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.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012


Yesterday I drove along the Coast of France to various lovely villages in Brittany,  like Periac and Quemiac. The most spectacular view points in many ocean front towns remain occupied by  WW2 German block houses. Whatever fault one may find with Germany's thoughtlessness in periodically invading France, they know the importance of location. The block houses are an example of what a determined government that wants what it wants when it wants it can do outside of the narrow constraints of zoning or referenda.

                      Sensitively placed German Blockhouse

Which brings me to my first and only positive point. If the Vancouver Affordability Report is going to be implemented, Vancouver should buy all of the German bunkers, float them to B.C. and place them within 1.5 blocks of arterials or on thin streets.

In his section of the report developer, Michael Geller, provides nice illustrations of various forms of housing existing in far away places with strange sounding names. These run the gamut from row housing to steel containers. I would add German Bunkers. They are spacious and mostly underground. Respectful of their neighbours, unlike the buildings proposed by the report for Vancouver, they do not obscure light and views. They should be added to the list.

The result of adapting the Manager's recommendation to immediately implement a key part of the report will at best be catastrophic. We shouldn't blame the authors. Developers though some may be, they just want to get their hands on good locations. We don't blame foxes for their taste in chickens.

The Manager has decided that there is a market rental housing emergency. 

There is no such thing. The problems faced by people who can't find cheaper market rental housing or, for that matter, reasonably priced single family dwellings, is not quite the holocaust the authors make it out to be. It is a market. 

 Those who can't find market rentals in  Vancouver find them in surrounding suburbs. Middle class families who can't afford an apartment in Shaugnessy or Kerrisdale are not sleeping under bridges. They are sleeping in Yaletown, the West End, Coal Harbour or even Surrey. That is not a cruel or unusual punishment.

The Manager's report is politburo politics. It reeks of a Brezhnev era Five Year Plan. It imposes a uniform standard in all neighborhoods, relating to the distance from certain sized streets. All neighbourhoods near such streets, if the Manager and Council have not noticed, are not alike. Some are ripe for change and others are not.

City Hall is aiming a blunderbuss at all residents in Vancouver who happen to live near any street. Any street can be reclassified to an arterial. There will be a drive to consolidate lots in these neighbourhoods. The disruption of construction including noise, traffic, loss of trees, blocked views etc. will continue indefinitely. The report calls this "making transitional neighbourhoods."   Transitional areas will metastasize.

The Vision Council has no mandate to make these kind of changes. It is ironic that an earlier Council under Larry Campbell held a referendum on whether to host the Olympics. By contrast this Council, funded by developers, appoints a gang of them to tell them what they want to hear, but has consistently ignored Community Groups from Norquay to Dunbar.

It should not take long for a politician to realize that the democratic process does not end with his or her election. It begins there. These inflated martinets don't get it.

The time has come to bring this nightmare to an end. Vancouver is a creature of statute. It is the only City that operates under the Vancouver Charter. At this point all Community Associations should write off Council. They should deal directly with the Provincial Government through their local MLAs. With a Provincial election looming they ought to demand a series of immediate amendments to the Vancouver Charter including:

  1. Restore Vancouver elections to every 2 years. This should apply retroactively to the current Council.
  2. Require an Official Community Plan in all areas of the City.
  3. Spot zoning, the practice of rezoning one parcel of land, should be subject to new strict regulations.
  4. Discretion in zoning should be brought into line with Development Permits under the Local Government Act so that it is limited to changes in siting but not changes in use or density. 
  5. The Board of Variance should be empowered once again to hear third party appeals under limited circumstances. They should allow appeals of decisions relating to conditional uses.
  6. A Municipal Board should be instituted to handle land use appeals similar to the one in Ontario.