June 4, 2018

The 2018 Election and the Americanization of Vancouver City Hall


There’s no question that the City of Vancouver’s civic election will pivot on two factors: affordability and accessibility.

People need affordable places to live. And if they can’t afford to live in Vancouver, they must be able to get in and out of the city. In his work on skyrocketing housing costs,  ‘Duke of Data’ Andy Yan has demonstrated that wages have not kept pace.

That’s why the discussion of who will enter council chambers in the fall — and who will lead as mayor — is so important.

Will they be people who look at the best practices of infill housing and the missing middle? Will they be people who will separate the important role of city manager from political staff? Will they look at the background of the staff, and direct their activity and actions on the basis of the strength of their experience and knowledge base?

Over the past ten years, the City of Vancouver has seen a pivotal change — not just with the housing situation, but in how city hall is managed.

Vancouver experienced great success with their city manager model, where the position provided a constant hand on the wheel at city hall, despite political changes. This has meant that policy previously approved by other councils could be directed and implemented.

The current mayor and council changed that. City Manager Judy Rogers was abruptly fired, and Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver councillors brought in their own hired guns. While both of their subsequent hires are seasoned performers, neither of them had the experience of working in nor understanding city hall, the way a steady line of predecessors did, like Fritz Bowers and Ken Dobell (through Engineering), as well as Rogers herself (through the Equal Employment Opportunities Office). Previous city managers innately understood the departments, their functions, and even knew most of the staff by name. That changed with the Vision dominance of council.


The upshot? The City of Vancouver now functions like any other American city. The City Manager is tied to the political well-being of the mayor and party in power, and will change each election.

Another change — informed staff were also no longer allowed to speak to the media on issues with which they had some expertise (or perhaps more accurately, great expertise), with the current council developing their very own media centre and hiring quite a lot of communications staff .

In 2017, Global News reported that since the current council came into office, “...thirty-three communications workers have been hired, including 12 managers and coordinators, and seven public engagement officers. Twenty-one of them are costing the taxpayers $2.3 million.” There was, at the time, an additional 12 temporary communications staff, but their salaries were not available.

There’s no question that times have changed, media has changed, and thus there is a need for communications staff. But in the last ten years, Vancouverites have largely heard from councillors or media handlers, and direct links between the public and the  city staff has been constrained.

Meanwhile, developers are now talking about how Development Cost Levies (DCLs) and Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) should be cut so that more housing can be built more cheaply. They miss the point — these two charges provide items such as engineering infrastructure, park space, libraries, social and non-profit housing, childcare facilities and other public amenities. And there is no voice from City of Vancouver experienced staff to outline why these charges are so important.

Coriolis Consulting has produced a detailed report on CACs, pointing out that these charges are not the cause of rising house prices, but “have paid for amenities that otherwise would have been funded by property taxes, and in some cases have created affordable housing units.”

Those are the type of issues that need to be addressed by City staff and resolved. And for a new Mayor and Council to address affordability and accessibility head on, they need to take the muzzle off.

It will also be important for the new incoming leadership to manage from within, find out how city policies have worked and shaped the city, and learn from what has worked well.

The City of Vancouver had previously been perceived as a place of innovation in terms of policy and implementation of best practices for development, with a strong and informed staff. It’s time to bring them back.

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  1. I’m curious to hear what PT readers think a single city government can do to tackle this problem within its borders; especially with fundamental disagreement over what’s causing it in the first place. Does the new city government streamline the building permit process? Does it manipulate provincial tax structure to disincentivize foreign interest and squash the little bidding wars on pre-built units? Both at the same time?

    What will one party do within its municipal powers that another party can’t, or won’t? I’m curious to hear.

  2. It’s easy.
    1) Rezone, or even de-zone, massive sections of Vancouver.
    2) Drop the extensive new eco-rules completely (Vancouver is in a temperate geographic region and the energy expended for heating and cooling is therefore minimal. Energy efficiency is all very nice but indulgent unless one is wealthy. It’s also irrelevant when considered on a global scale.)
    3) Do like Tokyo and allow owners to build what they want. The market rules and shortages are nil.
    4) Drop all CACs. Limit DCs to essential infrastructure such as water, streets and sewerage. (Parks and amenities should come from property taxes or philanthropic sources. Set up a small committee to encourage corporate contributions.)
    5) Streamline and expedite the approval process!

    1. A hardline neoliberal approach. Could work. Which party and mayoral candidate is saying they will do this?

    2. A big problem with point 2) is that it is economically foolish. The “extensive new eco-rules” pay for themselves – possibly several times over in the life of the building. The fact that Vancouver is temperate makes it easier, not harder, to save energy and money.

      The only thing that is hard about it is that it’s “new” and conservative-minded people hate that. They always opt for doing things the old way and would have been terrified of leaving the caves back when.

      Thankfully, though it is a long and slow road, progressives always win in the end.

    3. re: point two
      And BC Hydro is 87% hydro generated power, nothing could be better, 100% renewable, clean and beautiful flowing water, why bother with all the gizmos anyway?

      1. I re-purpose and renovate older things – and often buy used items for my own use.

        If you are asking if I sort and segregate waste items for collection by municipal contractors, the answer is also yes. In fact, now I think about it, I have been returning bottles and other recyclable consumer items for many decades.

  3. Great article, Sandy. On the matter of CACs, we’ve been living on the legacy or earlier, more generous citizens. It’s hard to think of any public legacy from the current boom — we can’t even manage to build a new art gallery. Bike lanes? Yes, but in reality they’re a few concrete curbs and some painted lines.

    1. I’m now sure where you’re drawing the line on the ‘current boom’ but off the top of my head I’ve got:

      – Emery Barnes park
      – The seawall in Yaletown
      – Great new park by Science World
      – Roundhouse Community Centre
      – Olympic Village Community Centre
      – Hillcrest Community Centre
      – Point Grey bikeway
      – New south false creek bike/walking improvements
      – Arbutus greenway
      – The Vancouver Sculpture Biennale and a variety of public art

      1. Oh also
        – Trout Lake community centre
        – Sunset community centre
        – amazing Burrard Bridge improvements
        – Comox/Helmcken greenway
        – Horby bike lane
        – Dunsmuir bike lane
        – That other new park that’s supposed to get built soon downtown
        – The (terrible in my opinion) Yaletown Park
        – Habitat Island + Hinge Park in Olympic Village
        – New building at Van Dusen Gardens
        – Some social housing (though not enough)

        Now I don’t know how much each of those is attributable to CACs, but it’s not nothing.

      2. I’m thinking “current boom” since 2010. Strathcona Library is one addition. I think Trout Lake CC was in a previous capital plan. VanDusen was largely private fundraising, which is why they ended up keeping the old building as they couldn’t build a big enough new one. As I wrote in a response below, I agree the bike lanes are wonderful. And the Burrard Bridge improvements are excellent, regardless of whether they were paid from CACs or not.

        What’s paying for the Arbutus Greenway? For its $55 million purchase price and improvements? (And it’s so nice for the West Side to get a much-needed park, isn’t it?)

        Think back over the generations and the buildings the city got during economic good times: ’90s the new library; ’80s the Court House converted to an art gallery and the Orpheum; ’70s Robson Square and its outdoor space, plus the Archives; ’60s the HR MacMillan bequests; ’50s Queen E Theatre … and so on. I can’t think of equivalents from the 2000s and the 2010s. Can you?

  4. Mr. Kluckner, you’ve created a great body of work with your historical writing and art – much respect – but to dismiss Vancouver’s excellent bicycle infrastructure as just curbs and painted lines … well, you must have been having a bad day. The bike lanes are far greater than what you have wrought.
    Speaking of Americans – the Empire State Building was built and open for business in 20 months after the signing of contracts. That’s 90 years ago – a 102 story – tallest in the world over 40 years. That’s back in the days of slide rules. There has to be a lesson there.
    And, re. amenities – Stanley Park is larger than Central Park: 1000.777 acres vs 843. But in my 25 years in Vancouver, I’ve rarely gone – solo, or with the kids. It’s just never been convenient, or a draw. Don’t like the pool. Hate the aquarium. Would never go to a tourist trap like the Fish House. I feel like I’m missing out on what is evidently a tremendous amenity. What am I missing? Then again, on many of Vancouver’s bike lanes, I often am the only cyclist, so many others are missing out on this experience – stuck in their mobile temples of discomfort.

    1. You’re right about the bike lanes as a boost to cycling – I use them myself and probably wouldn’t ride much otherwise, certainly not cross-town or to places like City Hall, and definitely not downtown. It’s just that they could be removed so easily, as the occasional politician has threatened.

      1. Let’s hope some politico doesn’t pull a Ford Manoeuver – buying votes by pandering to the motorist commuter horde.
        I recently watched: the Gaman Spirit: Why cycling works in Tokyo. We’re so used to looking at the usual suspects of Holland and Denmark. Hadn’t realized how ubiquitous cycling is in Tokyo.

      2. “It’s just that they could be removed so easily, as the occasional politician has threatened.”

        I suspect it would unleash the Kraken that is Critical Mass once again. Hopefully even the tailpipe-huggers realize it’s now politically foolish to take away sensible infrastructure like cycling amenities.

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