Governance & Politics
November 9, 2018

SFU: Want More Skytrain? Do the Numbers (Part II)

Yesterday’s post about the Vancouver Sun op-ed by Alex Boston scraped the surface of what could comprise an effective business case for Skytrain south of the Fraser, let alone what numbers may (or may not) have been used to justify LRT in the first place.

Did Translink miss some data? As I hinted in Part I, perhaps they simply missed communicating the most relevant, top-line numbers the public have an appetite — and capacity — to understand (no offence to all of us).

But let’s assume they made a whole raft of calculations, such as those that can be found in “Regional Transportation Investments: A Vision for Metro Vancouver (Appendices)“, pointed to me by  Boston’s colleague Keane Gruending from the Centre for Dialogue. The Centre’s own analysis on this file is reminiscent of their Moving in a Livable Region program around the time of the 2015 transit plebiscite, which attempted to hold our leaders accountable (and the politics in check), using a facts-first approach.

Boston’s deeper piece on the Renewable Cities website also reminded me that a lot of the debate on whether to pause Phase 2 and 3 of the Mayors Plan to once again deal with the Skytrain question often fails to deal with two important metrics tied to land use: jobs density, and CO2 emissions.

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This week, Alex Boston, the Executive Director of the Renewable Cities program at SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, wrote an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun on the proposed two big changes threatening to upend phases 2 and 3 of TransLink’s Mayors Plan.

Boston’s piece is a call, if slightly veiled, to Vancouver’s Kennedy Stewart and Surrey’s Doug McCallum to do what they were elected to do when it comes to regional matters — understand all the issues in a city which are regionally dependent or impactful, obtain support and confidence from your respective councils on big ideas, and work collaboratively with the other mayors and the TransLink Board to realize them.

But of course as you may know, it’s never that easy. And much like the housing crisis, there may not even be agreement on what the two problems are. 

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Courtesy of Price Tags contributor Tom Durning, a look back to Vancouver’s English Bay, and the summer of 1959.

Notable events in the region that year: Canadian Pacific Airways began flying direct from Vancouver to Montreal, the “Deas” (Massey) Tunnel opened to traffic, and Oakridge Centre at 41st Avenue and Cambie Street welcomed customers as Vancouver’s first shopping mall.

 

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There’s no question that the City of Vancouver’s civic election will pivot on two factors: affordability and accessibility.

People need affordable places to live. And if they can’t afford to live in Vancouver, they must be able to get in and out of the city. In his work on skyrocketing housing costs,  ‘Duke of Data’ Andy Yan has demonstrated that wages have not kept pace.

That’s why the discussion of who will enter council chambers in the fall — and who will lead as mayor — is so important.

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By Jeff Leigh
The Vancouver Sun has posted an editorial about the controversy regarding the proposed Kits Beach Park bike route, “Don’t Wreck Kits Beach Park with Unnecessary Bike Lane
Leaving aside the quip about chanting anti-car slogans (the advocacy group I work with has as a guiding principle respect for all transportation stakeholders – there aren’t winners and losers), there are numerous fallacies presented in the op-ed piece.  Starting with the title.  The proposal is for a low-speed path, not a bike lane.

Cyclists, on the hand, cannot safely ride through the throngs of pedestrians on the existing path — although many try — and want a route that allows them to complete a seaside circuit without interruption or the inconvenience of vehicular traffic.

We agree that riding through a throng of people walking on the existing shared path isn’t safe.  But diverting people on bikes (especially families with children) to a busy street and through a parking lot, particularly in summer, isn’t about inconvenience.  It is about safety.  It is about respecting the principles established in our city for movement, with people walking at the top of the pyramid, and people on bikes next.  Not last. And certainly not behind preserving all of the space for cars that is being championed here.
This is about park planning.  Note the photo the Vancouver Park Board use on their web site:

The matter was supposed to be decided at a Vancouver Park Board meeting this past Monday, but the board voted to refer it back to the engineering department for further study.

The construction of a bike route wasn’t supposed to be decided by Park Board Commissioners.  The recommendation by Park Board staff was simply for staff to work with City transportation engineering staff to advance designs, and develop budget cost estimates, in preparation for a full public consultation.  The Park Board Commissioners did not refer it back to Engineering, as Engineering isn’t a Park Board department.  They failed to refer it back.  They left it in limbo.  References were made in the meeting to next year’s Park Board commissioners dealing with it.

Considering that a bike lane through this park has been debated for five years or so, one might have thought that all the study would be done. But the total cost, the number of trees to be lost and other details are still unknown.

All the study was not done as Park Board staff did not start work on it until late in 2017, in response to community pressure to deal with a worsening problem.  That pressure came from the cycling community.  But also at the table with Park Board staff were local residents and representatives of various park user groups.  The costs and potential tree impacts are unknown because that work hasn’t been done yet.  The staff recommendation was for that work to be done. Park Board staff will struggle to do it without hiring outside expertise, or working collaboratively with Engineering staff, who had offered to help.

The route from Balsam Street and Cornwall Avenue in the west to Ogden Avenue and Maple Street in the northeast would result in the loss of about 930 square meters of green space, roughly the size of two basketball courts. Demonstrators before the meeting carried signs reading: “Is concrete the new green?”

There are many options that reduce that impact, and offsets that result in no net increase in paving if that is desired.  Those options are open to the Park Board. Utilizing existing pavement would be the first way to answer the concern.  That means dealing with the question of retaining all existing parking, designing a safe route down the existing service lane to the restaurant, and so on.
But if the goal is to remove paving, fine.  Should we start with the tennis courts, the basketball courts, or one or more of the three parking lots?  Or should we instead simply find a way not to encroach further. A basketball player and a tennis player holding signs saying “No Paving in the Park” may be inclined to opt for the latter.
Lowering the tone of the debate doesn’t help. Why is a safe path through the park called a cycling speedway?  Why the references to the Tour de France by path opponents?

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On the surface the conflict on Kits Point is about a continuation of the Seaside Route through and around park space. The Park Board has punted that decision.

Delay and indecision is pretty much the Park Board strategy everywhere within their jurisdiction.  See Jericho:

But the way some of the Kits Point residents (the most successfully parochial community in the city) have framed the debate, it’s also about a larger policy issue.  Is cycling for all an activity to be accommodated and encouraged in parks?
Two Park Board commissioners (John Coupar and Sarah Kirby-Young, NPA) used concerns over lack of details – no route, no costing – to avoid a decision to proceed.  That no doubt surprised the staff who must have been instructed to prepare a report without those details in order not to inflame the community with the impression of a foregone decision.
So the Park Board failed to affirm or reject the position of the opponents, which (without quite saying it) is that cycling should be kept out of their park.  Quote: “ ‘I’m happy with that. It’s a reprieve for the moment,’ said Peter Labrie, a Kits Point resident who believes a bike lane through the park is unnecessary.”
If the Park Board refuses to make a decision on a properly designed bike route to connect and continue the Seaside, they would be affirming that position.  Their position by default would be that an activity which promotes healthy recreation, is necessary for active transportation and advances the city’s sustainability goals is not something to be encouraged in their parks.  (You can see why they don’t want to have to say that.)
This protest is also about an even larger agenda, as articulated by Howard Kelsey of the Kitsilano Beach Coalition.

(Kelsey) suggested the decision represented a broader win against cycling advocates he believes had held sway over the city’s agenda.”
“The cycling agenda was just put on hold,” he told supporters. “They are not driving the agenda anymore.

 
Conclusion: Many Kits Point residents and allies want to discourage cycling in the city by preventing the funding and construction of safe cycling routes for all.  And they have come very close to saying that.
The question now is whether those running for office will also support or reject that de facto position.  Or will they pursue the NPA strategy of never saying no but never articulating a positive alternative, and where possible never voting for anything decisive.  Cycling will simply be suffocated.

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The CBC weighs in on the recent news that the Sears department stores are having a financial challenge and may be looking at how to rebrand and/or restructure. Dianne Buckner notes that the typical mall design incorporated two large anchor stores in a mall, with the concept that shoppers would support the anchors’ stores and then browse and support the smaller shops.
Consumer habits are changing and the CEO of RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust which owns 300 mall type properties in Canada suggests that “secondary” malls are slowly expiring. The “primary”  “malls such as Toronto’s Eaton Centre, Calgary’s Chinook Centre or Vancouver’s Pacific Centre will always thrive, thanks to their size and location. But smaller, suburban malls won’t make it unless they reinvent themselves.”
As reported in Price Tags earlier this year, major mall holders including Ivanhoe Cambridge have been investigating building mixed use development around their shopping activities to reinforce their asset and to respond to the strong housing market.The massive, free parking lots that malls provide could be more profitable as mixed-use developments that also include offices and residences, along with regular retail.
As stated in Ms. Buchner’s article “A lot of those projects are right at the application stage and we’re going to see a building boom in mixed-use development at these shopping malls over the next five to 10 years.”  Similar to the marketing strategy employed by Starbucks, “experiential retail” built around a profoundly unique environment and experience will be the next level of  directed consumer shopping.
Examples such as “The Well” in Toronto include condos, a movie theater, a book store, restaurant and public spaces. “Market places” will provide a more European shopping experience with different retailers and food products all in one area.
 
Whether this will be enough to recharge retail with the changes in the way people are now purchasing products online remains to be seen. The repurposing of suburban malls as potential housing sites will provide some density to support local market retailing and provide some breathing room for continued commercial retail.

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In the truth is stranger than fiction category CNN Money reports   on the puzzling emergence of  “American Dream Miami” a South Florida retail and entertainment complex that will be 6 million square feet-or roughly three times the size of the  Tsawwassen Mills Mall built between Highway 99 and the Tsawwassen ferry terminal.
Despite the fact that Amazon is taking over nearly every aspect of retailing and that large retailers are going to on-line sales to maintain their margins, the “American Dream Miami” hopes to create enough “experiences” that people will want to spend a lot of time shopping there too.  The Triple Five Group  who is developing this behemoth is owned by the Ghermezian family from Edmonton that have developed the Mall of America and the West Edmonton Mall. These are the same folks that took over the failed “Xanadu” Mall in New Jersey and are attempting to remake it into American Dream Meadowlands.  
complete with a giant ferris wheel and water slides. That project has missed its targets and now appears stalled.

Triple Five is counting on Miami shoppers wanting experiences, with a “skating rink, an indoor ski slope, an aquarium, nightclubs and theater space that can host acts like Cirque du Soleil and the Russian ballet.” This $4 billion project will also include 2,000 hotel rooms, and will not be built with public funding. “You’re talking about a regional entertainment destination,” said Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a zoning lawyer for American Dream. “It’s not a run-of-the-mill mall.”
With County approvals projected for this year, this mall could be built by 2022 and is expected to create 23,000 construction jobs and 14,500 jobs associated with the mall. But if they build it are there shoppers and experience seekers that will come?

 

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No, not the Robson of the last two decades.  More like the Robson that emerged in the late ’70s and ’80s, just after the completion of Robson Square, when it re-emerged as the pedestrian commuter street between the West End and the CBD.
Something similar is happening on Dunsmuir.

No, not the old Dunsmuir prior to the Olympics, when it was a one-way arterial with four lanes of fast-moving vehicles on synchronized signaling from the viaduct to Burrard. The Dunsmuir that emerged after the opening of the separated cycle track in 2010 is taking on a distinct character from block to block.  It feels, even with all the traffic, as a predominantly pedestrian street and cycle arterial – quieter, safer, more eccentric.
It’s the preferred feeder for the ‘academic quarter’  – from BCIT at Seymour to VCC at Hamilton, with ESL colleges, the SFU complex and the Vancouver Film School populating the blocks to the north with thousands of students of no visible majority.
It has three SkyTrain stations blocks apart.  There are corporate office buildings and civic institutions like the Queen E.  There is a cathedral and the country’s most profitable mall.  There are restaurants and bars, from Ramon joints to the Railway Club (back again!).

It is a street still creating an identity, with an even more energetic future to come (the Art Gallery at Cambie, the redevelopment of the post office at Homer, a connection to False Creek when the viaduct comes down).  It will become even more Robson-like as the residents in the eastern towers and offices populate that end of the street, and more businesses open to serve them.
My favourite intersection is at Granville, anchored by the elegant old BC Electric showroom, now incorporated into The Hudson.  The pacing of people, vehicles, bikes and buses is an urban gavotte, a choreographic rhythm of traffic signals.  And with downtown’s biggest gym nearby, the people watching is pretty good too.

There is a lesson here.  If a separated cycle track and the removal of a vehicle lane with parking was going to kill the economics of a street, Dunsmuir should be dead by now.
In particular, the St Regis Hotel, having lost its curbside access, should be suffering. That does not appear to be the case.  Indeed, it can only profit more from the changes that are occurring as a consequence of the Dunsmuir cycle track.
In which case, the owner, a prominent businessman named Rob MacDonald – he who led the vilifying campaign against separated bike lanes, and even spent close to a million dollars backing the NPA in the fight – should perhaps offer a full-throated apology, or at least a recognition that the apocalyptic op-ed that he penned back in 2011 – “Downtown bike routes are a disaster” – was maybe a tad overstated.
And that Dunsmuir is turning out way better than anyone really expected. Thanks to a bike lane.

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Henry Grabar in The Slate reports that it was  ten years ago that the  death of  the suburban shopping mall was announced.  This was the first year in fifty that no new malls were built in the United States. “Brick and mortar” retailing has been failing, when “The Limited, a women’s clothing store, shut down 250 stores and laid off 4,000 workers earlier this year. Sears Holdings will close 150 stores, including 108 Kmarts, and Macy’s will close another 100. As anchor stores close, more and more malls are entering foreclosure. Financial instruments composed of debt from mall deals are looking as risky as their counterparts in residential debt did before the housing crisis.”

E-commerce,the rise of Amazon and online shopping has taken some of the blame. While there is increasing employment in warehousing, “department stores; general merchandise stores; and sporting goods, hobby, book, and music stores” have lost jobs, with clothing stores severely hit the last few months. Ironically 71 per cent of workers in ” sales and related occupations live in the suburbs, according to the Brookings Institution, about 2 percentage points higher than the average for U.S. workers.”
What seems to be successful for retail is the mix of an urban “retail corridor” in cities, with “stores flanked by restaurants, bars, and other entertainment attractions”, close to mixed use density and good public transit. But while media has blamed internet shopping for the end of the suburban mall,  retail may have been overbuilt. The challenge for suburban locations is finding alternative ways to create employment and repurpose lands to contribute to the tax base.  As Leah McLaren writes in the Globe and Mail Canadians still have not caught up with online shopping. While  10 to 12 per cent of Americans spend on the Amazon shopping site, only 6 per cent of Canadians do. Colliers reports that “online shopping sales growth can be blamed for vacancy of roughly 14.8 million square feet of mall space between 2012 and 2014.” Given that indicator, shopping malls  will be shrinking dramatically in Canada as well, as E-commerce catches on.
It is therefore no surprise that the Vancouver Sun writes that malls “are fighting for shoppers with one things their web rivals can’t offer: parking lots”, by using them for carnivals, concerts and food truck festivals. Tsawwassen Mills which has had spectacularly empty parking lots featured a carnival on site this month. They are also now running a “shopping shuttle” picking up prospective shoppers in downtown Vancouver for a day of mall shopping at the Mills.  But will shuttles provide enough consumer traffic for that long drive in the face of the quick access of E-commerce and Amazon? Is this a portent of changing consumer tastes?
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