Sunday, 16 December 2012


Suppose you worked at City Hall. And suppose you wanted to change the way the City prepared its budget in order to achieve transparency, efficiency and honesty. Would you consider adopting the method used by the US Department of Defence?

If so, you would also be happy to pay $675 for a toilet seat.  In the early 1960s the Defence department adapted the latest budgeting craze sometimes called Planned Program Budgeting (PPB). The idea was to back off traditional line items in the budget in favour of splendidly broad objectives.  This not only enabled the Americans  to pretend that the Vietnam War had a purpose, but  more importantly, to rob the public blind.  These were the glory days of sterling toilet seats and nails that cost more than their weight in gold. 

There have been many variants, sometimes called Goal Oriented Budgeting, (GOB), Managing for Results (MFR) New Public Management (NPM)  Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) and Planning programming, budgeting systems (PPBS).  These are useful tools for burglarizing the government because in perusing the budget it is hard to trace exactly how the money is spent.  If 100 million dollars is attributed  for the Army Band, whether it is for toilet seats or tubas,  is much harder to trace if there are no tuba or toilet seat line items.

If you visit Vancouver’s web site and tip toe around the info-graphics and duck every time they fire a cliché at you, here is what you will see:

Council has supported the City’s mission “to create a great city of communities that cares about its people, its environment, and the opportunities to live, work and prosper,” by aligning spending with programs that support Vancouver’s people, environment, and prosperity.  Key plans that represent these priorities inform the budget direction. Public consultation conducted during City’s Goal: Cultivate and sustain vibrant, creative, safe and caring communities for the wide diversity of individuals and families who live in, work in and visit Vancouver

Did you know...Vancouver consistently ranks as one of the Most Livable Cities in the World?  

If in your quest for knowledge you actually want to know about something like transportation you are referred to:

If you want the Nitti Gritty, to coin a phrase, you can download the Transportation Plan 2040 adopted October 31, 2012..

Browsing through the pictures eventually, you think you are about to step ashore in the land of  the Truly Something Substantial (TSS).  Entitled “Policies and Actions and Details”  you learn this:

M 1.1.1. Continue to optimize network operations such as signal timings and rush-hour parking regulations to manage congestion while supporting other plan goals.
M 2.2. Support strategies that reduce the need for parking
M 2.2.4. Create a developer-friendly, Council-endorsed toolkit to assist developers and staff in developing transportation management strategies for new development.

Our Glorious Leader's Great Leap Forward

The Vancouver Sun luxuriated in this collection of pictures, pie charts, cliches and bull shit this way:

It is an annual budget the like of which Vancouver residents have never seen.

Where previous budgets consisted of row after row of numbers, the 2013 document reads more like a book. Its 172 pages are filled with colourful pie charts, tables of figures, and a neatly organized narrative, devoid of banker’s jargon, outlining the projects and services on which residents’ money will be spent.

This method of budget reporting is a “massive leap forward” in public accountability and transparency, according to Mayor Gregor Robertson and his team of Vision councillors, who gave majority assent Tuesday to the final $1.148-billion operating and $258-million capital budget.

Residents will see a 2.8-per-cent increase to property taxes to help pay *****

The Vancouver Province sounded incredulous:

"On Wednesday, NPA councillors George Affleck and Elizabeth Ball - who were elected, like all councillors, largely to examine city spending for taxpayers - were told by city manager Penny Ballem that on the advice of an outside consultant they would no longer receive line-item details on how city hall is spending public money. Ballem, showing contempt for elected officials, said all of us have to "trust staff."

Read more:

Maybe Council has to trust staff because the Mother Superior says so but I don't trust them and I certainly don't trust her.

The Budget That None Dare Speak its Name

In his recent book, “Program Budgeting and the Performance Movement, The Elusive Quest for Efficiency in Government”  (Georgetown University Press 2011 ) William F. West writes of the various iterations of program budgeting systems as “an unsuccessful exercise in managerialism.”  Its recrudescence in the US, “has encountered the same obstacles that led to its widespread abandonment three decades ago.”

Secretary of Defence McNamara was drawn to PPB because it promised a more efficient allocation of resources and responsibilities among  weapons systems and operational units.  The elaborate process linked planning with budgeting by evaluating and comparing activities in terms of the purposes they served. West observes, “Accordingly, it was also a tool whereby McNamara hoped to centralize his control over services that had traditionally enjoyed a good deal of autonomy.” 

President Johnson extended the program throughout the entire US government. The extension was terminated after little more than five years because to be blunt, it was a flop. PPB survived only in the Department of Defence during the next 30 years. However, it emerged in the Department of Homeland Security under Present George W Bush.

It has not been successful whether described as PPS or any other acronym. According to West, “the most important goals  cannot be realized ." It is described as a management fad that was discarded.  White also explains that it is an extremely expensive system to maintain in terms of resource demand. He says even more importantly are the constraints associated with decentralized and pluralistic political environment of public administration.  

Ironically, the evolution of PPB at the Department of Defence suggests that formal systems of planning and assessment that seek to be comprehensive and that are synchronized with the annual budget cycle may in fact undermine the kind of selective analysis that can be beneficial.

Coming back to our town, the recent move to try to centralize community centre administration by doing away with local Community Centre Associations (after relieving them of the money they raised) is a predictable result of MFR or PPB or PPS whatever they choose to call it.

The City is now being run by a physician who is out of her depth and social media experts and graphics artists who may well be top in their fields, but rank at the bottom of the class when it comes to public administration. 

That happened because fools like me and a few of you voted for VISION on the theory that they could not be worse than the last bunch.

Monday, 10 December 2012


Politics, The Art of the Impossible Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power 1972-1975 by Rod Mickleburgh and Geoff Meggs (Harbour Publishing) is a great read and a significant contribution to political science.  It might not be Plutarch’s Lives but it captures the personalities and excitement of BC`s fling with the Socialist government that briefly controlled British Columbia from 1972 to 1975.  

The authors treat Barrett with affection but do not spare him or his government from a meticulous analysis of the weaknesses that lead to the NDP’s collapse.  Among the NDP's many political errors, they sometimes forgot their major constituency.  A labor party cannot expect to survive when they order striking unions back to work.   

The NDP cabinet tried to do everything at once.  They did not expect to last.  Had they tried to bring the public along they might have accomplished even more.  As it was, they did an unbelievable amount.  The sincerest form of flattery is when the next government does not repeal legislation.  Much of their legacy remains.

It is tempting to draw comparisons between the radicals of the NDP under Barrett and the later NDP governments of Harcourt and Glen Clark.  They were very different.  Harcourt never claimed to be a socialist.  He would have fit in well with the US liberal democrats.  So would Glen Clark who easily made the transition from government fast ferries to private enterprise and neon signs.

Through a series of interviews with the participants, the authors convey the flavour of a government that considered itself so socialistic that they worried that the US might do to them what it did to Allende in Chile.  Barrett spoke to his cabinet on occasion of the risk of assassination.

My favorite cabinet minister was Gary Lauk.  He might not have been in his best form when he was interviewed by the authors, but he was certainly one of the funniest and nicest guys I ever met.
I met Lauk, not to long after he had been made Minister of Trade and Commerce.  He had just suggested that the government would nationalize the telephone company.  I tactfully volunteered that his remarks had tanked the price of BC TELS's stock.  Since a lot of the union pension funds were invested in the BC Tel, I asked him what he would do to his enemies if this was how he treated his friends.

He replied, “You have got to realize that we are a socialist government.  We are not a bunch of U.S. Democrats.  We are socialists, and yes, we will nationalize the phone company.  The banks are next.”

Lauk remained in opposition after the NDP’s loss in 1975. He ultimately gave up his seat to Mike Harcourt.  I got to know him well after that.  He was a terrific litigator.  We would frequently meet for lunch with the same group of lawyers.   

Fast forward to the Glen Clark administration  

 Young Premier Glen Clark had just announced his intention to levy a significant tax  on houses.  The real estate industry writhed and gagged.  The housing market was finished – forever.  As I reflected on galaxies in collision, I saw Lauk coming out of a Court Room.  I walked over to him and said, “Well my socialist friend.  What do you think of your Premier's new tax?”

Lauk, who owned a nice place in West Vancouver, glared and said, “Those F***ing Communists!”


I wish I had said this:

Lesson # 1:
* U.S. Tax revenue: $2,170,000,000,000
* Fed budget: $3,820,000,000,000
* New debt: $ 1,650,000,000,000
* National debt: $14,271,000,000,000
* Recent budget cuts: $ 38,500,000,000

Let's now remove 8 zeros and pretend it's a household budget:

* Annual family income: $21,700
* Money the family spent: $38,200
* New debt on the credit card: $16,500
* Outstanding balance on the credit card: $142,710
* Total budget cuts so far: $38.50

Got It ?????
OK now,

Lesson # 2:

Here's another way to look at the Debt Ceiling:

Let's say, You come home from work and find
there has been a sewer backup in your neighborhood....
and your home has sewage all the way up to your ceilings.

What do you think you should do ......

Raise the ceilings, or remove the shit?


Sunday, 2 December 2012


Last week a New York City policeman bought a pair of boots for a homeless man.  This act of kindness went viral on YouTube.  

This week Vancouver Council agreed to lease with an option to purchase a 33,000 square foot building to a Vancouver Company called HootSuite. Whether it also was a subsidy  depends on the terms.  They have not yet been disclosed.  The  Vancouver Web site reported:

HootSuite has signed an innovative agreement with the City to lease new office space at 5 East 8th Avenue, with an option for ownership. The two-storey, City-owned building contains over 33,000 square feet of office space and has a 2012 assessed value of $9.6 million.

HootSuite seems to be a very good company and a success story. The City Website notes:

HootSuite Enterprise clients include 79 of the Fortune 100 companies, as well as large organizations like Virgin, McDonald’s, Sony Music, Lamborghini, WWF, and more. While the company has grown its workforce internationally, including the opening of a new office in London UK’s Soho district, its roots remain firmly planted in Vancouver.

So what was innovative? If one searches the name, HootSuite, on Vancouver's web site, the only reference is a report of January 23, 2012 from Vancouver’s Economic Commission. It simply says that HootSuite, along with Disney’s Pixar and others, is “part of the City’s growing media cluster.”

The old Police Department Building at 5 E 8th Avenue became surplus in 2011. I could not find it listed for sale or rent in 2012 on the City Site. The report gave no indication that HootSuite was going to get first dibs without it being advertised.

Blogger, Frances Bula had an item on the “lease to own” deal. She says that she talked to a broker who told her that at market rental rates HootSuite should be paying somewhere in the neighbourhood of one million dollars a year (33,000 square feet times about $30 per square foot per year) for this. “What they are actually paying, we don’t know yet except for the city’s assurances that the company will pay “market rent.”

From the press release, one would think that market rent might be the problem for HootSuite in the first place. If they had to pay market rent, the company might not stay here. Is the City being modest about its largesse? The deal may in fact be great for the City but without any details who knows? 

There are many businesses that would like to get an innovative deal on a multi-million dollar building in an industrial zone. Were others given the opportunity?

There are strict controls and procedures regulating grants to for profit corporations under the Vancouver Charter. (See for example ss. 153, 206.) Did the “innovative” deal for HootSuite amount to a subsidy or a grant? One would not put it past City Hall in light of what is going on with respect to zoning. 

The STIR program provides a series of incentives to real estate developers to build rental housing. It encourages projects where new multi-residential rental housing units are secured for the life of the building . It waives development cost levies so that the burden of the project is placed on the community.

There is nothing wrong with HootSuite. Its program allows among other things Twitter users to time their tweets for prime hours. The timely expression of ideas in 140 characters is important. It could theoretically allow City Hall to provide adequate information on deals like the one with HootSuite.

The New York Times is currently running an article on the Economic Development Commission in Texas. It points out that the lines quickly blur between economic benefits and corporate welfare. Who benefits more: the public or the corporations?  see    [see also Clr Affleck questioning one of the VEC's members last year:]

Transparency is a virtue but it is not the virtue our Council is best at. There is no room for secrecy when dealing with publicly  owned real estate. The City has a power to buy and sell property. It does not have to go to the highest bidder. It can take into consideration various policy issues. But the idea that what is good for HootSuite is necessarily good for the country has a bad odor to it.


Saturday, 24 November 2012


Pacific Arbour Corporation wants to build a six to seven storey Seniors' retirement residence near Dunbar Street and 30-31st  Avenues. If the property gets rezoned to Comercial (C-2), the height limit would be 4 stories. They want more.

It seems that the company is well on its way to assembling houses. It must think that the rezoning is a pretty sure thing. 

Pacific Arbour provides a product that its tenants want but it's expensive. It is not enough to buy land at single family prices and  increase its value by a rezoning. They say they need two extra stories beyond what would be provided in the ubiquitous C-2 zone in order to make it profitable.

Assembling land on the expectation of a rezoning can be risky business. Pacific Arbour seems to have minimized the risk by anticipating the recently announced City policy promising high density on all properties close to streets that are classified as “arterials.”  

Dunbar would be more at ease if it knew that there was going to be a fair public hearing. After all, the City is being asked to transfer land value from the immediately affected neighbours to the developer. The  neighbours  will lose light and view, the value of which will be handed over to the developers, who will gain density and use. Council's job is to balance these interests in making a decision. That's what the hearing is for. 

There will be no fair hearing because Council has made its decision. 

The public is not stupid. Citizens understand  that Council  has been using rezonings as a cash cow. If a land use is already allowed in a zone, then the developer just pays his fees and gets on with it. There is little more that the City can extract or extort. When there is a rezoning to allow a formerly prohibited use, on the other hand, the City can make a bundle by  demanding things as a condition of rezoning. That is why  they can not be relied on to be fair. 

As for the hearing, it was only a matter of time that the Mayor and Council figured out a way of circumventing these excruciatingly dull events. Always  a central part of councillors' jobs, zoning hearings can be torture. I was there in 1974 when the great architect and Alderman, Geoff Massey, during a hearing dozed off and fell  out of his chair. Mayor Philips said he thought a bomb had gone off.

Vancouver City Hall recently came up with the startling idea of linking zoning to streets and traffic. Properties on or near arterials are eligible to be rezoned to a higher density. Instead of having a zoning hearing all they need to do now is to call the street an arterial and presto!- the adjacent properties are automatically rezoned. 

By this simple expedient mandatory public  hearings can almost but not quite be avoided. Sure, a hearing is technically required on each parcel when there is a proposed development. No one will show up, however, if they think that Council has made up its collective mind in advance. That is exactly what they have done by passing a resolution announcing that the land should be rezoned if it is on or near an arterial street. 

 The Councillors no longer have to be strapped in their chairs. They can stay awake playing angry birds on their I-phones to get through the brief hearing. 

When Council rammed through their laneway housing amendments with little advanced notice, relatively few people protested. Laneway houses primarily affect two or three immediate neighbours. They were the ones we heard from. This six story project affects a lot of people and they have let it be known that they are not amused. 

The protesters are a suspicious lot. They doubt that the building has to be as high as the Company claims. They worry about their loss of amenity and value and all the stuff people usually worry about when their life savings are tied up in real estate. Their anxiety promptly became an easy target for derision.

It started with doily jokes. A young Engineer tweeted that Dunbarites were aghast that the old folks in the home might bring in to many doilies. Dunbar stood accused of being anti doiley. What kind of people would consider a seniors care home to be a Locally Unwanted Land Use (LULU)?

NIMBYs (Not in My Back Yard) are defined as citizens who try to defend their homes and their neighbourhoods from plans which would destroy the view, pollute the environment, overload the transport network, upset the ecosystem and knock $300,000 off the value of their homes.

Dunbar is not the only neighbourhood engaged in NIMBY wars. They are underway in other parts of town.  The Anti LULUs, are challenging the Mayor's homeless shelters in Yaletown. Few people in pricey condos seem sold on the idea of a homeless shelter in their back yard. 

In the West End there has been strident opposition to an approved tower (STIR project) that exceeds the permitted West End height limits. There is another battle in Mount Pleasant. In all cases interests have to be balanced taking into consideration the relative wealth and position of the parties. Each area requires a different balancing. In Yaletown it is Condo owners against the homless. 

In Dunbar it is between a Corporation hoping to sell or rent high priced units vs high priced home owners. 

In the West End it is between existing tenants and condo owners against residents of a project whose rentals are to be classified in some vague way by the bureaucrats as affordable.

Dunbar is the latest affected area and residents are very upset. They need to keep the impact of all of this in perspective. A person who has studied these things has listed the 7 worst LULUs guaranteed to knock hundreds of thousands of dollars from the value of our homes: (1) Nuclear Power Plants, (2) Land Fills, (3) Sex Offenders, (4) Foreclosure blight, (5) Lackluster landscaping, (6) Closed schools and Hell's Angels Club House.

Although I wouldn't like it if this 7 story building were allowed in a nearby detached dwelling area, I admit that a nuclear powered Hell's Angels Club House could be even worse. 

That's next.

Friday, 16 November 2012


Vancouver Councilor Geoff Meggs was questioned during a City Council meeting about the lack of consultation regarding a plan to build a gigantic, view blocking building in the West End. He said, 

The consultation was the election. This is my delivery!"

So there you have it. 

Mr. Meggs believed that he had a mandate. He was not alone in this.   President Bush explained that he had a mandate to liberate Iraq. The difference was  that his mandate was of divine origin. It  came from God.

So, who is more delusional? The one whose  mandate comes from the voters or the one whose mandate comes from God?.

Paradoxically, the person who enacts a residential poultry bylaw because God told him to “ Go forth and build chicken coups in the peoples backyards” may be completely sane.  The one who believes  he heard the voice of the voters saying, "Let there be chickens,"  is absolutely nuts.

Think of it this way. Religion has centuries of  intellectual underpinnings to support its arguments.  On the other hand, there is no possible way of determining the will of the voters respecting each and every promise in a city election. Politicians claim the mandate because it allows them to do things in office without any further need for accountability. It derives from a set of beliefs that is demonstrably false. (They say to themselves, I can do anything because the voters love me. They really love me.)

Councilors have a limited mandate to represent their constituents and to figure out what they want as best they can. It isn't easy.  No Council can have a mandate for most policies at council level because there is no way of  knowing why people voted for them, particularly in our at large system.

In the first place, very few citizens actually vote. In the last election it was 37% of the eligible voters. So 63% gave no mandate at all about anything.

A party runs on the gas of promises. It is impossible to say that the 37% of the voters favoured all of the policies. Some of them may just have liked Gregor's looks. 

In the last Vancouver election it is likely that  many voters chose the winners as the lesser of evils. I can tell you that I endorsed Mayor Gregor in 2008 to punish the NPA that, incidentally,  also purported to have a Mandate. In that election a lot of NPA supporters just stayed home. 

There is also a tendency to vote for the candidate whose name begins with A, B, or C.

We will no doubt continue to hear the claim by elected politicians that they have  a mandate to spend a half billion dollars on a stadium roof, to rezone an entire city, to sell off a railway system, to close a street, to build a street car - you name it- they claim the mandate.

When enough politicians scream in harmony that the people speak through them,  they  actually start to believe it themselves. Or put even more simply: people with overlapping delusions have the makings of a political party and will get along wonderfully. 

Saturday, 10 November 2012


A meeting was held in the West End the night before last. I  stayed home, read Saul Bellows novel, Herzog, and followed the meeting in real time on Twitter. Each tweet said that the meeting was awesome. And each speaker was awesomer than the next. After a while I drifted off.  I dreamed that, Saul Bellow had constructed a novel from the precise words people tweeted at a community meeting. Here is our brave new world of social network participation:

Chapter 1  Awesome

A gust of wind made the windows of the Church tremble. The grass outside was dense and soft. ‏@TrevorLoke whispered:  SGreat night at the #visiontownhall really proud to share the stage with aaron_jasper @cheriepayne @andreareimder @mayorgregor

Chapter 2-  The Mayor Trending

The Mayor surveyed the crowd. He felt he had to display bold leadership.  He was about to say something. Then he paused.  His was a world of ideas. Concepts were the marble halls in which he sveltly dwellt. Theology? He believed there was no God and Mary was his mother. He intoned:  "Great to share #visiontownhall stage w team: @CheriePayne Aaron_Jasper @andreareime"r Trevor Loke + Tim Stevenson.

Another thought took hold of him as he  observed, “Big engaged crowd  +  wide-ranging discussion at West End #visiontownhall tonight! Thanks @VIAwesome  for live-tweets

 On hearing these remarks, MarkDee ‏@MarkDee sat straighter in his chair, and chose his words with bilious portentousness. Mark believed that Nietzche had a Christian view of history seeing into the present moment always as some crises. He swallowed and said,  Interested to hear more on this MT @ryansdds: Renters getting lots of support from @VisionVancouver with new Rent Bank and.. #visiontownhall

By degrees, and I don't quite know how it happened, Andrea became the principal figure in the event. She dominated it as she dominated her colleagues and the universe itself. When she typed I was touched and you will see why she fascinated me and continues to do so. Her words were short and clipped - severe and full of caprice.  @andreareimer x2 RT @JenU2: Love. MT @cwistal Vancouver, tonight we take top spot for being engaged cmnity. chatter on #visiontownhall #bcwine...

CHAPTER 3 - Febrile Masturbatory Zeal
 Ravel in his Bolero added  texture to his theme by the device of relentless almost mad repetition --- layer upon layer of erotic sound expressed always in a Helvetica  font. So it was that Vancouver Is Awesome ‏@VIAwesome MT @cwistal: retweeted himself off: "tonight we take top spot for being an engaged cmnity. Saw chatter on #visiontownhall #bcwine #publicsalon @SMNVAN n #nobullies

Paul's words, like Dido, floated across the screen.  They were my last memories of the meeting. Paul was a King. An emotional King. He might have held a scepter. The depth of his heart was his Kingdom. He appropriated all the emotions about him as if by divine and spiritual right,    ‏@paultolnai cautioned, Overarching message from #visiontownhall DON'T CLOSE DOWN ROBSON STREET. Now let's see if they will listen!!!

But in his heart he thought he knew the answer. The Sun shines. The people tweet with a febrile, masturbatory zeal. The world  listens but the words are lost. There are few remembrances of things past.

Epilogue - Remembrance Day

The next day a single youth recalled the meeting. His sentence was well formed. The meeting had been one of the great moments of his life. He would never let it go.  Stepan Vdovine  typed, "lets do it again sometime! RT @VIAwesome: Remember when #visiontownhall trended in Canada last night? That was  awesome."

Monday, 5 November 2012


Hong Kong is cracking down on real estate speculators. It has taken what it calls "extraordinary measures under exceptional circumstances” precipitated by a housing affordability crises.  The measures include a combination of taxes discouraging flips that extends now to 3 years.  There is also a  15 per cent tax payable on property bought by non-permanent residents.

The immediate effect was that the number of apartments sold on the secondary market in Hong Kong fell by almost 50% over a weekend.  
Meanwhile in Vancouver, developers and their drum majors,  the Mayor and Council, can look forward to an orgiastic future. The City will be swamped in cash otherwise destined for Hong Kong, from China’s kleptocracy.

The  extent of corruption in China was exposed  when a high speed bullet train crashed on July 23, 2011. The train, touted to be faster than France's TVG, was a cornerstone in China's great leap into a better environmental future. High speed trains could replace automobiles in the country where the Buick is the prestige car.  China had an investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in its recent transportation infrastructure upgrades. 

There were payoffs at every step. A  detailed report on the wreck acknowledged “serious design flaws,” a “neglect of safety management,” and problems in bidding and testing. China’s proud project was shown to be an "ecosystem of  corruption." The scale of plunder was an exhibition of official and private villainy that included the mal-functioning part that caused the train crash. 

According to Bloomberg News, the extended family of China’s incoming President, Xi Jinping, has tens of millions of dollars in real-estate and financial assets. Since 1990, eighteen thousand corrupt officials have fled the country, having stolen a hundred and twenty billion dollars. This was described as a sum large enough to buy Disney or Amazon.

In this context, Mayor Robertson used the platform while in China to express his opinion of democracy:

" can be critical of a lot of regimes around the world, and you can question how worthwhile democracy is in a lot of countries right now which are, frankly, ignoring the biggest crisis in the history of our species which is climate change. That's where you see the Chinese government taking radical dramatic action in investing in turning the ship around. And you do not see that in Western governments right now, democratically elected, and that's because they're afraid. And that's not serving the greater interests of society." []  fn 33

Anyone who has ever attended a zoning hearing can appreciate that Robertson's distaste for government of the people, by the people and for the people, was if nothing else, sincere. I do not recall any of his colleagues stepping back from it.

An article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in June 2009 by Patrick Chovanec, China’s Real Estate Riddle” [] Chovanec,  a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing, China says this:

Not only do the Chinese seem to have a voracious appetite for homes they never intend to live in, this appetite has persisted for a remarkably long time, almost defying economic gravity. So when housing prices dipped 1.3% in March (compared to the prior March) on concerns over a supply glut, buyers poured into the market, sending sales volumes to their highest levels in two years.
Chovanec describes a phenomena that is all to familiar in Vancouver:

[Why] the seemingly endless rows of luxury megaliths you can see sprouting up in every provincial capital or third-tier Chinese city worth its salt, with nary a resident in sight. Beijing has no monopoly on ghost-condos.

One possible key to this riddle occurred to me after I heard about the Chinese tour group that recently (and famously) traveled to the United States hunting for post-bubble real estate bargains. I heard that one of the reasons they returned empty-handed was that they were shocked—shocked!—to discover that in the U.S., property is taxed annually on its value. China has taxes on real estate transactions, but no recurring tax on holdings. The group’s discovery, and their disappointment, got me thinking.

He observed that  the U.S. tax system creates  strong incentives for residential property owners to either use it to live in or to generate income by renting it to others to live in, and penalize them for letting it stand idle.

That is not how it works in China. 

Chovanec continues: “In China,  real estate—occupied or not—offers them a visibly reassuring place to park their money, sheltered from inflation. *** with little or no holding costs, Chinese owners are unconstrained by the need to make the property “pay” in cash or in kind. For them, an empty condo is a store of value, much like gold, another asset that performs no practical function besides retaining its worth.”

He concludes: Apartments in China aren’t for living in, they’re for investing. That is the real source of demand.

If the money is the product of corruption, then there is a need to get it out of China. Vancouver ranks #8 in the list of favorite places for this purpose.

Given the Mayor's expressed feeling about the inadequacy of democracy, it should be no surprise that he does not seem to be on the same side as those in China who are fighting for it.  He has consistently sided with the local development industry - who stand to be  profiteers in all of this.  He has turned to them for his solution. 

You can bet he will  do everything to  make real estate even more attractive to off shore investors by allowing ever  increasing density. That is like trying to discourage the use of oil by offering it in smaller barrels. It is like printing more lower denominational bills to make the condominium, the new medium of exchange for people trying to get funds out of China,  a more convenient instrument of investment. 

 They call it  “smart growth.” VISION's message  to every neighborhood that wants a say in the planning process seems to be, “Hey you (expletive deleted) nimbys - get with the program!

Saturday, 3 November 2012


A neighbour got caught by a City leaf control officer. She was raking  leaves from the gutter onto the grassy boulevard in front of her home on King Edward Avenue.  She tearfully explained that there is not enough space in her Garden Waste bin now that the City allows us to compost household waste. 

"The City," she sobbed, "does not clean up the leaves. Increased density brings  more  cars. The cars  park in the street.  The Street Cleaner can't reach the leaves. We must look after ourselves." 

I tried to console her. "Soon through the blessings of densification, we will have strata councils. They will look after us," I said.  Her tears flowed even more copiously.

For years Dunbarites moved the leaves from the gutter to the grassy knoll. It made us strong. Eventually the City would come along with great machines that took care of it.

The  Anti Dumping Division of the Leaf Accumulation Department  has planted signs on King Edward Blvd. They are also on traffic circles. 

“NO DUMPING LEAVES Bylaw 2849. Maximum Fine $2000."   

I phoned Vancouver 311 and was quickly connected to a Leaf Engineer named Socrates. I asked him whether it was true that bylaw 2849 prohibited home owners from dumping leaves on the centre strip of King Edward Avenue.

"What exactly do you mean by truth?" he asked.

"The correlation between a belief and facts as asserted by Bertrand Russel," I replied.

Socrates explained that this was no longer a valid definition. Vancouver is now linked to the computer developed by D-wave Quantum Computing Company. In quantum terms, a matter can be both true and false simultaneously.

Socrates, the leaf engineer, admitted that the statement on the sign was  sometimes false, but only in the sense that the current bylaw does not actually prohibit moving leaves from one part of city property to another. 

On the other hand, in some dimensions the statement is true.  Also, he explained, that under William James' theory of pragmatism, well-intentioned  misinformation was in the public interest and therefore true.  He suggested I revisit Plato's dialogues. I would learn, he explained, that  In politics great  truths must be built upon a superstructure of myths.   

"For example, "Socrates explained, "Did you know that 40% of all trips into downtown Vancouver were by bicycle? Were you aware that the price of housing has already dropped  by 63.2 % because of the publication of the Mayor's Affordability Task Force Report? Do you realize  that 6 million residents including those yet to be conceived, were involved in the preparation of that report?"

The signs  are  part of the endless natural cycle of life, death and misinformation.

As a result of dialing Vancouver's new 311 line, I have renewed faith in our local government. These signs are false only in the narrow sense that they do not correlate with the Bylaw. (Actually, you can move leaves  from the City owned curb,  and dump them on  the grassy boulevard area, if they fell off a City owned tree on to City Property. Its just that you  can't rake leaves from your own property to the City's. Who is to say that they are not also true in some other place or time? (Like, when snow flakes fall on sidewalks you are in trouble if you do not clear them by 10:00 a.m.)

(see Bylaw 2849 s.  71H. The owner or occupier of real property adjacent to a street, must not allow or permit any earth, rock, stones, trees, logs, stumps or similar substances or things from the property: 

(a) to cave, fall, crumble, slide, accumulate or be otherwise deposited on to a street; or 

(b) to remain on a street. }

Wednesday, 31 October 2012


The other night I attended a public meeting organized by a newly created neighbourhood group. The issue was a proposal to rezone land in Dunbar so as to allow a much higher building than the four stories presently permitted. 

There was  standing room only. 

Three Vancouver Councilors attended: Affleck, Ball and Carr. Councilor Carr had been invited to speak on how the community should communicate to City Hall. After explaining the efficacy of petitions and letters and extolling the virtues of City Hall's phone system, Carr explained that of course she was not allowed to take a position on this because she must maintain an open mind at the future public hearing.

Two years ago Councilor Reimer was invited to a meeting at the Dunbar Community Centre to explain what was going on with the expected rezoning to allow Laneway houses.  In her opening remarks she explained that there was soon going to be a public hearing on the matter, so she could not discuss it at all. It was the one topic that none dare speak its name.

She was happy, however, to share with us her ideas about back yard chickens.

I have frequently had Councilors tell me that they are not permitted to tell the voters where they stand, or to even discuss  matters, on the theory that their minds must be appropriately empty at a future public hearing.  

It is not true. The law, in the opinion of Dicken's Mr. Bumble, may be an ass, but it is not that big of an ass.

A politician must not be corruptly biased. They can not vote on a matter if they have a pecuniary interest in it. Otherwise, they can and should take positions on issues. This was clearly stated by the Court of Appeal in a concurring opinion of Madame Justice Southin in the case of Save Richmond Farmland Society v. Richmond (Township) 1989 CarswellBC 58. A Councilor took a firm position on one side of an issue before the hearing. After the hearing, an action was commenced to set aside the bylaw on the grounds that the Councilor had a closed mind.

54          It is a foolish politician who does not listen carefully to and weigh the strongly held opinions of his constituents; if nothing else it is foolish because it may cost him his seat. Mr. Mawby has been part of this debate from its inception. He has heard, I am sure, all the arguments and he has expressed his conclusion and expressed it strongly. He had the right to do so.

55          In my view, the public life of British Columbia would be the poorer if in a matter of this kind a politician must keep an inscrutable face and a silent tongue not disclosing his strongly held opinions lest he be deprived of his vote. There should be no penalty for candour. However distasteful Mr. Mawby's opinions may be to a very large segment of the electors of Richmond, he is entitled to hold them and to express them by his vote at the council table.

After a hearing and before the vote it is different. Council (with a few exceptions) may meet with its own staff but not with proponents or opponents of a re-zoning. Before the hearing, however, they can meet with whomever they like, provided of course that the meeting does not end with the delivery of a satchel full of cash.

One of the most popular councilors in Vancouver's history was Harry Rankin. He was a socialist and yet he often topped the polls in all parts of the City.  One reason was that as soon as he had a considered opinion, the whole City knew about it.  That is the way it should be. 

Monday, 29 October 2012


Traveling in Brittany a few weeks ago, we pulled into a small restaurant in an ancient village. It was about 8 pm. Surprisingly, it was completely empty.

I asked, "How's business?"

 "Not bad," replied the owner.

She explained, however,  that things had changed, partly because of  the internet. Ten years ago her cafe was the social centre of the town. Folks would invite their friends and neighbours to meet there. It was a nightly affair. She knew everyone and everything that was going on. Life sounded like the old TV program, Cheers,  where everybody knows your name. 

Today, she said, everybody does not know your name.  Now its the computers and smart phones that know everybody's name. 

People stay home, play games and communicate on Facebook or Twitter. In her opinion, without question, technology keeps people physically apart. People  just don't get together as much as they used to. The Community is less engaged.

Although she regretted this, she said it had not hurt the restaurant business. Now the village residents ordered out, so her gross sales were about the same as before. It just wasn't quite as much fun. 

Even in the remote villages on the coast of Brittany, smart phones are ubiquitous. As in Canada, people  oblivious to their environment, text madly off in all directions. 

While she spoke I checked my emails on my Samsung Android.

Which brings us to Vancouver.  

Mark Twain once said, " In the beginning God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made councils and school boards"

It seems that some of God' s Children on Council feel they can do more when it comes to building a more "engaged city.

Having  repealed the internal combustion engine, they are going to set up yet another task force. According to the Vancouver Sun this one "would be comprised of people with experience in citizen engagement and community building, with members chosen from an open call for applications. The goal is to have the task force operating by December, with its work scheduled for completion by June 2013."

"The task force will focus on areas of increasing engagement between neighbours and cultural interconnectedness; increasing literacy on, and engagement with, municipal government processes and budgeting; and identifying ways to enhance how the city engages with citizens."

A recent survey showed that a third of residents struggled to make friends, one in four say they are alone more often than they would like, most of us don't know our neighbours very well and don't participate in community activities.

So. When God's elected creatures  go on their next rampage and  fine tune or overhaul the relationships between people, they might want to start by repealing the internet.

Saturday, 27 October 2012


There are two kinds of citizen committees that compete in Vancouver's Planning Process. The Affordability Task Force is an example of one that is being used with increasing frequency by the Mayor and Council. The government appoints people to advise it, accepts their advice, and passes a bylaw. They consider this  consultation or citizen input.

The most recent one is the Proposed Vancouver Task force to look at boosting  neighborhood community engagement.Read more:

Committees of the second kind are those neighborhood groups that have no connection at all to City Hall but wish they had. Comprised of neighborhood residents they seek to provide their take on things that affect their local area. Their problem is that they were only elected by their local association. They have been famously dismissed by the Mayor as &*%^# neighborhood hacks.

I have been involved with the Dunbar Residents Association for years. It has valiantly tried to influence the Mayor and Council by writing letters to politicians and sending speakers to City Council. 

Here are some other ideas to get citizens feeling more engaged. 

Vancouver's City Council should establish a Morlaix - France Sister City Committee.  I volunteer to be appointed to it.  Morlaix is a medieval town of about 18,000 people on the Brittany coast.

I visited Morlaix a few weeks ago. It has quite a history. In the 1400 s the English attacked the town.  The citizens formed a committee of the second kind and threw them out.  Their battle cry was, “If they bite you bite them back.”  (S'ils te mordent, mords les!"The motto is on their banners to this day. The name, Morlaix, is ancient French for "Mords les" (“bite them”)

Morlaix has some thing in common with Vancouver.  First of all, it has a viaduct which, like ours, has not yet been demolished. It also has buildings that remain in scale to their surroundings.

                                MORLAIX VIADUCT

 The demolition of the Georgia Viaduct in Vancouver, when it happens will present an opportunity to advise the town of Morlaix, Brittany on how to get rid of or, as they say in the professional jargon of planners, "repurpose" theirs.  The Sister City Committee would play a useful role.  

There is money to be made when planning is contracted out to committees of the first kind. I would hope to be the paid consultant to assist the French in the demolition of the Morlaix viaduct.


Here is another suggestion relating to zoning. France not only has some of the most beautiful buildings in the world like Notre Dame, but is home to one that has been voted the second ugliest. See    Montoparnasse tower  is in Paris. It is considered to be so out of scale that it is a tourist attraction. 

We already have laneway houses that are out of scale.

                        BACKYARD LANEWAY TOWER

What is past is prologue. Vancouver now has the opportunity of getting a seven story building on Dunbar Street when  all of the others are only four stories, that being the present limit.  While not as out of scale as Montparnasse Tower, it is a start and you can be sure that even uglier, more out of scale buildings will follow.


If I were on the Morlaix sister City Committee I would strongly urge the Mayor to set up a Committee to Recognize Ugly Out of Scale Buildings all over the world.  Then, he should  fly to France and try to get the French to recognize the Dunbar building as the third  most out of scale building. It will be a boon to tourism and, as with all things will help fund both the Mayor's Greenest City initiative  and the Affordability one not to mention the Morlaix Sister City Committee.

A standing room only meeting of several hundred people was held by a new Neighborhood Committee of the Second Kind that calls itself  Re-Vision. (The name is a play on the Dunbar Vision which was the local area plan created in the days before Vancouver contracted planning out to committees of developers.) They were responding to the proposed 7 storey building. There were people also from Community Groups from other areas. 

I got the distinct impression that  they might agree with Council that there is a need for a new form of civic engagement.  They are trying to engage the politicians by getting  a couple of thousand people from all over Vancouver to march on City Council on November 16th around noon. Maybe they will bite them.

Monday, 8 October 2012


A politician looks forward to an election with the  exuberance of a patient, whose  doctor commands, as he pulls on his rubber gloves, “Assume the position.”  Which is to say that the demand for longer  terms  comes from the politicians- not the voters.

For much of Vancouver's history council terms were one year. This was changed by the Provincial government to two years more than half a century ago.  In the early 1990s the Vancouver Charter was amended to provide for three year terms. 

Ever  solicitous of  their own interests, B.C. Councillors are pushing for four year terms. Their  arguments  are all specious. They include:

1. Elections cost a lot of money. That is true and on that theory the positions should be made hereditary.

2. Newly elected councillors need time to learn.  A large city, however,  like Vancouver is mainly run by its bureaucracy. A newly elected councillor gets all the help and instruction he needs from staff as well as from more experienced colleagues. It is ridiculous to suggest that politicians need a year to  figure out which end is up.

3. The longer the term, the longer the  perspective. If politicians are on short leashes, the argument goes,  they will only maintain the status quo. They will fear going where no man has gone before. That is because in their view the public is sort of stupid. For every truly significant action, the looming election is like a referendum. Elections and referenda are dampers on genius. If they face frequent elections councillors will eschew brilliant ideas, like building houses on streets, or encouraging cyclists to ride without helmits. Albert Einstein never got elected nor did he need a referendum.

 In replying to one of the delegations who spoke against the recent plan to rezone the entire City, the Mayor said something to the  effect that he had a mandate. After all, he had promised during the campaign  that he was going to solve the housing shortage. 

That is one way of looking at it. 

I prefer to look at it scientifically. The human brain is a collection of neurons. Thoughts are transmitted when two neurons join to form a synapse. Hundreds of neurons synapsing can come up with simple twitter tweets. Millions produce Beethoven symphonies or Chopin sonatas.

Based on this scientific analysis, if Vancouver's local party, VISION,  believes that it has a mandate to do what it has  done, it is one neuron short of a synapse. The spot rezoning of the entire City to demolish existing houses, which  already have lower priced units in them, is not an anticipated response to a promise to provide lower end market housing.  It is an anticipated response of politicians anxious to pay back their developer supporters.

I would like to see the Provincial government amend the Vancouver Charter and restore two year terms. If they don't, voters should keep the faith. Two years  remain on Council's current term. During this time every spot zoning that must be done to implement the plan as proposed will require a public hearing. This will give the voters time to put on their unlubricated rubber gloves.