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Surrey looks at how to come up with $30-40 million a year for its light rail while other cities flail post-plebsicite

July 7th, 2015 · No Comments

And now, amid the rubble post-vote, mayors are trying to figure out what next.

In Surrey, Linda Hepner says at least half of the light-rail project is going to be built by 2018. That’s a tall order.

Everyone keeps blathering about private-public partnerships, but those private partners do not donate money. So Surrey would need to make yearly payments back to the private partner for its one-third of the cost. (If $2.2-billion, Surrey is on the hook for a little over $700 million. That works out to $60 million a year. If they only build phase one, then maybe $30 million a year.) And then, since the line would not get enough riders at first, until density is built up, it would need a yearly operating subsidy.

One suggestion she made in talking to me: gas-tax money. Also a slice of the profits from developer rezonings along the lines, which Vancouver is also looking at.

But at least Surrey and Vancouver have some options. Elsewhere, it’s just kind of sad.

My story on same, in the Globe today.

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What do the transit plebiscite results actually mean?

July 6th, 2015 · 80 Comments

Oh dear. I come back from Paris, a transit paradise, to this: 62-38 vote against funding new transit through the sales tax.

I have to say, I was surprised by the results. Not that it was No, but that the numbers were so far apart — that means that in months of campaigning, with bus ads and telephone townhalls and you name it, the Yes side was not able to move the dial at all.

And now, the problem is, how to interpret the results. So many possible explanations: just the hate-on for TransLink, antipathy to sales tax, resentment over the way the Vancouver and Surrey mayors grabbed the leadership of the mayors’ council, resentment over the provincial-style, robocalling campaign that the Yes side’s Vision-dominated team ran, not the years needed to really run an effective campaign, a bad plan, people voting No because they thought the plebiscite was a terrible idea, dislike of the plan for a subway for Broadway, dislike of the plan for light rail for Surrey, anger because “transit sucks in my suburb now so why should I pay more.”

Makes it very easy for everyone to draw the conclusion they like.

And now what? I fear that what will happen is a focus by particular politicians and groups on getting the two big mega-projects going — Vancouver and Surrey — which could potentially be paid for, at least in part, through development around the lines. But the rest of the region, which needs buses and upgrades, will get nothing.




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Your forum: What is right and wrong with Vancouver?

June 9th, 2015 · 48 Comments

As my alert Twitter readers (aka William Lee) have noted, I am in France, observing contemporary urban culture.

Here, as in Vancouver, I hear some same themes and drumbeats: the magazine cover in the Midi Libre I bought two days ago was focused on urging people to buy real estate now, while prices are low, with lots of advice on how to qualify. (Apparently you have to show months worth of bank statements here to prove you aren’t throwing your money away on lattes and designer shoes.)

There’s plenty of angst over les immigrants. The mayor of the nearby town, Beziers, has taken to issuing edicts — no laundry hanging out the windows, no youth on the streets after 10 p.m. — that are largely seen as unsubtle anti-immigrant measures.

Bike shares continue to flourish, apparently subsidized heavily by cities. Toulouse’s was fantastic, with plentiful docks in the central city and a rate of only 1.20 euros a day.

The radio programs are filled with concern about growing poverty, youth unemployment and all of the problems of the people at the bottom who seem to be slipping further behind all the time, while the prosperous class tries to decide whether to buy second homes. But at least in France, every town is required to build social housing. And, in the south where I am, they’re also required to provide a place for itinerant farm workers to park their campers and tents.

And I see from the driving we’ve done so far that big boxes, strip malls, awful suburban tract housing, and hideous block towers continue to flourish.

So, as I always do when away, I’m turning the blog over to you to discuss what you want. Any comments that seem to prompt a whole new line of discussion, I’ll take and put up as separate blog posts. So … enjoy.



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How Vancouver is different from Toronto: denser, less development on rural edges, less population loss in centre

June 2nd, 2015 · 25 Comments

I’ve been intrigued with the Neptis Foundation, a privately funded group in Toronto, ever since one of their reports wound its way onto a Metro Vancouver agenda about five years ago.

This group has looked carefully at how cities add new residents, using aerial surveys and other tools to examine exactly how much land is used to accommodate each new 1,000 in population.

I’ve used their report when I teach housing policy courses to show students how planning really does matter, in a big way.

Their latest report came out recently, this time comparing only Toronto and Vancouver.

Once again, it showed that Vancouver has absorbed population largely by adding people into existing urban areas, whereas almost 90 per cent of new development in Toronto happens in greenfields on the edges of the metropolitan boundary.

When people here talk about the un-greenness of tearing down houses and replacing them with concrete, I think they sometimes forget that every house here that is replaced with something even a little bit denser — a duplex, a set of rowhouses, a small apartment building — makes a difference somewhere out in the valley.

(That doesn’t, of course, have anything to do with the appalling practice happening from here to Coquitlam, of tearing down smaller houses to build gigantic single-family palaces)

What makes the difference here? According to the report, three things

1. Partly our strong policy on saving agricultural land

2. Partly our regional plan that doesn’t just say densify, but that targets densification to defined urban centres near transit

3. A regional government that can exert some pressure to keep all 21 municipalities sticking to the plan. No, it doesn’t have a lot of powers, but just the power of having everyone in the same room and agreeing to agree seems to exert some influence, say the Neptis people.





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Possibility of development over the rail tracks downtown arises, while ex-planners group fights for public space there

May 21st, 2015 · 36 Comments

The tussle over the waterfront hub continues. That is the piece of land that sits between the old train station and The Landing, which Cadillac Fairview wants to develop an office tower on. It’s also meant to be the gateway to a new piece of the downtown that the city has envisioned creating by extending Granville Street (yes, means blowing up the parkade) and the downtown edge to north of the train station.

As you’ll recall, there was a lot of debate over the design and size of the origami tower that Cadillac’s architects proposed late last year.

The re-design for that is apparently coming back in June, according to general manager of planning Brian Jackson. But those who aren’t happy about the way the city is approaching the whole area have decided to take the matter into their own hands. This group, many of them ex-senior city planners, have written their own report (see below) about what needs to be re-considered in this area, complete with references to all existing policies on density, road creation and the rest.

At the same time, Greg Kerfoot, who owns the rights to all the airspace over the tracks from Granville Square to Main Street, has perked up and taken an interest in this area again because of the debate over the tower. If he and Cadillac could work together, people are saying, there’s a possibility the Cadillac tower, which is squished up against the train station at the moment, could be repositioned to a better spot, more public space for looking out over the harbour could be created, and maybe Kerfoot would be inspired to start developing on his air parcel. (My recent story on all of the above is here.)

This will be an interesting saga.

The report from the ex-planners’ group

Waterfront Issues Draft Paper May 20 2015-2


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Two top TransLink planners axed

May 8th, 2015 · 137 Comments

News seeping out this afternoon that TransLink called staff to a meeting to say that two top TransLink planners were gone.

Both were very experienced people at the top of the heap and doing the actual planning. One, Brian Mills, was director of systems planning and research. The other, Tamim Raad, director of strategic planning and policy.

Charlie Smith at the Georgia Straight has an actual news story on this.

Like him, I heard that one speculation was that Raad had never been a fan of a Broadway subway and that, since the people in the Vancouver mayor’s office agitated to get Ian Jarvis removed, maybe they were behind this too since they are so pro-subway.

I’m not sure I think that’s plausible. Vancouver already got a deal with the rest of the mayors to have a subway. If by some miracle those mayors manage to eke out a Yes vote in this plebiscite, would staff really be willing or able to change the parameters of something the public had voted on?

And if the vote fails, it will all be moot for a very long time whether Vancouver gets anything except more 99B buses.

One detail that will make the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation rub its hands with glee (now there’s a visual for you): remaining staff have been told that new people will be hired for those $180,000-a-year jobs, meaning that TransLink will likely be paying both hefty severance and a new set of hefty salaries.

Intrigue, intrigue.

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Australia has limits and reporting requirements for foreign ownership of homes. We asked: Is it working?

May 8th, 2015 · 124 Comments

So a little dust storm of media reporting this week, once again, on the foreign ownership issue after UBC geography professor David Ley spoke at a conference last weekend put on by Simon Fraser University’s Urban Studies department.

Ley, who has done extensive research on the impact of Canada’s immigrant-investor program and published a book called Millionaire Migrants, is now doing research in five cities with housing bubbles to look at what, if anything, they are doing to try to get them under control.

His point, at the HOUSE seminar, was that others are moving to try to cool down their markets, while Vancouver — largely through inaction by the province and feds — is being left to fend for itself. The four other cities he is looking at are Sydney, Australia, London, Hong Kong and Singapore

Kerry Gold has a story coming out in the Globe’s Real Estate section tomorrow that details more of what he had to say, so you should read that.

I spent the week calling people in Australia, which seemed like the most comparable place of Ley’s four to me.

Hong Kong and Singapore are city-states with much more ability to move quickly and unilaterally than a triple-level-governed city like Vancouver. And London, as experts have told me in the past, is on a different scale and with a different set of circumstances.

Vancouver and Sydney seemed the most alike to me — cities that are far from global power centres, but where house prices have skyrocketed and where there is a lot of attention focused on foreign investors and/or Asian immigrants buying up houses. (There, as here, people don’t always do a good job of distinguishing between the two.)

Economist Philip Soos seemed to have the most comprehensive research of anyone I’ve talked to there (or here). He’s just co-authored an 810-book on the history of Australia’s housing bubbles, with lots of data looking at housing bubbles around the world. He’s also done the investigation into empty houses in Melbourne (which is being hit by the same housing spirals as Sydney), using water data.

His take on the whole situation is in my Globe story here. To sum up: He says the biggest problem is not Asian offshore investment, which is no greater than what American and British offshore investment used to be. but government policies that encourage average middle-class people to take on debt and speculate in real estate. My story is here.

He was also pretty categorical in saying that there is no evidence that foreign investment, at the levels they are currently, is enough to affect housing prices for a whole region. As he said: “No economist can determine what effect foreign investment has on housing prices. You just can’t sort it out from the domestic investment.”

I doubt Soos’s research will end this debate. But he’s an interesting addition to what is a tough conversation, happening in many places around the world.  And he’s no defender of the real-estate industry in all this, as some local spokespeople are. He says the real-estate, finance, and insurance industries promote a system that encourages domestic real-estate speculation because they’re making a killing from it.

“They leave just enough for the people in the middle to feel like they’re gaining something,” he says, “but really the people at the top gain the most.”

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Towers on top of Vancouver’s two historic post offices? Maybe

May 8th, 2015 · 1 Comment

As downtown office development continues to attract various people, in spite of a building boom that is sure to drive up vacancy rates, two big owners have approached the city about getting extra density for their sites.

The sites? Sinclair Centre, home of the 1910 post office in one of its corners, and the 1958 modernist central post office on Georgia.

Apparently the idea with the Sinclair Centre would be to put a new tower in the middle of the four designated heritage buildings on that block, where the atrium is now. For the Georgia Street building, some kind of tower on the back end built on top of the existing building.

Story here.


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Vancouver single-family homeowners cash in — sometimes — when city plans change

May 4th, 2015 · 7 Comments

Got to tackle the land-assembly craze that people have been noticing around the city lately, as signs have sprouted all all over the place with whole blocks for sale.

As any number of land-assembly specialists told me, this is all about people stampeding to redevelop when a community plan changes to allow for more density.

Or in Surrey, I was told (didn’t get to include this in my Globe story attached here), it happens when a new piece of infrastructure goes in, i.e. a pumping station, that makes intense development possible.

This kind of land assembly was happening in parts of the downtown the last two decades — we just didn’t notice it because it was older commercial buildings and/or vacant lots.

But with the signs all through Vancouver’s central neighbourhoods — Main, Cambie, Oak, 25th, 41st, 49th — it hits us in the face that the city is changing.

My online Globe story has a bit more in it than the print version, because I went and dug out the numbers on two different projects on Cambie — what the residents got, what the city got, what the developer got. Enjoy.


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Vancouver looks to Washington, Colorado as it becomes first to regulate marijuana stores

April 22nd, 2015 · 6 Comments

Gotta say, I still don’t understand what just happened.

There were increasing complaints from the public every month since federal law on medical marijuana changed last April and marijuana dispensaries suddenly bloomed like a thousand flowers in Vancouver. City types kept saying there was nothing they could do because the federal law had created a gray area.

But today, it appears there is something they can do. To wit: charge dispensaries $30,000 for a permit, make them get a business licence and a development permit, tell them they can’t be within 300 metres of a school, community centre, neighbourhood house or other marijuana business, forbid them from selling edible marijuana stuff, and more.

The city report is here. Next week, council will vote on whether to send it to a public hearing. No speakers allowed at that decision point, folks, but you can all line up for the public hearing, which I suspect will be scheduled faster than a Wall Development rezoning.

In the meantime, great fun to be had getting the kinds of quotes one can only get in Vancouver about this kind of thing. My favourite, to date, from Kerry Jang in my Globe story: “We have more of these shops than Tim Hortons.” I haven’t had a chance to check other people’s stuff yet, but I bet it’s rich.

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