Frances Bula header image 1

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.



→ 48 CommentsTags: Uncategorized

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.





→ 25 CommentsTags: Uncategorized

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


→ 36 CommentsTags: Uncategorized

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.

→ 137 CommentsTags: Uncategorized

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.”

→ 124 CommentsTags: Uncategorized

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.


→ 1 CommentTags: Uncategorized

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.


→ 7 CommentsTags: Uncategorized

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.

→ 6 CommentsTags: Uncategorized

Judge: It’s completely acceptable for politicians to promise to do things in exchange for campaign donations or votes

April 21st, 2015 · 42 Comments

On the off chance that this savvy crowd missed this on Friday: Supreme Court Justice Elliott Myers dismissed the petition from Randy Helten and others to have the mayor and councillor Geoff Meggs removed from office for conflict of interest or accepting gifts (those were the two provisions of the Vancouver Charter the case relied on). Immediately, the mayor made nasty remarks about the group of residents who filed this and they made nasty remarks back.

My story here and the judgment here. I notice my resident legal expert IanS weighed in elsewhere, saying he doesn’t expect the decision on costs to be a big deal.

→ 42 CommentsTags: Uncategorized

New police chief is current deputy chief, Adam Palmer

April 16th, 2015 · 4 Comments

This just out

Vancouver – The Vancouver Police Board announced today that they had chosen a new chief constable to lead the Vancouver Police Department. He is 28-year veteran VPD Deputy Chief Adam Palmer.

“The Police Board was very pleased that we had two outstanding internal candidates as finalists. Just before the final interviews were conducted, Deputy Chief Constable Doug LePard decided to withdraw and support the selection of his colleague Adam Palmer. Following the final interview completed today, the Police Board decided unanimously that Adam was the right person to lead the VPD,” said the Chair of the Vancouver Police Board Mayor Gregor Robertson.

“We are confident that Chief Constable Adam Palmer will continue the progress of his predecessor Chief Constable Jim Chu, striving to make Vancouver the safest major city in Canada and further enhancing the reputation of the VPD as an excellent police service.”

Retiring Chief Constable Jim Chu says he is looking forward to a smooth transition.

“I am very pleased that we were able to choose a new chief internally and grateful to the eight members of the police board for their careful deliberations. I will work with the new chief with the goal of making the transition as smooth and soon as possible. I would like to thank Deputy Chief Doug LePard for making a difficult personal decision to withdraw and I know he was putting the interests of the VPD first.”

A date for a formal change of command ceremony will be announced shortly.

Deputy Chief Adam Palmer was born and raised in the Vancouver area. Prior to joining the VPD, he studied business administration at Simon Fraser University and worked as a correctional officer. Deputy Palmer began his career with the VPD in 1987 and since that time has worked in a variety of operational, investigative and administrative areas.

He spent the first 13 years of his career working as a patrol officer in East Vancouver. He has also worked in the Jail, the Crowd Control Unit, the Gang Crime Unit, the Organized Crime Agency of British Columbia, Police/Crown Liaison and the Planning, Research and Audit Section.

As a sergeant, he was extensively involved in the development of the VPD’s Strategic Plan and managed a long-term review of policing operations at the VPD. The Operational Review project examined topical policing issues including the use of overtime, the civilianization of sworn positions, shared services with the City of Vancouver, and the deployment of patrol, investigative and administrative police resources. The Operational Review resulted in improved departmental business practices and the addition of 194 police officers and 95 civilian staff positions between 2005 and 2007. This research has attracted interest from across North America and abroad. Deputy Palmer has been invited to speak to other police agencies and international police conferences on the methodology and findings of this project.

As an inspector, he was the officer in charge of Patrol District 2 which includes the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown, Gastown, Strathcona, Grandview-Woodlands and Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhoods. He was also responsible for port and marine policing for the City of Vancouver, the largest port in Canada. During the 2010 Winter Olympics Deputy Palmer was seconded to the Integrated Security Unit as the Venue Commander for the Pacific Coliseum where he oversaw the security for the figure skating and short track speed skating events.

Upon promotion to Deputy Chief in 2010 he was assigned to the Support Services Division where he was responsible for Planning, Research and Audit, Professional Standards, Human Resources, Training, Recruiting, the Jail, Information Management, Information Technology, Communications, Fleet, Facilities, and Finance. He is currently assigned to the Investigation Division where he is responsible for all investigative areas of the VPD including Major Crime, Special Investigations, Organized Crime, General Investigations, Forensic Services, Tactical Support and Youth Services.

Deputy Palmer has completed numerous policing and professional development courses throughout his career. He holds a B.A. (Hons) and has completed two executive leadership programs with the FBI: Leadership in Counter Terrorism and the National Executive Institute. Deputy Palmer sits on the Metro Vancouver Transit Police Board and the Criminology Advisory Committee for Kwantlen Polytechnic University. He is the recipient of nine VPD commendations and is a former Police Officer of the Year. He has been invested as a Member of the Order of Merit for the Police Forces by Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaelle Jean, Governor General of Canada.


→ 4 CommentsTags: Uncategorized