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Community pools in Paris, Madrid, Lyon, San Francisco — a great way to get away from tourists

March 17th, 2017 · No Comments

I love community pools, as I think many of you know. I mourn the loss of the Mount Pleasant pool near me and I’m an ardent fan of New Brighton. The NPA campaign promise that got me the most excited was the one to build three new outdoor pools.

As a result of all that, when I travel, I’m a sucker for any hotel, agriturismo, resort, or Airbnb listing with a pool involved.

But what I love the most is not those private pools (though I do have a particular fondness for the one on the rooftop of the hotel I stayed at in Montevideo). It’s the local city pools wherever I go.

Here’s my Globe travel story on same.

I didn’t get to mention a few other anomalies I’ve discovered as I’ve swum my way through various cities

  • We in Vancouver don’t realize how lucky we are in how many pools we have and how much they are open. In Minneapolis, I could not find a community pool in the middle of summer. The Y was closed, the city pool was open only to members. I guess that’s a function of the fact that they have multiple lakes in the city that are open for swimming, which is where I ended up going, but still. Not a single pool in a building for visitors? In Seattle, many of the pools are closed on Sundays — can you imagine anyone going for that here? And in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the lovely local pool in a gorgeous old building was only available to members who paid a hefty sum per year — more than was worthwhile even for a week of swims there.
  • Pools show you the hidden side and the changes going on in a city. In Portland, the pool on the far east side of the city took me through areas where there was very little sign of the Portlandia hipsters who have become the caricatured symbol of the place At the pool in the Mississippi district, an area that has been undergoing a transformation from predominantly black area to hispter haven, it was obvious in the aquafit class, where there was a  mix of both demographics in the pool.

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BC Hydro backs away from its rushed offer to build substations under Vancouver parks

March 17th, 2017 · 1 Comment

This was a strange one that no one could understand the timing of.

BC Hydro, in the last week of January, suddenly announced it wanted to build new electrical substations under a couple of downtown Vancouver parks — but it needed an agreement from parks, school board, and the city by March 31.

CEO Jessica McDonald said that it was because Hydro would have its unused capital money taken away by the provincial government at the end of the year if it wasn’t spent. It just didn’t make any sense.

The only explanation I’ve heard that does make any sense was that they wanted the deal in time for the election — something that could be shown off during the campaign as an innovative way the province was working to save money and build schools. (Hydro had offered to build two new schools downtown as part of the offer.)

Anyway, after some rushed public hearings and a quick online survey, it was raring to go. But the city, which had been pretty enthusiastic about the idea, calling it innovative and potentially rewarding for citizens, said it just couldn’t meet that deadline and wanted more time.

Council members voted in camera on that. There was also some initial skirmishing over the price. Hydro claimed Vancouver wanted the same value as buying the surface land, so then there would be no savings and no money available for building schools and refurbishing pars.

City manager Sadhu Johnston said there had been nothing beyond an opening offer and response, which, as anyone dealing with land knows, was not necessarily where they would end up.

So Hydro announced last week it was ceasing negotiations and rescinding the offer.

But I’m wondering if it might not come back next year.

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Vancouver eliminates the idea of ‘downzoning’ single-family house size as a strategy for prevention demolition

March 17th, 2017 · No Comments

This was a surprise move by the city’s new director of planning.

Gil Kelley, who was supposed to be just giving an update on feedback to the city’s proposals for ways to protect “character houses,” also announced last week that it was removing one city tool from the package — the proposal to drastically limit the size a new house could be if the owner had torn down a pre-1940s house on the lot.

My Globe story on same is here. My colleague Kerry Gold did another one that has more details on people who think that was a bad move. The issue also came up at the Urbanarium debate last week, where there was a really interesting back and forth about the merits and challenges of saving character homes.

Michael Kluckner, arguing for the pro side, made what I thought was a really valid proposal — that, if the city wants more density, it should stop just stringing it along arterials or allowing gentle density throughout the whole area. Instead, it should create more Kerrisdale-like villages that allow people to form more of a sense of community, which won’t happen among apartment dwellers lined up on busy streets.

He had a post on Gordon Price’s blog re this.

Javier Campos from Heritage Vancouver, on the other hand, raised some eyebrows with his statements that the emphasis on preserving homes only pre-1940 was a sign of Vancouver “anglo-colonial bias” when it comes to housing.

The video of the debate is here.

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A good idea or an unworkable one? Vancouver looks at adding density in apt zones by adding one or two floors

March 17th, 2017 · No Comments

Vancouver planners are looking at a raft of ideas to increase housing in the city.

One that didn’t get as much attention as the mayor’s statement that the city was going to look at more ways to do gentle density in single-family zones was his reference, in the same speech, to new strategies for densifying apartment zones.

My Globe story on this here.

For those who’ve forgotten, there has been a moratorium since 2004 on demolishing or re-developing most of the city’s stock of those old three- and four-storey apartments that were built in the 1960s and ’70s.

It’s seen as a hugely valuable resource and, after a small wave of demolitions in the early 2000s, the NPA council of the time freaked and imposed the moratorium.

The only way a developer can take something down now is by building an equivalent number of rental suites in a new development and offering to rent them to existing tenants at discount on whatever the new rents are. I suspect hardly anyone is taking up that offer, but the city has never done a study to see what the outcome has been.

In the meantime, apartment brokers have been lobbying heavily to get the city to lift the moratorium, saying it is stifling the creation of new rental in the city.

Okay, that background aside, now they’re looking at possibly allowing owners to add one or two floors to existing older apartment buildings. A half dozen owners have done this in the West End, where additional density is already allowed. A change would mean tweaking the zoning in the many other apartment zones in the city to allow it.

At least a couple of apartment owners I talked to, though, thought the idea was unworkable. Adding that much weight to an old 1960s foundation and doing the electrical, elevator and stairwell upgrades would far outstrip the advantages of getting rents from two more floors of apartments, they said.

So … more to come on this issue.

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You thought illegal suites didn’t exist in Vancouver? You are so wrong

March 17th, 2017 · No Comments

When I was first heard about Adriane Carr’s motion to have staff looking at why the city is still shutting down illegal suites, I thought she was surely wrong.

After all, when COPE and Larry Campbell swept to power in 2002, one of their first major actions was to declare that all secondary suites were allowed. (It didn’t mean that all of them had official permits, which require them to meet certain building-code conditions, but they were at least not illegal, no mater what.)

But it turns out there are a whole bunch of, not secondary suites, but tertiary and quadernary (is that a word?) suites in the city that no one envisioned dealing with back in 2003.

I didn’t have the information in time for my Globe story that detailed one particular case and some others talking about the issue, but there are apparently 7,000 of these kinds of suites in the city, according to the always helpful Jens von Bergmann.

Carr’s motion to have staff look at ways to legalize these passed, so we’ll see what happens next.

 

 

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What’s your fantasy new transit project for the NEXT 10-year plan?

March 6th, 2017 · 6 Comments

Okay, we haven’t even started on the major projects for this 10-year plan (Broadway subway, Surrey LRT, new Pattullo Bridge).

But that doesn’t mean people aren’t thinking about the 10 years after that already. I was at a transportation conference at the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade last Friday where, as moderator, I got to ask all the transit/transportation nerd questions I wanted. Plus some from my Twitter followers.

Something that came up more than once in the back and forth was: What’s next? (Prompted considerably by discussion this past week of a possible new transit crossing to the North Shore, raised by NV City Mayor Darrell Mussatto.) CEO Kevin Desmond said they’re starting to plan for the inevitable next wave already, so it’s not too soon for YOU to start thinking.

I put that question out to Twitter followers afterward — what do you want to see next? It was fun to see the responses. Here are some of them.

 

 

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Vancouver mayor sets a decisive new tone in housing and transit talks

March 6th, 2017 · 4 Comments

There have been times in the last year when I’ve wondered whether Mayor Gregor Robertson is just phoning it in. He seemed absent, even when he was here, and disengaged.

But that person was not in evidence last week. The mayor, in one of the strongest speeches I’ve heard from him in a long time, talked about setting a new direction in housing and even being willing to take on the single-family-zone NIMBYs in order to create new housing. That was Tuesday. (My story here.)

Friday, he was a speaker at a transportation conference organized by the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, where he spoke without notes, energetically making the case for various kinds of new transit and new funding. When, as moderator, I asked the question from the audience about extending the rapid-transit line to UBC, his short, simple answer was: “We should just go for it.”

I had been wondering whether he really planned to run again for mayor in 2018. I had my doubts. After last week, I’m tilting more to think he will make another run.

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Province flirts with pushing/pulling municipalities to increase density around transit, speed up permit times

March 6th, 2017 · No Comments

What is the province’s message to cities these days? Hard to tell, as we seem to be getting multiple messages.

There’s a lot of chatter in the background about how the province wants cities to boost their density around transit and help speed up supply by reducing the time to get permit.

But on the record, different ministers are saying different things.

I had an interview last weekend with Housing Minister Rich Coleman and TransLink Minister Peter Fassbender. They delivered a soft message, saying they’re not going to force municipalities to do anything, but will have “conversations” to encourage more density around transit and more “conversations” to talk about extracting money from developers because of the increase in their land values around transit, as a way of paying for said transit.

Then Rob Shaw at the Vancouver Sun had Finance Minister Mike de Jong with a somewhat harder line in this week’s paper, talking about carrots and sticks to force cities into zoning in more density around transit and, specifically, speeding up their permit times.

Sure sounds like developers have the ear of cabinet ministers whenever I hear that last line. Indeed, it’s true that some cities can be glacially slow about approving even routine developments — not even those that are generating resident backlash.

But the way the province keeps bringing up the “100,000 projects waiting for permits” in the region is an over-reach — some of those are only inquiries, for one. Others are perhaps rightly being held up because the project is crap.

I’ll be waiting to see how this one plays out and whether anything really happens, or whether this is all just noise to make it look like someone is doing something.

 

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One way to protect Vancouver from land speculation: community land trusts

February 16th, 2017 · No Comments

I used to hear the term “community land trust” about once a year. Now, I seem to hear about it almost every month.

Cities like New York and London are looking to community land trusts as a way to deal with the general real-estate insanity that appears to be prevailing in key cities around the world.

What are community land trusts? To use a definition scalped from one of the above articles:

A community land trust (CLT) is a model of non-profit land ownership in which a board of community stakeholders governs the use of land, while regulations ensure the permanent affordability of the rental or home-owner housing on that land.

Now a growing group of people in Vancouver are hopeful that this could become a more widely used model here.

As I note in my Globe story (which will appear in the Saturday print edition), the idea got a big boost here when the City of Vancouver turned over four valuable pieces of property worth $25 million to a group of non-profits and co-op housing to create a community land trust.

The group has started construction on the 358 units that will eventually exist, and which will function through a system of cross-subsidization. (The people who get the lovely condos fronting the river will pay max dollars, and their rent will help reduce the rent of someone in an apartment further away.) Warning: this system can’t bring rents down to a fully subsidized level. That would take provincial and federal help.

But it’s certainly an improvement from the unfettered market.

 

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Vancouver’s unclear rules on lobbying raise questions as ex-chief of staff looks for work

February 16th, 2017 · 3 Comments

Gregor Robertson’s former chief of staff, Mike Magee, has told any number of councillors that he has no plans to do any lobbying work for developers or others as he strikes out in his new post-city hall career.

But he is visiting with people in the development community and, not surprisingly, observers are unclear about what kind of work he might be looking for and whether it involves lobbying on any level. My story here on what’s going on and what people are thinking of it.

It’s all a bit mucky because there are no rules to prevent anyone, councillor or staffer or ex-mayor, from lobbying people at city hall the day after they quit their municipal jobs.

Former deputy city manager Brent MacGregor also went straight to work as a development consultant for Concord Pacific after he quit in 2007.

Former COPE councilllor and mayoral candidate Jim Green turned to development consulting and lobbying at city hall after he lost his bid for the mayor’s seat to Sam Sullivan in 2005. There wasn’t too much complaining about it at the time, I think likely because he was in the awkward position of lobbying his political opponents.

 

Theoretically, these insiders have something valuable to offer — their knowledge of how the system works and how the personalities are — without having to do any lobbying. (Though some I talk to say that it’s really the lobbying that any developer would hire them for because the sophisticated developers in this town already know very well how the system works and who the personalities are.)

There’s also the tricky question of their relationships with staff who remain. It’s awkward for them when a former councillor or staffer calls, because they know that person and maybe even are friendly with him/her, but they’re put into the awkward position of potentially being asked for information or being lobbied in a way that’s not available to the general public.

I understand from city manager Sadhu Johnston that he did advise senior managers at city hall that they had no obligations to take any calls from a former chief of staff, in case there was any confusion about that.

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