October 8, 2019

From Thin Soup to Dreamland: The Social Impact of SCARP Alumni Thomas Bevan & Bob Williams

The latest in our Passing the Torch series introduces us to Thomas Bevan, a Millennial who’s already left his mark on Vancouver.

From his youth in Kitchener, Ontario — and a “difficult relationship” with a downtown that wasn’t quite the hotspot it has since become — to his graduate studies at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning (“a dreamland…a beautiful place”) and current work with BC Housing, Bevan stepped into the world of urbanism with a naturally intuitive sense that the economics of the land, as we have historically recognized it, had to change.

More specifically, Bevan was looking for public recuperation of land value, in the form of social purpose real estate. Like 312 Main — the cornerstone of Bevan’s young career, and the focal point of his first collaboration with torch-passer Bob Williams.

How Bevan and Williams met has almost become the origin story of 312 Main itself – Bevan the ideator, Williams the mentor and connector (and Vancity Community Foundation as the project enabler and social purpose rainmaker).

Of course, with Williams, this is hardly the only story to tell. With a 54-year advantage over Bevan, the narrative weight of this podcast tilts conspicuously towards Williams, President and Chair of the Jim Green Foundation.

An east side boy, Williams is our connection to Depression-era Vancouver, and one of the city’s first housing crises, just after WWII. He represents an earlier, simpler time, when connections and character alone could earn you a place in civic bureaucracy (albeit as a draughtsman in City of Vancouver’s sewer department). He speaks to the early days and thin soup of the SCARP program.

And he presents an undeniable legacy — as two-time former MLA, among many other titles and accomplishments — in having established protections for BC’s wilderness, civil service capacity for resource management, and a doubling of the province’s park space. Oh yeah, and a little something called the Agricultural Land Reserve. (There’s so much more; you are hereby dared to review an abbreviated list of Williams’ accomplishments).

Regarding the ALR, he didn’t necessarily want to do it, and he explains why. And in talking about the stark dualism between the unlimited potential of this great province, and the need for people in power to be subject to immense constraints in the exercise of power, there’s a message for Bevan — you can be a Dave Stupich. You could even be a Glen Clark. Or maybe you can just be you.

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One thing is proven without a doubt in this wide-ranging, deep political dive with Gord, Rob, and return guest George Affleck — these guys don’t know their Tolkien.

And while there was no cranky, right-wing guy in Middle Earth, there is a central character whose very rigid way of thinking begins to soften. If that seems to be the case with Affleck, it may be with the benefit of retrospect, especially with an eye to the performance of current council, and specifically in contrast to its predecessor.

That’s because Affleck’s behaviour while serving in opposition to Gregor Robertson’s Vision Vancouver juggernaut was largely the result of him seeing the majority votes walking into the council chamber every day, “knowing exactly what they were going to do”. Idealogical alignment can be like a wall; in the form of a political caucus, it’s a brick wall.

Contrast that with today; by Affleck’s count, there are just two parties in Vancouver Council, the NDP and the BC Liberals (and 1 or 2 predictably dogmatic, even irrelevant votes). So these decisions should be, well, decisive — consistently predictable and relatively quick. But, as he notes, “it’s 100% not working like that.”

Affleck talks about the splintering sound coming from the NPA corner. He talks choo-choo trains. And he talks bike lanes (remember, he’s not anti-bike lanes, just pro-process).

Lastly, Affleck makes a startling admission, perhaps revealing that aforementioned soft spot, one which may represent the rotting core of traditional NPA preservationist ideology — that the current political trend towards framing the decision-making process around community consultation (rather than incorporating and contextualizing it into decision-making) is a great way to give anti-growth, naysay perspectives platform and influence. And that it’s probably incorrect.

He sees it in West Vancouver, in White Rock, in Surrey, and even in PoCo. He sees pragmatism, he sees populism, and it seems he has a pretty clear view of the line to be drawn between the two.

Which leads to some interesting speculation on the nature of political campaigns of our not-too-distant future — those of Kennedy Stewart, the NPA and, yes, Affleck himself.

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A tale of two city-makers — one, a son of the working poor, who showed an early knack for creation and collaboration, in part through the use of polyhedral dice; the other, a world-renowned urban planner, with a Twitter following as large as the populations of some of the cities he now calls clients.

The two are, of course, the same man. Brent Toderian arrived in Vancouver in 2006 as the new Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver, stepping into the role jointly held by Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee. In addition to being part of the team of “mad geniuses” at 12th & Cambie, Beasley and McAfee were already legends in the planning community for having presided over the era which introduced Vancouverism to North America.

In explaining the trajectory that brought him here — an early passion for law, a degree in environmental science from University of Waterloo (major in urban and regional planning, natch), and early success managing city centre planning and design in Calgary — Toderian plots and connects a few new dots in his life story.

That’s the opening flourish, however, to a more fascinating and controversial narrative, one which to this day still casts a shadow on the political makeover initiated by Vision Vancouver in the early days of their first majority on council (2008-2011). An administrative shake-up of epic proportions placed Toderian — halfway through what might have otherwise been a legendary tenure of his own at City Hall — in a very, very difficult position, one which ultimately became untenable.

If you know anything about Toderian, whether personally, by reputation, or by Twitter feed, you agree with his self-assessment: he has zero tolerance for boredom, he believes planners aren’t (or perhaps shouldn’t be) neutral, and he’s unafraid of speaking truth to power (both the act, and its potential consequences). All of which might explain why he only lasted three years into the reign of then-City Manager Penny Ballem, who replaced her much-venerated predecessor Judy Rogers in 2008 to the chagrin of, …well… almost everyone. It’s an act of political interference still bemoaned for both its immediate and long-term consequences.

But in case that’s still not enough of an explanation, Toderian speaks for himself — perhaps more candidly than you might have expected — as to the impact of that personnel change, and why he couldn’t stay at CoV. Whether due to the mellowing effects of time, fatherhood, or his subsequent success as an urbanist consultant and celebrity with Toderian UrbanWorks, Toderian opens up about this exciting, fraught time of his career, in a fast-moving discussion with Gord.

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It was 2009, Vancouver was about to become the largest metro region to host a winter Olympic Games, and the city faced a challenge of similarly grandiose proportions — how to accommodate a 30% increase in downtown transportation trips alongside a 30% reduction in road network capacity, thanks to Games-related operations.

For Lon LaClaire, a transportation planning engineer at that fraught moment in the city’s history, it was an experiment that would prove to be the ultimate litmus test of the city’s potential to lead North America in the prioritization of efficient, effective, and (still) decidedly unsexy transportation modes — walk, bike, transit.

It happened of course (turns out snow was the issue — go figure), and that experiment’s success paved the way for the past 10 years of a transportation paradigm shift in policy and investments that is indeed now recognized across the continent, if not the world. And it’s due in no small part to LaClaire’s leadership on the City’s transportation engineering team, not to mention a certain je ne sais quoi….translation: “How is this guy so calm?!?

Today, he’s Director of Transportation with the City; if you’re part of Twitter’s #vanpoli urban wonk mob, you heard Cambie Report’s interview with LaClaire a month ago. And if you’re one of the many visitors to Vancouver for next week’s 25th Annual Rail~Volution Conference (considered by some as the Olympics of urban planning), Gord gets LaClaire to chip out a few new gems.

Such as his ‘what if?’ moment about Vancouver’s transportation history, to complement a plethora of our real-life ‘aha‘ moments. Or his explanation for why, over the last 25 years, our streets are moving less traffic, even while population and commuting trips has grown. Better yet — LaClair’s compelling reason why anyone concerned about transportation in their backyard should run, not walk, to VanConnect to report street issues and concerns. Most worrisome? His prediction of the problem many of us will face on opening day of the Broadway Skytrain extension in 2025.

All that, plus the secrets of grid resilience, the transit hub where City’s motto comes to life, and what to do with unused asphalt. Only the best for our 50th episode…

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Every child is full of questions. And while the science is fuzzy, it seems that children who ask questions about the future — not how things work today, but how they could work better tomorrow — tend to make great planners.

Michael Gordon was one of those children. And his legacy as one of the most important planners of Vancouver’s Golden Age (thank you, Larry Beasley) has been built by finding answers to the most difficult of questions about the growth of inner cities. Namely, is it possible to make exponential leaps in urban densification — doubling or tripling the number of people living in communities — and maintain quality of life, even (or especially) their character?

Growth and stability. Heterogeneity and heritage. They’re almost impossible dynamics to manage, being both deeply personal and matters of public interest. Yet, somehow Michael Gordon has made them work.

Like supporting a doubling of the West End population over the last generation, while allowing its Robson, Davie and Denman ‘village’ communities to remain desirable, even improving by most measures. Or masterminding the slow but sure transformation of Granville Street (especially the 900-block) into a downtown entertainment district extraordinaire, without sacrificing the existing retail mix and transit hub activity.

He also showed his peers — at the City, as well through his extra-curricular dabblings with UBC School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP), the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) and the Planning Institute of BC (PIBC) — that you’re never too old to be an effective planner for new tricks. Like skateboarding, which he took up at age 47, and added to his portfolio of planned placemaking via the Downtown Skateboard Park, tucked under the Dunsmuir Viaduct at Quebec and Union streets.

So…since he now has a lot of the answers, Gord Price and co-host Rob McDowell started asking the questions. Have engineers displaced planners as the creative forces in cities? Will the City-wide Plan solve everything? Did he, along with everyone else, miss affordability as a factor in community planning?

And how do planners plan for the future — plan for change — when the communities themselves seem not to want it?

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There’s nothing like listening to a gifted speaker riff on culture and politics; especially when the riffing is concise, with a judicious use of words, and an almost complete absence of hyperbole or bafflegab.

Sure, that sounds like Peter Ladner. But in this edition of Price Talks torch-passing, it also describes Vivienne Zhang, the successor to Ladner’s predecessor.

Zhang is a UBC grad, currently en route to the Paris Institute of Political Studies (‘Sciences Po‘) to begin her Masters in international security, with an eye to a future career in politics. Born in Beijing, with years spent between the Chinese Mainland and the Lower Mainland, Zhang has, over time, become very self-aware of the richness of her bicultural perspective — two ways of living, two political systems, two views on the role of the individual in society.

Ladner, also a UBC grad, can tell her a thing or two about politics on Canada’s west coast; the former journalist and co-founder of Business in Vancouver was at the forefront of municipal politics in the early 2000s as an NPA councillor and mayoral nominee, and has a brand name in local retail politics that’s literally on the map. Now a decade removed from political life, Ladner remains active in governance and policy as Chair of the Better Transit & Transportation Coalition, and past-Chair of the Board of the David Suzuki Foundation.

And, like the host of this podcast, Ladner also remains interested in the evolution of the liberal democratic model, the sustaining legacies of certain political and institutional norms, and of the collective (or perhaps majority) mindset of the new generation of leaders who will be in the thick of it. Zhang, for Ladner, is one of those emerging leaders to watch, to listen to.

Who does this generation trust? Are they integrated with the world they’re stepping into, or are they shaping it? Do they see problems with liberal democracy, and how are they dealing with it?

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According to Vancouver Green Party councillor Pete Fry, consultation won’t build us the city of the future.

“Where we’re going, we don’t need sticky notes on a wall,” he said (kind of). To Fry, consultation simply means, ‘the plan has already been written’ — not the right approach for the city-wide plan. Ironically, it was a lack of consultation that almost resulted in a freeway blowing through his Strathcona neighbourhood, but that’s a story for another time.

He wants co-creation. Neighbourhoods helping to design their communities. And if people — like, any people we assume, but at the very least highly organized people, unless he literally meant all people, but honestly we’re not entirely sure about any of this — if these people see something planned for their neighbourhood they don’t like? Council could, Fry suggested, “consider veto feedback on its merit”. (Really.)

That should go well.

This idea of co-creation, whether belonging to Fry alone, Vancouver’s Green Party, their fellow councillors, or (just maybe) staff themselves, is either a brilliant new way to govern, or a new word for old tricks. It could also be a moot point, as it is likely doomed to fail, though in principle we see it working already; certainly, one could interpret the recent rejection of the Granville Street townhouse development as one outcome of co-creation. No surprise to Green-watchers, of course, that all three Green councillors confoundingly voted against the application (“I stand by the Shaughnessy vote,” says Fry).

As he chats with Gord — and meat ‘n’ sizzle co-host Rob McDowell — Pete Fry is crystal clear on one thing: as keen as he is to co-create with his fellow citizens, there are still some hills upon which he’s willing to fight, and we presume die.

Like the pending Georgia and Dunsmuir viaduct removal. Or what we do with the city’s existing zoned residential capacity. And why reconciliation is part of decolonization.

More important, though, is what Pete Fry thinks Elizabeth Murphy really doesn’t get about our housing crisis…

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The Price Talks team hosted its first public podcast recording, held in front of a live library audience in the District of North Vancouver on June 26, 2019.

We’ve lobbed quite a bit of criticism at the North Shore generally over the past eight months, regarding recent decisions about housing, transportation and the public realm, but felt it was time to actually hear from residents.

Joining Gord for the discussion were:

  • Dominica Babicki, formerly Energy Manager with the District, currently completing her PhD in geography focusing on issues related to related to energy, buildings and climate change. A lifelong resident of the Edgemont neighbourhood, mother of teens, and part-time caregiver to both parents.
  • Justin Scott was born and raised in Deep Cove, went to Cap U, and is starting a new career in marketing. He currently lives in an apartment in West Vancouver, and is considering his long-term housing situation.
  • Victor Schwartzman is a Brooklyn native who came to Vancouver via a decades-long stop in Winnipeg. He currently serves on DNV’s Community Services Advisory Committee, hosts and produces Soapbox Radio and World Poetry Cafe on Coop Radio 100.5 FM, and in renting in a social housing complex in Parkgate.

Special thanks to Lynn Valley Town Centre resident, and community planner and facilitator, Steven Petersson for MC’ing and providing invaluable support throughout the evening.

Our sincere gratitude to everyone who attended the evening — a diverse and attentive crowd, with lots of participation and free-flowing discussion. We hope to do this again.

Last but not least, thank you to Meghan and her team at the Lynn Valley Branch of North Vancouver District Public Library. What a perfect facility, in a beautiful community — paradise tucked into the side of a mountain.

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There’s no two ways about it — TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s transit authority, is #1 in North America for year-over-year transit ridership growth. Seattle’s King County Transit is #2. And Kevin Desmond has led them both.

Desmond, now in his 4th year at the TransLink helm, didn’t emerge as a transit planning professional as a result of education, nepotism, or some cultish, hippie-era, preternatural NUMTOT trip (though, thanks to Gord, he’s now officially hip to the ELMTOT jive).

No, Desmond came to transit by mistake. An upbringing in the Bronx — OK, technically Westchester County, but he could walk to the #5 Dyer Avenue train — was followed by various positions Mayor’s Office of Operations during the mayoralty of Ed Koch, working with New York City agencies implementing public policy.

You know, typical New York stuff, like counting trees (there were 800,000), and helping untangle a parking revenue corruption scandal (big money). Which eventually led to an invitation to join the Department of Customer Services at New York City Transit. And so began Desmond’s love affair with transit — as he credits it, a cloying mixture of public policy, public service, and running a business. His great challenge in ’80s and ’90s New York City? Trying to figure out how to drive transit ridership up in a mega-city of abundant transportation options. His focus was to paint transit as a desirable consumer product, and to do so with the support of “a lean mean, growth-oriented consumer product organization”. And it worked.

Desmond tells Gord all the stories…of how he tried to bring more attention, and money, to the bus system in New York, when the subway tended to suck up all the oxygen….what prompted him to swap coasts in what eventually became a 12-year stint as chief executive of King County Transit in Washington State…how his efforts in the Puget Sound region culminated in a successful $54 billion tax package ballot measure for transit that included a multi-phase plan for high-capacity light rail (jealous much?)…and what ultimately led him to Vancouver.

He also waxes on about Transport 2050, the largest public engagement in TransLink’s history. But what we really wanted to know was what Desmond thinks of ride-hailing players like Uber and Lyft, slagged by Price Talks guests (among many, many others) as malignant, transit-killing tumours on the rumps of cities across the continent.

“Not something to be feared,” he claims. Why? You’ll have to listen to find out.

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More bus routes with greater capacity. Ground level retail in proximity to low-rise residential buildings. Communities designed with walking, cycling, and integrated multi-modal mobility in mind. And yes, rapid transit.

Surrey and Langley are two obvious examples of cities south of the Fraser taking slow, but steady and at times bold, steps towards the future, thanks in no small part to the work done by people like Paul Lee and Nathan Pachal.

In this second edition of our “Predecessor/Successor” series (see also Episode 31), Lee and Pachal explore the similarities between their own outsider experiences, and their respective roles promoting progressive, sometimes unpopular agendas, as both urbanists and leaders.

Lee worked in transportation planning for over three decades in both the private and public sectors, first working on implementation of the ’90s-era regional transportation plan, and most recently managing the City of Surrey’s light rail portfolio (may it rest in peace). Pachal is in his first full term, and fourth year, as councillor for the City of Langley; he’s also the indefatigable author of the long-running South Fraser Blog.

Both of Gord’s guests are used to talking to people about transportation investments, but as often from the prospective of what communities want, as what they really need. And dealing with the political decisions, as Lee learned, that often fit neither category. “Where do we need to win? Let’s build Skytrain there.”

Yet, despite occasionally blips in the process, there may be little doubt that there’s a line connecting the type of work Lee did in the 1990s and 2000s, and what Pachal has seen emerge in his short time on council. In this case (as he says with an almost astonished grin) a bus every 90 seconds in Langley City along Fraser Highway. “Walk 5 minutes, and you’re in a farm field.”

Transportation planners and policy geeks — like these two guys — know the real secret about growth in Metro Vancouver. The really exciting stuff is happening south of the Fraser.

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