Sunday, October 23, 2011

Housing and the profit motive

Lately we've been pilloried in the press or at council meetings by a property owner and some other local voices frustrated by the city's unwillingness to approve a motel conversion to "affordable" housing.

On the surface, it's an attractive proposal; sprucing up an older hotel that the new owner bought in a bankruptcy sale to improve conditions for dozens of long term residents and securing a supply of housing for an underserved demographic - single men.

The reality is never so simple and council turned down the project for a number of good reasons.

When the bankrupt Traveler's Inn chain was being offered for sale, the city itself looked at a number of properties, a bold move on its own.  We hadn't before bought property to provide affordable housing and, given our caution with taxpayers money, we pursued only those that we thought we could secure at a reasonable price and could be easily converted to housing for some of our target demographics.  One is now filled with the very hard to house and another is a more challenging project to convert single units into more spacious family housing for our first nations community.

When we first entered the market, the economy seemed to be on the rebound and, apart from the city, private investors were looking to pick up properties in hopes of easy conversions to other uses.  Some of those bidding on properties may have over-reached and paid more than the true value, or failed to recognize the challenges of rezoning to fit their ambitions. 

The Douglas St. site lacks some necessary elements to support good housing and the property is not currently zoned for residential uses.  A real problem with the proposal was that the costs of improvements would have been pased onto existing residents in higher rents, arguably no better and prehaps worse than what they might get elsewhere in the private housing market. That's the difference between affordable housing and profitable housing.

While some may assume that the zoning is a minor challenge, the city's purchases met existing local zoning and avoided the costs and issues that rezoning may raise in the community.  Of particular concern for our city's future would be freezing the land use at the Douglas St. location; preventing a more thoughtful, appropriate conversion of the property to commercial and upper story residential and compromising plans for more transit oriented development along the corridor. 

At council, we often have to look at these longer term land use issues and weigh them against seemingly attractive short term fixes or favours for individual development to detour the threat of conversion to less attractive uses.

Victoria has done a lot of good work and has been partnering with numbers of players to create affordable housing and other options to help ensure that people who work in Victoria can also live in Victoria.  Nearly 800 units have been built or are in progress; a significant contribution to the fight against homelessness.  It doesn't mean though, that we are going to approve every proposal that comes through the door, and this one had more negatives than positives.

Progress on this key issue is steady and measurable.  Somewhere between the tent cities supported by some and the substandard or overpriced market housing proposed by others are the real solutions.  Those are the options we have to pursue and keeping up the momentum on that agenda is where council will be going over the next three years.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Issues on the street

I've started knocking on doors as we approach the municipal election coming up November 19th.  I'm running again for a seat on city council here in Victoria and seeking a seat at the CRD board table, both in my ongoing pursuit of building a sustainable city and a sustainable region.  Many of the issues I ran on in the last election are still relevant, and some of those I've been talking about on my blog are on people's minds too.

For the next few weeks I plan on getting up into the blogosphere more frequently to talk about what I'm hearing on the street and on the doorsteps of Victoria.  My website at will be updated soon, and I've got a couple of videos up on youtube where I have had the chance to highlight a couple of key issues.

Here's one on housing:

And one on jobs:

I'll be talking more about other key issues, but here on the blog, I'll scatter some thoughts around about some of the things I've encountered around Victoria. It isn't planned to cover the most important issues first or last, just more of a report on some, sometimes surprising themes that are showing up in the community.

Yesterday in the Oaklands neighbourhood, apart from issues of taxes (always an issue and we get good value for our taxes here), there was a good reception, but I did have a couple of people talking about boulevards and green space.  Not top of mind for most perhaps, but there are a couple of good examples in their neighbourhood of residents taking control of city boulevard space in front of their houses to grow food or flowers and make something more aesthetic or more productive of space we haven't always been taking good care of.

We're in the middle of doing a "boulevard review".  It's coming none too soon.  Numbers of neighbourhoods have decided they want to take care of their own space, though the city still manages acres of grass separating the street from the sidewalk.  It's important to me, and to many of our residents, that we protect and enhance our urban forest, and many of our street trees live in the boulevards.  We've taken a more forward looking approach, widening out some of the boulevards to give some of those trees a little more room to grow and we're also mixing up species to ensure streets and the urban forest remain as healthy as they can.  Too often in the past, single tree species have been planted along our city streets and there have been cases where a disease outbreak has wiped out entire blocks of trees and left neighbourhoods a little barren.  It's not only a loss of the trees that are a worry, but also the impact this has on things like stormwater management, traffic calming, habitat integrity or heat island effects.  The urban forest is an incredibly important and valuable asset.

The urban forest is also a concern as we try to adapt to the impacts of climate change.  I'm always asking our parks department about their choices of species and they are working to ensure that the trees we plant now will adpat to the shifting climate zones we are facing not matter how much we do to slow global warming.  The effects will be felt for years to come and the trees we plant now will have to live for the next 100 years with the impacts of industrialization that have happened over the last 100 years.

Another emerging trend in urban boulevard management is all about food security and pride of stewardship.  Food security is a big issue for many in our community and Victoria has a growing community market culture, many residents doing their own backyard farming, and more who are looking to use the boulevards in front of their homes to grow something other than the latest golf green.

At the city, we'll be mindful of making sure that where we turn over the boulevards to residents, that we can redeploy our workforce elsewhere in our parks system, or if we can manage within our constrained budgets, using some of those used to just cutting the grass to work with residents on their ornamental or food gardens.  It would be a great way to get more from our public spaces and help keep jobs in the city.

We also have to be mindful of what we grow in the boulevards we may turn over to residents.  We don't want to plant nut trees if they have the potential to cause problems for children with allergies.    We also want to make sure that food grown in boulevards is well tended and harvested to ensure we don't create rodent problems, spread root systems into sidewalks or underground utilities (sewer, water, phone lines etc.) and we should be careful to ensure fruits and vegetables left untended don't spill out and rot on the road where they can turn into a slippery mess that creates a hazard for cyclists, or for pedestrians on the sidewalk.

Never thought there would be so many issues associated with the urban farming movement, but boulevards can be pretty small and the city is not the same as the countryside. There will be issues to deal with.  Still, it's an appetizing opportunity that many cities are taking advantage of, and Victoria needs to get on board. 

We've got some examples already of people taking on their boulevards and we're leaving many of them alone while we work through the review.  One fantastic example is in the Oaklands neighbourhood where we were door knocking (one of my council colleagues got the door where on resident has created her own farm on the boulevard in front of her house), and I heard from a couple of others concerns about managing the boulevards or other small greenspaces in the neighbourhood.  They were most concerned that the grass, or the weeds, were often left uncontrolled and looking too tired or creating other problems.  An small corner greenspace became a dumping ground for neighbourhood junk when some found it easy to hide their garbage in the tall grasses and dandelions that were taking over the space.

Our boulevard review will take some time and I'm looking forward to "digging in" on the issue.  It's important to me that we try and be creative around the management of our greenspaces and our urban forest.  Boulevard gardens are a way of partnering with our residents to take care of our city and bring some ideas from other cities into our urban fabric.  It's about sustainability and it's just one of the issues I expect to be hearing on the campaign trail.

Today's picture is from Portland, where residents are taking over entire intersections to create not just gardens but attractive community spaces for all to enjoy.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The road back from Vancouver

Back now in Victoria, and rested from a busy Union of BC Municipalities Convention in Vancouver, where some of the issues we have in common with other municipalities have been covered in last week's blogs already.  I've got more to report out on from the conference itself, but sometimes the experience is the journey as much as the destination.

I had a chance, as always, to explore again some of the waystations along the route, where Vancouver's version of rapid transit is transforming another neighbourhood and the journey allowed me some time and some real world models to reflect upon as we work through our own transportation challenges in the Capital Region.

As often as I can, I'll ride to and from events and conferences, easy enough between Victoria and Vancouver where the trip can be shortened using our transit and ferry systems on both sides of the water.  (Lucked out traveling on the Spirit of Vancouver Island where two of "my" bike racks sit on the car deck, but that's another story:   It's often a great way to get in a good, refreshing ride, add some training miles to my itinerary, and delivers a variety of other personal and community benefits along the way.

It's so much cheaper to travel by bike and transit, a positive on the expense ledger that conference travel adds to a councillor's public accounts.  I probably eat a bit more (chocolate benefits), but it's still far below the cost of traveling by car or by floatplane.  The plane might be quicker, a car not much more so, but for a week long conference and the opportunity to explore, there's so much added value to traveling by bicycle.

The most current of those values showed up soon after I left the hotel downtown (I've got a favourite that let's my bike into the room), as I meandered along to Cambie St. after the requisite visit to see how Hornby and Burrard bike lanes are performing (and they are showing good signs of growing bicycle traffic and comfortable enough adaptation for everyone else). 

Cambie was turned upside downtown for several years while the Canada Line was constructed and the Olympics came to town.  Use of the new rapid transit connection ramped up pretty quickly and has been enthusiastically embraced by residents and visitors alike.  A good service creates its own successes and Vancouver's model proves the point so well.

It's not the first time I've taken time to watch the neighbourhood reinvent itself, but this time, instead of heading straight for the ferry, I took more time out to circle around. perhaps the pivotal station along the line, a few blocks west of the southeast False Creek Olympic Village, a few blocks north of city hall and now an anchor for much new and positive development that is adding value to the landscape and opening up the neighbourhood for a more diverse mix of land uses and transportation choices.

Business and commercial space is going up, and not just low value, single story developments, but even some of the bigger retailers that might have fled to the suburbs are there taking advantage of access to rapid transit, and as well the pattern of settlement density better transit is clearly a catalyst for.   Residential is piling up on top of some of the commercial developments and nearby, more townhouse and neighbourhood residential scales down from the transit hub.  Bike lanes and path connections, bicycle priority treatments and everywhere more space for pedestrians all provide for a more diverse and sustainable menu of transportation options.  Still, there is a lot at the transit station for park and ride commuters and on-street parking, though not everywhere on every street, seems adequate to support driver demand.

There's a vibrancy back in this part of the city, no doubt less in evidence while transit was blazing its path through the corridor.  Still, over the sequence of trips I've made back and forth, the trasnformation of the hub appears to have been quick and dramatic.  It's useful understanding that the introduction of rapid transit, in whatever form, may be disruptive and needs to be well managed during construction, but also that the recovery can be dramatic and immensely positive.

Also worth noting is our own city history here in Victoria, where we have been shaped as much by the streetcar systems of the early 20th century.  The neighbourhood villages, not to mention our well to do neighbours in Oak Bay, owe their existince to the LRT of the day.  It's a hot topic on some of the chat forums, as it should be.  We need so much to be looking at not just the speed and flow of our circulatory systems, but also at the health of the community around it.  Current models of transportation and community design that are so thoroughly focused on auto transport are showing signs of ill-health - nobody is coming downtown because we have the best dollar store, the tastiest single slice pizza or the fastest slurpee.  What we most need is a better transportation and development model, and it's one where LRT is increasingly, clearly, the right choice.