Governance & Politics
January 27, 2020

Why City of Vancouver Proclamations are not really City of Vancouver Proclamations

Here’s the spoiler: you would think that City of  Vancouver proclamations would be based upon the approved criteria as listed on the City’s website and are then vetted through an approval process and then presented to Council.

Wrong.

It was the CBC’s municipal roving reporter, Justin McElroy who along with the Breaker News  started to see that Vancouver’s proclamations were a little funky. On his twitter feed Justin noted that under Mayor Robertson there had been a  “St. George’s Rowing Day”, “The Rock Proc for Dwayne the Rock Johnson Day”,  “The Elite Canadian Champion Wrestling Day” and the ‘International Clash (the UK Band) Day”.

Surprisingly work done by Bob Makin with the Breaker uncovered  a proclamation for Mayor Robertson’s girlfriend on her birthday, and another proclamation for the  mother of Mayor Robertson’s chief of staff on her birthday.

I was curious why the City of Vancouver would not recognize Pat Davis and her son John Junior for the remarkable multi-decade  legacy they have left the city with their streetscape on the 100 block of West Tenth Avenue and the stewardship of Mount Pleasant. What I found is that the approval process for City of Vancouver proclamations is not a transparent process, but are approved by the Mayor’s own political staff~and the Mayor. There’s no Council involvement for background or references.

The mayoral staff are the hardworking people that are hired directly by the mayor and usually leave with the mayor as he/she go onto other political jobs. Extraordinary people like Laurie Rix, Janet Fraser and Muriel Honey have held those positions.

While you fill out the proclamation here  the proclamation then goes into a political decision making process in the Mayor’s office and is not referred back to Council. The criteria that is used to decide who gets a proclamation is also not publicly available. Other journalists have had challenges even getting a list of all the approved proclamations from the City of Vancouver despite having  a Freedom of Information request. There is apparently no list.

Take a look at the City of Burnaby’s criteria for a proclamation. They are more transparent in their process and even list what proclamations have been approved for the last two years.

 

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I have been writing about Nita (Pat) Davis and her son John Davis junior, who after the death of John Davis Senior continued to work on the remarkable landscape of  houses in the 100 block of West 10th Avenue. John Senior and Pat bought a worn out Edwardian or Victorian to fix up in 1973 on what was then a run down street with discontinuous sidewalk.

That  first house, 166 West 10th , became the first structure in Vancouver to obtain heritage status. As Rafferty Baker wrote in an article for the CBC“the plaque next to the front door has a small number one marked in the corner”.

John Senior died in the early 1980’s and Pat and her son John Junior continued his vision of learning about and renovating these houses, researching paint colours, and bringing the houses back to an active life with several rental units in each one. It was the rental units and John’s custodial services at other apartment buildings that allowed the family to continue rehabilitating these houses, at a time when the RM-4 land use zoning in place easily allowed for the construction of three storey walk up apartments. They were the outliers of the 1980’s and 1990’s, and it was not until this century that they were perceived as early adapters to the reuse and revitalization of existing buildings. Over four decades the Davis Family restored eight houses, all heritage designated to ensure that they would continue existing as a lifetime legacy in this city.

Pat Davis and her son John are quiet people, and surprisingly their legacy has never been acknowledged at the City of Vancouver, despite the fact that nationally Heritage  Canada has given the Davis Family an award for the preservation of the historic streetscape. They were innovators as well, with the first coach house which became a model for the coach houses now allowed in the neighbourhood, and their work became the foundation of the RT-6 zoning in place in the area. This zoning allows for the main house with heritage merit to be maintained and developed into apartments, with a coach house on the back of the laneway. John Davis Junior was also involved in the public process  of the heritage style lighting that went on Tenth Avenue, the maintenance of the road surfacing, and public realm. Their involvement with the first Mount Pleasant Traffic Plan resulted in the City turfing out  the engineer prepared scheme and going with that suggested by the community. That has been successfully implemented for over 15 years with only minor adjustments.

The way the Davis Family maintained the public realm around their block became the basis for the Mount Pleasant Linear Walkway, a streetscape plan to install sidewalk that was missing throughout Mount Pleasant, along with corner street bulges, landscaping, lighting and interpretation. In the 1990’s the area was extremely rundown with absentee landlords that would not approve streetscape improvements through the normal Local Improvements Program. Working with City Engineer Susan Clift, we devised a plan to provide continuous walking surfaces throughout the area, with landscaped areas and shortened crossing distances. By assessing the entire neighbourhood for the improvements, costs for the average lot were $15.00 a year added onto the tax bill.  The plan was approved by the community, and an area that had poor walkability was finally completely connected with sidewalks and street crossings.

With the passing of Pat Davis, it seems fitting for the City of Vancouver to recognize the work of the Davis Family in maintaining this heritage block of rental housing with the lush streetscape and public realm they carefully curated for the neighbourhood.

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(Click on headline above for illustrations.)


We asked stats-and-numbers guy Andy Coupland to do a background on The Grand Bargain and what Vancouverites (City and Metro) should know about this town, especially if they are going to weigh in on the housing crisis and to participate in the City-Wide Plan. 

Here’s the first post in the Andy Coupland Primer.  And now the second:

 

WHO GROWS WHERE

If you lived your life only shuttling up and down the rapid-transit system, you’d be convinced that all the growth is happening in the suburbs – or at least some of the suburbs – far more than in the City of Vancouver. Just look at the apparent density, and certainly the height, bulk and prominence of some of the transit-oriented clusters in Burnaby at Brentwood and Metrotown, and in Surrey at King George. Even in Richmond (where the height limitation means less density), the number of projects stretches to the skyline. Each of these would seem far greater than the few towers here and there in Vancouver.

So appearances can be deceptive.  A lot of lower density developments and a series of Random Acts of Density can generate more new homes than a few clusters of very obvious towers.

In fact, Vancouver is developing clusters of new towers as well. Nearly 1,000 of those 33,300 housing starts over five years in the City of Vancouver are on Davie Street, near Denman, (right) where there are five new rental buildings under construction.  Because they’re being developed in the context of other older towers, and because they are (by today’s standards) being built to modest heights, they don’t really stand out.

There’s a similar set of towers coming on Robson Street. They’re almost invisible when compared to the very prominent Vancouver House by Granville Bridge, but overall the three towers under construction add over 400 units, half of them rentals – nearly as many as Vancouver House in total, and more of them rental.

Many of Vancouver’s new homes are even more invisible. To the annoyance of some commentators, the Cambie Corridor Plan initial phase was cautious. The plan allowed six-storey buildings along Cambie and four storeys on adjacent parts of King Edward, for example. The heights were limited because the sites all held single-family homes – often 1950s ranchers. There was a recognition that, one, not every house would sell, and secondly, across the lane the zoning wasn’t going to necessarily change, so ‘fitting in’ was important.

The Grand Bargain was still in play – but in this case it was houses that were going to be torn down up and down Cambie and replaced with apartments. Without taking into account the higher numbers and densities on the big sites like Oakridge, Pearson and Langara Gardens, there have already been over 6,000 units associated with the Cambie Plan. There are 16 tower cranes along Cambie today.

Those who lament that the densities are far too low for a transit corridor forget the huge backlash against the plan, and the parade of residents who objected to the earliest projects when they came to Council for rezoning.

Even less visible are the suites and laneway houses. Over 500 laneway homes get added every year, all rental, and all modestly sized. More rebuilt homes these days have a suite than don’t, but it’s not that far back in time that there was no way of adding a suite – or legalizing one that had mysteriously appeared underneath a home. Now, providing there’s a lane, almost every plot in RS zoning can have three homes – two of which can’t be sold off, only offered for rent. It has been argued that one unintended consequence is that house prices have been maintained higher thanks to the presence of two ‘mortgage helpers’.

This situation doesn’t apply in most of the rest of Metro Vancouver, and it might explain why the numbers of new units in Vancouver is so much higher. Of the 33,000 starts over five years in Vancouver, less than 7,000 are single detached or semi detached, (many one-for-one replacements) and that includes over 2,500 laneway homes.

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This week I wrote about the City of Vancouver turning down recognition of the Davis Family who transformed the 100 block of West Tenth Avenue, and who worked tirelessly to bring in the Mount Pleasant zoning that supported maintaining the area’s Edwardian and Victorian houses. Way before the City of Vancouver launched laneway houses, the Davis Family was already making rental units available in the houses they saved from demolition, and oh yes, they built a few laneway houses too.

Every time I think of the Davis Family and their three generations that have promoted neighbourliness and community building I come up with a new initiative they pioneered. One was eliminating the harsh “crotch dropping” of mature street trees to allow for the unfettered access to hydro lines in the trees. The Davis family refused to allow BC Hydro to butcher their street trees, taking the keys to the offending  tree cutting vehicles and not giving them back. The compromise  was taken forward to  City of Vancouver council,  and that was raising the hydro lines in mature trees so that the trees were not brutally altered. That is now civic policy  for mature tree canopies.

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Following up on the Province of British Columbia’s “Move Commute Connect’ strategy which intends to double the percentage of active transportation trips by 2030, the Province has just announced some new legislation. This legislation will allow the Province to enforce signalling and speed limits of vehicles. New regulation will also finally deal with the pesky challenge of what to do about things on the road that are not pedestrians, bicycle riders or car drivers.

Think of it. In British Columbia segways, hoverboards, electric scooters, electric skateboards and electric motorcycles are really not supposed to be on roads. And they really are not supposed to be on sidewalks either. The idea is that you are using those technologies on private property, at your own risk. The Province is allowing for a three year pilot for municipalities to explore how these items could be used, either on roads, sidewalks or bike paths, with an evaluation after the three year period.

The darling of these “micromobility” ways of moving is the E scooter. They are also cash cows for the E scooter industry with the investment in installation in cities being paid back in just a matter of a few weeks. It is no surprise that horror stories of E scooters littering sidewalks in cities have emerged, as different scooter companies try to get their piece of the pie.

But what problem are E scooters solving? Kelowna has a fairly successful trial of them on the 12 km. trail system between UBC Okanagan, downtown Kelowna and Okanagan lake. But in a study done in Paris it was found that if scooters were not available 47 percent of people would have walked, 29 percent would have used public transit, and 9 percent would have biked, with only 9 percent saying they would have used a car.Should we be encouraging E scooter use if it is taking people away from walking and cycling and using transit?

And exactly who is using the E scooter? Wired.com reports on a study that found that people in the $25,000 to $50,000 salary range were more likely to use E scooters, and surprisingly showed that 72 percent of women thought positively about using a scooter than men at 67 percent.This is interesting in that men still account for 75 percent of E scooter trips.

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I have written before about  the Davis Family and their remarkable work on the 100 block of West Tenth Avenue. You know the block~instead of indulging in cash-cropping existing Edwardian and Victorian houses into three storey walkups during the 1970’s and 1980’s this extraordinary family restored them. At that time renovating very old houses and using them for  rental accommodation was not the thing to do.

But the Davis Family led by John Senior (who passed away in the 1980’s)  and his wife Nita (Pat)  with sons John and Geoff persevered, and over five decades the extraordinary streetscape of the 100 block of West Tenth emerged.

Pat Davis passed away last summer and it seemed like the right thing to do to ask the City of Vancouver to do a proclamation in February of 2020 to have a day during “Heritage Week” designated as “Davis Family Day”.  There were several reasons for my request~not only did the Davis Family renovate this block and provide rental housing, they stewarded it, and it made sense to get their community building and volunteerism in the civic record for future generations. They were also instrumental in the development of the zoning for this entire area of Mount Pleasant.

The Davis family maintained the street and helped their neighbourhood. Pat or her son John would be out sweeping the sidewalk and picking garbage off the road in the early morning. There was a bicycle with a basketful of flowers next to a city tree, and two adirondack chairs if someone wanted to sit next to the grassed boulevard. They welcomed neighbours and community.

The Davis Family were involved in all of Mount Pleasant’s planning processes in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The RT-6 zoning in the area was a result of their own work, where existing Victorian houses could be renovated into several units with a coach house in the back.  Laneway houses were also originally a Davis Family innovation.

It seemed a slam dunk for the City to recognize the extraordinary contribution of this family to conserving Mount Pleasant’s history and contributing so greatly to community neighbourliness.  I thought a proclamation to have the Davis Family stewardship in the civic record would be a good thing. But I was wrong.

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In the very good news department,  Sadhu Johnston the City Manager of the City of Vancouver has announced the new City Engineer and General Manager of Engineering Services. That individual  is Lon LaClaire, who has been Director of Transportation in Vancouver since 2015.

Lon is taking over the position vacated by Jerry Dobrovolny who is now the Chief Administrative Officer of Metro Vancouver.

For people that have worked with Lon, he is extremely forthright and has a collaborative approach to working across civic departments and within communities. He’s a proponent of active transportation and was part of the team that so successfully convinced Vancouverites to walk, bike and take transit during the 2010 Olympics. Changing the way people in Vancouver move to be less car intensive and more active transportation and transit related is echoed in Vancouver’s transportation plan.

You can listen to a Vancouver transportation related podcast between Gordon Price and Lon LeClaire recorded last November here.

How transportation ties in with active transportation, health, sociability  and the role of cities is changing in the region, with progressive mayors like City of North Vancouver’s Linda Buchanan and City of New Westminster’s Jonathan Cote leading the conversation.

All of us at Price Tags welcome Lon’s leadership, and look forward to his stewardship in Vancouver and in the region.

Below is the text that was distributed to City of Vancouver staff by the City Manager.

 

“I am pleased to announce that after an extensive recruitment process for City Engineer and General Manager of Engineering Services, Lon LaClaire is the successful candidate for the role.

I am very happy that Lon is taking on this position permanently to head up Engineering Services at the City. Lon has a deep understanding of our priority areas of work in Engineering Services, and having been part of the department for 23 years, I know he is keen to continue the great work planned and underway in the department.

Lon comes to the role with extensive experience in transportation, having started with the City working on the Millennium line, the Downtown Transportation Plan, the Canada Line and transportation planning for the 2010 Olympics. Lon has connected the department’s work to the transportation component of the Greenest City Action Plan, as well as the Transportation 2040 Plan.

In 2015, as Director of Transportation, Lon led ground-breaking projects such as the Arbutus Greenway, Burrard Bridge upgrade and implementing new parking strategies. Experience with major projects like this puts Lon in a strong position as he begins his new role as GM. His cooperative approach and ability to make connections to how our work interacts internally as well as with major partners across the city and the region will be invaluable. I know he will bring his experience and appreciation of collaborative projects to the wider department.

Lon will be starting in the role immediately. Please join me in congratulating and welcoming him as City Engineer and General Manager of Engineering Services.”

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Andy Coupland was the go-to guy for stats and data at Vancouver City Hall – and who periodically visits Price Tags with comments and corrections.  With John Atkin, he’s been giving us great insights on our past in Changing Vancouver, and on our present in Changing City Updates.

We asked Andy to do a background to The Grand Bargain and what Vancouverites (City and Metro) should know about this town, especially if they are going to weigh in on the housing crisis and to participate in the City-Wide Plan. 

So here’s the first post in an Andy Coupland Primer:

 

THE NUMBERS

Metro Vancouver isn’t growing any bigger geographically.  But every year its population grows by an average of over 30,000.  So in the past 30 years, over a million extra people have been added, to reach the current population of around 2.5 million.

The City of Vancouver has grown too – 200,000 more people in the same 30-year period.

Some ask: does the City of Vancouver need to add any more people? Others are outraged that the City limits development anywhere.

A reasonable approach fits into the middle somewhere: we can’t or shouldn’t pull up the drawbridge, but there has to be a managed growth that doesn’t encourage Random Acts of Density in locations where services are inadequate.

 

Within the 2,870 square kilometers of the region, two thirds is effectively off-limits for development.*

That means that effectively there are only 837 square kilometers of land where development can occur (29% of the total Metro area). Within this relatively limited area, less than 10% is ‘green field’ land.

The result: in all the region, only 78 square kilometres have never been developed – an area somewhat smaller than the City of Vancouver.

The City of Vancouver has only has five percent of the region’s total land area – just 116 sq. km. Because very little of the city is off-limits for development, it has just under 12 percent of the region’s developable area.

By the 1990s almost everywhere in the City of Vancouver had already been built on.  In a few spots in downtown, the buildings being constructed today are the fifth on the site, despite the city’s relatively short history.

Nonetheless, the City of Vancouver added on average around 5,600 people a year between 2011 and 2016** despite having almost all the developable land already built out and the highest population density of all the region’s municipalities.

Yet in the same time period, the city also saw an average of 5,500 new homes added every year. At first, that just sounds wrong – almost a new home for every new resident? There are several reasons.

The 5,500 is not net growth – about a thousand homes a year are demolished and almost always replaced by other ones. So only 4,500 additional homes are added each year. But not all of those were occupied with new residents – at least, not in 2016. Some had ‘non-permanent’ residents – students studying here; temporary foreign workers. Some were used as pied-a-terre; some were second homes, some business-owned.  Some are occupied by suburban parents to use a couple of times a week when commuting home was inconvenient. A few were owned by wealthy foreigners with multiple homes around the globe. Some were on AirBnB. Some were vacant, awaiting sale or recently completed.  A few were bought purely as an inflating investment, with rising value offsetting taxes and strata fees.

Conclusion: in five years there were just over 3,000 more dwellings in the city not occupied by usual residents.

It’s not a huge number, but in a city with very low vacant rental rate and a serious affordability problem, it was considered to be a problem worth trying to tackle. So the City of Vancouver, and then the Province (and soon the Federal Government) are taxing homes that aren’t occupied either by the owner or a tenant. Non-residents pay higher taxes. AirBnB (and similar platforms) are being pursued; the rules about how much of a home can be offered as a vacation rental, and for how long, have been tightened up and are being applied.

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I do hope that those advocating tax relief for ‘small business’ understand that the proposal from the provincial government is a lot muddier than it looks.

The province says the interim legislation would allow municipalities to exempt a portion of the value of a subset of commercial properties from taxation, easing the tax burden for tenants responsible for property taxes through their commercial leases.

If I understand the intent, the City would be able to exempt or reduce the tax on that part of an assessed parcel which has not been developed – the so-called “unused airspace”.   If the zoning allowed a ten-storey building, but there was only a one-storey storefront on the site, presumably the City would reduce the assessment or forgive the amount valued on the ‘unused’ part.

A few things to keep in mind:

The exemption directly benefits the property owner, not the tenant, unless the latter also owns the property.  Presumably ‘small’ businesses (whatever they are) would see a drop in their ‘triple-net leases’ from the landlord which includes the property taxes, though in fact it’s the owner who pays the property tax directly to the City.  And it’s the owner who could well see the market price of the site increase as a result of this exemption of unused density.  (Also, listen to the “This is Vancolour” interview with Tom Davidoff, who explains how our low residential property tax rates have contributed to our unaffordability.)

It may also encourage further speculation since the holding costs will go down as the asset value (hopefully) goes up.  The lower those holding costs, like property tax, the longer the speculator has to appreciate the increase in capital gain, the less need to redevelop the underutilized land, and the more desirable the property for speculative purposes.

Secondly, there is a reason why the ‘unused’ part of a site is included in the assessment: it’s a very real part of the value.  ‘Density’ (or FSR) is not measured by current use but as potential development, whether realized or not.  No owner of a property is going to sell at a price lower than what the market would pay because the site hasn’t been built out to the maximum possible. Nor is a buyer going to get away with offering less since what is being bought and sold is that potential, not just current uses.

The Assessment Authority determines what the market will pay on a given date when it evaluates the property’s worth.  That’s the whole point of a market-based assessment system, which has very significant benefits with respect to objectivity, simplicity and transparency.

If the City accepts the Province’s offer, it’s going to be in the subjective (and probably not very transparent) business of deciding what is ‘small’, what is ‘legacy,’ what is ‘unused,’ not to mention who it will tax (or what services to cut) to make up the difference.  It will get ugly, and there will be unintended consequences.  (If a business has ten employees, does it become big when it has eleven?  If it has two outlets, does it becomes a chain at three, and hence just another Starbucks?)

At the moment, the City can pass off the subjectivity and complications of assessments because it doesn’t do that job.  It’s the reason why we have a separate provincial authority to set the value of each individual property, since it’s less subject to political pressure.  The City’s job is to set the overall tax rates, which vary by class of property (commercial, residential, industrial, etc.) but not to vary the tax rate within a class.

Now it looks like it is going to wade into this very messy territory, which will soon begin to feel more like quicksand than an attempt to drain the swamp.

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