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Ross Crockford

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  1. Image: A house in Rockland being demolished to make way for a larger house. Every year, dozens of old buildings end up in the landfill. We need to get smarter about how we replace them. Go to story...
  2. Every year, dozens of old buildings end up in the landfill. We need to get smarter about how we replace them. IN MARCH OF 2018, a call came into the Focus offices, asking us to hurry down to Despard Avenue, a leafy, sidewalk-free street in Rockland. A crew was at a beautiful old house there, the caller said, and getting ready to tear it down. The house was a 1,600-square-foot, three-bedroom bungalow, built in 1933. Many of its period details, like its mullioned windows, had already been removed, but the house was still distinctive, topped by a series of gently curved roofs, like a Chinese temple. A neighbour said it had been owned for many years by a doctor who’d lived in Africa, and had recently died. The crew fired up an excavator and started pulling down the house, smashing its wood framing into splinters. Photographed in 2017: a unique, 1933-built bungalow, for sale on Despard Avenue. A few months later, the bungalow mostly ended up in the landfill. The replacement house was three times the size, erasing any claims for greater “energy efficiency.” A beardy guy named Kevin, who lived in a new place down the street, said that when he’d gone out for a walk, the old house was still standing. Now, on his return, it was half-demolished. Kevin said the house had needed work. What kind? “It was old,” he simply replied, although realtors’ photos suggested the house was in immaculate condition. An elderly neighbour stopped by. Kevin asked him, “Well, what do you think of that?” “I don’t know. What can you do?" the neighbour replied. “But that roof looks like it’s in better shape than mine.” This scene gets repeated dozens of times every year. In 2019, the City of Victoria issued permits to demolish 39 single-family homes, and local municipalities issued 182 such permits across the Capital Region, according to federal statistics. Over the past decade, some 375 houses have been demolished in the City of Victoria alone. The annual numbers peaked in 2015, when 53 houses in the City were torn down — inspiring residents to sign petitions and deliver presentations to Victoria’s councillors, urging them to do more to protect character homes. But the destruction has continued. Blame our overheated housing market, and rules that amplify its effects. The large demand for the limited supply of land relatively close to the water, and/or downtown jobs, has pushed up prices so much that the few people wealthy enough to buy into Victoria often also have the money to tear down an old house and build new — something our property-tax system actively encourages. The BC Assessment Authority evaluates properties according to what it considers “the highest and best use of land,” which means putting the biggest, most expensive building upon it possible. Old homes generally don’t qualify, as BC Assessment presumes that buildings steadily depreciate with age, and undergo “functional and economic obsolescence.” If an old house gets torn down, it likely was “no longer contributing to the value of that property,” one assessor told Focus: the buyer realized they could do more with the land. “The system isn’t set up to protect individual houses,” the assessor said. “It’s set up to reflect markets.” (In keeping with this bizarre logic, a heritage designation on a house actually reduces its property’s overall financial value. “If it impacts the ability to tear it down and build something new, the market’s going to reflect that,” the assessor said. “Any time you have a restriction on a property, it’s going to be worth less.”) The situation is worse in the City of Vancouver, where around 1,000 houses get demolished every year. In 2017, UBC architecture professor Joe Damen and data analyst Jens von Bergmann created a “teardown index,” identifying Vancouver houses most likely to get replaced because they have a low “relative building value” compared to the land they sit upon. Many of these doomed houses were built before the 1960s, but Damen and von Bergmann argue that in this market, even homes only a few years old will get flattened too: “Despite their high price, their value of these buildings relative to overall property is low, suggesting today's new single family home is tomorrow’s teardown.” They predict a quarter of all single-family homes in Vancouver will be demolished by 2030. Coming to Victoria? Analysts predict a quarter of all Vancouver single-family homes will be torn down by 2030 because the apparent value of those buildings is low relative to the cost of land. The casualty isn’t just the loss of built heritage. Damen and von Bergmann say this constant replacement also destroys affordability: because new homes are expensive to build, they jack the value of their respective properties even higher, turning more of the city into an exclusive enclave for global wealth. (This inflationary spiral might be broken if houses were being replaced by apartments, but the vast majority of demolitions occur in areas zoned residential, where one single-family house is simply replaced by another.) Constant replacement is also terrible for the environment. Developers sometimes claim old houses should be replaced because new homes are more “energy efficient,” but that’s deceptive. In a 2018 paper, Damen and von Bergmann calculated that once you factor in the energy used in constructing a modern house — which the high cost of land often incentivizes the owner to build to maximum size, requiring more energy to heat — it would have to stand for 168 years to produce less carbon dioxide than the leaky old house it replaced. “The results show that at the scale of both the individual building lot and the city,” they concluded, “the environmental benefits of tearing down and replacing even very poorly performing buildings are dubious at best in Vancouver.” But that pattern got repeated on Despard. The 1,600 square-foot, 1933 bungalow was replaced by a rectanguloid of nearly 5,000 square feet. The new building is assessed at $1.77 million and the land at $1.47 million for a total of $3.24 million, making it one of the 10 most expensive residential properties in the City of Victoria. Waste another big issue Unaffordability and energy overuse aside, perhaps the most obvious stupidity of demolishing old homes is that their remains typically get treated like garbage, and not as a bank of materials to be reused in new housing. As recent back-and-forth arguments in the Times Colonist have noted, the Capital Regional District is planning to cut 73 acres of forest to expand the Hartland landfill — partly, it turns out, to accommodate a growing volume of construction and demolition waste. “The only material to have increased in waste generation compared to all other years since 2001 was wood and wood products, now representing 61 kg/capita [annually],” a 2018 report to the CRD noted. “This is primarily wood from construction, renovation and demolition activities. All other primary materials have either stayed consistent or have decreased in the overall weight arriving at Hartland.” A solution to this waste problem has emerged, though — and you can see it in action at 1015 Cook Street, where the Unbuilders are systematically taking apart a two-storey house built in 1908, and rescuing nearly every bit of material used in its construction. “We hit 95 percent on every house, that’s 95 percent salvage and recycle,” says Dan Armishaw, the Unbuilders manager for Vancouver Island, standing in what used to be a dentist’s office, surrounded by items his crew has already set aside. The stained glass will be reused in The Charlesworth, the five-storey, 31-unit rental apartment block slated to replace the old house. The kitchen and bathroom fixtures will be donated to Habitat For Humanity. The windows, doors and mouldings — painted wood usually goes in the landfill, Armishaw notes — will go to Demxx, a massive heritage resale warehouse in Coombs. Even the old stucco scraped off the walls outside will get recycled into concrete. But upstairs, in the house’s two former apartments, Armishaw’s crews are getting ready to extract the house’s real treasure: the dense, old-growth lumber used in its framing and walls. Armishaw pries off some strips of lath to reveal the Douglas-fir studs underneath. This is true dimensional lumber, he says, likely milled in the 19th century. “This is the wood that made BC’s economy what it is. To throw it away, it’s like throwing our history away.” Perfectly preserved inside the walls, it could be reused in furniture, or even to frame new houses. Armishaw says he prefers to see old houses renovated instead of deconstructed, but this site, just south of Fort Street, suits greater density, and the house can’t realistically be saved. (Nickel Bros. looked at moving it, but decided the house wasn’t in good enough condition and too many utility cables were in the way.) “This building has to come down,” Armishaw says, “but at least there’s peace of mind knowing that people in the community are going to get a piece of that heritage, and that the wood used to build that house can be put back into circulation.” Signs of improvement at 1015 Cook, where the Unbuilders are dismantling a house built in 1908. Dan Armishaw reveals old-growth lumber that the Unbuilders will salvage. A forthcoming City of Victoria bylaw, modelled after those in Vancouver and Portland, could mandate such deconstruction. Demolishing a big house might cost $10,000, while deconstruction can run three or four times that. “We’re six people on a site for a few weeks, instead of a machine operator for a few days,” explains Adam Corneil, the Unbuilders founder. But the extra cost is worth it to owners. In some cases, they can donate the building’s materials through Unbuilders to Habitat For Humanity, which gives the owner a hefty tax credit. In other cases, Unbuilders wholesale what they salvage, which reduces their bill, and gives the owner an appealing story. Corneil got the idea for the company in 2014, when he was mainly building new passive-solar homes in Vancouver with single-use products. (“Even though I was building energy-efficient homes, they weren’t really aligning with my values,” he says.) One project involved gutting a heritage house, and the wood he took out was so beautiful that he reworked it in a shop and reinstalled it in the finishes. “That’s all the owner could talk about when the job was done — they didn’t talk about their fancy kitchen and their marble, they just talked about the reclaimed wood. And at the same time, every house around me in Kitsilano was being demolished,” Corneil recalls. “So I said, ‘We’ve got to make a business out of this.’” That business will soon get a boost from the City of Victoria. Last November, staff unveiled the City’s zero-waste strategy, aiming for a 50 percent reduction in landfill disposal by 2050. Some of its forthcoming actions have already been mentioned publicly, like a ban on styrofoam takeout food containers, but another includes “new requirements for contractors, property owners and developers to recover waste materials during construction, renovation and demolition,” with the goal of making reuse and deconstruction commonplace. City staff are crafting a bylaw, likely to come later this year. In 2014, the City of Vancouver introduced its own bylaw requiring reuse and recycling of demolition materials for pre-1940 homes; in 2018, it expanded the bylaw to include pre-1950 homes, and require deconstruction for pre-1910 and heritage-registered houses. “It’s a good start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough,” says Corneil. “The ‘recycling’ bit is greenwashing, because what occurs in the industry is smashing all that lumber, and then taking it to a facility that mulches and incinerates it” — releasing its stored carbon and contributing to climate change. Corneil wants to see deconstruction required for pre-1940 homes, as it is in Portland, or even pre-1950 ones, because they still contain old-growth lumber. “I’m pushing the City of Victoria very hard to follow suit,” Corneil says. Whether Victoria’s bylaw will make a significant dent in our region’s volume of waste is unclear, as other levels of government still seem afraid of running afoul of the construction and waste-removal industries. In its draft Solid Waste Management Plan, which anticipates the expansion of Hartland, the CRD only outlines vague, long-term strategies to reduce construction and demolition waste, such as “develop and disseminate educational tools to support material diversion,” “promote green building standards,” and “investigate” bans on dumping clean wood and mixed demolition loads at the landfill — even though the Regional District of Nanaimo has banned such dumping since 2014. Back in 2009, federal and provincial environment ministers, including British Columbia’s, committed to developing Extended Producer Responsibility programs — the eco-fees currently levied on items like paint and batteries to pay for their recycling or disposal — to cover construction materials, but no such measures have appeared. “You can do whatever you want in the interest of sustainability, if you’re not concerned about housing affordability,” says Casey Edge, executive director of the Victoria Residential Builders’ Association, when asked about the City’s plans. “We’ll see what the City of Victoria wants to do with mandatory dismantling of homes, but it’s not going to increase affordability, which is the biggest concern right now when it comes to housing in our region.” “We’re cutting old-growth forests at an alarming rate, and we’re throwing old-growth timber into the landfill at an alarming rate,” replies Victoria mayor Lisa Helps. “So [the prospective bylaw] is about more than zero waste, it’s about reclaiming, reusing, and looking at environmental protection at the same time.” Helps says it’s not clear if the bylaw will issue a mandate, or provide incentives, but like with its plastic-bag ban, the City will consult with local businesses to ensure they’re on board. “At a certain point, this will just be the new normal.” As for affordability, Helps says that should be improved by the City’s forthcoming “missing middle” bylaw, which could permit triplexes or fourplexes to be built on current single-family lots — although others say such blanket “upzoning” merely increases the value of land even further, and accelerates the demolition of existing homes. In any case, arguments about the fate of old houses are sure to continue. The bungalow on Despard Avenue may be gone, but a 1928-built home across the street, on a 13,000 square-foot corner lot, is currently up for sale. Ross Crockford lives in a suite in a house built in 1910. According to its latest assessment, the building is worth one-eighth the value of the land it occupies, likely making it a future teardown.
  3. Posted August 14, 2020 Image: Victoria City Council is short one councillor after Laurel Collins left for federal politics. Who will replace her? Contest appears to be Andrews vs. Hardman, as other prominent candidates drop out. Go to story
  4. Contest appears to be Andrew vs. Hardman, as other prominent candidates bow out. THE CITY OF VICTORIA’S by-election for a seat on Council, likely to occur this autumn, will look quite different from how it appeared in March, before it was cancelled due to COVID-19. Two prominent candidates in the spring by-election campaign won’t be running this fall. Rachael Montgomery, a registered nurse who had suspended her campaign to rejoin her colleagues at Island Health, told FOCUS that she plans to continue working in health care. “At this point, I’m not making any plans to run,” said Montgomery in an email. “I am excited with the work we are doing within healthcare and I’m committed to supporting our people and communities from within the healthcare system.” Jeremy Caradonna, who works in the province’s Climate Change Secretariat and teaches environmental studies at UVic, is entering provincial politics instead. His electjeremy.ca website has been retooled for a campaign to become “the next MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill,” and a sign-up page instructs readers to join the B.C. Green Party, so they can vote for Caradonna in the riding’s nomination race. In an August 14 email to supporters, Caradonna wrote: “I hope to retain your support as a candidate for provincial office. When I began my campaign for city councillor, I never imagined I would be running provincially in the same year. But a lot has changed in 2020.” Consequently, the contest for a Council seat is shaping up as one mainly between former broadcaster Stephen Andrew, who has already revived his campaign online, and community researcher Stefanie Hardman, under the banner of the Together Victoria elector organization. Hardman confirmed to FOCUS in an email that she will be running again, but said that “out of resepect for an appropriate electoral process, I have not been actively campaigning during this interim time.” The narrowed field of prominent candidates — and recent events — will surely change the dynamic of the campaign described by FOCUS back in March. Montgomery, a former secretary of the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, and Caradonna both had backing from environmentally focused voters, and it’s hard to predict who those voters will support instead. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations and concerns about policing might draw some voters to Together, which successfully lobbied City Council this summer to eliminate police street checks, and to hire fulltime staff for a new Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Stephen Andrew, on the other hand, has been conducting online forums and surveys registering neighbourhood concerns about homeless camps in City parks, and a recent surge in violent crime. He says 80 people have signed up to volunteer on his campaign in the past two weeks. The City of Victoria is required to hold a by-election to fill the Council seat formerly held by Laurel Collins. COVID-19 protocols will push the cost to more than $400,000 On July 29, the provincial government released new guidelines for by-elections under COVID-19, requiring each municipality to come up with a plan that considers the health and safety recommendations of the Provincial Health Officer and WorkSafeBC. These could include physical distancing and/or plexiglass barriers to take sworn declarations from candidates or voters, expanded mail-in voting and advance polls, curbside voting, and sanitizing voting booths and ballot-counting machines after every use. Door-knocking campaigns and in-person candidate forums typical of past elections will also be nearly impossible. City of Victoria staff will present a report to Council in September describing how this might work, and identifying possible dates for the by-election. Given the time City staff will need to prepare for the vote, it likely won’t occur until November at the earliest. The socially-distanced by-election will also come with a hefty price tag. The City earlier budgeted $170,000 for the vote, but City finance director Susanne Thompson told councillors on August 6 that she expects it to cost $250,000 more than that. The City is required to hold the by-election according to Section 54 of the Local Government Act, which allows a municipality to defer a vote only if an elected official resigns less than a year before a general civic election. Laurel Collins officially resigned last November, and the next civic election isn’t until October 2022. According to Victoria’s City Clerk, candidates who were part of the cancelled spring by-election will have to file new nomination papers for the fall contest, and new candidates will be able to join the race. “In terms of the by-election, the Ministerial Order that was passed in March cancelled the entire election process, including the rescinding of my appointment as Chief Election Officer,” Chris Coates said in an email. “What this means then is that the entire process starts from the beginning and is a brand new process. Any candidates must start from the beginning as well, so that means it is not limited only to candidates that filed during the cancelled election.” This summer, candidates in the cancelled spring by-election filed campaign finance disclosure statements with Elections BC. Together Victoria spent $39,873 on its spring campaign, and got $35,971 in donations, including $2,099 from former councillor (now MP) Laurel Collins. Montgomery spent $28,010 and got $22,269 in donations, including $1,200 from downtown businessmen Gerald Hartwig and Rob Reid, and environmentalists Carolyn Whittaker and Naomi Devine. Andrew spent $8,578 and got $11,468, including $1,000 from lawyer Kevin McCullough and realtor Scott Piercy. Caradonna spent $9,151 and took in $7,816, mainly from smaller donors. Elections BC told FOCUS in an email that campaigns in the fall by-election “will be re-starting from zero in terms of spending, fundraising and disclosure.” Candidates will be permitted to re-use their signs from the spring campaign, but “any materials from a previous election used in a new election must be disclosed at their fair market value.” FOCUS asked all nine candidates who ran in the spring if they will try again this autumn. Neighbourhood advocate Riga Godron says she will run, focusing more this time on “how the by-laws around daytime park camping are being enforced, (or rather not being enforced)” and “fully funding the Victoria police to perform the important duty that they are responsible for, most notably public safety.” According to statements she filed with Elections BC, Godron spent $13,323 on her spring campaign, and received donations of $2,424.60 from her husband and each of her three young children. Military veteran Keith Rosenberg says recent events have “doubled [his] resolve to run for and change the city council,” and that “a lot of people are ashamed of what our current city council has let our city become.” UVic lab instructor Alexander Schmid also says he will run again, expanding the focus of his campaign from transportation, public trust, and the role of neighbourhood associations to include “rational health measures and support for public safety.” Rosenberg spent nothing on his spring campaign, and Schmid spent $709. Previous candidates Peter Forbes and Gordon Mackinnon did not reply to emails. Forbes spent $217 on his spring campaign, and Mackinnon spent nothing. Online pundits have also wondered if political consultant Mike Geoghegan, who ran in Victoria’s 2018 mayoral election, might take a crack at Council this time. Geoghegan, currently working on contract for the Tŝilhqot'in National Government in Williams Lake, told FOCUS in an email: “I am still very interested in politics and hope to be making an announcement with regards to that within the next few months. But it will not be at the municipal level. So no I will not be seeking any municipal office in either Victoria or Saanich in the foreseeable future.” Ross Crockford is a Victoria journalist and former lawyer.
  5. January 2020 To satisfy the Millennials’ need for housing, Victoria’s mayor aims to permit fourplexes “as of right”on single-family lots. DOWNTOWN HAD SEEN MANY BIG PROJECTS over the past decade, but nothing like this. On December 3, Starlight Developments revealed its plans for a block and a half of Harris Green — replacing the existing Market on Yates, London Drugs and other businesses with 100,000 square feet of new retail space, topped by five towers up to 25 storeys tall and containing some 1,500 rental apartments. The unveiling took place at a land-use meeting run by the Downtown Residents’ Association, and the members had questions. What will happen to the businesses there now? Starlight said it would phase the construction so they could move to other parts of the development with minimal disruption. Who will police the proposed half-acre of green space? Starlight said it would create a “governance model” with the City of Victoria. With all the parking underground and entrances only on View Street, how will it handle the traffic? Starlight said it would conduct traffic-demand studies and adjust its plans accordingly. Starlight Developments proposes to build 1,500 rental units in Harris Green The audience sounded generally favourable toward the project, if exhausted by the prospect of more blasting and beeping trucks, and their questions sounded reasonable to my aging ears. But then I went home, and on the Vibrant Victoria internet forum, I encountered a very different impression of the evening. “The room was 90 percent senior citizens who blathered on and on about how there is too much construction in Victoria and new towers block their views from the condo they bought last year,” fumed a forum poster nicknamed “victorian.” As far as they were concerned, the meeting was “mostly just boomer complaints about how terrible it is that Victoria is not in the 1960s anymore.” I posted my own account of the event, and asked victorian to meet to discuss our differences of perception, but they declined. The “boomers” simply didn’t care about “a failing housing market, lack of rental homes, or [having] a vibrant and economically successful city,” victorian replied. “Unfortunately, the size of the post-war generation and the long lives they are expected to live will continue to hold our city, province, and country hostage for quite some time into the future, and it’s time for those of us who have more future ahead of us than behind us to fight back.” ONE MIGHT DISMISS SUCH AGEIST HOSTILITY as the gripe of a solitary crank, but similar frustrations are being voiced worldwide. As the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders noted recently, one common trait of the young protesters who rattled Hong Kong, Beirut, Santiago, Moscow, and other cities in 2019 is that they do not feel in any way represented by the older leaders who run their countries. “Their anger represents a positive force of change — and a register of this decade’s failure to fully deliver the fruits of 30 years of worldwide human improvement to the next generation,” Saunders wrote. “Most of these protesters do not enjoy the lives and livelihoods that they and their parents had expected to be available for them. Many want something completely new — a new political system, a new way of managing the economy, a new ecological commitment.” Canada has largely avoided such conflict because we continue to enjoy a buoyant economy, and elect youngish politicians who claim to be listening. But a generation gap is opening up here too. The Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 and comprising some eight million Canadians, retain the lion’s share of economic wealth and political influence, while making increasing demands on government pension plans and health care. Millennials, mainly Boomers’ children born between 1981 and 1996 and numbering around 7.4 million, on the other hand, increasingly argue that they’re facing stagnant wages, crumbling infrastructure, climate change, and massive personal debt due to the high costs of education and housing. (Justin Trudeau, born in 1971, falls squarely in Generation X.) “The movement we are part of is about intergenerational solidarity, which means people of all ages looking out for each other — and our particular focus in that is fighting for young people, and giving young people a chance,” says Eric Swanson, the Victoria-based executive director of Generation Squeeze, an advocacy nonprofit with more than 35,000 supporters across Canada. “We have a lot of people coming to us as they hit that crunch, where all these things start happening at once, and people are forced to make tough decisions, forced to leave the community they love and prefer to live in, forced to delay starting a family or perhaps not having one at all, forced to take on multiple jobs or precarious work, and through all of that living with increasing anxiety, from personal debt that you have to take on now to buy a home, anxiety around your or your children’s future when it comes to climate change,” says Swanson, who’s 36, and has a one-year-old daughter. “That’s why we need governments at all levels to start responding more urgently, and in a more coordinated fashion.” Gen Squeeze executive director Eric Swanson Gen Squeeze was founded in 2014 by Paul Kershaw, a professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health who often publishes research showing how Millennials have been getting the short end of public finance. In one paper, Kershaw calculated that Canadian governments spend up to $40,000 per person age 65-plus, but only $11,000 per person under 45; in another, Kershaw estimated that young Canadians pay 20 to 62 percent more in taxes to support retirees than they did four decades ago, even though many seniors are wealthier than at any time in national history. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the executive vice-president of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons once accused Gen Squeeze of “trying to start an inter-generational war.”) Increasingly though, Gen Squeeze’s research and advocacy has been focused upon dampening the crippling price of housing in Canadian cities, Victoria included. To that end, Swanson says Gen Squeeze has been working to “dial down harmful demand” on urban housing. It lobbied Vancouver and Victoria to restrict short-term rentals, and helped persuade the B.C. government to pass the Speculation and Vacancy Tax — and apply it to the entire capital region, much to the frustration of Langford mayor Stew Young. (“We are seeing provincial data revealing global capital coming here [to buy housing] too, not just in metro Vancouver,” Swanson says.) The Gen Squeeze message More controversially, Gen Squeeze has also encouraged municipalities to “dial up” the supply of housing, by supporting large housing developments opposed by neighbourhoods — leading to accusations that Gen Squeeze is just a stooge of wealthy corporations. (Along with VanCity Credit Union and the Vancouver Foundation, Gen Squeeze’s funders include the developer Wesgroup and the rental owners’ association LandlordBC.) “We need to build a lot of homes,” Swanson replies. Although publicly-funded housing and co-ops are part of the solution, he says, private developments also increase supply. But will many private units actually be affordable? In the spring of 2018, Swanson urgedVictoria’s council to approve a project at 1201 Fort; now it’s being sold as Bellewood Park, with condos priced from $665,000 to $1.9 million. “We need to build more housing Downtown, near urban cores, employment centres, and amenities, and be comfortable with the fact that it’s going to take some time for that housing to become affordable, as the unit ages,” Swanson says. “Simultaneously, we need to recognize that a lot of the problem in the end price is the underlying land value.” To drop those values and spur housing, Gen Squeeze advocates increasing taxes on unimproved and underused land, and decreasing income taxes — an idea first proposed by the 19th-century economist Henry George, and which it’s currently researching for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Gen Squeeze has also called for a luxury tax on residences worth over $1 million, and eliminating the exemption on capital gains from the sale of a principal residence, a loophole that costs the federal government $6 billion a year. “Nobody does anything to earn that money,” Swanson says, although he admits cutting the exemption means “we will have to invest more in seniors as well, because a lot of people are banking on home equity to fund their retirement.” SUCH ARGUMENTS SEEM TO BE increasingly influential — especially in the City of Victoria, where Millennials hold a growing share of political power. According to the federal census, in 2011 nearly the same number of Millennials (18,270) and Boomers (17,070) lived in the City of Victoria. But by 2016, the numbers had tipped decisively in favour of Millennials (23,165) over Boomers (18,100). They will likely tip even further in the 2021 census, given Victoria’s hot economy and boom in apartment construction. That trend might explain why Together Victoria got all three of its first-time, Millennial-aged candidates elected to council in 2018, and why Mayor Lisa Helps was re-elected. (Helps was 38 when she first won the mayoralty in 2014, making her one of the younger mayors in the City’s history, but the youth record likely goes to Alexander R. Robertson, who was 30 when he became mayor in 1870.) And since then, the council has fast-tracked concerns that often split public reaction along generational lines: bike lanes instead of cars, expanded services instead of low taxes, and new housing instead of heritage, trees, and quietude. The next big fight over new housing is coming soon. On November 21, the council directed City staff to come up with a plan to increase the stock of lower-cost, “missing middle” housing, such as multi-unit houses and townhomes — and during the discussions, Helps indicated that she wants to eliminate single-family residential zoning across the entire city, as Minneapolis did this past year, to get such housing built. “I’d like to see us go at least as far as Minneapolis, where they have triplexes as of right [on single-family lots]. I’d like to see fourplexes as of right,” Helps told her staff. (Video of the meeting here; start at 1:51:00.) “There was a big stir in the North America-wide planning community when the headline was that Minneapolis got rid of single-family zoning. From staff’s report it doesn’t seem quite that drastic, but I think we need to do more with the land that we have.” (One critique of such blanket “upzoning” is that it jacks land values even higher, and only produces expensive townhomes in desirable neighbourhoods, not the affordable housing that cities need. So Victoria’s council, to its credit, also told staff to build an “affordability” requirement into its “missing middle” plan. City staff will present their draft recommendations this coming spring.) Urban municipalities are now pushing for similar upzoning in cities across North America, in an attempt to address a housing crisis generated by a multitude of factors, including an economy producing a lot of downtown-based, tech- and service-oriented jobs — mainly employing Millennials — and outdated transportation infrastructure that prevents commuting from cheaper housing farther away. Over the past three years, Seattle, Austin, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington D.C. have all upzoned parts of their cities to permit greater housing densities, especially along transit routes. And in November, the City of Vancouver directed its staff to draft bylaws that would automatically permit six-storey rental housing on arterial roads and four-storey rentals on side streets near parks, schools and shopping. “At best it’s an incremental improvement, but once we get this type of bylaw on the books, then it’s relatively easy in subsequent years to extend that,” says Adrian Crook, the founder of Abundant Housing Vancouver, a volunteer-run YIMBY (Yes, In My Back Yard) advocacy group. “I think that’s how we get zoning reform. It’s not a single pen stroke, it’s a bunch of them.” Of course, another attraction of upzoning to municipal governments is that it eliminates the lengthy consultations and public hearings that are required to rezone residential properties for higher densities. Crook, who was in Victoria recently to speak about the YIMBY movement to the Urban Development Institute, cites a recent battle over 21 rental townhomes in Vancouver’s high-end Shaughnessy neighbourhood, which concluded in a public hearing with dozens of speakers, consuming 10 hours of city council time. (The council rejected the proposal and a 13,000-square-foot mansion is being built on the lot instead.) “That is the problem with our current housing-approval process,” Crook says. “The people who can potentially benefit from those 21 rental townhomes, they may not even live in Vancouver right now, and they’re not going to be motivated to show up at a council meeting. But the surrounding neighbourhood is highly motivated, because they perceive harms to be directly visited upon them. So that’s what we’re constantly fighting.” Crook, who’s 43, says it’s “reductionist” to claim the two camps split entirely along Millennial-Boomer lines, but he admits that those demanding density and new housing are generally younger, while the oppositional “incumbents” in residential neighbourhoods are older. “They’re a generation that was raised on Jane Jacobs, and fighting freeways,” Crook says. “That’s a good fight, but now they see any type of growth as a bad thing.” Crook has seen it in his own family. “My mother lives in Port Moody, in the house I grew up in. She very much fits that Sierra Club-model of environmentalist, but she voted in the current council because she thinks there’s been too much development and change in Port Moody. She loves the Skytrain and West Coast Express, but doesn’t want the areas around the stations developed,” Crook says. “It’s a really weird, contrarian perspective, to want all the amenities but nobody living around them.” Ross Crockford was born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, and lives in a triplex that predates his neighbourhood’s single-family zoning.
  6. November 2019 Residents take the City of Victoria to court for overriding its Official Community Plan. (UPDATE: On November 22, the BC Supreme Court rendered its decision in this case. See the note at the end of this story.) “I’M NOT AN ACTIVIST KIND OF GUY,” John Wells says. By day, he develops instrumentation for the high-tech sector. But this autumn, he put his name on a court action that could change how developments get approved by the City of Victoria, and potentially every other municipality in British Columbia. “I’ve never done anything like this before.” In his case, the development in question is Rhodo, a set of 20 townhomes planned for two residential lots at 1712 and 1720 Fairfield Road, next to Hollywood Park, in the Gonzales neighbourhood. Aryze Developments first presented the project to neighbours, including Wells, in 2017. Though Aryze generated many letters of support for the project through their website, attendees at community association land-use meetings were almost universally opposed, arguing that Rhodo packed too many people into too small an area, it crowded the park and the sidewalk, and its boxy modern design didn’t fit the neighbourhood. John Wells says the terms of the OCP constitute a public trust (Photo by Ross Crockford) Victoria’s council approved Rhodo at a public hearing in August. A majority of speakers supported the project, and the majority of councillors (aside from Charlayne Thornton-Joe and Geoff Young) cited a need for diverse housing in the city and in the Gonzales neighbourhood, and claimed that increased density in such a walkable area, along a transit route, would help reduce climate change. But the neighbours didn’t accept those arguments. They got a lawyer’s opinion that the City had overstepped its authority, rallied to launch a court case to set aside the council’s decision, and Wells volunteered to become the face of the lawsuit. The nub of their legal argument concerns the height of the development. Section 478 of BC’s Local Government Act says that all bylaws passed by a council — such as the rezoning bylaw for Rhodo — “must be consistent with” the municipality’s official community plan. In Victoria’s Official Community Plan or OCP, Gonzales is designated “traditional residential,” defined as consisting of “ground-oriented buildings up to two storeys” and multi-unit buildings up to three storeys on arterial roads. (Fairfield is designated a “collector” road.) At the public hearing, Aryze and City staff said Rhodo was “2.5 storeys” tall, apparently because its top floor includes open-air balconies. Wells says Rhodo is three storeys. (The architect’s plans say it’s 11.14 metres tall, and a City planning document says residential construction between 9 and 12 metres equals three storeys.) “I deal with math a lot, and the equation for ‘up to two storeys’ is ‘less than or equal to two’,”. Wells says. “It’s not ‘around two’.” Artist’s rendering of the controversial "2.5-storey" Rhodo project City planners acknowledged the “up to two storeys” problem in their reports to councillors, but recommended Rhodo proceed anyway, noting that the OCP also contemplated a “range of built forms,” that the “appropriate scale” of a building was to be based on “an evaluation of the context,” and that the townhouses would advance the OCP’s broad objectives of diverse, transit-accessible housing. Wells isn’t opposed to development; like any developer, he says, he just wants clear rules, and that means the City needs to respect the clear terms in the OCP. As he points out, Victoria developed its OCP between 2009 and 2011 with the involvement of some 6,000 residents, and in 2012, council enshrined the plan in a bylaw. “With this [Rhodo] decision they crossed the line, they violated the public trust, which is what the OCP is,” Wells says. “For me that’s the nucleus of this complaint.” To finance the lawsuit, Wells has raised over $10,000 from more than 75 donors via gofundme.com — and in the process, he’s spoken with residents across Victoria who say they’re fed up with the City cherry-picking phrases from its policies to justify oversized developments. “I realized this isn’t isolated,” he says. “This has been going on for quite some time.” IAN SUTHERLAND CAN SYMPATHIZE. As chair of the Downtown Residents’ Association’s land-use committee, he’s been battling City Hall over developments since 2011, and he agrees the OCP should be strictly interpreted. “It’s supposed to represent a contract between the council, the development community, and the citizens.” Trouble is, the City keeps rewriting the contract, and frequently amends the plan for projects all over town. In May, Sutherland persuaded all of Victoria’s neighbourhood associations to add their names on a letter to Mayor Lisa Helps and council, calling on them and City staff to “follow best practices in land use planning by unequivocally upholding the Official Community Plan.” The City’s reply? “Zero. Not a peep,” Sutherland says. “It’s almost like they didn’t understand what I was talking about.” Sutherland’s current headache is the City’s tendency to override the density provisions of the OCP. Density often gets described in floor-space ratios, but he says it’s really about whether a development will help or hurt the liveability of an area. A particularly egregious example for him is the proposal to gut the 1892-built “Duck’s Block” on Broad Street: the OCP says that historic part of downtown has a density limit of 3:1, but the planned hotel will have a density of nearly 5:1. “All those beautiful little courtyards and back alleys, they’re part of a low-density culture that will be rubbed out, because these developments soak up every square inch of dirt.” Sutherland’s also been critical of the proposal for four towers at Cook and Johnson — one of which will include a new fire hall — noting that the project has an overall density of 6.8:1 in an area permitted only 5.5:1 in the OCP. At the project’s public hearing on October 24, City planning staff said they looked at a “balance” of considerations, and that inconsistency with any one policy in the OCP wasn’t enough to derail a proposal. Council agreed and approved the project — and in her comments, Mayor Helps said that she effectively considers parts of the OCP to be obsolete. “One of the problems with the Official Community Plan, and the way that it’s used sometimes, is that it’s wielded as a shield against change,” Helps told the audience. “And I don’t think that’s right.” She was on an advisory committee for the OCP when it was being created, before she was first elected to council in 2011, and the OCP didn’t identify the concerns Victoria faces today. “If we had declared a climate emergency, and been in the middle of a housing crisis when we approved the OCP in 2012, it probably would’ve looked like a very different document. So our responsibility now is to look at the reality around us, and amend the document accordingly as needed.” Wells’ case is slightly different: for Rhodo, the City didn’t even bother amending the OCP, which is a more complicated procedure under provincial law than rezoning, requiring a municipality to consult with “persons, organizations and authorities” that might be affected. (For an example of what’s involved, see Coquitlam’s manual for OCP amendments here.) Perhaps the City got lazy — or perhaps it passed on an OCP amendment for Rhodo because it believes the law is on its side. In its filed response to Wells’ action, the City notes that section 471 of the Local Government Act says an OCP is “a statement of objectives and policies,” so the City considers it a “visionary” document that shouldn’t be strictly interpreted. Some judges have agreed: in 2011, BC’s Court of Appeal upheld Central Saanich’s subdivision of the Vantreight farm into residential lots, saying its rezoning bylaw was consistent with the various environmental and social goals in the OCP, and that the council acted reasonably by weighing various factors in its decision. But more recent BC court decisions say an OCP is a legal document, and when it imposes clear requirements, those should be followed. The case will probably be heard in mid-December. Regardless of the decision, though, the issues will soon be tried in the court of public opinion as well. Laurel Collins, one of the councillors who voted for Rhodo, is now off to Ottawa, and the City will hold a byelection for her seat early in the new year. Judging by Victoria’s ongoing arguments over land use, neighbourhood-advocate candidates are sure to emerge. Ross Crockford used to be a lawyer, but he’s feeling better now. UPDATE: On Friday, November 22, the BC Supreme Court dismissed the Wells petition to strike down the City of Victoria’s rezoning bylaw for the Rhodo development. Mr Justice Giaschi said Wells’s lawyers had failed to bring the petition to be heard within the two-month limit in Section 623 of the Local Government Act. He also said the bylaw was “consistent with” the City’s Official Community Plan, and the Council’s decision to pass it was sufficiently “reasonable” that it should not be struck down under the Judicial Review Procedure Act. The judge noted that City staff and Council had actively considered the development’s compliance with the OCP, and sent the proposal back for revisions to satisfy the Plan. Although one part of the OCP did say a “traditional residential” neighbourhood only permitted buildings “up to two storeys” on collector roads like Fairfield, the judge said that clause had to be read “in conjunction with other parts of the OCP,” which allowed for a range of building types, and identified various goals, including increasing the supply of housing. After the decision, Wells issued a statement on his GoFundMe page: “The judge's decision does not mean that the OCP has no meaning, or that City Council can make whatever decision they want. What it does mean is that the courts will give City Council some leeway in how they interpret the OCP, which in this case, and in this specific location, includes 2.5 storeys in an ‘up to 2 storey’ area. “During the hearing, the judge commented that if residents are not happy with how Council makes decisions, that is what elections are for. Therefore, if we are not happy with how much leeway this City Council seems to be taking with the OCP, we should be having that dialogue with our elected representatives, and future candidates, about why respecting the OCP is important.” That dialogue is likely to get more heated. Last Thursday, Council directed City staff to come up with policies to increase “missing middle” housing, such as townhouses — and Mayor Lisa Helps announced that she effectively wants to eliminate single-family residential zoning across Victoria to get such townhouses built. (Start at 1:51:15 in the video of the meeting HERE.) “I’d like to see us go at least as far as Minneapolis, where they have triplexes as of right,” Helps said. “I’d like to see fourplexes as of right. There was a big stir in the North America-wide planning community [last year] when the headline was that Minneapolis got rid of single-family zoning. From staff’s report it doesn’t seem quite that drastic, but I think we need to do more with the land that we have.” Victorians, get ready for more Rhodos.
  7. January 2019 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.
  8. May 2018 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) movementis 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.
  9. July 2017 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 millionfor 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.
  10. May 2017 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.
  11. May 6, 2020 Photo: The public notice that Langford wouldn't hold public hearings on major development proposals. Langford waives public hearings, a practice threatening to become common across the region. Go to story
  12. Posted May 2019 Photo: Teen anti-plastic activists Charlotte Brady and Anastasia Castro Is recycling enough, or should we ban some plastics completely? Go to story
  13. November 2019 The Johnson Street Bridge undergoes one safety review after another. THE JOHNSON STREET BRIDGE is an attractive structure, especially in the evening. Resembling a giant bird’s skull, awash in the glow of blue floodlights, it’s easily the most distinctive landmark on the harbour. Lately, however, the bridge has been drawing the wrong kind of attention. At 11:40 pm on Saturday, October 19, a man fell over a railing near the southwest corner of the bridge and hit the shore, ending up in hospital with serious injuries. “Incidents like this serve as a good opportunity to remind people to be safe, be aware and take caution while crossing [the] bridge,” VicPD constable Matt Rutherford later told Victoria News—as if walking on the bridge requires greater caution than crossing, say, a Downtown street. A report warned that allowing the public near the moving bridge presented “real concerns from a risk standpoint” This was just the latest odd episode at the bridge, usually involving a man emboldened by drink. (VicPD said alcohol was “a factor” in the Oct 19 fall.) One Saturday last December, an inebriated man climbed a railing, fell into the water and drowned. And famously, on a Friday afternoon last July, a drunk guy ambled past a closed gate on the multiuse path, and ended up hanging 20 metres in the air from a railing as the bridge lifted for a passing ship. After each of these incidents, the City of Victoria announced that it would conduct a formal safety review of the bridge’s equipment and operating procedures. Then, six months later, another mishap. The previous bridge also saw accidents: in 2013, a 31-year-old guy died after falling from the overhead girders of the old bridge, where he’d been drinking with friends, and in 2006 a ferry skipper rescued an 11-year-old boy who’d been playing on the old bridge and fell into the harbour. But judging by the news archives, such incidents are occurring with greater frequency now. For sure, this is partly an unfortunate side effect of the increasing numbers of bars, condos and pedestrians in the area, which the new bridge has encouraged. With even more condos coming, though, that raises an increasingly urgent question for the City: can the bridge ever be made completely safe? JUST THREE DAYS BEFORE THE BRIDGE WAS INAUGURATED on March 31, 2018, the engineering firm WSP issued a safety audit of the structure, which Focus recently obtained. WSP identified several problems, including gaps in railings, an “increased collision risk” where the multiuse path enters Harbour Road, potential tripping hazards and deck slipperiness, the risk of debris sliding off the decks “into areas where the public will be permitted to stand,” and the fact that the bridge operator has to continually monitor a network of CCTV cameras to see all parts of the structure—increasing the operator’s workload during a lift, and “the potential for error in the complex steps associated with the process.” In an annotated version of the report, Taaj Daliran, the City’s manager of civic services, identified steps taken by bridge contractor PCL and the City to fix these issues. They closed gaps in the railings, installed warning signs and larger CCTV monitors, and initiated a “comprehensive training program” for the operators. (Improving the Harbour Road connection is a future project.) But WSP also identified a more general worry: the risk of “aberrant behaviours” by pedestrians, especially around the lift span and the observation deck between the bridge’s open-wheeled mechanism. “Standing in close proximity to a large moving object in the form of a moving portion of a large part of the structure within which observers will be standing, does present real concerns from a risk standpoint,” warned WSP—which was bizarre, considering that the publicly accessible, open-wheel concept was designed by WSP and MMM Group, which WSP acquired in 2015. “Deliberately allowing the public to expose itself to such a risk situation may not be appropriate from a general public safety policy or engineering standpoint, particularly when public behavioural aspects of that risk environment will be uncontrollable.” The City partly dealt with this by installing a steel gate in front of the observation deck—immediately after a skateboarder was photographed riding the curved concrete edge of the north wall of the bridge’s bascule pier in September of 2018. The gate is open only when the bridge operator is present, usually from 8 am to 4 pm. But is it wise to let the public near the machinery at all? “It has been part of the design to allow [the] public to be close and watch the bridge lift,” the City’s Daliran wrote, in response to WSP’s warning. Entry to the observation deck is usually blocked 4pm to 8am Fraser Work, the City’s director of engineering, agrees that odd behaviour has been an issue at the bridge. Even before the guy rode the lift span in July, Work told me, “a lot” of cyclists and pedestrians were rushing past closed traffic gates, because they were too impatient to wait the seven minutes it takes to clear the bridge, raise it for a passing ship, lower it and reopen it. “We even had instances where people were stopped and taking selfies, and the bridge operator had to wait, which is very dangerous as a vessel approaches,” Work said. Consequently, the City installed additional CCTV cameras, improved the lights and signage, and is considering fortifying the gate on the bridge’s multiuse path. “The systems are designed to code,” Work said. “These railings and these systems are designed that someone shouldn’t accidentally find themselves in harm’s way. But they’re not going to prevent someone who wants to find themselves in harm’s way from having accidents.” Work emphasized that the City takes safety seriously. But there are limits to what it can do. “We ask ourselves, ‘What would a prudent bridge owner do?’ Would we add more infrastructure at potentially very significant costs to reduce the risk of any accident happening in the future, or is it adequate right now? So there’s an active dialogue about this stuff. We’ve had these incidents, we take them seriously, we look at them individually based on CCTV footage that we can review and statements by witnesses, and we look at them holistically over time, so we want to make sure we’re taking all necessary action.” The bridge was also in the news this summer for its mechanical problems. On June 27, the City cancelled all lifts to investigate worries with the hydraulic system; marine traffic backed up in the harbour, and the City could only conduct two slow, scheduled lifts per day for two weeks afterward. As Focus revealed in September, the housings and O-ring seals of the system’s filters were breaking down, filling the hydraulic oil with particles that could permanently damage the motors. That concern hasn’t been resolved. Work says they’re still running the hydraulics at reduced pressure, so the bridge is at “about 50 percent” speed, adding two minutes to the seven-minute lift/wait/lower cycle. PCL is testing new filters, and may have to reconfigure the hydraulics. The repairs should be covered by the bridge’s warranty, which expires on April 1. Then there are the ongoing lawsuits by PCL and WSP against the City, for unpaid work and losses the companies say they suffered due to design changes and delays during the bridge’s construction. In June, PCL served the City with its notice of claim, keeping its lawsuit alive. PCL’s lawyer filed a document in court advising that settlement discussions with the City were “expected to conclude, one way or the other, by July 31,” but that date’s come and gone. As City spokesman Bill Eisenhauer told me, “The litigation is still in abeyance as the parties explore the possibility of a consensual solution.” The wheels of justice grind slowly, like the bridge mechanism. Don’t get too close. Ross Crockford wishes everyone a safe and merry Christmas. WSP Safety Audit of new Johnson Street Bridge.pdf1.52 MB · 26 downloads
  14. November 2019 Residents take the City of Victoria to court for overriding its Official Community Plan. (UPDATE: On November 22, the BC Supreme Court rendered its decision in this case. See the note at the end of this story.) “I’M NOT AN ACTIVIST KIND OF GUY,” John Wells says. By day, he develops instrumentation for the high-tech sector. But this autumn, he put his name on a court action that could change how developments get approved by the City of Victoria, and potentially every other municipality in British Columbia. “I’ve never done anything like this before.” In his case, the development in question is Rhodo, a set of 20 townhomes planned for two residential lots at 1712 and 1720 Fairfield Road, next to Hollywood Park, in the Gonzales neighbourhood. Aryze Developments first presented the project to neighbours, including Wells, in 2017. Though Aryze generated many letters of support for the project through their website, attendees at community association land-use meetings were almost universally opposed, arguing that Rhodo packed too many people into too small an area, it crowded the park and the sidewalk, and its boxy modern design didn’t fit the neighbourhood. John Wells says the terms of the OCP constitute a public trust (Photo by Ross Crockford) Victoria’s council approved Rhodo at a public hearing in August. A majority of speakers supported the project, and the majority of councillors (aside from Charlayne Thornton-Joe and Geoff Young) cited a need for diverse housing in the city and in the Gonzales neighbourhood, and claimed that increased density in such a walkable area, along a transit route, would help reduce climate change. But the neighbours didn’t accept those arguments. They got a lawyer’s opinion that the City had overstepped its authority, rallied to launch a court case to set aside the council’s decision, and Wells volunteered to become the face of the lawsuit. The nub of their legal argument concerns the height of the development. Section 478 of BC’s Local Government Act says that all bylaws passed by a council — such as the rezoning bylaw for Rhodo — “must be consistent with” the municipality’s official community plan. In Victoria’s Official Community Plan or OCP, Gonzales is designated “traditional residential,” defined as consisting of “ground-oriented buildings up to two storeys” and multi-unit buildings up to three storeys on arterial roads. (Fairfield is designated a “collector” road.) At the public hearing, Aryze and City staff said Rhodo was “2.5 storeys” tall, apparently because its top floor includes open-air balconies. Wells says Rhodo is three storeys. (The architect’s plans say it’s 11.14 metres tall, and a City planning document says residential construction between 9 and 12 metres equals three storeys.) “I deal with math a lot, and the equation for ‘up to two storeys’ is ‘less than or equal to two’,”. Wells says. “It’s not ‘around two’.” Artist’s rendering of the controversial "2.5-storey" Rhodo project City planners acknowledged the “up to two storeys” problem in their reports to councillors, but recommended Rhodo proceed anyway, noting that the OCP also contemplated a “range of built forms,” that the “appropriate scale” of a building was to be based on “an evaluation of the context,” and that the townhouses would advance the OCP’s broad objectives of diverse, transit-accessible housing. Wells isn’t opposed to development; like any developer, he says, he just wants clear rules, and that means the City needs to respect the clear terms in the OCP. As he points out, Victoria developed its OCP between 2009 and 2011 with the involvement of some 6,000 residents, and in 2012, council enshrined the plan in a bylaw. “With this [Rhodo] decision they crossed the line, they violated the public trust, which is what the OCP is,” Wells says. “For me that’s the nucleus of this complaint.” To finance the lawsuit, Wells has raised over $10,000 from more than 75 donors via gofundme.com — and in the process, he’s spoken with residents across Victoria who say they’re fed up with the City cherry-picking phrases from its policies to justify oversized developments. “I realized this isn’t isolated,” he says. “This has been going on for quite some time.” IAN SUTHERLAND CAN SYMPATHIZE. As chair of the Downtown Residents’ Association’s land-use committee, he’s been battling City Hall over developments since 2011, and he agrees the OCP should be strictly interpreted. “It’s supposed to represent a contract between the council, the development community, and the citizens.” Trouble is, the City keeps rewriting the contract, and frequently amends the plan for projects all over town. In May, Sutherland persuaded all of Victoria’s neighbourhood associations to add their names on a letter to Mayor Lisa Helps and council, calling on them and City staff to “follow best practices in land use planning by unequivocally upholding the Official Community Plan.” The City’s reply? “Zero. Not a peep,” Sutherland says. “It’s almost like they didn’t understand what I was talking about.” Sutherland’s current headache is the City’s tendency to override the density provisions of the OCP. Density often gets described in floor-space ratios, but he says it’s really about whether a development will help or hurt the liveability of an area. A particularly egregious example for him is the proposal to gut the 1892-built “Duck’s Block” on Broad Street: the OCP says that historic part of downtown has a density limit of 3:1, but the planned hotel will have a density of nearly 5:1. “All those beautiful little courtyards and back alleys, they’re part of a low-density culture that will be rubbed out, because these developments soak up every square inch of dirt.” Sutherland’s also been critical of the proposal for four towers at Cook and Johnson — one of which will include a new fire hall — noting that the project has an overall density of 6.8:1 in an area permitted only 5.5:1 in the OCP. At the project’s public hearing on October 24, City planning staff said they looked at a “balance” of considerations, and that inconsistency with any one policy in the OCP wasn’t enough to derail a proposal. Council agreed and approved the project — and in her comments, Mayor Helps said that she effectively considers parts of the OCP to be obsolete. “One of the problems with the Official Community Plan, and the way that it’s used sometimes, is that it’s wielded as a shield against change,” Helps told the audience. “And I don’t think that’s right.” She was on an advisory committee for the OCP when it was being created, before she was first elected to council in 2011, and the OCP didn’t identify the concerns Victoria faces today. “If we had declared a climate emergency, and been in the middle of a housing crisis when we approved the OCP in 2012, it probably would’ve looked like a very different document. So our responsibility now is to look at the reality around us, and amend the document accordingly as needed.” Wells’ case is slightly different: for Rhodo, the City didn’t even bother amending the OCP, which is a more complicated procedure under provincial law than rezoning, requiring a municipality to consult with “persons, organizations and authorities” that might be affected. (For an example of what’s involved, see Coquitlam’s manual for OCP amendments here.) Perhaps the City got lazy — or perhaps it passed on an OCP amendment for Rhodo because it believes the law is on its side. In its filed response to Wells’ action, the City notes that section 471 of the Local Government Actsays an OCP is “a statement of objectives and policies,” so the City considers it a “visionary” document that shouldn’t be strictly interpreted. Some judges have agreed: in 2011, BC’s Court of Appeal upheld Central Saanich’s subdivision of the Vantreight farm into residential lots, saying its rezoning bylaw was consistent with the various environmental and social goals in the OCP, and that the council acted reasonably by weighing various factors in its decision. But more recent BC court decisions say an OCP is a legal document, and when it imposes clear requirements, those should be followed. The case will probably be heard in mid-December. Regardless of the decision, though, the issues will soon be tried in the court of public opinion as well. Laurel Collins, one of the councillors who voted for Rhodo, is now off to Ottawa, and the City will hold a byelection for her seat early in the new year. Judging by Victoria’s ongoing arguments over land use, neighbourhood-advocate candidates are sure to emerge. Ross Crockford used to be a lawyer, but he’s feeling better now. UPDATE: On Friday, November 22, the BC Supreme Court dismissed the Wells petition to strike down the City of Victoria’s rezoning bylaw for the Rhodo development. Mr Justice Giaschi said Wells’s lawyers had failed to bring the petition to be heard within the two-month limit in Section 623 of the Local Government Act. He also said the bylaw was “consistent with” the City’s Official Community Plan, and the Council’s decision to pass it was sufficiently “reasonable” that it should not be struck down under the Judicial Review Procedure Act. The judge noted that City staff and Council had actively considered the development’s compliance with the OCP, and sent the proposal back for revisions to satisfy the Plan. Although one part of the OCP did say a “traditional residential” neighbourhood only permitted buildings “up to two storeys” on collector roads like Fairfield, the judge said that clause had to be read “in conjunction with other parts of the OCP,” which allowed for a range of building types, and identified various goals, including increasing the supply of housing. After the decision, Wells issued a statement on his GoFundMe page: “The judge's decision does not mean that the OCP has no meaning, or that City Council can make whatever decision they want. What it does mean is that the courts will give City Council some leeway in how they interpret the OCP, which in this case, and in this specific location, includes 2.5 storeys in an ‘up to 2 storey’ area. “During the hearing, the judge commented that if residents are not happy with how Council makes decisions, that is what elections are for. Therefore, if we are not happy with how much leeway this City Council seems to be taking with the OCP, we should be having that dialogue with our elected representatives, and future candidates, about why respecting the OCP is important.” That dialogue is likely to get more heated. Last Thursday, Council directed City staff to come up with policies to increase “missing middle” housing, such as townhouses — and Mayor Lisa Helps announced that she effectively wants to eliminate single-family residential zoning across Victoria to get such townhouses built. (Start at 1:51:15 in the video of the meeting HERE.) “I’d like to see us go at least as far as Minneapolis, where they have triplexes as of right,” Helps said. “I’d like to see fourplexes as of right. There was a big stir in the North America-wide planning community [last year] when the headline was that Minneapolis got rid of single-family zoning. From staff’s report it doesn’t seem quite that drastic, but I think we need to do more with the land that we have.” Victorians, get ready for more Rhodos.
  15. May 2019 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.
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