 10-year Affordable Housing Strategy;

* Implementing policy work completed on the removal of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, False Creek Flats, Northeast False Creek and South False Creek plans;

* Renewing the planning and urban design framework for Vancouver’s City Core; including transit-oriented development with a focus on the Broadway corridor;

* Completing recommendations on the City’s new Heritage Action Plan;

* Implementing the city’s climate adaptation plan, zero emission new buildings strategy, greenest city action plan and 100% renewable strategy;

* Supporting key Council priorities, including housing affordability, City of Reconciliation, the Health City Strategy, and working with the Vancouver Economic Commission and other partners to optimize and grow Vancouver’s nation leading economy

With extensive experience in city planning work, Gil was recently Director of City-wide Planning for the City of San Francisco. In that role, Gil’s projects have included preparation of a new City-wide Transportation Plan, development of policies and strategies to advance affordable housing preservation and development, a waterfront plan that includes a long-term strategy for addressing sea level rise and public access, several plans for developing or redevelopment of major transit corridors, and alternative strategies to best accommodate introduction of California High-speed Rail into San Francisco.

Gil also created and has overseen a new community development function focused primarily on stabilization strategies for neighbourhoods in extreme tension (gentrification and displacement), as well as underserved communities. During his tenure with the City of San Francisco, Gil’s urban design studio focused on radically improving the City’s public realm through both tactical urbanism and permanent designs for streets, plazas and social spaces.

Gil also spent ten years as the Director of Planning for the City of Portland where he was appointed by the mayor to coordinate key development initiatives and to oversee the city’s planning functions. Major projects under Gil’s tenure include the River Renaissance Initiative, Mayor’s Urban Design Initiative, City-wide Permit Improvement Project, Comprehensive Plan and Centre City Plan Update Frameworks, Industrial Lands Policy, and the Airport Master Plan.

Gil’s first Director of Planning role was with the City of Berkeley in California where he directed most of the City’s community development functions including the Economic Development Office, Redevelopment Agency, Planning Department, Building Department (“Codes and Inspections”), and a consolidated Permit Centre.

Gil is an alumnus of the prestigious Loeb Fellowship program at Harvard University Graduate School of Design and held an appointment as Practitioner-in-Residence on the faculty of Portland State University’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning for several years. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in political economy from the Evergreen State College in Washington and is a graduate candidate for a Master of Science degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Urban Studies and Planning. Gil has also received a certificate in Advanced Environmental Studies from Harvard University.

Gil has contributed to several published reports, studies and books, including a book on Urban Manufacturing tentatively scheduled for release later this year.

“I am pleased and honoured to be taking the helm of Planning in Vancouver, one of the most vibrant, livable and sustainable cities in the world,” says Gil Kelley, Chief Planner and General Manager of Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability for the City of Vancouver. “It’s a good moment in the city’s history to ‘double down’ on the those qualities and aspirations and take them to the next level, as Vancouver grows and prospers.”

Gil will start in his position on September 15, 2016.

In addition to the role that will be filled by Gil Kelley, the City recently appointed Kaye Matheny-Krishna as the new General Manager, for the Development Services, Building and Licensing Department. Kaye assume leadership of the City’s efforts to transform its permitting and licensing processes and improve service and turnaround times for applicants.

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The new foreign property tax: Our Brexit?

July 29th, 2016 · 10 Comments

Is this tax, which I’m told the province decided to implement after looking at some pretty disastrous polling stories three weeks ago, really our version of Brexit?

Could it be our (tamer) version of the British vote where people rebelled against the prevailing tide of globalization favoured by governments and the corporate world?

(I’m not going to bother linking here to all the stories documenting the ripple effects of this tax that have unfurled in the last four days. I presume anyone here as seen them all and there are far too many. Stories about many people who had bought in pre-sales caught by this, from students due to arrive from India to Americans who had accepted jobs here. Letters from construction companies and developers about the dire impacts they are seeing. This morning, people opining that this violates NAFTA. But, wow, what a drama. A tragedy for some but, I have to say, a gift for reporters.)


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Bike-share comes to Vancouver at last, helmets and all

July 20th, 2016 · 18 Comments

So I ambled down to the official announcement of the bike-share launch, held on the picture-perfect seawall with kayakers going by, the glass towers sparkling in the sunshine, and an elderly gentleman playing the street piano nearby.

My official Globe story is here, but those of you who know anything about me realize that I’m a big bike-share user wherever I go. Bike shares are so ideal for so many reasons. As a tourist, I’m long past the age where I can walk 25 miles in no-support rope sandals and not feel any pain. And it takes a long time to see a city by walking. Cars go too fast, are too hard to park. Buses, okay, but they’re limited by routes and schedules. Bikes in a bike share are like travel freedom in a bottle. You see the city close up, at your own pace, and you pick up and drop the bike as needed.

So far, I’ve done New York, Minneapolis, Toronto, Lyon, Paris, Montreal, Montpellier. I would have liked to in San Francisco, but they had none in the Mission district where I was, and in Montevideo, Uruguay, but was too rushed.

So I’ve had a wide range of experiences, mostly good, occasionally bad, i.e. high ratio of malfunctioning bikes, credit cards that don’t work in the system, bike docks impossible to find, etc.

Obviously, my 24-minute ride today from under the Cambie Bridge on the south side to Hornby/Pender downtown isn’t the last word but, here goes

  • SEVEN speeds, compared to the three in other cities. Woohoo. This ought to make the hills a little bit easier.
  • Very smooth. Obviously, these are new bikes, in better shape than a bunch of the clunkers I rode in Lyon, with seats that kept slipping or only one gear. But still, yummy smooth.
  • The helmet is locked to the bike with a cable, an ingenious system. Though CBC did report one cable had already been cut and helmet stolen as of this morning. Still, it’s smart and easy.
  • I was worried when I picked up my bike that I’d end up downtown with no place to dock it. That is actually one of the biggest problems I’ve run into — getting to a place and every spot is filled at docks for blocks around. You see people standing with their bikes waiting for someone to show up and take one out so they can dock. But, for now at least, they’ve got two spots available for every bike there, so no problem when I arrived on Hornby.
  • Not that many bike docks so far (only 23), so hard to judge about how that all is going to work. Based strictly on me, bike systems work best when there are loads of docks, so many that you hardly need a map to find them. At this point, I’m just out of the area where docks are going to be, as I’m sure are many bike riders in this city. But, theoretically, it will expand. The first time I went to New York, there were only about three docks in Williamsburg. Last December, they were everywhere.
  • At the end, took three tries to ensure it was docked properly. I had to jam it in hard three times before I got the signal that it was in.
  • The worst part? Taking it out for the first time. I’ve never had such problems, in part because I’ve always been only a day or week user elsewhere. So you stick in your credit card, get a code and you’re off. Here, as a founding member, I’d been given a fob and was told my four-digit pin. But I guess somewhere along the line a few months ago, someone also emailed me a seven-digit OTHER code. Which I didn’t remember ever getting, didn’t have on my phone, and had to call in for.
  • Then, to actually unlock the bike. It turned out that it use a bike, you have to hit a button on the panel to “wake up the bike.” Then you have to press 1. (Neither of these are intuitive. There were written instructions sent to me but, as a long-time user of bike shares, I paid no attention and assumed I could just figure things out on the spot. So wrong.) Then you put your fob on the marker. Then you enter your four-digit pin. Then you have to do something else on the panel. Then you enter your seven-digit pin. Then you enter your four-digit pin again. Then you put your fob on the marker again. Seriously, folks, I am not making this up. Be prepared. If you are the kind of person who has trouble with your TV remote, you need to bring a teenager with you.
  • Fortunately, I made it through, mostly because I had two highly paid Mobi staffers standing next to me. (I’m pretty sure sweat was running down their backs as I got testier and they started to imagine what would happen if a Prominent Journalist couldn’t go on a bike ride. Media disaster, which would completely negate the carefully orchestrated photo-op ride the mayor made through a special pre-perforated banner in the middle of the news conference.) Anyway, I finally went on my way.
  • A couple of people along the way called out, “Hey, is that the new bike share bike?” and one woman chatted to me at an intersection, all excited about using one.
  • Definitely going to be using when I can, though it will be strange to be doing it in my own city.

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The temperature goes up in Vancouver housing wars, with stories on data and racism

July 19th, 2016 · 19 Comments

Just when you think things can’t get any more virulent in Vancouver’s debates over real estate, they do.

As far as I can tell, the heat went up starting with the province’s decision two weeks ago to release three weeks worth of data on sales, which showed that about five per cent of Vancouver real estate is bought by foreign investors, according to data now being collected by the province.

(The data indicated some distinct hotspots in Richmond and Burnaby, where the rates were 14 per cent and almost 11 per cent respectively.)

Then Pete McMartin at the Vancouver Sun weighed in after that, making a forceful case that now it was pretty clear that racism was really underlying the conversation. His argument, if I can summarize, was that, since it’s clear that foreign-investment levels aren’t that high, what’s really going on is that Vancouverites just don’t like wealthy Chinese people of any description. Only he was a lot more vividly than that.

That, of course, sparked a huge reaction, with Justin Fung (Housing Action for Local Taxpayers) and Fenella Sung (Friends of Hong Kong) becoming the go-to spokespeople on local media making a counter-argument, that the current debates over housing do not have a race-related element and, if I’m capturing this correctly, they’re really just focused on the reality of the Chinese economy.

Then the Georgia Straight weighed in with several articles, including Travis Lupick’s two-part series on Vancouver’s history when it comes to race and real estate, here and here. That contrasted, at one point, the way stories and studies about the overwhelming influence of foreign money appear to get much more public traction that stories and studies that assign it a role as just one factor among many.

He also wrote an earlier news story quoting Vancouver human-rights activist Victor Wong, which really made people set their hair on fire, as well as accusing the Georgia Straight of now being in bed with developers.

Then Doug Todd from the Vancouver Sun added his essay arguing that the current conversations are really about policy, not race.

Throughout it all, each side made accusations that the other side is just trying to shut down any conversation. There were also suggestions that white people don’t have any authority to talk about racism (although it seemed to me that suggestion was only made about those raising issues about racism, not if they were saying there is no racism). And there were those who suggested that you had to pick your side — you could talk about racism or you could talk about affordability.

As for me — well, I’d like to see, as I’ve said elsewhere, a conversation where we can talk about what is and isn’t problematic about coverage where race is involved, without either side screaming “you’re trying to shut down the conversation.”

I know my journalism students struggle with race issues and have for years. I had a whole class once a decade ago that balked at writing a story from a school-board report that suggested Chinese ESL students were performing differently on certain tests from other ESL students. For them, the idea of referring to anything with a generalization about race was abhorrent — even if it was a rigorously conducted school study. It took a lot of talking from me to get them off that position.

I’ll have more to say about this at a later date.

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The long, hard battle to make sure housing subsidies go to the right tenants

July 19th, 2016 · 1 Comment

ICYMI, here is my story about a recent court case, where Red Door Housing Society removed the subsidy from a tenant who didn’t report income her daughter had been getting. Now they are being asked to pay $1,990 for their three-bedroom townhouse on the False Creek waterfront, instead of $650.

It’s a small glimpse behind the curtain of the struggles that housing groups go through to ensure that people aren’t taking advantage of the subsidy system. One operator told me that some audits have been initiated when staff noticed tenants driving up in BMWs.

Susan Snell at Red Door said her organization is really rigorous about verifying income and removing subsidies if necessary, in part because they have some resources to fight the battles. She said other, smaller groups sometimes just won’t challenge tenants because they feel like they don’t have the wherewithal to start a fight.

There have been a few other cases that have made it to Supreme Court over the years — a guy at Mole Hill trying to sublet his unit for market rate, among them.

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Will the housing crisis finally make someone pay attention to renter issues?

July 11th, 2016 · 25 Comments

That’s what I’m wondering, as the bizarre Vancouver and Toronto real-estate frenzies mean that more people are staying in the rental market for longer — maybe forever.

The Globe is doing a series on renter issues. I kicked it off on Saturday with a look at the general picture across the land and a little bit of history about how we got here, along with the stories from a few renters, some going through hell, and some who’ve found a way to cope.

Canada has an unusually high home-ownership rate, at 69 per cent. At this point, it’s higher than the rate in the United States. And, although I know I’m just asking for a troll attack by daring to mention this fact, Vancouver has a high ownership rate compared to other cities.

I’ve often wondered if both of those are due, in part, to the fact that renters feel so unprotected. (My guess would be another big part is the fact that real estate in Vancouver has been the go-to investment vehicle for decades, seen as something that will gain value at better than stock-market or bank-interest rates.)

Housing researchers tell me it’s impossible to sort out all the factors that go into that high ownership rate, but I can’t help but think the tenuous situation for renters plays a part. As Ingrid Cheung said in my piece, she and her partner panicked when they thought they would have to move and scrambled to make an offer on their apartment when it was put up for sale.

The problem I see, too, with this issue is that a lot of people, even in the renter world, are probably doing okay. Like with homeowners, if you got a place many years ago and you’re not in danger of being kicked out, you’re probably paying way below market because your landlord was restricted to cost-of-living rent increases.

So it’s really the newcomers and those thrown unwillingly into the market who are feeling the most pain. Are they a big enough group to get some political attention? Well, feels like these days, anything could happen. Maybe Christy Clark will have a news conference next week announcing more money and more protections for renters.

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The latest data battle: 19 days of sales stats for B.C. and what to believe

July 10th, 2016 · No Comments

The province said it would start collecting data on foreign ownership in June and, this week, Finance MInister Mike de Jong revealed the results from, I’m guessing, the first 19 days of collection.

The total of the goverment information is here, which doesn’t answer all the questions I would have had (couldn’t be there because was writing 2,000 words about the forgotten people, renters.)

The data release has, of course, spawned the usual hand-to-hand Twitter combat that has become the norm in these overheated days.

My assessment? It’s another sliver of information, at least as worth looking at as some realtor claiming that every house in West Van is going to Chinese buyers or a study of 170 sales in six months in one small area of the Lower Mainland.

Of course it’s not complete and I don’t think anyone ever claimed it was. It will be a lot more interesting when there’s a full six months, at least, or full year of data. I do wonder if there is a sales burst around Chinese New Year that would show up, since it’s something that some realtors prepare for.

But I don’t understand some of the carrying on about how inadequate it is. Even De Jong said it should not be seen as conclusive.

Did it measure all foreign capital coming in, as critics bemonaed? Of course not. We all knew it wouldn’t because the province announced what it was going to measure several months ago.

But it did tell us how much was being bought by outright foreign investors, which I found interesting.  So Richmond, where foreign investors accounted for 14 per cent of sales, is almost at the level of Australia as a whole, where foreign-investment records have indicated offshore purchasers account for 15 per cent of sales. (Though there, non-residents are only allowed to buy units in new projects, not existing homes.)

And Burnaby was at 11 per cent. That confirmed my sense that it is a preferred spot. Every time I look at one of Jens von Bergman’s helpful census maps, there is a small hot spot of recent Chinese immigrants along Kingsway — I’m guessing in the new condos. One of my Twitter conversants said s/he doubted that number, though it might be a blip, but I’m not so sure. It seems to me there’s been some concerted marketing, both by local builders and those with Chinese connections, of the new condos in Burnaby to offshore buyers.

What I’m not clear on is what happened with purchases made where the owner is listed as a numbered company or the land-title records show a lawyer’s office. When I did my story a couple of years ago on the large Woodward’s tower and a smaller building in Coal  Harbour, I found that, especially in Woodward’s, there were more numbered companies and lawyers’ offices than outright foreign addresses.

Someone on Twitter said those buyers had to indicate whether directors or the buyers behind the lawyers’ address had to indicate nationality. I would hope that happened, though I have no direct proof that it did. And, of course, you have to count on people to tell the truth. However, since there is no penalty for providing the facts, I can’t see what the hesitation would be. (Unless that becomes part of the public record and people who wanted to hide identities are now exposed.)

I agree it would be interesting to know more, although I have to wonder at the level of information some people are asking for: Information on where every dollar is coming from for the purchase, information on whether the buyer pays taxes in Canada, and more. I don’t even know how you would satisfy some of those requests. A new immigrant who buys a house wouldn’t be filing tax returns until after the purchase — will that also become part of the requirement to buy a house, that the buyer has to provide income-tax information forever after?

But then, the arguments seem typical for the way this debate keeps morphing.

Remember, way back in ancient history, I think it was maybe 18 months ago, possibly as much as two years, the main complaint was about “foreign investors.” Then it became obvious that people were calling anyone who looked Chinese a foreign investor, so the target became foreign investors and investor immigrants to Canada.

But the immigrant investor program ended in 2012 and the 1,500 or so still possibly coming from Quebec each year can’t be driving an entire Lower Mainland market that has 50,000 or 70,000 or whatever sales in a year. (If 10,000 sales in 19 days in whole province, then ..)

So the public anger turned towards any immigrant who is here but 1. is possibly sneaking money into the country from China 2. has a spouse working abroad who is a non-resident and not paying Canadian taxes. Now there’s a call for data on all that.

I’m not surprised that politicians can’t keep up with the morphing demands. Or if they choose to answer the easiest question. (First lesson in journalism when teaching interviewing: Don’t ask your subject more than one question at a time or s/he will always answer the easiest one.)

At any rate, this new info is something. A year’s worth will be better.



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