Why a bridge to The Mainland would benefit Vancouver

August 31, 2011 at 9:00 am | In just_so, vancouver, vancouver_island, victoria | Comments Off

Sure, one might assume that a bridge from Victoria BC on Vancouver Island to Vancouver BC on The Mainland would wake up Victoria – which is exactly why NIMBYs everywhere in the Capital Regional District who want to keep Victoria “sleepy” resist the notion with objections galore – but maybe it’s actually the case that such a bridge would benefit Vancouver by making it more livable.

Why? Consider this item, just in: Vancouver loses top spot on most liveable city list.

One of the reasons cited (in all seriousness) by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s liveability survey  for Vancouver’s slip from first to third place (behind Melbourne Oz and Vienna Aus) is congestion on a stretch of Highway 1 known as the Malahat.

For those of you who are geographically challenged by these terms, get an atlas (or go to Google), or simply realize this: the City of Vancouver is on the continent (aka The Mainland) and the ‘Hat (aka The Malahat) is a stretch of Highway 1 that’s part of the Trans-Canada Highway which runs from Victoria to Nanaimo …on Vancouver Island.

Island, as in: not attached to The Mainland unless you can swim ridiculous distances or have a boat. There is no bridge, no fixed link. The ‘Hat is on Vancouver Island.

Why would problems on a highway on an island 60 kilometers away from Vancouver impact livability in a city that’s not even on that island?

Well, first, it seems that The Economist’s study took into account “increased traffic and congestion problems in Vancouver and [the] Malahat” [emphasis added] (although, if you ask me, that’s bogus reasoning by any measure). Second, the folks at The Economist only took the Malahat as an example of worsening traffic conditions. (And a screw up of an example it was: sorry, folks, you goofed big time here.)

But what intrigued me in the whole kerfuffle was this: integration of Victoria into Greater Vancouver could actually benefit Vancouver insofar as a fixed link (aka “bridge”) would alleviate traffic congestion on Highway 1 simply by eliminating it as a needed route. After all, if you had a bridge from the Greater Victoria peninsula, why would you bother driving all the way up to Nanaimo/ Departure Bay in the first place? I never thought of it in those terms before, having always pondered how a fixed link could benefit Victoria. A silly “most livable cities” list made me see that it could benefit the other guy city, too.

The other thing that became more salient for me: Canada, that huge-huge land so sparsely populated and so dependent on a massive system of mostly government-funded infrastructure – railway, highway, tele-, radio-, and television-communication, fiber-optic cables, etc. – is committed to that infrastructure because it represents national unity. The Malahat, now largely a commuter highway between Victoria and the bedroom communities of the Cowichan and Duncan, is not part of any necessary route to get from Victoria to Vancouver. But it is part of that near-mythic national-unity-creating infrastructure. It is part of the Trans-Canada Highway, impossible to shunt aside.

I would argue that the only reason The Malahat was included, even as a mistake, in the data crunched by The Economist folks is because this highway is part of that highly symbolic highway infrastructure system. I mean, I bet they literally had no idea where it’s actually located.

But The ‘Hat remains significant and symbolic even though most of the actual transportation that goes on between Victoria and Vancouver takes place not via The Malahat and its endpoint of Departure Bay (from whence ferries leave for Vancouver), but from Swartz Bay (from whence ferries leave for Tsawwassen near Vancouver). Or, more directly, the money-intensive business traffic happens via air- or floatplane, either from Victoria International Airport to Vancouver International Airport, or, even more expeditiously, downtown-to-downtown, from Victoria’s Inner Harbour floatplane airport to Vancouver’s Coal Harbour floatplane airport.

None of the preferred (or fast) options include the Malahat or Departure Bay, Diana Krall’s wonderful song notwithstanding.

Now, given Canada’s self-image, imagine the consequences of lopping off the Trans-Canada Highway as a branded (TCH1) link between Victoria and Vancouver…? Suddenly, all sorts of issues heave into view. A direct fixed link from Victoria to Vancouver would undermine the symbolic significance of the Trans-Canada Highway running from Victoria to Nanaimo. And, weirdly, a fixed link might do more to raise Vancouver’s livability than Victoria’s.

Another reason why it’ll never happen.

Should downtown parking be (partly) free?

August 3, 2011 at 11:02 am | In cities, victoria | 1 Comment

I’ve been harboring a heretical thought in the wake of spending some time in the Bay Area this June: maybe cities of a certain size do better if they make at least some free parking available for downtown shoppers.

Stopping in Palo Alto often during my Bay Area visit, I finally figured out that Palo Alto owns a parking garage or two …and that the first two hours of parking are free.

Bear with me, gentle reader, if you think free parking is a gimme, for you should know that I live in a city renowned for what we locals lovingly (that’s sarcasm) call Parking Nazis. Actually called Commissionaires, they seem to be paid via a bounty system, for they are nothing if not avid in their pursuit of parking law laggards. Consequently, downtown parking has become a source of endless local complaint.

Until now, I never had too much sympathy with those issues. First, I live close by and can walk downtown. Second, I know where all the city-owned parkades are and I don’t mind paying a couple of dollars to park there if I do happen to drive in. I share the common dislike of parking meters, mainly because I can’t trust myself to get back to the meter in time (and I know the Parking Nazis will strike if I don’t).

What changed my mind?

I started to feel a little uncomfortable when I heard rumors that our city council (like many, always hungry for more revenue with which to pay its comfortably-salaried upper management at City Hall) might put parking meters into “village” (neighborhood) centers (like Cook Street Village, a neighborhood node). That just seemed greedy – and wrong. Especially since a neighboring municipality like Oak Bay, which has a thriving shopping area, charges nothing for parking. Downtown Victoria shoppers, in contrast, seem harassed and tortured – and now the city wants to extend that anxious climate into the neighborhoods? Not the way to go, council.

But the clincher to my change of heart came yesterday when I drove to another neighboring municipality, Saanich, which is now home to a brand-spanking-new shopping center called Uptown. (Note the name’s positioning, a challenge to Downtown…)

I needed to buy a gadget …and the stores in Uptown had the best selection. And when I got there, the underground parking garage was full and everywhere I looked I saw shoppers. It was like a bustling little mini-downtown – pretty much the opposite of what our dying downtown looks like these days.

For an eye-popping “fly-through” of what the mall is supposed to look like when fully built out, take 4 1/2 minutes for the following video:

While there weren’t (yet) as many people milling about the open spaces (too much still under construction), it was lively and bustling. Full of people.

And that brings me back to my heretical thought:

Maybe, if you’re not Manhattan or any truly large city that actually has a functioning CBD (Central Business District) versus a relatively poky tourist-and-government-offices downtown as Victoria has, you should lay off the draconian parking rules.

Like Saanich’s Uptown (or even, on a good day, Oak Bay’s main street), Palo Alto’s streets were also filled to the brim with people spending money and keeping the economy humming along. While bus service (and commuter train service) and bicycles are popular there, so is the car. The city recognizes this and makes it easy for those people who do drive into town to find parking – and it lets them park for 2 hours for free, right downtown. Here in Greater Victoria, too many people say they avoid downtown because the Parking Nazis and the city’s general unfriendliness to shoppers (whose suburban mindset means they bring cars) infuriates them.

But at the same time, we don’t have a downtown residential population capable of sustaining the downtown economy – which means we still need that suburban shopper with his or her suburban mindset. So why not make those shoppers feel more welcome? Right now, they’re heading to Uptown in droves – as are some businesses formerly located downtown, because they need to go where the shoppers are.

Yes, in an ideal world we wouldn’t be catering to cars – and if we were a real city, we wouldn’t need to cater to suburbanites either, and we could afford to skin them for parking. But we aren’t, and we can’t. When your downtown is dying, it’s probably not the smartest thing to make it even more impenetrable to convenience …especially when the suburban mall is “conveniencing” its ass off to grab thousands of shoppers who now have even fewer reasons to come downtown.

I know this is apples and oranges, but I can’t help but be reminded of arguments around the debt ceiling/ economy debate. The idiot Republicans want to stand on principle, saying we must “balance the budget” by cutting it (while not introducing any new taxes – this is voodoo economics 2-dot-zilch). Some saner folks are arguing instead that we should forget the cuts and focus on getting the economy going again – and then we can deal with the debt.

I feel that way about our downtown: let’s see if we can get an economy going down there again, and forget about standing on the principle (enforced by Parking Nazis for the benefit of the City’s coffers) that cars are bad, that we should all be happily jogging or cycling downtown, and that we should pretend we have a decent public transportation system that makes using a car unnecessary (we don’t).

A parking garage in downtown Palo Alto, California. First 2 hours free parking.

How to Save Downtown (Victoria BC)

May 30, 2011 at 8:16 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, dying_downtown, FOCUS_Magazine, land_use, urbanism, victoria, writing | 2 Comments

Below is the real version of my article, How to Save Downtown (it’s about downtown Victoria BC, but applies to many city centers crushed under the weight of overly needy – and stupid – municipal governments as well as strapped economies…).

I submitted this article to FOCUS Magazine for publication in its June 2011 issue. I was subsequently horrified to see that the publisher truncated the article so severely as to make it nonsensical. After I complained, he put a more-or-less intact version online (at last reading, there was at least one paragraph still missing), but the print version of the article has unfortunately already gone to press. I wish I could have taken back my submission, but I couldn’t. I’m much embarrassed (and angry) to see my name attached to it.

Here’s the article  as it was intended to appear. Readers might notice that it grew out of my previous dying downtown series:

How to Save Downtown

Victoria City Council recently offered the business community an olive branch when it addressed the tax ratio of commercial to residential rates by voting to reduce marginally (very marginally) that ratio by 0.004% in favor of commercial rates. While the Chamber of Commerce responded with tepidly mumbled words of encouragement for council’s decision, the daily newspaper merely reported the other side of the coin: that residential property taxes will rise by 7% compared to 1.1% for businesses.

Anyone who bothers to walk around downtown Victoria can see that many businesses are struggling. Take Fort Street’s Antique Row. Start at Cook, continue to Douglas, and note the number of “for lease” or “going out of business” signs. Too often, though, we ignore the plight of businesses and focus instead on the rise in residential taxes.

I recently posted photos of the many empty Fort Street storefronts to my blog. The comments that came in were instructive. Readers (including business owners) blamed downtown’s desuetude on many things: big box stores; tourism downturns; street people; lack of community support for independent merchants; problems related to overzealous parking commissionaires.

Everyone cited high rents, worsened by excessive property taxes:

“I have been perplexed that while we saw a recession start in 2009 retail rents continued to rise right through it as though there was nothing happening.”

“There is certainly no shortage of eager, creative and motivated entrepreneurs in Victoria. If they can deal with the impossible rents, along with the fact that the City is inherently anti-small business (zoning, permits, etc), they may have a chance.”

Comments repeatedly cited the City of Victoria’s lack of business support, noting that it burdens businesses with adversarial inspectors and bylaws.

Others noted that there is too much emphasis on tourist retail and not enough on incubating innovation for the homegrown market.

And people asked: if so many storefronts are empty, why are rents still so high? Bound to triple-net leases, tenants are typically on the hook for property taxes, and even building improvements. For paying property taxes, the City delivers nothing in services, not even garbage pickup.

In 2005 Greater Victoria had a retail vacancy rate of 3.5%. By 2010, that rate had climbed to 5.9%, and it doesn’t look better for 2011. According to Colliers’s Market Report, “2011 is likely to be a year of ‘status quo’ for Greater Victoria retail.” While the forecast admits that “2010 was a year of uncertainty,” it also posits that “the overall market has remained relatively healthy.” Downtown’s empty storefronts suggest otherwise.

Perhaps macro-analyses of Greater Victoria, which include data points around “secure federal and provincial employer presence” (read: consumers) and Uptown or Westshore shopping mall expansions (read: vendors), don’t speak to what’s going on specifically in our downtown.

I asked Graham Smith, who looks after Greater Victoria retail for Colliers, about lease rates and their responsiveness to the market. Smith pointed out that every property is different, each has its unique qualities. Whether it’s on this or that side of the street or in this or that block affects its lease rates. And just as properties are unique, so are owners. Smith likened it to selling a house: most people are convinced that their property is uniquely valuable, and some owners will insist on getting their price, while others just want it rented.

Why would a property owner let his property stand empty instead of offering struggling tenants a rate reduction? Smith’s market-based answer seemed cruel, albeit realistic: if a business is struggling, there’s something wrong with the business model besides leasing expenses. A 10% rent reduction isn’t going to help that business thrive if there either isn’t really a market for what it’s retailing, or it’s not open when customers want to shop.

However, consider the tax burden imposed on business. Take 789 Fort Street, a property assessed at ~$2 million; its 2010 property tax was $49,130.18. A comparable ~$2 million residential Victoria property (1989 Crescent Rd., for example) is taxed at ~$13,685.00. That’s a difference of nearly $35,000.

Who pays the property tax on commercial buildings? Typically, the triple-net lessee.

According to sources at City Hall, Victoria relies equally (50-50) on residential and commercial property taxes, but commercial property is clearly carrying the brunt. Nor is Victoria alone. 2010 Tax Rates reveal that Victoria taxes businesses the most, but Saanich and Langford are close behind:

Victoria Residential: 3.6581
Victoria Commercial: 13.1471
Ratio: 3.59
Langford Residential: 2.3343
Langford Commercial: 7.3764
Ratio: 3.16
Saanich Residential: 3.2697
Saanich Commercial: 11.6980
Ratio: 3.58
Oak Bay Residential: 2.9305
Oak Bay Commercial: 5.0610
Ratio: 1.73
(source)

True, every municipality has a pro-residential bias. After all, residential taxpayers elect the politicians. However, the difference is very much skewed against City of Victoria businesses in absolute terms: a lessee will pay much less property tax for a similar property in Langford since the property has a lower assessed value. This difference can be the make-or-break factor for a business, and partly explains the exodus from downtown. Let’s also not forget that fewer than ten years ago, Victoria’s ratio of commercial to residential taxation was 2.63, while it has now climbed to 3.59. (source [PDF])

An effective way to reduce the currently painful ratio would be to increase the number of residential properties on the City’s tax roll.

Recall my conversation with Graham Smith of Colliers. From his 11th floor CIBC Building boardroom we could see 789 Fort Street, a one-story building with two storefronts. Presently, half the building is rented, while the other languishes.

I pointed out that this building should have rental apartments on top, which would provide both customers and even employees. The newer building next door (at Fort and Blanshard, southwest corner) was built within the last fifteen years. Although newer, it’s also just a single story, with zero residential above the store. It seems we haven’t been adding mixed-use buildings with a view to bringing a diversified demographic into the downtown.

So why don’t we encourage more development that brings residents into the downtown, which would help “spread the pain” of property taxes on mixed-use commercial/residential buildings and would benefit retailers who need steady repeat customers? Consider that downtown Victoria’s population has actually declined since the 1970s when new seismic regulations left buildings vulnerable to unaffordable code upgrades. If you’ve ever wondered why some buildings downtown don’t have people living on the second or third floors, it’s because they didn’t remain “continuously occupied” since new codes came into effect. If a building remained continuously occupied, it’s exempt. If it’s vacated, however, it becomes subject to the new rules, and requires fearsomely cost-prohibitive seismic upgrading.

As for new buildings, condo towers (which target just one small slice of the larger demographic pie) have added some population, but we’re still below 1970s population levels. Newer one-story buildings, as well as older one-story buildings, represent a missed opportunity to diversify the downtown and to bring its residential levels back up to what they used to be.

There is a new proposal that’s heading in the right direction. The Cosmopolitan is a 5-story development for the 600-block of Fort. Currently making its way through City Hall, it includes ground-floor retail, with 4 stories of rental housing above. If the project is approved (it needs a minor height variance), it’s an opportunity to build exactly what Victoria needs: residential over the store. I asked the developer, Jurgen Weyand, how the numbers work when building rental. The short answer: they don’t, really. Compared to building condos, building rental is an investment on his part that may pay off for his grandchildren. But retailers will benefit from having residents that live where they work and shop.

So let’s look out Colliers’ 11th floor boardroom window again. Sometime in the last 15 years, a new building went up at Fort and Blanshard. But it’s just one story and has no apartments above the store. Sometime in the last few years, tenants came and went at 789 Fort Street, but it’s just one story and there are no residents living above the store. There are scores of downtown buildings that have no one living over the store. The Cosmopolitan will hopefully contribute to reversing that trend.

Clearly, we need more development downtown, whether it’s condo towers or five-story walk-ups above ground floor retail. New condo towers may attract retiring empty-nesters who want to shop and re-create in a walkable downtown. Rental apartments above ground-floor retail diversify the demographic, to attract a younger, more mobile tenant who works in those businesses for her day job (and shops there, too), while incubating the next great thing in the creative economy after hours. Win-win.

Bottom line: if we want to save downtown, we need people living there, right over the store. That would provide customers for businesses, as well as defray the property tax burden currently off-loaded via triple-net leases solely on businesses.

 

What I said about Victoria BC municipal elections in 2008

May 19, 2011 at 11:45 pm | In leadership, politics, social_critique, victoria | 1 Comment

Here’s an article I’d like all candidates for the upcoming Victoria municipal election in November 2010 to read: Simplicity of Losing, Complexity of Winning (September 2008 – link goes to Scribd). I wrote this for FOCUS Magazine in the run-up to the 2008 municipal election. Oh, how prescient – yet also how optimistic – I was. I couldn’t imagine the magnitude of FUBAR we ended up with.

Below, the full text of the article as it appeared in FOCUS:

Simplicity of Losing, Complexity of Winning
by
Yule Heibel

This fall, we’re electing new local governments, and the people we elect in Victoria will shape our city’s development.  We need to be talking about leadership, teamwork, and our collective attitudes toward winning, success and failure.

If you read Victoria’s “alternative” publications (for example, Sid Tafler’s Monday Magazine opinion pieces) or listen to some of the candidates emerging from Community Associations, you’ve probably noticed a rhetoric of heightened partisanship.  In some ways, this is to be expected.  After all, if you stand on a street corner and shout, “Sunshine!”, no one will pay much attention.  But shout “Fire!” and everyone comes running – even if that “fire” is the sun shining up in the sky.  Wolves, fires, bad news: they always get attention.  And as surely as newspapers need attention to sell, candidates need attention to get elected.

Incumbent politicians know this, too.  At a recent Committee of the Whole meeting, Councillor Pam Madoff warned that the current Council has developed (pardon the pun) a reputation for being developer-friendly – as if this were a dirty and dangerous flaw.  The message was that some councillors weren’t doing enough to protect Victoria from developer predation.  Rifts on council – and possibly among staff itself – are becoming painfully obvious.

It’s easy enough to repeat the meme of “pro-development” councillors rubber-stamping proposals.  But how can you draw attention for positive discourse that strengthens respect, listening, teamwork?  Local papers report on council meetings where development proposals fail to pass, and the stories are peppered with quotes from community association members who skewer the city for even considering these proposals.  Their solution?  Prevent proposals from ever reaching council in the first place.  Declared candidate and Fairfield Community Association rep Wayne Hollohan, responding to a recent tabling of a proposal to develop the Crystal Court Motel site, stated, “I don’t know what policy exists that this [building] doesn’t violate.” (Times-Colonist, Aug.15/08)   This is a language that brooks no conciliation or teamwork.  “Violation” draws a curtain on conversation, for it suggests that some councillors collude to violate an undefended city.

Cities should, however, be robust enough to venture forth unchaperoned.  But what’s a city?  We must address that question and figure out what we are as a city.  I’ll reveal my hand by stating what to me is obvious: a) we are a Canadian city of significant size as well as this province’s capital city; and b) failure is not an option for cities today.

Cities compete.  This is why they must be robust.

They have to compete regionally, nationally, and internationally.  Victoria shouldn’t pull up the drawbridge or get out of the game, as cities are far too important to regional and national economies.  They are productive hubs where large numbers of people of all ages, with complex needs and contributions, gather, live, and work.  This also means that their built form must maximize resources and extract the best efficiencies in land use, so that ecological benefits consequently are a byproduct of density.

Density in turn supports complexity.  That’s what cities do best, and it’s how they contribute to the well-being of economies and ecologies.  For cities, change (as a function of complexity) is a constant.  If they’re smart, change means they develop; if they’re dumb, they stagnate and decay.

As a voter, I have to ask how comfortable our municipal leaders are in addressing urban growth and creative development.  How familiar are they with the work of Jane Jacobs, who argued against centralized planning and in favour of organic growth as well as “webby” or networked economies that deal flexibly with import replacements and growth?  Or the work of Alan Broadbent, who writes about the need to fund Canadian cities properly and to give them the tools that allow them to run with greater autonomy and independence?  Or Richard Florida or Ed Glaeser, who make the case for creative economies?  Consider, for example, that your purchase of gadgets like iPods validates not the metals and plastic in the device, but the design — its embodied creative, intellectual value.  What this means is that the “creative class” or “knowledge workers” who create that value are more important than the raw resources that went into the product.  These knowledge workers live in cities, including Victoria, as our growing technology sector proves.

As a voter, I want to know what sort of competencies our elected municipal leaders demonstrate with regard to understanding regional  economic contexts; understanding information and knowledge economies; understanding the potential of the creative classes, green urban development, and the need for density?  How many are stuck in yesterday’s thinking, which says that density is equal to “slum” or “blight”?

During a meeting between mayoralty candidate Dean Fortin and the Downtown Residents Association, Councillor Fortin declared that each additional storey on a building raises the crime rate and social problems.  When pressed, it turned out that his opinion was based on reading just two University of Toronto reports about an out-of-date public housing project – hardly the stuff of contemporary urbanism!  Councillor Fortin then volunteered Councillor Sonya Chandler’s opinion that high-rises are not a workable urban form because Peak Oil means that elevators will grind to a halt.  This rather fanciful, and hardly realistic, view of urbanism just isn’t helpful.  A more creative, versus fear-mongering, approach would foresee elevators running on alternative energy sources, generated by the high-rises themselves.

One wonders: have some of our municipal leaders missed the message that densely built-up cities are in fact far “greener” and better for residents than low-density development?

It seems that the provincial government “gets it,” as shown by Bill 27 (see my August 2008 article), which explicitly asks cities to encourage density and compact growth.  Unfortunately, in BC there’s always the danger that if “they” get it, then “we” have to oppose it, because partisan politics rule.  But the fact is that at the local government level, partisan politics are simply stupid, and not smart at all: if you want to run a city, grow up and leave partisanship at home.

And yet, consider our culture.  Victoria has always attracted eccentrics.  Whether they’re newcomers or homegrown entities, the city has attracted its fair share.  That’s a good thing if you believe that eccentricities contribute to a city’s vibrancy, and that our ability to attract them speaks volumes about Victoria’s potential.

But, and this is a huge but: Victoria fails to nurture respect for team-players.  Look into our history and note how many creatives ended up leaving Victoria because the climate here wasn’t supportive.  If someone wants to build a winning team, he or she will likely run a gauntlet of gainsayers who find reasons to nitpick the Great Idea until it lies in tatters on the ground.  The cheering section for failure in this town is huge, and that needs to change.

What’s wrong with winning, anyway?

Well, winning usually means increased complexity and change.  It’s that simple.  Losing, on the other hand, means simplification, stasis, stagnation.  Obviously, my support goes to complexity and change, which is why I would ask those who want to win in our next election whether they’re certain our city won’t lose.

What I wrote about “Victoria fail[ing] to nurture respect for team-players,” and that people who want to build a winning team have to “run a gauntlet of gainsayers who find reasons to nitpick the Great Idea until it lies in tatters on the ground” because “the cheering section for failure in this town is huge,” still stands. I was referring to the difficulties encountered by change-makers, not to Old Boys or to partisan politicos – those guys always seem to “work together,” albeit not for change, but for the status quo. Then I wrote, “and that needs to change”; three years on I doubt it will.

This is Part 2; read Part 1 about my foray into the archives here.

 

DNA quadruplex formed by telomere repeats

What I said about social media and political engagement in 2008

May 19, 2011 at 11:09 pm | In leadership, politics, social_critique, victoria | Comments Off

Social media mavens, Victorians: take note. We have a municipal election coming up this fall, and I just re-read a piece I wrote for FOCUS Magazine in the run-up to the last municipal election in 2008, published in October of that year: Smart Twits? (the link takes you to Scribd).

Below, I copy and paste the entirety of the article. It pains me to say it, but I was way ahead of my time here – underscoring that “here” is not where I belong.

Smart twits? A user guide
by
Yule Heibel

The scenario: municipal elections approach, but you haven’t managed to get excited enough to pay attention.  One candidate says, “our backs are up against the wall,” while another suggests affairs are trundling along as always.  Which one gets your attention?

My bet is on the one who tiddles your panic button (even if you don’t like it).

But wait…  Don’t they say that once you’ve panicked, it’s already too late?  Who manages smart decisions when panicked?  But when you’re voting, choosing smartly is important.

So maybe that’s why you decide not to vote?   You leave the panic-mongers to their wide-eyed, sputtering friends, and you don’t like the “career politicians,” either.  Face it, bud: you’re an alienated citizen, …although we both know you’re smart.

What should politicians do to engage you?  It’s not an academic question.  Locally, I’ve overheard the “our backs are against the wall” statement numerous times in recent weeks, and simultaneously I’ve watched more temperate players struggle to develop a message that gets people’s attention.  There’s definitely a chance to run a dumb race to the bottom, where candidates exploit fear instead of explaining opportunities.

Can we google this problem?

I spend lots of time online.  Believe me, the holy grail of many web developers is to create applications that make users feel empowered and smarter.  Smart is powerful, and it’s in our DNA to learn: we’re a monkey-see, monkey-do kind of mammal, and we want to feel like smart apes, not dumb chumps.  I’m convinced that in the aggregate, web technologies make users smarter.  Since it’s election season, let’s see if politicians are learning here.

Online, I’m immersed in a river of information and feedback generated by an array of sources, from individuals to organizations to traditional media outlets.  That web-based informational flow is as real to me as daily mail, newspapers, and chats by office water coolers were to previous generations.  By using technology, I gather flows of information without relying on just one or two broadcast sources.

Savvy politicians have figured out that they, too, can’t afford to ignore how users are actively re-organizing information, as opposed to being its passive recipients.  Look, and you’ll find that nearly all the local politicians are on Facebook, “conversing” with their social networks.  Look further, and you’ll find that those with national aspirations and an adventurous bent use even more immediate social networking tools.  Twitter, for example, is a microblogging platform where users “tweet” (and can tweet each other) in a constant ping-pong of real-time informational back-and-forth.

We’ve seen a persistent migration to online social media in politics.  The goal?  Relationships with other users and with potential voters.  Politicians need voters to win elections, but first they need to communicate with them.  At the national level, Jack Layton and Stephen Harper “twitter,” Stephane Dion and Elizabeth May don’t (yet).  All are on Facebook, though, as are many of our municipal candidates.

Mainstream media and information sources have migrated to social media, too.  CBC journalists, Macleans Magazine, the Vancouver Sun, the Globe and Mail, the National Post all twitter, as does the Vancouver Library and many individual librarians (who typically are early adopters).  Businesses small and large twitter (AirCanada, anyone?), and customers can tweet complaints (or kudos) directly to a business’s stream.  If the business tweets you back, that conversation is visible to anyone. WorkSafeBC twitters new guidelines, updates, and more, all in real time.  Even BCLegislation twitters (“Automated alerts for legislative changes …Published by Quickscribe’s BC Legislation Portal”).  Facebook and Twitter are just two platforms.  There are others: blogs, Tumblrs, Flickr, MySpace, Identica, FriendFeed, etc.  The list will grow.

Many smart users are online, skinny-dipping in a river of news.

Except not so much at the local level, where information flow is often turgid, dependent on broadcast media, or on having access to the “right” individuals (who may or may not be online).  Local politicians and the civic institutions they represent aren’t using social media to talk directly with “users.”  There’s no VicCouncil twitter-stream, …unless you consider the actual experience a tweet.  While quite a few candidates are on Facebook only a tiny minority of incumbents are.

At the same time, it seems improbable that the lessons of social media technologies aren’t having a powerful effect on local politics.  Online mavens know that VibrantVictoria.ca’s discussion forum has opened up the city’s conversation on urban development and politics (along with many other things) to anyone with access to a computer.  Ask a question, get an answer.

Candidates who face the icky choice of either getting your attention by panicking you, or boring you because they have nothing attention-worthy to retail, should talk to users (potential voters) directly: open the conversation and engage alienated voters.

Just don’t try to get our attention by panicking us.  That’s so dumb (read: not-smart).  Smart should be empowering and make YOU (the user) better.  As one of my Twitter friends noted, “Don’t focus on making your BOOK better… focus on making the READER better.”  She also wrote, “[It] NEVER matters how good YOU are. Only how good USERS can be.”  Substitute “election platform” for “BOOK,” and substitute “citizen” or “voter” for “READER” or “USER,” and we can start talking.  …Or tweeting.

Of course it’s inevitable that we’ll eventually meet offline.  As someone twittered recently: “All my batteries are dead.  Talk to me in person.”

Well, that was my take on public engagement in Victoria THREE YEARS AGO. How have things improved?

PS: This is part 1. Next up, Part 2, about my September 2008 article, which is another piece worth reading, considering that municipal elections will soon be upon us again…

Do you have a pet?

March 25, 2011 at 11:37 pm | In business, health, victoria | Comments Off

I spent today at the USANA Cross Regional Conference in Vancouver. Lots of engaging, interesting speakers who spoke about the wellness industry and a changing economic landscape that makes individual entrepreneurship and business ownership increasingly important. The event continues tomorrow – more on that in a bit.

First, though, I want to tell friends in Victoria BC about a USANA Lunch + Learn event that my team is hosting this Monday (3/28) from noon to 1pm at Chinatown’s Eco-Design Gallery (17 1/2 Fan Tan Alley): Pet Nutrition with Guest Speaker Cari McCune.

 

(click image to open PDF invitation)

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This is bound to be a fun and informative event, presented by someone who’s passionate about animal health and welfare. As always, it will be followed by a delicious lunch catered by the Dan Hayes, aka the London Chef.

I’m sending this to my Victoria friends, but with the Vancouver conference happening right now, I got a bit behind in getting this information out. So here’s the thing: if you’re in Victoria and want to attend this Monday’s Lunch+Learn, you must RSVP to me by 5pm tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon. Click through on the invitation for details. You’ll note there’s a cost involved, but I’m extending two invitations to attend as my guest – I’m looking for two people who are really keen on preserving (or restoring) their pets’ health. Leave a comment, send me an email, get in touch if this is you! Invites going out on a first-come basis! ;-)

Back to Vancouver and the USANA XRC (Cross Regional Conference): tomorrow morning’s session is open to the public. I’d love to see some of my Vancouver friends there.

Details available on this PDF flyer, but briefly, tomorrow’s open-to-the-public morning session, “A Commitment to Excellence,” starts at 10am and goes to 12:30pm. It’s happening at the Vancouver Convention Centre in the East Ballroom A-C. There are four speakers, including Mark Wilson (Executive VP of Sales) and Dr Tim Wood (Executive VP of R&D).

You will be entertained and informed, believe me. So stop by tomorrow morning, text me on my mobile (we’re Facebook friends, right?, so you have my number), and say hi!

Dying Downtown Victoria BC Part 3

March 23, 2011 at 3:32 pm | In business, dying_downtown, land_use, victoria | 10 Comments

Welcome to the third in a series of now three posts about Victoria BC’s dying downtown. Read the first one here (3/21/11) and the second here (3/22/11).

As you can see in the second post, one of my commenters on Facebook remarked that for her, that stretch of Fort Street isn’t really downtown. I answered that it is officially a part of downtown – it’s in the Harris Green neighborhood. Also, my photos included the 700 and 800 blocks of Fort Street, and if that’s not downtown, nothing is.

I would argue that if people don’t think of it as “downtown,” it’s because it doesn’t look like a downtown.

To prove my point, take a look at the photo below (let’s call it Exhibit A):

I’ll have a lot to say about this scene in just a sec, but first, allow me to show you the other six already-empty or endangered storefronts on that same stretch of Fort Street, except this time the south side of the street (my first post in this series looked at the same blocks on the north side of the street).

Once again, we start at Fort and Cook Streets, heading east (this time on the south side of the street). First, a clothing boutique (which used to be in the 700 block of Fort a while back) is closing:

Next up, a high-end antiques place. The owner has had the building on the market for a while – don’t let the faux Tudorbethan decoration fool you, this is a plain cinderblock box. It’s just the front facade that has been prettied up:

Right next door is a real disgrace: the ex-Little Piggy, which has been an empty eyesore for going on years now:

Again, the Tudorbethan facade is just tacked on. The building itself is nothing much – and has been on the market for a while.

Alright, heading further east, we hit the 900 block where a new building recently completed. One retail space has been leased, but the other is still waiting for a tenant. At least this is a quality building (but rents are therefore accordingly steep, tough for indie businesses to enter into):

Leaving the 900 block behind, we’ve now crossed Quadra Street and are continuing toward Blanshard. On this block (800) we see a couple of holes:

And, same block:

Finally, in the 700 block (between Blanshard and Douglas Streets), the tacky frontage shown in the first photo that headed up this entry:

As you can see, if you compare my first Dying Downtown Victoria BC entry and this one, the empty storefronts exist on both sides of the street, and the 900, 800, and 700 blocks in particular are by any definition downtown.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

Let’s take another look at the picture I started with:

Look at it. What you see here is what is basically a tiny little lot with a tiny little structure on it – one can’t even deign to call it a building – which in any other market would be bulldozer bait. This is a one-story thing – it houses two retail units: one of them happens to be rented out at the moment, while the other one has gone bust and is empty. …And will probably stay that way for a long time.

Now, in any  normal world, this structure would be torn down and developed because it’s right downtown, it’s sitting on incredibly valuable land. But instead, what we do here in Victoria, is we allow a one-story waste-of-space space waster to continue existing downtown.

So what should the city do?

Well, how about this?

Instead of enabling property owners like the one who owns the property in this picture to continue propagating this kind of decay downtown, why not say to him or her, “You know what? We’re going to put tax incentives in place so that you can develop this property. Forget about height restrictions, you can go as tall as you can need to make the numbers work, but let it be known that we are going to hold your feet to the fire for a real quality product. It has to be a total quality product. You don’t have the height restrictions, you don’t have the density restrictions, so in exchange you have to include rental components and on the street frontage you have to include retail spaces that are specifically affordable for local businesses. So. How about this, Mr or Ms Developer? You build something that’s anywhere in the 15- to 20-story range, or whatever it takes to make the numbers work. Your building is on a very small lot, so you have only a tiny footprint to work with. So the top 4 to 6 stories could be given over to duplex-style penthouse condos that you can sell at a premium, another 3 to 5 stories below the top 6 floors could be smaller condos, while everything below that is given over to rental, including market rental and a healthy percentage (30%?) of subsidized rental. And, as mentioned, at street level, we have retail. Ok, Mr or Ms Developer, go and make those numbers work. See what you can come up with. See how tall it has to be, and then get back to us and we’ll make sure it moves through the approvals process, pronto.”

That’s what I would do, and that’s my advice to the City. And I won’t even charge a consulting fee.*

…Although, if someone wants to hire me in some such capacity, I’m available… ;-)

Furthermore, if you did that with one site, other bulldozer-bait sites in the vicinity would also get the message and finally get developed.

Maybe, just maybe, if our downtown actually looked like one and if people could actually live there once again (we currently have fewer people living downtown than we did in the early 1970s!), we’d begin to treasure it. But as long as we have asinine restrictions that not only keep the built form low but also depress the entire ecosystem of the city, as long as we have councilors who cling to some weird notion of low-rise density, and as long as we have NIMBYs in the surrounding neighborhoods who scream blue murder because a highrise is going up downtown, we will continue to create market conditions that are inimical to human economic life downtown.

Dying Downtown Victoria BC followup conversations

March 22, 2011 at 10:55 pm | In business, dying_downtown, land_use, victoria | 3 Comments

Yesterday’s post (Dying Downtown Victoria BC) generated a fair bit of comment on Facebook. I decided to take screenshots of the comments and post them here. (However, since I haven’t had time to ask the people who commented whether they were ok with having their comments taken from Facebook’s walled garden into the open access world of the blog, I erased their names.)

First, a friend “shared” my link to his page, which produced the first comments string, below (with names erased in yellow). This is followed by the comments posted to my Facebook page (names erased in blue).

Enjoy!

 

 

 

^ That’s from a friend’s page.

Below, comments from my page:

 

 

 

 

 

FYI: about a year or so ago, I had a most interesting chat with a retired City Hall employee who had worked his way up from literally digging ditches for the City as an 18-year old to going into engineering. One of his hobbies was researching land titles. From what he told me, I got the impression that the city doesn’t have a real data base on who owns what (which was echoed by a woman who tried to find out from City Hall how many rental units there were in Victoria: the City couldn’t tell her). Anyway, my contact was quite insistent that a lot of property is in family hands and hasn’t changed ownership in several generations. The heirs can make more money sitting on half-empty buildings, charging high rents for the storefronts, than they would if they tried to redevelop their properties (or even sell them). The tax structure is set up to make it more attractive to hold and let decay than to develop. Add to this the mania we have about height restrictions and not allowing density, and perhaps a pattern emerges…

 

 

Dying Downtown Victoria BC

March 21, 2011 at 8:26 pm | In architecture, business, dying_downtown, johnson street bridge, land_use, scenes_victoria, victoria | 12 Comments

If downtown Victoria BC storefronts were teeth, this city would need a new bridge.

…Oh, wait. That’s a bad joke (see posts tagged with Johnson Street Bridge)… We are getting a new bridge. But as the following photos will show, what we really need is economic revitalization.

This afternoon, I was walking down Fort Street to Monk’s at Fort and Blanshard. I passed one empty storefront after another – just on one side of the street, just on one street, just on three-and-a-half blocks.

This is what many parts of downtown Victoria look like.

We start at Fort and Cook Streets, the northeast corner, before we head east on Fort St. (we’re traveling on the north side of the street).

 

We see 1090 Fort St, and there isn’t just one empty storefront, but two.

This is Kona Coffee Shop – or rather: was. Now gone.

 

Next up, same building:

This used to be a hair salon. Even a hair salon can't survive here?

 

Next up, in a small, low building a few doors down:

 

Charles Baird Antiques – closed

 

The next one’s demise (just a few doors down) was new-to-me:

Plenty Epicurean Pantry will be closing next. :-(

 

Nearly next-door to Plenty (ironic name) is the Korean specialty clothing boutique that closed earlier this year. The sign claims that someone new is taking over, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Right now, the place is empty and bereft:

 

Specialty knits boutique – closed earlier this year.

 

Ok, we’re still in the same block (1000s), and here’s another place that has been sitting empty for months and months:

 

This used to be a niche home decor store. Has been empty for months. No new takers.

 

Ok, we now come to the 800 block of Fort St. (The 900 block on the north side of Fort is mostly surface parking lots – next to Lund’s – and a grassy trash-lot in front of View Towers. So, there are only a few stores in that block anyway…)

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Seeing that this one is closing was a shocker: it's a Korean grocer, next to a French butcher. Why is it closing?

 

A couple of doors down, there’s the carpet place, which recently started claiming that it was closing. Probably just a ploy, but I thought I’d include this to replace Marvan (in the 1100 block of Fort, on the south side), which is closing, sadly:

I'm guessing this store isn't really closing. It's just a cheap ploy to convince rubes there are deals to be had.

The alleged going-out-of-business carpet store did take over (in a most unattractive manner) an empty storefront next door – yes, another one, and it has been empty for …what?, years now?

The ex-Miroirs home furnishings store, an empty storefront for months upon months, currently being used by the carpet store two doors up (the carpet store that's claiming to go out of business, too)…

 

Now we’re in the 700 block of Fort. I can’t even remember what this store used to be – but it’s empty, and will probably stay that way for ages…

Empty storefront in 700 block of Fort St.

 

And next door to the above, the former Cairo Coffee Merchants, defunct:

Cairo Coffee Merchants, closed, empty, …for how long?

Ok, that was depressing.

It never fails to amaze me that Victoria is full of attractive neighborhoods, bounded by gorgeous scenery that’s unparalleled.

But go downtown, and you have to wonder why Victorians hate their city so much that they let it die.

Note: this post is the first of a series of three – it just kind of happened that way. Part 2 is here and part 3 is here.

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