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Portraits of hidden parts of B.C.’s Chinese immigration history

January 4th, 2017 · No Comments

Through a young friend, I was alerted to the interesting photo project being done by Gu Xiong, a professor of art history at UBC. He has been shooting pictures of some little-known sites that were important to early Chinese immigrants to the province.

Even though I thought I knew a lot about that history, I had no idea that an island near Sidney had been designated as a leper colony for some Chinese residents in Victoria or that families stored the bones of their dead relatives here while waiting to ship them back to their home villages in China.

I was familiar with the Cumberland Chinatown because, through pure chance, we camped near Cumberland this summer and I discovered the odd memorial to the Chinatown, which is now nothing but forest after the settlement was burned down in the 1960s.

Here are some of the photos that Gu has shot, along with a bit of background from me.

After publication, I got a note from a local historian who added this information.

Cumberland’s Chinatown population is incorrect. The 3000 number is a ‘folk’ myth which I grew up hearing (I’m a descendant of Cumberland’s Chinatown). In its heyday, the 1920s, the Chinatown had perhaps 1500. Prior to Vancouver becoming the terminus of the CPR, Victoria, New Westminster, and Nanaimo had the largest Chinese populations.
Additional commentary about Cumberland is problematic. The photograph of ‘Jumbo’s cabin’ has no explanation to say that it was moved to its current location by the roadside, which is adjacent to the entrance to what was Chinatown. The false front buildings of Chinatown businesses in ‘downtown’ are replicas, so were not moved into town! As well, the statement “people made a new, independent home completely separate from the Caucasian settlement” seems to suggest that choice was involved. The Chinese lived where the mining company permitted them to, specifically, the poorest land (swampy) available.
For additional info on Cumberland’s Chinatown, go to:

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TransLink scores with $440-million sale of Oakridge bus barn

December 21st, 2016 · 3 Comments

We’d all been hearing the chatter for half a year that TransLink had sold this prime site at 41st and Oak for a significant sum, far more than it had originally anticipated five years ago.

That was seen as one more piece of good news for the agency, giving it a lot more money to put into transit improvements in the 10-year plan, helping to leverage in provincial and federal dollars.

The official announcement came late yesterday, causing many of us to scramble. Strange they put out such an important piece of news so late in the day. My story here, after having managed to get hold of a few people by deadline.

The announcement mostly confirmed what Bob Mackin and Frank O’Brien enterprisingly winkled out of someone back in mid-October for Business in Vancouver, though no mention in the TransLink announcement of the Kunyuan involvement they detailed.

This is obviously a huge windfall for TransLink. I did see people commenting on Twitter that it was another lost opportunity to provide affordable housing, with some suggestion that TransLink should have turned over all or part of the site for social housing.

I’m always interested in hearing my own arguments shot down by those more knowledgeable, but that seems so problematic to me — asking a transit agency to accept less money for desperately needed transit improvements in order to house more low-income people.

Both accessible transit and cheap housing benefit poor people. Forcing governments or their agents to choose between the two is some kind of cruel game. In a better world, one with a strong stream of tri-government support for housing and the same for transit, presumably we wouldn’t even be discussing that Sophie’s Choice.

For the record, the developer will be required to provide 20 per cent of the buildable space for affordable housing. What that means, exactly, is still to be defined. And it’s an open question who will build it.

Shaadi Faris, the vice-president of Intergulf (one of the two partners), said currently the developer isn’t required to build the units, just provide the land. However, he said it’s still possible that the city will work something out with the developers where they do in fact build it for some negotiated price, as that would be an efficient way to proceed.

BTW, for those thinking there is NO provision for affordable housing on the site, here is the city policy that was passed last December. As you’ll see, it calls for a mix of housing that provides for seniors, families, people with mental health and/or addictions problems, rental and more. I expect people will be holding feet to the fire on this.

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Gen Xers ready to move, boomers off to the country, millennials want to stay

December 20th, 2016 · 2 Comments

A company I hadn’t heard of previously, Resonance Consultancy, produced an interesting report with loads of data on B.C.’ers plans for moving in the next five years.

It was rich with data, collected from interview with 1,700 people by Insights West, which meant that there were a dozen stories in it or more. (As a result, different reporters writing about the same study came up with quite different stories — something that was a tad confusing for some readers.)

I focused on the big trends: millennials love the Lower Mainland and want to stay here; Gen Xers seem to be the unhappiest demographic and most ready to move; and a third of boomers are looking to cash out, possibly moving to a small town or the countryside.

One of the things none of us highlighted was the status quo: the majority of people in B.C. want to stay, if not in exactly the same house, at least in the same area where they are now. Breaking news, everyone.

To read it for yourself and find out who wants to move, who doesn’t, what they’re looking for in the ideal house, and more, the study is here. (It also includes interviews with former city planner Larry Beasley, SFU’s City program director Andy Yan, and more.)



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City proposal on saving character houses stirs debate on density, design, property rights

December 15th, 2016 · 3 Comments

After hearing for several years from residents on the west side about the havoc that was being wreaked as older houses there were demolished, city planners came out with proposed policies last month aimed at saving them.

They are not modest or incremental. The policies, if passed, will actually give owners who retain older houses the right to almost twice as many square feet of building on a lot as those who insist on demolishing and building new. Big carrot, big stick.

That in itself is generating some debate among homeowners and city-watchers, which I reported on in a feature story for the Globe Saturday.

But what I didn’t have room to include were some of the other strands of the debate, like whether the city should be focusing only on preserving character homes or whether it should be looking at a remake of the single-family neighbourhoods altogether.

Bryn Davidson, a laneway-house builder and older-home renovator, was unfortunately trimmed out of my story, but he made good points during our interview about how the city is unfortunately downzoning (i.e. allowing even less buildable space) for single-family homes, which perversely removes density for those who decide that all the carrots in the world aren’t going to make them try to fix up an old house.

A Dunbar resident and retired planner I spoke to, Bill Rapanos, also worried that the proposed new rules would encourage even more problems on the west side, turning single-family housing there into a luxury item only for the extremely wealthy. He would have preferred to see the city start to encourage other kinds of housing, from duplex to rowhouses, to bring life back to the west side.

Those two aren’t the only ones worrying that the city is taking the wrong tack by focusing on how to preserve certain areas for “character,” while not addressing some of the other problems. Designer Ian Robertson posted these thoughts on the subject.

I’ll be waiting to see how the world turns on this one. City consultation continues to Jan. 15.

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My advice to the development industry: Show you’re really part of the community by taking a stand on bad behaviour; share your data

December 1st, 2016 · 1 Comment

I’ve spoken on dozens of panels in my 34-year career as a journalist — panels for other journalists, for PR people, for non-profit groups, for students, for housing advocates, for business groups, for resident associations, for government employees — but none has generated quite the tizzy in a teacup as the one I was on this week.

That was partly attributable to the title: Real estate and the media: crafting the narrative. The other factor was the make-up of the panel, which was me and two people who work with the development industry on communications. And the third part was who I was speaking to: the Urban Development Institute’s under-40 group.

My usual little band of hardy critics, some of them suspiciously bot-like, took this to mean that I must have sold out completely (undoubtedly because I’m being paid off by the industry).

Many thanks to my loyal colleagues who took a stand and reminded them of what kind of journalist I actually am and always have been. Less impressed by those so quick to jump to conclusions — and express them in forums where they thought I didn’t have access.

I had agreed to talk on the panel because I thought it was about media influence and coverage of the development industry, with a mix of people on it. One journalist who was invited was out of town for the date, but didn’t express any concern about the topic, I’m told; not sure about others.

It was a bit of a surprise when I saw the title and format of the panel in the publicity that came out a couple of weeks ago. But I saw this as a great opportunity to talk to people in the industry frankly about why their reputation has taken a hit in the public. That’s what I did.

For those interested in the details, I am posting a recording I made of the session. It’s not great quality. I just made it in case someone tried to misrepresent what I had said, but it seems to be audible enough on headphones.

I also transcribed the first part of it, then ran out of time to do the rest. But I’ll post my transcript fragment, as well, for those without the patience to listen to 45 minutes of bad tape.

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City sells land that’s the subject of a lawsuit to developer promising affordable housing

November 26th, 2016 · 1 Comment

The city announced this week it was selling its land at 601 Beach Crescent to Pinnacle for $20 million, a promise of 152 units turned over to the city to be used for affordable housing, and no guarantee of any specific density in a planned rezoning. My story here.

That is sure to be watched closely by all, including Concord Pacific, which turned over some of its land for this parcel back in 1993, on the understanding that it was going to be a social-housing site. Concord is suing the city (as I reported previously) over this, saying the land was never turned over so it could be auctioned off to a private bidder.

We’ll all be waiting to see what happens next. It was hard to get a lot of information from the city or councillors on this, since this had been discussed in camera, but it sounds like Pinnacle may have the option to back out of the sale at some future point. (That was my interpretation, anyway, of somewhat guarded remarks.)

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Should journalists agree to be speakers for developer groups? Sure, as long as there are rules

November 26th, 2016 · 3 Comments

I get targeted personally by a tiny but energetic group of people in town on a regular basis, as part of the ongoing very emotional and fraught debate in Vancouver about real estate and foreign investment.

As a result, some have raised questions this week about why I’m appearing on a panel Nov. 29 with the Urban Development Institute with the improbable title “Real Estate in the Media: Crafting the Narrative.”

So here’s an explainer of how journalists on this continent generally operate when it comes to public speaking, for those unfamiliar with the customs.

Like many journalists who cover a beat, I get asked to be on panels, as a speaker or moderator, or to speak to classes or groups on a regular basis.

This fall alone, I’ve been at almost dozen events, including

  • a session with students at the Ubyssey newspaper on basic reporting strategies
  • a panel organized by BC Housing on identifying the priorities for the federal government in its new housing policy
  • a panel organized by SFU on the impact of international students on real-estate markets
  • a panel with the Dunbar Residents Association about what to do about their emptying out neighbourhood
  • a panel with Gateway Theatre in Richmond on the future of Chinatowns
  • a panel put on by the City of Vancouver on the right to adequate housing.

One more coming up Dec. 14, for anyone interested, will be on “Inclusive Cities – The New Urban Agenda: Lessons from Habitat III.”

I try to do a certain number each year, as part of the public service that journalists do. It’s goes with the territory, along with being interviewed umpteen times by students completing papers or graduate degrees, speaking to high-school and university classes, and answering emails about how journalism works from the general public.

I don’t accept payment of any kind for these talks — or from anyone or any organization that I might potentially cover. (That’s typical of most journalists.)

And, because I’m donating my time, I prefer to give it away to smaller groups with no money than bigger ones who could go out and pay someone for advice.

But I generally accept most invitations, from resident groups wanting to know how to deal with the media to the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, where I’ve talked on the same topic, to business groups to classes of planning students, as long as I don’t have to give a big, long speech by myself, which I don’t enjoy.

As for next week’s panel, well, when I was issued the invitation, this is what I was told was the general topic:

Broadly speaking, most people in our industry are not familiar with on how the media operates. People would like to learn more about:

o How and who decides what information is news worthy?
o How does the media gauge what people care about?
o How does the media source the information?
o How does the media select experts and choose who to interview?

I was also told that the panel would likely be:

Other speakers we are approaching include Bill Good, Jon McComb, Farhan Mohamed and Ian Young.

Obviously, the topic and the overall composition of the panel changed from what I expected, to my surprise. But I’ll be talking about what I was originally asked to speak on. No one has been in touch to tell me anything different.


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The empty-homes tax is done. Well, maybe … except for an exemption to come for “family use”?

November 17th, 2016 · 4 Comments

It was one confusing council meeting at one point Tuesday, as Councillor Kerry Jang made a motion to amend the empty-homes tax, basically asking staff to study new data coming in in 2017 and decide whether there should be some kind of exemption for secondary homes “frequented for family purposes.”

Your guess is as good as mine as to what this might mean. It also caused some confusion at council, which had to break briefly so that councillors and staff could huddle to talk about what that all might mean and whether it was legal and doable.

I need to ask more questions about this, because it’s not clear to me what should happen with families who think that they might qualify for this new, undefined exemption — should they hope it will be allowed and hang on to their condos? or sell or rent now, in case it isn’t allowed. (Or be prepared to take the hit.)

The NPA wanted to delay everything until that question was settled. But the Vision councillors clearly wanted to send the message to the public and media that the tax is moving forward.

In the meantime, the meeting also gave us a glimpse of some of the people who feel as though the tax is unfair to them. It was supposed to apply to people who are truly investors, truly people hedging their investments with empty property in Vancouver. Not them. People who, through good planning and diligence, have managed to end up owning both a house (or two) outside Vancouver and a house or condo inside Vancouver. My story here has some of their comments.

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Is Vancouver becoming a city where people are ready to ditch the single-family home?

November 15th, 2016 · 10 Comments

That’s the argument that University of B.C. prof Nathanael Lauster is making in his just-published book, The Death and Life of the Single Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City.

Lauster (who walks the walk, living in a townhouse in Kits with his wife and two children) interviewed a few dozen Vancouverites about where they live and how they feel about it. His conclusion was that a significant number are adapting to a new kind of lifestyle here, one where they don’t live in a house with a yard but have instead traded that off for smaller space closer to urban amenities.

My interview with him and summary of the book is here. I’m sure many of you will agree with some parts, have some questions about others, as I did.

One of the things I noticed as I read his book was that house was deemed to be automatically equivalent to more space but far from urban activities, a form of housing that cut people off from their communities. Apartments, on the other hand, seemed to be equated to an automatic connection to more parks, shops, other people, and activities.

Yet there are plenty of apartments in the region that are parked in isolation near busy roads and without much around. And there are houses in neighbourhoods that are lively and filled with people walking around, meeting each other and connecting.

It seems to me that it’s more a failure of city planning than something to do with the actual structure of a building that defines whether single-family houses and apartments are isolated or connected, contributors to an integrated community or not.

But I appreciate Lauster’s approach, because the reality is that Vancouver is changing into a region that is different from other cities. Whenever census numbers come out that show more people are living in the suburbs than ever, certain public commentators leap on that with glee, thinking it proves that people really do prefer houses with yards and not urban living.

But the fact is that there are vastly more apartments, townhouses and rowhouses being built in the region than single-family houses, even in the remotest suburbs. The building starts for the region from January to October this year show 3,909 single-family starts and 13,415 “multiples.”

His emphasis in his research is understanding what we mean by home and how having a home structures our lives. From all the evidence, Vancouverites increasingly define home as not necessarily the house with yard.

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Airbnb continues efforts to play nice with Vancouver, removes some commercial listings

November 15th, 2016 · No Comments

I’m told city council won’t decide until January sometime what to do about regulating short-term rentals.

But, in the meantime, Airbnb is doing everything it can to sell itself to council and the general public. The numerous ads are still running (“It helps me pay the bills in this expensive city” “I would never have visited Vancouver if it weren’t for Airbnb.”) and the reports on the benefits just keep on coming. I’ve written about two of them already, the one about economic spin-offs for the city and the one about how much, rather how little, local residents are making from Airbnb.

The latest salvo was Airbnb’s voluntary move to take 130 listings off its site of hosts who appeared to be running commercial businesses.

This seems to be a strategy the company has used in cities where it is fighting to stay in the market, like New York and San Francisco — cities that are popular for Airbnb.

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