Hey Everybody. For those of you not in the know, I am running for City Council in New Westminster in the election on November 15. Campaign-related activity means I might be less productive here than usual, and although NWimby isn't going away, updates may be less frequent for a while.
In the meantime, I have created new Campaign-only Social Media resources, so if you want to know what’s happening you can:
Monday, October 6, 2014
I also don't want to write about election stuff here. There are some subtle changes to the Elections Act this go-around, and Municipal Candidates have to have those "Authorized by Financial Agent" statements on all advertising materials. The definition of advertising materials in this digital age is a little fuzzy, but one interpretation is that Blogs, Facebook, and twitter could be interpreted as such if someone thinks you are using it to plead for votes. Therefore, I have a separate Campaign Website (with a bit of a Blog there), a Campaign-only Facebook page, and a Campaign-only Twitter account, all with appropriate "Authorized by..." statements. I'll do my campaigning over there.
That doesn't stop me from having opinions over here, if I only had time to write about them.
One thing I do have an opinion about is the City's Urban Forest Management Strategy. I have whinged more than once on this Blog about the lack of tree protection in our City. I am glad to see that action is being taken.
I could go on length (again) about the benefits of trees in the urban environment. instead I want to talk about the difference one tree made. A good friend of mine lives in a mid-century three-floor walk-up in Brow of the Hill. She lives in a nice south-facing third floor apartment. In the spring, The property owner decided the very healthy century-old tree on the edge of the property was a hassle, and unceremoniously had it chopped down. This decision had a huge effect on my friend’s life.
The same tree that dropped leaves on the parking lot of the building also provided shade to her small, top floor apartment. Like most buildings of the era, her home has thin insulation and poor air circulation. In the summer, it sometimes got warm, but the tree kept it tolerable. This year, without the tree, it was stifling for much of the summer. She had to make the hard decision to move, buy an air conditioner, or suffer. With her very modest income, the suffer seemed her only real option, although she is resourceful, and is hoping to get her landlord to paint the roof a reflective colour. If she knew ahead of time, she might have been able to make the case for the tree.
This is just one story, but demonstrates that trees are not just nice things to have around, they have a real effect on the livability of our community. New Westminster currently lags behind most Lower Municipalities on tree protection, and this Urban Forest Strategy aims to bring us into more of a leadership position.
Although the number of trees per square kilometre in New Westminster is pretty close to our regional neighbours, we lag behind the North American average, and even further behind the optimum level to receive all of the benefits of a healthy urban tree canopy. Unfortunately, we are still currently losing trees faster than they are replaced, and the rate of loss has not slowed even as growth of density in the City has slowed. Just in the last 10 years, there has been a 15% decline in the urban forest canopy in New Westminster. It is time for action.
What I am most excited about? The City is taking a more comprehensive approach than just slapping a Tree Bylaw in place. A Bylaw may be part of the eventual strategy, but a well-designed Bylaw needs to be supported by a larger strategy if it is going to protect your right to enjoy your residential property, not be costly to implement, and assure that our Urban Forest stops shrinking and starts growing again.
It is early times for the strategy, but there will be an open house this Wednesday at Century house in the (apropos) Arbutus Room. It is early times yet, but if you care about trees and the livability of our City, you should show up for an hour and provide your comments and support.
There are lots of nice trees nearby Century house you can hug on your way in.
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
I’m going to come right out and say I think Council made the right decision, and from listening to their comments at the meeting and in the press, they made it for the right reasons.
As many of us suspected, it came down to the money. A rushed estimate had the City adding more than $11 Million in capital improvements to Queens Park to accommodate the needs of the Whitecaps and the other park users. This compared to $3 Million the City was already budgeting to spend in similar projects over the same timeframe. The “gap” between those two amounts was the central debate.
|The breakdown, from the September 15th Meeting.|
To be fair, we don’t know half the deal – the amount of money the Whitecaps were willing to provide, and the potential for other revenues arising from the project. Because of the nature of in camera negotiations, and because I’m sure the Whitecaps don’t want to make their offer public knowledge, as they are likely to be shopping around to other Cities, we can only speculate on whether their contribution would be enough to cover the capital investment costs, or if the less-tangible benefits to the community would have been worth the investment. Clearly, Council did not feel the offer was good enough.
Aside from the money, there were other reasons to support or oppose this project. Some argued the cachet of hosting a USL Pro Team, while other argued it was inappropriate to have what is essentially a for-profit private business operate on publicly-owned park land. If there is one thing I lament through this process, it’s that we didn't really have a chance to hash out those debates in a meaningful way as a community. I think it would have been instructive going forward as we plan for the next phase of our city’s growth.
Alas, the timing was too short. If the Whitecaps had come around 12 or 18 months ago with a vision, there may (or may not) have had a different result, but we definitely would have had a different process and discussion.
On that timeline, we could have done the due diligence on the plan and the cost. We could have seen a mock-up of what the proposal was and make the inevitable and sometimes subtle changes that would be required to address unforeseen issues. New Westminster baseball could have been better engaged in the planning process, and could have been empowered to build the facility of their dreams without the risk of a lost season that may have hurt their organizations’ momentum. We could have done a comprehensive evaluation of the financial impact on the community and residents (good and bad). We, the residents, could have had a discussion about costs/benefits based on an actual plan, not on conjecture and suspicion. The Whitecaps could have worked with the Queens Park Neighbourhood to reduce impacts, and with TransLink and the Justice Institute or the Uptown malls to develop parking alternatives.
We could have also had time to not mix all of this business planning with the other big debate – is this something the City wants? The (I’m sorry, but it is ideological) debate around the entire idea of having a professional sports franchise operate in our limited parks facilitates. Some oppose this as too financially risky, others on pure ideological reasons, but that important discussion in the City could not happen in a meaningful way as part of this rushed business plan
This may turn out to be a bullet we dodged, or it may turn out to be an opportunity lost, and I guess we won’t really know. However, what was lost was an opportunity for a better community discussion, again forced by an unreasonably tight deadline.
One interesting thing that did come out of this was this post-mortem article in the NewsLeader which shows the balance between boosterism for the City and prudent municipal management. This is a theme that I will be talking about more as the election goes on. If I ever find the time to write!
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
Actually, outside of two neighbourhoods, the topic has rarely come up. However, in Queens Park and Glenbrook North, pretty much every second person raises the topic. If I was to summarize the reaction (acknowledging there is nothing at all scientific about my survey techniques), I would say there is a slight majority of people in favour of the project, but that wider support also seems shallower (in that people say “It looks like a good idea, and it would be pretty cool, if they can work out the issue of...”). Where the opposition may not be quite as wide, but it definitely makes up for it in depth (those who are opposed are really opposed, and have a variety of reasons).
When asked my opinion, I have to give the honest, but completely unsatisfying, answer: I just don’t know! There is still so little information available on the project, that I hate to approve or oppose it out of hand. To quote a friend of mine quoting a friend of his in a ranting Facebook post last week (copyright attribution avoided to protect the possibly innocent):
"I am getting so MAD at the stupidity surrounding the Whitecaps USL team proposal. There are so many lies going around about how Queen's Park will be paved over for parking, Youth teams will suffer BLAH BLAH BLAH. Where are these people getting their info from? Stop the freakin' fear mongering people WTF. It's 14 freaking games on an afternoon, there is a turf field already in the City's capital plans, the City will make money off of sponsorship, concession stands, they will move to baseball team to another site (right beside it!) and guess what our local restaurants and businesses will make more money. AND they are asking the Whitecaps to pony up for a freakin' shuttle buses to and from the sky train. STOP spreading and engaging in stupid lies about how this will ruin new west. Gah. End Rant."The way I see it, more than half the problem here is a lack of clarity on what is being proposed. I have been to the early Open House, I have followed the battling petitions online, the Twitter accounts for and against, read the Facebook pages for and against, read the Whitecaps half-page ad, attended two City council meetings, one where 21 people spoke unanimously against the proposal, one where 21 People spoke in favour of the project and 12 more people spoke in opposition, yet I still feel like I have no idea if this is a good or bad deal for the City.
Most of the actual data I have been seen (100 trees cut down, field available all but 14 days a year for public use, $20 Million cost with a 5-year lease agreement) are speculative, and have not come from the only two parties who would actually know- the City and the Whitecaps.
As a member of the public was challenged on the veracity of her financial information at Council on August 25th, she said: “when there is no good information provided, that void is filled with speculation. When speculation is the only information we have, what else are we to believe?”
Lack of information is the problem, information is the answer. Until I have that information, I can't provide a position. That said, I can say some definitive things about how I would make this decision:
- I would not support building a stadium with public money on public land for the exclusive use of the Whitecaps, or any private enterprise. Any new facility in Queens Park will be a community facility, with clearly defined limits to how the Whitecaps use it. As a growing City, we cannot afford to lose public spaces, so any facility that may be built must be available for other community use when the lessee is not utilizing it. The conditions of that use will be part of the financial arrangement;
- I would not allow New Westminster Baseball to go homeless. The club is important to our community, and clearly has a strong support base and traditions. We must assure they have a home appropriate for their needs, regardless of whether this proposal moves forward;
- I will not support adding more paved parking areas to Queens Park. The City has limited green and public space, and parking cars is not an appropriate use for it;
- I would not agree to an arrangement where the financial costs to the City will outweigh the demonstrated benefits to the community. Those costs must include the ancillary costs we will need to budget for managing the various disruptions this project may bring to the Queens Park neighbourhood, and the benefits must include the opportunity for savings in acquiring a new public amenity, and the benefits to our broader business and social communities across the City.
Actually, at yesterday’s meeting, Council members said various versions of the above, and that did not satisfy some of the more outspoken members of the audience (especially those in opposition). If you care about this issue, it is really worth your time to skip ahead to the part on the archived video of yesterday’s meeting and see what the Council Members actually said, for the first time on the record, about this project:
The link is here, select the Regular Council Meeting for September 8, 2014, and scroll to 2:45:30.
What I heard was a healthy skepticism on the part of Council. I noted during the earlier delegations that the most firmly-directed questions Council members had were reserved for those people in favour of the project. (paraphrased example: “When you say you would support this project as long as it is a financially responsible one for the City, what criteria would you use to define the financial responsibility of it?”). I don't get a sense that Council is sold on this idea yet. Which should make next week's meeting interesting.
There will be vocal criticism of the decision no matter which way it is made: just look at the archived video of the last two council meetings. Politically, this may be lose-lose. However, building trust in the process through communication is one way a divisive issue like this can bring us together as a community, even while we fill in our opposing petitions.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
I recognize that most of their problems are the result of a near-impossible mandate from a Provincial government not interested in providing the secure funding to support that mandate, accentuated by the occasional random Minister of Transportation decision that take a another big chunk out of their budget for no reason but to give the Minister a speaking point or a ribbon to cut. Examples? The Golden Ears Bridge; Universal U-Pass; Faregates.
It may ultimately be this untenable funding situation that is causing all of this euphemistically-named “Service Optimization” that I am currently going to complain about. At least TransLink should have the guts to call it what it is: Service cuts. These creeping reductions of service impact already-poorly-serviced areas, and further erode the ability to earn fare revenue by making the choice of using Transit less viable for more and more users. TransLink must know this is a terrible course to be on, why are they sugar-coating it?
We in New West are fortunate to have exceptional Public Transit accessibility relative to many parts of the Lower Mainland. We have more Skytrain stations per capita than anyone else, and the majority of our populace lives only a few minutes from a transit stop of relatively high reliability. For this reason, New Westminster residents lead the region in transit use per capita. Build it, and they will come.
But what do they do when you take it away again?
A previous round of service cuts severely limited transit access in New Westminster’s fastest growing neighbourhoods in Queensborough, and the important community centres in the neighbourhood are starting to speak out. This round, we see the C9 service reduce to once per hour in “off-peak times”. With not a sniff of local public consultation. There is essentially no mention of New Westminster in the document I just linked to, which is a report on the public feedback to the reduction in service. Near as I can tell, they didn't even come to New Westminster to talk to us about it - and their office is here! Their entire feedback on the cutting of service in New Westminster? "Some concern in selected communities".
For people in our City – people I know personally – the C9 is their only reasonable transit access. They do not live out in the distant suburbs of Langley or South Delta that TransLink can hardly , they live in a dense (formerly) transit friendly neighbourhood in the centre of a bustling urban centre, in a City with huge transit use. Their only access to Transit becomes a once-per-hour service, which by any measure no longer makes it a reliable, useful, or accessible service.
For reasons that should be obvious to everyone, I’m talking to a lot of people in New Westminster these days about the “big issues” they have around local governance. Traffic is #1. Few people on the doorstep admit they understand the problem, and what the solutions are. I know I don’t have an easy solution, and can’t promise one. But this – cutting bus service in the middle of a busy transit-friendly dense urban area to the point where it is no longer a useful service – is clearly NOT the solution to our traffic problems, and may well increase them.
I hate, Hate, HATE this idea of a referendum to decide if we are going to securely fund out transit system, but if that is the only pathway towards ending these cuts and building the service to support our growing population, then we need to line up to vote Yes and get this system building again.
Friday, August 22, 2014
Someone suggested that this project “fell through the cracks” between Federal and Provincial Environmental Assessment legislation and the other checks that might have allowed meaningful public input. That is not true. There was no “falling” involved. It was instead jammed firmly into a huge crack that was ripped into the legislation meant to protect our fisheries, our air quality, and our climate in such a way that no amount of public outcry could close the crack again. This was not a mistake or an oversight on the part of the Federal Government- this was part of the plan.
This is also an example of why the public no longer trusts public consultations. Unlike recent consultations by TransLink over the Pattullo Bridge, the Port’s consultations were not meaningfully reported out. They admitted that had received feedback from thousands of people, but they won’t admit that vast majority of that feedback was in the form of opposition to the project for a variety of reasons. Yet somehow the project was approved after these “consultations”. Why even bother asking?
Coincidentally (except it probably isn’t a coincidence), there was other coal news this week, likely just as important, but with much less fanfare here in BC. Turns out yet another proposal to build a coal terminal in the Pacific Northwest to move Powder River Basin thermal coal to jurisdictions where it is still legal to burn it has been rejected by state legislators, after significant political pressure from local Tribal groups, fishers, environmentalists, and community persons who are starting to feel the ethical debate around Climate Change. This brings to a half dozen the number of terminal proposals rejected or indefinitely delayed in the last few years in the Pacific Coast, none of them in Canada.
This is, of course, putting pressure on American coal producers, and is creating some interesting adaptations. For example, American coal industry giant Cloud Peak Energy just last week signed an agreement with the Canadian coal producer Coal Valley Resources, where Cloud Peak pays their Canadian competitor $37 Million to ship the Canadian product north through Prince Rupert. This would free up space at Westshore terminals at Port Metro Vancouver’s Roberts Bank terminal that was allocated for the Canadian coal, so Cloud Peak’s dirty Powder River Basin coal can be shipped through Canada. No Environmental Assessment needed.
It was only a few days ago that the New Westminster Environmental Partners had Kevin Washbrook from Voters Taking Action on Climate Change give an inspiring talk at the stunning Aboriginal Gathering Place at Douglas College. He spoke eloquently about climate change as a moral imperative. The message was clear: Climate change is happening right now, we are causing it, and the results are unpredictable, but almost certainly dire. The more detailed message was about “now” means we keep blowing past the worst predictions of the rate of change we while governments blithely let pass their own commitments to act; how “we” is the richest nations on earth, with Canada and Australia embarrassingly leading the charge; and how the most dire consequences are already being felt in the poorest nations that cannot afford to adapt, and had virtually nothing to do with creating the problem.
But that wasn't all that took place, because we had a group of a few dozen people who discussed the problem, and talked about the solutions they can see, some in the far distance, some accessible right now, some we are already well into adopting. There was talk of hope: not the type of hope where you sit and wish something would happen, but the kind of hope that if you and everyone around you gets to work, it is inevitable that it will happen.
At this point, with global CO2 blowing through the 350ppm, then 400ppm barriers, the idea that we can limit climate change to a planet-altering 2 degree Celsius warming has gone away; at this point we need to stop much worse levels of warming. No-one is suggesting we can fix the problem anymore, we are now working on how to limit the problem so the impacts are manageable by the next and not catastrophic.
It is late, but not too late. The challenge is real, but it is doable. And British Columbia is one of the most important fronts in this battle. British Columbia is choosing (and yes, it is a choice among many other possible paths) to become a conduit for the acceleration of carbon into the atmosphere. We are seeing pipelines, coal ports, and massive increases in natural gas extraction: all with the intent of making burning carbon for all of our energy needs more affordable through lax regulation and unaccounted environmental impacts so that the practical and reasonable alternatives that exist will not be exploited. For a shitty few jobs (and yes, the Carbon Economy in British Columbia is less that 3% of our GDP, and accounts for less than 1% of our employment) we are helping a few profiteers rake in cash by making the world a less safe, less stable, less liveable place for the next generation.
We need better leaders. We need more accountable Governments. We need a vision to stop destroying the future and start building it.
*James and I have some fundamental differences about the reasons for opposing this proposal, and I took a bit of a humourous dig at his comments in an earlier version of this footnote. In hindsight, it was an unnecessary and not very nice, so I retract.
Saturday, August 16, 2014
A local twitter follower I respect greatly raised an interesting point a couple of weeks ago, asking a seemingly simple question out of the blue: “does anyone know percentage of metro Van covered in asphalt?” I was (almost) embarrassed to admit I had written the answer down less than 24 hours before he asked, but his question led me to do a little more digging, and I found the data interesting.
First, the reason I wrote the information down was my job. I was attending a meeting at Metro Vancouver where a version of this question was answered. The meeting was of municipal engineering and environmental staff from around the region, and the subject was stormwater management. As part of the regional Liquid Waste Management Strategy, Metro is helping the municipalities of the region set some planning priorities around how the manage their stormwater.
Efficiently moving rainwater from your street, roof, and back yard to the river or ocean so that is doesn't flood your community is one of those big, expensive tasks that is almost invisible to most people, except the way it eats up your tax money. The amount of pavement covering the ground is important to stormwater management because rain that hits pavement doesn’t get absorbed and stored in the soil like it does if it falls in a park, the forest, or your back yard. Instead, it needs to be immediately dealt with by the storm sewer system. Also, rainwater that runs off of streets tends to get dirty, and is a major cause of pollution for sensitive estuarine and marine ecosystems near urban areas. Reducing this run-off, or encouraging natural filtration of parking lot run-off (for example) through bioswales or the such is one of those strategies that requires some investment in the short term, but can save Cities a lot of money in the long-term while improving the environment.
But I was talking about roads, so back to roads.
During this meeting, a pie chart went up on screen that showed how land use was divided up over the region, for the purposes of thinking about road run-off. The quick stat I wrote down was 17% of “developable” land was roads. After the fact, the Twitter question was raised, so I found the source data, and drew up my closest approximation of the pie charts we were shown. Note this is 2006 data I am using here, and I think the data I was shown at the meeting was 2011, so there will be a little change at the edges, but the major divisions are pretty clear.
Of all land in Metro Vancouver, here are the major land uses, of which “roads” (in red) equals about 7%:
|Land use in Metro Vancouver, 2006, by area. Click to Enlarge.|
|Land use for "developable" land in Metro Vancouver, 2006, by area. Click to Enlarge.|
|Land use for "developable" land in New Westminster, 2006, by area. Click to Enlarge.|
OK, enough with the numbers, you say- what does it all mean?
Roads don’t pay taxes. Dedicating a large portion of your land space to roads means that land is not earning revenue for the City, so the taxes on the adjacent (commercial, industrial and residential) lands have to be proportionally higher to provide the same level of services to the residents and businesses of our community. However, it is worse than this, because roads are a huge financial burden on Municipalities. Pavement is expensive to install and maintain, as are the associated drainage works, curbs, road markings, signs, lights, overpasses, and other fixed assets that keep the road system operating. Add to this the less tangible policing, fire, and ambulance costs related to enforcement of traffic laws and dealing with accidents and injuries on the roads.
I’m not arguing against roads, they are a service the City provides, through your taxes, for the general good (dare I say, they are an example of a benefit of socialism). I am arguing that the City with the highest proportion of roads in the British Columbia should continue to resist the calls from neighbouring communities to solve their traffic problems by turning more of New Westminster into road space.
It isn’t just a matter of livability, it is also because we simply cannot afford to give more of our land away to support their poor planning.
Bonus Graphing Excellence: Here is a plot of the Area of every Municipality in Metro Vancouver with the % of that area dedicated to roads. Note poor correlation between two data sets. You might need to click to make readable.