News,discussions about Victoria and the Capital Region and the issues that affect us. My area of expertise is in active transportation, particularly cycling and walking. My recent term on Victoria City Council also keeps me interested in local issues that come up at City Hall and around the region.
I'm running again for council and the regional district. Hope you find a reason to offer support.
Monday, December 31, 2012
Investing in a more vibrant downtown . . .
Happy to add something more to the discussions about how to
inject some new vibrancy into Victoria’s downtown economy.It’s something that I’ve at least had
something consistent to offer over the last few years.It’s a bit of a contrast to new converts who
have more recently discovered the issue and are looking for new voices and new
ideas to bring to the table.Notwithstanding
that any strategy will need to be a team effort, requiring everyone on council
to be pulling in the same direction, more or less, it would be as useful to
have some confidence that there is a coherent connection between the “nice
things to say” and the “better things to do”.Talk is cheap enough, but concrete action is going to cost more, both in
real dollar terms and in the expenditure of political capital to support
investments or make decisions that may be at odds with the sometimes confusing
directions offered by the changing winds of more populist positioning.
Case in point is the Pandora Green project that our last
council was pilloried for, from both left and right, for being either too
expensive or aimed at disenfranchising those for whom a tent city was, at least
then, a convenient soapbox on which to stand in defense of our street
population.Most of our council, at
least, was focused on a coherent and consistent strategy to aggressively pursue
funding and property opportunities to increase access to diverse housing and
shelter options for our most disadvantaged citizens.It’s still a better, and actually a cheaper,
solution for everyone than the tent city debacle that plagued what is now
Pandora Green only a couple of years ago.
Homelessness is still a problem enough, but the opening of a
new shelter and another project to rescue bankrupt hotels is now paying off, in
some measure, in the provision of supportive housing for some of those most in
need.For the afflicted neighbourhood
along Pandora, the disappearance of the boulevard squat has been a welcome
relief from the downward spiral of disorder, and the new plaza and boulevard
improvements are creating a more livable environment for both the more
transient users of Our Place to the more permanent residents living in
apartments and condos dotted around Harris Green.Over the longer term, the revival is also
likely to attract more local business investment that is as likely to pay for
the costs of the project through increased assessments, contrary to the hand
wringing of those who have, as always, decried the expenditure of public funds
unfairly extracted from their pockets.
The other fiscal dividend may still have a long gestation as
we try and realize the savings that will emerge from a strategy that shifts
management of what was an increasingly intractable policing problem to a more
appropriate social services model.Police calls to the area dropped by more than 25% soon after the
completion of the project and, along with the housing and other supports we so
desperately need in our community, the longer term prospects for at least
containing the growth in policing costs should emerge from investments that
work in concert with one another.Making
downtown and nearby neighbourhoods more attractive and reducing the impacts of
difficult social issues is going to be key to sustaining, if not reviving, some
of our economic vibrancy in Victoria.
That’s a lesson that should be understood by the councillor
now promising to make the downtown economy a priority.Scoring political points by looking for ways
to cut the city’s investment in affordable housing made for a good few news
stories, but it was never a good strategy for building a healthy downtown
economy dependent at least as much on presentation.Likewise, her campaign video trashing the
city’s investment in Pandora Green probably made friends and influenced votes,
but I hope the councillor will be so good as to at least rethink, if not climb
down from that particular plank, or prank.Making mileage with the grass-roots community was good politics then,
but there’s a new year coming and a new parade to chase, even if the more
comprehensive and coherent collection of plans and policies built to emphasize
downtown density, new economy industrial zones and other more substantive
approaches to economic diversification are in play.Teamwork, it seems, is less appealing when
it’s all about being a new voice, a different voice, an independent voice.
I’ll be watching to see what’s under the Christmas tree next
year.It’s bound to be something fresh,
or at least half-baked, again.
Nouveau bean counters have kept quiet about a recent parks
project that emerged in James Bay, a neighbourhood near to downtown in
Victoria, BC, though numbers of other park projects have borne the brunt of ire
over the expenditure of tax drawn funds aimed at greening the community.
Fisherman’s Wharf Park underwent a transformation over a few
years, turning a patch of grass, and not much more, into a first rate,
interactive playground and, towards another end of the field, a more extensive
and expensive project of rain gardens and other features designed to replace
conventional storm water management utilities with a more naturalized and
effective system to gather up the overload of winter storms and filter the
water before it finds its way back into the nearby harbour.
The very visible and stunning project was welcomed by
neighbourhood activists, but found some dissenting voices among those whose more
basic objective is to prevent the spending of tax dollars on anything they can
see, let alone a seemingly superfluous window dressing project aimed at
presentation, more than effective management of the city’s always too generous
budget resources or physical assets.
Moving the project ahead over the term of the last council
was no easy feat, with some eyebrows raised over costs associated with the
improvements, while at the same time willfully blind to the benefits delivered
by new approaches to managing some of the more fundamental services of urban
infrastructure that cities remain responsible for.Many are, at best, unfamiliar with the maze
of pipes and other utilities hidden underground – the ones that carry the water
to our taps, take away the waste after it’s been flushed away, or the hundreds
of kilometers of storm sewers that are there to channel the floods of wetter
seasons, draining the roads and carrying water away from our buildings and
houses so we can continue to function as a city more than a swamp.
In Victoria, as in many other cities, those pipes are aging
in place, and not very well, with some of our own system 100 years old or
more.Where breakdowns occur, the cost
of digging in and replacing pipes is an expensive and repeating emergency that
has to be dealt with, and the slow but steady replacement of the unseen
infrastructure a dauntingly costly exercise, the magnitude of which is grasped
by few enough of our neighbours.It’s
the unseen deficit of infrastructure, once built by previous generations and
that we are now seemingly resistant to repairing or replacing as the bills come
I was reminded last year, of how little appreciated the
assets held by the city contribute to our quality of life, or how cities deal
with the routine and mundane impacts of our weather patterns, even as the
climate evolves towards something more ominous.Why waste money on planting more trees, I was asked by one critic?I offered that a tree was a very good
investment, actually, not the least for its ability to suck up huge quantities
of rainwater that might otherwise find its way, unhappily, into your basement
if the rest of the system was overtaxed.We do happen to live in a city where it rains, at least on occasion and
sometimes heavily.Storm water systems
can only manage so much and sometimes must rely on the natural environment to
pick up the slack.
The new park design is more complex, but likewise substitutes
manufactured underground utilities with a more sympathetic and natural design.It’s one that can handle the storms and provides
the added benefit of filtering toxins out before the water returns to the
ocean.It’s open and it’s simple.If a system were to clog up or break down, it
would be accessible and serviceable, though the need is so much less likely to
arise since it better mimics natural ecosystems than a drain grate and pipe
buried under ground, asphalt or concrete.There are no valves and mechanical features to malfunction, since those are
likewise taken care of by natural design – the landscape is its own safety
valve, absorbing or storing water and slowly letting it percolate back into the
water cycle.It looks expensive, but
apart from the initial capital works, the system maintains itself much more
cheaply and the initial costs are not so different, really, than those we pay for
the infrastructure you cannot see.
The new Fisherman’s Wharf park opened in the fall of 2012,
with, ironically, some on the new council in attendance, including those who
are lately looking hard to find new targets for cost and service cuts, claiming
to be focused on the essentials.Some of
the discussions at council seem to have been aimed at parks, greenways, bike lanes
and other facilities viewed as “nice to do”, over what cities “must do”.That shows at best, a lack of creative thinking
and a short-sighted approach to how cities manage assets and
responsibilities.Longer term costs are
an issue as much as immediate capital challenges, and, truth be told, some of
the costs can be covered through the increasing assessments associated with
rising land and housing values in a neighbourhood much improved by the addition
of a beautiful and natural park that provides the same essential services anyway.
We need to start looking forward to the future, not back
into it keeping our eyes firmly fixed on the past, and one which, in so many
ways, may not have worked so well in any event.