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  1. Some doctors say we must test widely to find all carriers of the coronavirus. British Columbia isn’t doing that. ON MARCH 16, as many countries rapidly expanded their social-distancing measures to combat spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and the associated disease COVID-19, the director-general of the World Health Organization told them that they needed to do more. “The most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission. And to do that, you must test and isolate,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected. We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case.” Canada generally, and British Columbia in particular, claims to be following that advice. B.C. health minister Adrian Dix says the province conducts around 3,500 tests for COVID-19 every day. According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, by March 31 the province had conducted 43,229 tests — 8,458 per million residents, a testing rate better than the 8,152 per million conducted by South Korea, considered a model country for managing the crisis. But some say that’s still not enough if we want accurate data about the prevalence of the virus, and hope to identify and isolate carriers who are only experiencing mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all. A coronavirus testing laboratory in Leeds, UK (Credit: HM Treasury) Estimates of the number of such asymptomatic carriers varies greatly. One study of the notorious Diamond Princess cruise ship found that half of its passengers who tested positive for COVID-19 showed no symptoms. A recent study of transmission of the virus in China said that 86% of the infections there went undocumented — meaning that for every one person who tested positive, another six carried the virus but weren’t identified. “This high proportion of undocumented infections, many of whom were likely not severely symptomatic, appears to have facilitated the rapid spread of the virus throughout China,” the researchers said. Consequently, some argue that the only way to catch those asymptomatic carriers is to test healthy as well as sick people, like Iceland has done. As of April 1, Iceland had conducted 19,516 tests of its 364,000 citizens, or 5.3% of its population, the highest testing rate in the world. “The virus had a much, much wider spread in the community than we would have assumed, based on the screening of high-risk people,” said Kári Stefánsson, a neurologist and head of the Reykjavik-based biopharmaceutical company deCode genetics. Iceland has identified 63 positive cases for every 1,000 tests, a rate of 6.3%. British Columbia, on the other hand, has only turned up 23 positives for every 1,000 tests. Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, told FOCUS at a March 28 press conference that the province is testing some asymptomatic people — if it’s tracking the source of an outbreak, for example — but otherwise it’s concentrating tests on workers in the health-care system and long-term care homes, and people being admitted to hospital, to ensure that COVID-19 sufferers are separated from other patients. “A broad testing of well people in our community right now is not what we are going to be doing,” she said. “That is the strategy we will be looking at if and when we come to the downside of our curve, when we’re looking again at introductions coming into B.C. from other places. That’s part of the strategy that would be at that phase of the epidemic. But certainly not right now.” What’s more troubling is the fact that B.C.’s testing regime is also bypassing people who are showing symptoms of COVID-19. On March 23, the CBC reported that at least 11 attendees at a memorial service in Vancouver were experiencing symptoms, and though some were told by doctors that they likely had the virus, they still didn't qualify for testing. On March 28, Dr. Sean Wormsbecker, an emergency-room physician at New Westminster’s Royal Columbia hospital, posted a video (embedded below) expressing his frustration that “based on our current resources, we are very much undertesting the population.” He said he saw several ill patients that day who likely had COVID-19, but because they displayed stable lung function, he followed the Ministry of Health’s protocol and sent them home without testing. “And that scares me,” Wormsbecker said, concerned that such patients wouldn’t self-isolate because they didn’t know that they had the virus. He also said failure to test those patients means B.C. is “low-balling” its numbers, and that we’re not copying the nations that have identified carriers to flatten their rates of infection. “We can’t use those countries like Singapore or [South] Korea as a benchmark for what we can expect to come.” “I actually don’t agree with that,” Henry said on March 30, when asked about Wormsbecker’s comments. “Having been on the front lines with my colleagues in public health who are actually talking to these people, who are at home and who are self-isolating, most people are absolutely doing what we need them to do.” As she explained, the province’s testing strategy has been to concentrate on the people most likely to have the disease, and those most likely to need hospital care. “And we are still maintaining the contact tracing, we’re talking with people who have this, who have mild enough illness that they’re able to stay at home. For the most part, that is working.” Strategy aside, the province is also likely limiting tests to conserve its supplies for the peak of the crisis. (FOCUS asked the Ministry of Health what’s holding up wider-scale testing, but the Ministry hasn’t replied.) Governments around the world are in a rush — and sometimes bidding wars — for the nasal swabs and chemical reagents used in test kits, and for PPE (personal protective equipment) such as gowns and masks, which if used for testing would take them away from hospital wards. It’s true that some countries like South Korea and the United Arab Emirates have been able to conduct large-scale testing, but that’s because they’ve been stockpiling equipment and chemicals ever since the MERS coronavirus hit them in 2015. Instead, it seems that locating those who actually have the virus in B.C. will be left up to a variety of ad-hoc projects. The City of Langford, for example, has created its own COVID-19 response team, asking all of its residents to take an online screening test, even if they don’t have symptoms, to “help us understand the COVID-19 health status of our community.” Langford mayor Stew Young told CFAX that the team has already sent doctors to the residences of 16 people for in-home testing, using a small number of test kits provided by the province. “What's going to win the war is test kits and home testing at the front line and keeping our hospitals for the severe cases,” Young said. “That is the way to do this.” (Dr. Henry doesn’t agree: when asked about Langford’s project on March 31, she said “it’s not a good use of resources to test people who are at low risk.”) Online projects are also springing up to assess local COVID-19 risks, such as FLATTEN, which asks Canadians to answer an anonymous online survey about their symptoms and contacts with COVID-19 patients, generating a “heat map” of the country organized by postal code. By March 31, 281 people had answered surveys in the V8V postal code, which covers James Bay and Fairfield — and 24 of them exhibited enough symptoms and/or connections to be considered “potential cases,” suggesting the spread of the illness could be wider than officially declared, even in Victoria. We won’t know without tests. New ones should be coming quickly: on March 27 the US government approved a new test that can provide results in minutes, unlike current tests which take days, and the manufacturer plans to start cranking out 50,000 of them daily. In the meantime, British Columbia, like the rest of North America, is about to head into the mouth of the COVID-19 storm. Very soon, we will know whether or not the province’s testing strategy has worked. Ross Crockford agrees with Dorothy: there's no place like home.
  2. The April 4 by-election puts the City of Victoria’s youthful electoral organization to the test. LIKE MOST VICTORIANS, the residents of Avebury Avenue have issues. Bike lanes, poor transit service, affordability, property taxes, homelessness — I heard earfuls about all of them one recent Saturday afternoon, tagging along with Together Victoria candidate Stefanie Hardman as she knocked on doors in the Oaklands neighbourhood. A middle-aged guy in wool-felt slippers told Hardman he had to put a down payment on the house he’s in because he was exhausted by the instability of renting in Victoria. “There’s a lot of wealth around here, and I’d like to see it squeezed to provide more services,” he said. “Yes, yes!” Hardman replied. A cat stretched in the window, and the guy noted that many Victoria landlords prohibit pets, an exclusion that’s illegal in Ontario. Hardman gave him a brochure listing her campaign promises, including “End discrimination against renters with animals.” (A vote-getter, considering that six in 10 Canadians have pets, but a matter of provincial jurisdiction.) The guy liked what he heard. A Together canvasser asked for his email address and phone number, and marked him down as a “2” out of five — a likely supporter, certain to receive follow-up inquiries making sure he casts a ballot for Hardman in the City of Victoria’s April 4 by-election. Candidates in Victoria's April 4 by-election (as of the time Focus went to press): Stephen Andrew, Jeremy Caradonna, Stephanie Hardman, Rachel Montgomery It’s likely “the most interesting by-election we’ll see this year,” said CBC Vancouver’s municipal affairs newsletter Metro Matters recently. For one thing, the winner could hold the balance of power on Victoria’s council. During 2019, Together’s three first-time councillors Laurel Collins, Sharmarke Dubow and Sarah Potts sided with incumbents Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday to pass several controversial measures — voting 5-3 in February to limit increases to the police budget, for example, and 5-4 in June to require big condo developments to include 20 percent affordable rentals, despite warnings that the requirement would “kill” those projects. Now with Collins serving as Victoria’s MP and her council seat up for grabs, the “Together+2” majority is in question. Councillors in that majority have also famously annoyed the Province’s NDP government. As the CBC noted, Ben Isitt’s calls for free transit and regional police amalgamation, plus his public support for the February 11 anti-pipeline blockade of the legislature — which Stefanie Hardman endorsed online — have brought sharp rebukes from Premier John Horgan, indicating “an unease some on the centre-left have with the current incarnation of council.” “Given all the controversy over the past year,” the CBC concluded, “if Hardman ends up facing no serious competition it’s a clear sign that Victoria voters are reasonably happy with a council that has a more expansive notion of its jurisdiction than local government normally does.” IN PERSON, Hardman doesn’t seem like a threat to municipal-provincial relations: she’s clear-eyed and boundlessly cheerful. Raised in Toronto, where she studied urban planning, since 2014 she’s worked for various Victoria agencies as a community-based researcher, interviewing people affected by specific issues, and turning their concerns into reports designed to influence government. “So I have that background in community engagement, and then listening with an ear to shaping those experiences into policy, things that could happen at the municipality to improve people’s lives,” she says. Asked for an example of changes her research brought about, she cites one job as a “school travel planner,” working with Victoria schools, City departments and parents to improve transportation options for kids, which resulted in a new signalled crosswalk, and a “walking school bus” of kids strolling together to classes. The big issue for Hardman (and Together) is housing, which aligns with one of her recent jobs, preparing a report for the Community Social Planning Council on housing instability. Hardman says we need to dramatically increase the supply of low-income housing, and need to consider the elimination of residential, single-family zoning that may be coming in the City’s “missing middle” housing policy. “I can appreciate that these types of changes can be challenging, but I do think there are ways to engage with neighbourhoods, and come together to talk about how we can create the future of the city that we want to live in.” A renter herself, like 61 percent of the City’s residents, Hardman also wants the City to increasingly apply its new legal powers, granted by the Province in 2018, to prezone properties and areas exclusively for rentals. “That could help us to increase the supply of affordable rental housing, and rein in rents. I’d like to see that used.” (The City is already phasing this in, starting with the oldest rental buildings most at risk of being torn down and replaced with condos.) “I would like to look to strengthening the [City’s] tenant-assistance policy, and reducing renovictions and displacement,” she says. “I’d like to see stronger rent control, exploring the idea of rent control tied to the unit, rather than to tenancy agreements,” she continues — but admits that will require lobbying the Province to change the Residential Tenancy Act. That might not be easy, given Victoria’s tendency to irritate the premier. But cities are seeing the worst effects of the housing crisis, she says, and they have to speak up. “I do think it is the responsibility of municipal government to let other levels of government know what those experiences are, what we’re feeling here in our city, and what we think could help.” Together Victoria began to form after the 2014 municipal election, in which moderates Margaret Lucas and Chris Coleman won the last two Council positions, narrowly beating out NDP stalwarts Erik Kaye and John Luton, who ran independent campaigns. Various progressives in town figured that if they pooled their resources and volunteers and ran a limited slate of candidates, they would stand a better chance of tipping the Council in their favour. Then they held a series of open houses to crowdsource their platform of an “affordable, inclusive and thriving city,” to identify supporters, and to raise their profile. It worked spectacularly well: seemingly from nowhere, Together got all three of its candidates elected in 2018. Now it stands as the dominant electoral organization in the City of Victoria. During Together’s recent nomination process, which Hardman won in January, its membership swelled from 200 to more than 800. (To witness its developments, I joined too.) And they’re young, compared to the members of most political parties: mainly in their 20s and 30s, they raise funds and network at coffeeshop trivia-contest nights, not $500-a-plate dinners. Together has had challenges achieving the inclusivity it seeks, though. Its executive is almost entirely comprised of employees of the University of Victoria or various provincial ministries. Its membership doesn’t include many businesspeople, or seniors. And it’s only somewhat nonpartisan: former provincial Green candidate Kalen Harris is active in Together, for example, but the organization seems dominated by the youth wing of the BC NDP. One director has chaired the Victoria NDP’s federal riding association, others have worked for NDP members of parliament, and to arrange an interview with Hardman, I had to go through one of Laurel Collins’ constituency assistants. (Thanks to Together’s transparent financing, it’s already possible to report that Collins donated $1,199 to Hardman’s election campaign.) Together’s recently enlarged membership is also fracturing. During the run-up to Together’s nomination meeting, a group of frustrated renters signed up new members in the hope of electing a champion for the types of rights that tenants have recently won elsewhere in BC. (In Burnaby and New Westminster, for example, renovicted tenants have the right to return to a renovated building at the same rent they paid before.) But after Hardman won, Darren Alexander, one of the renter activists, blasted her and several Together principals in a 10,000-word online diatribe as the courtly members of a “professional managerial class,” more concerned about maintaining their contacts and connections in nonprofit housing networks than in organizing renters to demand change. (Instead, Alexander says, members of those circles mobilized renters in 2018 mainly to get Together candidates elected — a story recently covered by the online news site The Capital.) Karmen McNamara, a triathlete who ran unsuccessfully for the Together nomination, also says she’s “lost confidence” in the organization. “What we need at City Council right now is action and problem-solving, not more talking,” she tells me. McNamara says she signed up 219 new members for Together, but she doesn’t know who they’re voting for now. “Everybody needs to make their own decision.” IN McNAMARA’S CASE, she’s now campaigning for Rachael Montgomery, a Registered Nurse, mom, and environmental activist with the Surfrider Foundation who says she’ll bring more collaboration to City Hall. “When a patient comes in,” Montgomery says, “I don’t ask them what political leanings they have, I ask, ‘What do you need right now?’ And I work with a team of experts to solve that problem.” Montgomery worked in the Royal Jubilee Hospital’s oncology ward, and eventually assumed management of the eighth floor of the hospital, supervising some 200 staff. Currently she’s on leave from the corporate department of Island Health for her election campaign — and applying her medical evaluation skills to the City’s issues. To deal with the acute problem of housing, for example, she prescribes simplifying the process for homeowners to add suites or units to their properties, “so neighbourhoods can gently densify the way they want, rather than how they’re being told to.” She admits that won’t be enough to cure the problem, so she’s been meeting with developers, and withholds judgement on the council’s requirement to include 20 percent affordable rentals in big condo projects: “I want to make sure we’re actually seeing those outcomes,” she says. During her campaign, Montgomery has also gone on a ridealong with VicPD, and spent time with Victoria’s Assertive Community Treatment teams, which are comprised of health-care workers and police officers to address mental-health emergencies. “If I come with any bias, it’s as a frontline worker,” says Montgomery, who is dismayed that some Victoria councillors hold an “ideological” opposition to the police. So would she simply give the police the budget increases they demand? “Of course not. I’m a manager, I know how to manage a budget.” Montgomery started campaigning in December, and since then she’s spoken to hundreds of residents on the doorstep. No single issue dominates those conversations, she says. “What people want is some good, commonsense, practical decision-making that they feel a part of.” Jeremy Caradonna, another independent candidate, has been at it even longer, campaigning since November. He’s had over 1,000 conversations with residents, and says many are telling him that local politics has become “too divisive” and that they’re opposed to municipal parties. “They see it as a slippery slope, into the hyperpartisan politics we see in Vancouver.” Caradonna is an experienced communicator: he holds a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins, wrote Sustainability: A History (Oxford University Press, 2014), and quit a tenured professorship at the University of Alberta to get his hands dirty running Share Organics, a Victoria business with 12 employees. (“I know how to calculate operational costs, unlike many of the current councillors,” he says.) He currently works as a policy analyst in the Province’s Climate Action Secretariat, but still teaches a course at UVic on the local organics industry, and grows vegetables that he sells from a farm stand in front of his house in Fernwood. Like other candidates, Caradonna says affordable housing is one of the big issues he will tackle on council. “We lack supply. Here we didn’t build housing for 30 years, and now that our population is growing, the problem is coming home to roost. So it’s about making it easier for people to have secondary suites, it’s about building the ‘missing middle’ — those three- to five-storey buildings close to urban villages. The overwhelming majority of Victorians don’t want skyscrapers, they want densification in scale with neighbourhoods.” Caradonna, a father of two school-age girls, says his other main issue is climate action. He fully supports the construction of bike lanes, but says the City needs to thoroughly improve its bus service, and get on board with rail transit. Half of our greenhouse gases come from aging buildings, so he wants a City program helping residents switch from oil tanks and natural gas to heat pumps, cutting our emissions dramatically. “My vision for Victoria is that this is the leading progressive jurisdiction in the country, and that we push the envelope.” Policy-wise, there might appear to be little daylight between him and Together — in fact, Caradonna says many people on his campaign team are also Together members, but they’re backing him instead. “I think it’s going to be a close race, and it all depends on who gets out their electorate.” JUST BEFORE FOCUS WENT TO PRESS, a few more candidates announced themselves, including UVic lab instructor Alexander Schmid, building contractor Peter Forbes, and former broadcaster Stephen Andrew. “I’ll bring a balance, a certain level of professionalism that I don’t think exists in some members at the council table,” Andrew says. “We’ve been the laughing stock not just of the region, but the whole country. That’s simply unacceptable to me. We’re a compassionate city. We have tremendous opportunities. And that’s what we should be talking about.” In the 2018 civic election, Andrew finished in ninth place, just shy of a Council seat, as part of the NewCouncil slate fronted by Stephen Hammond, who led the “Mad as Hell” opposition to Downtown’s 2016 tent city. Almost immediately after announcing his run this time, Andrew faced online attacks that he “hates” the homeless, a claim that saddens him. “I’ve been homeless twice in my life. I’ve lived that experience. Anybody who criticizes me should walk a mile in my shoes before they do that.” As he points out, he’s won awards from Our Place and the BC Public Health Association for his reporting on homelessness. “My concern is that we build housing but do not staff it sufficiently, because many of these people need support.” Andrew believes several current councillors “have no clue” about many issues they comment upon, whether that’s the difficulties of parking Downtown, the economics of condominium development, or the pressures faced by VicPD. “You have [councillors] who are standing in the middle of these protests, who are the same people saying we have to reduce the police budget,” Andrew says. “I’m not saying don’t protest, but they have no idea how much it costs.” Andrew admits he’s starting later than others in the race, but promises he will run a significant campaign online — and he already enjoys greater name recognition than most of the other candidates. Victoria’s by-election will likely prove even more interesting than originally predicted. Ross Crockford tips his hat to anyone who takes on the complex, difficult job of a municipal councillor.
  3. 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 urged Victoria’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.
  4. Victorians should welcome the prospect of a new arts centre in the old Bastion Square courthouse. A NEW BLACK-BOX THEATRE, a recital hall, artists’ studios, media labs, classrooms, a work-oriented gastropub—all these amenities and more could sprout up and thrive under one roof Downtown, if the Province advances its plans to revive the old courthouse building in Bastion Square. On November 15, the Province received five submissions to its “request for information” for possible uses of the 1889-built courthouse, a national historic site. One pitch was for a commercial development, one for a community centre. The Maritime Museum of B.C. also proposed returning to the courthouse — where it had been based for 49 years, until the Province closed the building in 2014 for safety reasons — and revamping it into a $45-million national maritime museum, with a new 12,000-square-foot annex for travelling exhibits. But what didn’t get as much headline ink was the bid, supported by the City of Victoria and the Downtown Victoria Business Association, to remake the building into the 28 Bastion Square Creative Hub. “It’s really missing in Victoria, this kind of central, arts-community space. We certainly don’t have it Downtown,” says Ian Piears, the current project lead. Piears, a former actor and puppeteer with the UK’s National Theatre, credits his growth as an artist to similar hubs he used in the United Kingdom. “You’re meeting different people and showing your work,” he says. “Unfortunately in Victoria, with space being so precious, people are off in their own little areas, and don’t have that opportunity to collaborate more.” One example of such a hub in this country he cites is Artscape Youngplace, in Toronto’s Queen West neighbourhood. Originally an old public school, in 2013 it underwent a $19-million renovation, and today it’s home to an Indigenous theatre centre, a bookbindery, a contemporary art gallery, and film and video production companies. Victoria-born pianist Eve Egoyan has a studio there too. A model for Bastion Square: Toronto's Artscape Youngplace (Photo by Garrison McCarthur Photography) In April of 2018, Piears and other local artists conducted a design charette with HCMA Architecture to similarly reimagine the courthouse. The main hall of the ground floor could become an experimental project space, opening to an outdoor stage onto Boomerang Court to the north. The Province has required that some of the building’s heritage elements be preserved, such as its “birdcage” elevator, and its third-floor courtroom — which might become “The Stand,” a lecture hall and memorial to First Nations’ conflicts with the colonial justice system. (See the design charette sketches HERE.) A rough estimate pegged the arts-hub reno at $20.5 million, which included a seismic upgrade, a new service elevator, and a commercial kitchen. Those plans aren’t set in stone. Piears says flexibility will be crucial to the space, and its users will ultimately decide how it develops. Although tickets might be sold to shows in the theatre or recital hall, the goal is that the hub is constantly full of activity, and that the public can always see and participate in it. “The thing that’s come through again and again is that the door is always open,” Piears says. “You’re not paying an entry fee to get inside.” The Province says there are no guarantees it will proceed with redevelopment of the courthouse, but Piears remains optimistic. The Province knows the building is important, he says, and “hopefully, they’ll keep the momentum going. It’s a huge shame for it to sit there empty.” To sustain that momentum, he’s soliciting letters of support for the project, from artists who would use it for performances, organizations that might become tenants, potential private funders, and members of the public (email: 28bastioncreativehub@gmail.com). The need for such a space increases daily. “As prices rise, it gets pretty prohibitive to stay Downtown,” says Matthew Payne, artistic director of the always-inventive Theatre SKAM, which has staged shows in parked cars, on loading docks, at Macaulay Point’s artillery emplacements, and along the Galloping Goose trail. (SKAM celebrates its 25th birthday on January 11; see their Facebook event page for details.) Currently, SKAM runs popular classes in acting and stagecraft for kids in a rented house in North Park, and stages plays in a Fort Street retail space currently slated to be demolished to make way for a seniors’ development, so they’ll be forced to move again soon. Payne helped advise the design charette for the courthouse, and says an arts hub there would be a great opportunity for SKAM: “After 25 years, we’ve evolved to a place where we could really use a permanent home.” — Ross Crockford
  5. 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.
  6. 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.pdf
  7. You're welcome, and thank you for being publicly engaged! The RMTS's report to its April 30 AGM said that in 2018 capital funds were spent on lobby-area roof repairs, replacing balcony carpets and drapes, a modern fire curtain, new usher jump-seats, more washers and dryers, a video projector and screen, hearing assist upgrades, and improved signage. The survey has been controversial — notably, the RMTS commissioned it only after getting pushback on the changes to the booking policy — but I do agree with the respondents who said that the theatres are well-maintained.
  8. Thank you for the kind comments. I'm not an accountant, so I can't speak to how the RMTS breaks down its financial statements, but it did state in its presentations to the three owner municipalities that it receives $580,000 annually from them, via the CRD — $480,000 for capital expenses, and $100,000 for its operating budget. See, for example, the second slide in its April 25 presentation to Victoria councillors, at https://pub-victoria.escribemeetings.com/filestream.ashx?DocumentId=36544 A part of the problem may be that this amount of funding has not increased since 1998, when it was established by a bylaw, posted at http://crd.ca.legistar.com/gateway.aspx?M=F&ID=05050a93-239c-43c6-ba73-4a584b165700.pdf. The RMTS is proud that it has not asked for an increase in this funding. Maybe it needs to be increased anyway ... and more municipalities need to pay for the services the theatres provide.
  9. The society running the Royal Theatre aims to make it the region’s hub for commercial live performance. But Langford may soon have a venue of its own. IT'S A SUNDAY AFTERNOON, and folks are streaming into the Royal Theatre to see the Broadway musical Jersey Boys. Many came from up-Island: Courtenay, Cowichan, Mill Bay. One woman tells me she attended her high-school grad ceremony at the Royal in 1965; now she lives in Nanaimo. “We were in Vegas and we just missed the Jersey Boys,” she says. “Then we found out they’re playing in little old Victoria! So we came down.” Such a remark is surely music to the ears of the Royal and McPherson Theatre Society, the entity that runs Downtown’s two historic theatres. Last autumn, the RMTS announced it was jacking the rates for nonprofits to rent the Royal — including the three main users, the Victoria Symphony, Pacific Opera Victoria, and Dance Victoria — from $1,800 a day to $2,500 on most weekdays and $4,000 on Fridays or Saturdays, closer to the higher rents it charges commercial users. The RMTS also imposed a new booking policy, requiring the nonprofits to leave one Thursday-Saturday weekend per month free for other presenters. “As the capital region’s population grows and the demographics change, there’s an obligation to make the theatre more accessible to a range of presenters and the audiences they serve,” said Randy Joynt, the RMTS’s manager of external affairs. In other words: less Jenůfa, more Jersey Boys. Fewer nights for Pacific Opera Victoria productions like Countess Maritza may make the Royal more “accessible” to Cheech & Chong (Photo courtesy of Pacific Opera Victoria) In December, the Symphony — based at the Royal for 78 years — said it was moving 18 of its 36 concerts to UVic’s Farquhar auditorium, and arguments about the rent hikes filled the opinion pages of the Times Colonist. In March, after meeting with the three main Royal users, the RMTS said it would phase in the increases over two years, but retain its new booking policy. The users called on the Capital Regional District, which oversees the RMTS, and the municipalities that own the Royal — Victoria, Saanich, and Oak Bay, which jointly contribute $580,000 per year for its upkeep and operations — to conduct a transparent, collaborative review of the future use of the theatre. Instead, this April and May, the RMTS pre-emptively stated its case to the three municipal councils — and the user groups, since not directly employed by the municipalities, and therefore not permitted to speak under council rules, could only send letters in rebuttal. The dispute boils down to two concerns. The first is what the RMTS calls a problem of “dark days.” The nonprofits are allowed to book the Royal several years in advance so they can plan their seasons, but currently only pay a full rate on days of performances, and just $500 on days the theatre sits dark. That encourages them to save performances for more-lucrative weekends, the RMTS says, and let the venue sit empty during the week. The RMTS now wants the same rent whether the users perform that day or not. “The theatre sits dark, the majority of the time, through the prime season of our year,” Lorne DeLarge, president of the RMTS board, told Victoria councillors. “That is what we are trying to improve.” The symphony and opera booked the Royal for 120 days in 2018-19, but only held performances on 49 of them, he said; increasing the rent would nudge them to use the theatre more efficiently, freeing it up for others. “We believe we’ve found a way to accommodate the needs of the not-for-profits, and increase use of the theatre.” Pacific Opera Victoria CEO Ian Rye says the RMTS is “not being genuine” in its calculations. Every POV production needs four days for setup, four of rehearsal, and a vocal rest day between each performance, which is industry standard. On all those days, POV is paying rent — while most touring acts occupy a theatre for just one or two days, usually on a weekend. If POV now has to pay full rate on all the days it needs, it will spend $120,000 more annually on rent. The second, broader issue concerns the purpose of the theatres, and the RMTS. Until 2017, the society’s mission was “To enrich the cultural life of the region, by operating and maintaining the civic theatres of the CRD.” Then it developed a new strategic plan — which did not involve Royal users, and wasn’t shared with its owners — with a revised mission: “Enriching the quality of life in the region, through a sustainable and relevant performing arts centre.” Tellingly, “cultural” was gone, along with “civic.” Instead, the new keywords are “sustainable” and “relevant” — shorthand for turning the Royal into a profitable roadhouse for commercial entertainment. “The board is unanimous that this is the right direction,” DeLarge told Victoria councillors. “Not to move [the nonprofits] out, not to price them out, not to make them go bankrupt, not to limit their ability, but to share the theatre equally with more users for the benefit of the region.” True, the Symphony was already moving out half of its concerts, but DeLarge said those freed-up nights had been booked for RuPaul’s Drag Race, Relive The Music (a ’50s and ’60s nostalgia show), Cheech & Chong, and Supertramp frontman Roger Hodgson. The RMTS is an odd society: according to its bylaws, its only members are its directors. Three are councillors from owner municipalities, with the rest appointed by the CRD at the RMTS’s recommendation, or elected by the board itself — a formula preventing motions or elections from the floor, and guaranteed to reduce debate. (In 2018, the councillors on the board were Victoria’s Marianne Alto, Oak Bay’s Tara Ney, and Saanich’s Vicki Sanders.) The RMTS has also done well financially, posting surpluses of $190,505 in 2016 and $182,217 in 2017, while salting away some $300,000 annually into a fund for upgrading the old theatres. (There’s currently $2.274 million in its Royal Theatre Capital Fund, though only $300,000 in the McPherson fund.) The RMTS posted a surplus of only $78,000 last year, though, and executive director Lloyd Fitzsimonds told me they’re facing big capital expenses — the Royal’s air conditioning needs replacing, at $2.5 million — and higher operating costs, including the employer health tax, rent on relocated offices, and hiring key staff. (Joynt is leaving this summer to head the Manitoba Arts Council, and Fitzsimonds retires at the end of this year.) Wrapped in the language of “accessibility,” the RMTS presentation went largely unchallenged by the three councils. Victoria’s otherwise-progressive Ben Isitt said he found it “persuasive,” which was strange, as the hearing was effectively structured like a tenancy dispute where only the landlord was allowed to speak. The exception was in Oak Bay, where residents got to speak before the RMTS did. “The talented local professionals in these [arts] organizations teach music, dance and theatre, they teach at our schools and they volunteer in our community,” said Carrie Smart, an architect. “What an amazing community asset we have. Can we keep it? Or will we lose it with these changes?” Councillor Hazel Braithwaite later noted that Oak Bay helped buy the Royal in 1973 specifically to serve as a civic theatre: “I have a little trouble with these three groups not being able to continue on,” she said, “in something we originally paid money to keep within our communities.” In the end, the owner municipalities handed the problem off to the CRD. Recently the region reformed a committee to oversee the RMTS (it had not met for many years, for reasons unknown), which so far has only discussed tweaking the property-tax calculations for funding the theatres. But CRD chair Colin Plant wants a wider discussion, with a select committee to assess arts facilities across the region, and determine if we need a new theatre or concert hall. That may be an uphill battle: earlier this year, Sidney withdrew its financial support from the CRD’s arts service, and when Plant proposed the task force to the CRD’s governance and finance committee on June 5, CRD staff said they were too busy developing the CRD Arts website, and wanted the facilities discussion deferred to 2020. UNTIL POLITICIANS COME UP WITH a direction for the Royal, its users are left hanging, uncertain what the coming seasons will bring. In March, the Victoria Symphony started selling its subscription series, and sales are slightly better than last year. “That suggests that our longtime subscribers are, to a large majority, prepared to move with us,” says CEO Kathryn Laurin, but how many individual tickets sell for each UVic concert remains to be seen. So far, she can work with the move: the surround-style Farquhar has better acoustics and more comfortable seats than the 1913-built Royal, and its $2,700 daily rent includes $1,400 worth of labour, for which RMTS bills separately, and at far higher rates. “There are significant savings for us to be at the Farquhar.” Opera and dance need a proscenium stage, though, with wings for sets and performers to wait in, and they have no alternative to the Royal. POV’s Rye says they could reduce “dark days” by moving five weekend performances to weekdays, but that will cut ticket sales by seven percent. “Needless to say, reducing attendance is not [our] mission,” he says, “nor does the loss in ticket revenue help offset the hundreds of free and subsidized seats we extend to the community each production.” Besides, how many more shows will the Royal get? The RMTS says it had to turn away concerts by Buddy Guy and Morrissey, and talks by Rick Mercer and astronaut Chris Hadfield (who ended up at Sidney’s Mary Winspear Centre) because nonprofits had tied up the theatre. But the biggest money is made from Broadway shows like Jersey Boys, which held eight performances in six days, and the presenter who brings them here says what he can do is limited by the theatre itself. “The technical aspects of the Royal Theatre are way outdated,” says Henry Kolenko. “It’s a [rope-rigged] ‘hemp house,’ so it can’t fly the pieces we need to do bigger shows. More importantly, it doesn’t have the wing space or the depth.” Kolenko is based in Vancouver, but he grew up in Victoria, and finds it weird that a provincial capital still doesn’t have a modern theatre. “I can bring The Lion King to Thunder Bay, but I can’t bring it to the Royal Theatre because it just won’t fit.” (The RMTS has studied extending the Royal’s backstage, but that would cost millions and shutter the venue for months.) Kolenko’s shows may soon find a new home, though — in Langford. “The next big project is a theatre,” Mayor Stew Young tells me over the phone. Now that Langford’s built its infrastructure and recreation facilities — with the expansion of Westhills Stadium nearly complete, 18 months after it was announced — he says, “it’s time to start planning something.” Langford’s economic development committee will start studying the needs, costs, and private partners for a new theatre in the coming year. “I need the private sector excited and involved,” Young says. “I don’t want politicians driving it, I want real people in the room.” It could be part of a development, or a film studio, potentially on four acres next to Costco. He wants classrooms there too, so students can perform on the same stage they train upon. “I want it to be used by the public every day.” Young was at the Victoria premiere of Jersey Boys, talking up the possibilities. Back in 2013, the City of Victoria refused to let Kolenko promote Stomp! with a huge banner on the side of the Royal building, so he got in touch with Young, who shut down Goldstream Avenue for a free show by Stomp! performers. The Royal run sold out, and ever since then, Langford’s economic development committee has regularly sponsored Kolenko’s productions. “We’d like some shows out our way,” Young says. He’s likely to get them, and when he does, the RMTS may be begging its anchor tenants to return. “We have to support our local artists. Otherwise, we will have no art.” Ross Crockford didn’t say that, but wishes he did.
  10. 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.
  11. What has Victoria learned in the 10 years since it first discussed replacing the Johnson Street Bridge? The engineers said it would cost $35 million to $40 million. But that was for a standard structure, they warned. An “iconic,” “architecturally significant” bridge would cost more. Nearly all the councillors wanted to replace the old bridge anyway. “While we are losing a piece of existing heritage,” said John Luton, leading the motion for replacement, “it is an opportunity to create something that is art as well as architecture that will become classic, or new heritage years down the road.” But a few also saw they might be approving a project they couldn’t control, and they were nervous. “There’s an interest in more than a standard cookie-cutter bridge,” said Sonya Chandler. “So I’m worried — can we afford this?” That was on April 23, 2009, and 10 years later, it’s still a valid question. The new Johnson Street Bridge has already cost us $105 million, and the work isn’t done. What’s left? Ongoing work includes an underpass, landscaping, public art, and three lawsuits Landscaping and pathways. Crews will soon start developing the boulevards on the west side of the bridge, and paving a pedestrian underpass below the east side that will form part of the David Foster Harbour Pathway. The underpass is needed because the City couldn’t get the over-water rights to continue a path through the bridge’s “wheels” — which have been fortified with a new security gate (often locked, cost unknown) after a skateboarder was photographed on the wheels last September. Public art. This month, City staff will provide a report on reusing steel from the old Blue Bridge for public art. The $250,000 “surfboard orca,” planned for the triangle island in the vast sea of asphalt east of the bridge, has yet to go out to tender for fabrication. Fendering. The bridge still lacks fenders on its north side, to protect it from ship collisions. In 2015, project director Jonathan Huggett claimed that PCL’s construction contract didn’t include this fendering, and said it would cost “upwards of $4 million” to install. At nearly every quarterly update after that, he told councillors he’d provide the potential costs and options “soon” — including at his last update, in April 2018. The fendering is complicated, partly because of earlier screwups. In 2009 the City hired the engineering firm MMM (now WSP) to oversee the bridge project, and one of its early tasks was relocating a submerged telecom duct, at a cost of $2 million; WSP has since proposed anchoring fenders by drilling into the harbour floor, but the duct is now in the way. In 2014, the City sold some land immediately north of the bridge at 203 Harbour Road, and now the fendering might impede the owner’s access to the water. Tug and barge operators also have concerns. “We had requested that the fendering be considered to take a five-knot hit, and through our discussions back and forth with the City, they indicated that they were intending to continue their design on the north-side fendering for a speed of 3.5 knots,” says Paul Hilder, Seaspan’s VP of marine operations. “And since then we’ve heard nothing. That was two years ago. So as far as [there] not being any fendering in, I don’t know — it’s a pretty expensive piece of infrastructure to build and not have any bumpering. Ultimately it’ll be the lawyers and the courts, if something should happen, that’ll hammer out who is liable.” In 2017, Huggett told councillors that the dispute with Seaspan over impact speed was “irrelevant,” and the City was only legally required to do what a “prudent owner” would do, which entailed hiring experts and building a “probability design.” It didn’t need to be overly robust, Huggett suggested, because “to our knowlege, in the past 80 years, nobody has ever hit that bridge head-on.” (Wrong: on April 3, 1959, the tug Salvage King slammed into the old bridge, nearly severing its main girder. Victoria Machinery Depot fabricated a replacement, City engineers spliced it into place, and the old bridge was open again after two weeks.) But how “prudent” is it to have no fendering at all? Last June, the City paid $112,200 for a $110-million, 18-month, multi-peril insurance policy on the bridge, which does cover “vessel impact” ($250,000 deductible). One suspects that if a ship hit the unfendered north side, though, the insurer might claim contributory negligence by the City and reduce its payout, in the same way that ICBC takes 25 percent off your injury claim if you aren’t wearing a seat belt. Still no fendering: one of MMM’s “solutions” requires drilling around the submerged telecom duct they relocated in 2011 Legal Actions. As mentioned in the January/February issue of Focus, the City is named in a trio of bridge lawsuits, including one by MMM/WSP — which has already soaked the City for $15 million in fees since 2009 — claiming a further $300,000 for fendering design. Since then, Karen Martin of Dentons LLP, the construction lawyer representing the City, has filed a response and counterclaim against WSP, seeking unspecified damages “on the basis of breach of contract, negligence, duty to warn, and negligent provision of services.” Reading the City’s response is like a trip down memory lane, studded with potholes. Martin points out that MMM insisted it had accurately estimated the cost of the new bridge in 2009, 2010, and 2012, only to blow those estimates months later. Martin claims the pattern repeated with the fendering: at various times, MMM estimated the fendering would cost “$1,327,093.00,” said the fendering was included in PCL’s contract, and signed a 2013 deal to provide all the remaining design and engineering services to complete the bridge for a fixed fee, but submitted extra invoices anyway. (Why the City continued to use the firm, and didn’t file complaints with the engineers’ professional association instead, remains one of the unsolved mysteries of the project.) Martin also says MMM did not provide any “reasonable options” to the City for fendering “until in or about late 2018” — which we are still waiting to see. It’s hard to guess how successful the City’s claims might be, or how much we will have to cough up to settle the three lawsuits, but it won’t come cheap. In 2016, City taxpayers paid $2.46 million to PCL and MMM in a mediated settlement of some $27 million in change orders they’d filed against the City. Another $1.57 million in legal fees was paid to Dentons in 2015 and 2016 while the settlement was negotiated. City Hall. Some unfinished business concerns the practices of the City itself. It’s hard to overstate the disruptive effects the bridge has had at Centennial Square. Lisa Helps and Ben Isitt got on council in 2011 by bumping off pro-replacement councillors such as John Luton; Helps won the mayoralty in 2014 largely because Dean Fortin kept insisting the bridge was “on time and on budget” when it clearly wasn’t. Every staffer associated with the project between 2009 and 2014 has since been fired, retired, or has jumped ship to government jobs elsewhere. Though they deserved their fates in some cases, they also took years of institutional knowledge out the door (another hidden cost), and left their jobs to newcomers with the potential to commit the same mistakes. The City has introduced policies to ensure that doesn’t happen. When Huggett was hired to trouble-shoot the project in 2014, he said that nobody seemed to be in charge of it; now the City has a Project Management Framework that requires “clear and unambiguous allocation of authority for decision-making.” The bridge’s costs kept increasing because Council approved a construction contract with a puny allowance for contingencies; now the City has a Capital Cost Estimate Policy, requiring that large contingencies be built into early estimates, and that an independent third party conducts a value-for-money analysis of the project. (This is partly why Victoria’s new main fire hall will be part of a private condo development: a 2016 analysis said the City could build the firehall itself, on the site of the old one, for $30 million, but once the policy’s required contingencies were added, it seemed cheaper to pay Jawl Residential $34 million to build it instead.) When one looks at recent events, however, it seems little has changed. Council and staff made crucial early decisions to replace Crystal Pool, like the bridge, based on the belief that most of the cost would be magically covered by federal-provincial infrastructure grants. (Now the mayor is talking about a new central library. How will that be paid for?) The City too often favours shiny new assets instead of fixing what it’s got, and staff who allow an existing asset to deteriorate rarely suffer any consequences. Despite all its policies, the City still doesn’t appear to have a basic checklist for big projects: there was no analysis of the annual cost of operating a new, vastly larger Crystal Pool, for example, and neighbours weren’t asked whether they actually wanted a new pool until the last minute. The City has been lucky over the past decade. In September of 2009, then-Assistant City Manager Mike McCliggott warned that borrowing $63 million for a new bridge would “financially strap the City,” forcing it to raise taxes for other projects. We’ve already paid more than that for the bridge, some $68.1 million, added to the $37.5 million we got from the feds. But the City has grown. It’s added millions in new property-tax revenue every year, and saved more, too. In 2009, the City had $34.6 million in its equipment and infrastructure reserve; now it has $131 million. This past year the City increased its property-tax revenue by $3.5 million, and while Council is on track to spend $1.5M of it hiring more employees (34 in total, the Times Colonist says) it’s also putting $1.8 million into reserves — which will surely get tapped when the bills for the fendering and lawsuits finally arrive. So it seems Victoria has been able to afford its “iconic” bridge after all. That’s the good news. The bad is that in April 2009, when councillors worried about paying more than $40 million for a bridge, the City thought a new Crystal Pool would cost $58 million. How much will it be now? Ross Crockford is a director of johnsonstreetbridge.org, the group that gathered 9,872 residents’ signatures on petitions to force the 2010 referendum on the bridge project.
  12. 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.
  13. What will close the divisions laid bare by Victoria’s election? THE LINE OF VOTERS at Margaret Jenkins Elementary ran along the wall of an entire hallway, and then back on the other side. Upon seeing it, one guy groaned aloud: “How long do we have to wait to get Lisa Helps out of office?” The queue for the single vote-reading machine in the gymnasium took over an hour, and during the wait I heard more grousing. “She probably planned this, to keep us from voting,” muttered one woman. When asked why she distrusted the mayor, the woman replied, “She won’t clean the streets!” I’ve lived in the City of Victoria for 21 years now, and I can’t recall a civic election as vocally acrimonious as the one held on October 20. In the past, City politics often seemed like professional water polo — an obscure sport, passionately followed by a few. No longer. Voter turnout was 43.5 percent, the highest in decades, and the stakes seemed bigger too. In various ways, the campaign touched upon reconciliation with First Nations (the Sir John A. statue), economic inequality (luxury condos vs. affordable housing), homelessness (tent cities), sexual harassment (the Elsner affair), and climate change (automobile parking vs. bike lanes)—issues far more exciting than the rezonings and bylaw rewordings that occupy most municipal councils. Victoria is the only municipality in the capital region that tends to vote “ideologically,” Royal Roads communications prof David Black told CHEK on election night, “where ideology or political identity is a strong feature of how people make their choices. In other municipalities, it’s often about policy points, council governance, whose version of pragmatism you prefer. But in Victoria people vote in a way guided by political philosophy, and how what happens locally attaches to the political spectrum and to the world.” True enough, but what Black missed is that it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, amplified by Mayor Helps herself — and alienating many residents who simply want the City to issue permits, fix pipes, and protect them from fire and crime. Certainly, “social media” played a part in sowing discord among Victoria’s voters. Virulent anti-Helps sites appeared and vanished from Facebook, and BC Proud blowhard Aaron Gunn cranked out videos calling the mayor a “disaster” — one released five days before the election racked up 18,000 views — which ended up rallying her supporters. (The online enmity didn’t come only from one side. When the City posted the election results on its Facebook page and commenting seniors bemoaned the outcome, younger posters mocked them: “We’re just waiting for you to pack up, leave, and make it all better by not being here.”) What was new was that the vitriol spilled over into personal conversations. Just before the election, I went door-knocking with Mayor Helps, and then with newcouncil.ca candidate Stephen Hammond, in areas of Fernwood just a few blocks apart. The neighbourhood became a kind of Rorschach inkblot — it looked different, depending on who answered the questions. Helps encountered only kind words at the doorstep. “I like what you’ve been doing,” one woman said. A single father in social housing was grateful that he could cycle Downtown with his daughter on Pandora’s protected bike lane. “I’m looking forward to this,” said another woman, bracing for a hard-fought contest. Hammond asked Fernwoodians, “Are you looking for a change of mayor and council?” and got completely different responses. “I’m so done with her,” said one gardener, wearing a nurses’ union t-shirt. “We’ve talked and talked and she won’t f***ing listen.” Another was frustrated with the mess regularly left by campers around the Sobering Centre nearby: “We’ve lived here for 14 years, and we’d like to see some solutions.” The potential loss of trees and park space for a new Crystal Pool, the huge 207-unit development going up on the 1000-block of Pandora — the residents had no shortage of complaints. “The stuff I’m hearing is amazing,” Hammond said. But what is to be done with it? The voting is over, and somehow, the city has to mend its divisions. Helps seemed to acknowledge this on election night: “When you’re on the campaign trail, you’re the candidate, but after the election, you’re the mayor,” she told reporters. “That means I’m the mayor for everybody, even those who didn’t vote for me, and I will work really hard on their behalf as well.” Hammond came over to congratulate her on her victory, and they discussed creating “a committee for the reparation of the social fabric,” she told CHEK. “Everyone has the best intentions of the community in mind.” Stephen Hammond and Lisa Helps discuss a “committee for the reparation of the social fabric” on election night However, the following Monday, she published an open letter to supporters, portraying her opponents quite differently. “We did it! Love, connection and a shared vision for our future triumphed over fear and anger,” she wrote, claiming a “strongly renewed mandate” — as if the 57 percent of electors who didn’t vote for her weren’t just wrong, but dangerously irrational. “As I move forward with my new council and as we take bold action for the future, we’re going to continue to need your support,” she encouraged the troops, "so when we take bold action, please stand up and support us: in letters to the editor, on social media, and most importantly, in good old-fashioned, face-to-face conversations — this is how we truly build understanding.” Or tune out dissenting voices, perhaps. Since the mayor has already said she’s not running for re-election in 2022, and has an apparent council majority on her side, one wonders if she will govern with imperial certainty — and whether the “reparation committee” is just honey-scented wind, like the “wider community conversation” promised about relocating the Sir John A. statue. (Prediction: the statue will remain in storage until the Council, unable to agree to any public site for it, sells it to a private buyer who installs it inside a pub.) Newcouncil.ca says it will hold meetings in the coming weeks to discuss whether the organization will continue, and how. (“Given the fact that 8 of 9 votes on council are left of center I think there will be a significant desire for a vocal opposition once the council starts making decisions based on ideology,” one insider told me.) I asked Hammond if he’d remain involved, and if he’d join the mayor’s “social fabric” committee. “Will see,” he texted in reply. WHETHER THE DIVISIONS IN VICTORIA can be healed depends not just on the mayor, of course, but on the council too — and whether it is able to properly oversee the management of the City and provide sensible directions to its staff. The most remarkable accomplishment of this year’s election was the success of the three council candidates fielded by Together Victoria — Laurel Collins, Sharmarke Dubow, and Sarah Potts — all in their 30s, with backgrounds in community organizing. Allied with returning councillors Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday, who kept their campaigns separate from Together’s until just before the election, they’ll form a five-vote majority, either approving the mayor’s agenda, or able to set their own. With three new councillors from Together Victoria, our municipal government will be led by a new generation [credit: Jason Guille] As journalist Sid Tafler recently reported in his online Victoria Record, one reason for Together’s success was it spent the summer meeting with community groups across the city to find out what voters wanted, and accordingly develop their platform. Free transit for everyone under the age of 18, for example, more covered bicycle parking, more child care, more food gardens, more participatory budgeting and consultation on developments, and a new arts hub in the former Maritime Museum — all positive, appealing ideas, if light on details about how they’ll be paid for. The main issue for Together, though, is dealing with the crisis of affordable housing, which undoubtedly won them votes from Victoria’s many renters, hit by renovictions and huge rent increases over the past decade. Together says it will ensure that 50 percent of all new housing built in the city is affordable (i.e., costing less than 30 percent of average household income), and demand greater amenity contributions from developers. Soon, as projects already in the pipeline come before council, we will see if Together sticks to these requirements, or developers pack up and decide to build elsewhere. Victoria's new council will also have to deal quickly with a mess of detailed, practical issues, which the Together platform didn’t fully anticipate, and for which ideology will provide few solutions. In December, City staff will present possible alternative locations for a new Crystal Pool and their associated costs, with the aim of applying for federal-provincial grants by the January 23 deadline; the grant guidelines also suggest that any one project is unlikely to get more than $13.5 million, meaning the City will likely need to find another $39M early next year to meet the pool’s $69.4M budget. Millions more will likely need to be found to pay for fendering on the Johnson Street Bridge, and to settle a lawsuit filed against the City by its contractors. VicPD hasn’t increased the size of its force in a decade, and is sure to demand funds for more officers in next spring’s budget. The neighbourhood plan for Gonzales was deferred until after the election, and James Bay’s comes up next year, guaranteed to spark fights over the dense “urban villages” the City envisions there. And on it goes. If mayor Helps and our very new council successfully juggle all these issues, and oversee a well-run, financially stable civic government, they truly will bring Victorians together. But they’ll also need to acknowledge that they don’t know everything, and that they can’t make huge decisions without listening to the public. Making the city work is up to them, but it’s also up to us to keep talking about how best to do it. Ross Crockford congratulates Victoria’s recently elected officials, and wishes them the best. Really, he does.
  14. Will Crystal Pool become an election issue? Candidates say “Yes.” LIKE THE REST OF US, Jeremy Loveday seemed confused. “Has council — did we decide to — not?” asked the City of Victoria councillor, at a July 19 update on the Crystal Pool replacement project. “I know we were going to do a referendum, and then we didn’t need a referendum. Did we make a council motion not to do a referendum?” The confusion was understandable. In June a letter had surfaced, from provincial Minister of Municipal Affairs Selina Robinson to Mayor Lisa Helps, suggesting the City hold a referendum if it wanted the best chance at securing federal-provincial infrastructure money for a new pool. “[L]arge-scale projects that demonstrate both public and financial support through a referendum (or some sort of public approval process) are identified as lower risk under the program assessment,” wrote Robinson. Then on June 20 the Times Colonist editorialized that the City should put the pool project to a vote. “Even if a referendum has no effect on government contributions, City officials would know whether they really do have backing from taxpayers,” the TC concluded. That led some to think the City might add another question to the October 20 civic election. (There’s already one seeking approval for a citizens’ assembly to discuss amalgamation with Saanich.) But when councillors met on July 19, they seemed determined to keep the pool off the ballot. The pool's new, larger design will be at least $8.8-million more expensive to build than originally budgeted Lawyers said the City would need voter approval to build affordable housing atop the new pool’s parking lot, because housing would be an unusual use for a dedicated park. Councillors quickly abandoned the housing idea, and asked staff to design a smaller lot with “no net loss” of green space. As for getting actual voter approval for the new pool — to borrow money, for example, as required under provincial law — there was no talk of that at all, until Loveday asked about a referendum. “Council’s direction was to explore the grant opportunities first, and then report back on options for how any remaining funding gap could be filled,” replied Tom Soulliere, the City’s parks director. The funding strategy would be discussed at the next update — in November, after the election. And with that, the councillors moved on to other worries, like bicycle parking at the new pool, and whether it would have a coffee shop. Nobody mentioned Minister Robinson’s letter. Wouldn’t failing to hold a referendum jeopardize the grants needed to build the pool in the first place? That was a “misunderstanding,” Soulliere told me later. The Province was only concerned that the City had enough money to cover any gap between a grant and the final project cost. He was right: even though Robinson’s letter recommended showing both public and financial support, her office told me that “if an applicant does not need to borrow externally to cover their share of costs, then elector approval is not required.” The City is hoping to get money from the next phase of the federal government’s 12-year, $180-billion Investing In Canada Plan. Under the plan, the feds will pay 40 percent of approved projects, and the provinces at least 33 percent. The pool is currently budgeted at $69.4M — although that’s sure to increase, as you’ll see below — so the City would have to come up with $18.7M, or 27 percent. Since the City has already allocated $10M from its financial reserves for the project, it would only need another $8.7M, which it can easily find in reserves. No borrowing, no referendum. But what if the City doesn’t get that grant? THE CITY NEEDS AT LEAST $45M from the federal-provincial plan, and getting all that might be a long shot. Such a grant would be the largest in the City’s history, bigger than the $37.5M the feds allocated, from two separate funds, to the Johnson Street Bridge. To date, the largest federal grant ever given for a rec centre is $18.8M, for Ryerson University’s facility in the former Maple Leaf Gardens in downtown Toronto. The City of Victoria will be asking for 16 percent of the approximately $276M the federal and B.C. governments will be jointly allocating to community and recreation projects, even though the City has just 1.8 percent of the province’s population. If the City doesn’t get all that money, the next council will face some hard choices. So I asked the incumbents and declared candidates three questions: 1) If the City does not get ANY of the $45M it needs to build a new pool, what should it do? 2) If the City only gets a FRACTION of the $45M, what should it do? 3) If the City has to borrow money, how should it get voter approval—by referendum, or the Alternative Approval Process (AAP), whereby the borrowing is deemed “approved” unless 10 percent of voters sign petitions against it? Mayor Lisa Helps admitted that if the City doesn’t get any of the money, it can’t simply drain its financial reserves to build the pool. “If we get no money we would need to go to referendum or AAP,” she wrote. But she’s confident the City will get a substantial grant. “There is more infrastructure money than has been historically available for some time,” she noted, and said the City can make up any balance from reserves or “internal borrowing” against them. If the City had to borrow externally, she’d prefer to get voter approval via AAP, although she’s “open to hearing other opinions.” (The respondents’ complete answers are attached HERE.) Challengers for the mayoralty hold different views. Gary Beyer said that if the City doesn’t get any money or only a portion, it should repair the existing pool: “The project should never have gone as far as it has. Refurbishing is less expensive, and fits with core values of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.” (Beyer has recently announced that he is dropping out of the mayoralty race.) Sean Leitenberg also said the City should repair the pool if the shortfall is too great: “Let’s take care of our facility and see what the Y comes up with in the next few years.” And Stephen Hammond, speaking for the newcouncil.ca slate, called for a halt to the project until a third-party audit is conducted on the Johnson Street Bridge: “We cannot in good conscience allow [the pool] to proceed until a comprehensive review has brought to light all the facts that would inform all future decisions with regard to project management, procurement, organization, and all aspects of undertaking large-scale infrastructure projects in the City of Victoria.” The three incumbent councillors who responded also believe the City should take a different course if it doesn’t get a substantial grant. Ben Isitt said the City should repair the existing pool. Chris Coleman and Geoff Young favoured pursuing a partnership with the YMCA-YWCA, which hopes to build a new facility downtown with a smaller, 25-metre pool, although that could risk the union jobs of current Crystal employees. All three favoured using a referendum if the City had to borrow externally. (Coleman later announced that he is not running for re-election.) Among the contenders for council seats, Darlene Archibald said that if the City gets only a fraction of the grant it needs, it should reduce the scope of the project but continue pursuing a new facility, to provide greater accessibility for all users: “I don’t think it is a good idea to wait any longer to replace the pool.” Laurel Collins, Sharmarke Dubow and Sarah Potts, running together under the banner of Together Victoria, said they want a new pool, too; if the City doesn’t get a full grant, they would “proceed with the project as designed only once there is a solid plan to fill the funding shortfall.” Marg Gardiner said the public has lost confidence in the City because of the bridge project, its “almost casual” discussion of putting housing in a park, and its failure to survey taxpayers about how much they’re willing to pay for the pool. She said she’d need assurances of funding before continuing the project as is; otherwise, she’d reduce the scope of the project, or partner with the Y if there was no loss of City jobs. Grace Lore favoured collaborating with the Y, to build a flexible facility with space for needed services like childcare. Jordan Reichert favoured reducing the scope and cost of the project if the City doesn’t receive a grant. If it only receives a partial grant, his decisions would depend — as many respondents said — on how big a funding gap the City has to fill. IN SHORT, the fate of Crystal Pool hangs not just on a federal-provincial decision, but also on who sits on the next council. And candidates aren’t the only ones questioning the project. The Victoria Friends of Central Park have posted signs around the neighbourhood, calling for a complete plan for the park, and preservation of all its existing amenities, before pushing ahead with a new pool. Crystal Pool For All, the group that introduced the idea of housing atop the pool’s parking lot, has argued on Lisa Helps’ campaign website that the new pool suffers from “significant omissions and missed opportunities” by failing to include other amenities needed in the area, such as child-care facilities and a gymnasium. Budget watchdogs also fear that the cost is bound to increase. On July 19, City staff warned that the $69.4M budget presumed that construction would start by next February — and the Province has said it won’t make grant decisions until the spring of 2019 at the earliest. If construction doesn’t start until next October, staff said, the “likely incremental cost” of the project will be $3M higher. The budget is also based on a 2016 estimate that a new 50-metre pool’s construction cost would be $35.1M of the overall project cost. (See Option 3 in the 2016 estimate HERE.) In June, however, the City unveiled a more detailed design, larger by 500 square metres, with a new leisure pool, a second hot pool, and a “lazy river,” all inside a curved, glass-walled “natatorium” bulging into the park. The City hired two firms, Advicas and Ross Templeton, to estimate the cost of this new design, but didn’t present their reports to councillors on July 19. Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria obtained the reports, and it turns out Advicas said the new design would cost $43.9M to build, and Ross Templeton said it would cost $46.2M — $8.8M to $11.1M more than the $35.1M used in the current budget. (See the Advicas estimate HERE and the Ross Templeton estimate HERE.) “There is no change to budget, and we’re working with all the consultants to ensure the detailed features and systems fit within the approved construction allowance,” Soulliere wrote to the Grumpy$. “At this stage we can’t confirm whether there will be a change to the shape of the building as this is just one of the components being analyzed from a cost perspective.” Such shifting costs are bound to raise arguments on the campaign trail. The City won’t be holding a referendum on its next megaproject this October, but in choosing our next council, we will be voting on it anyway. ❖ Victoria writer Ross Crockford loves swimming, but not at any cost.
  15. Slates are readying candidates for council jobs that few may actually want ROB REID IS NOT RUNNING. He still runs, of course. Reid operates three athletic footwear stores Downtown, he’s the race director for the annual Victoria marathon, and he jogs about 20 kilometres a week. But he’s not running for City of Victoria’s council in this autumn’s municipal elections — and his reasons for not doing so should make residents question what’s happening to our municipal governance. “It was something I wanted to step into,” Reid said over coffee recently. “But not with this process.” Many council meetings have become acrimonious, late-night town halls, where residents argue, block by block, over every proposed development. That’s deterring him, and other businesspeople, from wanting to sit at the council table. “We want to build things, grow things, and we’re task and goal-oriented,” he said. “Many of us have realized it’s better to direct your energy to things that touch your heart.” In many ways, Reid would make an ideal candidate: a Downtown business owner with a long record of work for local charities, and name recognition. (He ran for mayor in 2008, losing to Dean Fortin by 601 votes.) For most of Victoria’s history, council was mainly composed of people like him. But it seems they aren’t running this year. John Wilson, president of Wilson’s Transportation, told Saanich News in January that he isn’t running in Victoria or Saanich, despite his interest in local affairs, because he needs to focus on his company. Bruce Gillespie, a Fort Street restaurant owner and management consultant, told CFAX last month that he won’t be running, despite his public criticism of the City’s bike-lane scheme, because, he said, “life is too short for politics.” Five months from the October 20 election, we’ve heard more from those who don’t want to sit on council than those who do. Perhaps the problem is the job itself. Victoria council gets plenty of scrutiny in a town that eats and breathes politics Certainly its time demands have increased. Twenty-five years ago, according to archived minutes, the average City of Victoria council meeting was 2.7 hours long; last year, its 23 evening meetings averaged nearly 5 hours. (Compare that to Langford, where council meetings are usually under an hour.) Then there’s the Committee of the Whole, where councillors discuss reports from City staff; it convened 46 times last year, its daytime meetings often swallowing entire Thursdays. (Most other municipalities hold committee meetings after 5 pm.) There’s prep time, reading hundreds of pages of documents. Councillors also sit on other boards, from the harbour authority to the Downtown Victoria Business Association, attend neighbourhood association meetings, and represent the City at events — all for around $41,000 per year. As first-term councillor Jeremy Loveday ruefully noted at a January 4 meeting (6.5 hours long, mostly spent reallocating slivers of new property-tax revenue), serving on council is a “60-hour-a-week, part-time job.” Those salaries won’t change, because a majority of councillors at the same meeting rejected appointing a committee to review their pay. But the impacts of that decision are more than financial. Nobody building a professional career, supporting a family, or leading a business is likely to want to sit on council. That favours the self-employed, and incumbents — all likely to run again this year — who have already figured out how to handle the job and its meagre income. (Geoff Young, an economist, and Margaret Lucas, who manages the Hotel Rialto, are the only Victoria councillors with “regular” jobs.) And that, arguably, engenders the culture at City Hall today, in which councillors micromanage the details of every project and bylaw, instead of simply providing direction to staff, and demanding answers if those directions aren’t followed. Increasing salaries may not be enough, however. “More money is not the answer. That will just make it a career politician’s job,” says Shellie Gudgeon, who served one term and decided not to run again in 2014. The bigger challenge, she says, is learning how to navigate the numerous groups and factions in a city that eats and breathes politics. Every new councillor needs a team of supporters, a “kitchen-table cabinet,” to help them after they’re elected, she says: “You can’t wade through every single issue yourself.” The challenges are multiplying, too. Social media, for example, once seemed an easy way to connect with voters; instead, it has increasingly become a “toxic echo chamber,” as Mayor Lisa Helps branded Facebook, before publicly closing her account in March. The Globe and Mail reported recently that 11 of 21 mayors in the Lower Mainland have said they are not running again this October, due to “the rise of vitriolic social-media attacks on people in public life, the intense fights and workload resulting from the blistering pace of growth and development, the housing crisis, and the switch to four-year terms from three.” (Some municipalities are advocating a return to three-year terms.) As the Globe also noted, a concern of the departing mayors is that as cities become more complex, it’s likely populist candidates will emerge — proposing simple solutions, and motivated more by politics than public service. And that may be happening in Victoria, judging by the organizations readying candidates for October. One association that’s already announced itself is newcouncil.ca, led by Stephen Hammond, the lawyer who founded Mad As Hell, the neighbourhood group opposed to the tent city that arose on Victoria’s courthouse lawn in 2016. As Hammond told CFAX recently, newcouncil aims to “overthrow” the current lineup, and replace them “with reasonable people who don’t deal with ideology.” “A lot of people aren’t happy with the present council,” says Hammond. Around 250 people are on his email list, and via surveys, he’s distilled what they want into a set of objectives, including “a focus on Victoria’s core services,” “fiscal responsibility,” “fair and even enforcement of laws,” and planning that assumes cars “are still a fundamental form of transportation” — all concerns he says the council has largely abandoned. Hammond’s group recently formed an alliance with “Club 89,” a group of Downtown businesspeople. (Helps defeated Dean Fortin by 89 votes.) Insiders say the alliance has at least eight potential council candidates — Hammond is not running — including several with community profiles and small-business experience. Their discussions have included BC Liberal staffer Andrew Reeve, and former diplomat Hilary Groos, both of whom ran for council in 2014, but no one has emerged yet as a mayoral candidate. Facing off against them will be Together Victoria, a youthful, Green-NDPish electors’ organization. According to its materials, Together Victoria (formerly “Organize Victoria”) formed because progressive candidates didn’t run an identifiable slate in 2014, “preventing the opportunity for strong progressive turnout to be translated into a strong majority at the council table.” Its objectives, developed in five workshops with more than 100 participants, are to “create a city that is affordable and inclusive”, “prioritize infrastructure that impacts social and environmental justice”, and “foster greater democratic engagement” — although it also says its members may be suspended if they are “not able to acknowledge and address their own oppressive behaviour.” (Focus contacted Together Victoria’s principals, but they declined to be interviewed until they officially launch in mid-May.) Together Victoria apparently aims to field three new candidates, in the hope of knocking off business-oriented incumbents Geoff Young, Margaret Lucas, and Chris Coleman, who got the last three council spots in 2014. Rumoured nominees include Laurel Collins, a PhD candidate in sociology and leadership studies at UVic, Sharmarke Dubow, a refugee worker for the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria, and Sarah Potts, an organizer for the federal Greens. Who is actually running will soon become apparent. But the responsibilites they face, if elected, are already clear. They will steer a corporation with a $224-million operating budget and more than 1,000 employees. In the coming term, they will oversee construction of a new fire hall, possibly a new swimming pool, repairs to the Bay Street Bridge and century-old underground pipes, and the ongoing development of neighbourhoods, parks, and hundreds of buildings. Victoria needs articulate people with common sense, experience handling employees and questioning consultants, practical ideas about how to improve the City, and the determination — and the time — to see them realized. Those qualities are not as common as one would hope. Ross Crockford is not running for Council, as he abhors long meetings in any room without a well-stocked bar.
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