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.

New look for an old problem

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 in.

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.