Monday, May 23, 2011

Hollyburn Mews: North Shore Outlook's Account of the May 16 Public Hearing

On Monday May 16, 2011, after almost five years of planning and deliberations, a revised proposal to put 9 smaller homes on 3 lots in Hollyburn went before West Vancouver Council at Public Hearing. As the new developer, I was pleased that the merits of this proposal one block from Marine Drive, next to the Seniors' and Community Centre, would finally be discussed at Public Hearing. However, I was concerned that a 'last minute' issue related to the appropriate determination of the amount of the Community Amenity Contribution payable by the developer might derail the Public Hearing. Sadly, I was right, and the Hearing has now been adjourned until Monday June 6th, 2011.

While each participant in this process may have a different perspective on the situation, here is how I see it. In setting out these observations, I must say that I have very much appreciated the dedication of District staff over the past 11 months while processing this application, and the high level of interest from the Mayor, other members of Council, and the broader West Vancouver community.

In a few Metro municipalities, it is becoming increasingly common to demand 'voluntary' payments from developers seeking rezonings to 'finance growth'. I say finance growth in quotes since in the case of this application, few are disputing that the resulting population from nine smaller units may be no greater than that from three larger houses, each with a legal basement suite.

Most developers do not object to paying fair Community Amenity Contributions or Development Cost Levies to finance growth. However, whereas most municipalities determine the Community Amenity Charge based on a cost per unit or per square foot of new development, the City of Vancouver and the District of West Vancouver have been determining the developer's payment as a percentage of the incresed value of the land upon rezoning. That's right. If the land is expected to go up in value, (and usually it does) the 'lift' in value is determined to be subject to a form of 'muncipal taxation', to the tune of 75% of the estimated increase.

Is this fair? Well, it depends on who you talk to. I personally think it is the wrong way to proceed for many reasons. Not only does it create uncertaintly for the developer, it may not be fair to the public, especially for small, low density proposals. In such cases, the value upon rezoning may not be any greater than the value prior to rezoning, or the price paid for the land.

This was the case for my late 1990's Balaclava Mews proposal on West 41st between Balaclava and Carnarvan. As part of the approval process, City staff requested copies of my Purchase and Sale agreements for the 7 lots I was proposing to rezone for new seniors' oriented apartments. In this case they compared the value upon rezoning with the price I paid for the properties. The conclusion? As then Real Estate Director Bruce Maitland told Councillor George Puil, the city would not be requesting any Community Amenity payment since I paid too much for the land!

In the case of Hollyburn Mews, a Letter of Opinion was requested from Vancouver appraiser Sandra Cawley in February 2010. At the time, she concluded that since there were no similar projects to compare, especially involving the sale of coach houses, and the very low overall density being sought...about 0.63 at the time, (similar to single family density in Vancouver) the 'lift' was negligible. However, the developer was asked to contribute approximately $50,000, and he agreed to do so.

I purchased the project from the original developer on the understanding this matter had been resolved. However, after buying the properties and concluding the public consultation process, the project was not able to proceed to Public Hearing since the District was undertaking a reveiw of its entire zoning by-laws. I therefore decided to use the delay to revise the plans, adding in-ground basements or cellars, something potential buyers were requesting. I also made other design changes to improve the design and 'neighbourhood fit'.

Prior to Council's consideration of the revised application, I was told that since I had added basements, the District thought this might increase the reezoned land value. Therefore, at the last minute, another Letter of Opinion was requested and submitted.

At first I was not concerned about the request for another appraisal since two very knowledgeable West Vancouver developers, and other realtors had told me the value of the property as single family lots had increased significantly and I might be better off financially selling the lots with their current zoning. Indeed, while I expected the project to be profitable, I did not expect to make any money on the 'land lift'.

However, the new Letter of Opinion increased the estimated lift to $595,000! Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to fully analyze the letter before it was presented to Council. However, once I did, I realize it under-estimated the holding costs. More specifically it allowed only 3 months for the rezoning, development and building permits. Yes, 3 months. In reality, it will likely take a year from the time I bought the properties to the time I actually start construction. And while I want to build as quickly as possible, construction will likely take at least 14 months, longer than allowed.

I also questioned the anticipated sales prices that were significantly higher than those estimated in February 2010, and more than I expected. More importantly, I thought the values as single family lots were underestimated, especially given the recent rise in prices, with many sales above asking prices.

Determining a land residual value can be very challenging. In addition to estimating future sales prices, the appraiser must estimate construction costs, interest rates, and other variables. In this instance, a potential builder asked if the appraiser's estimate made provision for the various sustainability features West Vancouver was seeking. I was told the construction cost assumed a good quality of construction, but it did not specifically account for better heating and insulation systems, dry-sprinklers, heat recover ventilation, etc. These costs alone can add 3 to 5% to the cost of a home and reduce the land value accordingly.

Similarly, the estimate did not include any provision for the required undergrounding of BC Hydro wires, (which is now estimated at $35,000 but could easily end up double this amount), and the cost of other off-site obligations.

When I pointed this out to staff, they agreed with my concerns and decided to request a third Letter of Opinion as of September 2010, when the consultation process had concluded and I was in a position to make my submission. At that time I theoretically had the choice of taking 8 weeks to obtain permits to build three new houses, or go through a rezoning process that would take longer.

Using revised assumptions, the anticipated 'lift' was reduced to $155,000, and the requested contribution was set at $116,000. Rather than delay the project, I agreed to pay this amount.

It should be noted that in addition to theCAC, I am also paying a Development Cost Charge of approximately $62,000, ($55,000 of which goes to West Vancouver) since I chose to consolidate the three lots into one to improve the design and future ongoing management. Had I not asked to consolidate the lots, this payment would not need to be paid to the District.

At the Public Hearing, approximately 47 people spoke to Council with the majority in support. This was quite remarkable in West Vancouver, which is generally known to be slow to change. However, since a couple of speakers questioned the disparity in the last two Letters of Opinion, the Public Hearing was adjourned so that the staff and appraiser could review with Council the rationale for the variations.

Hopefully, once the facts are better understood, Council will agree that CAC and DCC contributions totalling $171,000 is more than reasonable, especially since the prosal only increases the FSR by 4800 square feet. This equates to $36 a foot, higher than CAC/DCC's in other jurisdictions.

It should also be noted that while other municipalities charge CAC's based on 'land lift' or dollars per sq.ft., to the best of my knowledge no other municipality would require a CAC payment for a small, low density project such as this.

As you read the newspaper account below, you will note some rather outrageous claims by one person, a mathematician who often questions the calculation of Community Amenity Contributions in West Vancouver. At the Public Hearing, he referenced a nearby townhouse development for which he claimed the land value went from $2.8 to $6.8 milion. His information was both incorrect and ridiculous; so much so that I didn't know how to respond when asked by the reporter to comment on his calculations. One can only hope that the staff and Council will understand the situation and do what is fair.

As attested by dozens of speakers at the Public Hearing, this is a much needed development. The housing will not likely increase the population, and it is, in itself, a community benefit for those seniors who want to downsize and remain in the neighbourhod. As other speakers noted, this proposal is exactly what the committee studying community housing choices has been recommending. As one seasoned architect so elegantly said, "This proposal is re-inventing West Vancouver in a very positive way".

Lower Mainland municipalities need to change our current system of calculating CAC's and return to something that is more predictable and fair for all participants, including the Public. However, this is not likely to happen before June 6th when Council will resume the Public Hearing. Anyone may speak again. Hopefully, following public input and the appraiser's explanations, Council will approve this much needed proposal with a CAC and DCC that will allow the project to be built and sold at prices deemed fair and affordable, which was another of the issues repeatedly raised at the Public Hearing.
North Shore Outlook
Laneway housing project splits West Van residents
By Rebecca Aldous - North Shore Outlook

Published: May 18, 2011 1:00 PM
Updated: May 18, 2011 2:07 PM

If land re-zoning is allowed for the Hollyburn Mews proposal – which includes a duplex and a coach house on each of three lots – then the value of the land will increase. But by how much?
Submitted image

The district and the developer behind West Vancouver’s possible first carriage housing development are once again reaching for their calculators.

Michael Geller, a Vancouver-based architect and planner who oversaw developments such as the South Shore of False Creek, has drafted a nine-unit development on three lots in the 2000-block of Esquimalt Avenue. The proposal includes a duplex, ranging in size from 1,430 to 1,650 sq.ft., and a 1,150 sq.ft. carriage house on each lot.

Before Geller can break ground, the development needs an Official Community Plan (OCP) amendment and a re-zoning of the three parcels. District staff recommended the OCP amendment apply to the entire block to allow for similar infill projects on the remaining lots.

Three hours’ worth of speakers chimed in with their thoughts on the project, Hollyburn Mews, at Monday night’s public hearing. Ultimately what stole the show were questions regarding the project’s estimated dollar increase as a result the re-zoning. The re-zoning would allow for more units on the lots than the original designation, essentially increasing the value of the properties. This process is called uplift; three quarters of the new value is paid to the municipality as a community amenity contribution. Council uses that money for improvements throughout West Van.

The uplift for Hollyburn Mews was estimated to be $155,000 by real estate appraisers Burgess, Cawley, Sullivan and Associates. That’s down from a $595,000 estimate the company came to earlier in the year. The two vastly different figures raised eyebrows among the crowd.

Using the most recent estimate, if council waved its re-zoning wand, tripling the permitted number of units and increasing the permitted density by 75 per cent, the value of each lot would only increase by $52,000, West Vancouver resident George Pajari said. This simply doesn’t add up, he said. If the developer were to build the same number of units within the existing zoning, he would have to spend millions to buy sufficient land, he said.

“If you had to go out and buy six lots in West Van how far do you think $155,000 would get you?” Pajari asked council.

Councillors Michael Smith and Bill Soprovich suggested the development’s public hearing be adjourned to the next council meeting, on June 6, to allow councillors the opportunity to review the variance.

Since the hearing, the district and Geller have discussed using a formula which will more clearly define the uplift. One of the difficulties the district faces is there are no comparable developments when calculating its worth, said Bob Sokol, the district’s director of planning, lands and permits. In addition, the value difference is not based on the dollar increase of the property once the property is developed, he noted.

“You can’t just look at the sale price of the project,” Sokol said.

The new formula will likely have a payment to the municipality that is tied with the financial success of the project, Geller said.

People often assume nine smaller houses are worth more than three larger houses, but it is not always the case, he said, noting the profitability of the project doesn’t hinge on the uplift.

Many people are concerned about affordable housing within the region, yet the more the project will have to pay to the district, the higher the units’ prices will be, Geller said, adding Pajari’s figures are calculated using BC Assessment numbers which would distort the value of the land. Community amenity contributions are common; however they are usually paid to offset the cost of additional amenities for the increase in population, Geller noted.

“In this case the number of people living in nine smaller houses may be no different than the ones living in three larger homes,” he said.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Hollyburn Mews: A surprisingly significant undertaking

A number of people have expressed surprise at my enthusiasm in pursuing a rezoning in West Vancouver for what is a relatively small and modest undertaking, especially when compared to SFU's UniverCity or Bayshore in Coal Harbour. In response, I like to point out that in its own way, this could be an equally significant planning accomplishment. It is, after all, the first project of its kind in West Vancouver, and to the best of my knowledge, the first project of its kind anywhere in Metro...that's right.

By way of background, I have been interested in alternative forms of 'Compact Housing' dating back to the mid-seventies when I was an architect/planner in the CMHC Vancouver Office. At the time, the GVRD (as it was then called) and CMHC undertook a study exploring a variety of ways of gently increasing density in established neighbourhoods. My interest in the subject subsequently led to my participation in a national CMHC study called "Sensitive Infill", undertaken by Peter Barnard & Associates of Toronto. One of the ideas it explored was laneway housing, which only recently has been approved in Vancouver and other Metro municipalities.

In the ensuing years, there have been examples of larger lots being redeveloped with three or four townhouses. There have also been examples of laneway units or coach houses being added to properties containing existing houses that have been converted into two units. We have witnessed larger houses being converted into three smaller units, and new triplexes being built on larger lots.

However, to the best of my knowledge, no one has successfully rezoned a single family lot in an established neighbourhod and replace the older house with three units comprising a duplex and a coach house. This is the essence of Hollyburn Mews, which will result in nine such units on three contiguous lots.

What is also significant is that at 0.61, the resulting FSR or density is comparable to that of single family zoning in many Metro municipalities. In other words, this could be a model for new 'infill development' in many single family neighbourhoods with back lanes, or on corner lots, with little if any increase in density.

This past Tuesday night a neighbourhood Public Information Meeting was held to review the latest plans for Hollyburn Mews. While I had no idea how many people might turn up, I was delighted to meet approximately 35 West Vancouver residents, many of whom were viewing the proposals for the first time. Of those in attendance, I can say that 33 were generally in full support. However, one resident was concerned about parking impacts on the neighbourhood, and another was concerned that West Vancouver's proposal to amend the Official Community Plan for the entire block within which the three lots are located might be 'the thin edge of the wedge'.

More specifically, she was concerned that this could lead to the blanket rezoning of the surrounding area. She is not alone in this concern. Over the many years during which the redevelopment of these properties has been discussed, many Ambleside and Dundarave residents have expressed similar concerns. ADRA, a local residents' association has been particularly vocal about the inappropriateness of the introduction of new housing forms such as duplexes and coach houses which might significantly alter the character of their neighbourhoods.

While one resident quibbed that he hoped this was the 'thin edge of the wedge' since many West Vancouver residents are looking for smaller homes in the area, District planners have been careful to point out that if these applications are approved, they intend to monitor new developments very carefully to ensure that they are in keeping with the neighbourhood character, while providing much needed housing choices.

My personal view is that the times are changing. And so is the demographic makeup of the area. In fact, I was pleased to discover that many of those in attendance, including a few architects, were there not only to see what might be built, but to explore whether this might be the type of housing they would choose to move into one day. And why not. The architectural plans by Formwerks and Jane Durante's lush informal garden designs should result in a most appealing and liveable development.

If you are interested in learning more about the Hollyburn Mews proposals, you will find a link to the West Vancouver website here. If you agree this is a worthwhile initiative, you can write to the Mayor and Council at or attend the Public Hearing on Monday May 16 at 7 pm in the West Van Council Chamber. I am expecting the discussion to be stimulating, and look forward to the approval of a project that will both benefit West Vancouver residents and help me realize my longstanding interest in 'sensitive infill' development.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Hollyburn Mews: Public Information Meeting Tuesday May 10, 2011 and Public Hearing Monday May 16, 2011

The following notice was recently mailed out to the neighbourhood surrounding my proposed rezoning in the 2000 block Esquimalt, one block north of Marine Drive, next to the West Vancouver Seniors' Centre. However, anyone interested in this proposal is invited to attend these meetings.
Dear Resident/Property Owner

RE: Hollyburn Mews: Public Information Meeting

Geller Properties Ltd. is pleased to invite you to a Public Information Meeting to review
a proposal to redevelop the properties at 2031, 2047, and 2063 Esquimalt Avenue. If
approved by West Vancouver District Council, it would result in the construction of
three duplexes and three coach houses for a total of 9 new housing units, designed to
cater to West Vancouver residents who are ready to downsize, but wish to remain in the

The meeting will take place on:
Tuesday May 10th from 4:30 to 6:30 pm in The Audio-Visual Room, West Vancouver Seniors’ Centre
695 21st Street, West Vancouver

An informal Open House will be held from 4:30 to 5 pm. At 5 pm, a brief presentation
will be made following which the developer and members of the consultant team will
answer questions and look forward to your comments.

This meeting is being held by the applicant to inform the neighbours about the project
details and proposed bylaws prior to the District of West Vancouver’s Public Hearing.
West Vancouver Council has set the Public Hearing for
Monday May 16, 2011 at 7 pm in the West Vancouver Municipal Hall.

Details of the proposal and the accompanying staff report that was previously
considered by Council can be found at
or on the West Vancouver Website.
For further information, please contact Michael Geller at 778 997 9980 or by email at, or Steve Mikicich, Senior Planner, West Vancouver Planning Department
at 604 925 7056 or

We hope you can join us.

Friday, May 6, 2011

My first four decades: A retrospective June 9, 2011

Simon Fraser University City Program – Free Public Lectures:

Michael Geller – Forty Years On

May 2010 marks the 40th Anniversary of MAIBC Michael Geller’s graduation from the University of Toronto School of Architecture, and the beginning of an active career in architecture, planning, real estate development, and community life. Since then, Geller has had a coast-to-coast career in both public and private sectors, involving ground-breaking projects from False Creek South to UniverCity. Join him for a four-decade retrospective of his work in Room 1900, SFU Harbour Centre Campus, 515 West Hastings Street. Thursday June 9, 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. For further information, please visit

An Open Letter to Andrea Reimer on requiring LEED Certification as a condition of rezoning

Andrea, your somewhat snarky comment on Twitter that if UDI is opposed to LEED CERTIFICATION you are even more committed to requiring it, has prompting me to write this note to you.

The reason UDI and many other knowledgeable professionals are concerned with the City's new proposal to require LEED certification as a condition of rezoning, rather than LEED Equivalency is that it won't work in a practical way. Please don't take my word for it...check this out with Heather Tremain or Robert Brown or the Canada Green Building Council or anyone who has had to get a building LEED certified.

Here's the problem. A rezoning contingent on achieving a LEED Gold Certification will grant extra density. The building can be bigger, or higher. However, the developer and his/her team will not know if the building can be certified until AFTER COMPLETION AND OCCUPANCY...that's right, after completion and occupancy, when all the building systems have been properly commissioned.

Now what happens if the building does not achieve the requisite requirments through no fault of the developer or the LEED advisor or consultant team?

I know that you have never taken a building through the LEED certification process but I have. I have also heard of countless stories of buildings not being certified at the desired level because a contractor used the wrong glues, or the energy performance was not exactly as the engineers calculated and hoped. Yes, you can over-design, (you can design for Platinum and settle for Gold) but this can be extremely costly and not practical in many instances.

In the case of a normal approval process, it doesn't really matter if a Platinum building ends up as Gold, or a Gold Building ends up as Silver.. But if a rezoning is contingent on achieving Gold, what happens if in the final analysis this standard is not met?


If the building achieves Silver, instead of Gold, do just some of the residents have to move out?

The reason that LEED 'equivalent was workable was that it avoided this possibilty. Please tell me how you address this possibility if the City is requiring certification?

Now, I can hear your Law Department or Sustainability Group say....well, let's get a performance bond or letter of credit that the developer will forfeit if LEED Gold isn't achieved. That's been suggested before.

Well, quite frankly, I and many other developers would rather build in another municipality than risk posting an LC for hundreds of thousands of dollars that may not be returned if our buildings do not comply with the indoor air quality requirements. Especially if the city is also seeking 75% of the rezoning 'lift' as a condition of rezoning. But that's another matter to be discussed.

As a final note, I was one of the original Directors of the Canada Green Building Council...I am a supporter of Green Buildings. But LEED WAS NEVER INTENDED AS A ZONING TOOL. Unless the rules have changed significantly or are going to be changed, I do not see how you can use it as a zoning instrument within the Cambie Corridor

Please review this with your advisors, the sustainability group, and the Deputy City Manager with whom I have shared this concern before. I look forward to your response.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

New Solutions Required for Olympic Village Social Housing

The following article was recently published on While I like to think this is an interesting story, the story behind the story is even more interesting. One day I will tell it, but for now here are my observations as to how we got into a very expensive mess with the Olympic Village social housing. Grab a chair and a's quite long!

For some time, I have been troubled by decisions made by various Vancouver City Councils related to the Olympic Village Social Housing. Today, the City has sunk more than $64 million in subsidies into 252 units, and yet more than 100 apartments are still empty, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars each month. At various times, the Province appeared willing to help finance the housing, but the city chose to proceed without Provincial assistance.

It is my hope that by providing Vancouver taxpayers with a chronology of past decisions, we will demand a more rational and fiscally responsible solution to address the current situation, and reduce future losses. It is also my hope that the City will initiate a comprehensive review of its social housing policies and procedures, since in the absence of sufficient federal and provincial subsidies, the current policies no longer work.

2002. VANOC agreed to contribute $30 million towards the cost of the Olympic Village housing.

2006. The 252 social housing units were estimated to cost $65 million, based on $300 a foot (excluding land), which was considered reasonable at the time. Although there was no funding agreement with the Province for the balance of the funds, the City decided to proceed nonetheless, a highly unusual arrangement.

As the drawings progressed, it quickly became apparent that the costs were going to exceed the $65 million estimate, due to unusual building designs, increased unit sizes, higher environmental standards, and general increases in construction costs. City staff approached BC Housing to discuss capital and operating subsidies and reference to a forthcoming funding request was even recorded in Hansard when the matter was raised in the Legislature. However, a formal funding request was never sent.

2007. City staff estimated that the costs were going to rise to $95 million (excluding land) and Council approved a funding increase In-Camera.

2009. By now it was apparent that the cost (excluding land) was going to rise from $65 million to a projected $110 million. In a February report to Council, City and Provincial officials estimated that $56M to $77M in City subsidies would be required to keep the housing affordable for those for whom it was intended. While VANOC’s $30 million was available, the City would have to find significant additional funds.

In reviewing this report, I discovered that only 126 of the 252 units were actually 'social housing' units to be made available on a rent-geared-to-income basis. That’s right. The remaining 126 units were to be rented to just about anybody at slightly below market, which in housing parlance is known as ‘the lower end of market’. While this broader mix was standard practice for larger new social housing projects, it was something that was not generally known or understood by the public.

Given other greater social housing priorities, and the City’s serious financial exposure on the entire Olympic Village development, I and others advocated that the 252 units be sold as condominiums. This would allow the City to recover its costs and potentially make a profit. I noted that new social housing could be developed as part of future developments on the 23 acres of City-owned land immediately adjacent to the Olympic Village.

To make a sale of the social/rental housing more politically palatable, I suggested it could be offered as 'workforce housing' with priority given to firefighters, police officers, and other City workers who wanted to live closer to where they worked. While some worried that selling these units might negatively affect the sale of the remaining condominium units, for which the City was the lender, I proposed ways to differentiate the two products based on my experience at SFU’s UniverCity. These included offering the units as leasehold, rather than freehold tenure, or with other conditions attached.

Sadly, this idea was condemned by some City councillors who said it would turn the village into a "gated neighborhood" where only the rich could live.

However, in November 2009, a small group of housing experts was invited by City staff to confidentially review a draft Report to Council setting out various options for the Social/Rental Housing. These included maintaining a mix of rent-geared-to-income and market rental housing; converting all the units to market rental housing; or selling the units as condominiums as I and others had suggested.

At this meeting, with only one exception, everyone told the city staff that trying to rent many of these units as ‘market rental’ would be very unwise. The apartments were too big compared to other rental suites on the market, and the standard of finishes was not what the market had come to expect, especially at the relatively high rental rates being proposed.

I subsequently learned from a local reporter and others that the Mayor also favoured the option of selling these units. His number one social housing priority had always been to provide shelter and accommodation for the homeless. This was not the group to be served by the Olympic Village. Selling this housing would allow the City to get back its $110 million and a potential profit of up to $69 million, as estimated by the staff report. This could go a long way in addressing social housing needs.

However, as the Olympics were about to begin in a few months, the matter was put on the back burner until the following spring, when the Social Housing report setting out the options finally went to Council, as a rushed ‘Late Distribution’ item, I might add.

2010. Notwithstanding the Mayor's earlier position, Council rejected the concept of selling the units as condominiums. Instead, it voted to retain the status quo with half as social housing, and the other half as rental housing. The only changes it did agree to were to increase the rents to market rent, rather than 'the lower end of market rent', which was exactly what the housing industry experts warned the City not to do. Council also voted to adopt my idea to give priority to city emergency workers and school teachers. However, they would have to be renters, not owners. On this basis, Council estimated the subsidy requirement at $64 million and agreed to find or borrow $32 million, in addition to VANOC’s $30 million and $2 million in Development Cost Charges, to subsidize the units.

However, at a media briefing following this decision, the Mayor and City Manager proclaimed this decision as a major compromise in the interests of fiscal responsibility. Subsequently, under newspaper and radio headlines claiming that the social housing was to be halved, the Mayor was quoted as saying that financial realities were forcing the City to scale back on the amount of social housing. He blamed the mismanagement of the past Council in containing costs. Only Councillor Geoff Meggs made it clear in a subsequent radio broadcast that it had always been intended that only half the units be rent-geared-to-income and the balance rented on the open market. However, he insisted that the market rental units were not being subsidized. He was wrong.

What none of us knew at the time was prior to the Council decision informal discussion had taken place between the City and the Province regarding an alternative funding arrangement for the social housing. While the Province was not prepared to provide the City with capital funding or operating subsidies, it appears it may have been prepared to take over the project. While City and Provincial officials have different recollections on this matter, once again the City continued with the project on its own.

The Province did play a subsequent role assisting the City with the selection of non-profit organizations to purchase and operate the units. However, as we now know, only a few submissions were received, including one from the Portland Hotel Society, an organization acclaimed for its work providing supportive housing for the homeless and hard-to-house. All of the proposals were rejected.

The City subsequently decided to proceed on its own with an alternative plan involving a cooperative housing organization. It agreed to enter into a long term lease to operate some of the housing as a cooperative, and serve as an ‘interim manager’ for the remainder of the units until another longer term solution could be found.

2011. This brings us to today. According to the most recent Receiver's report, 144 of the 252 social/rental housing units are still vacant, more than one year after the Council decision to keep, rather than sell this housing. The Receiver’s report does not set out how much the City has lost, or is paying each month. However, given interest and holding costs, and lost revenues, it could easily be in the order of $200,000 a month.

The Coop is having difficulties leasing the units due to the complex income restrictions in place, and the very factors the industry experts warned the City about in November 2009. The rents for many of the units are too high for the unit sizes and features being offered.

While some City officials are pleased with the progress being made in leasing up the units, others privately worry that it may take a long time to fully lease up these buildings. Ironically, and most sadly, rather than populate the village with new residents to reduce the 'ghost town' feeling, the exact opposite is happening.

While the debate continues over just how much money the city is going to lose on the Olympic Village, and there are repeated calls for a Public Inquiry, I believe the City needs to find new solutions to fill this housing. Options might include revising the Coop’s income restrictions, reducing rents, or upgrading some finishes. Some prominent signage visible from around the site might also help.

The City also needs to initiate a comprehensive review of its other social housing programs. As we have recently witnessed, providing temporary shelters is a costly and poor solution for the longer term. Furthermore, the longstanding policy of requiring 20% social housing in larger developments no longer works in the absence of adequate senior government subsidies. While new projects are proceeding on 12 City-owned sites, they are very expensive and not always housing those in greatest need.

The empty social/rental housing at the Olympic Village is a social and financial tragedy. It is also a testament to bad decision-making by the current and past city administrations. It is now time to identify more rational and fiscally responsible solutions since we simply cannot afford to continue as we have done over the past few years. Moreover, we cannot afford not to house many of those currently living on Vancouver’s streets.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

May 4...the Deadline to file Nomination Papers for NPA

Today is the last day to file my papers as a potential candidate for the NPA in the upcoming election.

Over the past few months, a variety of people have been urging me to run for Vancouver City Council. They include a significant number of former Civic politicians, many people in the Media, and citizens from all walks of life and of various political persuasions. Surprisingly, I have been strongly encouraged to run by a number of current and past members of the City Hall staff. I say surprisingly since I often thought these same people shuddered when I walked through their doors at City Hall! But now, they are so concerned about the poor and uncertain decision making, and generally bad morale in the Hall, that some of them have been my most ardent supporters.

I have given a lot of thought to running, either as a Councillor, or as the candidate for Mayor. (My Goodness...if my father, may he rest in peace, knew just who was encouraging me to run for Mayor, he'd be astonished....and quite frankly, I'm astonished and flattered. However, I realize this is not so much praise for me, but concern over the current administration, and a general indictment of the current state of politics in Vancouver.)

However, for a number of reasons, I will not be filing papers this time around. At a later date I may set out my reasoning if anyone is interested, but my reasons should be no great surprise to most of you. The fact is, my family and I enjoy a wonderful and very satisfying life; I am involved with very interesting projects and have good clients and business colleagues; and I enjoy working at my own schedule, travelling to far off places on a fairly regular basis whenever I want.

Moreover, Civic politics seems to be increasingly partisan and I am not comfortable being a partisan politician. It is also becoming very nasty, especially in the blogosphere and in the social media, where anonymous commentary can be very hurtful. As I told the Courier's Mike Howell when I announced my candidacy three years ago, I do not have a very thick skin, despite my many years in planning and real estate development.

So, to all of you who took the time to encourage me to run, thank you. To all the candidates who are planning to run, I offer my best wishes.

I am not leaving the Vancouver Civic Affairs scene. On the contrary, I plan to continue with Bill Good on CKNW for as long as he and his producers will have me. I also plan to write more regularly for various publications.

And on June 9th at Simon Fraser University, on the 40th anniversary of my first job at Irving Grossman Architects, and Environment Planning Associates, I will be giving a talk on my first 4 decades in planning and development...titled Forty Years On...which is the title of a well-known school song in UK...that was my father's school song...something he used to sing it to me as a young child.

For me it's now 40 years on. But it won't be marked by a start in politics!