Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Saturday's Vancouver BC election

Vancouver is one of North America's leading examples of high density urbanism.  (Image from Destination BC.)

Starting in the late 1950s, the city began encouraging high rise multiunit apartments, while also focusing resources on creating and maintaining parks, access to the waterfront, and recreational and civic facilities ("The Vancouver Model," Places Magazine; "High density living in Vancouver, British Columbia").

In transportation planning circles, the city is "famous" for not allowing freeways to be constructed within the city.  The Translink transit system operates at the metropolitan scale, and is highly respected.

The city began gaining population with the handover in 1997 of Hong Kong to the Chinese. Residents were able to move to other British Commonwealth countries and many chose Vancouver. The city continues to add population and to build more housing towers.
The metropolitan area is constrained by mountains and seas and like other similarly constrained cities (Seattle, Salt Lake, etc.) perhaps this is a factor in an enhanced sense about the environment.  That being said, residents aren't happy with the "Growth Machine" and what they see as the complicity of elected officials in stoking it.

On the other hand, Vancouver interestingly shows the difference between being a city-state, like DC, and being a typical municipality with "ordinary" financial capacity.  Last year, Vancouver's government budget surplus was $5 million while DC's was in the hundreds of millions--because DC collects income taxes as well as property taxes, and has a stronger commercial real estate market, not because it's better managed or a better place to live.

Vancouver elections.  Canada doesn't allow the national political parties to organize and run affiliates at the municipal level.  Ontario doesn't allow the creation of local parties, while British Columbia and Quebec do.  Yesterday was election day for provincial and local offices in British Columbia.

Unique characteristics for voting and governance.  Saturday elections make British Columbia unique across North America.  Provincial elections are held on a schedule different from local elections.

But Vancouver has other unique electoral qualities.  The city has four active political parties, three of which won offices yesterday.  All of the Council positions are elected at-large, which makes it easier for the Council to act for the city as a whole.  The City also has an elected park board, unique in Canada, which has been in place since the late 1890s.

Saturday's election had three strong mayoral candidates from 3 of the 4 major parties (10 parties ran candidates for City Council), the incumbent, Gregor Robertson, of Vision Vancouver, the center-left party, Kirk LaPointe, former editor of the Vancouver Sun, for the Non-Partisan Association, the conservative party, and Miriam Wong of COPE (Coalition of Progressive Electors), the left party.  (One of Wong's platform positions was a suggestion that transit be practically free "Universal transit in Vancouver for $1 a day, pitches mayoral candidate," Vancouver Sun).

The continued densification in Vancouver, along with the hollowing out of the middle class, put the majority party at risk, and Kirk LaPointe ran a better campaign.

Results.  Despite that Gregor Robertson was re-elected and Vision maintained a Council majority, but NPA has 4 of the 11 seats, one of which went to the Green Party--candidate Adriane Carr got more votes than any of the candidates, and Vision lost control of both the Parks and School Boards--the Green Party picked up seats on both.

Note that Vancouver's population is a little smaller than DC's (603,000+ to 630,000+) but they had a slightly larger turnout, 44% and 181,000 voters, compared to DC's recent results of about 164,000 and 35.5%).

So in Vancouver, while two parties (Vision, NPA) dominate local politics, a third, the Greens, is a viable third party, with seats on the City Council, Parks Board, and School Board, while the fourth (COPE) is still viable (COPE was the majority party on Council before Robertson's first victory).   Vision controls the City Council, NPA controls the Parks Board, and the School Board is split between Vision and NPA, with the Greens having the deciding vote.

It results in a much more vibrant polity than is typical of US cities.

-- "Gregor Robertson re-elected mayor of Vancouver," CBC-TV
-- "Re-elected Mayor Robertson Vows 'We Can Do Better'," The Tyee
-- "Vancouver Election: The Tyee's Four Big Questions," The Tyee (the questions are affordable housing, balancing density with neighborhood character, campaign finance reform, and the city's role in oil pipeline issues)
-- "Vision's Angry Voter Double Whammy," The Tyee (the prime funder of the NPA is a railroad executive)
-- "Why Vision Deserves Vote of Progressives in Vancouver," The Tyee
-- "Kirk LaPointe and Gregor Robertson — the politician and the ideologue," Vancouver Sun

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At 10:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vancouver is a nice place- albeit a rainy and cloudy climate- but I have a real problem with the horribly ugly architecture- not the height or density- but the overall blandness of it. They need more traditional looking highrises and fewer of the Mies inspired crap and the line that anything goes or is acceptable. The food is great with all of the Hong Kong people having moved there- and it has really good tranist, etc. But it is a souless and dismal cityscape and not at all magnificent like DC's cityscape- for all of it's faults. Vancouver might be an example of urbainsm at its finest to some- but to me- I would find if incredibly boring and very colorless and destestable. I love my residential alley house !!!

At 8:40 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

I agree with the above comment, although from the inside those dismal buildings are not bad.

Interesting in terms of comparisons. About the size of Cleveland? Or maybe a bit bigger. (The metro area). DC seems to be about the same size although the metro area is much larger.

In terms of the politics, I think we have a couple good points:

1. At large instead of ward seats
2. A larger number of seats overall
3. The strong role of parties.

The third is telling. I've argued in the past that campaign finance reform is counterproductive in terms of parties and vision.

You can see the Growth Machine at work there. As we have argued about, a large part of DC politics is not the growth machine but rather the poverty machine.

At 6:24 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Royson James is a columnist for the Toronto Star, and he wrote a column on the lessons from the Rob Ford years. I wrote to him opining that would things been more under control if there were parties in Ontario.

He wrote back saying that the sentiment among Ontarians is strongly against parties at the municipal level, that it has come up before, pretty recently, etc., and even after Ford there isn't a rising sentiment for parties.

Then he wrote a column that was quite good, about how the Mayor, only being one vote, but by appointing heads of the standing council committees + having the executive committee, still has the ability to shape the agenda being beyond one vote.

BUT that puts everything on the person rather an organization, and that's problematic.

2. Getting back to parties, we have a party, we don't have parties, and again, our major "party" and its various candidates our allowed to operate with little definition.

But the other "parties" Statehood-Green and Republican and Libertarian now, haven't defined and branded themselves in a serious, professional manner, compared to the municipal parties in Vancouver or Montreal.

3. At large... right now in DC, being at large makes things easy for those officials. Typically they won't get involved in ward specific matters...

... and it is said that ArCo elected officials were able to make the hard decisions about (1) locating Metrorail under Wilson Blvd. and (2) doing the high density rezoning (but preserving the residential areas outside the newly redefined density corridor) because they were elected at large rather than by district/ward.

I am torn. Residents deserve specific representation. OTOH, it's a fine line between representation and community and city atrophy.

Not to mention the issue I raise that the city ends up with a more suburbanized political outlook and agenda because the outer wards, less dense and urban than the core, have 5/8 of the ward representatives.

Interestingly, the current at large reps are from two wards, two African-Americans and one white living in Ward 5, Bonds, Orange, and Grosso, and one white living in Ward 6, Silverman.

Similarly, in MoCo all the at large representatives are from "Down County" and more specifically, three are from the Takoma Park area (Elrich, Leventhal, Riemer).

At 6:27 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

This is the James piece:

But there, apparently the committees have more power vis a vis the executive? And because it isn't a strong mayor system, the executive, under a city manager, stays pretty even killed.

But transpo can get f*ed, as it did under Ford, in part because the mayor appoints enough of the members of the TTC board (the Council appoints the others).

At 6:41 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The thing about publishing names in "campaign finance" is that we already do that in the US.

When I was thinking of running for Council, the campaign guy I met talked about finance a lot, specifically realtors and the development community. (I know a well connected Capitol Hill realtor, and in fact he was one of the people I consulted when I was considering the run.)

I would have no problem taking $ from developers, not that they'd be lining up to fund me... I've said all along, I have no problem with development, my problem is with "sh*** development". That being said, no one likes criticism, and I wouldn't be seen as pliable enough for the development community (e.g., my point about the necessity of design review and design standards on the avenues, etc.)

But then, e.g., I don't have a problem with development at McMillan. Yes, I would have preferred it to be a park because it's so cool (e.g. the Landschaftpark Duisburg Nord in Duisburg, Germany is really cool--I read about it years ago, and then got to go there briefly on my trip) from an industrial archaeology standpoint.

But the decision to not save it as a park was made long ago, and it is poorly located in terms of being a park and putting all that money into it to be minimally used.

But instead of just using all that social and community capital to fight the park (one of the counter proposals is for urban agriculture, which is a low ROI use, and not really justifiable in a strong market like DC), why not have used it to make it better, and to link it with developments and improvements at WHC and AFRH as well as improved transit (streetcar service east-west)?

Not to mention a better park space for the park space portion of the site.

2. Years ago I wrote a piece about ANC6D always arguing the no or anti position and how that prevented them from having a seat at the table and shaping projects, because the zoning and building regulations meant that the projects were legal and were going to happen...

It's from 2005,

At 6:50 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Given my position on the height limit and how it should be linked to a very specific agenda of financing infrastructure improvement, you'd think the development community would be lining up to fund me for a campaign.

- separated blue line

- and instead of a crosstown streetcar line from Woodley to Brookland maybe a crosstown subway shuttle

- investments in surface transit (bus definitely, streetcars maybe) including the creation of HOV/transit priority corridors

- and the building out of the bikeway network including investments in waystations (air pumps, repair stands)

- undergrounding commuter traffic (NY Ave., 16th St., North Capitol-Blair Road)

- re/creation of some circles like Truxton

- creation of a parking wayfinding system in major activity centers (Downtown, Georgetown, maybe Columbia Heights) AND some municipal parking facilities, even in neighborhoods.

- but also adding high density bike parking stations in some neighborhoods, especially Columbia Heights, where it is necessary (e.g., the Biceberg which can do from 23 to 92 bikes in increments of 23,

- other investments in nontranspo infrastructure, but I haven't thought that through, maybe the EOTR Marshall Plan would be enough...

But it'd be hard to get elected with that position, definitely not at the ward level, even as well articulated as I would make the argument.

At 6:54 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

at the landschaftpark some of the old bunkers are used for "wall climbing."

It's dangerous... and only people who are "certified" -- can do it or are in training are allowed.

At 7:00 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Imagine a slide like this at McMillan/in the US. It's at the Landschaftpark Duisburg Nord.

The kids loved it. As soon as they landed, they ran back up to get in line to go again.

At 7:11 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

s***, i missed your point about the growth vs. poverty machine.

many years ago, I used to say that community development corporations were created in the city as sandboxes for African-Americans to play in while the big developers did what they wanted downtown.

the growth machine funds the elected officials and does what it wants while the general machine of government, focused on "social justice" (along the argument in Gillette's book) uses the city budget to maintain poverty -- schools, police, Fire and EMS, criminal justice, welfare, certain health services, social housing -- especially as a jobs engine for the people performing the functions necessary in those areas.

E.g., DC has more police per capita just for MPD, not counting any of the other agencies operating in the city than any other US city.

Imagine if we could have a police force smaller by 1,000 officers. I don't know what the total cost of running an officer is, it's probably $100,000 on average for wages, benefits, health care, etc. Probably at least $50,000 in carrying costs per year?

That's $150 million.

At 7:55 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

OK, a lot to push back here.

My point about BC campaign finance wasn't that disclosure was new -- it is that as the article says it is the wild west for party financing. If you want a party, you have to pay for it. No idea how BC handles individual finance for candidates.

(And likewise, I suspect it turns down voter numbers because people hate parties and party politics)

In terms of the at large, my point is structural -- at large also can encourage parties. See Arlington. With regard to specifics in DC yes it is nice to have a local guy. Your idea of doubling up on council seats is more palatable.

Finally, on the Growth Machine. Not arguing your specific points which are valid. My macro argument is the growth machine model works well when the biggest (or only) business in town in real estate. Vancounver comes to mind. Atlanta.

In DC proper, the federal goverment is the big daddy. In the region it is defense/security spending. The developers are small fry compared to them.

And again, in DC proper, they are looking for someone who they can work with rather than taking over the goverment.

As they found in Vancouver, apparently.

At 8:08 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

In terms of your specific campaign slogans:

I'm not sure that you can "underground" 16th st.

Building a seperated blue line will require some sort of expansion of debt. Your idea works in principle (height limit/tax = more debt) although I am doubtful in practice.

I'd say the key is 1960s style redevelopment of EOTR, along with the reductions in social services. Also take back DC water and their weird status -- they are essentialy building two or three blue lines.

At 9:54 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

at the municipal/local govt. level, the real estate community calls the shots. It might be even more pronounced in VA (cf. Til Hazel), because in DC we have 100% of the local income tax revenue, and in MD, MoCo and PG get half the "state" income tax (as do all counties and Baltimore in MD).

The metropolitan economy, that's where the contractors and such come in.

2. Will look more into the BC thing. E.g., some of the criticism of NPA was their financing by the railroad guy. (Maybe that's why they were willing to be against an oil pipeline...)

3. WRT "undergrounding" I mean having an underground tunnel for through traffic, 16th St. would still exist above ground. And yes, I don't know how realistic it is either when it comes to going under Rock Creek Park and not impinging on the viewshed.

4. And I forgot to include the Georgetown gondola concept as one of the transpo infrastructure initiatives.

5. DC WASA has issues like what you comment on in GGW about MWAA. Because WASA provides water and water treatment to some of the Virginia jurisdictions it becomes a kind of metropolitan institution. (This is a similar issue in Baltimore, although there Baltimore still calls a majority of the shots, and in Detroit, where the suburbs--Oakland in particular--won't really allow for a significant change out of a "fear" that Detroit would benefit extranormally financially.)

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... probably the cost of 1,000 police is closer to $225MM to $250MM.

At 3:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

like your campaign bullet points Richard- you got my vote already.


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