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It’s time to accept that we are are a world-class disaster zone

January 16th, 2009 · 31 Comments

I think it’s been hard for many of us to deal with the ongoing turmoil at city hall over the Olympic village. It’s so not Vancouver. Everything is so not Vancouver: the crashed housing market, the serial drama being played out with one leaked bit of information after another, the ongoing stories about how one thing after another to do with the village is totally f*** up.

Hey, what happened to all those “Vancouver has been voted the top city in the galaxy for the 10th decade in a row” stories?

But I’ve now realized we need to get zen about this. Stop trying to fight our transformation from Paris into some backwoods hick town in Arkansas. (PLEASE no indignant letters claiming discrimination against hillbillies from you Alabamans — how are we writers supposed to make humorous, exaggerated points if we can’t do this?) We just need to flow with this.

Ommmmm,the city has turned into an ongoing joke. I accept that. Ommmm, we accept that we have now become a cheap serialized novel, with a new chapter every week that has an even more unbelievable plot development than the one last week. I await the next chapter with much anticipation of a literary nature. Ommmm, we hope to do better in our next life. All will be well.

It’s this kind of acceptance that got me through my son’s high school years and I’m sure it will work now. Either that or thinking: It’s okay. We’ll all be dead soon and then it won’t matter. Ommmm.

Categories: Uncategorized

  • Michael Phillips

    This is a sad period in Vancouver’s history, it’s true. It’s even refreshing to look at those words written down because all the Olympic messaging, the ‘Best Place on Earth’ messaging, the real estate industry messaging, and even our own naive self-congratulatory impulses all try to convince us that this is the greatest city in the world, that we are so proud to show our city as it is right now off to the world, but it isn’t true. We are not happy with our city right now.

    We know that we have one of the most tragic and hopeless neighbourhoods in the Western World in our old downtown. We know that every year at least a couple thousand people are forcibly ejected from the city because they are outbid for their own rented homes and there aren’t enough new ones to move into.

    We feel the city slipping away, and this Olympic Village scandal is composed of everything that has been dragging Vancouver down: An Olympics we increasingly see as a reckless experiment, hopes for big money collapsing into poverty, the condo craze perverting a city of balance, divisive and secretive politics, the absence of confident solutions, only anxiety.

    This scandal is our Zeitgeist, we deserve it. Let’s face it, it’s almost cathartic in that it’s the perfect symbol of Vancouver in 2009. Immobile cranes hanging like vultures over the concrete skeletons of luxury condominiums … that speaks for Vancouver right now a lot better than Quatchi and Squatchi or whatever their names are or all the feel-good government propaganda mailed to us using our own money or reports that tell us how livable we are except that so many of us can barely afford to live here, and that one of our neighbourhoods likely has the highest death rate of any urban neighbourhood in Canada.

    But this city right now isn’t us. It’s critical to realize this, as easy as it is to make judgements about ourselves based on the state of the city. Currently, Vancouver doesn’t do who we are justice.

    A city isn’t just the sum of its residents, it can take on arbitrary characteristics, especially a young city like ours. It’s like a young person: you don’t know what you want to be yet, you don’t know who you are, you know that you aren’t acting they way you really are inside but you don’t know what to do about it yet, you don’t know how, you feel like you are destined for something great but what, and how to get there? As your life goes on, as you mature, it becomes more reflective of who you really are until you end up looking back at the way you were and wonder what you were thinking, like we will think someday when we look back at where we are now.

    We’ll eventually think back to when the Downtown Eastside was a place of misery and moral humiliation for its residents and for the whole city and try to remember why it took so long to make Canada’s most beautiful and cultured neighbourhood out of a place which obviously had the potential all along. We’ll think about back when getting a letter from the landlord in the mail made people’s hearts skip because they thought it might say that since he’s installing a new heating system he wishes you and your kid good luck in trying to find a new apartment you can afford in a city with essentially a 0% rental vacancy rate. We’ll think about back when we had no comprehensive drug rehabilitation program to speak of, when the city would pay churches to let people sleep on the pews at night, when the world didn’t know what Vancouver really meant because our iconic art and world changing ideas hadn’t been created yet. This will happen.

    All of the politicians, bureaucrats, developers, unions, political spinners, lobbyists etc. couldn’t stop Vancouver from achieving its destiny as one of the great cities of the world. The 21st Century will not be material, it will be about information, ideas, feelings, spirit, morality, conscientiousness, good. These are the things that we lead at even now, even in this rut. In fact, there is absolutely something happening here now concerning these things that in my opinion isn’t happening anywhere in the world, not that I’m aware of. It’s hard to put your finger on yet, that’s exactly my point, we are young as a city.

    A young person can look at where they are, at the shameful situation they might be placed in for any number of reasons, and think “this is me” and then they never get out. Or they can think “this isn’t me, I’m better than this” and it makes all the difference. I know we are thoroughly that kind of city.

    So sure, let’s worry about this, let’s watch the two sides fight it out, let’s feel bad about it, let’s blame people, but lets keep in mind that our strength as a unique collection of people in a very special place dwarfs all this garbage, dwarfs bobsledding and the slalom, dwarfs Quatchi and Squatchi, dwarfs the headline of the day, and it alone will be what finally creates a city that represents us fairly when all of this is a memory.

  • DMJ

    Wait till RAV opens and the joke will continue. Here we have a $2.5 billion subway on a route with barely 1/3 the ridership that would justify subway construction. The result: Huge operating subsidies.

    But the joke continues. To cut costs on the project that was to cost no more than $1.3 billion and change. the scope of the project was downsized. Dreaded ‘cut-and-cover’ construction was used (If intrepid Susan Heyes wins her lawsuit, the cost of RAV may escalate to $2.7 billion) in stead of a bored tunnel.

    But more money needed to be saved, so the proprietary SkyTrain light-metro was given the toss, in favour of a cheaper, generic metro.

    But more money had to be saved, so the stations were designed to handle only 3 car trains, which greatly reduced capacity. To increase capacity, the stations need to be enlarged, which means the dreaded ‘cut-and-cover’ construction must happen all over again and add another $1 billion in costs to the project!

    Two things become clear: 1) TransLink has built a subway that has a maximum theoretical capacity of 15,000 persons per hour per direction, which in the real world is the minimum capacity that justifies a subway.

    2) For under $1 billion, we could have built LRT, from downtown Vancouver down the Arbutus Corridor, as far as Steveston and the airport, which could a maximum capacity of over 20,000 pphpd!

    No zen hear, just bad karma.

  • alan

    Vancouver started as a real estate scam around the railroad, wiping out native villages and previous settlements. What is so new about all this? The fact that this scam is collapsing?

  • mt

    the truth is, the moment Vancouver received all those accolades, strategies should have been put in place to restrict migration here….

  • Denis

    Two things came to my attention this morning. One was the Raeside cartoon of Gordo and the olympic over runs. Go check his website, it’s worth the trip. The other was the federal Liberal leader who said in a Surry Meeting that the Olympics were not just Vancouvers, or BC’s but all of Canada and additional support must come from the federal governmet. Mind you Raeside draws cartoons for a living, and the Liberal leader wants to form government.
    Vancouver doesn’t deserve the idiots who cooked up this deal. The new mayor and Council have taken responsibilty to manage the immediate issue of borrowing. Gordo was dragged kicking and screaming into the house and the shify guy figures he can get the charter changed without having any questions asked. Dream on Gordo. To do that you will need another closure motion. Oh yes, he got elected twice and might very well be elected again. No changes expected in the DTES unfortunatly. Furlon may end up in the Senate and maybe Sam will get there as wel. Why do such smooth or not so smooth operators get to run things into the ground???l

  • spartikus

    I would like to nominate the comment by Michael Phillips as front runner for “Vancouver blog comment of the year”.

    Yes, I know it’s only January 16th 🙂

  • T W

    I support the spartikus comment above.

    But to be fair, V ancouver is not alone in this hubris. The ability to conjure optimistic views among the debris of a financial disaster, has been been an essential element over the past decade in the financial markets.

  • foo

    Frances, it’s important for the mainstream media (that’s you 🙂 to take their share of the blame in this. Even today the media reports uncritically the crap that spouts from the high and mighty that “nobody could have known this real-estate/economic meltdown would happen”.

    In fact, anyone who was willing to do the math, look past his Rennie-ness and apply some critical thinking knew this was going to happen years ago. And the media, when they weren’t sheep-fully repeating the hype, chose to ignore the people doing the warning. And even laugh at them.

    Oh, there is plenty of blame to go around, and it doesn’t stop at city council management or ex-councillors.

  • Dawn Steele

    I’ll second that motion, spartikus

    …and thank you, Michael Phillips – very well said!

    Yes, we deserve better – and we all need to demand better. In the previous thread I suggested it’s time to start talking independent enquiry (who, how and why, and including the question of whether criminal or civil charges aer needed). If there is no real accountability, this will not change going forward. Confidence won’t be restored.

    It’s starting to feel too much like we’re just sweeping the past under the rug in the hope of moving past this ugly episode quickly and pretending everything’s rosy again (Andrews joins the list of key players we apparently won’t be hearing anything from: Sullivan, Rogers, Lo, etc). That won’t work.

  • T W

    Even the SOCRED’s in the 1980’s were forced to conduct an independent inquiry into the Coquihalla highway. I am sure they did not volunteer but were forced by the pressure of public opinion.

  • Re: The Ommmmm…..

    Might do the trick for a son’s high school years….but as someone with a daughter right smack dab in the middle I’m quite sure that ‘Ommmms are not enough’

    And just so you know Frances, the Emails that do come in that castagate you for your exaggerative point making, humourous or otherwise, will likely come from the good burghers of Birmingham that are shocked that you could possibly confuse them with with those cultural lilliputians from Little Rock.


  • Travis

    I bristle every time I hear someone blame the media for simple reporting on what the “high and mighty” have said and done. While it is the job of the media to try to be unbiased and look at all sides of the issues at hand, they do not make decisions on development and policy.

    Everyone uses the media (or at least tries to) to their own advantage. It’s why Maureen Bader is quoted so often. It’s why politicians hold press conferences. What do people want? Do they want the media to ignore the fact that “important” people are saying things about the decisions they are making?

    Anyone who says that there was a lack of coverage on the opposition to the Olympic project has obviously forgotten the frenzy from only a few years ago.

    A few days ago someone posted on this blog a great article by Charlie Smith at The Georgia Straight in 2003.

    Here is the most prevalent bit:

    “Vancouver taxpayers—and not the provincial and federal governments—could be liable for cost overruns on some of the facilities.

    Last year, the City (represented by Larry Campbell and Geoff Meggs) signed four separate contracts with the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation concerning the construction of an athletes’ village on city land at southeast False Creek …

    Phil Le Good, a spokesperson for the No Games 2010 Coalition, alleged that this clause means city taxpayers, and not other levels of government, will be liable for all risks.

    “Vancouverites were led to believe they wouldn’t have to pay a cent, that the province would cover all the costs,” Le Good said. “There is some deliberate stuff going on to hide the costs that are going to be borne by the residents of Vancouver,” Le Good alleged. “Where are they getting the money to pay for this?”

    So take the Sarah Palin/Ann Coulter/Blame the media for all of our problems elsewhere.

    I have said this before, but I feel the need to reiterate: The Olympics are an inevitability. Will they make our city better or worse? Will we be paying for until 2110, who knows? Throwing blame around is really pointless. It does not get us any closer to finding solutions.

  • LP

    Mr. Philips comments aside, I am still very proud to call Vancouver my home.

    Could things be better, absolutely.

    Will we ever get them perfect, absolutely not.

    In all of this, I think people have forgotten the immediate political history of our city.

    1993-2002: NPA mayor and council
    2002-2005: COPE mayor and council, changed to VV by several
    2005-2008: NPA mayor and council
    2008-2011: VV mayor and council

    The political confusion created by the change of right to left wing ideology is clearly being forgotten in all of this. There is no continuity and thus city staff and management have had to flow and sway with the wind.

    Add into that the obvious leanings of those staff that support certain parties and it is surely a mess for the ages.

    I would suggest that this city as a whole has not been able to move forward in a progressive manor for years now due in large part to the citizens changing desire, and/or the bitter politics that have taken over to sway those votes.

    What shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone is that our mayor and council swept to power with a goal to change how city hall is run. On the one hand perhaps it needs a cleansing.

    However if those hired are mere lapdogs to a left wing agenda, the city will be in further trouble yet. City staff and management need to be, and work independent of politics and that includes the right wing lapdogs as well.

    One cannot argue with the dismissal of Judy Rogers, only that there was no process to vet qualified candidates to replace her. Timing aside, their choice is questionable.

    Now as heads start to roll, we should be keeping our eyes wide open to ensure that qualified non-political persons fill those positions.

  • foo

    I wasn’t commenting on the media’s role in the Olympics extravaganza. I was commenting on their role in the real-estate hype machine, which is really at the source of the troubles we find ourselves in.

    There surely isn’t anyone here that could argue with the fact that the local media were uncritical cheerleaders of the “real-estate goes up forever” mentality that existed over the last 5 years or so.

    Even today, the media continues with the myth that this is just a small, temporary blip, and the market will return to the peaks in a year or two.

    Journalists can’t be pointing fingers at people like Jody Andrews for screwing up in their real estate dealings, when they screwed up royally over the last 5 years.

  • Eleanor Gregory

    Kudos to Michael Phillips for his thoughtful and grounded perspective on events.

  • Dawn Steele

    Foo, you’re right. How many “real estate reporters” in BC perform as much more than industry shills?

    And really, when you look at the millions in ad revenues that all those full-page condo ads were bringing in, what did we expect, whether it was the Georgia Straight, Vancouver Sun or City TV?

    When any group or sector is throwing around that much cash, how much objectivity can we really expect from those who depend on it, whether it’s news media or political parties?

  • Travis


    Given your rationale, journalists should be blamed for every lie, every misleading statement, every bribe, every scandal on the face of the Earth.

    That is bupkiss and a superficial criticism.

    Do you fault The Vancouver Sun for running paid advertorials by developers in their real estate section?

    Do you blame the people who named Vancouver one of the best places to live in the world in 2005?

    Again, you clearly do not understand what the role of the media actually is.

    A journalist cannot put words into people’s mouths. They are dependent on the information people give them and that is what they report on.

    If politicians cloak the truth or “experts” give misleading statements, you honestly think it’s the messanger who is at fault?

    Saying that “they screwed up royally over the last 5 years” is ridiculous.

    It’s like blaming The Wall Street Journal for the market crashing.

  • spartikus

    It’s like blaming The Wall Street Journal for the market crashing.

    No it’s not. It’s blaming the WSJ for cheerleading and ignoring those that were flagging future trouble.

  • Travis

    Right. Because the media is to blame when things go wrong. When are they credited when things go right? They aren’t. Why? Because they aren’t the ones who make those things happen. It works both ways.

  • LP

    I agree with both foo and Travis in different ways.

    A friend of mine used to work in television media, another at the VS, both in executive level positions. Both had no problems getting on the news departments’ collective asses for ripping into a major client. Note, I said client, not industry.

    Suggesting that criticizing the real estate fluff (industry), would stop Bob Rennie (1 client) from advertising, is not realistic.

    There is a real fine line they try to navigate between being balanced and showing favoritism. For the most part their intentions are honorable even if they do swing left or right.

    What is an understated problem though, is that when things are steamrolling along and 30 ‘experts’ are telling you one thing, and only 2 ‘experts’ are the opposing view point – guess who wins.

    That isn’t the media’s fault, who wants to listen to the supposed ‘chicken little’ scream, “the sky is falling, the sky is falling.” Not too mention you can always find someone who disagrees and sees things differently. As AGT said about Jimmy P, if you wait long enough things turn the other way.

    Funny how everyone can be correct in those instances, eh!

  • foo

    Travis, be reasonable. Note that I said the media has a share in the blame. Note that I said their share is due to their ceaseless cheerleading for real-estate, in the face of dead simple common sense that the bubble couldn’t continue forever.

    Journalists aren’t to blame when people lie, spin or mislead. Journalists are to blame when they uncritically accept the word of the liers, spinners and misleaders because they happen to be the flavour of the day. Journalists are to blame when they just re-hash what’s said to them, instead of doing, well, journalism.

    Does that make it the fault of the media that the housing bubble has burst? Of course not. But it is their fault that so many people still don’t believe that it was possible to see this coming. And it is their fault that so many people still live in denial about the future.

    Here’s something for you – the media has done a reasonably good job so far exposing the mess of the Olympic village. But they’ve allowed themselves to be led down the path Vision/Meggs wants them to go. Is that really the whole truth? Did Jody Andrews really deserve to lose his job? Shouldn’t the other people with the financial background who obviously would have contributed to the “smoking gun” report be more accountable?

    From your comments it appears that you’re in the industry in some way. Well, you’ve been sticking it to the bloggers and naysayers for years, now’s the time to eat a little humble pie.

  • spartikus

    Right. Because the media is to blame when things go wrong.

    No, media is to blame when they fail to report. The media isn’t at fault that the United States invaded Iraq and things went haywire. The media is at fault for failing to report the obvious holes in the provided rationales to invade Iraq. Now that’s the extreme example, and it’s a bit more understandable in this case that reporters circa 2006 would not , with noted exceptions, make the financial arrangements of the Olympic Village a front and centre issue, but the point is the public relies on media to do the digging.

  • Shepsil

    As many have mentioned, there is no lack of blame to go around here. The media, bureaucrats, politicians. The development community however seems to have been left on the sidelines to some degree. Although I think this appears to be because we all just intuitively know how culpable they are. But I digress.

    Some of the comments have suggested that we need bureaucrats and journalists who are apolitical. Nice in theory, but in reality everyone has opinions and will in the end be politically inclined whether any of us like it or not.

    I like what I see of the new Vancouver Vision management of city hall. The house cleaning is what any good new leader would do. As for the media in Vancouver, they seem to be quite tied to supporting a more Campbellesque agenda. Which, in a nut shell, appears greedy, self serving and dishonest.

    I sense the real problem with what has transpired with Millennium, SS, GC and friends is that we the public more than let our guard down or never really got it up. That there was enough of a political void for the SS & GC followers to more than pull the wool over our collective eyes. If you have not been involved politcally in your community, then you only have yourself to blame for not having safe-guarded our percieved democracy.

    Congratulations for seeing the light with Gregor and company, and best of luck with the coming Provincial elections.

  • foo

    I’ll leave this alone after this post.

    In a city where the median income for a family of 4 is ~$60k*, how many $1000/sq ft condos do you realistically think you can sell? How many real buyers of $500k 1 or 2 bedroom condos are there?

    In a 5 year period where median incomes barely budged, how could real-estate double or triple in value, without there being something fishy at play?

    These are all points that numerous bloggers and others made during the “golden years”. Didn’t see much of that kind of analysis in the mainstream anywhere.

    * Numbers can be found at Stats Can website.

    Oh, and the purpose of the “number 1 place in the world to live” survey is to help executives determine how nice it would be to spend a few ex-pat years there. Not how great it is for the locals. Never did see that tidbit in the media when the survey results were being trumpeted.

  • LP

    “Here’s something for you – the media has done a reasonably good job so far exposing the mess of the Olympic village. But they’ve allowed themselves to be led down the path Vision/Meggs wants them to go. Is that really the whole truth?”

    Foo, you and I may disagree on projecting a loss at this stage of the game, but I am happy to see someone else come over to my dark side on the posturing issue.

  • foo


    Here’s my expanded opinion on the loss:

    There’s ~$400m loss coming. It’s going to be shared between the City, Millenium, Fortress, and apparently Jody Andrews. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to the proportions.

    I’m not a high finance tight, but here’s a fun scenario:
    Vancouver borrows $450m from someone other than Fortress. The project completes on time in October, thus fulfilling the completion guarantee. The City goes to Fortress and says, give us the remaining $450m, we did our bit. Fortress at this point doesn’t have the money, so the City says, you’re in default. We’re not paying the $350m you originally advanced. See you in court.

    That way it’s Fortress that gets stuck with the lion’s share of the loss.

    This is probably as implausible as the real-estate market in Vancouver tanking. Umm. Errr.

  • LP

    “In a 5 year period where median incomes barely budged, how could real-estate double or triple in value, without there being something fishy at play?”

    Two things come to mind:

    a) When Bob Rennie sells a project in 20 minutes sight-unseen to buyers in HK, it’s because those folks are used to paying 3-5x (if not much more) than what we do, so our real estate is cheap, and could therefore increase exponentially in value

    b) Here is a very legal strategy to purchase lots of investment property, which has no doubt compounded the inability of the average family to afford a home in Vancouver. All you need to do is afford the down payments, which many do out of home equity loans:

    If you were to apply for 1 mortgage, it would be qualified on the income your household generates.

    If however you were to apply for 3 mortgages, you are considered a commercial real estate investor and the mortgages on those properties would be approved, providing the rent exceeds expenses by a ratio of 1.1 to 1.0. These mortages are viewed on a proforma basis as opposed to a personal income ratio.

    There is nothing fishy going on, however the mortgage industry and the banks are more to blame than the realtors and media for the overblown prices.

    Further, I doubt the OV and the pricing suggested wasn’t more planned for international speculators after the games are over, AND billions of people have seen the beauty of that OV on TV.

    That amount of advertising/marketing could never have been purchased and I think some of the speculation regarding the future saleability of this project is why there is still some optimism, unless you’re on the NDP side of the fence and want all the doom and gloom for election points.

  • tommi

    It is the blatant political posturing that is angering people, not the details being released or even the leaks, as Alex T. would have you believe in his most recent love-letter to His Worship in 24 Hours.

    There was clearly a concerted effort to turn this issue into a political football by Gregor, Meggs and Louie. Their plan to Divide & Conquer is working very well. And how convenient that there’s a provincial election coming up!

    And now there’s the revelation that Louie was the one who actually put forward the motion for the loan guarantee, apparently to “trick the NPA.” That is directly counter to his statements to the press prior to the election about his knowledge of the loan deal. Louie is also suspected of being the one who leaked the confidential documents to the press right before the election. And now Gregor wants the province to change the Charter so they can borrow and spend even more without public referendums! Does that not sound alarm bells for anyone else?

  • LP

    From AGT’s column:

    “But shoot the messenger; crucify St. Gregor for telling the truth. The last word goes to Robertson himself: “I’m not going to sugarcoat it, Alex. The public deserves to know that as a city, we are responsible for delivering an $875-million project. There’s no way around it. Yes, we’ll be able to sell the units to recover costs, and the city owns a valuable asset, but we’re in uncertain economic times.”

    Although I agree with AGT on many fronts, believing these hollow words, I will not.

    It is very easy for the mayor to continue his path looking like the Saint, as AGT calls him without a hint of sarcasm I might add, while the political games are being played by the likes of Meggs, Louie, and the NDP backroom.

    Call me asinine if you shall, we can agree to disagree in a respectable manor on this front. I believe AGT will change your tune in due time.

  • Cameron

    Michael, lovely impassioned speech. It might just be like that, one day. But since I arrived in 2003, it’s got steadily worse, and everybody just started looking out for themselves. Blame the government, blame the people, blame whomever, the city darkened.

    The letters my wife and I sent to city hall were returned with trite platitudes.

    This summer, we brought our child to Halifax, where it is modest and maybe there’s still a little too much pride in suffering, but balanced and assured in its identity.

    I left Halifax to return to Vancouver last time to escape that whoa-is-us sentiment, and it has improved. But I’m glad to have escaped. Maybe I’m too civic-minded, but obviously for me, it wasn’t worth being in Vancouver any more.

    Vancouver has promise, but it has increasingly become an unfriendly city pretending to be confident and relaxed when it was anxious and overworked. I hope you get to see your vision. The pendulum will swing, but I think you’ll need a lot of patience, and many years ahead of you.

  • Stephanie

    I’m with Michael Phillips right up until “this city right now isn’t us.” I wonder. We have a population that believes civic engagement begins at the ballot box and ends at the cash register, and then trundles along making lousy decisions even within that limited scope of interest. We elect the politicians who make the decisions that cause the suffering he decries. We buy the newspapers that shill for the real estate industry. In Vancouver there has been and still is broad public support for the twin pillars of scapegoating and boosterism that create our city’s increasingly polarized and unsustainable mix of hellish poverty and obscene privilege.

    I hope Michael is right about who we really are, I really do. But I can’t believe him. Not just yet.