Monday, June 07, 2010

Talking about the Victoria OCP - what came of the Friday evening at my home

In the end only a small number of people showed up, but they were a diverse selection of people and all of them well informed about the City.    We were small enough that we could be more informal and talk about the OCP in a wide ranging manner.

The evening started with us delving into "What do we mean by a sustainable city?"   We did this because sustainable is such a buzz word these days but rarely has any real details of how it will apply to the majority of the people.

Since more of us were from the Burnside Gorge area, this neighbourhood often came into detailed focus.

I have to thank Sheila for taking notes on Max's easel, they are the basis of what I am writing now.

Industrial Lands
As people I hope know, I have had a growing concern about the loss of industrial lands in this region.   I raised this early on because my concern because it is a core sustainability issue.  In our discussions on this we came up with three clear concerns about the loss of industrial lands

  1. The City needs industrial lands near the core to support the functioning of the core.   This means garabage, recycling, storage and other physical needs of a dense office-commercial core of a city.   If the lands are lost, materials, such as waste metal going to Budget Steel, will have to be trucked to somewhere like Duke Point instead of being loaded on a barge at Rock Bay.  
  2. With no available industrial lands it becomes almost impossible for someone to start a new business that manufacturers anything or is providing services to offices, retail and restaurants.
  3. With less industrial land there are fewer options for blue collar jobs.    Industrial lands in the CRD provide numerous moderately well paying lower skill jobs.   The loss of these lands will also mean the loss of these jobs.  With the jobs no longer available, the economic profile of the region will become like a barbell - lots or poor retail or restaurant work and lots of white collar professionals and very few people in between.

These issues seemed to us to be pushing Victoria towards a city of two classes of people that are economically completely separated - a high gini coefficient.   Where this happens elsewhere the general social well being of the community does not do well.   The best BC example is Whistler.

It also is a problem for the roads and environment if we push even more goods to be moved further distances.   The loss of Budget Steel or Ellice Recycling would add significant pressure to the Malahat.

In the end we came to an agreement that it is crucial for the City to ensure there is no more loss of industrial lands.   People also agreed with my suggestion that the City clearly indicate to developers that consolidation of properties in certain areas of the City would be acceptable for transition to industrial zoning.

Housing and Sustainability
The second issue of sustainability related to housing.   The current house prices have continued to rise and the new mortgage rules have reduced the ability for first time buyers to enter the market.

We discussed in detail about how the youth will be able to purchase houses in the future.   Affordability for many people means finding new ways to buy a house.   The need for a secondary suite has become almost crucial for many younger buyers to be able to afford anything.  Meanwhile secondary suites continue in a grey area through out the region.

We talked about families with two kids living in two bedroom condos.   We talked about multi generational families in a house but the restrictions on what you are allowed to do is not working for a lot of boomer aged parents that would be willing to share a house with their kids as a way to help them buy one.

We also talked about the coming reality that house prices, and by extension rents, are rising faster than the rate of inflation.   Unless there is some serious action is taken to slow or stop this trend, we will be pricing the City completely out of the market for retail workers and Seniors.   Without a change we should expect to see the staff for restaurants, stores, cleaning staff and other people earning less than $15 an hour, to be living north of the Malahat.   A 2 hour commute each way is a reasonable expectation in 2030 if housing costs do not fall.   This already happens in the case of Whistler.

We also talked about the fact the City is becoming unaffordable for people like police, fire, paramedics and nurses.   Are we going to have to offer living allowances to these people so that they can afford to work here?

I made the dramatic statement "Maybe the City should set a goal of seeing the average price of a house fall to $250,000"   The homeowners in the room were polite to me, but made it clear that this would be unsustainable.   My wife was one of those people.   I admit I only made the statement to start the conversation and we could all agree that the City should adopt a measure of sustainability linked to the price of an average house.   The City should take measures to do what is possible to increase the housing stock enough to ensure that house prices remain level for the coming decade or longer

City coming close to capacity
We also noted that the City of Victoria population has grown faster than expected and we are already at to the population level estimates for 2021 and we are in significant danger of hitting the zoning capacity of the city of about 95,000 people in a few short years.   The City needs to consider creative changes to existing single family zoning that would address the need for housing.

Ideas raised were to always allow secondary suites, to make it possible for people to build small out buildings that can be used for people to live.  We also raised the idea of lane housing and in street housing as ways to find more places to build.   I had a further suggestion but we ran out of time - I was going to suggest that the property set back between houses could be reduced to zero on the agreement of both owners and that all new subdivisions allow houses to be built with no setbacks to each other on the new lots.

Danger of the loss of numerous apartments
Several of us have come to the realization that much of the apartment housing stock in the City is coming up on 50 years old and within the term of the OCP is likely to become bulldozer bait.    These three to six story buildings were not dramatically high quality when they were built in the 60s and 70s and are now rapidly becoming low a low quality of housing.   The extreme example is View Towers, but many of those buildings along Cook Street north of the Village are outdated.

So what happens to these buildings?

  • If the owner can no demolish and build something new, the buildings will be allowed to decay.
  • If the buildings can be demolished but they have to replace each rental unit with another one, there will not be a strong desire of the owners to rebuild.
  • It would seem that ultimately many of the owners would ideally want to replace the buildings with larger buildings of condos.

We had no specific solution, but did note there is a strong potential for the loss of much of the rental stock which would cause huge problems in the City as we are a community of more renters than owners.   We did note that in the past there were senior government incentives to build rental accommodation.   Some sort of incentive could encourage more apartments.

This lead us to discuss the role of condos in the rental market.   Some buildings allow a lot, others allow none.   We came to agreement on this is a solution because we did not know enough and were uncertain if this would offer rental security in the future.   As a personal after thought, maybe the City can pass a bylaw that outlaws restrictions of condo units?

One issue that came up over and over again is the fundamentally flawed planning process in this region.   Planning for the City of Victoria as if the world does not exist beyond the boundaries leads to decision making that is short sighted and badly done.   The neighbourhood I live in should be jointly planned by Saanich and Victoria because it is one neighbourhood, but how things work now we make two plans with no reference to each other.

All of us agreed that it harms good governance and planning to have multiple local governments in this region.

Other Issues 
We all agreed that the current OCP process in the city is another example of the weakness of the current engagement strategy of the City. The feeling was that this process paralleled the problems with the Johnson Street Bridge process and in the case of this neighbourhood, the process to replace the lost parkland.

We touched on transit for a bit and talked about the rapid transit plans for the Douglas Street corridor.   We noted that this was the City of Victoria OCP and that rapid transit offered very little to the majority of residents of the City.

Burnside Gorge
We very specifically discussed the ongoing problem of the loss of parkland the lack of action by the City to replace it.   We noted that the City did a very poor job of engaging with the neighbourhood about park plans and that the survey in the recent local community association newsletter was not well done and not asking the sort of detailed questions we expected.

In the last couple of years we lost the Ellice Street park and part of Cecilla Ravine.  Some of the long time residents in the neighbourhood felt that the city deliberately let the Ellice Street park become run done.

We also noted the ongoing problem in the neighbourhood with pedestrian access to the rest of the City.   The sidewalks along Burnside are not adequate for comfortable walking especially with young children or dogs.   We also talked about the promise from the City years ago to provide a greenway access from Maddock Street to Cecilia Ravine.   The neighbourhood does not register in the priority list of sidewalks in the current pedestrian master plan.

The End?
We wrapped up around 9 pm.   The City did provide us with a wealth of background information that I spread out on our dining room table.

I will send this information in to the City and incorporate some it if my own personal submission on the OCP.

I may also edit this later as I may have more to add.
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