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.

Shape Your Future Victoria

Last fall, Victoria West residents of McCaskill Street and surrounds gathered to cut the ribbon on the beautiful mural depicted here. This group of neighbours came together and turned a bramble-covered, graffiti-laden concrete wall into a thing of beauty. How did they do it? Meeting neighbours they didn’t know, food, drink, conversation, collaboration. And a Shape Your Future Victoria grant! Do you want to bring your neighbours together and do a project in your neighbourhood? The 2014 Shape Your Future Grant Application Deadline is March 31st 2014

 

 

So I did some research, wrote a report and made a motion. And voila! Council passed it unanimously. The Parks Recreation and Culture Department created the new grant guidelines and application form, the residents of McCaskill street and surrounds applied for and got the first every Shape Your Future Victoria grant. For a very small sum of money, on the City’s part, and a many hours of labouring love, Victoria got great new public art. And in the process, neighbours got to know each other.

Sewage Treatment: CRD Residents Deserve a Better Plan

Two weeks ago, I was invited by Andrew Weaver to be part of a three-person panel at a Public Forum on Sewage Treatment. In front of a standing room only crowd at the Oak Bay Rec Centre, it was clear to me how much passion and anxiety there is about sewage treatment in the CRD. It was also clear, in the question and answer period, how sewage treatment seems to have becoming a polarizing issue for people who, for the most part, agree that we need to treat our sewage. The question that remains, and the divisive question, is how best do we do this?

Andrew asked me to discuss what local councils and elected officials can do to ensure that CRD residents get the best plan possible. Here’s what I said. 

1. Listen to Residents
I hear on a regular basis, “The public is apathetic. Voter turnout is low. People don’t really seem to be paying attention or care about municipal issues, etc.” But then, when a wide, and growing, sector of the public steps up and says, “Hold on CRD officials, we’re not convinced this is the best sewage treatment plan for the region,” when volunteers take the time and effort to propose an alternate plan (The R.I.T.E. Plan), when hundreds of people come to open houses, pack land use committee and council meetings, ask questions and speak up, they’re treated like a nuisance. There’s a sense that some CRD Directors and staff wish that these people would sit down, shut up, and just let the CRD get on with its plan. 

This is not an authentic way to engage the public. It does not welcome public participation or take public input into consideration in order to create the best possible sewage treatment plan, for the long term. And this is the goal – the best plan for the long term. As elected officials we have a responsibility to listen to what our residents are saying and to consider their input in our decision-making processes. It is the public who is paying for this project.

2. Extend the Timeline
I’m proud of my Victoria Council colleague and CRD Director
 Marianne Alto, who is putting forward a motion to ask the CRD board to ask the province to extend the timeline of the project to 2020. Extending the timeline will allow the CRD to bring the project up to date by considering again a distributed, tertiary sewage treatment system that incorporates technology dismissed five years ago as too expensive. 

As Andrew Weaver points out, the deadline is somewhat arbitrary. The CRD is currently required by the Province to treat its sewage by 2016. The Federal regulations set a deadline of 2020. Weaver said at the forum that the CRD will need to ask the Province to extend the deadline to at least 2018 because that’s when the proposed project is set to become operational. So why not ask for an extension to 2020 to align with the Federal requirements. Furthermore, and thankfully, Esquimalt Council has not approved the necessary zoning that the CRD would require to build the proposed plant. And no contract has been awarded for the construction of the plant. 

Residents and elected officials need to make the case that more time will result in a better plan, because the proposed plan is not good enough; I’ll say why in a moment. Alto’s motion will be debated at the February 12th CRD Board meeting which begins at 1:30pm in the CRD’s sixth floor board room (625 Fisgard St). Here’s a list of CRD Directors and their contact information. Whether you’re for or against extending the timeline, please take the time to write to CRD Directors and share your thoughts. When elected officials receive hundreds of emails from the public, we take note.

3. Move Beyond Sustainability and Design for Abundance
In The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability, Designing for Abundance, William McDonough and Michael Braungart make the case that sustainability is no longer a good enough aspiration. The authors ask us to, “Think about attempting to fall in love less wastefully. Or what about an efficient child or an efficient childhood? Terrible, right? Children, and childhood, can be – and we prefer them to be – full of richness, diverse enjoyments, fruitfulness, digressions, wanderings, imagination and creativity. Who would want a simply ‘sustainable’ marriage? Humans can certainly aspire to  more than that. In all of life, people can think big.”

Looking at sewage treatment through this lens is important both politically and economically. Politically, designing for abundance – which I’ll discuss in a moment – has the potential to bring key organizations on board for a better plan. The David Suzuki Foundation and the Georgia Strait Alliance have been key and vocal supporters of the CRD’s proposed plan and they are also champions of sustainability. But what if these organizations and others could begin to embrace the idea that sustainability – what McDonough and Braungart call “doing less bad” rather than “more good” – is no longer good enough. And what if they could begin to advocate for a plan that does even better than the sustainable treatment of sewage.

Part of ‘thinking big’ about sewage treatment is to look at sewage as a source of nutrients and income rather than as a liability and cost. Here’s where the economics come in, and the ‘upcycling’ of waste into money.

sewage_treatment_is_nutrient_recovery.jpg

Without going into too many details, here’s one way (and there are more) that the CRD could recover nutrients and earn revenue, by treating our sewage. Everyone who grows food knows that phosphate is one of the key ingredients in soil health. What may be less well known is that there is a huge demand on the world market for slow-release phosphate. According to McDonough and Braungart – and as illustrated in this diagram from The Upcycle – nutrient-recovery from sewage is one way to meet this demand.

There is a technology (developed in Vancouver!) available for recovering phosphate from sewage. And, this technology is already part of the CRD’s plan. But because the plan proposes only secondary treatment, which captures the sludge but releases the majority of the ‘waste water’ back into the ocean rather than treating it, there is a huge loss of potential revenue through phosphate recovery. At the Clover Point and McCaulay Point Pump stations combined, 264 tonnes of phosphorous go back into the ocean each year, and will continue to do so with the CRD’s proposed sewage treatment plan. That is a lot of potential revenue being flushed out to sea.

So, finally, how do we begin to design for abundance? We begin with a clear statement of intention that will guide a project from conception to implementation. If we look at what proponents of the current CRD plan are saying we might guess that the statement of intention around the project from the outset went something like this:

“We have to treat our sewage because upper levels of government told us to do it and it’s the right thing to do for the environment and we need to do it in a way that will cost taxpayers as little money as possible in the short term.” 

Compare that against this: “Let’s design and build a sewage treatment / nutrient recovery system that generates revenue and an abundance of useable energy and water for the short, medium and long term.”

If not now, then when? We are building this key piece of infrastructure for the long term, for the next generations. We need to get it right. Our children and their children deserve it.

City of Victoria Stormwater Utility – A Primer

In 2014 the City of Victoria will be rolling out its new Stormwater Utility. Modeled in part on a similar utility in Kitchener-Waterloo, the utility will remove the portion of money that comes to the City from residents and businesses from the property tax bill (about $4.5 million per year). Instead, people will receive a utility bill based primarily on the percentage of non-permeable surfaces on a property. The good news? This is a user-pay system, you pay for what you use. And, it’s possible to get up to a 40% credit on your stormwater bill by implementing rainwater cachement solutions on your property. The bad news? It’s all a little bit complicated to understand! This blog post is meant to provide some resources to help.

A few weeks ago, City staff updated Council on the roll out of the proposed Stormwater Utility. This powerpoint presentation contains a great deal of detail, including a list of solutions that property owners can implement to get a rebate on their bill. This CBC interview I did with Jo-Ann Roberts on All Points West explains in a bit more detail how the utility will work. And this Times Colonist article has a helpful infographic that details what people can expect based on the class of property they own.

To be clear, and to clear up some more confusion around the issue, the Stormwater Utility isn’t a new tax. The City will charge $4.5 million less in property taxes in 2014; this is the amount that the City currently spends on the storm water system. Instead the City will charge residents, businesses and institutions for the portion of the storm water system they actually use. It’s more fair that way. Right now, large institutions, like the provincial government for example don’t pay any property taxes or any grants in lieu of taxes but there is still stormwater runoff that comes from their properties. Currently, everyone who pays property taxes is subsidizing this.

Finally, the Stormwater Utility is something that makes the City of Victoria a leader in Canada. It’s innovative because it encourages people, at the level of their own properities, to take responsibility and leadership for creating solutions – like rain barrels, cisterns, raingardens, bioswales – that are good for the planet and good for the City’s stormwater system.

In the twentieth century we put lots of pipes in the ground to deal with the City’s stormwater runoff. In the 21st century we are implementing smaller-scale solutions. In the long-term, this will produce a savings for the City and taxpayers. If property owners, from single-family dwellers to large developers embrace the rainwater management techniques outlined in this powerpoint presentation, in the long-run we will have more above-ground infrastructure which is less expensive to build and maintain, mimics what the earth already does, and can also be really beautiful (check on the raingarden at Fisherman’s Wharf Park) and enhance public and private spaces.

Stay tuned at the City’s stormwater site for more information including information sessions.

The Future of Crystal Pool

An article in today’s Times Colonist outlines Councillor Ben Isitt’s vision for Crystal Pool. Tonight he’s bringing his vision to Council in a motion calling on city council to affirm the “public ownership and operation” of any Crystal Pool replacement. His touchstone is a motion made by the previous council in October 2011 that “supports retention of a public pool and fitness centre in Victoria.”

Here’s my take. I support the retention of a public pool and fitness centre in Victoria. And, to be perfectly clear, I support this facility being operated by the City and staffed by our terrific, competent and very capable workers. I’ve spent hours at Crystal Pool over the years. The most fun I’ve had is with a now ten-year-old. We’d be jumping and playing with those wonderful big mats and then all of a sudden she’d be interested in joining the seniors in their aquafit class so we’d join in, just like that and be welcomed by the instructor!

What is really really important to me as the City goes out to the public in the new year to do a comprehensive public engagement process with regard to Crystal Pool is that we keep our options (and our ears) open with regard to ownership of the facility should we decide to rebuild not to refurbish.

As noted in the video in my last blog post, the City has three key underfunded projects to tend to over the next five years: Firehall Number 1, the Crystal Pool and the Bay Street bridge. In addition to applying to upper levels of governments for grants, we’ve got to be creative and think outside the box and about new possibilities and options for funding these projects.

In the 1980s when times were tough, the Province partnered with a developer to build new office buildings. The developer retained ownership of the buildings and leased them back to the province which then operated the buildings/used them publicly, for government purposes. And, a key part of the deal was that if the developer was ever going to sell the buildings, the Province had the right of first refusal. 

I’m not saying this is the way to go with Crystal Pool. I am saying that City Council needs to be open to a number of options with regard to ownership of the pool should we determine that building a new pool is necessary. And, as we go out to the public to do public engagement with regard to the pool this winter, we need to be open to the creative, innovative ideas that come to us through the public engagement process. As I see it, passing Councillor Isitt’s motion tonight closes down, rather than opens up possibilities for having a public pool in the City of Victoria.