Catalyst 600 Queens project Business & Economy
June 8, 2020

Survival Tips from North Shore Developers

Over the weekend I had an article published at that explores how North Shore property developers are adapting their businesses to survive a District of North Vancouver council that has refused to approve any multi-unit housing of any sort.  What I didn’t expect was that the story would wind up putting a human face on people who are usually presented as big bad faceless corporate monsters.

Included in the article is Oliver Webbe, president of the Darwin Group, who started the development side of their family business specifically to build projects on the North Shore, and who is now sitting on several pieces of land that he can’t touch. His approach is to just wait out the current council until they either change, or at least change their minds.

“In all honesty, it hasn’t changed our direction or what our vision is for our projects,” he says. “We’re staying the course. The reality is when you’ve got a considerably new council, it’s going to take a bit of time for them to get up to speed with policies that had already been in place for 10 years before they were elected.”

The other person that I talked to was Robert Brown, vice-president of the non-profit Catalyst Community Developments Society.  Catalyst had been invited by the previous District council to develop a six story subsidized housing project with senior’s respite facility on land owned by the District.  After several rounds of approvals and public meetings the near final plan was rejected wholesale by the council elected in 2018.  Brown explained to me that this rejection cost his organization several hundred thousand dollars – not an insignificant sum for a non-profit. His big frustration though was that he’d heard nothing from the District since the vote to shut the Catalyst project down.

“The strangest thing about this is that we went through that process, it got turned down, and we have never received a single phone call or correspondence from anybody at the district to say, ‘Would you like to discuss this? Would you like to revamp the proposal?’”

The thing that really struck me while reporting this was the genuine frustration that both Brown and Webbe felt. They believe that they have played by the rules, have done everything that was asked of them, and that they have acted in good faith.  Both of them strived to build below-market housing, to preserve or add more rental housing, and to build projects that will enhance the communities around them.

Those members of council who responded to requests for comments (Lisa Muri, who famously described meetings with Darwin as “keep your enemies close,” had nothing to say.) consistently talked about “traffic, environmental degradation in the form of forest devastation, and a general sense by residents that the project was out of step with their vision of their local community.”  The other notable response was from first-time council member and Deep Cove resident Megan Curren who wouldn’t comment on development questions, but instead chose to criticize Fortune for celebrating capitalism.

At the end of all of this, I walk away with a reminder that finger-pointing and name-calling do not build strong communities. Instead, it is critical that all of us, and especially the politicians that we elect to represent us, need to remember that inside every corporation or non-profit group are living, breathing human beings, and that decisions which may look politically savvy do have repercussions on people, businesses, and on individuals far removed from the vocal community associations that tend to dominate these discussions.

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If you ever want to raise a Vancouverite’s ire, just say that you are going to impede seniors and stop them from driving or from being driven around Stanley Park. Last week Gordon Price wrote this article on “The Latest NPA Strategy” which appears to directly pit active transportation on Stanley Park roads against the right to motor around it. Mix in the word “seniors” and everyone had a Grandparent story about why Grandma needed a car in Stanley Park.

Lots more comment immediately came out of the woodwork after the rather unfortunate remarks of a park commissioner who sadly saw the greatest gift to seniors for the upcoming “BC Seniors Week” as the old style 20th century access to complete “open vehicular road” around the park.

Of course that sparked a whole lot of pretty fit seniors to get onto social media showing themselves biking and walking around the park.


The businesses in Stanley Park also piled on, telling the Daily Hive that the Prospect Point Cafe and restaurant and Stanley Park Pavilion relied on vehicular access. Their survey showed that 87 percent of customers to Prospect Point came by vehicle and surprise! 100 percent of special event guests used a car or a privately operated shuttle bus.

But here’s the strange part. The restaurants’ survey showed that only 33 percent of Prospect Point’s visitors were Vancouverites, with 53 percent from out of the country and 14 percent from the rest of the region. Given the fact the borders are closed, here’s the opportunity for Stanley Park businesses to retool for local trade and customers, as that’s the only dollar game in town for the foreseeable future. Studies from London show that  public transit users,cyclists and pedestrians spend  40% more per month at businesses  than car drivers, and visit  more often.

As well no one  is talking about what seniors and those with accessibility needs do in the park, where they stop, and what activities they are seeking. There’s an underlying idea that driving around the park is recreation, but it would be helpful to ask whether trail or seawall access  or other factors are at play, and design for that.

At the next Park Board Commission meeting is simply a motion to conduct a feasibility study for  a longer term plan to potentially reduce vehicular traffic around the park to one lane, allowing for cycling and other uses of the space. It’s a feasibility study. Commissioners need to accurately reflect to their constituents what is in their agenda package.

You can take a look at the whole motion below and also take a look at the agenda for the Park Board tonight.

The other takeaway of course is the fact that the Park Board is a remnant of a colonial past where parks warranted their own elected officials with their own exclusive staff. Think of it~there is a whole set of planners, architects, maintenance workers and staff that do no work other than within parks, report directly to Council, and have an annual budget of 136 million dollars.

The City of Vancouver’s Park Board is now the only one remaining in North America, and a study over a  decade ago suggested abolishing it, and melding that work  within the City of Vancouver as a whole.

That’s why you don’t see bicycle paths through parks as the Park Board can say no to such suggestions from the Engineering Department on their turf. On the upside, some see the position of Park Board commissioner as a  training ground for future City Councillors.

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Well it happened. The pandemic meant that there was  a use for remote controlled vehicles that could deliver groceries. But surprisingly citizens have responded with their own resilience of using online services, having grocery delivery, or preordering groceries and having them waiting curbside for pickup at the store.

Canadians have been slow to become accustomed to  online ordering, but Canada Post has been experiencing parcel deliveries of up to 1.8 million parcels a day, similar to Christmas rush levels. Consumers who have never made an online purchase make up 78 percent of customer volume with Shopify merchants, as outlined in this CBC story by Diane Buckner.

But back to those autonomous vehicles. The shuttering of the economy for the pandemic has meant  several of the factories that promised things like  a “fleet of self-driving taxis” by 2020  (General Motors) and  “one  million autonomous robotaxis” on the road by the end of  the year” (Tesla) have had to reframe those predictions.

As reports Waymo, a Google company is the company doing well with autonomous vehicles and is the development leader. it is also the only “fully driverless vehicle”  taking passengers.

I have written before how autonomous vehicles were to be the  shiny new  pennies pledging to undertake all the  pesky logistics of driving. But as reported earlier in  The the most important aspect for any vehicle on the road is the ability to recognize and avoid vulnerable road users. You know, those pedestrians, cyclists and other wheelers that are using the street without the protection of a vehicular steel shell.

And we are not there yet.  These vehicles have challenges in “so-called edge cases”. That includes weather,  and “when someone else on the road—be it a driver, cyclist or electric scooter pilot—does something unexpected, as humans often do. The halting nature of development has delivered a large dose of humility to the world’s whip-smart mobility experts, who are showing an increased willingness to form posses and work together”.

There are “islands of autonomy” where groceries are delivered by driverless pods, and where seniors can zip around a gated retirement community.

But the investment of $14 billion US dollars has still not produced a truly autonomous vehicle.

While the field of factories will narrow, the use will broaden with online “grocery to gourmet” expansion. One analyst estimated that the use of self driving vehicles for grocery delivery would cut in half conventional trucking freight costs.

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In Grey Days and Grey Ways, PT asked why grey seems to be Vancouver’s default colour.  Lots of great comments, ending with this by Sam De Groot:

… in this town in particular, like other places that have grey climates, architects really do need to come out and embrace a bit of colour. Nordic countries, Slavic countries and traditional Newfoundland have colourful towns for the very reason that we need them, it livens the place up when the weather conspires to deaden.came in:

From the Nordic to Sub-tropical climes – notably those in Australia, like Brisbane – architects play with colour.

With respect to a place like Brisbane and its use of colour in urban design and architecture, I’ve been there before:


Here’s some examples from my most recent trip in March (the last month of the pre-covid world we’re in), starting in Brisbane.


Queensland is subtropical, and March is still in summer.  But note that these images are taken on cloudy days in a light similar to ours.




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No matter how many times the NPA lose elections when they include anti-cycling dog whistling, they just can’t stop themselves.  Here’s the latest from NPA Park Commissioner Tricia Barker:

It’s not hard to figure out the underlying assumptions:

  • Seniors don’t cycle.
  • Seniors are so effectively disabled, they are reliant on (and can afford) cars.
  • Seniors need to have Stanley Park returned to its car-dominant allocation of space – “For ALL TIME!”

The implications follow:

  • The interests of cyclists and seniors are opposed.
  • NPA Commissioners will justify their anti-cycling strategy as pro-senior.
  • Cyclists and walkers who reject a return to the status-quo are anti-senior.

The NPA have been successful at least in one respect: keeping any new cycling infrastructure built to the City standard out of parks. Other than those places (like the South Shore of False Creek) where the City shares jurisdiction and will design and pay for bikeway-standard improvements, there has been no other significant upgrades within parks.  As a result, the park experience has been worsening for everyone, particularly in the case of Kits and Jericho.

Here’s a Jericho Video which illustrates the lack of adequate space for walkers, cyclists and runners, squeezed together on an unpleasant surface, without separation or signage.

In the three months into the pandemic, the Park Board has done essentially one thing for cycling: limiting vehicle traffic in Stanley Park.  They have done nothing to address crowding in parks elsewhere, leaving it up to the City (thanks to NPA Councillor Lisa Dominato’s Open Streets motion) to do the heavy lifting.

But they have moved fast to open up the parking lots, and now seem determined to get Park Drive in Stanley Park returned to wide-open car use as soon as possible, presumably so that cars and bikes can fight it out for road space. Or even worse, try to squeeze the extraordinary increase in cycling back on to the seawall, making the experience worse for everyone.

But here’s the thing: no cycling advocate that I have heard has suggested that Park Drive not accommodate those with more limited mobility.  Indeed, it’s in the remarks from HUB Cycling member Jeff Leigh:

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Another gem from Diana Sampson via Dave2onreddit:

Here’s the corner of West Georgia and Howe Streets looking east. Take a look where the traffic lights were, they are on lamp standards. There’s no crosswalk markings, no curb cuts to make it easier to step off the curb when walking. The width of the sidewalk  appears to be a generous six meters wide. You can see the Hudson’s Bay building in the left background, and just make out the Birks Clock when Birks was located on Georgia Street.

That’s Tenth Avenue Angel playing at the Strand Theatre  in the background  starring Margaret O’Brien, Angela Lansbury and George Murphy.

It’s interesting  how vast the large portion of the street  dominated by vehicles appears. Signage for people crossing the road indicates that “pedestrians start on walk light only” , and is placed  way above walkers’ heads on the signpost  facing traffic. It is oddly located above  the  “left turn only” sign for vehicles.

To get a sense of the post-war optimism of the era, here’s a YouTube video from September 21,  1948 when Hollywood actor and singer Bing Crosby brought his “radio show” to Vancouver toraise money for the  completion of the Sunset Community Centre(which was again  replaced in 2007). He raised 25,000 dollars and the City of Vancouver contributed the rest.

You can hear City Hall being called “ultra modern” (it was built in 1935) and see the City’s silver mace (which is a replica of the City of London England’s mace and one of the only pieces of civic regalia hallmarked before  Edward VIII’s abdication)  being carried out.

The acting Mayor follows wearing the Chain of Office. Bing Crosby meets First Nations Chief Mathias at the Sunset Community Centre site and be aware, there are some cringe worthy comments  in the description.

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