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. }