Council Summer Wrap Up – Housing, Bike Lanes, Sports Fields, and More

New skate parks and bike park too at Topaz. More below!

Thursday was our last Council meeting before a summer recess, and it was a long one! It was probably one of the most exciting days in my almost-decade at the Council table in terms of big moves that lay the ground work for the future. Here’s a synopsis of the key decisions and, where applicable, information about how to get involved in the next steps. Each of these could be its own full blog post, so I’ll just touch on the highlights and provide a link to the Council report for those of you who’d like to read more.

Missing Middle Housing Moves to Broad Public Engagement

I previewed Missing Middle housing in a blog post a few weeks ago, “Housing Supply in Victoria Tipping in the Wrong Direction.” Missing Middle housing is ground-oriented housing (front doors that open out onto the street) that fills a gap between single family homes and condos. Staff recommended to Council that we move ahead with the next steps in rezoning the single family lands in the city – about 45% of the city’s land base – to make room for townhouses and houseplexes.

Staff’s recommendations balances the need for new housing in what are currently single family neighbourhoods, with the preservation of the character of these neighbourhoods that so many of us love. Staff provided draft design guidelines for townhouses and houseplexes that people building these homes will need to follow. Staff also worked hard to balance the preservation and enhancement of green space and the urban forest, with space for parking.

Council endorsed staff’s approach and voted to move forward with the next step, which is wide consultation with the public this fall, before Council gives consideration to zoning bylaws that would increase the density throughout a large portion of the city’s land base. These proposed changes will make it easier for small-scale developers and also for neighbours to come together to pool their properties in land trusts or co-ops.

To read the detailed staff report, the preliminary engagement summary, and to view the proposed design guidelines, head here to item F1. To follow along with next steps on Missing Middle housing and to participate in the consultation this fall, head here and register.

Village and Corridor Planning – Joyful Public Spaces and More Housing Choices

Since the fall of 2019, staff have been working with the communities of Fernwood, North Park, and Hillside Quadra to develop 20-year visions for their neighbourhoods, and to create more housing choices for more people. The engagement to date has produced some pretty inspiring results! Much of the early engagement was done online because of COVID-19. What we found is that while there is still a need for more face-to-face engagement – which will happen this fall – we reached a much wider and more representative group of people by providing online engagement opportunities.

The people who participated shared their visions and aspirations for their neighbourhoods. This includes some pretty awesome ideas for public spaces and placemaking, more inclusive and affordable housing choices, more sustainable mobility options, improvements to parks and green spaces, and more. For those of you who live in Fernwood, North Park or Hillside Quadra, haven’t yet been involved and want to learn more, please take the time to head here, to item E1 and see the ideas that your neighbours have put forward for the future of your neighbourhoods. To those who contributed time, energy and ideas, thank you!

One of the big changes proposed for all three neighbourhoods – and pictured in the map above – is to rezone portions of neighbourhoods along and off corridors, and near village centres to create more diverse housing choices and to incentivize rental and affordable housing through bonus density. For example, if someone builds rental or affordable housing, they will be allowed more density than if they were to build condos. To learn more, please read the staff report which is the first item under E1 here.

If you haven’t had a chance to participate yet, not to worry. With Council’s vote on Thursday to move forward on the next steps, staff will be taking all of the preliminary input and turning it into draft neighbourhood plans for each neighbourhood. These draft plans will form the basis of the next phase of engagement, to take place this fall, where the plans and the ideas generated to date can be assessed, revised and added to. It’s a really exciting opportunity to help shape the future of our city and your neighbourhood. If you’d like to learn more and participate this fall, head here and register.

New Turf Fields and New Bike and Skate Parks at Topaz

In 2018, Council approved the Topaz Park Improvement Plan. Since then, staff have been working with the community to prepare and design the first two big projects – skate and bike parks that will accommodate all skill levels – from beginner to advanced, and two new artificial turf fields to replace the existing ones which are at end of life. As part of both of these projects, accessibility improvements will be made including the addition of accessible parking, accessible access to the sports field, accessible spectator seating, an accessible washroom including an adult change table, and accessible pathways in and around the bike and skate parks.

With Council’s decision on Thursday, staff and the consulting teams can begin the detailed design and then construction. The budgets for these projects ($4.3 million for the turf fields and $3.8 million for the bike and skate parks) have already been approved as part of the 2021 budget. Construction will begin later this year. The bike and skate parks will be open by June 2022 and the new fields by early fall 2022.

It’s exciting to be able to make these investments in sports and recreation. Both projects are much anticipated by a wide range of community members. With skateboarding just having debuted at the Olympics, we expect the new skate park will be well-used by young Victorians who have big aspirations. And, both the bike and skate parks as well as the turf fields contribute to the physical and mental health and well being of our community.

Head here to item F3 to read the reports and see the plans and the engagement summary.

Final Corridors of 32km Bike Network – Approved Unanimously

This is the current status of the build out of the 32km All Ages and Abilities bike network. For more detailed maps and corridor treatments head here.

Since 2016, the City has been building an All Ages and Abilities bike network to make it safe and easy for people who are hesitant to cycle because they don’t feel safe doing so alongside high volumes of fast-moving cars. Recent research undertaken for Victoria found that 85% of people surveyed would consider biking if they had safe routes to do so.

On Thursday, after two rounds of public engagement on James Bay routes, Council approved the construction of safe cycling routes along Government Street, Superior Street and Montreal Street, with a short connector as well from Government along Michigan Street into the AAA facility through Beacon Hill Park. The design of each corridor was given thoughtful consideration by members of the public and staff, and each route was designed taking a ‘complete streets’ approach.

A complete streets approach means improvements for pedestrians, retention of as much on street parking as possible, accommodation of transit buses, etc. It also means that safety considerations and the kind of bike facility that we build depends on the condition of the streets. For example, at the beginning of the Government Street corridor at Humboldt, there are high car traffic volumes as it’s a busy downtown street, so there will be protected bike lanes on either side of the road. By the time Government Street connects with the waterfront pathway at Dallas Road, the proposed treatment is a shared neighbourhood bikeway because traffic volumes on that stretch of Government are less than 1000 cars per day.

Council also approved expedited engagement for protected bikelanes on Gorge Road between Government Street and the Saanich border at Harriet Street. Gorge Road has had a great deal of discussion as a bike route over the years both in the initial network planning in 2016 and through the development of the Burnside Gorge Neighbourhood Plan in 2017. The Gorge Road bike lanes will help to better allocate existing road space, create a more human-scale feeling, include improvements for pedestrians, and will help to knit the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood – which is bisected by many busy roads – together.

The Gorge Road bike corridor is being coordinated with the District of Saanich, which is also building protected bike lanes from Admirals Road to the Victoria border. And, the Gorge Road route is being built in 2022 in anticipation of sewer repairs planned for 2023 which will mean the closure of the Galloping Goose trail for a period of the year. We are building the Gorge Road AAA facility in 2022 so that riders of all ages and abilities will have a safe detour route during the period of the Goose closure.

The final leg of the priority AAA network – Pandora from Cook to Begbie – will be designed in 2022 and built in the first quarter of 2023.

All the AAA projects to date have come in on time and on budget. And best of all, we’re seeing more people than ever before using the network. We learned at the Council meeting Thursday that on some days, the two-way bike lanes on Wharf Street along the harbour are as busy as the Galloping Goose Trail!

Head here to item F1 to read the staff report, see the proposed corridor designs and the engagement summary.

Northern Junk Buildings – Heritage Preservation and Building for the Future

Pictured here are renderings of the ‘Northern Junk’ buildings, two warehouses dating back to the 1860s. The proposed project that Council approved on Thursday evening was 11 years in the making. This was a very controversial project. Victoria has a world-class heritage preservation program and because of it, a large portion of our downtown is intact and well-preserved for the future.

Many of the people who were involved in the creation and stewardship of the City’s award-winning heritage program, were strongly opposed to this proposal, noting that it doesn’t respect the heritage guidelines for Old Town. A key point that they made is that the five-story addition on top of the old warehouses was not subservient to the heritage buildings.

I agree with this assessment. But my vote in favour of the project had wider considerations than only heritage preservation. I do think – from a heritage point of view – that this development has many merits. Many of the character defining features of the buildings will be restored and preserved, including a few of the internal elements. They will be brought back to life and able to be viewed and enjoyed from the street, Reeson Park and the water.

In addition, the redevelopment of this site which has sat vacant for 43 years – almost my whole life – will begin to knit that portion of the harbour front back together and breathe new life into it. The City has recently made improvements to Reeson Park, including installation of a portion of the waterfront walkway. The Northern Junk redevelopment will continue the harbour pathway from Reeson Park and along the waterfront of the old buildings.

On the north side of the buildings is a derelict piece of City-owned land currently serving as a small parking lot. With the certainty of the development going ahead, and with direction from Council, staff could begin work on converting that parking lot into another small waterfront park and continuing the harbour pathway across the City’s property there, linking the public realm of the south and north sides of the Johnson Street Bridge together.

In addition, the proposed development will add 47 rental units to the city. Some of the people who spoke against the development noted that these units won’t be affordable. That’s true. But with a rental vacancy rate hovering around 1% and with a massive labour shortage – in part due to lack of housing, even for people who earn really good wages – I’m very hard pressed to vote against housing.

You can head here to watch Council’s debate and deliberation on Thursday evening (debate starts at 1:32:04) which resulted in a 5-4 vote in favour the project.

“The Beginning of the End of Homelessness in the CRD”

During the pandemic, homelessness was a key issue that we had to work through as a community. On March 17 2020, there were approximately 25-35 people sheltering outside. By the end of April 2020, that number grew to over 400 people. Working hard together, the City, BC Housing, Island Health, the Province, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness and so many amazing housing providers, outreach workers, peer support workers and others, helped over 600 people move inside from parks.

To learn from this process about what went well, what didn’t, and what should come next, the City applied for federal funding through the Reaching Home program to undertake an assessment. The report Council received and approved on Thursday is game-changing for addressing homelessness in the City and the region, that is, if everyone involved – from the City to the Province to the homeless serving system as a whole – implements the 28 recommendations.

The power of the report and the recommendations is that they foreground the stories and experiences of people who have experienced homelessness, most of whom moved from the parks indoors during the study period. Their experiences and stories reveal all the gaps in the system that need to be fixed, and point to a need for stronger coordination. They also reveal a keen willingness from, and need for, people experiencing homelessness to have a say in and control over their own journey from homelessness to home.

The goal that we have collectively set now – coming out of the successes and challenges of the pandemic – is to achieve what’s called “functional zero homelessness.” Functional zero is a concrete and measurable approach to ending homelessness; it means that there are enough, or even more homeless-serving services and resources than needed to meet the needs of individuals who are experiencing homelessness.

The Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness has already developed a work plan to implement the recommendations. We want to keep up the momentum gained during the pandemic. And we want to work to ensure that everyone in the region has a safe, secure, affordable place to call home, with the help, support and the community they need.

For those interested, I strongly recommend reading the full report. Head here, to item D2.

Clover Point 2.0, Accessibility, Confronting Reality, and The Future We Need

Dave Obee’s Times Colonist editorial on Friday, “Clover Point redesign ‘fixes’ what wasn’t broken,” really got under my skin. So I thought I’d go down to Clover Point on Saturday afternoon, watch the world go by for a little while, and start this blog post.

What I saw were people of all ages and abilities using the space freed up by closing half the loop to cars. There were seniors strolling. Really little kids on bikes. A couple – one in a chair, one on foot – rolling and walking down to the waters’ edge together. And best of all, behind the table I was sitting at, a large family was having a picnic at one of the many accessible picnic tables; when I turned around and got up to leave, one of the kids was rolling freely in her motorized wheelchair in the space previously reserved for cars, with her sister chasing after her. Where else in the city does she have such a big space to roll so freely?

There are two problems with the Clover Point redesign. One is the COVID-19 supply chain issues that are holding up delivery of some of the new furniture meant to spruce up the old road. The second is that Council compromised on staff’s original bold vision for the space, which proposed play features and place-making elements and closing the entire loop to cars. Instead, we tried to make everyone happy by reserving some spaces for people to park and the rest for people to walk, roll, and sit.

The result – at least at this interim point – does feel very much like a used-to-be parking lot with picnic tables and benches where people used to park their cars.

But what really troubles me are two bigger issues. First, Obee says that Council has “no regard for those who do not meet their able bodied ideal” and that  “the old and the infirm don’t fit with the city as the politicians want it to be.” Missing from his assessment is that fact that the City of Victoria recently adopted both an Accessibility Framework and a Senior’s Action Plan. These key policy documents were created with guidance from the Accessibility Working Group and the Senior’s Task Force, respectively – people with lived experience.

Council developed these policies precisely because cities in the 20th century were built for able bodied people. Think about the hydro poles in the middle of sidewalks, the lack of curb cuts in appropriate places, missing sidewalks on some neighbourhood streets, not enough accessible parking spots or even policies to ensure these, few benches along greenways or key pedestrian routes for seniors to stop and rest. The Accessibility Framework and the Senior’s strategy combined are meant to make the city more accessible, and inclusive of everyone.

That’s one of the reasons why at Clover Point all the new picnic tables are accessible – people who use wheelchairs can roll right up. And it’s why we’ve reserved so many parking spots for people with accessibility challenges, at the same time as making one whole side of the point accessible and safer for a wider range of people. Obee’s piece puts Council’s Clover Point decision in a vacuum and doesn’t recognize that Victoria is one of the few mid-sized cities in the country with both an Accessibility Framework and a Senior’s strategy and that we’re working hard to address these important issues.

But what troubles me most is Obee’s assertion that, “The decision made there does reflect a troubling tendency among councillors to ignore reality when drawing their castles in the air.”

Ignoring reality.

The province is burning all around us. In one week alone during the June heat dome, 815 people in this province died suddenly. This is just under half the number of people in B.C. who have died of COVID-19 so far during the 17 months of the pandemic. In one week.

Ignoring reality.

The reality is, that in addition to overhauling cities to make them more inclusive of seniors, young kids, and people with accessibility challenges, we need to overhaul cities to address climate change. That is the reality that Council has been tackling head on since 2014, controversial decision after controversial decision – from the now-very-popular bike network to the now widely-heralded plastic bag ban, and more.

Climate change means that we need to create less carbon intensive ways to live in cities. Victoria’s Climate Leadership Plan shows that we need to retrofit our homes and offices (buildings = 50% of Victoria’s emissions), rethink how we deal with our waste (10% of Victoria’s emissions), and how we move around cities (transportation = 40% of our community’s emissions).

Obee laments that Clover Point is no longer “a perfect spot to park and admire the sunset or the weather.” According to recent research in the United States, most building codes prioritize cars. For every car in a city, there are approximately eight parking spots. Parking requirements mean that our doctor’s offices, our grocery stores, our homes, our banks, etc. all must have a certain number of parking spots. Eight parking spaces on average for each car in a city. That is a lot of asphalt, creating heat-island effects on hot days. It’s a lot of storm water runoff. It’s also a lot of wasted urban space. Which is odd, because the research also shows that, on average, cars are parked in one place for 95% of the day.

Cars aren’t going anywhere in the near future. And people with accessibility challenges and others will still need to own their own cars. But if we want our children and their grandchildren to survive and to thrive, the rest of us are going to have to learn to share. In the future, if we do it well, Modo and Evo and other car-sharing cars will line our neighbourhood streets. Few people will own their own cars, yet everyone will have whatever kind of vehicle they need, whenever then need it.

This will mean that much of the space in our cities, like driveways and parking lots, currently reserved for cars can turn into green spaces, or housing, or gardens, or whatever else our children and their grandchildren need to thrive while tackling the changing climate.

Obee is right, Clover Point was never a parking lot in the truest sense. But it was yet another place in the city reserved exclusively for cars. The changes that Council made at Clover Point are fixing what’s broken. The changes signal that we can’t live as we have for the last few decades if we’re going to have a future as a species.

Perhaps like Obee, I’m putting too narrow a focus on Clover Point. But the point is that the asphalt space there – reserved for cars for decades – and other spaces like it in the city, have to be put to work differently in order to help us all mitigate and adapt to a changing climate. We cannot ignore reality. We must look what’s broken – excessive carbon emissions from buildings, waste and transportation – squarely in the eye. And we must and throw all the energy we can muster into fixing it.

South Island First Nation Chiefs: “Please don’t lose sight of the young ones that we are honouring”

Along with other mayors, MLAs and MPs across the region, on Friday moring I was invited to stand with the nine chiefs of the South Island First Nations as they released and signed a letter calling for an end to the vandalism that is further dividing our communities and preventing healing from taking place.

The chiefs unequivocally denounced the tearing down of the Captain Cook statue and the vandalism to churches. They said that this was not done in their names or in the names of their nations. They told us that since this vandalism had happened, their young people and their elders had been subject to greater racism and their own properties had been threatened.

They asked those of us in attendance to work with them to create understanding and loving, caring communities. They said that we will get further along the path of reconciliation and towards healing together, arm in arm rather than by tearing down each other’s cultural symbols. “Na’tsa’maht”, some of the chiefs said. This means, “We are one,” in lək̓ʷəŋiʔnəŋ (Lekwungen). With generosity, love, and through ceremony, they called us in, asked us to witness and to share what we learned.

All the words and stories shared were powerful and I listened with an open heart – a heart breaking open with both grief and opportunity. But the most powerful moment of Friday’s event for me went beyond just the words.

At the opening of the ceremony, us non-Indigneous leaders were invited by the chiefs to walk in together with them, shoulder to shoulder, in a procession behind the lək̓ʷəŋiʔnəŋ Traditional Dancers, singing, drumming and dancing the Paddle Welcome Song. Despite everything that has happened and that is happening in our region, province and country – so much divide, so much racism, so much anger and hurt – they invited us to walk with them. In that moment, we were one. I will carry with me that feeling of profound oneness from Friday’s event as we continue to walk the difficult but healing path ahead.

Here is the letter from the Chiefs. Please share it with everyone you know.

“Dear South Island Community Members and beyond,

“We are writing you in a united voice of Nations to share our perspective on the recent events in the South Island and beyond, and to spread hope that we can work together for change, and a safer community.

“These events have brought violence and vandalism to our region and communities, the damaging of property including statues and totem poles is unacceptable. We are all residents of this region, and we need to respect each other.

“We are leaders of the South Island Indigenous communities, and these are acts are not ours, we do not support them, and we do not believe in dividing communities.

“These acts are not medicine, they fuel hate and inhibit the healing that is so deeply needed right now. The disrespectful and damaging acts we have seen are not helping, they are perpetuating hurt, hate, and divide.

“These actions go against our teachings and are not reflective on how we have been taught to carry ourselves. As a collective we feel the need to step in before things continue on a destructive path.

“We are writing this letter because we need to work together towards the goals that strengthen our community and bonds with each other.

“We ask all residents of Southern Vancouver Island and beyond to join us on the road to healing. We need to walk together, support each other, and demonstrate humanity. We honour those that have stood with us, those who are our allies, and those who have listened and supported us.

“All vandalism must stop immediately. Let us lock arms, walk together, and look out for one another. Please do not lose sight of the young ones that we are honouring, and please listen to our Elders and survivors.

In Friendship,
Songhees Nation
Esquimalt Nation
Beecher Bay First Nation
T’Sou-ke Nation
Malahat First Nation
Tsawout First Nation
Tsartlip First Nation
Pauquachin First Nation
Tseycum First Nation”

Housing Supply in Victoria is Tipping in the Wrong Direction, and How Giving Away Council’s Power Can Help

These 22 town homes by Aryze, in Fairfield are currently under construction. They took close to three years to get through the approvals process and a total of five and half years from when the land was purchased to when the families will move in.

As she sanitized the knob of my office door, one of the City’s newest employees, who keeps our offices COVID clean said to me when we met recently, “Nice to meet you; thanks for building the city for the future.”

I was so struck by this because this is exactly what we’ve been doing for the last six and a half years. From the bike network, to the Climate Leadership Plan, to Zero Waste Victoria, to the Accessibility Framework, to Victoria 3.0, to the Witness Reconciliation Program and the Reconciliation Dialogues, and more. We’ve moved Victoria from 20th-century approaches to city building and oriented our city towards the 22nd century.

The one exception is housing and land use. There we’re still very much stuck in the 20th century. And we are very close to a tipping point, in the wrong direction. Unless the City and the Province make some bold moves soon, we will be responsible for creating a low-affordability future where the next generations of families and working people will be priced out of the city. We’ll lose artists, creatives, daycare workers, young professionals. We’ll lose our arts and culture scene. All of Victoria’s cherished strengths will be steadily eroded and undermined.

Whether you’re for or against townhouses being allowed in every neighbourhood, or for or against taller buildings downtown and in Harris Green, I imagine no one would willingly work create to this kind of future. So what can we do?

Single Family Dwellings: So few can afford them, so why are they so easy to build?
Currently, the City’s land use policies and procedures make it easier to build a single family home than any other type of dwelling, even though this is the most expensive form of housing that few people can afford.

Want to knock down a single family home and build a bigger one? No problem. This only needs staff – not Council – approval. And it doesn’t take too long to get the permits needed. Want to build a triplex, or houseplex or townhouses – what’s known as “missing middle housing” – on lots that are currently zoned for single family homes?

  1. Start by holding a Community Association Land Use Committee (CALUC) meeting.
  2. Incorporate the feedback you receive at the CALUC meeting into your plans.
  3. Submit your rezoning application and development permit application to the City.
  4. Staff will then review your application, including an interdepartmental review that usually involves both the Parks and Engineering departments.
  5. Then your application will be sent to a Committee of the Whole meeting for review by Council. If you’re lucky, Council accepts the staff recommendation to move the project forward. But Council always has the prerogative to refer the application back to staff to work with the applicant to make changes. If this happens, go back to step 3; if there are substantive changes, go back to step 1 for another CALUC meeting.
  6. If you get past Committee of the Whole, two weeks later the application is voted on at Council. It could get turned back or turned down here.
  7. If it passes at Council, months are usually needed to prepare all the legal agreements required before proceeding to a public hearing.
  8. Once all the legal agreements are prepared, one more trip to Council before heading to public hearing; that’s at a Council meeting where first and second reading of the bylaws are considered. Council could turn down or turn back the proposal at this point too.
  9. After first and second reading of the bylaws, a public hearing date is scheduled and advertised to the public in the newspaper, as is required by provincial legislation.
  10. At the public hearing, the public gets to share their thoughts and concerns about the project. And then, that night, Council makes a decision.

    This whole process can take often take a year, or more.

Unless there are efforts by the developer to rally support for the proposed new housing – which is often seen as suspect by Council and some members of the public – public hearings are usually mostly attended by people who live in single family dwellings nearby the proposed duplex, houseplex or townhouse who are opposed to the new housing. As the Canada-BC Expert Panel on the Future of Housing Supply and Affordability put it in their recently released report, “Rezoning can be difficult and amplifies the voices of a few rather than the needs of the community at large.”

Figure 10, Opening Doors: Unlocking housing supply for affordability, Expert Panel Report. Mean MLS price by dwelling type – annualized growth rate 2000-2020.

So we’re making it easiest to build the most expensive form of housing, and we’re pricing people out of our city.

Later this month, City staff will be bringing a report on missing middle housing to Council. They will recommend changes that make it much easier to build the kind of housing that people in Victoria need and can afford. I hope staff recommend taking away Council’s ability to vet these proposals, and delegating the entire process to staff. In short, I hope we start to treat duplexes, houseplexes and town houses just as we currently treat single family homes. I can’t think of a logical reason why we wouldn’t at least try this given that so few working people can afford a million dollar home.

Beyond Single Family Homes: What about housing supply in Victoria more generally?
While the Canada-BC Expert Panel was hard at work, so too were City staff. The recently released, “Victoria’s Housing Future,” report looks at current and future housing needs in our city. When staff presented their report to Council and the public a few weeks ago, one of the City’s housing staff and report authors reminded us that, “We’re planning for people, not just to accommodate growth.”

There is a narrative out there in the public that goes something like: “There’s so much construction and building already changing our city. Why should we welcome more people to Victoria and change our city so much that we don’t recognize it, just to accommodate people who don’t live here yet?”

Starkly, what “Victoria’s Housing Future” reveals is that as of 2016 (the most recent census data and five years out of date), we are between 4500 and 6300 homes short for the people who are already living here. Where are all these people now?

This estimated housing gap of between 4500 and 6300 homes for existing residents is based on these factors. It’s likely a conservative estimate of how much catching up is needed. According to “Victoria’s Housing Future”, “Even if 7000 units were added to the market today, we’d likely still feel some of the same pressures we’re already facing.”

To help out our residents who are already living here in overcrowded, or unaffordable housing, and to help employers who can’t keep workers because they can’t afford to live here, Council should not be allowed to turn down any proposal for new homes that fits within the City’s Official Community Plan (OCP), until we close the 7000 unit gap.

Here’s what the OCP says about Land Management and Development:

“Victoria’s Housing Future” also reveals that even if the OCP is built out to meet the housing need anticipated by 2041, we will still be 20-30% under the number of homes projected to be needed. What this means is that we need to revise the OCP to create more “urban residential” land and less “traditional residential.”

OCP Map 2 from Chapter 6 Land Management and Development.

Traditional residential means:

  • Ground-oriented buildings up to two storeys
  • Ground-oriented buildings up to two and one-half storeys may be considered for certain infill housing types
  • Multi-unit buildings up to three storeys, including attached residential and apartments on arterial and secondary arterial roads
  • Houses with front and rear yards oriented to face the street
  • Variable landscaping and street tree planting
  • Small apartments and local retail stores along arterial and secondary arterial roads and at intersections
  • On-street parking and individual driveways

Urban residential means:

  • Attached and detached buildings up to three storeys
  • Low-rise and mid-rise multi-unit buildings up to approximately six storeys
  • Primary doorways facing the street
  • Front yard landscaping, boulevard and street tree planting
  • On-street parking and collective driveway access to rear yard or underground parking

Shifting more of the city’s limited land base from traditional residential to urban residential doesn’t mean drastically changing the character of our neighbourhoods. It means doing more with our limited land base. And, it means doing this in order to meet not only our housing targets but also our climate goals. If we don’t make more room for housing in the city, what will happen is what is happening – more forests will be destroyed to build housing in the suburbs.

What can we do to make sure there is enough room in Victoria for artists, innovators, families, seniors, the next seven generations?
The Canada-BC Expert Panel on the Future of Housing Supply makes some good recommendations that the Province should implement immediately. Low hanging fruit includes mandating no public hearings for any buildings that fit within a City’s OCP. The panel also recommends that cities update zoning to match their OCPs and delegate development permits to staff. This means that there will be no political decisions and no public input for new housing on a development by development basis, as long as proposed new homes fit with what the OCP envisions.

While it may feel to some that these changes will cut the public out of the process, what they’re meant to do is a open up a more robust and vision-oriented public dialogue that happens as OCPs and design guidelines are developed and as City-initiated rezonings come forward. This kind of big-picture dialogue isn’t happening through the current public hearing process which pits existing neighbours against future neighbours against Council against developers.

Instead, we could ask questions that require us all to think bigger than whether we are for or against a certain proposal, questions like:

  • How might we enhance Victoria’s character and the neighbourhoods we all love at the same time as making room for current and future residents to have the housing they need at every phase and stage of their lives?
  • How might we protect existing older rental buildings and the affordability that comes with them, at the same time as making the most of the limited land base we have in the city?
  • How might we ensure that as our city grows and has more tall buildings as envisioned in the OCP, we also create more public spaces, green spaces, and enhance biodiversity?

It’s in answering these questions together that we’re going to build a more inclusive, resilient city, a city for everyone, and for the future.

Cautious Optimism for Victoria’s Economic Recovery: Building Back Victoria, by the Numbers

This past week, we turned a corner on COVID-19 as a province. As Dr. Henry laid out our new freedoms in Step 2 of the re-opening plan, she said we may need to go slow moving forward. But she also said – that with more than three-quarters of B.C.’s adult population vaccinated with one dose – we likely won’t have to go backwards.

I felt a huge collective sigh of relief from our small business owners and tourism operators. While everyone has public health and the greater good top of mind, the “circuit breaker”, while necessary, felt like a big step backwards. It was emotionally hard to get through. The past 16 months as a whole have tested the resilience of Victoria’s small businesses. The pandemic has also been hard on our downtown – and downtowns across the country – from the turn towards online shopping, to the challenges of people living outside with untreated mental health and substance use issues.

So how is Victoria’s economy and downtown after more than a year of a global health pandemic? Undoubtedly challenges persist, but based on the numbers, better than you may think.

Working with the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA) and other business leaders, we’ve taken a snapshot of February, March and April 2019, 2020 and 2021 so we understand where we were pre-pandemic and can measure our recovery. While there’s still more work to do implementing Victoria 3.0 – our plan for recovery, reinvention and resilience for the long term – there are encouraging signs of downtown’s resurgence beginning to emerge right now.

Let’s start with people driving. In February, March and April 2019, just over a million people parked at on-street meters and in city parkades. In the same months of 2020, that number went down to around 630,000. This year – even with substantial public health restrictions still in place – we were back to around 731,000. Last year’s summer data tells an even better story, and we’ll look forward to seeing the positive trend continue this summer.

The bike data into downtown from the counter at Harbour Road shows a strong year-over-year increase. February to April 2019 saw around 138,000 bikes. This was up to just over 147,000 in 2020. And in the same period in 2021, just over 154,000 bikes were counted. During the pandemic, people have been taking advantage of the safe cycling infrastructure the City has built and making healthy transportation choices to come downtown.

The DVBA’s pedestrian counters tell the most interesting story of all. Not surprisingly with so many people working from home, there are far fewer people walking in the downtown. But still, there is optimism to be gleaned from the data. In April 2021, even with the circuit breaker in place, we saw over 575,000 people counted by the DVBA pedestrian counters throughout the downtown, as compared to close to 445,000 in April 2020.

This is a far cry from the 1.7 million people counted in April 2019. We know where our north star is and that there’s still a lot of work to do to welcome people back to the office, to welcome tourists back to the city and – in addition to the decrease in commercial taxes this year and the Build Back Victoria program – to find ways to continue to support our small businesses through recovery.

Finally, a good measure of the economic health of a city is investor and builder confidence. This is where the numbers show a bright future for Victoria. Pre-pandemic, the building permit values for the months of February to April 2019 totaled just over $53 million. In 2020, amidst all the pandemic uncertainty, we saw a drop to around $47 million. This year from February to April, the value of building permits topped $130 million, more than double pre-pandemic values. Our city planners are run off their feet as we continue to see new applications for both residential and commercial buildings in downtown Victoria.  

After 16 months of pandemic, there’s a pent-up demand for real life. People want to get out, have a meal, gather with friends and family, not leave the pub at 10 p.m., all while staying safe and respecting the health guidelines.

We can now travel within the province, and the City has been working alongside Destination Greater Victoria getting ready to welcome visitors. We’ve done this by adding new public plazas and spaces to gather, new pedestrian-only areas, and cycling infrastructure, for the benefit of locals and visitors alike.

We’ve helped to lay the groundwork for a healthy city and healthy economy. And we’ll continue to work hard in the next months and years to support our small businesses and our community, and to keep the numbers going in the right direction.  

This piece was originally published in the Times Colonist here.

Canada Day, 2021, Victoria BC: When Our Neighbours are Suffering It’s Not the Time To Celebrate

Children’s shoes, stuffed toys, and 215 orange children’s shirts on the steps of the BC Legislature. The shirts were laid after a ceremony hosted for island nations by the Songhees Nation Tuesday June 8th.

This past week Council voted unanimously to move a planned Canada Day broadcast from July 1st to a broadcast that will air later this summer. It will be guided by the Lekwungen people and feature local artists and musicians and will explore what it means to be Canadian, in light of recent events.

While there has been strong local support for this decision, there has also been some backlash from across the country. The backlash tells me that we have a lot more work to do as a country to understand what reconciliation actually means. Reconciliation is about relationships. And it is place-based.

Victoria City Council didn’t #CancelCanadaDay. We weren’t responding to social media campaigns. And no one actually asked us to rethink what we had planned for July 1st.

Each year the City organizes a Canada Day celebration to bring the community together for a diverse, multicultural celebration of our country. Last year because of COVID-19, an online one-hour televised celebration replaced an in-person community gathering. This year, we were planning a similar event – a diverse, multicultural celebration of Canada in the form of a one-hour TV broadcast which features local musicians and artists.

Staff recently met with long-standing Lekwungen participants in the Canada Day celebrations in preparation for this year’s event. They told staff that they wouldn’t take part in Canada Day celebrations this year, in light of the 215 children’s bodies at the Kamloops Indian Residential School discovered so close to July 1st, and the pain and trauma this is causing.

Here is what Lyla Dick, a lead singer in the Lekwungen Traditional Dancers told the Times Colonist:

“The group withdrew from the planned broadcast out of respect for her mother, a residential school survivor and the ‘backbone’ of the dance group, and all those who attended the schools. Dick said her uncle, who attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School, has been hit particularly hard by the discovery.

“‘Because what’s happening with our survivors right now is the years of suppressing all those memories, it’s like the wounds have opened back up … In our communities, we’ve known all along that there was losses throughout the years. I remember my grandpa hearing of his sister being pushed out the window … I remember stories of my mom’s brother, his punishment in Kuper Island. And mum today just told me about the punishments my dad received when he was in [residential school]. So it’s been known all these years, but not really openly talked about’.”

I had been discussing with staff how to incorporate recognition of the 215 children into this year’s Canada Day event somehow. But until I heard from staff that the Lekwungen people were too grief stricken to participate, I hadn’t considered recommending to Council that we rethink Canada Day this year. I’m not sure how I thought that somehow we could proceed with business as usual, even as the history of our country’s genocidal relationship with First Nations had been once again revealed in a way that is painful for the Lekwungen people, for First Nations across the country, and for many non-Indigenous Canadians.

The more I reflected, the more I understood that holding the usual Canada Day celebrations would be damaging to the City’s and the community’s reconciliation efforts. For the last four years, through the City Family, the Witness Reconciliation Program and the Reconciliation Dialogues, we’ve been building close, heart-based and healing relationships between the City and the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. How could we have a celebration when our neighbours – on whose homelands the City was built – were suffering? And how could we hold a Canada Day celebration without the Lekwungen people who have been part of the event for the last decade?

As First Nations mourn, and in light of the challenging moment we are in as a Canadian nation following the discovery of the remains of 215 children, Council decided to take the time to explore new possibilities this year. In our decision, we noted that everyone will mark Canada Day in their own way this year, with some choosing to celebrate; that is the freedom that a country like Canada provides. But for Council, now is a time where the City can take leadership and provide an opportunity for thoughtful reflection and examination of what it means to be Canadian in light of recent events and what we already know about our past.

For a broader perspective, here’s an interview I did with CBC’s Carol Off on As It Happens Friday evening. (Interview starts at 1:47)

Statement on the Targeted Act of Violence Against a Muslim Family in London, Ontario

The horrific hate-motivated violence against a Muslim family in a Canadian city makes our own work to make Victoria a more welcoming city even more urgent. Whether people are welcomed or not can literally be a matter of life and death. To learn more about Victoria’s’ Welcoming City Strategy development and to get involved, please head here.

In support of Victoria’s Muslim Community, today I released the following statement against Islamophobia and hate:

In light of the horrific events in London, Ontario – a targeted act of violence against a Muslim family out for a Sunday evening walk – this is a call to all Victorians to stand together with our Muslim community members who are once again scared and grieving because of a hate crime perpetuated against Muslims in Canada. 

I have spoken with Imam Ishmail this afternoon to offer the City’s love, support, solidarity and anything else that is needed to help our Muslim brothers and sisters get through this painful and difficult time.

To all Victorians, we must continue to stand against hate and hate-motivated violence wherever we see it. And in particular over the next few days and weeks, let’s find all of the ways we can – each of us, in our daily lives – to demonstrate to Muslims in Victoria that they are welcome here, that they are loved, and that they are our community.

‘Functional Zero’ – Ending Chronic Homelessness in Victoria

These buildings are samples of the types of homes under construction that will provide transitional and permanent housing for those currently experiencing homelessness or living in supportive housing, freeing up space for people experiencing homelessness to move in. There are thousands of units under construction in our region, including at least 500 with rents of $375 per month.

As I write this, there are approximately four structures remaining in City Parks 24/7, down from over 260 last fall. This is the lowest number of people living in City parks that we’ve seen in many years. And while this doesn’t account for everyone living outside, we are also seeing the lowest number of people sheltering outdoors over night than we’ve seen in years. It’s a real shame that it’s taken us a pandemic to secure the housing and health supports we have this past year. But the efforts are working. And we can’t let up now.

We can end chronic homelessness in Victoria. It’s going to take the same focused effort that so many have put in over the past year. If close to 600 people can move inside in one year, in the middle of a global health pandemic when everyone is already stretched and stressed, surely we can focus on the people remaining outside and set our sights as a community on what’s known as “functional zero”.

According to a working paper produced by the Homeless Hub, “Functional Zero is achieved when there are enough services, housing and shelter beds for everyone who needs it. In this approach, emergency shelters are meant to be temporary and the goal is permanent housing. While the focus on supports is to prevent homelessness to begin with, this may not always be possible and in such cases, a system that is responsive and acts quickly is essential. A key aim of homeless-serving systems is to provide immediate access to shelter and crisis services, without barriers to entry, while permanent stable housing and appropriate supports are being secured.”

When we achieve functional zero, we will have brought and end to the humanitarian crisis of people sheltering in parks and public spaces when they lose their homes.

Achieving “functional zero” requires the creation of what’s know as a “By-Name List” or BNL. The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness defines a BNL as “a real-time, person-specific list of all people known to be experiencing homelessness in your community. It includes a robust set of data points that support Coordinated Access and prioritization at a household level and an understanding of homelessness inflow and outflow at a systems level.” The development of a BNL is underway in our region as a key 2021-2022 action item in the Community’s 2019-2024 Plan to end chronic homelessness.

We’re closer than we ever have been before to ending homelessness in Victoria.

We have been operating for many years – and in particular during the pandemic – within a reality where homelessness in Victoria has become normalized. In recognition of this reality, we have accepted the need for people to shelter in City parks even as we worked toward permanent solutions to homelessness. But we haven’t been able to collectively envision a city without homelessness. This has to change. We need to re-envision. This past year has shown us what is possible.

We need to keep going to build a robust housing and transitional shelter ecosystem.

We need to continue to work with the Province on complex care housing – for the people who currently don’t fit into any of the existing housing options because of their complex needs. We need to ensure that those currently left behind get the kinds of supports and care they need in order to be successful in housing, and to not be evicted back to the streets and parks. The BC Urban Mayors’ Caucus is taking an active role with the provincial Ministries of Housing and Mental Health and Addictions to develop a framework for complex care housing and options for investment in complex care housing services or sites in the near term.

And we need to continue to support initiatives like the Regional Rent Bank and the Community Centre Housing Outreach Coordinator program, to prevent people from falling into homelessness.

Think reaching functional zero is impossible? It’s not. Medicine Hat Alberta reached that target in 2019 after ten years of effort. This blog post details how they got there. We’re following the same steps they took. We’re coordinating assessment and access. We’re working with people with lived experiences of homelessness. We’re prioritizing Indigenous people and working to support the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness in providing culturally supportive housing and a dual model of care, blending both Indigenous and Western medicines.

Everybody is already mobilized in our community and working towards the goal of functional zero. And the federal government and the provincial government are mobilized too. In the almost-decade that I’ve been at the Council table, there has never been so much money pouring into housing and health supports.

The current Community Plan to End Homelessness says we will hit functional zero in 2024. That’s way too far away. COVID-19 has taught us that we can move quickly in a crisis. COVID-19 also revealed the chasms in the health and housing ecosystem in the province, leaving those already vulnerable even more so when the pandemic hit. At the same time, it’s been an unprecedented period of investment in housing and health supports. It has also been a time of lasting relationship building and deep collaboration among the City, BC Housing, Island Health, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness, the CRD, housing and social service providers, peers and people with lived experience of homelessness, and many others.

Nearing the end of the pandemic, and with the hard work of everyone involved, we are closer to ending chronic homelessness in Victoria than we’ve ever been before. We have fewer people living outside than we’ve seen in years. This is a moment to keep focused on the goal of achieving functional zero. This means that when people lose their homes, there is a robust social system – and a community – in place to catch them.

Statement on the Discovery of the Remains of 215 Children in a Mass Grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School

Eddy Charlie speaking at Xe Xe SmunEem (Sacred Children)-Victoria Orange Shirt Day on September 30 2019, with Kristin Spray. Eddy and Kristin are founders of Xe Xe SmunEem-Victoria Orange Shirt Day which honours residential school survivors and those, like the 215 children whose bodies were discovered this week, who never came home.

On Monday, the City of Victoria is lowering the Xe xe Smun eem-Victoria Orange Shirt Day flag and the Canadian flag to half-mast to honour the 215 children who died at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, and whose bodies were recently found in an unmarked grave. We acknowledge the deep grief of families from the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation and families from the other Nations whose children attended the school and who never returned home. 

The flags will remain lowered from May 31 to June 8 for a total of 215 hours, one hour for each of the children who died. Council will also observe a moment of silence at the beginning of our meeting on Thursday. 

The discovery of the children’s bodies is a reminder to non-Indigenous Canadians that the grief and trauma of colonization is anything but in the past. These children’s bodies surfaced in the present and are a painful reminder to all residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors of their own pain, trauma, and need for healing. 

Taking meaningful action to address the ongoing, harmful legacy of colonialism requires more than symbolic gestures like the lowering of flags. It requires all non-Indigenous people and all levels of government to take action to recognize and honour Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous laws, and Indigenous ways of knowing. The discovery of the children’s bodies should move us all to redouble our reconciliation efforts in real and meaningful ways.

To close with the words of Eddy Charlie, residential school survivor and founder of Xe Xe SmunEem-Orange Shirt Day in Victoria in a text to me today, “We all have work. Our old ones used to say, never think a path is perfect. The challenge is to stay standing together on that path. That goodness is all we need.”

City Staff Propose Bold Approach to Expediting Affordable Housing

Cool’s Aid Crosstown Project at 3020 Douglas Street and 584 Burnside Road. You can head to their website to learn more about this exciting development. Photo from Cool Aid website.

For the past few years, Council has been hearing from many residents about the impact of the housing affordability crisis in Victoria. Seniors who live on fixed incomes have a hard time affording housing; students who pay high tuition costs and then high student loan payments are in a similar boat. And many women-led single-parent families and people working in low-income jobs can’t afford to pay current market rents in this city. All of these groups are vulnerable if they lose their current housing.

Last June, in response to the evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic was deepening an already dire housing crisis, Council directed staff to report back with ideas to expedite affordable housing. We already fast track affordable housing projects and move them to the front of the line, but it still takes too long.

Let’s take Cool Aid’s Crosstown Project, pictured above, as an example. This is how it is described on their website:

“The project combines affordable rental units for working families, seniors and singles with a mix of incomes – a range of rental housing supply our city desperately needs – with other uses, including daycare services, office space, and retail space (including a café). The development is close to shopping, transit and other services, and is just a couple of kilometres from the downtown core, making it an ideal location for singles and families.”

This is exactly what the City’s Official Community Plan wants for this site. And it’s what the community desperately needs. So why does it currently take well over two years to get such a project to construction?

Here’s some background: Victoria’s Official Community Plan (OCP) lays out the land use plan for the city, to accommodate the anticipated population growth between 2012 (when the plan was adopted) out to 2041. The OCP was developed through a two-and-a-half year public consultation process. Over 6000 people gave their input to shape the vision for the city’s future and the land use plan that will help bring this vision to life.

Yet even with this overarching document, most land use changes (development proposals) still need to go through a public consultation and rezoning process – even if they fit with the OCP guidelines. This week, City staff are putting forward a bold proposal to change this when it comes to affordable housing.

The proposed changes will create certainty so that if non-profit housing providers or the Capital Regional Housing Corporation (CRHC) buy a piece of property and plan to use it in the way the OCP envisions, they will be able to do so without going through a political process. This will make it easier for non-profit housing developers and the CRHC to secure funding for projects from the provincial and federal governments, which like to fund less risky projects. The proposed changes will also shave significant time off the approvals process, bringing affordable housing to completion more quickly. This is important given the substantially increasing construction costs.

Specifically, what staff are proposing is that Council:

  • Delegate the authority to the Director of Sustainable Planning and Community Development to issue all Development Permits, with or without variances, offering affordable non-market housing secured by legal agreement.
  • Allow the maximum density contemplated in the Official Community Plan to be the maximum density permitted for a specific site, where an affordable non-market housing development is proposed and affordable dwelling units are secured with a legal agreement.

This amounts to waving a regulatory magic wand to make affordable housing possible on any site in the city, as long as the proposal fits with the OCP and the design guidelines for the neighbourhood. This means that there would be no public or political process for affordable housing developments.

I know there are some people who may be unhappy with this approach, as it cuts out public consultation on a site by site basis. We got significant public input on land use during the development of the OCP. And from a housing affordability point of view, we got lots of input through the development of the Victoria Housing Strategy, the Housing Summit, and the thousands of emails Council has received over the years from working people who can’t afford to live in our city, asking us to take bold action.

The housing affordability crisis is also regional. The Capital Regional District Housing Affordability Strategy identifies that over the next 17 years as a region , we need at a minimum 17,107 units for people from very low to moderate incomes. The regulatory change that Victoria city staff are proposing is just as possible for all other local governments in the region. My hope is that our colleagues across the CRD will also embrace this approach, making our whole region affordable for a range of people and families at every phase and stage of life.

And finally, while this is a good step for the City to take with respect to affordable housing, as I noted in my “Three Big Ideas” blog post, we need the Province to step in with big, bold action too. If we want to comprehensively address the housing crisis – including the lack of missing middle housing for families – we need a change to provincial legislation so that any project that fits within a community’s OCP and respective design guidelines does not require a political process. As part of this, the Province needs to ensure that local governments are still able to receive public amenities in exchange for extra density, and secure statutory rights of way for widening sidewalks or adding bike lanes. Right now these are only possible to secure through a rezoning process.

To read the staff report, “Options to Support Rapid Deployment of Affordable Housing through Regulatory and Process Changes,” head here (item G2). To read the Times Colonist coverage from Saturday head here.