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In my role as Councillor, I feel it's important to give updates on what's happening at City Hall and the decisions I'm making. I also feel it's important that you know how I make decisions. Of course I bring my principles and values, past experiences and view of the world to the table. But I also come with an open mind, willing to listen and wanting to receive as much information as possible. I look at the big picture and with a long term perspective about what's best for the city and its citizens. And then I decide. Once decided, I'm firm, focused, and ready to turn that decision into action.

Downtown Victoria - Vacancy or Opportunity?

I'll continue my Downtown Victoria series with the promised post Downtown Victoria #3 - A Place for Everyone very soon. In the meantime, here's a short video filmed on Fort Street just to the east of downtown.

I read in the Colliers year-end report on Commercial Office Space that the vacancy rate for office commercial in Victoria had increased from 8.8% in 2012 to 9.2% in 2013. I also hear the terms "A, B and C class office space" tossed around a lot and a worry that C class vacancies are lasting longer and longer. I got concerned, and curious.  So I asked for a tour with a Colliers leasing agent. I wanted to see, first hand, what vacant spaces look like, why they are vacant and what some of the opportunities are for filling them. 

Here are the opportunities:

  1. Tell a better story about Victoria. Victoria has the same natural amenities as Vancouver and Seattle but it's a more human-scale city and a more affordable place to do business. We've got great local food, local coffee, local beer and more restaurants per capita than any other city in Canada! It's quick and easy to get around - you can get anywhere in the city in a half hour or less. We've got lots of downtown office space available and more downtown residential units going up for those who want to live close to work. With all of this, we've got an opportunity to share Victoria's value proposition more boldly and more widely. 
  2. Keep the Provincial Government here. The Province leases 60% of commercial office space in Victoria. With the building of Capital Park behind the legislature, they'll be moving some ministries to that new space. There's lots of room for the Province in Downtown Victoria too. The City needs to continually work with the Province in a collaborative way to both secure and celebrate Victoria as the seat of government.
  3. Owners re-invest in their buildings. When vacancy rates were low and building stock newer, building improvements weren't as necessary. With the changing desires of companies - more collaborative, open-concept offices, natural light, bike parking, showers and other amenities - building owners need to re-invest in their buildings or sell to people who will. The buildings in Victoria that have made such improvements have lower vacancy rates.
  4. City become a better partner to business. One of the deterrents from building owners making improvements and new or growing businesses filling vacant office spaces is the processing times at City Hall for building permits and zoning changes. This is both a political and an operational problem. At the political level, Council has never set expectations for how quickly we'd like permits to be processed or rezonings accomplished. At the operational level, without clear deliverables from Council, staff have little to aspire to. I'd like to see this change. I want Council to give staff clear goals and to empower staff and provide them with the resources to meet these goals.

 

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Downtown Victoria #2 - Our Harbour, Our Heart

This is the second post in a four-part series exploring and celebrating Downtown Victoria and its bright future. The first is Downtown Victoria #1 - Breakfast with Robert Jawl. Coming soon is Downtown Victoria #3 - A Place for Everyone and Downtown Victoria #4 - How We Get There. I welcome your thoughts and ideas as the series unfolds. Comment directly below to participate in the conversation. I also welcome your favourite Downtown Victoria photographs! Send them to me at lisa@lisahelpsvictoria.ca and I'll include some here with photo credit in the upcoming posts.


Properties swapped between the Province and the City last week. Photo source.


At an early February Planning and Land Use Committee meeting, Councillor Pam Madoff arrived with a stack of reports of past harbour visioning exercises that was many inches high. She said they'd been sitting on her bookshelf since they'd been written, some dating back to at least the 1980s. She lamented that after countless hours of public input and high public expectation, nothing happened. She'd brought the reports for show and tell, because at that Planning and Land Use Committee meeting, council was considering a Project Charter for Inner Harbour Revitalization Opportunities. The Project Charter lays out a public participation plan for gathering input with regard to three strategic sites on the Inner Harbour.

Yes, another harbour visioning exercise. But the circumstances are different this time. This past week, the City of Victoria, the Province and Ralmax, operator of Point Hope Maritime, announced a three-way land deal. The City swapped City-owned lands on Harbour Road currently leased by Ralmax to the Province in exchange for five strategic pieces of land. Four of these are on the inner harbour, including land at Ship Point. The Province will in turn sell the Harbour Road lands to Ralmax at market value. The Province has committed to reinvesting the proceeds of the land sale in Victoria.

A Times Colonist opinion piece called this land swap a 'good deal'. It's more than that. With the Inner Harbour Revitalization Opportunities Project approved by Council on February 13th, there's a huge opportunity right now for the City to take proactive, collaborative leadership on our Harbour's future. It's time to make something happen.

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Downtown Victoria #1 - Breakfast with Robert Jawl

This is the first post in a four-part series exploring and celebrating Downtown Victoria and its bright future. Coming soon is Downtown #2 - Our Harbour, Our Heart; Downtown Victoria #3 - A Place for Everyone; and Downtown Victoria #4 - How We Get There. I welcome your thoughts and ideas as the series unfolds. Comment directly below to participate in the conversation. I also welcome your favourite Downtown Victoria photographs! Send them to me at lisa@lisahelpsvictoria.ca and I'll include some here with photo credit in the upcoming posts.

  Habit Coffee in the Atrium BuildingHabit Coffee at the Atrium Building. Photo source.

I had the pleasure of attending the Urban Development Institute's Under 40 breakfast event on Friday morning. Our host and guest speaker was Robert Jawl of Jawl Properties. Jawl Properties built the highly acclaimed Atrium Building at Blanshard and Yates. And, they've got two more leading-edge projects in the works. First is a LEED Platinum office development at Douglas and Pandora - directly across from City Hall. Second, in conjunction with Concert Properties, the redevelopment of the six-acre site behind the Legislature, which, in Robert's words will "broaden the civic sphere around the legislature. Though the land will be privately owned, it will read as public space."

It was as Robert began speaking, eloquent as usual, about  Jawl Properties' core development principles and his vision for Downtown Victoria, that the idea for this series came to me. My departure point is similar to Robert's. I'm not at all convinced by the story that I hear far too often - that Downtown Victoria is dying.  Yes, the downtown vacancy rate is 7%. But Robert assures this is not indicative of a downtown crisis and warned that, "Downtown is dead," could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Staying Focused, Or How We Get Things Done

This past Thursday, at its Governance and Priorities Committee, Council met to review the City's strategic priorities for the remainder of the 2013-2015 budget cycle. But it was also an opportunity for councillors to bring forward projects they'd been working on, that didn't fit easily into our regular meeting business. Marianne Alto put forward a motion which required Council to make a really hard decision. Late Thursday night, as I was reflecting on the decision we'd made that day, it struck me what it takes for a governing body to set a goal and remain focused on that goal until it is achieved.

I don't think we made a good decision last Thursday. Thankfully, the decision isn't final until it's ratified at our formal Council meeting this Thursday February 13th. So I'm taking this opportunity to lay out my thoughts about making a commitment to a goal, comprehensive decision making, and long-term thinking with the hopes that readers, including some of my Council colleagues, might consider this approach.

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Shape Your Future Victoria

Last fall, Victoria West residents of McCaskill Street and surrounds gathered to cut the ribbon on the beautiful mural depicted here. This group of neighbours came together and turned a bramble-covered, graffiti-laden concrete wall into a thing of beauty. How did they do it? Meeting neighbours they didn't know, food, drink, conversation, collaboration. And a Shape Your Future Victoria grant! Do you want to bring your neighbours together and do a project in your neighbourhood? The 2014 Shape Your Future Grant Application Deadline is March 31st 2014. Information and application form here.

I love the story of how this resident-created public art project came to be. It's the very best of citizen-led initiatives being fostered and supported by the City.

When I got to the Council table I noted that each year over the last few years, the neighbourhood matching grants were under-subscribed. At the same time, I noticed that there's a grassroots movement afoot in the city where neighbours are coming together and creating neighbourhood tool lending libraries, shared backyard gardens, communal chicken coops, neighbourhood book boxes, canning workshops, community kitchens, emergency management plans for their streets or blocks, community maps, and so on. Such initiatives and others not listed fit with both the city's Neighbourhood Development Policy and with some of the new Official Community Plan (OCP) policy directions as well as the overarching Village Centre land-use framework upon which the OCP is premised.

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Sewage Treatment: CRD Residents Deserve a Better Plan



Two weeks ago, I was invited by Andrew Weaver to be part of a three-person panel at a Public Forum on Sewage Treatment. In front of a standing room only crowd at the Oak Bay Rec Centre, it was clear to me how much passion and anxiety there is about sewage treatment in the CRD. It was also clear, in the question and answer period, how sewage treatment seems to have becoming a polarizing issue for people who, for the most part, agree that we need to treat our sewage. The question that remains, and the divisive question, is how best do we do this?

Andrew asked me to discuss what local councils and elected officials can do to ensure that CRD residents get the best plan possible. Here's what I said.

1. Listen to Residents
I hear on a regular basis, "The public is apathetic. Voter turnout is low. People don't really seem to be paying attention or care about municipal issues, etc." But then, when a wide, and growing, sector of the public steps up and says, "Hold on CRD officials, we're not convinced this is the best sewage treatment plan for the region," when volunteers take the time and effort to propose an alternate plan (The R.I.T.E. Plan), when hundreds of people come to open houses, pack land use committee and council meetings, ask questions and speak up, they're treated like a nuisance. There's a sense that some CRD Directors and staff wish that these people would sit down, shut up, and just let the CRD get on with its plan.

This is not an authentic way to engage the public. It does not welcome public participation or take public input into consideration in order to create the best possible sewage treatment plan, for the long term. And this is the goal - the best plan for the long term. As elected officials we have a responsibility to listen to what our residents are saying and to consider their input in our decision-making processes. It is the public who is paying for this project.

2. Extend the Timeline
I'm proud of my Victoria Council colleague and CRD Director Marianne Alto, who is putting forward a motion to ask the CRD board to ask the province to extend the timeline of the project to 2020. Extending the timeline will allow the CRD to bring the project up to date by considering again a distributed, tertiary sewage treatment system that incorporates technology dismissed five years ago as too expensive.

As Andrew Weaver points out, the deadline is somewhat arbitrary. The CRD is currently required by the Province to treat its sewage by 2016. The Federal regulations set a deadline of 2020. Weaver said at the forum that the CRD will need to ask the Province to extend the deadline to at least 2018 because that's when the proposed project is set to become operational. So why not ask for an extension to 2020 to align with the Federal requirements. Furthermore, and thankfully, Esquimalt Council has not approved the necessary zoning that the CRD would require to build the proposed plant. And no contract has been awarded for the construction of the plant.

Residents and elected officials need to make the case that more time will result in a better plan, because the proposed plan is not good enough; I'll say why in a moment. Alto's motion will be debated at the February 12th CRD Board meeting which begins at 1:30pm in the CRD's sixth floor board room (625 Fisgard St). Here's a list of CRD Directors and their contact information. Whether you're for or against extending the timeline, please take the time to write to CRD Directors and share your thoughts. When elected officials receive hundreds of emails from the public, we take note.

3. Move Beyond Sustainability and Design for Abundance
In The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability, Designing for Abundance, William McDonough and Michael Braungart make the case that sustainability is no longer a good enough aspiration. The authors ask us to, "Think about attempting to fall in love less wastefully. Or what about an efficient child or an efficient childhood? Terrible, right? Children, and childhood, can be – and we prefer them to be – full of richness, diverse enjoyments, fruitfulness, digressions, wanderings, imagination and creativity. Who would want a simply 'sustainable' marriage? Humans can certainly aspire to  more than that. In all of life, people can think big."

Looking at sewage treatment through this lens is important both politically and economically. Politically, designing for abundance - which I'll discuss in a moment - has the potential to bring key organizations on board for a better plan. The David Suzuki Foundation and the Georgia Strait Alliance have been key and vocal supporters of the CRD's proposed plan and they are also champions of sustainability. But what if these organizations and others could begin to embrace the idea that sustainability – what McDonough and Braungart call "doing less bad" rather than "more good" – is no longer good enough. And what if they could begin to advocate for a plan that does even better than the sustainable treatment of sewage.

Part of 'thinking big' about sewage treatment is to look at sewage as a source of nutrients and income rather than as a liability and cost. Here's where the economics come in, and the 'upcycling' of waste into money.

Without going into too many details, here's one way (and there are more) that the CRD could recover nutrients and earn revenue, by treating our sewage. Everyone who grows food knows that phosphate is one of the key ingredients in soil health. What may be less well known is that there is a huge demand on the world market for slow-release phosphate. According to McDonough and Braungart – and as illustrated in this diagram from The Upcycle – nutrient-recovery from sewage is one way to meet this demand.

There is a technology (developed in Vancouver!) available for recovering phosphate from sewage. And, this technology is already part of the CRD's plan. But because the plan proposes only secondary treatment, which captures the sludge but releases the majority of the 'waste water' back into the ocean rather than treating it, there is a huge loss of potential revenue through phosphate recovery. At the Clover Point and McCaulay Point Pump stations combined, 264 tonnes of phosphorous go back into the ocean each year, and will continue to do so with the CRD's proposed sewage treatment plan. That is a lot of potential revenue being flushed out to sea.

So, finally, how do we begin to design for abundance? We begin with a clear statement of intention that will guide a project from conception to implementation. If we look at what proponents of the current CRD plan are saying we might guess that the statement of intention around the project from the outset went something like this:

"We have to treat our sewage because upper levels of government told us to do it and it’s the right thing to do for the environment and we need to do it in a way that will cost taxpayers as little money as possible in the short term."

Compare that against this: "Let’s design and build a sewage treatment / nutrient recovery system that generates revenue and an abundance of useable energy and water for the short, medium and long term."

If not now, then when? We are building this key piece of infrastructure for the long term, for the next generations. We need to get it right. Our children and their children deserve it.

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City of Victoria Stormwater Utility - A Primer

In 2014 the City of Victoria will be rolling out its new Stormwater Utility. Modeled in part on a similar utility in Kitchener-Waterloo, the utility will remove the portion of money that comes to the City from residents and businesses from the property tax bill (about $4.5 million per year). Instead, people will receive a utility bill based primarily on the percentage of non-permeable surfaces on a property. The good news? This is a user-pay system, you pay for what you use. And, it's possible to get up to a 40% credit on your stormwater bill by implementing rainwater cachement solutions on your property. The bad news? It's all a little bit complicated to understand! This blog post is meant to provide some resources to help.

A few weeks ago, City staff updated Council on the roll out of the proposed Stormwater Utility. This powerpoint presentation contains a great deal of detail, including a list of solutions that property owners can implement to get a rebate on their bill. This CBC interview I did with Jo-Ann Roberts on All Points West explains in a bit more detail how the utility will work. And this Times Colonist article has a helpful infographic that details what people can expect based on the class of property they own.

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The Future of Crystal Pool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An article in today's Times Colonist outlines Councillor Ben Isitt's vision for Crystal Pool. Tonight he's bringing his vision to Council in a motion calling on city council to affirm the "public ownership and operation" of any Crystal Pool replacement. His touchstone is a motion made by the previous council in October 2011 that "supports retention of a public pool and fitness centre in Victoria."

Here's my take. I support the retention of a public pool and fitness centre in Victoria. And, to be perfectly clear, I support this facility being operated by the City and staffed by our terrific, competent and very capable workers. I've spent hours at Crystal Pool over the years. The most fun I've had is with a now ten-year-old. We'd be jumping and playing with those wonderful big mats and then all of a sudden she'd be interested in joining the seniors in their aquafit class so we'd join in, just like that and be welcomed by the instructor!

What is really really important to me as the City goes out to the public in the new year to do a comprehensive public engagement process with regard to Crystal Pool is that we keep our options (and our ears) open with regard to ownership of the facility should we decide to rebuild not to refurbish.

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Under Funded Capital Projects

In this video I talk briefly about three of the City of Victoria's underfunded capital projects - Fire Hall No. 1, the Bay Street Bridge, and the Crystal Pool. Last Thursday at Council we received an updated report on the City's 20 Year Capital Plan. We learned that these key pieces of city infrastructure need to be addressed over the next five years but the City doesn't have enough funding to undertake any of them.

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Public Art and the Johnson Street Bridge

public_art_and_bridge.png

I stopped in to see John the singing grocer, as he's affectionately known, in Cook Street Village today. The first words that crossed his lips, "So, what do you think of the public art proposed for the Johnson Street bridge?" I asked him his thoughts. He said that good welcoming landscaping could take the place of art. We should create a place for people to be and to mill about.

Here's the context for his question: Last Thursday Council, sitting as Governance and Priorities Committee received an update on the Johnson Street Bridge project. The good news is that at this early stage in the game, the project appears to be on time and on budget. The staff report laid out a revised budget ($300,000 more added to the contingency budget because of savings found through design optimization) and timeline.

After thanking staff for their work, we spent the next hour deliberating about whether to spend $250,000 (already approved as part of the project budget) on public art to accompany the bridge. A motion was put forward to spend the money. Then an amendment was made to reduce the amount to $100,000. Then the majority of Council moved to postpone consideration of the decision until the new year in order to have more information about the site and landscape plans for the approaches to the bridge. I was in the minority who thought we should make a decision that day and move on.

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