A City Hall that Works for You

A City Hall that Works

Having a vibrant city with festivals, activities for families downtown, beautiful new buildings, safe and welcoming public spaces, affordable housing, and a strong local economy built on a solid foundation of thriving local businesses is good for everyone. Businesses create jobs while providing a place to get that delicious Americano, a loaf of bread, a good lunch.

During my time on Council, I’ve received countless calls and heard numerous stories from people trying to start small businesses in our city – Fry’s Bread, Wheelie’s Motorcycle Café, Shatterbox Coffee, among many. All of these businesses are run by local people choosing to stay in Victoria. They employ people. And yet, each of them struggled through City Hall’s processes that took far longer than necessary to open, creating an unnecessary and expensive burden for a start-up to shoulder. This is a problem. It prohibits growth.

Similarly, building permits, home renovations, larger scale developments, and organizations building affordable housing are all an important part of the City’s economy. Yet they take unreasonably long, and the steps are often unclear and unpredictable. This leads to frustration. It also tempts people to build without a permit to avoid the red tape at City Hall. People tell me, “Next time, I’m not coming into City Hall. It takes too long and time is money when you’re hiring contractors to do the work.” This is a problem.

Reality Check

For much of the last three years, despite the City having adopted a Customer Service Action Plan, and opening both a Customer Service Centre and a new Planning and Development Centre, the situation hasn’t changed at a fundamental level. City Hall has great staff. Our staff isn’t the problem. The problem is how City Hall is organized – as a series of silos.

In the last eight months, under our new City Manager’s “one city” approach, we have finally begun to make some headway. But the reality is that a City Manager can’t change everything. What’s needed is a mayor with a vision and a plan for running City Hall as an organization that directs its resources towards the goal of making Victoria a prosperous place.

How We Make City Hall Work

To solve these problems takes strong, focused, bold leadership. Run-of-the-mill political leadership isn’t enough, focused so often on re-election rather than best practices. Victoria needs a mayor with a rich and diverse leadership background who understands complexity.

An organization like City Hall is a complex system; all the parts need to be working as a whole focused on the goal of creating local prosperity. If City Hall were run in this way, Wheelie’s, Shatterbox, Fry’s Bread and many other businesses would have been open much sooner, making them more viable from the outset. It would be less stressful to renovate your home. Development projects could be built in a more efficient way, with important decisions being made at the front end of the process. Affordable housing projects would move ahead more quickly. It would be easier for citizens to turn new ideas into action. Victoria would be more prosperous.

Leading for Positive Change

For the past 17 years, I have held a number of leadership positions in Victoria. Nearly 20 years ago, I managed UVic’s Martlet newspaper. I was Board Chair of Fernwood NRG during the revitalisation of the Cornerstone Building and the construction of affordable housing at Park Place. I was Chair of the Bread and Roses Collective, which produced the Victoria Street Newz (now The Megaphone). I helped shape and deliver the Leadership Victoria curriculum. I founded and was Executive Director of Community Micro Lending – an organization that provides mentorship and facilitates loans for small-business start-ups. For the last three years I’ve served as a City Councillor, immersing myself in the issues facing this city, both in Council Chambers and on the ground with citizens.

Working within and across many sectors, I’ve learned how to manage and lead in a way that breaks down silos and creates connections. Victoria needs a mayor who understands complexity and who can bring her diverse leadership experience to bear on the problems at City Hall.

Victoria’s next mayor also needs to understand that a mayor is more than one vote on Council. A mayor is also the CEO of the Corporation of the City of Victoria and has the responsibility to work with her senior management team to help shape how City Hall works and serves. My plan is to transform City Hall into an organization that works as a system, with all staff in all departments working together to serve our residents and businesses.

How a boarded up building became the heart of a community: The Cornerstone Story

I was talking with a downtown business owner yesterday evening. She, like many, is concerned about the increased number of vacancies downtown over the past few years. We see this every day in the for lease signs that have become all too common in downtown storefronts. “We need to do downtown what you did in Fernwood,” she said to me. And she pointed to the creativity, innovation and bold action that me and others at Fernwood NRG took to address a big vacancy in the heart of our village centre and to revitalize the neighbourhood.  

It was early 2005. Fernwood Square, which had once been filled with patrons from the Thin Edge of the Wedge spilling into it, had become eerily quiet. The George and Dragon Pub once a lively neighbourhood gathering place across the street had fewer customers with each passing day. Worst of all, City officials had boarded up the building at the corner of Fernwood and Gladstone and declared it unsafe for habitation.

At the time, I was vice-chair of the board of the Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group (Fernwood NRG). I’d gotten involved in the neighbourhood a year earlier because I wanted to put my community building skills to work in the place I lived.

Fernwood NRG’s Executive Director had a bold idea. She proposed that Fernwood NRG buy and revitalize the boarded up building. Until that point Fernwood NRG mostly ran childcare and senior’s programs. But there was a desperate need to create vibrancy in the heart of our neighbourhood. And, if not us, then who?

In August 2005, after complex negotiations and very creative financing (not even our local credit union would give us a mortgage so we ended up negotiating a high-interest mortgage with the seller) the Cornerstone Building came into neighbourhood hands.

It was with ruthless clarity of vision and hard work that a small non-profit turned a derelict building into the beating heart of our neighbourhood. While negotiations were underway to purchase the building, the board of directors put together a business plan. Did we lease the primo corner unit to someone else or open a café ourselves? Did we strata the building and sell off condos on the top floor or did we fill a gap of much-needed affordable housing?

We had a long-term vision. And we also had the passion, dedication, gifts and skills of our neighbours. Working hard together we created the Cornerstone building as a thriving social enterprise, beginning with the popular Cornerstone Café.

It’s an innovative model – Fernwood NRG sells great coffee and food and re-invests the profits in its programs that serve neighbourhood residents. The café was only the beginning of a promising trend for the village centre. Fernwood NRG also signed a long-term lease with Stage restaurant, catering to Belfry Theatre patrons. In addition, the building now houses The Yoga Den and Studio 1313, Canada’s first social-enterprise hair salon.

Upstairs four families moved into the three-bedroom affordable housing units. Between 2004 and 2006, the residential vacancy rate in Victoria was 0.5 per cent, the lowest of all Canada’s metropolitan areas, while the average rent for three-bedroom apartments was $1,126 per month. Fernwood NRG’s Cornerstone Building didn’t just generate revenue for the neighbourhood. It also filled a core social need.

This growth and vibrancy spread beyond the Cornerstone. Across the street, the George and Dragon changed hands, was renovated and opened as the Fernwood Inn. It’s now a lively neighbourhood gathering place. And there’s a colourful local market, Aubergine Grocery, next door.

Today, the heart of Fernwood stands as an example of bold vision coupled with hard work and collaboration. Just take a walk through and you can feel it. Victoria, too, has all the talent it needs to overcome any challenges we face. All that is needed is a deep understanding of the issues, bold leadership, a willingness to think outside the box, and a City Hall that fosters and supports new ideas.

To read more Fernwood NRG and the Cornerstone project, head here

Property Taxes 101

Property taxes have gone up 26% over the last six years. Good tax policy and living within our means is needed to create an affordable city for Victoria’s residents and businesses alike. I have a plan to keep property taxes in line with inflation, or better for the next four years. I also have thoughts on the impact that freezing the property tax ‘mill rate’ for four years would have – both on commercial property owners and on the fiscal management of City Hall.

Before I share my plan to keep property taxes in line with inflation, and look more closely at the impact of freezing the property tax mill rate, here’s a property tax primer. What is the mill rate anyways?

Property Taxes 101
The City divides property owners into six classes. 
Residential and business make up the vast majority of property. To create its annual budget, the City multiplies the assessed value (which is produced independently by BC Assessment every January) by a ‘mill rate’ for each class of property. The ‘mill rate’ is set independently by the City to produce the amount of revenue required for the City’s operations.

The City runs a surplus annually. Unlike other levels of government, municipalities are not allowed to run deficits. The surplus varies from year to year and is transferred to the City’s infrastructure reserve fund at the end of the year. This reserve fund is important to the City’s long-term sustainability. The City uses its reserves for important infrastructure like water and sewer pipes, parks, roads and greenways. With reduced or no surpluses in the annual budget, infrastructure reserves would shrink. This would compromise the City’s ability to care for its infrastructure for the long term.

Taxes collected make up roughly 55% of the City’s annual budgeted revenues. User fees for water, sewer and garbage are other ways the city earns revenue to provide services.

New tax revenue from new growth is based on re-assessments of properties on which there is construction – new buildings and building improvements. New tax revenue has decreased significantly in the last five years. The last two years are dire:

2009:  $1,958,701
2010:  $1,878,822
2011:  $1,659,973
2012:  $328,105
2013:  $108,640

These numbers show what I hear a lot – that it’s hard and slow to get through the processes at City Hall to build or improve a building in Victoria.

My Plan
Fix City Hall so it works
 and so that in can play a role in creating a beautiful, vibrant city and new tax revenue. Foster and support new, sensitive, beautiful buildings and enterprises in Victoria by creating an Economic Development Office (start up funding to come through the City’s Economic Development Reserve Fund). Support small business and reduce downtown retail and commercial vacancies through the creation of an Enterprise Facilitator position in the Economic Development Office. More details 
here.

Overhaul City Hall and create an innovative, creative work culture where front-line staff are empowered to innovate and look for cost savings. Working with The Pacific Institute, the City of Saskatoon did this between 2004 and 2009. In 2009, the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses named Saskatoon the most business friendly city in Canada. And, between 2004 and 2009 Saskatoon saved $56 million dollars. Not by cutting and slashing services, but by working smarter and encouraging cooperation and innovation throughout the organization. And yes, it’s a unionized workplace, just like the City of Victoria.

With City Hall working and new revenue from new development coming in and with innovation, creativity and cost-savings realized, I will work with Council and city management to keep property taxes in line with inflation, or better.

Freezing the Mill Rate is Not Freezing Taxes
Freezing the mill rate means that if the assessed value of properties goes up, taxes will go up. If the assessed value of property goes down, taxes will go down. In both cases, control of city finances is surrendered to the vagaries of the market. Property owners could find themselves paying dramatically more, or the City’s budget might have a hole blown in it. And, worst of all, we wouldn’t know it until the year in question. Remember, the City only gets the assessment information in January of the budget year. This is no way to govern an organization that is run with public dollars.

Finally, freezing the mill rate would prevent the City from continuing to re-balance between residential and business taxes. In 2010, the business mill rate was 3.59 to 1 versus the residential mill rate. Today it is 3.18 to 1. We’ve made a bit of progress in the past few years and I will keep working on this for the next four.

Sensible Tax Policy
What I’m hearing over and over again is that Victorians want to live in a place they can afford. And they want a city government that takes into consideration their ability to pay as it sets its budget and tax rate each year and decides how to spend their money.

Proposed Development at St. Andrews School – My Ears Are Open

 

The proposed development at St. Andrew’s school site that runs from Pandora, to Vancouver, to Mason will be a really difficult decision for me at the public hearing on September 11th. As elected officials, we’re legally required to keep our minds open until the public hearing. My mind is open and so are my ears.

Here’s the conflict I find myself in.

On the one hand, this type of development on this site is what the Official Community Plan (OCP) envisions: compact and dense developments on major corridors near village centres. And, in terms of height and density, what Bosa Properties proposes to build is less than the official community plan envisions. When 6000 people gave input to the Official Community Plan, there was an overwhelming consensus that people wanted a land use plan organized around strong village centres and density in villages to support village businesses. Now when it comes to implementation and people see what this actually could look like on the ground, the theory in a city planning document meets the complexity of real life and the lived experiences and desires of people living in these village centres.

On the other hand, as a North Park resident and friend reminded me during our email correspondence on this topic, the role of a city councilor is to work with developers to go beyond the simple wording of the OCP to explore the spirit and intent of the wording and how these can meet the needs of the neighbourhood and the community.

Last Thursday at a Council meeting Jesse from Mason Street City Farm presented a petition with 450 signatures on it opposing the development and made a compelling presentation. Until then, I wasn’t aware that opposition to the project was so strong. I’m meeting with Jesse and Angela from Mason Street City Farm on Monday. I’m meeting with Mark from Bosa on Wednesday.

North Park residents, at least 450 of them, seem to have a different vision for this site. As my friend and North Park resident said, “We have repeatedly told Victoria City Council that we want to be the city’s ‘yes in my back yard’ neighbourhood. We feel this is both our duty as the city’s downtown neighbourhood, and also our reward for disproportionately shouldering many of the city’s urban complexities.

“It is not a handful of Mason Street property owners opposing Bosa’s plan. It is a group of intelligent, engaged, diverse neighbourhood residents who think Bosa’s plan is deeply flawed.

“We are looking for leadership from City Hall on this neighbourhood-changing re-development. And we are looking for game-changing development – precisely the kind that a recent Douglas Magazine ‘Shift in the city’ article talks about!”

I was interviewed for this article in April. I said that, “The outcome of the St. Andrew’s school site will indicate the City’s direction for the next 30 years. If Bosa is turned down, that sends a message that we’re not serious about re-development.” My hope is that it’s not too late to create a win-win situation: a development at that site that does set Victoria’s direction for the next 30 years as a compact, sustainable city – and a development that also incorporates the visions and desires of North Park residents. 

To participate in the democratic process and share your thoughts on this proposal join us at City Hall Thursday September 11th at 7pm.  I will post final plans and agenda package for the site here when we receive it this Friday. 

On Business and City Business

A number of people in the business community have asked me to spell out both my values and my intentions for business and the economy, should I be elected Mayor of Victoria.

Three foundational convictions
The following three statements summarize my beliefs and convictions, based on my local experiences with small business start-ups at 
Community Micro Lending, and as a councilor over three years:

  • Successful enterprise is critical to overall city success and it is the defining condition of a prosperous downtown.  As your mayor I will demonstrate an understanding of business fundamentals including risk, timing, and responsiveness. I will work to meet your needs and opportunities with “Yes, City Hall can help make that happen.” Attitude is key, and this kind of responsiveness is essential.
  • A positive climate for new business creation is integral to keeping the city dynamic, making it a magnet for talent and investment, and creating job opportunities and high employment. This is a dire necessity as 50% of Victorians earn $27,000 or less per year.
  • Business health and local wealth generation are key components of Victoria’s social well-being, physical beauty and rich cultural life. 

A sleeves-rolled-up approach
I have carefully studied the City’s decision-making culture over the years. I am convinced that there is a lot more room for a sleeves-rolled-up approach, where process doesn’t serve as an excuse for inaction. In Victoria, it’s not only business that is frustrated with City Hall’s lack of responsiveness and jungle of red tape, community groups are equally frustrated and these are often small organizations run largely by volunteers. The following is what I will accomplish in terms of making City Hall dynamic, inviting and truly ‘open for business’ in my first term as mayor:

Downtown: We will create a thriving, prosperous and attractive downtown. How? By creating a “Downtown Prosperity Project” with a budget, four year-timeline and clear deliverables. By investing in downtown public spaces. By working in strong partnership with the Downtown Victoria Business Association, downtown property owners and downtown residents. The most successful projects I have led are ones that have been collaborative. It is only in working together that we will succeed.

Downtown residential: City living will become a priority. The CRD estimates that City of Victoria (whole city) population increased by only 300 persons between 2012 and 2013, and that this meagre growth level will continue for more than the next decade. The absence of a ‘home-grown’ downtown residential population increases challenge and risk for our businesses and for the entire property sector. We need downtown to be red hot.  We need a dramatic and rapid expansion in the downtown and shoulder residential population to provide local, in-built support for all of our downtown businesses.  I propose to modify the bonus density program, make it more straightforward and create exemptions. We’re looking for beautifully scaled and detailed developments, not density caps.  Historically, Victoria has acted as if it had all the time in the world. Suburban competition—retail and service—shows how foolish that attitude has been.  My view is: if you snooze, you lose. The above program needs to happen now, now, now.

Local economy: Let’s free up some resources to create an Economic Development Office at City Hall. Appoint a mayor’s Economic Development Cabinet to provide ongoing advice to the Economic Development Office (detailed blog post to come). Staff the office with the people who understand both the city’s processes and the private sector. Set clear timelines and deliverables. And measure our success.

City projects: Let’s create a stronger culture of project management at City Hall. We spend large amounts of public money on capital projects like the Johnson Street Bridge. And coming in the next four years are sewage treatment, a new firehall and a refurbished Bay Street Bridge. As the capital City of British Columbia, I’d like to change the city’s reputation as a place that can’t tie its own shoelaces. In February we hired a new City Manager who is already beginning to take strides in the right direction. I would like to work alongside him and to make the City a model of excellence in project management.

Development: Approvals/licensing/permitting processes will be simplified and sped-up.  The new business message from the City will be “How can we help you get to yes?”  Implement predictable approvals processes that happen in the minimum amount of time possible by managing the city like a system where there are no silos. Everyone is working together towards the aim of effective, efficient, quality service.

Partnerships: We have the opportunity to make the city a champion of partnerships. New pocket parks, green spaces and public art, a new public library and crystal pool. In the 21st century, collaboration is key. I don’t even want to think of these things as taxpayer burdens, they are business opportunities offering room for collaboration between the City, its people, and enterprise. This doesn’t mean we can’t have a publicly owned and operated library or swimming pool. It just means that the path we take to get there is not simply to raise taxes and build. Cities across North America are engaged in a Metropolitan Revolution. I know Victoria can be on the leading edge.

Fees: Review all current fees to business: are they fair and necessary, or just a cash grab?  If they don’t pass the test, dump ‘em.

Comparative cities: Have the City’s Economic Development Office look to what other enterprising cities have done to foster and support sustainable economic development, create prosperity and get a handle on property tax increases. West Vancouver and other cities that have successfully frozen property taxes.  That’s right: zero.  This doesn’t mean cutting and slashing at City Hall. It means working more collaboratively, adaptively and responsively. The research is clear – organizations that have adaptive, responsive and collaborative work environments use their resources more prudently, generate more revenue, more creatively and are also great places to work. This is my goal for City Hall.

My Pledge to You
I pledge to spend my first six months in office setting City Hall up to do all these things. And I pledge to make City Hall into a place that is dynamic and that works hard and works for everyone.

And, finally, if you’ve got innovative ideas that you want to share, my ears are open. E-mail me or call me at 250-661-2708.

Building Better Bridges – Why I Voted Against the Johnson Street Bridge Project

The Johnson Street Bridge replacement project is the talk of the town these days. This past weekend at the Phillips Backyard Weekender people were sipping great local beer and fretting over the potential cost increase of the project. Others said that at a weekend cocktail party, guests had grave concerns about who will pay if the price goes up – and that they’re watching my leadership on the issue closely.

What went wrong

In late March 2014, the City received a change order from PCL (the contractor building the bridge) for $7.9 million and a request to extend the project schedule by five and a half months. In response, Jason Johnson, the newly hired City Manager, engaged engineer Jonathan Huggett to review the project. Huggett’s report was made public last week. The report revealed three key problems with management of the project to date. 

1. No one had been put in charge of the project. As Huggett notes, “During my review I asked everyone involved a simple question: ‘Who is in charge of the project?’ Nobody could provide me with an answer.”

2. There is no official project schedule. A schedule had been submitted by PCL to the City on April 6 2013. But it is still unclear to Huggett whether all parties (MMM the City’s engineer, PCL and the City) agreed to this schedule.

3. The collaborative process that had been established in the contract to review issues as they arose had broken down.

Confronting Reality

These three facts leave Council and the public in a difficult situation. A recent Times Colonist editorial noted, “Fortin’s fixed-price fixation notwithstanding, Huggett has doubts that the project can be completed at the contract price.” At Council last week (watch here) Council and the public learned more about why it is unlikely that the project can be completed on budget.

Director of Engineering and Public Works told Council that, “We do still have a large part [of the contingency] which is unallocated; I think it is going quite well.”

Immediately after he spoke, Huggett stepped in. “It’s worth talking about the contingency,” he said. “It’s a concern to me. The problem that occurred [when the contract was awarded] is that some of the very key components were no more than a concept in somebody’s eye. There were elements of the project that were reduced to a 10% design. The problem comes that you have a bunch of components at 10% design with a contingency [budget] of less than 5% [of the total project budget.]”

Huggett’s conclusion? “Frankly, from what I know, the contingency is very small and is likely already used up. I promised you I wouldn’t come in here and try and sugar coat it.”

Moving Forward

I voted against awarding the contract to PCL in late 2012. My reason was simple. The design wasn’t far enough along to award the contract with only a 4% contingency budget. Now, it’s time to move beyond looking backwards and to do the best we can to get the project under control. Here’s how:

  1. Get a revised project budget as soon as possible. After learning last Thursday that the contingency is likely used up, I said that if that’s the case, Council needs to know what the potential cost increases are, as unpopular as that may be, so we can start planning. Huggett committed to getting Council a revised project budget by early September.
  2. Finalize and confirm a project schedule that all parties agree to. Huggett promised this within the coming weeks.
  3. Create a risk registry specific to the project (not a generic risk registry that has been used to date) and ensure that risk mitigation strategies are in place.
  4. Have someone in charge of the project and fix relationships among PCL, MMM and the City.  With Huggett at the helm and the collaborative spirit of our City Manager guiding the process, this is well in hand.

Council’s job is to go forward with eyes wide open. We need to hold Huggett to the commitments he made last Thursday. We need to be realistic about the cost of the project. And, most importantly, we need to keep the public – those paying for this new bridge – informed.

Moms Like Us

A month and a half ago, I had a call from a group of moms who all have adult children who live with mental illnesses. I met with them at City Hall rather than at my regular coffee shop location because they wanted privacy and confidence. They had come to ask for my help to bring an Accredited Clubhouse to Victoria like the Pathways Clubhouse in Richmond that they’d visited recently.

Despite everything I have on my plate right now, I said yes. I said yes because I was moved by their stories and by their passion. But I was most moved when one of them said, “We’re not only doing this for our children. We’re also doing this for people living on the street, people who are poor, people who face all sorts of barriers, people who don’t have moms like us.” “Moms Like Us!” I said, “that’s a great name for your group.” And so it is. 

Mother’s Day Post from Moms Like Us

What does it mean to be a mother? It is Mother’s Day this weekend and at the same time many of our local birds are nesting. There is a mother robin with her nest in a trellis outside our window. She sits for hours in the rain, wind, cold and heat to keep her eggs warm. I help her by chasing away the crows and squirrels that threaten her babies. As I watch throughout the day I am struck by the incredible responsibility that comes with motherhood. Mothers are hard wired to love, nurture, soothe, protect and defend their babies. A young mother, like the robin, has no idea what her special challenges will be.

Mothers of children with mental health issues can be faced with some unique challenges.

It is heart wrenching to watching a child sit alone in their room depressed while their siblings and other children join community sports teams or take music lessons. It feels helpless to find out your adolescent is so consumed with anxiety that going to school becomes impossible without a drink or a toke while other teenagers are taking part in all the school and social activities they can. It is hard to accept the reality that your young adult cannot cope with finding a job, applying for post secondary or making travel plans while their peers are building careers and long term relationships.

These challenges alone can be daunting but even more demanding is the difficult task navigating the mental health system to find the support for our children with brain illnesses. Sadly, even in this, the twenty-first century with all the access to information you could want, the stigma of mental illness is alive and well.

We know the sorrow of watching our child be judged by those who don’t understand or by professionals without compassion. We have dealt with the disappointment of researching services, that when our name is finally first on the wait list, they fail to deliver. We have wept upon hearing the horrifying details of an incident our child was involved in and knowing our child has been traumatized once again. We have contained our anger when yet another person suggests as mothers we are too involved with our adult children.

And through all this we ride the roller coaster of hope and despair… and never let go. We hang on at every turn because if we let go who will step up for our children? Mothers’ love is unconditional.

So as mothers we reach out to others who know what it is like to have a child with a mental health issue. Mothers who have compassion for each other as well as the passion to fight for the respect, dignity and skills their children need to be contributing members of their community.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers, but especially to moms like us.

To connect with Moms Like Us and for more information on our May 21st Clubhouse event, please email  momslikeus2014@gmail.com.

Downtown Victoria – Our Harbour, Our Heart

At an early February Planning and Land Use Committee meeting, Councillor Pam Madoff arrived with a stack of reports of past harbour visioning exercises that was many inches high. She said they’d been sitting on her bookshelf since they’d been written, some dating back to at least the 1980s. She lamented that after countless hours of public input and high public expectation, nothing happened. She’d brought the reports for show and tell, because at that Planning and Land Use Committee meeting, council was considering a Project Charter for Inner Harbour Revitalization Opportunities. The Project Charter lays out a public participation plan for gathering input with regard to three strategic sites on the Inner Harbour.

Yes, another harbour visioning exercise. But the circumstances are different this time. This past week, the City of Victoria, the Province and Ralmax, operator of Point Hope Maritime, announced a three-way land deal. The City swapped City-owned lands on Harbour Road currently leased by Ralmax to the Province in exchange for five strategic pieces of land. Four of these are on the inner harbour, including land at Ship Point. The Province will in turn sell the Harbour Road lands to Ralmax at market value. The Province has committed to reinvesting the proceeds of the land sale in Victoria.

Times Colonist opinion piece called this land swap a ‘good deal’. It’s more than that. With the Inner Harbour Revitalization Opportunities Project approved by Council on February 13th, there’s a huge opportunity right now for the City to take proactive, collaborative leadership on our Harbour’s future. It’s time to make something happen.

Rich History
The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA) provides a detailed summary of the rich history of Victoria’s habour that’s well worth a read to understand the historical context for current decision making. There are two key elements of this history that must bear on the harbour’s future. First, the harbour lands, like the rest of the City of Victoria, are the unceded territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, the harbour waters and lands were their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. Any plans for the harbour must include a rich future for the Songhees and Esquimalt peoples. Second, public participation in the future of the harbour is key.

Opportunity, Focus and Leadership
The 
Official Community Plan policy goal of a working harbour was significantly furthered last week. The land sale to Ralmax, and the protection of those lands by covenant for marine industrial use sets the stage for the expansion of the shipyard and well-paying marine-industry jobs well into the future.

It’s now time for Council and the public to turn our minds to the jewel that is the City’s inner harbour, what I hear referred to often as “the heart of Victoria.” Past harbour visioning exercises have included the harbour as whole. This spring, between March and June, City staff and Council will be engaging the public as to vision and ideas for the future of three key sites pictured below: 1. the provincially-owned Belleville Ferry Terminal Lands 2. the now fully City-owned Ship Point lands and 3. the provincially-owned Lower Wharf Street lands.

At the beginning of the process, at an Ideas Forum, the City will share information with regard to development potential at Ship Point lands and what it’s actually possible to do with that site. A Victoria Opera House or water front art gallery, or other ideas put forward in the past aren’t possible there. A recent, and interesting, geotechnical report reveals that anything built on the large lot closest to the ocean has the potential to sink into the water at any kind of seismic event. But the report also revealed the development potential of the smaller lot closer to Wharf Street. The point is that the City will seek public input based on the reality of what is possible. This will help ensure that the public’s vision can be turned into a plan that can actually happen.

The City only owns the Ship Point Lands. Nonetheless each of the sites is an important public place in the City’s downtown. So there’s both an opportunity and a necessity for the City to play a collaborative leadership role by a.) bringing the many harbour-involved players together to develop a vision and a plan for each site b.) prioritizing which site to start with, and c.) taking action.

Here’s what I would do once the City has received public input on these three key sites in the heart of our downtown. While it might make the most sense to start taking action with the City-owned Ship Point lands, I’d start with the Belleville Ferry Terminal and the public realm surrounding it.

It seems to me that there’s energy and opportunity gathering at the Belleville Terminal Lands. With the winding up of the Provincial Capital Commission, responsibility for the Belleville Terminal was recently transferred to the Ministry of Transportation; we’ve got a fresh set of eyes on this location, which has been a bone of contention and sight for sore eyes in Victoria for decades. With this past week’s land swap, the Province committed to reinvesting the proceeds it makes from the sale of the Harbour Road lands in Victoria. What better place to reinvest some of the proceeds than in the Belleville Ferry Terminal, a key international gateway to the Province’s capital city. With Canada’s 150th birthday celebration on the horizon in 2017, revitalization of the Belleville Terminal would potentially be a good fit for any federal grant funding released for that occasion. And, with the potential for long-term leases and the possibility of jointly operating a new facility perhaps the Coho and Clipper owners might be willing to invest.

Focusing first on what could be called the terminal precinct, doesn’t mean the City ignores the rest of the harbour. The Harbour Pathway Plan is well underway and sections of the pathway will soon be under construction. The City will continue to help create a vibrant summer festival venue at Ships Point. Conversations could continue to move the other two sites from plan into action. And, with the passion around our downtown these days and the stars aligned around the Belleville Terminal, focusing on the terminal precinct is a real opportunity to make something happen this time.

Downtown Victoria – Breakfast with Robert Jawl

I had the pleasure of attending the Urban Development Institute’s Under 40 breakfast event on Friday morning. Our host and guest speaker was Robert Jawl of Jawl Properties. Jawl Properties built the highly acclaimed Atrium Building at Blanshard and Yates. And, they’ve got two more leading-edge projects in the works. First is a LEED Platinum office development at Douglas and Pandora – directly across from City Hall. Second, in conjunction with Concert Properties, the redevelopment of the six-acre site behind the Legislature, which, in Robert’s words will “broaden the civic sphere around the legislature. Though the land will be privately owned, it will read as public space.”

It was as Robert began speaking, eloquent as usual, about  Jawl Properties’ core development principles and his vision for Downtown Victoria, that the idea for this series came to me. My departure point is similar to Robert’s. I’m not at all convinced by the story that I hear far too often – that Downtown Victoria is dying.  Yes, the downtown vacancy rate is 7%. But Robert assures this is not indicative of a downtown crisis and warned that, “Downtown is dead,” could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Let’s not fulfill that prophecy! Instead, let’s see Downtown Victoria as going through a process of reinvention and renewal in which everyone – residents, businesses, developers and the City – must participate. And let’s look a little closer at Jawl Properties core principles, because there’s some simple wisdom to be gleaned from these principles with regard to how we seize this opportunity and re-create downtown Victoria together.

Principle Number One: Developers should have positive, collaborative working relationships with the communities in which they build. It’s important that the community see new buildings as enhancements to the community and that residents feel as if they’ve played a key role in creating these enhancements. As Robert notes, “because (as local developers) we’re members of our community there are far more important criteria to be met than whether something is a ‘good (financial) deal’ or not. In the long-term, projects that are embraced as community enhancements also create long-term economic return.” Too often it feels as if the process of development is adversarial and a zero-sum game: if developers win the public loses; if the public wins, developers lose. With the Jawl’s and other developers sensitive to the needs and the desires of community residents, this doesn’t have to be the case. Lesson number one for building Downtown Victoria: collaboration is key.

Principle Number Two: Orientation to quality. Jawl Properties is motivated to build quality buildings because they retain ownership of the buildings they build for the long term. They care – over a 50 year time period – about how their buildings perform. Lesson number two for building Downtown Victoria: build a quality public and private realm that will continue to sing 50 years into the future; long-term vision matters.

Principle Number Three: Local partnerships and relationships are the lifeblood of business. Jawl Properties doesn’t refer to the people who lease their buildings as ‘tenants’. “They are our clients,” says Robert, “and we work for them.” Part of being able to deliver quality customer service to their clients, is that Jawl Properties is also a local business. “In any environment where you have local knowledge, where you know the difference between this block and that block, your business performs better.” Lesson number three for building Downtown Victoria: focus on local.

With collaboration as key, long-term vision, and a focus on local, what does the future hold? Downtown Victoria will continue to be the commercial centre for the region with a focus on high-quality office space, local retail, more downtown residents from a diversity of backgrounds, and a growing tech sector. Buildings themselves will be high-quality amenities that enhance both the public and private realm. People will walk, bike and bus as much as they drive to the City’s core. Victoria will capitalize on what Robert calls its “lifestyle proposition” that allows us to “attract and retain top talent from anywhere.” The City needs to be proactive in this regard to succeed.

Finally, Downtown Victoria will continue to develop this new identity that’s emerging as a great place to live, a place of vibrant and beautiful public spaces, a site of innovation and creativity, and an epicentre of locally focused business that attracts local and tourists alike. “We’re not a mini-Vancouver,” Robert says. “we’re not a copy-cat of Portland, and we’re not a retirement community for Alberta and Ontario. We’ve got our own identity and our own swagger!”

Staying Focused, Or How We Get Things Done

 

This past Thursday, at its Governance and Priorities Committee, Council met to review the City’s strategic priorities for the remainder of the 2013-2015 budget cycle. But it was also an opportunity for councilors to bring forward projects they’d been working on, that didn’t fit easily into our regular meeting business. Marianne Alto put forward a motion which required Council to make a really hard decision. Late Thursday night, as I was reflecting on the decision we’d made that day, it struck me what it takes for a governing body to set a goal and remain focused on that goal until it is achieved.

I don’t think we made a good decision last Thursday. Thankfully, the decision isn’t final until it’s ratified at our formal Council meeting this Thursday February 13th. So I’m taking this opportunity to lay out my thoughts about making a commitment to a goal, comprehensive decision making, and long-term thinking with the hopes that readers, including some of my Council colleagues, might consider this approach.

Here’s the story. (You can also watch the whole thing unfold for yourself here where the meeting is video archived.) Marianne Alto has been working with members of the Vic High Alumni Association who want to undertake a $5 million capital project to refurbish the Vic High track, bleachers, and field. Alto put forward a motion asking for the City to endorse the project in principle, to allocate staff and Council time to work with the school and the alumni association to explore and pursue other partnerships and to make a matching contribution of up to $250,000 in 2015. 

In the hour-long debate that ensued, city staff noted that a significant amount of staff time that would be involved, even just in negotiating a “joint-use agreement” to ensure that the refurbished facility would be open to the public. In addition, the City’s Director of Finance stressed that there was not $250,000 available in the 2015 capital budget and the money would have to come from somewhere. The Director of Finance also warned that even if the City endorsed the project in principle without providing any matching funds, we’d be in a bit of an awkward position when it came to writing letters of support for provincial and federal funding for the Vic High Alumni track refurbishment project.

Here’s the kicker. Last fall Council voted to keep Crystal Pool as a publicly owned and operated facility. This means that in order to refurbish or rebuild Crystal Pool, the City will need to apply for provincial and/or federal infrastructure funding should it become available. This means that the City would be in direct competition with Vic High if federal and/or provincial infrastructure grants for refurbishing or building recreation facilities become available.

After being amended at least four times and watered down to ensure that little staff time was spent on this endeavour, the motion – including a $250,000 matching contribution at some point in the future and support in principle for the project – passed 7 to 2. I voted against it as did Councillor Gudgeon. Most of the people who voted last fall to keep Crystal Pool publicly owned and operated (Fortin, Alto, Isitt, Madoff, Thornton-Joe) voted in favour of the Vic High project.

Here’s my thinking. This was a difficult decision. We want to honour the tireless work of the Vic High Alumni Association volunteers who are undertaking the capital fundraising campaign. And we’d love to have a newly refurbished track facility in Fernwood. I’d certainly like this, I live (literally!) two doors away from the site.

But we passed a motion last fall and made a commitment to the public to keep Crystal Pool publicly owned and operated. I didn’t even support that motion and have clearly articulated a creative hybrid vision for the future of Crystal Pool. But we made a commitment and we have to keep our focus as a Council on the goal of refurbishing or rebuilding a publicly owned and operated swimming pool. With limited infrastructure monies available from senior levels of government, we can’t approve projects that directly compete with each other. We can’t make decisions in silos. In order to get things done we need to be comprehensive in our decision making and keep the big-picture, long-term vision in mind.