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Vancouver mayor reflects on first year, successes and mistakes

November 15th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Ah, the one-year anniversary, here it is already. There was a round of media interviews and analysis of the Vancouver Vision council’s first year. Here’s my interview with the mayor and his thoughts on his record. The Province’s Jon Ferry took this tack.

For the truly obsessed, I transcribed my interview with him, editing my questions to make them sound more intelligent.

FB: So which parts of your agenda did you feel were the most successful?

GR: Making immediate progress on homelessness and affordable housing would be the first, in terms of our agenda, that would be first up. And that, you know, the, from day one, launching the shelter program. And getting the money for the six sites …

FB: But that only happened recently, didn’t it?

GR: No, through the, that one was nailed down right before the provincial election, when it was in the bank so to speak. The whole continuum of housing from street homeless to laneway and the short term incentives for rental and the slumlord enforcement.

FB: Anything you didn’t get done?

GR: We made progress on many housing fronts. I think about how grim the housing prospects felt a year ago. It seemed like we were in, we had years of no vacancy, homelessness skyrocketing, and a feeling of hopelessness around making change. And that’s been the most dramatic set of accomplishments for me is being able to make progress on a wide range of housing options. And the city has good capacity to do this work and tools to do it, so it should be where we make progress. That’s where the city hall exceeded my expectations of what we could accomplish in a year.

FB: And you’re planning to do more?

GR: We’re looking at more shelters for this winter …

FB: Do you have a target?

GR: For spaces? We’re working on it. We’ve got some interesting leads right now. I don’t have any numbers for you on that. We’re trying to get a significant number of shelter spaces open before the worst weather hits, but it’s coming on fast.

FB: So two things you’re proud of besides this?

GR: I would say fixing the Olympic village financing and delivering that project on time.  A year ago, it looked, my first look was sobering and that was, people can call it what they want and it’s a remarkable village now, but the financial condition, the secrets, and the construction schedule, those three things, it was a perfect storm. And the team here navigated it exceptionally well.

FB: And next?

GR: What I get tons of positive feedback on are the green initiatives. The Burrard Bridge was symbolic of how, they’re very positive, constructive generally. That one, people thought would be polarizing and it turned out not to be. It’s not impacting people’s lives in negatives ways. And generally, the greenest city work and Green Capital efforts have huge potential for both livability and economy and even though some are hard to quantify right now, and they’re going to take years to accomplish, I get a sense of hope and promise from those in people. We know we’ve got to do this stuff and it’s going to work out better, there’s going to be win-wins there. I’m most intrigued by the potential on the green economy side.

FB: That’s the one I have the hardest time grasping. What is the green economy? How is it different from the regular economy?

GR: Do you want me to attempt a short explanation?  Well, globally, well, there’s a local and a global. Locally, it is converting the inefficiency in our infrastructure and mainly our energy system, taking the energy that’s lost there and creating jobs to backfill it. So it’s, basically we have to become much more energy efficient, the only way to get there is to create jobs that are funded by that cost differential? So for BC Hydro, every kilowatt hour that they save they conserve in Vancouver, they can sell in Vancouver, they can sell in California for three times the price, so there’s that whole delta of value, just in jobs and products that make us more efficient. That’s the local piece, so energy efficiency, retrofitting buildings across the city, and the goal of 20 per cent in 10 years is a huge number.

FB: I get making city buildings more efficient. It’s more the private sector, green-job things ….

GR: But some of those connect directly. Some of them are companies that develop products here that make, we’re not strong on windows but that would be an example. We have companies that do energy efficient products and technologies, they get paid for here.

On a global level, the green economy is what’s growing right now. That’s where the jobs are being created, and it’s emerging very quickly. And there’s an opportunity, as has happened with many other industries, the cities that are most aggressive and that attract a cluster and an industry are going to be the anchor for that industry for generations to come. These are long-term plays. We thought we had that with the hydrogen and the Ballard powerhouse 10, 15 years ago and that technology hasn’t snowballed as expected. Westport, they’re our biggest green-tech company, employer based in Vancouver. And so if we look at specific sectors, like, they’re in natural-gas conversions, they’re in a transition field of minimizing diesel pollution but renewable energy and other clean, they’re a good example of, we need more Westports. What’s happening in the industry is there will be, there are companies that are acquiring other competition or rolling up their sectors and that’ll happen in finance and technology and manufacturing and ideally we can attract a couple of the emerging big fish in the green economy and they are our next big head offices. Ultimately, landing some head offices in the new economy would be the home run here. For now, just getting the smaller players and strategically targeting the emerging victors of mergers and acquisitions is the ultimate goal here.

FB: Three things that you didn’t get to accomplish or three flubs?

GR: We got caught off on the snow last Christmas, New Year’s, that thing was, you know, underestimated. We were caught off guard by the magnitude. We were, you know, juggling the Olympic village and a tough budget and a new team. That we could have done better with. Ah, what else in the flub department?

I was hoping we’d get curbside compost pick-up in the first year. We might get it within a few more months. It’s been working away behind the scenes on that one for the last number of months. I think we’ll get there within the next six months. It’s really, it’s a big boost on the waste  reduction, landfill front.

FB: What about the HEAT shelters under the bridge. Was that one of your bigger learning experiences?

GR: Yeah, it was a learning experience in the challenging transition from shelter to housing and the pitfalls of shelters in summertime. Those were, they were great shelters until the weather warmed up and then we had a tough time negotiating interim housing for those people, the people in those shelters, who were mostly homeless younger folks. We eventually got the Dunsmuir lined up and the rest is going to be history, but it was a very difficult path to prevent people being thrown out on the street with no prospects of housing. And tough to say how to play it, how to manage a situation like that differently. We’ll be careful with the shelter options we pursue this winter.  But these are, I think, if anything, we were fortunate how well the other shelters have done. We’ve had very few problems where 85 per cent of the HEAT shelter population has been looked after. To a degree, that one got blown out of proportion and it was a difficult piece to prevent a meltdown. But there’s room for improvement. I think we all learned we’ve got to do better.

FB: The surprise best and worst about the job?

GR: Surprise best would be, would be … how much, I’ve been really impressed how much we can get done at city hall. People said don’t set your expectations high, it’s a grind, city hall has no power and all that. I think we’ve gotten a lot more done than most expected. It’s a pleasant surprise how much we can get done.

On the negative side, mmm …

FB: Being interviewed by me?

GR: It’s probably the pitfalls of trying to get a lot done and not everybody’s on board and you don’t get any sleep.

FB: So it’s not the hours or invasion of personal privacy or people phoning you on your cell while you’re riding your bike?

GR: Those are factors. I remember reading about Winston Churchill not sleeping much in those years and I’ve found I don’t, you do adapt, you don’t sleep as much. It’s not fretting, it’s more there’s just so much to do and it’s hard to shut the brain down and the only quiet time I get is generally late at night so I can get a lot done.

FB: But when you’re riding your bike, isn’t that a quiet time?

GR: It’s usually dodging cars and having to pay attention. It’s my exercise. That’s a pleasant surprise is I’ve been able to maintain my bike commuting. I was advised that might not work out. But I’ve found I can get downtown faster on my bike than any other mode.

I’ve been very pleasantly surprised how strong the new team under Penny Ballem is. When you look at the colossal challenges in this first year, staff have really risen to the challenge. So that’s been great.

FB: Which you’ll need as you go through the budget.

GR: It’s not pretty this year. It’ll be a few years of pain and working through the operating deficit. Too many years of not tending to fiscal responsibility and not reining in spending, but we’re getting there, we’re getting there.

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