My Business in Vancouver column from July 7-14, 2014.  When written a month ago, the focus was on the big picture.  Last week, because of SkyTrain disruptions, the view would be different.   Either way, leadership will be essential.  Here’s my take on one of the leaders in this region.

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There are very few times in politics when you will see a well-choreographed consensus emerge from a group of disparate politicians, each with a separate constituency, each with a different take on a contentious topic – like, say, transportation in Metro Vancouver.

Yet at the June 12 meeting of the Mayors’ Council on Regional, all but one of the 23 local leaders made a short and supportive statement in favour of the vision and investments that its subcommittee had spent the last 12 weeks strenuously assembling.

It was a masterful herding of the cats.  And even the lone stray, the mayor of Burnaby, had only a few weak reasons to position himself in opposition.

The need to get something on the minister’s desk by the middle of June may have achieved a consensus that might not otherwise have been possible. It certainly united every municipality in the region even if there were disagreements along the way. The result was something that more cynical critics could hardly believe was possible: leadership, co-operation, compromise and unity.

Greg Moore, the mayor of Port Coquitlam, who chaired the subcommittee, had proved to be the most effective regional leader since Gordon Campbell and George Puil. Only balder and nicer.

“I’ve been kind of a loudmouth on this issue,” said Moore in an interview at the beginning of May. “I’ve said to my colleagues: ‘We have to take charge of this; just give us the responsibility and we’ll pull it together.’ And part of my goal was to show the TransLink staff, the appointed board and the public that we were in charge.”

I asked him what he thought success would look like if they could deliver what the minister of transportation had asked for: a vision, a list of investments and a way to pay.

Success, he said, would be a plan that addresses the Regional Growth Strategy, the City of Vancouver’s Transport 2040 plan and local government contributions, presented in a nice package to the minister, with unanimous support.

And that’s pretty much what he got.

Moore is an intriguing combination of politician and planner.  As an urban geographer and planner, he spent a decade on staff at Port Coquitlam city hall before becoming a councillor, then the mayor, then chair of Metro Vancouver.

The planner in Moore has, by pulling together staff and politicians to work in a way that rarely happens, tabled a cohesive plan. As politician, he has found a consensus among regional leaders, with most of the strength in the suburbs.

The proposal has something for everyone, he affirms, “to really make a transit-oriented region. It’s a fork in the road: transit or roads. Transit is what everyone is talking and agreed to in the strategy.” And that’s what the investments reflect.

Yes, $7.5 billion – the amount for the total package – is a big number. But as Moore said, “If it fails, the default is roads and bridges” – and we’ve already committed $3.3 billion on the Port Mann and related works, with another $2 billion likely the minimum for the Massey Bridge and Highway 99. So already we’re at two-thirds of what a decade’s worth of transit and regional roads would cost – for just two bridges.

Antitax critics are criticizing the package as too ambitious, but what they’re really arguing is that half the province’s population should be satisfied with a second-rate transit system and a region unable to address the challenges of the next million people.

Moore’s thoughts on what happens next: “The first decision for the minister is whether he agrees with the report, its assumptions, funding and issues.

“If they disagree, what do they do? Give it back, or be prescriptive?

“If they agree, then I say, ‘Work with us to formulate a referendum question and date.’  They’ll have 21 cheerleaders saying to their citizens, ‘Vote in favour!’  If they rip it apart, then they’ll have 21 mayors who are your worst enemies,

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My Business in Vancouver column:

No easy way to save city heritage homes from wrecking ball

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The civic election may not be until November, but along with the blossoms and sprouts of spring, we’re spotting some signs: the early-bird candidates, the first polls, the perennial fundraisers.

And some emerging issues. The public’s top concern, of course, is housing affordability – by a long shot – and there is already a vigorous conversation about a lot of related issues, particularly the changing face (and character) of the city.

Vancouver Sun columnist Barbara Yaffe tackled a topic that’s gaining increasing traction: the loss of Vancouver’s pre-1940s stock of character homes, at a rate of about 70 a month in the city of Vancouver, primarily on the west side where the loss is most keenly felt: “These older homes, with their pitched roofs and leaded glass windows, French doors and narrow-slat oak floors, often are architecturally charming, part of the city’s history, a positive for tourism, deserving of refurbishment.”

She’s not alone: Caroline Adderson launched her “Vancouver Vanishes” Facebook page, along with a petition urging the city to take fast action to stop the demolitions.

“Delay action for a year,” she fears, “and we will be down another 850 (homes), by which time city staff may be hard-pressed to find a concentration of character homes.” With more than 3,000 signatures on her petition, she aims to make this an election issue.

But what policies and promises should follow?

Unfortunately, few address (other than to bemoan) the underlying cause: land values so high they cannot be realized without the demolition of the smaller, older houses – and the expensive deterrents and regulations if a character home is to be upgraded to contemporary standards.

Then there’s the even more touchy issue of “offshore” money (whether from Asia or Alberta) sustaining a real estate market that does not or cannot incorporate intangible values.

The easy out is to blame the politicians, to call for some unspecified action or, at least, for more information on what is actually happening.

There are, however, tough questions for the public, especially those who already own property or have some kind of tenure in the city.

If the city could indeed come up with a way to lower land values, who would be willing to argue for a permanent lowering – if it were their values being lowered?

Specifically, who would take less than the market value in a sale by contractually constraining the subsequent owner to ensure the preservation of an existing home?

Or how about this: who would be willing to be taxed on the unearned increment of their property (the difference between what they paid originally and the escalation of value separate from improvements)? If, say, a tenth of the increased value in the last few decades were put into a fund to purchase character homes in the city, with a long-term limit on subsequent sale or rentals, that might directly preserve hundreds of homes.

If sold to lower-income purchasers, that would also address affordability and inequity. So who would accept taxation at that level – or voluntarily contribute to a fund through the Vancouver Heritage Foundation?

Or here’s another approach: who would be willing to have their property taxes raised sufficiently to allow the city to compensate for the difference between what a character home is worth on the market and the value if it were designated and protected as a heritage property?

Or yet another way: who would be willing to rezone their neighbourhood so drastically that it would flood the market with enough housing to make the character homes competitive?

Or, who would be willing to support density bonusing or infill sufficient to make retention of existing houses attractive, even if it changed the scale of the community?

Who, then, would be willing to run for office on a platform of lowering property values or increasing taxes enough to protect homes almost a century old?

Or to put in place regulations so onerous they would effectively prohibit demolition?

I’m guessing that when you see the party platforms this fall,

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Only 424 days left ’til the next municipal election. Not too soon to gear up the commentary machine.

So here’s a prediction for any incumbent or aspiring candidate in Vancouver. Be prepared to saddle up. Some reporter/blogger is likely to rip off this idea from the New York Daily News:

In The News Cycle reporter Justin Rocket Silverman – and his GoPro camera – will  join newsmakers for a ride on Citi Bikes. Destination? Wherever they want to  take us…

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By November of next year, we should have our own bike share.  So candidates, be prepared to demonstrate your cycling sophistication, and, of course, to take positions on cycle tracks and bikeways (especially Point Grey Road), compulsory helmet-law enforcement, and why x neighbourhood doesn’t have bike share (or has a docking station taking up parking spaces).

Should be fun.

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