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Vancouver civic election shows that much is up for grabs in an unstable climate

May 14th, 2018 · No Comments

Catching up here after many weeks, where I’ve been slowed down by a combo of too much election news and killer colds and coughs.

But here we are, in what is surely one of the stranger municipal election cycles of the last 50 years. (Counting out Nanaimo here, whose problems seem to go far beyond mere civic politics.)

I keep telling those who ask that I have little sense of how all of this is going to evolve over the next six months and who will ultimately be the leading contenders among the mayoral candidates or parties. There’s still so much sorting out to do.

The tentative conclusions I have come to are that

  1. This could be an election where a mayoral candidate wins with less than 30 per cent of the vote (which would make it about 15 per cent or less of the total number of potential voters) given the potential vote-splitting on both right and left.
  2. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we end up with a council that has no clear party majority. While developers in town are probably sweating at that possibility, in reality it won’t be that different from the typical smaller-town city council, where there are no parties and voting alignments can shift with each issue.

In the meantime, to catch up, where are we on all fronts?

  1. Squamish hereditary chief and council member Ian Campbell announced today he is running for the Vision mayoral spot. His announcement was quite a splash, with lots of supporters and lots of emphasis on the Indigenous angle. I interviewed him yesterday and my story is here. Vision’s decision to have a mayoral nomination process is the result of a struggle inside the party over what to do in this cycle, which arises from members’ very different ideas of where Vision is at. Some think the party is near dead and that it should simply acknowledge that gracefully and co-operate with the other progressive parties. Other stalwarts believe the party is still a dominant force, with a database of voters, volunteers, and a track record of knowing how to run a campaign. That group thinks that, even if Vision can’t win this time, it needs to stay alive for the next election. To do that, it needs to have a profile and be able to do some fundraising. To do THAT, it needs a mayoral candidate. As well, to that group, it looked as though Shauna Sylvester’s campaign, which looked promising, was not showing signs of momentum. And Kennedy Stewart, the other independent that party members might have supported, only started making noises about running just as Vision types had already decided to go with their own candidate
  2. Then there’s the Non-Partisan Association, which is going through its own tumult. That’s largely because the party, which only really comes alive around election time, is dealing with four internal groups: the new members and those supporting Hector Bremner, the guy who came from nowhere to win the NPA by-election, thanks to an energetic campaign that Mark Marissen was involved in; the new members and board directors who favour Glen Chernen, Vancouver’s own populist politico who has attracted attention the last few years with his efforts to expose what he sees as corrupt deals between the city and developers; and the NPA old guard, which has largely rallied around park-board commissioner John Coupar; and another NPA group — the potential donors and big-money types like Chip Wilson and Peter Armstrong — who have clustered around Ken Sim.

As the world knows, the NPA has declined to let Hector Bremner run as a mayoral candidate, for so far unspecified reasons. My story on             this here.

3. Then we have the independent “unity” candidates for the left, which include Kennedy Stewart (story here), Shauna Sylvester (story here) and possibly Patrick Condon (story here)

4. And, finally, there are the other parties, which are having a better time of it in a way because they are focused on a certain targeted mission and they don’t have ambitions to take over city council. For the Green Party, the big question is whether Adriane Carr should run for the mayor’s job and risk losing a guaranteed council seat (my bet is that she won’t with all the new contenders in the race), while OneCity and COPE are dedicating their energy to recruiting a few, not too many so as to avoid watering down their own vote, council, school board and park board candidates who can give them a presence.

Lots more to say about all of this but I’ll save it for another time. I welcome your comments on how everyone is doing.

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Top Vancouver developer teams up with former Toronto head planner for massive national project to build rental

March 14th, 2018 · No Comments

No one will ever accuse Ian Gillespie of running short of ideas.

The latest from the man who is building both Vancouver House (high-end, sold offshore, unusual building next to Granville Bridge) and, someday, a mix of social and market housing on the Stanley/New Fountain Gastown site — he has formed a non-profit that will be dedicated to building rental, tapping in to the country’s big pension funds and getting some help from CMHC (unless what as yet).

Dave Ebner’s story, with my assist, was in the Globe today.

Obviously, there’s a lot of reaction to this, since Gillespie’s company Westbank is currently best known in the city for building very expensive projects and marketing at least some of the units through the company’s overseas offices.

Just one example of the skepticism around this here

Trudeau govt reviewing request for federal funds from Ian Gillespie and Westbank to build “affordable housing.” This is outrageous. Enough w/ this privatization model, we need real public & social housing now

I should note that some have privately messaged me that Gillespie’s pitch might not be the worst idea since, if the federal government is about to pour money into housing, those who have experience building thousands of units at a fairly rapid clip might be able to do the job more efficiently than non-profits, which are just learning the development game.
Here was one analysis of the Westbank idea:
there is some speculation they may want to vertically integrate the construction and maintenance/management of the units once built. If that’s their route, they will be hiring people on the nonprofit side to start planning their submissions. There is likely an air that there will be a long surge of government investment into housing again, and existing non-profits are already overloaded. There is room to grow in this market, and it seems likely Westbank is wanting to get in on it. I expect some of their competitors may be planning similar moves.
I do wonder whether, given that there are finite housing dollars, some will worry that the more that goes to a P3-type operation, the less will be available for the longstanding non-profits. I await comments on that.
On a side note, the reason I started looking into this is I had heard that Gillespie was creating a non-profit for housing, but I had heard that it was mainly so that he could bid on a current call in Vancouver for proposals to build rental housing that will rent for less than market rates.
I see from the paperwork here below that the society was created last October. Conspiracy theorists may note that the lawyer involved, Neil Kornfeld, is the same person acting for Beedie Living on the 105 Keefer site. However, I believe that’s just because he’s seen as a go-to real-estate lawyer, rather than any real link.



Incorporation Number: Business Number: Filed Date and Time:



Last Name, First Name Middle Name:


Delivery Address:


Last Name, First Name Middle Name:


Delivery Address:


Last Name, First Name Middle Name:


Delivery Address:


78983 1914 BC0001
October 10, 2017 04:24 PM Pacific Time

Mailing Address:


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Little-known change that would have whacked housing non-profits with big new taxes gets a negotiated tweak

March 14th, 2018 · 1 Comment

We often focus on the big drivers of housing costs. But, behind those, there are many other smaller drivers — like the way your property is assessed.

This past year, housing non-profits had their properties assessed as though, any moment, their buildings could be torn down and replaced with market-condo towers.

That could never happen, for the most part, because those housing groups have legal agreements to provide units at below-market costs.

For once, however, everyone scrambled to come up with a solution that would see their assessments reduced to reflect the fact that 1. they are not going to re-develop to luxury condos, ever and 2. they are renting for below-market rates.

A good win, as I note in my story.


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Battle over Northeast False Creek plan passes first stage, but much more to come

February 15th, 2018 · 3 Comments

There are so many issues wrapped up in the Northeast False Creek plan — which is supposed to become a neighbourhood of 10-12,000 people, with a jazzy new waterfront, a new park, 1,800 units of affordable housing in the 20-per-cent requirement for same, historic redress for the Chinese, black, and Indigenous communities — it’s hard to know where to start.

The plan was approved by the Vision councillors Tuesday, with the Green Party’s Adriane Carr voting in favour of some pieces of it, but not the overall plan, and the NPA councillors more or less opposed (though voting in favour of some of the multiple amendments that emerged Tuesday.)

One of the more contentious issues is over three tall towers proposed in the plan for the foot of Georgia, which planners say should be allowed to go into one of Vancouver’s many view cones.

There’s been a lot of noise about this, although city planners insist that this has been supported by two international panels in the city over the past years and also note that the exact same thing has been allowed at the Granville and Burrard entries to the city.

For I don’t know what reason, no one seems to have objected to that when it happened, unless I missed something?

At any rate, it has provoked a debate about the value of the view cones and whether there are alternatives to these tall towers that planners could have come up with.

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Candidates to lead left coalition in Vancouver start to emerge. First up, NDP current and former MPs

February 15th, 2018 · No Comments

It’s going to be a long campaign season (election day is Oct. 20, folks) because of the very open elections that will be happening in Vancouver and elsewhere, as numerous mayors announce they won’t run again and all but two Vision incumbents on council have bailed.

So, in the ongoing saga, here’s the latest: Two candidates of the many rumoured so far publicly confirming they’re considering running to unite the left/progressive/whatever you want to call them. While they may end up not running, the interesting sub-text to all this is the fact that clearly many on the left etc side are talking in what sound like fairly non-confrontational ways about how to co-operate.

For those trying to keep up with the rumour mill, here are the other names I’ve heard for a possible mayoral run (names here do NOT mean the person has indicated any interest or willingness)

  • Liberal MP Joyce Murray, who is one of the greener reps in the Liberal Party
  • Shauna Sylvester, a big star in the enviro community for her work on getting groups to collaborate and for her fundraising at SFU for that cause
  • Tamara Vrooman, CEO of VanCity Credit Union. Seems unlikely, given the great job she has now
  • Mira Oreck, ran for NDP and lost to Jody Wilson-Raybould in federal Van-Granville riding. Now working with NDP government, married to former Vision president. I’m told this is unlikely.
  • Raymond Louie. This councillor had always been named as a possible mayoral contender but, with the near collapse of Vision, changing fundraising rules, and the need for Vision to stand back in order to work with other parties, this might be a non-starter.


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A campaign to ensure that communities get the benefit of land-value increases that their tax dollars helped create

February 7th, 2018 · No Comments

I know some of you in my Twitter/blogverse are interested in this topic.

Lincoln Institute of Land Policy launches global campaign to promote land value capture

CAMBRIDGE, MA – The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy is launching a global campaign to promote the adoption of land value capture, a policy approach by which communities recover and reinvest the land value generated by public investment and other government action.

Whether through a public works project or a re-zoning to allow new development, government actions can cause the value of land to increase dramatically, and land value capture ensures that the public reaps the benefits. As communities grapple with deteriorating infrastructure, rapid growth, fiscal stress, and other challenges, land value capture can help pay for public goods such as infrastructure, affordable housing, and economic development.

“Land value capture is based on a simple premise — public action should generate public benefit,” said George W. “Mac” McCarthy, President and CEO of the Lincoln Institute. “Implementing land value capure has never been more important to the future of cities and towns large and small. Through research, education, and development of a robust network of practitioners, policymakers, and researchers, the Lincoln Institute will help advance the understanding and adoption of land value capture globally.”

On every continent, communities already deploy numerous forms of land value capture, the most common of which include: betterment contributions, business improvement districts, inclusionary housing and zoning, linkage or impact fees, public land leasing, special assessments, transferable development rights, and certain applications of the property tax. However, these practices face persistent barriers to more widespread adoption, including gaps in research, the lack of local capacity, and inadequate access to practical knowledge.

Going forward, the Lincoln Institute will build on its strong foundation of research, especially in Latin America, the United States, Europe, and Africa, where cities have implemented innovative land value capture policies in recent decades. Guided by global experts, the Lincoln Institute has issued a request for proposals for research and case studies that advance the understanding of how individual jurisdictions use land value capture and how national, regional, and local policies interact to enable land value capture. Other new work will focus on the legal underpinnings of land value capture, valuation methods, and how different policy and political approaches lead to different outcomes, among many other topics.

To receive regular updates about the Lincoln Institute’s global land value capture campaign and related policy developments, sign up for our campaign mailing list.

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy seeks to improve quality of life through the effective use, taxation, and stewardship of land. A nonprofit private operating foundation whose origins date to 1946, the Lincoln Institute researches and recommends creative approaches to land as a solution to economic, social, and environmental challenges. Through education, training, publications, and events, we integrate theory and practice to inform public policy decisions worldwide.

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NPA invites mayoral candidates as party sees former outsider make waves on the inside

January 30th, 2018 · 1 Comment

So what’s going on with the NPA is a topic of much interest among political observers these days. The party seems poised to win in the 2018 civic elethat ction, given Vision’s apparent wilting and uncertainty about any co-ordinated response from non-NPA parties.

However, the NPA seems to be undergoing some internal tussling, with putative mayoral candidates with wildly different opinions. My story here from the Globe highlights the extreme differences between Glen Chernen, who has formally announced he’s running for the nomination, and new NPA councillor Hector Bremner.

To top that off, the NPA has now delayed its nomination process by a couple of months at least. Speculation is high that the party is interested in making room for any unsuccessful Liberal Party leadership candidates who don’t win.

Here’s the news release from them this morning

Building the new NPA: an open call for Mayoral Candidates

Vancouver, B.C., January 30, 2018 Today, the NPA officially launches an open nomination process to seek out a mayoral candidate to lead the party into this fall’s municipal election. NPAPresident Gregory Baker says the NPA wants to provide a long runway between the announcement of the mayoral nomination contest and the nomination meeting itself in order to attract as many strong candidates as possible. The ideal candidate leads change, builds consensus, and bridges differences.

Baker says the NPA‘s mayoral nomination contest will be an opportunity for potential candidates to share their ideas. It will also provide an opportunity for the NPA to reflect and build on the important contributions the party has made in shaping the city over the past 80 years.

“We’re making every effort to improve diversity in our candidate selection by reaching out to a wider group of Vancouver residents. We want to get it right and have the best candidate represent a new, revitalized NPA,” said Baker. “The people of Vancouver deserve a leader who champions the interests of all its citizens, not just a handful of special interest groups.”

Baker says the NPA is looking to broaden its relevance given the changing political landscape: “The electorate has changed and there are new challenges to address; the NPA has to move with the times. We have a new provincial government, and with so many current members of Council not running again in 2018, we’re looking at a substantially new City Council. It’s a great opportunity for the NPA to rebuild and renew.”

Those who may be interested in exploring the NPA mayoral nomination can contact the NPA by phone at 604-637-7951, by email at, on Twitter @npavancouver, or through Facebook at Prospective mayoral candidates can request an application package by emailing

A candidate selection committee will be established to review applications and interview prospective candidates. The Committee’s recommendations will then be brought forward to the Association’s members at a nomination meeting sometime in the spring.

The process for selecting NPA candidates for City Councillor, Park Board Commissioner, and School Trustee will be announced at a later date. Those interested in these positions are encouraged to contact the NPA as noted above.

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Vision councillor Kerry Jang makes it official: He’s not running again

January 23rd, 2018 · 4 Comments

Got this note from Councillor Kerry Jang yesterday, confirming what city-hall people have been hearing for a while, which is that he won’t be running again. Not a surprise, as he has a busy second life as a psychiatry professor at UBC. Jang has been Vision’s point man on issues like shelters, marijuana dispensaries and mental health.

He’s been away from the hall recently because, as he says, his father died recently. (The Vancouver Sun obituary for Leslie Jang included a lovely picture of the young Mr. Jang.)

I am retiring from city hall after a decade of service.  I told Gregor when I ran in the last election that this was to be my last term as several talented people wanted the opportunity to run in the future.  I’m keeping that promise to them.
I meant to let people know this earlier but my Dad’s illness and subsequent passing, and my daughter’s move to Hong Kong University has kept me distracted.  My Dad’s funeral was yesterday.
This all means that the last two Vision soldiers who will be standing for the 2018 election (barring any new announcements) are Raymond Louie and Heather Deal. Sea change.

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Vancouver’s bold new housing plan calls for massive rental construction — but the people who would build it say the city makes it almost impossible. Some are giving up

December 17th, 2017 · 1 Comment

This story is an example of how following a trail of breadcrumbs on a story can lead to outcomes you never expected.

I started out planning to write something about yet another West End site selling for a crazy price — $79.5 million to newbie developer Vivagrand, with only one messy project so far on its resume in Vancouver — as the latest in what has turned into a boom in West End construction that even city planners can hardly believe. I think this is something like the 26th tower, making this take-up of new density as a result of the West End plan something no one had envisioned. It was supposed to take decades to get to the number of units projected. Instead, it’s taken a few years.

But as I was working on that story, along with some casual conversations as about the city’s plans to suppress speculation, people in the industry kept repeating the same story they had heard — that a number of developers had actually cancelled rental projects because of requirements from the city’s real-estate services department that they pay tens of millions in “community amenity contributions.” That’s something that has normally only been charged on condo projects, as part of the city’s model for development, which asks developers who are going through a rezoning to give back about 75 per cent of their “land lift” to the city to pay for the community services that will be needed as new residents move in.

My Globe story on this is here.

But, after years of Vancouver working to incentivize developers to build rentals — a form of housing that had almost stopped dead after everyone turned to condos in the 1980s — some were liking the rental thing so much that they started to plan projects that didn’t ask for city incentives. One example was the 43-storey Wall apartment tower at 1310 Richards, where the company paid almost $24-million in a CAC equivalent.

Then a demand for CACs became part of every rental project that came to the city.

At the same time, land prices were skyrocketing because condo prices were going up — especially downtown, where the Alberni/Georgia corridor seems to be transforming into some kind of luxury investor sculpture garden row of towers.

So landowners who had previously been attracted to rental now found that, not only were they being asked for millions in CACs, but the money on the other side of the equation had changed. Even after paying huge taxes on an outright sale or condo project, they’d still be further ahead than by building rental.

So they started backing out.

That’s only the beginning of the city’s problems when it comes to the ambitious plans to encourage the construction of 20,000 private-market purpose-built rentals. (i.e. permanent rental buildings, not condos that can be sold any time the investor thinks that would work out better.)

The companies with the most experience building rental, like, say, Cressey, are finding it nerve-wracking to go through the permitting process of building rental. A recent project that Cressey got approved near Olympic Village, something that the mayor touted this week as part of the city’s success in getting new kinds of lower-cost housing, almost didn’t make it.

After receiving assurances that the project wouldn’t have to pay a CAC and would qualify for a waiver of normal development-cost levies the city charges on all new construction (part of the incentive for rentals), Cressey got midway through the project and then was asked to provide its budget for the building to real-estate services — usually the opening move when real estate is going to ask for a CAC.

Cressey spent some time convincing real estate that there was no land lift. Once that was done, the company was told that it wasn’t going to qualify for the DCL waiver. Why? Because the city says that construction costs have to be under $250 a square foot for a company to qualify for Rental 100 incentives. That’s to prevent developers from building getting the waiver, then building expensive rentals that, after the first turnover, are rented out for top dollar.

But construction costs have been soaring. So the city decided Cressey likely couldn’t build for the required amount. (Presumably, that would mean no one could). Cressey then had to hire experts to testify that the company, in spite of the current rise, could still build for that amount.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, really, when it comes to rental problems. There were so many others that people ended up talking to me about.

One is the city’s plan for False Creek Flats, which many had thought would be an ideal location for rentals — close to downtown, likely to serve local populations working in the city’s booming tech businesses, easy to mix with the current industrial uses on the flats.

But the False Creek Flats plan has essentially made that a no go.

Then there is the rezoning in other areas, which limits heights no matter whether the building is rental or condos. That ends up forcing condo development on those sites, because the land prices make a rental building impossible unless extra density can be added.

David Taylor at Colliers said he had an ideal rental site for sale at 12th and Commercial, an area that is a natural gathering place for renters. But the city’s plan limits the site to six stories. He had a lot of buyers interested in building rental if they could get a couple more stories. But the answer was, Absolutely not. So the site was sold to a condo developer.

I’m sure some people will judge developers who spoke out for this story as just a bunch of privileged whiners who are unhappy they can’t make as much money as they’d like.

Whether they are or not, however, it’s doubtful whether the city is going to be able to meet its rental targets by hoping that developers will build rental as philanthropy. A few are doing it. But likely not enough to build 20,000 units in 10 years.

This whole exercise underscores a problem that I’ve been observing at the city for several years. That is: the people at the top are saying — and even trying to do — all the right things. The city’s housing plan, while not perfect, is a real effort to shape housing supply to better match the needs of people planning to live and work here.

But those goals are undercut when it gets down to the ground level — what happens when a project becomes the subject for negotiations with the real-estate services department, what happens when that project is in the hands of a mid-level planner who is trying to follow sometimes contradictory rules.

That’s why the city is going to succeed or fail, not on the basis of its much-covered policies, but on the basis of how the engine runs, or doesn’t, behind the scenes.

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Beedie goes for appeal to Board of Variance on controversial 105 Keefer project. Appeal letter included here.

December 17th, 2017 · 3 Comments

Every retired planner I talked to in the last month was convinced that the development company Beedie Living would take the city to court after the surprise decision from the development-permit board in early November to reject the proposal.

The board has never completely rejected a proposal before.

Many of us wrote that it had been 12 years since there had been a rejection, but former city-hall staffer Phil Mondor did some research and found out that, actually, that project ended up going through, using even the same application number. So, really, there has been no rejection since the DP board was formed in 1974. Some people may see that as evidence of a bad system. But people familiar with the DP board say the whole point is to wave off/discourage/get rid of bad applications long before they get to the DP board, so that by the time a project gets there, it is approvable.

Anyway, the DP board decision was a subject of much chatter by city-watchers afterwards, because the heads of planning and engineering made the case that, although the building complied technically with the basic requirements of Chinatown zoning, it didn’t meet the requirement to be sensitive to the context. Both talked about it having too much bulk — a criticism that meant that, if Beedie were going to come back with a revised project, it would almost surely have to lose some valuable square feet, likely off the expensive upper floors.

Anyway, I got a tip this week that the company was going to appeal to the Board of Variance instead. That will mean another big public showdown, for sure. The board was considering setting a date in February, but pushed it to March, anticipating that at least a couple hundred people will show up.105-Keefer-Street-Appeal-Info-PDF

I wrote a Globe story about the appeal here. The actual appeal letter from the company is here. 105-Keefer-Street-Appeal-Info-PDF



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