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BulaBlog guide on how to figure out who matches your values, how to vote strategically

November 14th, 2014 · 32 Comments

I’m hearing from more than one person that this election is very confusing for them, especially those who are young and/or who are not regular political junkies. They aren’t sure what the parties really stand for, whether some candidates are better than others, and whether they should vote strategically — or even how to do that.

This is my attempt to help out with a short guide that’s not written in the often coded language of most news articles. It is necessarily incomplete and inevitably informed by some of my personal preferences.

People who read this blog regularly know already that I’m a centrist moderate, with a weakness for good-hearted conservatives and pragmatic lefties. I do retain a special place for the odd fiery rabble-rouser, right or left, if I think they’re making telling points. I place value on people who have put in some time learning about their communities and city politics and shown a commitment to causes. And I prefer those who can make their case without too much hyperbole or outright lying — though that’s a tough condition in this fractious round. Finally, it matters to me what a political party or candidate actually accomplishes or proposes that can be realistically accomplished. (Sometimes I’m too cautious and I acknowledge that.)

With all that, I’m not going to recommend very many individual candidates, as others have. It’s not that kind of election.

This time, it’s a choice among parties, not candidates. All of the candidates from all of the parties are sticking to their party line. Vision votes like a bloc, and the NPA candidates are almost indistinguishable, just lining up behind their mayoral candidate without even being introduced. You’d have to go to a lot of all-candidates’ meetings to get a real sense of any differences. I haven’t had time to do that, as a one-humanperson band. And, even then, I think I’d end up differentiating more on the basis of style and rhetorical ability than anything else.

I also don’t believe in recommending political choices as though they are right for all voters. Everyone comes with different values and questions.  And this blog post is not for those who are diehard Vision only, NPA only, or COPE only voters. You guys know what you’re doing. It’s for those in the middle, who are thinking about picking a mix, who are thinking about switching from the way they voted last time, who are wondering to stay with old choices.

Finally, I won’t make judgments on mayoral candidates. You’ve read enough to decide for yourselves whether you think Gregor Robertson of Vision Vancouver is a phony ideologue or awkward but principled man with good goals; whether the NPA’s Kirk LaPointe is an ambitious blowhard or intelligent breath of fresh air; and whether COPE’s Meena Wong is a wacky radical or a passionate advocate for the working class. (I’ve heard each of those opinions in the course of this campaign.)
With that long preamble, here you go:

NPA:  This is the party likely to be supported by federal Conservatives, federal Liberals more on the conservative end of the party spectrum, and swing voters who feel that Vision Vancouver has badly let them down.

Your ballot-box question: Who is promising me something significantly different than what we have now and will be able to act on it?

If you’re sick of Vision and will take anyone who promises they’ll govern with a different, more open and accessible attitude, no matter how unspecific the rest of the program is, and you want a party that has a chance of taking control of council, this is the main party for you.

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My wish list for new Vancouver city council: Info on key issues, staff not politicians leading discussions, a more effective Green Party

November 13th, 2014 · 11 Comments

Whoever wins control of Vancouver’s council, if anyone does, here is a short list of changes I’d like to see, changes that mostly didn’t get mentioned during the campaign. I’m sure all of you have your own favourites you’d like to add. Please join in.

1. A readable yearly accounting of what is happening with the city’s valuable Property Endowment Fund. It’s worth slightly over $1 billion and the city’s credit rating is cushioned at all times by that asset.

But no one outside of the real-estate department has any idea what’s in it or how it is changing. There’s no sense of what percentage of land in the PEF is being used for existing social-housing leases and what’s available for other purpose. I’ve heard from a couple of trustworthy people that it’s being depleted to pay for Vision housing plans, but can’t make heads or tails of the scattered numbers in financial statements to understand what’s going on. And I like numbers.

There needs to be a yearly report that someone who isn’t a CPA can understand.

2. An accounting, with each rezoning that involves community-amenity contributions from developers, of what the property’s value was before the assessment, its value after a rezoning, and what the city is getting in return from the developer. This needs to be done by some agency that the public can trust and it has to be presented, again, in a readable way.The city has improved its reporting on how much in developer-cost levies it collects and where they are being spent, by project and by neighbourhood. It’s working on something similar for CACs. But every rezoning should come with a public-friendly statement about the developer’s gain and contribution, ideally posted at the site and on the city’s website.

3. An independent assessment of the value of the social housing or rental housing that developers are producing in exchange as part of their contributions. One former planner in whom I have a lot of faith says the problem is that the city is not getting the housing units at cost, but is paying market value for them. So, when a developer, in exchange for a rezoning, offers to build 50 units of social housing, those units are being valued at what it would cost to buy them. But, of course, market price always includes a hefty mark-up for developer’s profit. That means that a developer contribution of, say $100 million worth of social-housing units is really only costing that developer $65 million. If that’s true, the city should either get the units at the real cost or ask for the $100 million in cash to spend elsewhere.

4. An audit to see whether any person who has been evicted from a rental apartment being redeveloped  (where the developer under current city rules has had to promise to rent the new units at a discount to those tenants) has ever been able to afford to move back in. I see an increasing number of older fourplexes, duplexes, and smaller apartment buildings being torn down and redeveloped on Clark, Main and Fraser. I understand that former tenants are given the option to rent units in the new buildings at a 20-per-cent discount from the new market rent. But has a single renter been able to do that? If all you can afford is $850, a 20-per-cent discount on $1,200 is meaningless. If no one has been able to move back in, what’s the point? The program should either be scrapped or revised if, in fact, it’s not helping existing tenants in any way.

5. (Okay, this is not new, but dear to my heart.) Access to a wide array of city staff again, not just the beleaguered 10 people at the top. I realize there still has to be some traffic control, as there are many more journalists, bloggers, pretend bloggers who are running partisan operations, and more now besieging city hall than 20 years ago.

But surely there is some way to provide credible reporters with easier access to staff than the current system, where everyone is funnelled through four or five over-worked people in the communications department, and then they have to try to nail down a time for the 10 over-worked senior managers who are deemed safe enough to talk to media.

And I’ll let you in on a little secret. There’s a chance people won’t hate your government and see everything as political if you do that. If planners were out talking to the public about projects and seen to be leading the discussions, every rezoning decision might not turn into a political football.

Planners come across as neutral and willing to listen, if they’re allowed to do their jobs. As I’ve said before, they were the city’s best public-relations officers and communicators for many years. And it’s completely untrue, as the mayor and others have tried to claim, that they didn’t want to be bothered with reporters and all their questions because they had real work to do. Every good planner and engineer I’ve known sees talking to the media (and thereby to the public) as an essential part of their job. Planning is worth nothing if you can’t make the public see and understand what you’re trying to achieve.

5. No more “off the record technical briefings” by staff before the official news announcement. What a crock and so unnecessary at the city level.

6. Adriane Carr. This Green Party councillor will surely be elected again. She is incredibly hard-working — it was rare for me to go to a community meeting where she wasn’t present. She’s a great retail politician, able to talk in an accessible, coherent way about issues. I wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up heading the city’s future real opposition party. But she needs to stop just saying whatever she thinks will make her popular with angry resident groups, start learning how the city really works, and start exercising some real political skills.

At the moment, she’s known among staff as someone who doesn’t do her homework or read her reports. She frequently misrepresents city information or the way the city works at meetings.

(Just one example of many: She told a Strathcona crowd breathlessly earlier this year that, just as they suspected, developers were not in fact paying all of the costs of new amenities, but that the taxpayers were being stuck with much of the bill. Of course they are. When a new arts cenre or library is built, it would be unfair to make new residents pay the entire bill in the purchase price of their units. Of course all taxpayers contribute, as they get the advantage of the new amenity. And so do those new residents, over the years, with their taxes. I could go on. But you get the point.)

Carr also takes great pleasure in telling residents how she tried to get this or that done at the city, but was blocked. But she’s fighting for people in spite of the terrible obstacles, she reassures them.

Okay, here’s the deal. Learn how to get things done. That’s what politicians, even minority politicians with hostile people in control, do. Figure out smart motions to make that everyone has to agree with. I’ve seen her do it on occasion. (One was her motion to get the city to call a meeting with the parties involved in the Hollywood Theatre.) And show that you can do the difficult thing of telling a crowd that you don’t agree with everything they’re saying — even if it’s not popular. It will be good practice for if you ever have to be in charge of the difficult decisions.

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Three days to election, mayor apologizes to everyone for “overstepping” and asks COPE voters to come to Vision

November 12th, 2014 · 24 Comments

Jeez, to think this election seemed quiet a month ago. Here’s today’s small bombshell. Note appearance of former campaigners Daniel Fontaine and Neil Monckton further down in story. (Text appended below for you cheapos who are not contributing to my upkeep by subscribing to the Globe.)

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Former city planner talks for first time about how Grandview-Woodlands towers got shoved into plan

November 12th, 2014 · 8 Comments

This comment is buried far down in a post on Gord Price’s blog, Pricetags, (the one about the death of residential real estate) but of course it’s attracting a lot of interest. For those who don’t know, Scot Hein ran the urban-design department inside the city’s planning division. It was a position that had been created by former planner Larry Beasley, as a way of driving home the point that planning wasn’t just about the buildings or the traffic flow or the other mechanical parts, but about how communities used space. Scot was a big part of the planning for Olympic village. The European feel of the plaza, which has become a hive of activity, is part of his work. He left earlier this year to work at UBC, a surprise to many who knew him and how dedicated he was to the city.

November 10, 2014 4:28 pm

Here is what really happened speaking as the city’s Senior Urban Designer at the time the GW process was tabling built form.

We put together what we believed was a reasoned overall plan for GW towards increased residential and employment opportunity. We fully appreciated the development economics of the Safeway site at B+C that, given active revenue generating impacts on the pro forma, related phasing considerations, noise impacts and view opportunity up and down “the cut” and believed that two modest towers in the range of 20 to 25 storeys maximum located on the easterly half of the site could be considered to make the Safeway site developable and, more importantly, improve the challenging interface conditions (all four sides) of Safeway while pedestrianizing the Commercial Drive frontage by integrating those shallow depth properties into a larger development opportunity. We imagined a series of related, modestly scaled low and mid rise buildings in this scenerio. Otherwise, we believed that the appropriate approach to intensifying an already relatively high density community, of what must be seen as “special urban fabric”, was in transitional mid to low rise form. We absolutely did not support towers outside the focused “Safeway Precinct”. We were instructed to put this plan (in our view based on thoughtful urban design best practice) in the drawer never to see the light of day. We were then “told” by senior management to prepare a maximum tower scheme which we produced under protest as we declared we did not support such an uninformed approach for the GW neighbourhood. Our next plan yielded 20 towers which was advanced to the decision makers (I cannot confirm who saw this plan). We were then told to produce a third plan which cut the towers in half down to 10. We prepared this third plan, also under protest, which was taken out to the community. The public process imploded soon thereafter. Our work in the city’s Urban Design Studio for over 10 years was always about best practice and integrity of process. We always believed that meaningful, honourable co-design processes could yield win-win if conducted properly. We were never given this opportunity in GW.

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How did Vision Vancouver get itself into trouble? A look back

November 11th, 2014 · 4 Comments

This is a Vancouver magazine story that I wrote last year, but everything in it is relevant — 100 times more — today, when it comes to Vision’s difficulties talking to the public.

BTW, when this was published, a Vision insider passed along the message to me that it was a piece of crap, or words to that effect.

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The Bula election lawn-sign count: It’s not 2011 any more — but a surprise along Point Grey Rd

November 8th, 2014 · 4 Comments

As some of you may remember, I spent a day driving around Vancouver just before the 2011 election to do a lawn-sign count because I wanted to get some read, beyond polls and spin, of the public mood.

There have been studies indicating that lawn signs are an indication of public engagement and sentiment, so I haven’t completely gone off my rocker.

Last time, I counted 224 signs: 119 for Vision/COPE, then joined, 90 for the NPA, and 10 for “other” as I drove a big rectangle around Vancouver.

That was not too far off the final vote split (Vision, 59 per cent; NPA, 41 per cent). My route was: Rupert 1st to 63rd; along 54th/57th to Ontario; along 49th and SW Marine to Dunbar, down Dunbar to 10th, across 10th/12th to Burrard, across 16th Burrard to Main; across 12th from Main back to Rupert.

I drove exactly the same route this time and found fewer signs (only 186, compared to the previous 224) and a big difference in the split. Looks like, in my completely unscientific read, that voter turnout will be down and the race is extremely close. (For fun, I also drove every block around the closed off Point Grey bike route — see at the bottom for results)

This time:

Vision: 76

NPA: 71

Other: 37. That included 22 for Ken Denike and Sophia Woo, 7 for Vancouver First, 7 for COPE, 2 for Public Education Project, 2 for RJ Aquino/OneCity, 2 for Cedar Party and 2 for someone named Mercedes Wong.

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Gregor Robertson: Progressive, green, not a troll, fighting for his political life. What went wrong?

November 8th, 2014 · 18 Comments

My Saturday story in the Globe.

Vancouver’s mayor is a pescatarian, bike-riding advocate for all things green, pleasantly low-key and good-looking – a central-casting choice for his role.

Gregor Robertson has spent his past two terms working on issues such as reducing homelessness, lobbying for a rapid-transit subway on Broadway and building a new tech-oriented economy.

His council has committed $275-million in the past three years to create low-cost housing and brought in an incentive program that has developers building new guaranteed-rental apartments at a pace the city has not seen in decades.On paper, the 50-year-old mayor should be a shoo-in for a third term next Saturday, just as he was three years ago.

But Mr. Robertson’s candidates are warning their supporters the gap between the mayor and his closest rival, the NPA’s Kirk LaPointe, is dangerously small.


That’s even though Mr. LaPointe, who has no experience in civic activities, has offered few ideas and no plan of action on the biggest issues – housing, homelessness, transit – and has stuck mainly to saying the city needs a more open government and a new conversation with its residents.

Vision’s slim margin is also a factor of voters splitting off to other parties.

Those include the long-standing left-wing party COPE, and its mayoral candidate Meena Wong, which broke away from a coalition with Vision Vancouver; the Green Party, which is positioning itself as a middle-of-the-road balance-of-power party; OneCity, a breakaway from COPE; the Cedar Party, which achieved fame by filing lawsuits and asking for police investigations related to Vision; and the undefinable Vancouver First.

Vision’s council candidates, and the mayor himself, are routinely booed or heckled at debates and community meetings.

Polls from the past year have shown that Vancouver residents think their council has done a poor job of handling growth and development, engaging with citizens, and combatting homelessness.

Even one of Vision’s biggest backers, former NDP premier Mike Harcourt, is exasperated.

“I’m probably going to support the Vision slate, but I’ve been chewing them out for a while,” he said this week.

He still believes they deserve credit as one of the most activist, progressive governments among North American cities.

But he adds that, in their drive to change things quickly, they handled some important issues badly. And they exacerbated that with the way they talked to residents.

“Their bedside manner is terrible. They’re tone-deaf with the public.”

It’s not just that.

There are questions about whether Mr. Robertson overpromised by vowing to end street homelessness by 2015 and trying to tackle an issue as complex as housing affordability.

And there are other questions about whether he responded quickly or sensitively enough to people’s fear about changes they believe are altering their neighbourhoods. For some, foreign investment and the destruction of the city’s older houses are the threat. For others, it’s the new wave of high-rise development that has moved from downtown to areas that used to be all single-family homes and low-rise apartments.

Insights West pollster Mario Canseco says another factor is that the young generation that helped Vision sweep to power six years ago is older now. They still care about the environment and creating a less car-dominated city but worry how they’ll buy a place to live or create a decent life for themselves here.

The Vision Vancouver party created in 2005 was a civic version of a federal Liberal party, a centrist operation with a strong green overlay.

For the previous 80 years, city council battles were a fight

etween the hard right, which got business support and won, and the hard left, which got union support and lost, except for a few brief periods of coalitions.

Vision attracted donations from business, labour and the general public, raising enough to put it on an equal footing with the NPA. Both parties now raise more than $2-million apiece in the election year.

Vision’s money-raising success eventually led to profound suspicion about the impact of big money on council decisions.

Faced with all this, Mr. Robertson and his team have run a tightly scripted campaign, regularly saying the city needs an experienced council with a clear agenda to make progress on major issues.

The themes the mayor has hammered: affordable housing, especially for the younger generation; better transit; and, in a constant reminder of the green values that have been his calling card, opposition to twinning the Kinder Morgan pipeline that carries oil from Alberta and to a big increase in oil-tanker traffic.

Mr. Robertson acknowledges he and his team have rubbed some people the wrong way.

He also said he believes a quiet majority – people who do not hang out on Twitter or come to the polarized and hostile community debates – supports what he has done.

He says he’ll try harder to communicate and provide information.

But he also sounds like he is not prepared to make any fundamental change.

“I’ve been ambitious about tackling our city’s toughest challenges,” the mayor told The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau this week.

“If I err on the side of going too fast, too far, I’d rather that than be an idle mayor. I want to get things done, and that usually means not everyone is happy with the result.”

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Are there any housing solutions possible for Vancouver? NPA, Vision, Green, COPE offer very different ones

November 7th, 2014 · 21 Comments

Lots of people smarter than me think it’s almost impossible to tackle housing affordability issues in a city like Vancouver. The house prices in certain pockets are so out of whack that it’s hard to imagine that any level of income increase or city subsidy would bring them down.

But mayoral candidates, of course, can’t say that. They have to say something on the topic (well, most of them do).

And I do think there are alternatives around, as long as everyone understands that there is no way to reduce the cost of a current $2 million house to $600,000 or create a breand-new $850-a-month apartment without a very significant level of subsidy. The city can create more alternatives, in between the $300,000 one-bedroom condo and the $1-million house.

We can’t make land or construction cost less, but we can create two- and three-bedroom townhouses or apartments for those families who are willing to trade less space for the advantage of being in the city. (A trade-off that many are willing to make, if they can find the product.) Cities can give density bonuses in order to get things from developers. Or they can simply set certain requirements for developers.

I got to sit in on a meeting with the three major mayoral candidates and Adriane Carr from the Green Party the last two weeks and heard a few more details. (I also looked at COPE’s extensive plan, though not all, as some links aren’t working.)

I wrote a story on three of them (the three we’d done to that point), but they really seem to boil down to this:

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TEAM now says people who want to vote against developer-backed parties should ditch small independents, got for COPE, Green, NPAindependent Kasting, go for COPE

November 7th, 2014 · 1 Comment

TEAM, the party formed mainly by people put off by the NPA’s campaign last time, is now advising people not to go for the smaller parties and independents they had originally endorsed as the best options.

Bill McCreery has just put out this news release advising people to go for the more viable options instead. They are now recommending people vote COPE’s Meena Wong for mayor, along with two other COPE councillors; all three Green candidates; and three NPA candidates.

His explanation in the release below.



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Campaign contributor lists from big parties to come … soon

November 5th, 2014 · 5 Comments

After being grilled for a while at a recent Globe Vancouver bureau interview, NPA mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe called back after the meeting to say the party would release contributor lists after all. (Story here.)

That set off a domino effect with all the other parties.

The smaller ones have rushed to get their lists out. Greens, OneCity, and COPE produced theirs in the order listed.

Vision promised to have a list out by the end of the weekend, but then decided to delay — some party strategist must have realized at the last minute that they’d just get hammered all week and the media would have moved on by the time the NPA came out with theirs.

So now we’re waiting to see what they’ll reveal.

As regular readers of this blog know, I posted about the NPA’s fundraising dinner last May, when the NPA kindly emailed me the list of who had bought tables.

Vision declined to do the same for the fundraising dinner they held last week, so I had to do the tedious job of walking around to every one of the 110 tables.

Interestingly, there were relatively few mayor developers there. No Walls, Concord Pacific, Westbank (his company rarely shows up any time), Aquilini, etc. Instead, smaller companies like Bastion and Edgar Development (?) were there, along with some unusual entrants, like Beedie Group, Concert Properties, Bentall Kennedy. PCI (of Marine Gateway fame) did have a table, not for the first time.

But they were in the minority, with a mix of other table buyers like Brightlight Pictures (who didn’t actually shop up to the dinner), the marijuana dispensary operation MedPot (they did show up and looked really cheery), the taxi drivers, Buster’s Towing, and a mix of ethnic “friends of” tables — Latinos, Filipinos, Jewish, etc.

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