Compact living doesn’t shrink quality of life

Photos from inside a new apartment building in downtown Victoria. This building was approved in 2012 – the first new rental building approved in the City in the last 30 years.

There have been questions from certain corners of our community on the need for rapid densification – why do we need so many new buildings? Should we pull up the metaphorical drawbridge and protect Victoria from newcomers because we think it’s the only way to preserve the quality of life for people who already live here? There are many good reasons to answer no. I’ll highlight two and outline how a growing city and its neighbourhoods can be places where quality of life and well-being are enhanced, for everyone. I love my neighbourhood too.

At a recent talk in Victoria, the Governor of the Bank of Canada highlighted Canada’s aging workforce; as a result, currently two thirds of labour force growth comes from immigration. By 2025, he said, all labour force growth will come from immigration. This couldn’t be more true than in Victoria where we have an aging population with many people moving out of the labour force in the coming decades. These people will want to stay in Victoria and enjoy the quality of life they have here.

So, like the rest of Canada, though perhaps more rapidly, Victoria’s labour force will grow through immigration both from other provinces and other countries. This growing labour force – necessary to support those who are retiring – need places to live. That is a key reason that all this new building is necessary.

A second reason is climate change. In early March I was invited by Mayor Iveson in Edmonton to an urgent weekend meeting of mayors from around the world. The 800 scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were meeting in Edmonton the following week and Mayor Iveson wanted us mayors to help shape the conversation.

The materials provided in advance of the gathering and the speakers at the opening plenary made it crystal clear: We have little time to take radical action with regard to climate change or we lose the battle. And, cities are both the cause and the solution to the problem.

The president of the University of Alberta cautioned, “Cities need to change quickly; the window is closing.” Aromar Revi, Director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements warned us that we are now 1 degree above the pre-industrial average and we have less than 15 years to stay below 1.5. Bill Solecki the Founding Director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities put it starkly. “We have all the knowledge we need,” he said, “but at our core, we can’t acknowledge that we have to fundamentally change the way we live in cities.”

Changing the way we live in Victoria in order to take bold climate action means more compact living and more people living in all our neighbourhoods. This can happen without changing their character too much through gentle density, houseplexes, tiny homes, townhouses and more. It means more people living within walking distance of goods and services available in village centres, resulting in less traffic and pollution. It also means inclusion, diversity, new neighbours and a denser web of social relationships.

On major corridors and downtown the changes we make to how we live in order to save the planet are more visible. There are more tall buildings. But what we can’t see from the outside is that almost all of these buildings are being built with vertical backyards: playgrounds on the third floor, lush, green community gathering spaces on the roof tops, one building even has an multiple birdhouses!

We don’t need to trade in quality of life even as our city grows to accommodate a changing labour force and a changing climate. What we do need is to have real dialogue rather than name calling and finger pointing. “NIMBY” is not a helpful term as it doesn’t take seriously the concerns and fears that people have – we all want to maintain the incredible neighbourhoods we’ve built together. Nor is it helpful to have a drawbridge mentality – this makes young renters and others feel unwelcome, and prevents us from adapting to changing times.

As our city grows and changes everyone will win because ultimately we all want the same thing – to be happy and healthy, to be prosperous, to feel safe, to breathe clean air, to feel that we belong to something greater than ourselves and to know that our children will have good futures.  We’re all in this together.

A version of this article first appeared in the Victoria News here.

Victoria to remain a human-scale city

Urban-Place-OCP

I’ve been reading the news headlines lately: “Victoria’s skyline could soon be reaching higher” and “Vancouver-esque’ 989 climbs downtown skyline”. The latter article states, “The Harris Green strip continues to grow as Cox Development’s $75-million, two-tower condo development climbs the skyline at 989 Johnson St., hoping to shake the design restrictions set by the city.” This isn’t even true. Headlines and stories like these are causing unnecessary alarm and generating fear about Victoria’s future.

989 Johnson and all the other buildings under construction right now fit very much with “design restrictions set by the city”. They conform to the design and livability guidelines set out in the City’s Downtown Core Area Plan (DCAP) as well as the City’s Official Community Plan (OCP).

When the City undertook deep consultation with its residents and business owners between 2009 and 2012 to refresh the previous (1995) OCP, the City asked what kind of land use planning it should do. The overwhelming feedback on the City’s future land use was to concentrate density in the downtown, in village centres, and along major corridors like Fort, Yates, Johnson and Pandora, to name a few. And now, five years after adoption, we’re seeing this plan come to life.

The benefits of this kind of density concentration are twofold. First, the traditional, single family neighbourhoods that take up most of the landmass in the city will remain largely untouched and intact. Second, concentrating people downtown, in village centres and along transportation corridors allows us to achieve our climate action goals as a city and as a community.

It should be a wake up call to us all that greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions in the community – which comprise 99 per cent of all emissions – are increasing not decreasing. This flies in the face of our image of being so green and sustainable. Dense compact land use planning decreases GHG emissions in all sorts of ways.

Another myth out there is that all the cranes on the skyline are there to build high-end condos. This also isn’t true. There are a total of 2,006 housing units currently under construction in the City of Victoria. Of those, 43 per cent are rental apartment units. A further 2,237 units are currently in the planning/approvals stages with 48 per cent of those proposed as rental or affordable housing units.

It’s not only Victoria’s built form that is changing, but our demographics as well. According to the 2016 census, the single largest age demographic in Victoria are 25-29 year olds. The second largest are 30-34 year olds, and the third largest are the 35-39 year olds.

Victoria is changing, but it’s changing by design. It’s changing to meet the needs of its current population and future generations who want to live in a vibrant, compact city with lots of nature, trees, parks and public spaces for all to enjoy. Victoria won’t become a city of skyscrapers. We’ll be a world-class city with a liveable, human scale. And we’ll continue working together to make our city in the 21st century one of the healthiest, most sustainable, inclusive and prosperous places to live, in the world.

This piece was originally published in the Victoria News here.

 

Where to Park in our Downtown

screenshot-2017-01-22-11-22-44

From the Downtown Victoria Business Association

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Last week, the complexities of transportation editorial launched what the DVBA is currently partnered and working on. The initial 28 action items have now grown to 31 and we are working diligently to bring some or all of the ideas to fruition.

Part one was to produce an interactive map of every possible parking lot/structure and on-street parking space in the Downtown core that we will continue to update. Some of these facilities are privately owned and some are city owned. We have broken them up by parking type and added whether they are monthly, hourly, or weekly.

When you use our map you can click on the pins to get full details, including the number of spots, location and who manages the lot. We have also included how much it costs to park in each facility as well as the hours of operation where applicable and whether there is a waitlist or not for monthly parking. When you click the on-street parking lines, the map will zoom you into the streets themselves so you can conveniently see where the best parking areas are for your daily needs. This map is available in both a digital and pdf version on our website that you can print and carry with you as well.

The digital link will live on our website, so you can access it at any time – with the legend outlining the different kinds of parking on the parking home page.  Most people are unaware there are 16 parkades, nine customer parking lots, more than 40 surface parking lots, and over 1,000 on-street parking spaces in or within a short walk of Downtown Victoria.

Most people are also unaware of the fact Modo Co-operative is in three of our downtown parkades for use when you sign up with their program.

We are continuing to work behind the scenes to bring more private lots online as they become available and continuing talks with developers for public parking within their new buildings.

It is this kind of incremental change and information sharing that keeps the public up to date on where to go and how to get there.

We know how valuable your time is and we want to make it as easy as possible to continue to come downtown to work, shop and play. Our vibrant downtown economy is continuing to grow and we are here to support the businesses throughout the changes.

Parking is only ONE piece of our complex transportation system, but if we can make it one step easier to locate for consumers, shop owners, commuters and residents than it is one step forward in a positive and productive way.

Where to park in Downtown Victoria:
http://downtownvictoria.ca/play-downtown/parking-downtown-victoria

-30-

Media Contact

Kerri Milton
Executive Director
Downtown Victoria Business Association
250-386-2239
kerri@downtownvictoria.ca

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. 

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!”