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Ross Crockford

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  1. You're welcome, and thank you for being publicly engaged! The RMTS's report to its April 30 AGM said that in 2018 capital funds were spent on lobby-area roof repairs, replacing balcony carpets and drapes, a modern fire curtain, new usher jump-seats, more washers and dryers, a video projector and screen, hearing assist upgrades, and improved signage. The survey has been controversial — notably, the RMTS commissioned it only after getting pushback on the changes to the booking policy — but I do agree with the respondents who said that the theatres are well-maintained.
  2. Thank you for the kind comments. I'm not an accountant, so I can't speak to how the RMTS breaks down its financial statements, but it did state in its presentations to the three owner municipalities that it receives $580,000 annually from them, via the CRD — $480,000 for capital expenses, and $100,000 for its operating budget. See, for example, the second slide in its April 25 presentation to Victoria councillors, at https://pub-victoria.escribemeetings.com/filestream.ashx?DocumentId=36544 A part of the problem may be that this amount of funding has not increased since 1998, when it was established by a bylaw, posted at http://crd.ca.legistar.com/gateway.aspx?M=F&ID=05050a93-239c-43c6-ba73-4a584b165700.pdf. The RMTS is proud that it has not asked for an increase in this funding. Maybe it needs to be increased anyway ... and more municipalities need to pay for the services the theatres provide.
  3. The society running the Royal Theatre aims to make it the region’s hub for commercial live performance. But Langford may soon have a venue of its own. IT'S A SUNDAY AFTERNOON, and folks are streaming into the Royal Theatre to see the Broadway musical Jersey Boys. Many came from up-Island: Courtenay, Cowichan, Mill Bay. One woman tells me she attended her high-school grad ceremony at the Royal in 1965; now she lives in Nanaimo. “We were in Vegas and we just missed the Jersey Boys,” she says. “Then we found out they’re playing in little old Victoria! So we came down.” Such a remark is surely music to the ears of the Royal and McPherson Theatre Society, the entity that runs Downtown’s two historic theatres. Last autumn, the RMTS announced it was jacking the rates for nonprofits to rent the Royal — including the three main users, the Victoria Symphony, Pacific Opera Victoria, and Dance Victoria — from $1,800 a day to $2,500 on most weekdays and $4,000 on Fridays or Saturdays, closer to the higher rents it charges commercial users. The RMTS also imposed a new booking policy, requiring the nonprofits to leave one Thursday-Saturday weekend per month free for other presenters. “As the capital region’s population grows and the demographics change, there’s an obligation to make the theatre more accessible to a range of presenters and the audiences they serve,” said Randy Joynt, the RMTS’s manager of external affairs. In other words: less Jenůfa, more Jersey Boys. Fewer nights for Pacific Opera Victoria productions like Countess Maritza may make the Royal more “accessible” to Cheech & Chong (Photo courtesy of Pacific Opera Victoria) In December, the Symphony — based at the Royal for 78 years — said it was moving 18 of its 36 concerts to UVic’s Farquhar auditorium, and arguments about the rent hikes filled the opinion pages of the Times Colonist. In March, after meeting with the three main Royal users, the RMTS said it would phase in the increases over two years, but retain its new booking policy. The users called on the Capital Regional District, which oversees the RMTS, and the municipalities that own the Royal — Victoria, Saanich, and Oak Bay, which jointly contribute $580,000 per year for its upkeep and operations — to conduct a transparent, collaborative review of the future use of the theatre. Instead, this April and May, the RMTS pre-emptively stated its case to the three municipal councils — and the user groups, since not directly employed by the municipalities, and therefore not permitted to speak under council rules, could only send letters in rebuttal. The dispute boils down to two concerns. The first is what the RMTS calls a problem of “dark days.” The nonprofits are allowed to book the Royal several years in advance so they can plan their seasons, but currently only pay a full rate on days of performances, and just $500 on days the theatre sits dark. That encourages them to save performances for more-lucrative weekends, the RMTS says, and let the venue sit empty during the week. The RMTS now wants the same rent whether the users perform that day or not. “The theatre sits dark, the majority of the time, through the prime season of our year,” Lorne DeLarge, president of the RMTS board, told Victoria councillors. “That is what we are trying to improve.” The symphony and opera booked the Royal for 120 days in 2018-19, but only held performances on 49 of them, he said; increasing the rent would nudge them to use the theatre more efficiently, freeing it up for others. “We believe we’ve found a way to accommodate the needs of the not-for-profits, and increase use of the theatre.” Pacific Opera Victoria CEO Ian Rye says the RMTS is “not being genuine” in its calculations. Every POV production needs four days for setup, four of rehearsal, and a vocal rest day between each performance, which is industry standard. On all those days, POV is paying rent — while most touring acts occupy a theatre for just one or two days, usually on a weekend. If POV now has to pay full rate on all the days it needs, it will spend $120,000 more annually on rent. The second, broader issue concerns the purpose of the theatres, and the RMTS. Until 2017, the society’s mission was “To enrich the cultural life of the region, by operating and maintaining the civic theatres of the CRD.” Then it developed a new strategic plan — which did not involve Royal users, and wasn’t shared with its owners — with a revised mission: “Enriching the quality of life in the region, through a sustainable and relevant performing arts centre.” Tellingly, “cultural” was gone, along with “civic.” Instead, the new keywords are “sustainable” and “relevant” — shorthand for turning the Royal into a profitable roadhouse for commercial entertainment. “The board is unanimous that this is the right direction,” DeLarge told Victoria councillors. “Not to move [the nonprofits] out, not to price them out, not to make them go bankrupt, not to limit their ability, but to share the theatre equally with more users for the benefit of the region.” True, the Symphony was already moving out half of its concerts, but DeLarge said those freed-up nights had been booked for RuPaul’s Drag Race, Relive The Music (a ’50s and ’60s nostalgia show), Cheech & Chong, and Supertramp frontman Roger Hodgson. The RMTS is an odd society: according to its bylaws, its only members are its directors. Three are councillors from owner municipalities, with the rest appointed by the CRD at the RMTS’s recommendation, or elected by the board itself — a formula preventing motions or elections from the floor, and guaranteed to reduce debate. (In 2018, the councillors on the board were Victoria’s Marianne Alto, Oak Bay’s Tara Ney, and Saanich’s Vicki Sanders.) The RMTS has also done well financially, posting surpluses of $190,505 in 2016 and $182,217 in 2017, while salting away some $300,000 annually into a fund for upgrading the old theatres. (There’s currently $2.274 million in its Royal Theatre Capital Fund, though only $300,000 in the McPherson fund.) The RMTS posted a surplus of only $78,000 last year, though, and executive director Lloyd Fitzsimonds told me they’re facing big capital expenses — the Royal’s air conditioning needs replacing, at $2.5 million — and higher operating costs, including the employer health tax, rent on relocated offices, and hiring key staff. (Joynt is leaving this summer to head the Manitoba Arts Council, and Fitzsimonds retires at the end of this year.) Wrapped in the language of “accessibility,” the RMTS presentation went largely unchallenged by the three councils. Victoria’s otherwise-progressive Ben Isitt said he found it “persuasive,” which was strange, as the hearing was effectively structured like a tenancy dispute where only the landlord was allowed to speak. The exception was in Oak Bay, where residents got to speak before the RMTS did. “The talented local professionals in these [arts] organizations teach music, dance and theatre, they teach at our schools and they volunteer in our community,” said Carrie Smart, an architect. “What an amazing community asset we have. Can we keep it? Or will we lose it with these changes?” Councillor Hazel Braithwaite later noted that Oak Bay helped buy the Royal in 1973 specifically to serve as a civic theatre: “I have a little trouble with these three groups not being able to continue on,” she said, “in something we originally paid money to keep within our communities.” In the end, the owner municipalities handed the problem off to the CRD. Recently the region reformed a committee to oversee the RMTS (it had not met for many years, for reasons unknown), which so far has only discussed tweaking the property-tax calculations for funding the theatres. But CRD chair Colin Plant wants a wider discussion, with a select committee to assess arts facilities across the region, and determine if we need a new theatre or concert hall. That may be an uphill battle: earlier this year, Sidney withdrew its financial support from the CRD’s arts service, and when Plant proposed the task force to the CRD’s governance and finance committee on June 5, CRD staff said they were too busy developing the CRD Arts website, and wanted the facilities discussion deferred to 2020. UNTIL POLITICIANS COME UP WITH a direction for the Royal, its users are left hanging, uncertain what the coming seasons will bring. In March, the Victoria Symphony started selling its subscription series, and sales are slightly better than last year. “That suggests that our longtime subscribers are, to a large majority, prepared to move with us,” says CEO Kathryn Laurin, but how many individual tickets sell for each UVic concert remains to be seen. So far, she can work with the move: the surround-style Farquhar has better acoustics and more comfortable seats than the 1913-built Royal, and its $2,700 daily rent includes $1,400 worth of labour, for which RMTS bills separately, and at far higher rates. “There are significant savings for us to be at the Farquhar.” Opera and dance need a proscenium stage, though, with wings for sets and performers to wait in, and they have no alternative to the Royal. POV’s Rye says they could reduce “dark days” by moving five weekend performances to weekdays, but that will cut ticket sales by seven percent. “Needless to say, reducing attendance is not [our] mission,” he says, “nor does the loss in ticket revenue help offset the hundreds of free and subsidized seats we extend to the community each production.” Besides, how many more shows will the Royal get? The RMTS says it had to turn away concerts by Buddy Guy and Morrissey, and talks by Rick Mercer and astronaut Chris Hadfield (who ended up at Sidney’s Mary Winspear Centre) because nonprofits had tied up the theatre. But the biggest money is made from Broadway shows like Jersey Boys, which held eight performances in six days, and the presenter who brings them here says what he can do is limited by the theatre itself. “The technical aspects of the Royal Theatre are way outdated,” says Henry Kolenko. “It’s a [rope-rigged] ‘hemp house,’ so it can’t fly the pieces we need to do bigger shows. More importantly, it doesn’t have the wing space or the depth.” Kolenko is based in Vancouver, but he grew up in Victoria, and finds it weird that a provincial capital still doesn’t have a modern theatre. “I can bring The Lion King to Thunder Bay, but I can’t bring it to the Royal Theatre because it just won’t fit.” (The RMTS has studied extending the Royal’s backstage, but that would cost millions and shutter the venue for months.) Kolenko’s shows may soon find a new home, though — in Langford. “The next big project is a theatre,” Mayor Stew Young tells me over the phone. Now that Langford’s built its infrastructure and recreation facilities — with the expansion of Westhills Stadium nearly complete, 18 months after it was announced — he says, “it’s time to start planning something.” Langford’s economic development committee will start studying the needs, costs, and private partners for a new theatre in the coming year. “I need the private sector excited and involved,” Young says. “I don’t want politicians driving it, I want real people in the room.” It could be part of a development, or a film studio, potentially on four acres next to Costco. He wants classrooms there too, so students can perform on the same stage they train upon. “I want it to be used by the public every day.” Young was at the Victoria premiere of Jersey Boys, talking up the possibilities. Back in 2013, the City of Victoria refused to let Kolenko promote Stomp! with a huge banner on the side of the Royal building, so he got in touch with Young, who shut down Goldstream Avenue for a free show by Stomp! performers. The Royal run sold out, and ever since then, Langford’s economic development committee has regularly sponsored Kolenko’s productions. “We’d like some shows out our way,” Young says. He’s likely to get them, and when he does, the RMTS may be begging its anchor tenants to return. “We have to support our local artists. Otherwise, we will have no art.” Ross Crockford didn’t say that, but wishes he did.
  4. Is recycling enough, or should we ban some plastics completely? YOU DON’T HAVE TO LOOK HARD, but you do have to look. To the dog walkers and strolling families, Willows Beach appears pristine. Start hunting for garbage, though, and you’ll find lots of it in a few minutes. Drink-box straws, candy wrappers, globs of styrofoam, cling wrap, bits of broken toys, zip ties — all plastic, tangled in the wood and seaweed left at high tide. “For many people, plastic is just a matter of convenience,” Anastasia Castro tells me, gathering bits from the sand. “They don’t see the real impact it has.” Teen anti-plastic activists Charlotte Brady and Anastasia Castro (Photo by Ross Crockford) Castro, a Grade 11 student at Glenlyon Norfolk School, is angry about the trashed state of the planet. So she’s been doing something about it. With her classmate Charlotte Brady, she spent two years speaking with City of Victoria staff and Downtown businesses, urging them to accept a ban on plastic checkout bags, which finally became enshrined in the City’s newsmaking 2018 bylaw. (Speaking to Victoria’s Council, she said: “It is not your world you are ruining, it is ours — the generations of the future who have to live in the mess you left behind.”) Last December, Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns credited Castro in the House of Commons for driving his private member’s motion M-151, calling for a national strategy against plastic pollution, which passed unanimously. “Due to the hard work of incredibly dedicated Canadians like Anastasia,” Johns told MPs, “the crisis of marine plastic pollution has reached the national stage.” That crisis certainly has become more apparent. The photo of the Costa Rica sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose. The reports of whales found dead in Indonesia and Italy with kilos of plastic in their guts. The horrifying statistics, that we humans spill eight million metric tonnes of plastic into the seas every year, and at that rate, by 2050 there’ll be more plastic in the oceans than fish. But as Castro and Brady point out, the problem isn’t only on the other side of the world. The largest accumulation of plastic debris on the planet, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — the subject of a new exhibit at the Maritime Museum of BC — consisting of some three trillion pieces of trash, swirls off our coast, halfway between California and Hawaii. In one day last October, volunteers led by the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation removed more than 300 kilos of garbage from 10 Victoria beaches. Even more debris in our waters consists of invisible microplastics, less than 5 mm in size, the product of household laundry and storm-drain runoff. Last year, Vancouver Aquarium scientists found 1,258 particles of plastic in one cubic metre of seawater taken from Burrard Inlet. Some of the same scientists have also found that plastic fibres are being ingested by zooplankton in the northeast Pacific — meaning they are likely being eaten by shellfish, crustaceans, salmon, and ultimately by ourselves, along with any toxic compounds that have bonded to the plastic. Governments are starting to act. The European Union has declared that single-use plastic cutlery, plates, straws and containers will be outlawed in all member states by 2021. Vancouver is scheduled to ban styrofoam cups and takeout containers, along with straws and plastic cutlery, starting in 2020. Prince Edward Island’s province-wide ban on plastic bags, the first in Canada, goes into effect on July 1. In other words, Victoria’s bag bylaw, likely soon to be replicated in other capital-region municipalities including Saanich, Esquimalt, Colwood and Sooke, is just the beginning. “We can’t let everyone believe that recycling is the be-all and end-all, and that if we ban plastic bags, we’ve done enough,” Charlotte Brady tells me. “Instead the conversation should be, ‘OK, we’ve taken this great first step. Now we need to go farther.’” AFTER YOU PUT AND EMPTY YOGURT TUB IN A BLUE BOX, it gets picked up by a private waste-removal company and delivered to Cascades Recovery’s busy facility in Rock Bay. Trucks arrive from across the region, dumping glass, paper, cardboard, metals and plastics at different bays of the Cascades warehouse. Workers separate plastics from metals, Bobcat loaders push the plastics onto a conveyor belt, and they drop into a machine that packs them into freezer-sized bales, wrapped with wire. Then semi-trailer trucks take the materials off-Island. The facility handles 4,000 metric tonnes of material a month this way. Your household plastics, baled at Cascades Recovery (Photo by Ross Crockford) The Capital Regional District started its blue-box program in 1989. The Cascades facility is older; for many decades it produced corrugated cardboard for Crown Packaging. Doug Stevens, the plant manager, recalls that it once had a machine that turned scrap paper into felt backing for shingles made at the Sidney Roofing plant on the Songhees lands. “Recycling’s been around a long time,” he notes. It keeps changing, though. Cascades takes materials from businesses, but those volumes have been declining, while residential is increasing: Victorians are buying more stuff, and it comes with more packaging. A few years ago Cascades added an oven that melts and condenses styrofoam (collected from recycling depots) to a tenth its original size, for reuse in crown mouldings and picture frames. Lately there’s been greater concern about “contamination,” which is why you should wash your containers (leftover food attracts rats), and have to separate glass (broken glass is hard to remove from other materials). Victorians are good about this: contamination rates are only three percent in the CRD, versus 26 percent in Toronto. Materials have to be clean and dry to resell, says Stevens. “It’s not garbage, it’s recycling. If you want it to be recycled, you have to treat it differently.” The crisis of marine plastic has emerged alongside a crisis in the recycling industry. Until recently, 70 percent of US scrap plastic went to China. But reportedly after Xi Jinping saw the documentary Plastic China, about the poisoned living conditions of scrap recyclers, China implemented its “National Sword” policy in 2018, refusing any materials with more than 0.5 percent contamination. With few local facilities to recycle their scrap, some US cites have resorted to landfilling plastics, or burning them. We’re in a better position. In 1994, BC introduced its first Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) program, under which producers and consumers paid extra eco-fees for the collection and safe disposal of leftover paint. Today BC has 22 such programs, for everything from appliances to tires. (In comparison, 16 US states have no EPR programs at all.) The EPR for paper and packaging is overseen by the non-profit agency RecycleBC, which collects per-weight fees from the 1,100 BC companies producing or importing such materials. RecycleBC then pays municipalities, regions, or waste companies to collect the scrap, sorters like Cascades bale it, and RecycleBC sells the scrap to processors. RecycleBC’s 2017 annual report says BC companies generated 234,847 tonnes of paper and packaging and paid $86 million in fees; those fees were then paid to recycling programs (like the CRD’s) that collected 174,942 tonnes, for an overall “recovery rate” of 75 percent. RecycleBC says the glass in your blue box gets melted into new jars and bottles in Abbotsford, or turned into sandblasting grit in Quesnel. Metal containers are sold to various North American processors and turned into road signs and window frames. Mixed paper becomes boxes and egg cartons in South Korea. But all of our blue-boxed plastic goes to one company, Merlin Plastics, and its two 180,000-square-foot recycling facilities, in Delta and New Westminster. “We’ve been around for 30 years, and every year, we’re expanding,” Merlin GM Kevin Andrews tells me. Merlin’s currently adding a mixed-plastics sorting line that will boost its annual capacity by 14,000 tonnes, to help handle the increasing volumes it’s getting from panicked recycling programs in Washington State and Oregon. Last year, when China’s restrictions came into effect, Canada became the second-biggest importer of US scrap plastic, after Malaysia. Since then, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and India have announced limits on scrap-plastic imports, due to complaints about pollution at recycling facilities, and Canada — thanks partly to Merlin — looks set to take first place. Merlin sorts various types of consumer plastics — polyethylene terephthalate (#1 or PET) used in pop bottles, high-density polyethylene (#2 or HDPE) in shampoo bottles, low-density polyethylene (#4 or LDPE) in plastic bags, or polypropylene (#5 or PP) in yogurt tubs — and processes them into pellets or “nurdles” that it sells worldwide, to be melted into new products. Andrews won’t say how much Merlin processes annually, but he assures us the company does its best to see the plastic is reused for similar purposes, instead of “downcycled” into lower-grade products. “To put a bottle to a bottle is not always easy, because you have to meet many different requirements. But you can put it into packaging that is maybe not a food item,” he says. “If it’s being reused in something that would’ve been made with virgin [plastic], there’s no downcycling.” RecycleBC has also started taking various soft plastics (cling wrap, mesh bags) and “laminates” (standup pouches, chip bags), collected from depots like those at Hartland and London Drugs. This is for a research project, to see if Merlin can recycle such flexible packaging; if it can’t, the plastic will be converted into “engineered fuel.” (Plastic can be melted and vaporized into gases that are condensed into synthetic crude oil.) RecycleBC reported that 4,647 tonnes of material was turned into fuel in 2017, but Andrews won’t say if Merlin’s conducting that work: “I can’t tell you whether we are or whether we aren’t.” BC DOES HAVE ENVIABLE EPR AND RECYCLING SYSTEMS, but they still suffer a lot of leakage, judging by what’s showing up on our beaches. RecycleBC posted a 75 percent “recovery rate” for paper and packaging in 2017, but dig deep into its proposed five-year plan and it turns out the rate varied greatly depending on the material: 87 percent of paper was collected and accounted for, but only 50 percent of rigid plastic and just 20 percent of flexible plastic. We have similar challenges keeping track of plastic bottles. Encorp Pacific, the agency that manages our beverage-container recycling, reports that BC residents bought 1,349,149,437 beverage containers in 2017, and collected 1,023,306,039. That amounts to a recovery rate of 75.8 percent — but means 325 million containers went missing that year in BC alone, despite the deposits paid on them. Some went into recycling, some into landfills, and some into the environment. In the 2017 Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, run by the World Wildlife Fund and Ocean Wise, the third-most common item collected by volunteers from Canadian beaches, after miscellaneous bits of plastic and cigarette butts, was plastic bottles, more than 50,000 of them. Plastic bags, 22,724 of them, came seventh. The solution for bottles seems simple: increase the deposits. Encorp asks for only five cents for small non-alcoholic beverage containers, a rate that hasn’t changed for decades. Alberta increased the deposit to 10 cents and now has a return rate of 86 percent; Oregon did the same and gets 90 percent returned. During recent public consultations, environmentalists asked Encorp for higher deposits, but the agency replied: “We do not feel such a drastic action is warranted.” Deposits work best for durable items like bottles that are relatively easy to count and collect, though. Creating a similar system would be nearly impossible for other varieties of packaging and single-use plastics. Plastics are miraculous compounds. Modern medical technology, aircraft, automobiles, and sporting goods would be impossible without them, the plastics industry points out, and even lowly plastic packaging reduces food waste, maintains hygiene, and saves energy in shipping. The American Chemistry Council estimates that the environmental costs would be five times greater if soft drinks, for example, were shipped in glass or metal instead of plastic. But the industry knows we have a problem. Last June, the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, which represents some 2,600 companies, announced that its members have pledged to meet a new “aspirational goal” to have 100 percent of plastic packaging re-used, recycled or recovered by 2040. Achieving this “will require significant investment” in new infrastructure and packaging design, the CPIA said — and “success will also require widespread public participation in recycling and recovery programs along with changes to littering behaviour.” In other words, the industry says, we need better packaging, better waste management by governments, and better citizens. (The industry has its own “littering behaviour,” it turns out. On beaches around the world, people have been finding the lentil-sized nurdles used by plastic fabricators. UVic librarians David Boudinot and Daniel Brendle-Moczuk have found and mapped nurdles at 68 sites along the Strait of Georgia, including Willows Beach, possibly spilled by one of the two-dozen companies using nurdles on the Lower Mainland. “We’re hot on the trail of the source,” Boudinot says.) High-tide trash on Willows Beach, including lentil-sized nurdles, the raw ingredient of many plastic products (Photo by David Boudinot) The industry says the search for better packaging is already underway. Multinationals such as Danone, PepsiCo and Unilever have joined The New Plastics Economy, an initiative led by the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation, calling for global packaging standards and funding for “moon shot” innovations, such as the development of “bio-benign” plastics and “reversible adhesives based on biomimicry” to make laminated plastics easier to recycle. Some of the same companies are also including their products in tests of the new Loop packaging system, in which consumers pay deposits on durable containers (for, say, Häagen-Dazs ice cream) and return them via a door-to-door delivery network; Loop is scheduled to roll out any day now in New York and Paris, and later this year in Toronto. A skeptic can’t help wondering, though, if many companies are signing on to such initiatives simply to buy time. Natural gas, the feedstock for many plastics, is still abundant and cheap, and virgin plastic is often less expensive than recycled. Deposit systems like Loop seem too inconvenient for most people, compared to the buy-and-dispose (or -recycle) economy in place. And the consumer-products and packaging industries are so vast and varied that they’re impossible to effectively self-regulate — as proven by the current wave of so-called “biodegradable” plastics that can be neither composted nor recycled. “There is a strong drive for business as usual, with small tweaks,” says Susan Maxwell, a recycling consultant and former Whistler councillor who’s developed several of BC’s EPR programs. As she notes, disposable plastics are a product of inexpensive oil and gas, and the incentives our economy gives to use more of them; we need to rejig the economy so that it’s not supporting industries that largely rely on taxpayers to clean up the aftereffects of their business. That means stronger laws. As Maxwell points out, BC’s Recycling Regulation, the law that governs EPR schemes like RecycleBC and Encorp, only mandates that the agencies post a minimum 75 percent “recovery” or collection rate — there is no requirement for them to achieve a target for reuse or recycling of their products. I asked RecycleBC several times what percentage of “recovered” plastic actually gets recycled, and they didn’t respond. The federal ministry of environment says that only about 11 percent of all plastic in Canada gets recycled. Maxwell thinks the laws need to be stronger upstream, with greater oversight of what kinds of plastics get produced in the first place, and outright bans on those that are too difficult to recycle or likely to leak into the environment. “We shouldn’t be putting things out in the world, and then trying to figure out afterwards what we’re going to do with them,” she says. “We really need to turn off the tap. We can’t be trying to sieve the ocean for plastics.” ONE QUESTION ANASTASIA CASTRO got asked while campaigning against plastic bags is the same one Canadian libertarians ask about climate change: Why do we have to do anything about it? A 2017 study estimated that 90 percent of the plastic in the oceans comes from 10 rivers in Asia and Africa; banning plastic bags in Victoria, the libertarians argue, or even across Canada, won’t have any effect at all. Castro answers with a question of her own: “How can we ask these countries to change if we’re not willing to make the simplest changes ourselves?” After all, North America created disposable culture, and we’re exporting it — literally, in some cases, along with our waste. As she points out, 103 shipping containers filled with Canadian garbage marked as recyclables have been sitting in The Philippines since 2014, and Greenpeace reported in January that Canadian plastic has turned up in unregulated recycling sites in Malaysia. Besides, other nations are doing something. So far, 63 countries have banned plastic bags outright, including China, India, and Kenya, which imposes penalties of up to four years’ imprisonment and $40,000 in fines for producing or distributing bags. (The bans work: San Jose, California, reported 89 percent fewer bags in its storm-drain system a year after it instituted a ban, and marine scientists recorded a 30 to 40 percent reduction in plastic bags in the North Sea after bans came into effect in countries along its shores.) The EU’s forthcoming ban on single-use straws, cutlery, and dishware is already being duplicated in several countries dependent on beach tourism, such as Barbados and Jamaica. We may have to wait a long time to see similar nationwide measures in Canada, though. Gord Johns’ unanimously-approved motion for a national strategy against plastic pollution now has to go through parliamentary committees; fellow NDP MP Nathan Cullen has introduced his own bill, prohibiting any packaging that can’t be composted or recycled, but it’s unlikely to pass before October’s federal election. Federal environment minister Catherine McKenna recently told the CBC that a national plastics strategy is coming in June — but stopped short of committing to any bans. “It’s not just about banning,” she said. “I think we need to focus more on the circular economy” — in other words, better package design and recycling, in line with the direction of Canada’s $24.3-billion plastics industry. That’s nothing new. Last September, McKenna got most G7 countries — plus Dow, Unilever, Walmart and other multinationals — to sign an Ocean Plastics Charter, pledging to “recover 100 percent of all plastics by 2040.” (Sound familiar?) McKenna and provincial environment ministers also signed a similar Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste in November — both voluntary declarations, with distant timelines and no budgets or plans for enforcement. “Minister McKenna has been silent on the important role that bans play in tackling plastic waste reduction across Canada,” Greenpeace Canada said in a statement. “We need real leadership from Canada like we’re seeing in other parts of the world, such as Europe, and this isn’t it.” OUR PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT hasn’t shown much leadership either. At last September’s conference of the Union of BC Municipalities, members endorsed two resolutions calling for uniform regulations on plastic packaging, and a province-wide strategy to reduce single-use plastics. The ministry of environment responded, in both cases, by citing its pride in the province’s 22 EPR programs, and said it was focused on improving and expanding them instead. “The ministry commends the actions taken by local governments to develop single-use item strategies and other related initiatives to reduce plastic in the environment.” FOCUS also asked BC’s ministry of environment several direct questions about plastic pollution. The ministry told us it is “considering” increasing the deposits on beverage containers to increase the numbers of them that get recycled, but is not planning to mandate recycled content in new plastic containers, like California does, or introduce a province-wide ban on plastic bags, like the one coming in PEI. (Our questions and the ministry’s complete responses are posted HERE.) Consequently, any tough measures have been left up to municipalities themselves. July 1 marks the first year since the City of Victoria’s checkout bag bylaw came into effect, and Fraser Work, the City’s director of engineering, says it’s achieved nearly 100 percent compliance. “We’ve resoundingly heard a lot of positive feedback,” he says, crediting the City’s careful, two-year consultation with retailers. (Obviously, the ban doesn’t have friends at the Canadian Plastic Bag Assocation. The industry group lost its case in BC Supreme Court, claiming the bylaw is an environmental regulation and thus a matter of provincial jurisdiction, but its appeal will be heard in Vancouver on May 15.) Now the Victoria is preparing a ban on single-use cups and containers, as identified by the City Council in its latest strategic plan. Work admits crafting this bylaw will be more challenging, because getting customers to bring their own reusable containers also has to fit with the province’s FoodSafe guidelines. (The ministry of health told me that “Under the Food Safety Act, restaurants and supermarkets are responsible for ensuring that their food is safe for consumers and they must not sell any item that is contaminated. At this time, it is up to operators determine if they will allow customers to use personal containers, weighing that decision with their responsibility of ensuring the food is safe for consumption from the restaurant/store to the customer’s home.”) But some retailers are already on board, judging by the numbers of customers one sees with refillable mugs in independent coffee shops, and the popularity of downtown’s Zero Waste Emporium, where you can fill your own containers with everything from milk to shampoo. Last month, the Quebec-based supermarket chain Metro said it will let customers use their own reusable containers for meat, seafood, and pastries in 131 of its stores, so the trend may be even bigger than we think. All these changes are part of the larger movement toward “zero waste,” placing a higher priority on reducing or reusing plastic packaging, instead of recycling or landfilling it. More discussion about it is coming soon: the CRD is currently developing a new solid-waste management plan, which includes the blue-box program, and will be putting it out for public consultation this autumn. The debates about what the plan should (and should not) include will be interesting to watch. But we shouldn’t be afraid of changing it. As Charlotte Brady reminds me, back on Willows Beach: “We’re a coastal city. We see the effects before others. We have to do something about plastic pollution when our people, our culture and our economy rely so heavily upon the ocean.” Ross Crockford recently bought a Guppyfriend™ laundry bag, in the hope it will capture microfibres from his many fleece jackets.
  5. What has Victoria learned in the 10 years since it first discussed replacing the Johnson Street Bridge? The engineers said it would cost $35 million to $40 million. But that was for a standard structure, they warned. An “iconic,” “architecturally significant” bridge would cost more. Nearly all the councillors wanted to replace the old bridge anyway. “While we are losing a piece of existing heritage,” said John Luton, leading the motion for replacement, “it is an opportunity to create something that is art as well as architecture that will become classic, or new heritage years down the road.” But a few also saw they might be approving a project they couldn’t control, and they were nervous. “There’s an interest in more than a standard cookie-cutter bridge,” said Sonya Chandler. “So I’m worried — can we afford this?” That was on April 23, 2009, and 10 years later, it’s still a valid question. The new Johnson Street Bridge has already cost us $105 million, and the work isn’t done. What’s left? Ongoing work includes an underpass, landscaping, public art, and three lawsuits Landscaping and pathways. Crews will soon start developing the boulevards on the west side of the bridge, and paving a pedestrian underpass below the east side that will form part of the David Foster Harbour Pathway. The underpass is needed because the City couldn’t get the over-water rights to continue a path through the bridge’s “wheels” — which have been fortified with a new security gate (often locked, cost unknown) after a skateboarder was photographed on the wheels last September. Public art. This month, City staff will provide a report on reusing steel from the old Blue Bridge for public art. The $250,000 “surfboard orca,” planned for the triangle island in the vast sea of asphalt east of the bridge, has yet to go out to tender for fabrication. Fendering. The bridge still lacks fenders on its north side, to protect it from ship collisions. In 2015, project director Jonathan Huggett claimed that PCL’s construction contract didn’t include this fendering, and said it would cost “upwards of $4 million” to install. At nearly every quarterly update after that, he told councillors he’d provide the potential costs and options “soon” — including at his last update, in April 2018. The fendering is complicated, partly because of earlier screwups. In 2009 the City hired the engineering firm MMM (now WSP) to oversee the bridge project, and one of its early tasks was relocating a submerged telecom duct, at a cost of $2 million; WSP has since proposed anchoring fenders by drilling into the harbour floor, but the duct is now in the way. In 2014, the City sold some land immediately north of the bridge at 203 Harbour Road, and now the fendering might impede the owner’s access to the water. Tug and barge operators also have concerns. “We had requested that the fendering be considered to take a five-knot hit, and through our discussions back and forth with the City, they indicated that they were intending to continue their design on the north-side fendering for a speed of 3.5 knots,” says Paul Hilder, Seaspan’s VP of marine operations. “And since then we’ve heard nothing. That was two years ago. So as far as [there] not being any fendering in, I don’t know — it’s a pretty expensive piece of infrastructure to build and not have any bumpering. Ultimately it’ll be the lawyers and the courts, if something should happen, that’ll hammer out who is liable.” In 2017, Huggett told councillors that the dispute with Seaspan over impact speed was “irrelevant,” and the City was only legally required to do what a “prudent owner” would do, which entailed hiring experts and building a “probability design.” It didn’t need to be overly robust, Huggett suggested, because “to our knowlege, in the past 80 years, nobody has ever hit that bridge head-on.” (Wrong: on April 3, 1959, the tug Salvage King slammed into the old bridge, nearly severing its main girder. Victoria Machinery Depot fabricated a replacement, City engineers spliced it into place, and the old bridge was open again after two weeks.) But how “prudent” is it to have no fendering at all? Last June, the City paid $112,200 for a $110-million, 18-month, multi-peril insurance policy on the bridge, which does cover “vessel impact” ($250,000 deductible). One suspects that if a ship hit the unfendered north side, though, the insurer might claim contributory negligence by the City and reduce its payout, in the same way that ICBC takes 25 percent off your injury claim if you aren’t wearing a seat belt. Still no fendering: one of MMM’s “solutions” requires drilling around the submerged telecom duct they relocated in 2011 Legal Actions. As mentioned in the January/February issue of Focus, the City is named in a trio of bridge lawsuits, including one by MMM/WSP — which has already soaked the City for $15 million in fees since 2009 — claiming a further $300,000 for fendering design. Since then, Karen Martin of Dentons LLP, the construction lawyer representing the City, has filed a response and counterclaim against WSP, seeking unspecified damages “on the basis of breach of contract, negligence, duty to warn, and negligent provision of services.” Reading the City’s response is like a trip down memory lane, studded with potholes. Martin points out that MMM insisted it had accurately estimated the cost of the new bridge in 2009, 2010, and 2012, only to blow those estimates months later. Martin claims the pattern repeated with the fendering: at various times, MMM estimated the fendering would cost “$1,327,093.00,” said the fendering was included in PCL’s contract, and signed a 2013 deal to provide all the remaining design and engineering services to complete the bridge for a fixed fee, but submitted extra invoices anyway. (Why the City continued to use the firm, and didn’t file complaints with the engineers’ professional association instead, remains one of the unsolved mysteries of the project.) Martin also says MMM did not provide any “reasonable options” to the City for fendering “until in or about late 2018” — which we are still waiting to see. It’s hard to guess how successful the City’s claims might be, or how much we will have to cough up to settle the three lawsuits, but it won’t come cheap. In 2016, City taxpayers paid $2.46 million to PCL and MMM in a mediated settlement of some $27 million in change orders they’d filed against the City. Another $1.57 million in legal fees was paid to Dentons in 2015 and 2016 while the settlement was negotiated. City Hall. Some unfinished business concerns the practices of the City itself. It’s hard to overstate the disruptive effects the bridge has had at Centennial Square. Lisa Helps and Ben Isitt got on council in 2011 by bumping off pro-replacement councillors such as John Luton; Helps won the mayoralty in 2014 largely because Dean Fortin kept insisting the bridge was “on time and on budget” when it clearly wasn’t. Every staffer associated with the project between 2009 and 2014 has since been fired, retired, or has jumped ship to government jobs elsewhere. Though they deserved their fates in some cases, they also took years of institutional knowledge out the door (another hidden cost), and left their jobs to newcomers with the potential to commit the same mistakes. The City has introduced policies to ensure that doesn’t happen. When Huggett was hired to trouble-shoot the project in 2014, he said that nobody seemed to be in charge of it; now the City has a Project Management Framework that requires “clear and unambiguous allocation of authority for decision-making.” The bridge’s costs kept increasing because Council approved a construction contract with a puny allowance for contingencies; now the City has a Capital Cost Estimate Policy, requiring that large contingencies be built into early estimates, and that an independent third party conducts a value-for-money analysis of the project. (This is partly why Victoria’s new main fire hall will be part of a private condo development: a 2016 analysis said the City could build the firehall itself, on the site of the old one, for $30 million, but once the policy’s required contingencies were added, it seemed cheaper to pay Jawl Residential $34 million to build it instead.) When one looks at recent events, however, it seems little has changed. Council and staff made crucial early decisions to replace Crystal Pool, like the bridge, based on the belief that most of the cost would be magically covered by federal-provincial infrastructure grants. (Now the mayor is talking about a new central library. How will that be paid for?) The City too often favours shiny new assets instead of fixing what it’s got, and staff who allow an existing asset to deteriorate rarely suffer any consequences. Despite all its policies, the City still doesn’t appear to have a basic checklist for big projects: there was no analysis of the annual cost of operating a new, vastly larger Crystal Pool, for example, and neighbours weren’t asked whether they actually wanted a new pool until the last minute. The City has been lucky over the past decade. In September of 2009, then-Assistant City Manager Mike McCliggott warned that borrowing $63 million for a new bridge would “financially strap the City,” forcing it to raise taxes for other projects. We’ve already paid more than that for the bridge, some $68.1 million, added to the $37.5 million we got from the feds. But the City has grown. It’s added millions in new property-tax revenue every year, and saved more, too. In 2009, the City had $34.6 million in its equipment and infrastructure reserve; now it has $131 million. This past year the City increased its property-tax revenue by $3.5 million, and while Council is on track to spend $1.5M of it hiring more employees (34 in total, the Times Colonist says) it’s also putting $1.8 million into reserves — which will surely get tapped when the bills for the fendering and lawsuits finally arrive. So it seems Victoria has been able to afford its “iconic” bridge after all. That’s the good news. The bad is that in April 2009, when councillors worried about paying more than $40 million for a bridge, the City thought a new Crystal Pool would cost $58 million. How much will it be now? Ross Crockford is a director of johnsonstreetbridge.org, the group that gathered 9,872 residents’ signatures on petitions to force the 2010 referendum on the bridge project.
  6. Downtown residents question the $34-million deal for a new fire hall. CRITICS HAVE ISSUED THEIR LISTS of the best TV shows of the past year. For high stakes and dramatic twists, though, it has been hard to beat the live stream of recent City of Victoria council meetings. “We have one of the most difficult decisions we will probably have all term in front of us today,” mayor Lisa Helps told councillors on November 15. For nearly three hours they debated sites for a new Crystal Pool, before voting 7-2 to keep it in the southwest corner of Central Park, the location City staff had already spent two years and $2 million planning for, despite the objections of its neighbours. The following week, at the November 22 council meeting, they looked certain to ratify that decision. A group of North Park residents marched down to City Hall to show their opposition. And then the council stunned the audience. Helps said she’d had a conversation with RG Properties’ Graham Lee, who leases the Save-On arena, and that he was “enthusiastic” about exploring a partnership for a public swimming pool on the arena’s parking lot. “My report back to the public and council is that meeting went well, there is an interest, and I’m not going to say anything further because that would be motivating one way or another.” But that was enough: councillors voted unanimously to pursue discussions with Lee, even if it meant blowing the January deadline for a first crack at federal-provincial infrastructure cash, and risked losing $7 million in grants the City had already accumulated. “What tipped the balance for me is even if we get some federal and some provincial funding, we’d have to hold a referendum [to borrow money] and we could have the North Park residents forming the ‘no’ side,” Helps told Victoria News. “We all know what it’s like to do a large infrastructural project that the public doesn’t support, like the Johnson Street Bridge, and I don’t want to do that again.” There may have been other factors (a new geotechnical report showed significant bedrock and groundwater at the Central Park site), but the official story is that councillors listened to the neighbourhood, and changed course. Now, with the pool on hold, their attention will turn to Victoria’s next big undertaking — a new No. 1 fire hall — which appears to be following a similar early plotline. City crafts megaproject. Proponents sell plan to neighbourhood. Conflict ensues. LAST MARCH, the City announced a remarkable deal. After 18 months of closed-door negotiations, it had signed a contract with Dalmatian Developments, to pay the newly incorporated company $33.7 million upon completing a 41,700 square-foot fire hall as part of a new mixed-use building on Johnson at Cook, on land that’s currently the back end of a parking lot for Pacific Mazda. The fire hall, built to the latest post-disaster earthquake standard, would include six bays for fire vehicles, Victoria’s first purpose-built emergency operations centre, and space for BC Emergency Health Services to operate four ambulances. The old fire hall on Yates would remain open while the replacement was being built, and the City would use money from its financial reserves, so there’d be no associated tax increase. The new fire hall on Johnson Street could be topped by affordable housing, but the deal requires concessions from the City (Image: HCMA Architecture + Design) It was great news, Helps told reporters. Moving the fire hall Downtown made sense with more residents in the area, and it was cheaper than the City building one on its own. (In 2013 CFB Esquimalt opened a fire hall of similar size for $27.3 million, but it didn’t have to buy land.) When CTV asked if there was a risk of cost overruns, as with the “fixed-price” Johnson Street Bridge, Helps replied: “How could it go like the bridge went, when a private-sector developer is building the project? The City will pay when it’s done.” But members of the Downtown Residents Association (DRA) started digging into the deal, and didn’t like what they saw. The fine print of the City’s announcement said the agreement was “subject to Dalmatian Developments bringing their overall project through the rezoning process” — and that “overall project” turned out to cover the entire Pacific Mazda property. Dalmatian is a partnership between Jawl Residential and Nadar Holdings, a company owned by the family of the late Victoria mayor Peter Pollen, who bought Olson Motors at 1060 Yates in the 1960s. (He ran it as a Ford dealership until 1988, when it became Pacific Mazda, but it remains in the Pollen family.) The property, consisting of nine parcels of land, is oddly zoned. The eastern half is designated S-1, which permits buildings up to five storeys covering no more than 60 percent of the land, with a floor-space density up to 1.5:1. The western half is R-48, which allows up to 10 storeys, but doesn’t limit coverage and says nothing about density; Dalmatian says that effectively gives the western half a huge “theoretical” density of 9.8:1. Neither zone permits a fire hall, so some rezoning is needed. Dalmatian proposes spreading the R-48 density around the site, and erecting four mixed-use buildings: the fire hall, limited to 12 storeys because of its seismic requirements, and three connected towers, 14 to 17 storeys tall. Last summer, Dalmatian revealed the fire-hall building’s design, crafted by HCMA (the architects also working on the new Crystal Pool), and the DRA held a community meeting in the Mazda showroom to discuss the plans. Ninety-three residents turned up, and they were peeved — not with the developer, but with the City for letting the project get this far before consulting the public. “I’m beginning to feel like I’m part of a social experiment, to see how much noise, how much disruption I can take before I will be pushed out of this area,” said a guy who lived on the north side of Johnson. Several said they saw no benefit to their neighbourhood, just five or more years of construction, and then sirens. “This is just cramming more and more buildings in. We’ve got no green space, and this is supposed to be Harris Green,” another complained. “Where’s the City of Victoria’s planning department on this?” he demanded, to applause from the audience. Dalmatian’s rezoning proposal includes three towers, 14 to 17 storeys tall, at the northwest corner of Yates and Cook, along with the building containing the fire hall (centre back) (Image: HCMA Architecture + Design) “We just want the City to lead by example, and respect its foundational planning documents,” says Ian Sutherland, the chair of the DRA’s land-use committee. The Official Community Plan considers the area “core residential,” allowing a density of only 5.5:1; the proposal has an overall density of 6.8:1. There’s no legal right to swap densities around to different parcels, Sutherland says, and doing so would set a dangerous precedent. It would also give a huge “lift” to the total value of the property, one that would be largely missed by the paltry $12 per square foot the City currently requires in community amenity contributions (CACs) for densities above 3:1. “As soon as this zoning happens, that’s it, the money’s collected, and then they can build whatever they want in the future as of right without any further CACs at all.” Sutherland wants the City to enforce the 5.5:1 density in the OCP and R-48’s 10-storey limit. He’s worried, however, that councillors may think they have no alternative to what has been proposed. He got a copy of the Dalmatian contract via FOI, and though heavily redacted, its text makes clear the deal to build the fire hall is contingent on a rezoning of “all of the Development Lands”, and permitting “any density not used in connection with the [fire hall] Project to be used on the Nadar Remainder Lands”. Consequently, on November 22 he wrote to councillors on behalf of the DRA, appealing to them to respect the neighbourhood’s concerns. “The signing of the contract for this Fire Hall was made by the previous council without any public knowledge or assent and has locked the City into terms that are highly questionable. The public is invited to participate as an afterthought but is told that the deal has been struck; it’s this or nothing. But we propose this is a false choice and that this application is not the only way forward. We ask our new council to consider themselves not bound by the terms of this contract as written.” VICTORIA CERTAINLY NEEDS a new No. 1 fire hall. The existing one, built in 1959 and only 26,700 square feet, is so cramped that the department’s largest trucks barely fit into its bays. (Worse yet, a 2010 report said the entrances could collapse in a quake, making it impossible for the trucks to leave.) Firefighters sometimes have to drive against one-way traffic on Yates to get onto Fort and reach the eastern part of the City. The proposed site isn’t perfect. It’s west of the “recommended” area in a 2016 City staff report, but fire trucks can travel quickly east on Johnson, and north and south on Cook. A third-party evaluation said the driveway is too short to let fire trucks safely turn into traffic on Johnson, but controlled lights can stop cars up the street. What about the noise, though? David Jawl, a development manager for the fire hall project, says he’s confident the fire service will be an excellent neighbour. “They can be a 24/7, eyes-on-the-street safety presence,” he notes, and they have experience operating stations next to apartments, on Yates and in James Bay. (The department says it won’t turn on sirens until a vehicle reaches Cook.) Besides, Jawl adds, “we plan on developing the future phases right next to the fire hall. So any concern a neighbour across the street has about noise or disruption, we share those concerns.” Jawl Residential has added a public plaza at the corner of Yates and Cook, plus several levels of underground parking, to help win over the neighbourhood. The potential element likely to sway councillors, though, is affordable housing. In November, the Province announced that it is giving Pacifica Housing $19 million to build 130 mixed-income rental units downtown, and Jawl is seeking approvals to put all of them over the fire hall. (Calgary has a fire station with an 88-unit affordable-housing tower, and last year Vancouver opened a fire hall with 31 apartments for vulnerable women and their children.) “We wanted to stick our necks out a bit,” Jawl says, “and [show] that we could try and do a beautiful-looking affordable housing project.” Getting all this, Jawl says, requires master-planning and rezoning the entire property instead of just doing it in pieces. That would also ensure that the plaza, the parking, and the requirements in the City’s Downtown Core Area Plan — which permits up to 17 storeys on the western half of the property, he notes — around tower separation, view corridors, and setbacks, all get enshrined in the bylaw generated by the rezoning. “We feel it provides an amazing opportunity for the whole neighbourhood to blossom into this mixed-use, vibrant hub of downtown.” David Jawl is Peter Pollen’s grandson. His mom, Kathy, is Pollen’s daughter, and his father Michael is related to the esteemed Jawl Properties clan that built Selkirk Water, The Atrium, and other local landmarks. (Jawl Residential is run by Michael, David, and his siblings Elizabeth and Peter.) David says his grandfather, a passionate advocate for a healthy downtown, started family discussions about transitioning the Mazda property 10 years ago, and in 2015, when the City put out a call for interest in building a new fire hall, Pollen gave his blessing to their proposal. “So we have a lot of connection to this land,” David Jawl says. “We feel a lot of responsibility in how it gets developed.” Ross Crockford wishes everyone, including Victoria’s politicians, a happy 2019.
  7. What will close the divisions laid bare by Victoria’s election? THE LINE OF VOTERS at Margaret Jenkins Elementary ran along the wall of an entire hallway, and then back on the other side. Upon seeing it, one guy groaned aloud: “How long do we have to wait to get Lisa Helps out of office?” The queue for the single vote-reading machine in the gymnasium took over an hour, and during the wait I heard more grousing. “She probably planned this, to keep us from voting,” muttered one woman. When asked why she distrusted the mayor, the woman replied, “She won’t clean the streets!” I’ve lived in the City of Victoria for 21 years now, and I can’t recall a civic election as vocally acrimonious as the one held on October 20. In the past, City politics often seemed like professional water polo — an obscure sport, passionately followed by a few. No longer. Voter turnout was 43.5 percent, the highest in decades, and the stakes seemed bigger too. In various ways, the campaign touched upon reconciliation with First Nations (the Sir John A. statue), economic inequality (luxury condos vs. affordable housing), homelessness (tent cities), sexual harassment (the Elsner affair), and climate change (automobile parking vs. bike lanes)—issues far more exciting than the rezonings and bylaw rewordings that occupy most municipal councils. Victoria is the only municipality in the capital region that tends to vote “ideologically,” Royal Roads communications prof David Black told CHEK on election night, “where ideology or political identity is a strong feature of how people make their choices. In other municipalities, it’s often about policy points, council governance, whose version of pragmatism you prefer. But in Victoria people vote in a way guided by political philosophy, and how what happens locally attaches to the political spectrum and to the world.” True enough, but what Black missed is that it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, amplified by Mayor Helps herself — and alienating many residents who simply want the City to issue permits, fix pipes, and protect them from fire and crime. Certainly, “social media” played a part in sowing discord among Victoria’s voters. Virulent anti-Helps sites appeared and vanished from Facebook, and BC Proud blowhard Aaron Gunn cranked out videos calling the mayor a “disaster” — one released five days before the election racked up 18,000 views — which ended up rallying her supporters. (The online enmity didn’t come only from one side. When the City posted the election results on its Facebook page and commenting seniors bemoaned the outcome, younger posters mocked them: “We’re just waiting for you to pack up, leave, and make it all better by not being here.”) What was new was that the vitriol spilled over into personal conversations. Just before the election, I went door-knocking with Mayor Helps, and then with newcouncil.ca candidate Stephen Hammond, in areas of Fernwood just a few blocks apart. The neighbourhood became a kind of Rorschach inkblot — it looked different, depending on who answered the questions. Helps encountered only kind words at the doorstep. “I like what you’ve been doing,” one woman said. A single father in social housing was grateful that he could cycle Downtown with his daughter on Pandora’s protected bike lane. “I’m looking forward to this,” said another woman, bracing for a hard-fought contest. Hammond asked Fernwoodians, “Are you looking for a change of mayor and council?” and got completely different responses. “I’m so done with her,” said one gardener, wearing a nurses’ union t-shirt. “We’ve talked and talked and she won’t f***ing listen.” Another was frustrated with the mess regularly left by campers around the Sobering Centre nearby: “We’ve lived here for 14 years, and we’d like to see some solutions.” The potential loss of trees and park space for a new Crystal Pool, the huge 207-unit development going up on the 1000-block of Pandora — the residents had no shortage of complaints. “The stuff I’m hearing is amazing,” Hammond said. But what is to be done with it? The voting is over, and somehow, the city has to mend its divisions. Helps seemed to acknowledge this on election night: “When you’re on the campaign trail, you’re the candidate, but after the election, you’re the mayor,” she told reporters. “That means I’m the mayor for everybody, even those who didn’t vote for me, and I will work really hard on their behalf as well.” Hammond came over to congratulate her on her victory, and they discussed creating “a committee for the reparation of the social fabric,” she told CHEK. “Everyone has the best intentions of the community in mind.” Stephen Hammond and Lisa Helps discuss a “committee for the reparation of the social fabric” on election night However, the following Monday, she published an open letter to supporters, portraying her opponents quite differently. “We did it! Love, connection and a shared vision for our future triumphed over fear and anger,” she wrote, claiming a “strongly renewed mandate” — as if the 57 percent of electors who didn’t vote for her weren’t just wrong, but dangerously irrational. “As I move forward with my new council and as we take bold action for the future, we’re going to continue to need your support,” she encouraged the troops, "so when we take bold action, please stand up and support us: in letters to the editor, on social media, and most importantly, in good old-fashioned, face-to-face conversations — this is how we truly build understanding.” Or tune out dissenting voices, perhaps. Since the mayor has already said she’s not running for re-election in 2022, and has an apparent council majority on her side, one wonders if she will govern with imperial certainty — and whether the “reparation committee” is just honey-scented wind, like the “wider community conversation” promised about relocating the Sir John A. statue. (Prediction: the statue will remain in storage until the Council, unable to agree to any public site for it, sells it to a private buyer who installs it inside a pub.) Newcouncil.ca says it will hold meetings in the coming weeks to discuss whether the organization will continue, and how. (“Given the fact that 8 of 9 votes on council are left of center I think there will be a significant desire for a vocal opposition once the council starts making decisions based on ideology,” one insider told me.) I asked Hammond if he’d remain involved, and if he’d join the mayor’s “social fabric” committee. “Will see,” he texted in reply. WHETHER THE DIVISIONS IN VICTORIA can be healed depends not just on the mayor, of course, but on the council too — and whether it is able to properly oversee the management of the City and provide sensible directions to its staff. The most remarkable accomplishment of this year’s election was the success of the three council candidates fielded by Together Victoria — Laurel Collins, Sharmarke Dubow, and Sarah Potts — all in their 30s, with backgrounds in community organizing. Allied with returning councillors Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday, who kept their campaigns separate from Together’s until just before the election, they’ll form a five-vote majority, either approving the mayor’s agenda, or able to set their own. With three new councillors from Together Victoria, our municipal government will be led by a new generation [credit: Jason Guille] As journalist Sid Tafler recently reported in his online Victoria Record, one reason for Together’s success was it spent the summer meeting with community groups across the city to find out what voters wanted, and accordingly develop their platform. Free transit for everyone under the age of 18, for example, more covered bicycle parking, more child care, more food gardens, more participatory budgeting and consultation on developments, and a new arts hub in the former Maritime Museum — all positive, appealing ideas, if light on details about how they’ll be paid for. The main issue for Together, though, is dealing with the crisis of affordable housing, which undoubtedly won them votes from Victoria’s many renters, hit by renovictions and huge rent increases over the past decade. Together says it will ensure that 50 percent of all new housing built in the city is affordable (i.e., costing less than 30 percent of average household income), and demand greater amenity contributions from developers. Soon, as projects already in the pipeline come before council, we will see if Together sticks to these requirements, or developers pack up and decide to build elsewhere. Victoria's new council will also have to deal quickly with a mess of detailed, practical issues, which the Together platform didn’t fully anticipate, and for which ideology will provide few solutions. In December, City staff will present possible alternative locations for a new Crystal Pool and their associated costs, with the aim of applying for federal-provincial grants by the January 23 deadline; the grant guidelines also suggest that any one project is unlikely to get more than $13.5 million, meaning the City will likely need to find another $39M early next year to meet the pool’s $69.4M budget. Millions more will likely need to be found to pay for fendering on the Johnson Street Bridge, and to settle a lawsuit filed against the City by its contractors. VicPD hasn’t increased the size of its force in a decade, and is sure to demand funds for more officers in next spring’s budget. The neighbourhood plan for Gonzales was deferred until after the election, and James Bay’s comes up next year, guaranteed to spark fights over the dense “urban villages” the City envisions there. And on it goes. If mayor Helps and our very new council successfully juggle all these issues, and oversee a well-run, financially stable civic government, they truly will bring Victorians together. But they’ll also need to acknowledge that they don’t know everything, and that they can’t make huge decisions without listening to the public. Making the city work is up to them, but it’s also up to us to keep talking about how best to do it. Ross Crockford congratulates Victoria’s recently elected officials, and wishes them the best. Really, he does.
  8. Will Crystal Pool become an election issue? Candidates say “Yes.” LIKE THE REST OF US, Jeremy Loveday seemed confused. “Has council — did we decide to — not?” asked the City of Victoria councillor, at a July 19 update on the Crystal Pool replacement project. “I know we were going to do a referendum, and then we didn’t need a referendum. Did we make a council motion not to do a referendum?” The confusion was understandable. In June a letter had surfaced, from provincial Minister of Municipal Affairs Selina Robinson to Mayor Lisa Helps, suggesting the City hold a referendum if it wanted the best chance at securing federal-provincial infrastructure money for a new pool. “[L]arge-scale projects that demonstrate both public and financial support through a referendum (or some sort of public approval process) are identified as lower risk under the program assessment,” wrote Robinson. Then on June 20 the Times Colonist editorialized that the City should put the pool project to a vote. “Even if a referendum has no effect on government contributions, City officials would know whether they really do have backing from taxpayers,” the TC concluded. That led some to think the City might add another question to the October 20 civic election. (There’s already one seeking approval for a citizens’ assembly to discuss amalgamation with Saanich.) But when councillors met on July 19, they seemed determined to keep the pool off the ballot. The pool's new, larger design will be at least $8.8-million more expensive to build than originally budgeted Lawyers said the City would need voter approval to build affordable housing atop the new pool’s parking lot, because housing would be an unusual use for a dedicated park. Councillors quickly abandoned the housing idea, and asked staff to design a smaller lot with “no net loss” of green space. As for getting actual voter approval for the new pool — to borrow money, for example, as required under provincial law — there was no talk of that at all, until Loveday asked about a referendum. “Council’s direction was to explore the grant opportunities first, and then report back on options for how any remaining funding gap could be filled,” replied Tom Soulliere, the City’s parks director. The funding strategy would be discussed at the next update — in November, after the election. And with that, the councillors moved on to other worries, like bicycle parking at the new pool, and whether it would have a coffee shop. Nobody mentioned Minister Robinson’s letter. Wouldn’t failing to hold a referendum jeopardize the grants needed to build the pool in the first place? That was a “misunderstanding,” Soulliere told me later. The Province was only concerned that the City had enough money to cover any gap between a grant and the final project cost. He was right: even though Robinson’s letter recommended showing both public and financial support, her office told me that “if an applicant does not need to borrow externally to cover their share of costs, then elector approval is not required.” The City is hoping to get money from the next phase of the federal government’s 12-year, $180-billion Investing In Canada Plan. Under the plan, the feds will pay 40 percent of approved projects, and the provinces at least 33 percent. The pool is currently budgeted at $69.4M — although that’s sure to increase, as you’ll see below — so the City would have to come up with $18.7M, or 27 percent. Since the City has already allocated $10M from its financial reserves for the project, it would only need another $8.7M, which it can easily find in reserves. No borrowing, no referendum. But what if the City doesn’t get that grant? THE CITY NEEDS AT LEAST $45M from the federal-provincial plan, and getting all that might be a long shot. Such a grant would be the largest in the City’s history, bigger than the $37.5M the feds allocated, from two separate funds, to the Johnson Street Bridge. To date, the largest federal grant ever given for a rec centre is $18.8M, for Ryerson University’s facility in the former Maple Leaf Gardens in downtown Toronto. The City of Victoria will be asking for 16 percent of the approximately $276M the federal and B.C. governments will be jointly allocating to community and recreation projects, even though the City has just 1.8 percent of the province’s population. If the City doesn’t get all that money, the next council will face some hard choices. So I asked the incumbents and declared candidates three questions: 1) If the City does not get ANY of the $45M it needs to build a new pool, what should it do? 2) If the City only gets a FRACTION of the $45M, what should it do? 3) If the City has to borrow money, how should it get voter approval—by referendum, or the Alternative Approval Process (AAP), whereby the borrowing is deemed “approved” unless 10 percent of voters sign petitions against it? Mayor Lisa Helps admitted that if the City doesn’t get any of the money, it can’t simply drain its financial reserves to build the pool. “If we get no money we would need to go to referendum or AAP,” she wrote. But she’s confident the City will get a substantial grant. “There is more infrastructure money than has been historically available for some time,” she noted, and said the City can make up any balance from reserves or “internal borrowing” against them. If the City had to borrow externally, she’d prefer to get voter approval via AAP, although she’s “open to hearing other opinions.” (The respondents’ complete answers are attached HERE.) Challengers for the mayoralty hold different views. Gary Beyer said that if the City doesn’t get any money or only a portion, it should repair the existing pool: “The project should never have gone as far as it has. Refurbishing is less expensive, and fits with core values of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.” (Beyer has recently announced that he is dropping out of the mayoralty race.) Sean Leitenberg also said the City should repair the pool if the shortfall is too great: “Let’s take care of our facility and see what the Y comes up with in the next few years.” And Stephen Hammond, speaking for the newcouncil.ca slate, called for a halt to the project until a third-party audit is conducted on the Johnson Street Bridge: “We cannot in good conscience allow [the pool] to proceed until a comprehensive review has brought to light all the facts that would inform all future decisions with regard to project management, procurement, organization, and all aspects of undertaking large-scale infrastructure projects in the City of Victoria.” The three incumbent councillors who responded also believe the City should take a different course if it doesn’t get a substantial grant. Ben Isitt said the City should repair the existing pool. Chris Coleman and Geoff Young favoured pursuing a partnership with the YMCA-YWCA, which hopes to build a new facility downtown with a smaller, 25-metre pool, although that could risk the union jobs of current Crystal employees. All three favoured using a referendum if the City had to borrow externally. (Coleman later announced that he is not running for re-election.) Among the contenders for council seats, Darlene Archibald said that if the City gets only a fraction of the grant it needs, it should reduce the scope of the project but continue pursuing a new facility, to provide greater accessibility for all users: “I don’t think it is a good idea to wait any longer to replace the pool.” Laurel Collins, Sharmarke Dubow and Sarah Potts, running together under the banner of Together Victoria, said they want a new pool, too; if the City doesn’t get a full grant, they would “proceed with the project as designed only once there is a solid plan to fill the funding shortfall.” Marg Gardiner said the public has lost confidence in the City because of the bridge project, its “almost casual” discussion of putting housing in a park, and its failure to survey taxpayers about how much they’re willing to pay for the pool. She said she’d need assurances of funding before continuing the project as is; otherwise, she’d reduce the scope of the project, or partner with the Y if there was no loss of City jobs. Grace Lore favoured collaborating with the Y, to build a flexible facility with space for needed services like childcare. Jordan Reichert favoured reducing the scope and cost of the project if the City doesn’t receive a grant. If it only receives a partial grant, his decisions would depend — as many respondents said — on how big a funding gap the City has to fill. IN SHORT, the fate of Crystal Pool hangs not just on a federal-provincial decision, but also on who sits on the next council. And candidates aren’t the only ones questioning the project. The Victoria Friends of Central Park have posted signs around the neighbourhood, calling for a complete plan for the park, and preservation of all its existing amenities, before pushing ahead with a new pool. Crystal Pool For All, the group that introduced the idea of housing atop the pool’s parking lot, has argued on Lisa Helps’ campaign website that the new pool suffers from “significant omissions and missed opportunities” by failing to include other amenities needed in the area, such as child-care facilities and a gymnasium. Budget watchdogs also fear that the cost is bound to increase. On July 19, City staff warned that the $69.4M budget presumed that construction would start by next February — and the Province has said it won’t make grant decisions until the spring of 2019 at the earliest. If construction doesn’t start until next October, staff said, the “likely incremental cost” of the project will be $3M higher. The budget is also based on a 2016 estimate that a new 50-metre pool’s construction cost would be $35.1M of the overall project cost. (See Option 3 in the 2016 estimate HERE.) In June, however, the City unveiled a more detailed design, larger by 500 square metres, with a new leisure pool, a second hot pool, and a “lazy river,” all inside a curved, glass-walled “natatorium” bulging into the park. The City hired two firms, Advicas and Ross Templeton, to estimate the cost of this new design, but didn’t present their reports to councillors on July 19. Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria obtained the reports, and it turns out Advicas said the new design would cost $43.9M to build, and Ross Templeton said it would cost $46.2M — $8.8M to $11.1M more than the $35.1M used in the current budget. (See the Advicas estimate HERE and the Ross Templeton estimate HERE.) “There is no change to budget, and we’re working with all the consultants to ensure the detailed features and systems fit within the approved construction allowance,” Soulliere wrote to the Grumpy$. “At this stage we can’t confirm whether there will be a change to the shape of the building as this is just one of the components being analyzed from a cost perspective.” Such shifting costs are bound to raise arguments on the campaign trail. The City won’t be holding a referendum on its next megaproject this October, but in choosing our next council, we will be voting on it anyway. ❖ Victoria writer Ross Crockford loves swimming, but not at any cost.
  9. Slates are readying candidates for council jobs that few may actually want ROB REID IS NOT RUNNING. He still runs, of course. Reid operates three athletic footwear stores Downtown, he’s the race director for the annual Victoria marathon, and he jogs about 20 kilometres a week. But he’s not running for City of Victoria’s council in this autumn’s municipal elections — and his reasons for not doing so should make residents question what’s happening to our municipal governance. “It was something I wanted to step into,” Reid said over coffee recently. “But not with this process.” Many council meetings have become acrimonious, late-night town halls, where residents argue, block by block, over every proposed development. That’s deterring him, and other businesspeople, from wanting to sit at the council table. “We want to build things, grow things, and we’re task and goal-oriented,” he said. “Many of us have realized it’s better to direct your energy to things that touch your heart.” In many ways, Reid would make an ideal candidate: a Downtown business owner with a long record of work for local charities, and name recognition. (He ran for mayor in 2008, losing to Dean Fortin by 601 votes.) For most of Victoria’s history, council was mainly composed of people like him. But it seems they aren’t running this year. John Wilson, president of Wilson’s Transportation, told Saanich News in January that he isn’t running in Victoria or Saanich, despite his interest in local affairs, because he needs to focus on his company. Bruce Gillespie, a Fort Street restaurant owner and management consultant, told CFAX last month that he won’t be running, despite his public criticism of the City’s bike-lane scheme, because, he said, “life is too short for politics.” Five months from the October 20 election, we’ve heard more from those who don’t want to sit on council than those who do. Perhaps the problem is the job itself. Victoria council gets plenty of scrutiny in a town that eats and breathes politics Certainly its time demands have increased. Twenty-five years ago, according to archived minutes, the average City of Victoria council meeting was 2.7 hours long; last year, its 23 evening meetings averaged nearly 5 hours. (Compare that to Langford, where council meetings are usually under an hour.) Then there’s the Committee of the Whole, where councillors discuss reports from City staff; it convened 46 times last year, its daytime meetings often swallowing entire Thursdays. (Most other municipalities hold committee meetings after 5 pm.) There’s prep time, reading hundreds of pages of documents. Councillors also sit on other boards, from the harbour authority to the Downtown Victoria Business Association, attend neighbourhood association meetings, and represent the City at events — all for around $41,000 per year. As first-term councillor Jeremy Loveday ruefully noted at a January 4 meeting (6.5 hours long, mostly spent reallocating slivers of new property-tax revenue), serving on council is a “60-hour-a-week, part-time job.” Those salaries won’t change, because a majority of councillors at the same meeting rejected appointing a committee to review their pay. But the impacts of that decision are more than financial. Nobody building a professional career, supporting a family, or leading a business is likely to want to sit on council. That favours the self-employed, and incumbents — all likely to run again this year — who have already figured out how to handle the job and its meagre income. (Geoff Young, an economist, and Margaret Lucas, who manages the Hotel Rialto, are the only Victoria councillors with “regular” jobs.) And that, arguably, engenders the culture at City Hall today, in which councillors micromanage the details of every project and bylaw, instead of simply providing direction to staff, and demanding answers if those directions aren’t followed. Increasing salaries may not be enough, however. “More money is not the answer. That will just make it a career politician’s job,” says Shellie Gudgeon, who served one term and decided not to run again in 2014. The bigger challenge, she says, is learning how to navigate the numerous groups and factions in a city that eats and breathes politics. Every new councillor needs a team of supporters, a “kitchen-table cabinet,” to help them after they’re elected, she says: “You can’t wade through every single issue yourself.” The challenges are multiplying, too. Social media, for example, once seemed an easy way to connect with voters; instead, it has increasingly become a “toxic echo chamber,” as Mayor Lisa Helps branded Facebook, before publicly closing her account in March. The Globe and Mail reported recently that 11 of 21 mayors in the Lower Mainland have said they are not running again this October, due to “the rise of vitriolic social-media attacks on people in public life, the intense fights and workload resulting from the blistering pace of growth and development, the housing crisis, and the switch to four-year terms from three.” (Some municipalities are advocating a return to three-year terms.) As the Globe also noted, a concern of the departing mayors is that as cities become more complex, it’s likely populist candidates will emerge — proposing simple solutions, and motivated more by politics than public service. And that may be happening in Victoria, judging by the organizations readying candidates for October. One association that’s already announced itself is newcouncil.ca, led by Stephen Hammond, the lawyer who founded Mad As Hell, the neighbourhood group opposed to the tent city that arose on Victoria’s courthouse lawn in 2016. As Hammond told CFAX recently, newcouncil aims to “overthrow” the current lineup, and replace them “with reasonable people who don’t deal with ideology.” “A lot of people aren’t happy with the present council,” says Hammond. Around 250 people are on his email list, and via surveys, he’s distilled what they want into a set of objectives, including “a focus on Victoria’s core services,” “fiscal responsibility,” “fair and even enforcement of laws,” and planning that assumes cars “are still a fundamental form of transportation” — all concerns he says the council has largely abandoned. Hammond’s group recently formed an alliance with “Club 89,” a group of Downtown businesspeople. (Helps defeated Dean Fortin by 89 votes.) Insiders say the alliance has at least eight potential council candidates — Hammond is not running — including several with community profiles and small-business experience. Their discussions have included BC Liberal staffer Andrew Reeve, and former diplomat Hilary Groos, both of whom ran for council in 2014, but no one has emerged yet as a mayoral candidate. Facing off against them will be Together Victoria, a youthful, Green-NDPish electors’ organization. According to its materials, Together Victoria (formerly “Organize Victoria”) formed because progressive candidates didn’t run an identifiable slate in 2014, “preventing the opportunity for strong progressive turnout to be translated into a strong majority at the council table.” Its objectives, developed in five workshops with more than 100 participants, are to “create a city that is affordable and inclusive”, “prioritize infrastructure that impacts social and environmental justice”, and “foster greater democratic engagement” — although it also says its members may be suspended if they are “not able to acknowledge and address their own oppressive behaviour.” (Focus contacted Together Victoria’s principals, but they declined to be interviewed until they officially launch in mid-May.) Together Victoria apparently aims to field three new candidates, in the hope of knocking off business-oriented incumbents Geoff Young, Margaret Lucas, and Chris Coleman, who got the last three council spots in 2014. Rumoured nominees include Laurel Collins, a PhD candidate in sociology and leadership studies at UVic, Sharmarke Dubow, a refugee worker for the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria, and Sarah Potts, an organizer for the federal Greens. Who is actually running will soon become apparent. But the responsibilites they face, if elected, are already clear. They will steer a corporation with a $224-million operating budget and more than 1,000 employees. In the coming term, they will oversee construction of a new fire hall, possibly a new swimming pool, repairs to the Bay Street Bridge and century-old underground pipes, and the ongoing development of neighbourhoods, parks, and hundreds of buildings. Victoria needs articulate people with common sense, experience handling employees and questioning consultants, practical ideas about how to improve the City, and the determination — and the time — to see them realized. Those qualities are not as common as one would hope. Ross Crockford is not running for Council, as he abhors long meetings in any room without a well-stocked bar.
  10. The debate over density at 1201 Fort is sure to repeat itself across the City of Victoria VICTORIANS CROWDED INTO CITY HALL on April 12. They stood in hallways, craning to hear the speakers in the council chambers, or downstairs, watching a live stream of the meeting on a TV in the foyer. The agenda package was 2,311 pages long — nearly 2,000 about a proposed development for 1201 Fort Street, the site of the former Victoria Truth Centre. “This has been an emotional journey for everyone,” said Mike Miller, president of Abstract Developments. In the two years since he’d bought the two-acre property, he told the council, he’d held 20 meetings with the neighbours and revised the project six times. One six-storey condo building faced Fort Street, but he’d reduced another to four storeys, and scaled down the size and number of townhouses facing Pentrelew Place at the back, cutting the total units from 94 to 83. An artist's rendering of Abstract Development's proposal (centre of image) for the former Truth Centre property on Fort Street “I’ve truly given all that I know to this application,” Miller concluded. “I do understand this can be a trying process. However, the passionate dialogue has been invaluable, and I feel has resulted in a better project.” Then dozens of citizens came up to speak. A large majority supported Miller’s project — a procession of architects, planners, contractors, realtors, and residents of other Abstract buildings, talking of the urgent need for more housing, and the quality of Abstract’s work — a sampling of the many allies Miller has made since he renovated his first house in Burnside 20 years ago. But the speakers’ list was also peppered with those who lived next to 1201 Fort, and had written many of the letters filling the agenda package. They said they weren’t opposed to development, but saw no benefit from this project, which they said would generate noise, traffic, parking conflicts, and require cutting down protected Garry oaks and sequoias. The main thrust of their complaint, however, was that the project violated the City’s own planning documents. According to the Official Community Plan (OCP), nearly three-quarters of the site is considered “traditional residential”, and zoned R1-B, “single family dwelling”. Abstract wanted a new site-specific zone, adding to some 650 already in Victoria’s bylaws, putting the four-storey building on land meant for houses. As Jamie Hammond, representing the Rockland Neighbourhood Association, told councillors, “If this is approved here, the question becomes for residents across the city: Where else is this acceptable?” Signs of neighbourhood discontent are sprouting up as fast as projects bringing increased density to residential neighbourhoods are being proposed (Photo by Ross Crockford) That question is increasingly being asked by Victorians. While some of us are excited by the energy in town, others wonder if our communities are being sacrificed to simply make developers rich and expand our municipal government. Over the past five years, new construction has enlarged the City of Victoria’s annual property-tax revenue by at least $5.4 million. That’s allowed the City to keep a lid (somewhat) on tax increases, but raised suspicion that the City is tempted to amend the OCP and its zoning bylaws at the first whiff of new money. The OCP, drafted in 2011, envisions 20,000 more people living in the City by 2041. But the 285-page document contains contradictions. On page 25, it says “sufficient zoned capacity” already exists to meet that demand; on page 33, it warns that existing zoning won’t be enough, “running the risk that housing will become increasingly more expensive as available capacity is depleted.” The document envisions 50 percent of new density occurring Downtown, 40 percent in “urban villages” (mainly around Mayfair and Hillside malls), and 10 percent across the rest of the City. It also envisions greater density along arterial roads. That might lead one to expect towers along Douglas Street, or Shelbourne, serviced by rapid transit, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, the push is to build luxury condos on streets bordering established residential districts. That pressure is splitting neighbourhoods. The Fairfield-Gonzales Community Association has been attacked by some members for failing to criticize controversial developments, such as the five-storey condo block underway at Oliphant in the Cook Street Village. (Board members say such “political” activity would jeopardize the association’s charitable status, which it needs for its child-care programs.) Community associations are supposed to facilitate meetings between developers and residents, but those meetings have become so fractious that, last month, the Fairfield-Gonzales board voted to explore changing or withdrawing its involvement in the City’s development process. Some Gonzales residents have also formed their own association (gonzalesna.ca) so they can voice opposition to the City’s proposed new neighbourhood plan, which would permit row housing throughout their district, and multi-storey apartments along Fairfield Road. An almost sure sign that the City of Victoria's tax base will soon be increasing (Photo by Ross Crockford) IF THERE'S ONE THING EVERYONE CAN AGREE ON, it’s that housing in Victoria is rapidly becoming unaffordable to all but a few. The solution, say developers, is obvious: build more supply to bring prices down. And it’s not just developers. In Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle, and other expensive cities, a YIMBY (Yes, In My Back Yard) movement is gathering force. Mostly comprised of people in their 30s, they’re demanding that cities dump decades-old zoning laws to allow more apartments, everywhere. In their view, it’s hypocritical for owners of single-family homes to preach environmentalism and then oppose density, forcing new housing to sprawl ever farther from Downtown. The closest thing to a YIMBY group here (so far) is Cities For Everyone, a community organization led by alternative-transportation consultant Todd Litman. He publicly defends the 1201 Fort project — right on a transit and bicycle corridor — as exactly the kind of new density envisioned in the OCP. “Infill development often does require cutting down trees and paving over lawns, and may increase vehicle trips on a street,” he wrote in an April 9 letter to Council, “but these local impacts are generally offset many times over by reductions in regional land consumption and vehicle traffic that would occur if those households instead located in conventional automobile-dependent urban fringe housing.” It’s debatable if 1201 Fort will be for “Everyone”: its one-bedroom units start around $400,000. “Although the units in this project will not initially be affordable to low- and moderate-income households,” Litman also wrote, “they will contribute to the City’s overall affordability through what urban economists call ‘filtering,’ which means that increasing higher-priced housing supply allows some households to move out of lower-priced units, and because [construction] depreciates in value over time, so mid-priced housing becomes future affordable supply.” But not all academics agree that increasing supply will improve affordability. John Rose, an instructor in the department of geography and the environment at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, recently published a paper entitled “The Housing Supply Myth”. Using census data, he calculated that over the past 15 years, Victoria added 27,116 households to its population — but built 30,574 dwelling units. “We would think that if a market got less affordable, maybe that meant supply was getting tighter and tighter. But that’s baloney,” Rose told the Globe and Mail. “Here [in Vancouver] we’ve had more than enough supply and yet the housing costs have gone crazy.” He said the drivers of unaffordability are mainly on the demand side, such as the “pointless” construction of luxury units, largely created for part-time residents and speculators. Others argue that if the urgent problem is affordability, we can’t simply boost the supply of expensive condos and then wait (perhaps decades) for their prices to “filter” down to what renters can afford. Provinces and cities are trying to accelerate this via taxes on speculators and out-of-province owners, and greater regulation of short-term rentals. But some say we could also build more affordable housing by demanding greater Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) from projects — something the City has been slow to grasp. “In stark contrast to other BC municipalities, Victoria has launched itself into a densification plan that will never achieve its rationale of general or specific housing affordability,” wrote Doug Curran recently on Mile Zero Mirror, a local renter-advocacy blog. Curran, who worked as a community organizer in the District of North Vancouver before moving here in 2015, says his former municipality has collected $11 million in CACs from the construction of 777 residential units since 2013, charging about $22 per square foot, and using the funds to build a community centre. If the same metrics were applied to the 4,778 units in the pipeline here, Curran says, Victoria could’ve raised $40 million for affordable housing. Signs of the times (Photo by Ross Crockford) Victoria’s current density-bonus policy was only enacted in 2016, and charges $12 per square foot for developments Downtown. City planners argue that’s because real estate is cheaper here than in North Vancouver. But they do admit there are “limitations” to the current policy. If a development doesn’t trigger a rezoning, it isn’t subject to the charges; consequently, several new condo towers Downtown haven’t paid anything towards affordable housing. And if an independent economic analysis says a rezoning won’t produce a significant “lift” in the value of the land — as was the case for 1201 Fort — it’s not required to provide any affordable units. (Abstract has pledged to build 10 affordable rental units in a newly proposed nine-storey building at 1010 Fort instead — a gesture of goodwill that also improves the likelihood of council approving both buildings.) An improved policy is working its way through City Hall. On March 8, councillors requested an analysis of ways to further increase affordable housing built by developers — including “pre-zoning” areas feasible for affordable units, to speed up project approvals. But in the meantime, the October 20 civic election creeps closer, and Victoria’s politicians are increasingly aware that they will have to justify the current density boom to longtime residents who are likely to vote. “I don’t necessarily think that council or the City or the community has necessarily done the best job of managing and stewarding change in a way that everyone sees the benefits or that’s sustainable,” mayor Lisa Helps admitted to the Times Colonist in February — right after councillors voted down a 44-unit rental apartment block proposed for a residential section of Burdett Avenue, and opposed by 150 petition-signing neighbours. “That’s something that I’m grappling with right now as I kind of prepare for the [election] campaign. There’s a lot of change going on. How do we make sure that as change is happening, everyone is heard and everyone benefits?” Partway through the April 12 hearing, I stepped outside. Lots of people were out strolling, enjoying the evening, and I walked over to The Drake, a newish microbrew pub on Pandora. The place was packed, almost all people under 40. I sat beside three young professionals who’d all moved to Victoria in the past two years. They were from Edmonton, Toronto, and Albuquerque, working here for government, in finance, and in tech. They said they loved Victoria and wanted to stay, but it was nearly impossible to find a place to live. I forgot to ask if they planned to vote in October. I must be getting old. UPDATE: ON MAY 3, VICTORIA’S COUNCIL VOTED 6-3 IN FAVOUR OF THE DEVELOPMENT PROPOSAL. For: Helps, Alto, Coleman, Loveday, Lucas, Thornton-Joe. Against: Isitt, Madoff, Young. (Video here; click on item D4 in the agenda.) “This is a hard decision,” said Mayor Helps, who introduced the motion to approve. “We heard a lot of conflicting views,” she noted, echoing the two truths in the title of the article above. “We heard, on the one hand, that [the proposal] fits the spirit and intent of the OCP, and we heard, on the other hand, that it doesn’t .... We heard that it’s incompatible with the vision for the City and the neighbourhood. And then we heard from others, almost using the exact same language, that it is compatible.” “So when there’s this amount of direct disagreement, it makes it difficult for Council to make a decision,” she continued. “And this is where we have to use all of our own thinking and knowledge and experience that we believe and find not only about the future of cities in general but this one in particular.” The mayor said the current zoning wasn’t appropriate, as it wouldn’t protect the trees, and allowed eight single-family dwellings plus a four-storey block on Fort. She said the revised proposal was much better than it was when it first came to the City, and would put most of the parking underground, with an entrance off Fort. She also noted that the site was on a transit corridor, and cited Todd Litman’s letter in favour of increased density along such routes. Most important, though, was that advocates from “Generation Squeeze” came out to speak in support of the proposal. “They’re looking out for the people who are coming after us, who are being squeezed out of housing, who are being squeezed out of affordability,” Helps said. One opponent had pointed out that the smallest condos in the proposed development would have to rent for at least $1,600 a month, an amount far out of reach for anyone earning the median income in Victoria of $45,000. “But actually this isn’t true,” Helps said. “The general rule is that no one should spend more than 30% of their income on housing. But the other thing that’s emerging is a more nuanced approach to affordability, and that is, no one should spend more than 45% of their income on housing and transportation combined. And so if you live in this area, you can easily take transit or walk or bike, and so your transportation costs, if you work downtown, would be zero dollars.” Helps’ motion to approve the development passed. But it turns out the units will be even less “affordable” than she thought: the developer is now taking registrations for “pre-sales pricing”, which starts at $550,000 — far higher than the $400K the developer ballparked in 2016. The presumption that one’s transportation costs will be “zero” in such a location may also be more “nuanced” than the mayor allows. A new study says there’s almost no relationship between lower personal spending on transportation and neighborhoods with better bus connections; far more important is the number of adults in a household, how many children they have, and their annual income. In other words, those who can afford one of these condos are also likely to own cars. If the City wants affordable housing for “the missing middle”, maybe it should demand that such housing actually gets built. Ross Crockford is a former trial lawyer, and has received a National Magazine Award for his journalism.
  11. We want to repair our assets. Why don’t our governments do the same? PSST. Elizabeth? John? Andrew? Got an idea. You’ve heard of hygge, that Danish word for “contented cozyness” that’s become a lifestyle, spurring the sales of hand-knitted socks and wooden furniture. Well, there’s another concept from northern Europe that’s far more important, and it’s just waiting for someone to brand it. Last January, Sweden implemented a series of tax reductions for repairing household goods. They cut sales tax in half (from 25 to 12 percent) on repairs to shoes, clothes, and bicycles. For repairs to appliances like refrigerators and dishwashers, Swedes can now deduct half the labour cost from their income taxes. “We don’t anticipate that this will make people avoid buying things overall, but hopefully it will be easier for people to buy high-quality products because they know it’s affordable to have them fixed if something breaks,” explained Deputy Finance Minister Per Bolund, just before the changes were introduced. “So it’s a lessened incentive to buy as cheap as possible and then scrap something.” Bolund, a biologist by training, said part of the government’s motivation was environmental, to nudge Swedes away from disposable consumerism. But it was also economic: “Repairs are more labour-intense than production, which has been largely automized, so expanding repairs could actually contribute to an expanding labour market and a decrease in unemployment. Especially because repair services often require high skills but not very high education, so we believe there’s a currently unemployed part of the labour force that could benefit. “Of course it is [also] a boost for the local labour market because repairs are by their nature done near where you live,” Boland continued. “So hopefully this will contribute to the growth of jobs locally all over the country. Whereas large-scale manufacturing is very centralized and can only happen in a few locations around the nation and internationally.” Smart, right? Swedes call this shift a skattereduktion på reparation. Not catchy. We can do better. Like BC’s revenue-neutral carbon tax — another measure Europeans created, and for which we earned acclaim by being the first to implement in North America — a repair incentive, a fixcentive, could do a world of good. Citizens across the planet are struggling to transform our linear, take-make-dispose economy into one that’s “circular”, keeping limited resources in use for as long as possible. In some places, they’re doing it with consumer-protection laws. In France, activists are suing four computer-printer manufacturers, claiming their products are designed to stop working after a pre-set number of pages—a crime of planned obsolescence, punishable by two years’ imprisonment and a fine of €300,000 under a new French statute. In several US states, the Open Repair Alliance is pushing new “right to repair” legislation, requiring companies to make products that can be opened and fixed by independent shops, instead of expensive dealer networks. (So far they’ve succeeded with automobiles, but not with electronic devices like smartphones, which the companies claim would violate owners’ privacy.) Sweden is taking a different tack, by simply making repair more attractive. Swedes seem to be on board: 100 kilometres west of Stockholm, there’s a municipal recycling centre with classrooms, workshops, and a 14-store mall that sells toys, clothes, furniture and electronics that its students have repaired. The project has created 50 new jobs. Victorians figure out a blender at a recent repair café. (Photo by Gayle Bates) A FIXCENTIVE WOULD PROBABLY WIN FAVOUR IN VICTORIA TOO, judging by the local popularity of “repair cafés” — by-donation events where volunteers fix broken items that folks have carried in, from sweaters to toasters to chainsaws. “The demand is definitely here; the only limiting factor is the number of fixers we have,” says Michelle Mulder, who co-founded the downtown Victoria café in 2015. (Repair cafés started in Amsterdam in 2009.) She’s seen hundreds of objects revived at the bimonthly cafés, and there’s often lineups, especially for electrical items, which many people are afraid of tackling themselves. “Everybody once knew how to repair things, or knew someone who did,” Mulder notes. “But those skills are falling by the wayside, because it’s so easy, and often cheaper, to replace things.” Consequently, part of the café’s mandate is educational: The volunteer fixers don’t just take broken objects away and repair them, they show the owner and other volunteers the process, so more people have the skills. “We encourage people to bring in toys, because usually kids come along with them,” Mulder says, “and the more kids we have learning how to repair things, the more we can change the way society works.” (The next café is on Saturday, November 25, 9:30-12:30 at the central library. For more dates, see http://repaircafevicbc.ca.) Unfortunately, kids can’t look to Victoria’s elected officials to provide similar good examples. As Focus readers know, City Hall ignored 2008 estimates that the durable old Johnson Street Bridge could’ve been repaired for $8.6 million, and bought the promises of a mechanically unique “100-year” replacement that’s $105 million and counting. As the project nears completion, practically everyone is wondering how long it will be before some unforeseen problem appears, and whether we can rely on the bridge’s extended two-year warranty to correct it — or if we’ll be left out in the cold like the customers of Sears Canada. But recent events suggest that, despite all the difficulties with the new machine they’re building, Victoria councillors still aren’t very curious about how it works or will be repaired. At his October 19 update, project director Jonathan Huggett passed around a hardened sample of the thousands of litres of epoxy grout that’s filling the cavities of the toothed rack of the bridge’s “wheels,” and assured them the grout would last longer than the bridge itself. None of the councillors asked how it would be possible to inspect or replace the parts sealed inside the grout. Huggett advised that City staff are acquiring parts and equipment for future maintenance of the bridge. Nobody asked what was needed, or how much it would cost. A similar failure to ask hard questions is leading to the replacement of Crystal Pool. Councillors claim the 1971-built pool is at “the end of its life,” and can’t be repaired — even though in 2004 both Esquimalt and Oak Bay successfully refurbished their pools of similar vintage, built in 1974 and 1975 respectively. The mayor claims a new Crystal Pool will have “low carbon emissions,” but hundreds of tonnes of greenhouse gases will be produced making all the concrete for it, and even a new 50-metre pool needs a lot of energy to heat all that water. (Besides, Victoria hasn’t done much over the decades to improve the old pool energy-wise — again, compared to Oak Bay, which has won climate-action awards for the continual improvements to its pool, including its rooftop solar panels, there since 1985.) At least the old bridge’s steel will be recycled. The old pool, if replaced, will end up as landfill. Nevertheless, the City is commissioning designs, with plans to start construction in mid-2018, even though it doesn’t know where most of the $69-million budget will come from. The new federal infrastructure program has earmarked $157 million for community centres, including pools, across British Columbia — but the money will be allocated on a per-capita basis. So the 80,000-resident City of Victoria will probably only get about $2.7 million in federal cash for the project, and a couple of million more in provincial and gas-tax funds. It will have to hold a referendum to borrow the rest. Victoria’s councillors should instead tell their staff that they can’t countenance such waste, and won’t ask residents to pay some $50 million to replace a 46-year-old facility, especially when the City has repeatedly balked at spending even small fractions of that to refurbish it. If Council won’t change the costly neglect-and-replace culture at City Hall, voters could be making some fixes to it in next November’s civic election. Ross Crockford wrote this on a 2011 Macbook, likely to be rendered obsolete by Apple’s next operating-system upgrade.
  12. Victoria’s council still needs to learn lessons for its next big project. THIS HAS BEEN A MIRACULOUS YEAR for the City of Victoria. Lowest unemployment in Canada. Cranes on every block Downtown. Record levels of tourism. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that our civic government has engaged in a bit of magical thinking. This is what occurred to me when I read a headline in the June 23 Times Colonist: “Victoria might not need to borrow for Crystal Pool.” The day before, City parks director Tom Soulliere delivered an update to Victoria councillors on the municipality’s next big infrastructure project, the $69-million replacement of Crystal Pool. Soulliere reported that the City will ask for a big chunk of the cost from the federal government’s $180-billion Investing in Canada infrastructure plan, which distributes its next round of grants in April. Consequently, he said, the City might not need to borrow money for the project, which would require voters’ approval in a referendum: “While external borrowing remains a potential part of the overall funding strategy, it may be possible to eliminate or significantly reduce the amount of external borrowing required, should applications for grant programs prove successful.” A lesson that needs learning: Sometimes buying a new car is a good idea. A new Ford Pinto, not so much. The councillors surely sighed with relief. The week before, they’d heard the new Johnson Street Bridge was still rusting in pieces in China, and won’t open until next March at the earliest. Relieved they wouldn’t have to face a referendum this autumn, or perhaps at all, councillors started debating the name of the new pool instead (now it’s “Crystal Pool and Wellness Centre”) and enthused about how it could transform the city. Getting a new pool almost entirely paid for by other governments certainly would be miraculous. If the feds and province kick in two-thirds of the cost, it would comprise the biggest-ever gift to the City, greater than the $37.5-million in total federal contributions to the bridge. (The City would have to contribute to the pool as well, but since it’s already allocated $10 million from reserves, it would only need to come up with another $10 million or so, a sum voters would likely approve.) But is such a huge grant likely? The City hopes to draw the money from the “social infrastructure” component of the federal plan, which covers a vast range of needs, including “investments in Indigenous communities, early learning and childcare, affordable housing, home care, and cultural and recreational infrastructure.” Since 2002, the largest federal grant for a pool was $12.9 million for a new aquatic centre in Yellowknife. Surrey, Richmond, and UBC apparently had to build their new 50-metre pools with no federal money at all. Instead, it seems the pool is tracing the early trajectory of the bridge project — even though on June 15, Project Director Jonathan Huggett gave councillors a list of “lessons learned” from the bridge. Lest we forget, when council approved replacing the bridge in April 2009, the discussed cost was $40 million; when the budget jumped to $63 million a month later, nobody on council opposed it because they assumed most of the cost would be covered by federal-provincial stimulus money. The City then raced to make the project look “shovel-ready” to impress Ottawa (including holding the infamous “Pick One!” design contest). When John Baird showed up with $21 million a few months later, council abandoned any thought of fixing the old bridge (then-estimated cost: $25 million), and focused on getting voters’ approval to borrow the rest, instead of asking questions about the unique machine it was building. Now similar things are happening with the pool — which Stantec said could be refurbished for $6.2 million (see Option 2 in their January 2015 report) — suggesting that early lessons from the bridge haven’t been learned. Staff prefer new assets to fixing old ones. Federal approval doesn’t mean your plan is flawless. And even a fraction of external funding tends to give projects a momentum that is impossible to stop. “IF I COULD REDUCE MY EXPERIENCE with projects to a one-liner, a successful project is about identifying risks and managing those risks,” Huggett told councillors in his “lessons learned” report. The City’s engineers had produced extensive “risk registries” listing potential problems with the bridge, but key risks had been missed—in particular, that the “innovative and largely untested” open-wheel mechanism required extensive redesign, and that fabricating the lift span in China involved translators, negotiations across distant time zones, and confusion about welding standards. Such problems won’t crop up for a standard 50-metre pool built locally, Huggett noted, but it faces its own risks (unknown geotechnical conditions, groundwater), which can be countered by having adequate contingency funds, certainly larger than the four percent in the bridge construction contract. The pool currently has $23.6 million of its budget (34 percent) for cost escalation and contingencies, although that will be eaten up quickly, if local construction prices keep increasing at the current rate of six to eight percent per year—another risk. Countless articles have been written about how to generate “lessons learned,” a standard task in project management. But the literature says it’s not as simple as writing a report on the failures of a project, and then buying a bigger insurance policy for the next one — which is like compensating for a bad golf swing by aiming further to the left. Instead, leaders need to establish a culture where problems are identified, analyzed, and resolved. Amy Edmondson, a professor at the Harvard Business School, cites these practices: Frame the work accurately. The cost of the bridge has steadily escalated mainly because numerous costs (design, permitting, insurance) were lowballed or missing from early estimates, and the construction contract had tiny cash allowances for big items (fendering, likely to cost another $5 million or more) — the result of trying to make the bridge appear “on budget” and within its advertised “affordability ceiling.” Huggett said the City needs to ensure it has prepared “a full scope of work” for the pool, but it’s too early to tell if that’s been done. Embrace messengers. “Those who come forward with bad news, questions, concerns, or mistakes should be rewarded rather than shot,” Edmondson says. As Geoff Young noted at the “lessons learned” meeting, everyone at City Hall had to “get behind” the decision to replace the bridge, forcing even the fire chief to endorse the project. Has the City learned otherwise? At the February 23 council meeting, Ben Isitt questioned why UBC was able to build a pool for $40 million all-in, and demanded staff bring down the project costs, which only spurred a rebuke from Mayor Helps: “We need to show confidence in this project as a council. We need to make comments in public, in meetings that show confidence in the estimates that our staff have produced, because no funder is going to give us money if we’re not confident in the project.” Acknowledge your limits. The City’s staff and consultants had little experience with the specialized engineering of movable bridges, and were unaware of (or unwilling to disclose) the risks of an unusual design. This time, council needs to ask: How many pools have you built? Did they come in on time and budget? Invite participation. This certainly didn’t happen with the bridge project: Early warnings from the finance department and costly issues with other facilities (fire hall) had to be directed to City management, which “preferred” to sit on bad news for months. Set boundaries and hold people accountable. All of the staff associated with the early years of the bridge are now gone, although none of them were publicly disciplined for their conduct relating to the project. MMM — the consultants who proposed the troublesome “open-wheel” design, asserted it could be built for $63 million, and recommended the City sign the low-contingency construction contract — are still on the City’s payroll. The City will apparently generate a complete “lessons learned” when the bridge project is finished. In the meantime, it’s not hard to think of a few more lessons that need to be on the list: Scrutinize all claims of “emergency.” Esquimalt and Oak Bay have pools of similar age that they successfully refurbished. If we’re told that Crystal Pool’s systems will fail at any moment, why can’t they be repaired? Question your presumptions. Mayor Helps said of the pool on February 16, “I think it is very fiscally imprudent and irresponsible to keep putting money into a facility we know we’re going to tear down.” How does she “know” that, when Stantec said it could be fixed? And create a Plan B. The City might only get a couple of million from the feds. Will it reconsider repair, or push replacement regardless? After all, if council’s magical thinking doesn’t pan out, it will have to go to a borrowing referendum — and then voters will judge whether our elected officials have actually learned their lessons, or not. Award-winning journalist and author Ross Crockford is a former editor of Monday Magazine and a director of johnsonstreetbridge.org.
  13. How many big infrastructure projects can the City of Victoria tackle at once? CRYSTAL POOL IS A CHALLENGING PLACE to navigate if you’re disabled. You need a key to turn on a power lift to climb the eight steps from the lobby to the men’s locker room. You need another lift on a different staircase to get to the top floor’s tiny weight room, too crowded with equipment to fit a wheelchair. Anyone who’s visually impaired could smack their head on the concrete bleachers overhanging the pool deck. And if you want to get wet, you need someone to hand-winch you down into the water in a hoist. “The staff here over the years have done everything they can,” says Doug Nutting. “But they’re working with a facility that had no consideration in its original design.” Nutting is the executive director of Recreation Integration Victoria, an intermunicipally- funded group facilitating active lifestyles for people with disabilities. In December, as Victoria councillors debated the future of the 1971-built Crystal Pool, he wrote a letter urging them to replace it. If you include the debilitating effects of aging, Nutting says, 18 percent of Victorians live with some type of disability, and a public pool should be available to everyone. “If you just retrofit, you’re sentencing people with disabilities to at least another 10 or 20 years of having a substandard, partially accessible facility.” Such inaccessibility was one of the reasons why Victoria councillors voted in February to replace Crystal Pool, at an estimated cost of $70 million. “That [18 percent] is a big chunk of the population, and that for us was a real eye-opener,” says Thomas Soulliere, the City’s director of parks, recreation and facilities. UBC says its new pool cost $40 million, all in. Victoria is budgeting $70 million for a new pool. In 2015, the engineering firm Stantec said $6.3 million in repairs would keep the pool operating. But the City was interested in “current and anticipated community need” for the facility, and hired HCMA Architecture and PERC recreation consultants to assess it. Last December, they said the demand for indoor swimming—by recreational and club swimmers, and elderly and disabled residents—was 22 percent greater than the pool could currently handle. They said a 30-year repair of the pool would cost $40 million, and expanding it to satisfy the “latent demand” for swimming would cost $60 million. The uncertainties of renovation, plus a year-long closure to do the work, persuaded a majority of councillors to vote for a new pool. Why not simply undertake Stantec’s minimal repair? “We didn’t think doing just the behind-the-scenes systems work was a viable option for the long term,” Soulliere replies. “That keeps the building functioning, but is that really the best overall value, given the service gaps?” Consequently, Soulliere will go before councillors again in June with HCMA’s designs for a new pool. If they approve, the City will hold events throughout the summer to tell voters about the costs and benefits of the new facility, leading up to a referendum in the autumn. “There’s a lot of zeros there,” he says, smiling. “It should attract attention.” BUT THE POOL ISN'T THE ONLY IMPENDING PROJECT with a lot of zeros attached. Victoria and the other core municipalities are about to start building a $765-million sewage treatment system, and the City of Victoria’s share of that cost—after senior government grants have been applied—will be $90 million or more. The City will also have to deal with its problem of rainwater and groundwater flowing into older sewers. The City’s allocation of the capacity of a new treatment plant is only 35 percent of the total and it will have to pay financial penalties if it exceeds that use. According to the CRD’s 2012 Core Area Inflow & Infiltration (I&I) Management Plan, the City will need to spend at least $47.5 million repairing its sewage pipes by 2031. If the treatment plant is near capacity when it opens, as Stantec has predicted it might be, the City would have to reduce its I&I faster and to a greater degree, or the region will be pushed into building a second plant. Rendering of the a sewage treatment plant at McLoughlin Point. City of Victoria's share of the treatment project costs will be $90 million or more. Then there’s the replacement of Fire Hall #1, which the City hopes to have built by a private developer, with adjacent housing to offset the cost. In a closed meeting last September, City council directed staff to start negotiations with one firm—and those negotiations are still “underway,” said Susanne Thompson, the City’s director of finance, in an email. “There will be a report to council in camera within the next few months. Next steps will depend on direction provided at that time.” There’s also the Bay Street Bridge. In 2013, an engineer’s report said the bridge was in poor condition, and needed $11 million in work, mainly to replace its concrete deck. But in 2015, Stantec said the deck was OK, and the City could get away with $3.6 million in repairs; the City applied for grants for that work, and this March, the feds and the Province said they’d provide two-thirds of the funding. (The City balked at spending a further $11 million to cantilever bike lanes off the bridge.) Those repairs will start in 2018, after the Johnson Street Bridge is completed—and, one hopes, operating trouble-free—because the work will require closing at least one of the Bay Street Bridge’s lanes of traffic. The City also needs to perform catch-up maintenance on its other facilities. In 2015, the consultants Morrison Hershfield assessed all 97 City-owned buildings, and rated them on a Facilities Condition Index. Crystal Pool rated the worst: In addition to Stantec’s $6.3 million, the consultants said the pool would need a further $3.2 million by 2025. But over the next decade, the Conference Centre will also need $13.3 million, the police station $7.8 million, City Hall $4 million, and the parkades from $1.1 million to $4.5 million apiece, to continue providing acceptable service. And that doesn’t include seismic upgrades. In 2010, Read Jones Christoffersen conducted seismic risk assessments of 14 City buildings, to prioritize those that should be upgraded to the highest “post-disaster” standard. They estimated such upgrades would cost $34 million, $20 million for the conference centre and its parkade alone. While a few on the list have been upgraded since then, such as the Oaklands Community Centre, many have not. Other key buildings, such as the police station, Downtown library, and Crystal Pool—which Stantec didn’t recommend for seismic upgrading in 2015 in any case—weren’t included in the study. THE SEWAGE TREATMENT and Bay Street Bridge projects have already been partly funded by grants from upper levels of government. But it’s impossible to guess how much more the City might get for the rest—and without grants, the City will have to fund these projects from its capital budgets, through tax increases, or by tapping its financial reserves. In February 2016, City council allocated $30 million “in principle” from the City’s debt-reduction reserve for the fire hall; if the City spends all of that, it will only have $16 million left in the fund, below the minimum in the City’s reserve policy. The City also has $15 million in its infrastructure reserves (it adds $8 million per year), but with the Johnson Street Bridge still unfinished, it’s reluctant to tap that fund—which is why staff recently recommended taking money from the parks budget, or tax increases, to pay for the new parks and plazas around the bridge. If any of the big upcoming projects go sideways as badly as the bridge, tax increases may be the only remedy. Final price tags are also hard to predict in a hot construction market: Currently, construction costs are escalating by 0.4 percent every month. (And one councillor told me that two projects the City recently put out to tender got no bids at all.) The City says it’s accounting for this with its new “Project Management Framework,” requiring hefty contingencies for early estimates—a “lesson learned” from the Johnson Street Bridge—and third-party evaluations of a project’s costs and benefits. That’s why it’s budgeting $70 million for a new pool: $35 million for construction, $10 million for “soft costs” (design, project management), $10 million in cost escalation, and $15 million for contingencies. But such careful padding has also faced criticism. Ben Isitt, the only councillor to vote against a $70-million pool replacement, has pointed out that UBC built its new 50-metre aquatic centre for $40 million. (A 2014 report to UBC’s board of governors budgeted $26.7 million for construction, and UBC says $40 million was the final cost for everything.) Online pundits note that YMCA’s new 25-metre pool, built by the Westhills developers in Langford, cost $26 million. And Surrey recently opened two 50-metre pools costing $45 million and $55 million, all-in. “It doesn’t really matter what UBC did, or the Y, or Surrey,” Soulliere replies. “For this particular project, given what we’re dealing with, at this particular time, in this market, it is good value.” He was in charge of recreation at the City of Vancouver when UBC announced its new aquatic centre, he says, “and all hell broke loose: ‘You’re going to pay what for a pool?’ But these things are bloody expensive. And depending when you hit the construction market, there are going to be these inconsistencies that make [an] apples-to-apples [comparison] difficult.” Ultimately, though, deciding whether a new aquatic facility is worth the cost will be up to voters. While touring Crystal Pool, I met a young woman in a red knit cap who had to ride her scooter around to the side of the building in the rain, and ring a doorbell so staff could let her in to use the facility’s one universal change room. “It’s not ideal,” she said, laughing. She’d moved here from Revelstoke, which opened a new pool in 2005. “It’s more accessible to more people in ways that the older facility wasn’t,” she told me. “So I can totally see the benefit of having some newer structures in place. But it’s a matter of who’s going to pay the bill.” Award-winning journalist and author Ross Crockford is a former editor of Monday Magazine and a director of johnsonstreetbridge.org.
  14. Mel Bolen and Jim Munro built monuments to the written word. IN 1963, Jim Munro was managing the fabric department of an Eaton’s department store in Vancouver. A mundane job. But he had a secret dream: to own a bookshop. “He was not really a team player, and he did not play golf, so he really wasn’t going to advance very far at Eaton’s,” his daughter Sheila told the audience gathered at Jim Munro’s memorial service, held on February 20 at Alix Goolden Hall. “His friends told him he was crazy, there was no money in books, Victoria was a backwater, and so on. But it made no difference. One of my father’s great virtues was that he didn’t necessarily pay attention to the advice of others.” Victoria lost two pillars of its literary community late last year, when Jim Munro, the founder of Munro’s Books, died in November at the age of 87, and Mel Bolen, the founder of Bolen Books, died just before Christmas at age 72. Though their obituaries have been written, their legacies endure, and it’s worth reflecting upon how their unique personalities and shared determination helped make Victoria the city it is today. As Sheila said in her tribute to Jim, “All the things he loved came together in his bookstore.” Jim grew up in Oakville, Ontario—not a place famous for aesthetic interests—but rode the train into Toronto to attend art college, and travel around town with his grandfather, a United Church minister who taught him to appreciate grand architecture and a good argument. At age 14, Jim was so moved from hearing The Magic Flute on the radio that he started collecting records and inviting friends to listen to them. “When he discovered something he was passionate about,” Sheila said, “he had to share it.” At the University of Western Ontario, Jim met Alice Laidlaw, an aspiring author, and they married in 1951. Jim started working for Eaton’s (his father was chief accountant for the company), and they moved to Vancouver where he often entertained their three young daughters so Alice had time to write. But Vancouver’s book market was dominated by the local Duthie chain, so Jim decided to build a store in Victoria, and he and Alice established Munro’s Books on Yates Street, across the street from the Odeon movie theatre. Their shop, known for its hippie decor, was a success, partly because it was the only one in Canada to stock the work of the Beat poets, which Jim got from regularly visiting Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookstore in San Francisco. Alice Munro won the Governor General’s award for her first collection of short stories in 1968. She and Jim separated in 1972, but they remained friends, and he persisted with his dream. In 1984, he chanced on an art show in a former Royal Bank on Government Street that had been “hideously” renovated with linoleum floors and dropped ceilings concealing the building’s neoclassical columns. He haggled with the owners for two years, bought the building for $360,000 (it’s now assessed at $4.1M), and his second wife, the fabric artist Carole Sabiston, designed the store, turning a bank—as Pacific Opera Victoria artistic director Timothy Vernon told the audience—“into a temple to the life of the mind.” In 2015, National Geographic Travel named Munro’s one of the Top 10 bookstores in the world. Jim was also a great citizen. He was one of the founders of POV, and once financed an opera performance in Beacon Hill Park. Passionate about local history and politics—longtime Victoria councillor Pam Madoff said Jim was her “barometer” for the mood of Downtown businesses—he served on numerous City committees and the Provincial Capital Commission, and was instrumental in getting Ogden Point cleaned up to welcome cruise-ship passengers. Dave Hill, a manager for 40 years at Munro’s, said one of Jim’s favourite tasks was polishing the brass nameplates outside the store, because regular customers or total strangers would come up and chat with him. “Jim enjoyed people. That’s part of what made him a great businessman.” MADELINE “MEL” BOLEN also came from an unlikely background for a bookseller. She grew up in Saskatchewan, only received a Grade 8 education, and worked in a bakery. She got into the book business when her husband took over a small bookshop in Hillside Mall in 1975. But they split up soon afterward, and Mel had to take over the business to raise their two children, putting in long hours to make it succeed. “People loved her work ethic,” said Mel’s daughter Samantha, in her office at Bolen Books. In the 1970s, banks wouldn’t give loans to single women, but the manager of the mall was so impressed by Mel’s determination that he co-signed a loan so she could expand her store, which she did several times. Today, at 20,000 square feet, Bolen Books is one of the largest independent bookstores in Canada. One would think a mall would be an unusual place for a thriving bookstore, but as Samantha told me, Victorians are unique in our support for independent businesses, and our tendency to shop in our neighbourhoods instead of driving across town. Unlike most malls, Hillside is also surrounded by houses, so it serves as a kind of community centre. “We also have a college and a university nearby, and Uplands. That’s diverse. You’ve got students who want to get a coffee and look at books, you’ve got people who have more money, and right behind us, you’ve got working families. This could not be a better area for a bookstore.” Mel made it work because she knew her customers, and she took chances. “She was very daring, she would order 50 or 200 copies if she saw a book she liked and knew it would do well,” Howard White, the founder of Harbour Publishing, told me. “She would really get behind it, she’d put the author out in the concourse of the mall with a big stack of books, put ads in the newspaper, and really push it.” While Munro’s tended to host book signings by politicians (Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien) or literary authors (Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje), Bolen celebrated popular writers in a wide variety of genres, whether it was comedy (Charlie Farquharson), gothic erotica (Anne Rice), science fiction (William Gibson), or sports (Ken Dryden). “The experience at Bolen Books taught me what people really read,” said Robert J. Wiersema, who organized many of those author events, and now is a successful novelist. “When you work in a bookstore you see the value that whole genres of books that are often disparaged hold for people, and why. As a writer, that was really valuable. It doesn’t have to be Can Lit, or literary fiction—what’s important is the connection the book makes, and the effect it has on the reader.” Mel and Jim’s instincts were so refined that they also knew when it was time to pass their businesses to another generation. Mel retired and sold Bolen Books to Samantha in 2010, and Jim turned Munro’s over to four senior employees in 2014, the same year he was named to the Order of Canada. Asked then what advice he would’ve given his younger self about getting into books, he replied, “Don’t do it, too uncertain…It’s a tough time for the book business.” But as he noted, it’s often been tough. Book publishing remains strong: The industry is still worth almost $1 billion in Canada alone. The current challenge for bookstores comes mainly from online dealers, which account for half of all books sold. But even Amazon is opening bricks-and-mortar stores (in Seattle, Portland and San Diego, and six more coming soon), perhaps realizing that many readers still crave the tangible pleasures and communities of learning that surround real, physical books. Mel Bolen and Jim Munro built monuments to the written word, and made Victoria known as a place where it is celebrated. Now it’s up to us to see that their legacies continue and thrive. Ross Crockford is a journalist, former editor of Monday Magazine and author of Victoria: The Unknown City.
  15. The City of Victoria wants to build a $70-million swimming pool but must first obtain consent from electors to borrow $60 million. Will they vote Yes? ON FEBRUARY 16, Victoria councillors agreed to direct City staff to draw up plans to replace Crystal Pool, at a cost of up to $69.4 million, and to hold a referendum, likely at the end of 2017, that could see the City borrowing up to $60 million — the largest amount in its history. But Victorians are going to be asking many other questions before we see the one on the referendum ballot. Do we really need a new pool? Six years ago, a report by CEI Architecture said Crystal’s mechanical and electrical systems had “effectively reached the point of failure” and the pool was at risk of “immediate shutdown.” Last December, a followup study by HCMA Architecture + Design estimated that refurbishing the pool would cost $41 million and add 30 years to its life, while a $69.4-million replacement would last 50 years. There’s not much difference in per-year costs, but HCMA claimed a new facility would tap into a “latent demand” for swimming, resulting in a 22 percent increase in use. Why so expensive? HCMA recommended a 50-metre new pool, based on surveys of some 1200 people (presumably most of them current users), and estimated it would cost $35 million to build. The other half of the $70-million budget is taken up by “soft costs” (design, project management), escalation, and funding for contingencies; this means the City won’t have to drain its reserves to cover overruns as it has for the new Johnson Street Bridge. Yes, Langford did open a new facility last year in partnership with the Westhills development and the YMCA/YWCA that cost $30 million, but their pool is only 25 metres long. City of Victoria staff say the Y doesn’t want to take on another project, and Victoria’s NDP councillors are against any deal that might threaten the “public” (unionized) status of the pool. The main question is, though: Do you trust your City to manage another big project? The City staffers who sold us a new bridge have all moved on, but the arguments for replacement sound eerily similar. We’re facing an emergency. Repair means closure for a year or more. A new facility will be more accessible, and energy-efficient. The criticisms sound familiar too. The City has been warning that the pool is “nearing the end of its usable life” since at least 2004. The City has been conducting demolition by neglect. (CEI noted that “for the greatest portion of the building’s life, maintenance requirements have been deferred or completed only on an ‘as failed’ basis.”) The City refuses to simply repair as it goes, and largely ignored a 2015 Stantec report that said refurbishing or replacing the pool’s major systems would cost only $6.3 million and extend its life by 15 years. And the huge budget for soft costs and contingencies looks like a buffet for consultants’ fees. It’s hard to guess, at this early stage, how the referendum will go: in a recent CHEK web poll, only 51 percent of 1175 respondents said Yes to a $69-million new pool. Although the pool sees 400,000 visits annually, the City doesn’t know what percentage of residents actually use the pool, or how much they’re willing to pay for it. The pool’s 4750 passholders will likely vote Yes, but the No side may be cheered on by business owners, who will also get hit with the 3.5 percent property-tax increase projected for replacement. Recently I wrote to Mayor Lisa Helps, asking her to take the time to survey more of the public and determine what type of pool we want and can afford. Attaching a copy of a 2009 article on the decaying Crystal, she replied, “I think we’ve probably waited long enough to make a decision.” She may be right. And there certainly would be benefits to having a brand-new aquatic centre. But later this year we’ll get the detailed costs of sewage treatment and a new firehall, and we’ll see if the new bridge and Downtown’s two-way bike lanes work as promised. If all that news is bad, the mayor may have to wait before diving into a new pool. Award-winning journalist Ross Crockford is a director of johnsonstreetbridge.org, a former editor of Monday Magazine, and the author of Victoria: The Unknown City.
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