“We don’t want to be another Vancouver”: Some thoughts on the Victoria mindset…

August 27, 2007 at 8:57 pm | In architecture, authenticity, cities, harvard, heritage, victoria | 3 Comments

My scribble today is more in line with thinking out loud than with any kind of sustained effort toward an essay, but Joan Wickersham’s article, Bricks & Politics — What gets built at Harvard, what doesn’t, and why, in the latest (Sept./Oct. 2007) issue of Harvard Magazine really provoked my thinking — including thinking out loud.

Who knew such parallels existed between Bostonians and Victorians? (And I include Canterbridgians as Bostonians here.)

I actually always suspected the parallels, knowing full well that Boston, with its long history of indigenous (made in Boston, home-grown) “solutions” and its prudish, old-fashioned and often anti-modernist ways, has a chip on its shoulder compared to New York, just as Victoria does compared to Vancouver. The parallel extends to moralisms, in the sense that NYC is seen as a money-grubbing and shockingly flashy capitalist heartland, while frugal (and somehow “more authentic”) Bostonians wear last year’s — nay, last decade’s! — frumpy fashions because they, of course, are above the sort of superficiality that passes for meaning in “the big city”… But I’ll save the pop psychology for another day — suffice to say, the observation of parallels has its valid points.

Wickersham makes several arguments that set my heart racing, the key ones being: first, the story of neighbourhood opposition to Harvard’s plans for development — an opposition that dates back to the 60s when Harvard built the Peabody Terraces (which sort of parallels Roberts & Orchard House in the James Bay neighbourhood of Victoria, a catalyst for anti-modernist opposition to “skyscrapers” and densification); second, the contentious process of neighbourhood consultation, which sometimes goes against intended outcomes, leaving the proponents with mediocre designs; and third, the question of “branding.”

Branding was perhaps the most electrifying point, but it’s better understood if you understand the history of neighbourhood consultation (in some cases interference) first.

Peabody Terraces created mistrust of the university, a culture which in turn was groomed by the neighbourhood. (See page two of the article for details: Peabody Terraces is comprised of three 22-storey modernist towers on Harvard land, abutting a residential SFH neighbourhood.)

Approximately 35 years after Peabody, James Cuno (Harvard Art Museums director at the time, and himself a Harvard-trained art history PhD) proposed developing a Harvard-owned strip of land next to Peabody Terraces along the River Charles, on the non-riverbank side of the road. At the time, the site was leased to a nursery and garden shop. Harvard hired Renzo Piano — arguably a “starchitect” — who designed an ultra-low-key, wood-frame, two-storey building to accomodate two new museums. One was for contemporary art, and the other was supposed to contain ancient, Islamic, and Asian art. The building was effectively hidden by a screen of trees, so that driving West along Memorial Drive, you’d see the bike and walkways along the Charles to your left, while on your right, the new art museum would discreetly hide behind a wall of greenery. Very bucolic indeed.

The neighbours flipped. They were “concerned about traffic” and suggested that the University simply turn the land into a public park.

In a sense, the neighbours were nursing a 35-year old grudge (about Peabody Terraces) on the one hand, and on the other they were spinning with anxiety over Harvard’s new developments on the other side of the river in the neighbourhood of Allston. So in a sense, it was a classic case of misdirecting concerns away from what actually was on the table (the Piano proposal), using it to leverage other concerns instead.

We don’t have anything even approaching the kind of scale that Harvard builds with, but I can’t help seeing some similarities in dynamics.

Wickersham writes:

Eventually, a compromise was announced. Harvard decided not to build a museum, and new zoning was put in place that would allow housing between three and six stories tall on the site. As a concession to the neighborhood, Harvard agreed to build approximately 40 units of affordable community housing nearby, and to donate $50,000 to neighborhood groups.

The neighbors had done what they’d been powerless to achieve 40 years before with Peabody Terrace: they had stopped Harvard from building what Harvard wanted to build. (…)

“Exhilarating,” one Riverside activist told the Globe in 2003, after the compromise was announced. But had the neighborhood really benefited? Instead of a two-story museum in a park-like setting, they ended up with taller student dorms and a small public park adjacent to heavily traveled Memorial Drive. (source)

Wickersham astutely continues (page 3) to discuss perceptions of “the public good.” Neighbourhood and university disagreed about what was “a public good.” Kathleen Leahy Born, an architect who was a Cambridge councillor when the Renzo Piano/ Harvard Art Museums proposal came forward, gives an example I can recall:

“When I became a city councilor, there was controversy about a supermarket chain wanting to build along the river. I thought the idea was appalling, but you couldn’t argue for the beauty of the river without sounding elitist. The Riverside group saw this supermarket as food for poor people. So for them, defeating a museum and getting some units of affordable housing is a victory of their definition of civic good.” (source)

If she’s referencing the supermarket I’m thinking of, I can only concur: it’s a stupid use of space. At the same time I could automatically recapitulate the populist arguments for putting the market there.

As Wickersham continues, with observations that sound only too familiar:

In the opinion of Pebble Gifford, a longtime Cambridge activist, “Those people don’t care about Renzo Piano, they don’t give a damn who designs a museum down there. It’s not about architectural taste. It’s about ‘You already destroyed half our neighborhood, and now you want to destroy the other half?’” For his part, Northeastern’s George Thrush—himself a Cambridge resident—points out that Harvard’s neighbors often fail to acknowledge the benefits of living near a large and thriving university: “Never have people whose property values have risen so much complained so loudly.” (source)

But now let’s move into the other really juicy issues around contextuality and branding the city. These start to unfold more fully with the failed project for Mount Auburn Street, a center designed by Hans Hollein.

(A note: the intersection of Brattle and Mt. Auburn Streets represents the communal commercial heart of Harvard Square, which in turn is in the heart of Cambridge, which in turn is Boston’s literal & metaphorical left flank. You can’t get closer to contested territory than this. If Harvard Square is the university’s territory — a kind of “university-only, hands-off” symbol — then Brattle & Mt. Auburn is the people’s linear agora. Mt. Auburn continues from Harvard Square, past Brattle and on to the Charles. It’s a key street.)

So: what happened on Mount Auburn? Wickersham explains:

The story began in 1999, when Harvard Planning and Real Estate announced it was going to tear down a couple of old buildings on Mount Auburn Street between J. Press and the Fox Club. The retail tenants—the Harvard Provision Co., Skewers restaurant, and University Typewriter—left cordially, but they were the kind of quirky small retailers whose passing dismays Cambridge residents (and Harvard alumni) who’ve lamented the gradual loss of the “old” Harvard Square to glossy chain stores and banks.

Because one of the buildings on the site, an undistinguished clapboard triple-decker, dated from 1895, the University could not demolish it without permission from the Cambridge Historical Commission. Furthermore, the site was within a conservation district, so any new design would have to navigate a narrow Scylla-and-Charybdis set of requirements encouraging “creative modern architecture” that must also “complement and contribute to its immediate neighbors and the character of the District.”

Harvard hired Austrian architect Hans Hollein to design an office building for the University libraries. Nazneen Cooper, assistant dean for campus design and planning for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, was involved with architect selection. “The University wanted something visionary,” she says. “This was a building with no pressing criteria. The scope was small and the risk was small, so we thought, ‘Great! Let’s get someone we otherwise wouldn’t get.’” (source)

As Nazneen Cooper elaborates, of the three internationally known architects Harvard considered (Rafael Vinoly, Toyo Ito, and Hollein), Hollein was the most conservative.”

One would think this would fly, right? What could the neighbours object to here?

Well, what did happen sounds like something straight out of one of Victoria’s Advisory Design Panel meetings or some community Land Use Committee meeting, only taken to the Nth factor:

For the Mount Auburn Street site, Hollein designed a five-story building whose façade was a sloping, undulating metal mesh screen overhanging recessed ground-floor shop fronts. He presented his design at a hearing before the historical commission in April 2001.

Lee Cott, whose firm Bruner/Cott was affiliated with Hollein on the project, remembers the evening as “awful.” Cooper calls it “embarrassing.” The commissioners grilled Hollein on basic issues of aesthetics and functionality. Why did the building curve? What was the “goal or intent” of the sloping façade? Had he thought about the snow that would collect in the screen? Did he understand what Cambridge winters were like? Hollein, visibly tired and jet-lagged, replied that he had considered all these issues, that he’d made many models and used his judgment in the design process, that he had designed buildings in the mountains of Europe where there was far more snow.

When the meeting was opened to public comment, a Cambridge resident stood up and gave a lengthy lecture and slideshow about contextual architecture. “Hans Hollein is one of the world’s leading experts on contextual architecture,” Cooper says. “He doesn’t need someone to explain to him what ‘contextual’ means.”

In a memo to the commissioners several days earlier, the commission’s executive director, Charles Sullivan, had called the building “inappropriately scaled” and “incongruous because of its aggressive indifference to its surroundings.” At the hearing, after a brief discussion, the commission voted 7-0 to reject Hollein’s design because it did not “complement and contribute to” its urban context in Harvard Square. (source)

In Victoria, too, design advisory panels or community activists have scuttled what were relatively innovative or daring designs, forcing the architect either to tone down outstanding elements or questioning their legitimacy outright. Most recently, I witnessed this myself at a meeting having to do with the artist Xane St. Philips’s “living wall” design for a new office tower.

As for the demand (which some Victorians also often voice) that “contextuality” should mean simply replicating existing building materials, Nazneen Cooper has an apt retort. Recalling that Harvard Square’s historical buildings are all done in red brick, she asks, “Is context in Harvard Square a big parking garage which has no architectural merit but is red brick? Is that context?”

Here in Victoria, certain community advocates would recommend cladding everything in faux “Tudor” half-timbering, just because that’s the way they built ’em back in 1920. Failing that, we can always slap on some fake “river rock” for that “genuine authentic” feel…


But if — horrors! — a new building is glass and steel, it’s alleged to be a “Vancouver building,” and this brings out all the local anxieties. It also brings us to …branding.

I guess Vancouver has, in these parts, cornered the “steel & glass brand,” so to speak, and when people here say they don’t “want to be just like Vancouver,” what they’re really saying is “Vancouver has that brand game all sown up — how can we compete??”

Only they think that’s not what they’re saying, because they can’t admit to themselves that this is what it’s really all about: how can Victoria (sort of like Boston vis-a-vis the much more significant NYC) assert its brand, when — let’s face it — it hasn’t had an update or makeover in almost a century?

In fact, I’d almost argue that we’re in the throes of an update right now, which is why the issue is so pressing.

Boston/ Cambridge/ even Harvard: they struggle mightily with this question, too (even if it’s less of an issue for them at the end of the day because they have more than the tourism industry egg in their more commodious basket). As Wickersham puts it:

There is also the question of a building’s symbolic and visual importance within the larger urban scene. Kathy Born says, “In a place like Harvard Square, you need buildings that fit in, but you also need punctuation. Some of Harvard’s greatest buildings are the oddballs: Memorial Hall, the Lampoon.” How does one decide whether a certain site needs an attention-getting “object” building, or a well-mannered backdrop? (source)

Here in Victoria, we can’t seem to want to decide, and yet at the same time, if someone decides for us, there’s hell to pay.

Writes Wickersham:

Ultimately, arguments about context boil down to taste. For everyone who says, “Yes, it’s contextual,” there’s someone else who says, “No, it isn’t.” In the case of the Hollein building, the power to decide rested solely in the hands of the Cambridge Historical Commission, which originated in 1963 partly in response to Harvard’s modern building projects (notably the Holyoke Center, whose “harsh exterior contrasted sharply with the comfortable brick vernacular of Harvard Square,” according to the commission’s website). Again, a public regulatory process trumped Harvard’s ability to build on its own land—and again, the public process had grown up partly in reaction to what and how Harvard built in the 1960s, the University’s single most explosive period of growth. (source)

And a designer adds, “There’s now so much community review that it’s hard to build a building that hasn’t been pushed and massaged and changed.”

Design by committee

Now, down to cases: can “brand” be a committee project?

This is an interesting question since the person on Harvard’s team who argues for a “Harvard brand” is arguably (my argue) building stuff I’d rather not see getting built — neo-Georgian replicas. For the record, I adore Georgian architecture, I really do: a huge part of New England architecture’s ability to compel and enthrall derives from a vernacular interpretation, from the late 18th century and well into the 19th, of Georgian style. But I’m not impressed by neo-Georgian when it’s really neo, i.e., designed and built in the 1990s or later.

It seems to me that part of the problem in Victoria stems from an inability to think honestly (flexibly) about brand and think about how far or deep brand’s reach should be allowed to go; and, following from this, to tackle the question of whether or not committee work can in any way fix a problem that hasn’t even been articulated (namely, see the first point: how far or deep should branding go).

(When I write “hasn’t been articulated,” I mean intelligently articulated. I’m not interested in the hand-wringing by silly people who worry that the tourists will stop coming if they don’t find what essentially boils down to a Potemkin Village upon arriving in Victoria. Those “arguments” are beyond idiotic — real brand thinking has nothing to do with fake whimsy. Tourists want to go someplace vibrant — a Potemkin Village is not vibrant. Sure, every tourist may be his or her own czar and all that, but eventually the lustre tarnishes if there’s nothing but a rotting corpse underneath.)

Wickersham’s last section, “The politics of branding: Who gets to define a ‘Harvard building’?,” focuses on The Spangler Center, which is part of Harvard Business School. It looks for all intents and purposes like something built during Longfellow’s tenure in Cambridge: all neo-Georgian brick and white columns, and of course — looking like that — it fits right in (back to the “contextuality” issue). It was designed by Robert A.M. Stern, one of whose fat tomes (the last volume) on New York City I own and admire. But my dear Mr. Stern, you are the scourge of modern architects with your perfected anachronisms, regardless of their efficacy in terms of establishing brand identity.

Writes Wickersham, with a directive from Stern that sounds like an amalgamation of our local heritage, community, and tourism industry advocates:

In his speech at the Spangler’s dedication in January 2001, Stern argued that a university needs to have its own brand, just as a corporation or product does; and that in an era when competition for students and resources is fierce, Harvard’s venerable red-brick-Georgian look is an important marketing asset which the University ought to be perpetuating. In other words, the brand already exists and it ain’t broke, so don’t try to fix it. (Interestingly, Stern’s speech fudged the issue of whether he was advocating for the future of brick neo-Georgian branding at Harvard as a whole, or just at the business school. Stern is currently working on the new building at the northwest corner of the Law School—a modern Beaux-Arts-influenced design whose façade calls for pale limestone.) (source)

Joan Wickersham wisely lets Larry Summers (past president of Harvard) follow with an observation of his own, which points to the foolishness of one-track-pony branding:

“With the exception of the business school, Harvard architecture has tended very much towards eclecticism, with many different styles juxtaposed in close proximity. Reasonable people differ, but I think Harvard has in general erred more on the side of variety than on the side of coherence in its architectural choices.” (source)

That, dear Victoria, is exactly right and it’s why we should have an honest conversation about branding, tourism, economic nuts-and-bolts, architecture (by committee and otherwise), and the need to move ahead (vs treading water or moving backwards).

“We don’t want to be another Vancouver” is a lame cop-out. Tell me instead what you think Victoria’s brand is — and then tell me why and how Victoria can move past the alleged historical brand of faux Tudor half-timbering (or “Tudorbethan,” as we also sometimes call it). Let’s instead talk honestly about how eclectic Victoria is.

And while we’re at it, can we tell those community advocates who are nursing decades-old grudges over towers built in their neighbourhoods ages ago — towers no one today would consider replicating — to stop confusing issues from then with issues of now?

Finally, just like Boston will never ever be New York, there’s no reason to fret in such a silly manner that we’ll ever be Vancouver. Just as Boston is dyed in the wool Boston, so Victoria is Victoria. It’s a question, as Larry Summers might agree, of leveraging our eclecticism. Our “brand” is variety — and it even includes modernism and modernity, right up to the vibrant present.

Another Victoria newspaper scandal, being ignored by …newspapers

August 21, 2007 at 10:07 pm | In black_press, business, canada, free_press, innovation, scandal, silo_think, times_colonist, victoria | 5 Comments

(Updated Aug.28/07, see below…)

Some readers might remember the Vivian Smith scandal from early July last summer: I blogged about it here, on July 20/06 after reading about it on Sean Holman’s Public Eye Online. (Note: re. my July 20/06 entry: pardon the opening two paragraphs — I was coming out of a period of blog hibernation, which, as any reluctant blogger will attest, can discombobulate one’s train of thought. Just skip that bit and go straight to the paragraph that starts, “On July 7, Sean Holman…”)

Well, history might not repeat itself exactly, but aside from the details, we have a repeat performance at another Victoria newspaper. Last year, we witnessed the Times-Colonist firing Vivian Smith, who dared to write an article that suggested that tourists need not get fleeced by established tourist industry ventures and that they can find plenty of things to do for free in Victoria. It seems that these established tourist ventures (The Empress Hotel, Butchart Gardens, etc.), which spend many dollars advertising in the Times-Colonist, felt aggrieved, and so Smith was fired. (See my blog entry, toward the end, for a list of all the relevant Public Eye Online posts on this saga. Smith was sort-of/ kind-of reinstated eventually, although one hardly sees her well-written, informative articles anymore.)

This year we see the Victoria News (a thrice-weekly publication owned by local press baron David Black) revealed as fully in bondage to car dealers. The paper’s editor (Keith Norbury) was fired and one of its senior reporters (Brennan Clarke) resigned in the wake of an article Clarke wrote, detailing the savings Canadians can expect if they go to the US to buy a car.

Sean Holman broke the story in his August 17/07 entry, Car trouble:

Victoria News editor Keith Norbury was fired today, Public Eye has exclusively learned, two days after one of his senior reporters – Brennan Clarke – resigned. The firing follows an advertiser complaint about an article published earlier this month by the newspaper. In an interview, Vancouver Island News Group president Mark Warner confirmed Mr. Norbury’s forced departure was, in part, connected to the complaint. “There were a number of issues,” he said. “But that was certainly one of them.” Mr. Warner declined to say what those other issues may have been. Nor would he elaborate on how the complaint was connected to the firing.

The article, authored by Mr. Clarke, discussed the case of a Broadmead resident who saved $13,000 by purchasing a Mercedes ML350 in Portland rather than from a local dealer. The woman, Rebecca Schevenius, and her friend are “planning to publish an 18-page how-to pamphlet entitled ‘How to Import a Car into Canada’ for others interested in testing the cross-border used car market.”

In a interview with Public Eye earlier this afternoon, Dave Wheaton Pontiac Buick GMC Ltd. dealer principal Dave Wheaton said, “I was upset with the paper for doing it because it was one person’s opinion” – referring to Ms. Schevenius. “And they are by no stretch of the imagination an expert at it. And why that was news I don’t know.”

Note that this is Dave Wheaton’s opinion, but it seems opinions are weighed differently, depending on how big your advertising budget is. For since the firing and resignation, writers on Public Eye Online’s comments board have revealed more information on the Wheatons:

According to the Wheaton website, Wheaton owns 17 dealerships in the Western Provinces. Obviously any sort of criticism from Dave Wheaton would carry a lot more weight than a single dealership in a single Black Press market. (from this Aug.20/07 entry)


I see that the Wheatons now own a bank and insurance company as well. General Bank of Canada, located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is owned by the Wheaton Group of Companies, the largest General Motors franchised dealer network in Canada. The incorporation of a bank further expands the financial services of the Group which currently owns a regulated life company, First Canadian Insurance Corporation, and a property and casualty company, Millennium Insurance Corporation. General Bank of Canada is the first privately held chartered bank in Canada. (from another Aug.20 entry)

It’s worth reading all related entries, plus comments, by date:
Aug. 17: Car trouble (which includes a full reprint of the alleged offending article by Brennan Clarke)
Four entries on Aug. 20, in order:
So long and thanks for all the fish (8:27 AM)
A question of credibility (9:10 AM)
Klausphiles (4:00 PM)
Another brick in the wall (4:33 PM)
Aug. 21: Meanwhile, among the ranks of the fallen

Lots of good comments on the boards, too. I especially agree with the most recent one in the Aug.21 post, which points out what a good job Keith Norbury had done as editor. The VicNews shot itself in the head by firing him. As the story unfolds further, Sean Holman will no doubt keep up the reports, so check back on Public Eye Online in the coming days.

Even though Victoria’s economy seems to be maturing in some areas, what I wrote at the end of my blog entry of July 20/06 on the Vivian Smith firing still rings true: there is an entrenched paternalism and a petty immaturity at work here that should just be canned. Full stop. The paternalistic mindset is particularly offensive to me. It represents not modern capitalism at all, but a weird sort of colonial capitalism: a throwback to an economy where men “expect to be sheltered from criticism, whether the kind emanating from a free press or the kind coming from the market,” as I wrote last year. It’s an economy where the “natives” better not get uppity, where women and punky reporters toe the line and know their place, where a man’s silo is his castle, and you better know where the service entry is, ’cause the front door of the keep is not for you.

And we wonder why Canada ranks at the bottom for innovation (14th place out of 17 among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries). That will never change as long as newspapers like the Times-Colonist or the Victoria News act as enablers to uninnovative businesses with bloated advertising budgets. They certainly don’t want anybody rocking their status quo by forcing them to innovate in a free market, and our “free press,” it seems, guards their interests.

Update, Aug.28/07: Sean Holman reports today that Dave Wheaton emailed him over the weekend to say that his comments were not the reason for Brennan Clarke’s resignation or Keith Norbury’s firing. The newspaper (whose publisher Mark Warner had earlier explicitly stated that the resignation & firing were connected to Dave Wheaton’s complaint) now backs the car dealer up:

Asked for comment, news group vice-president Kirk Freeman said Mr. Norbury’s firing “is an internal personnel issue. And what has transpired had nothing to do with Dave Wheaton.”

Somehow, I find that rather incredible. It sounds more like the rearguard trying to douse a fire.

Why I think the newspaper is a (waste paper)basket case

August 18, 2007 at 5:35 pm | In fastcompany, local_not_global, media, silo_think, times_colonist, victoria, women | 6 Comments

I updated my Facebook status yesterday with a note about being very angry at our local newspaper, The Times-Colonist, for essentially stealing a story and then not reporting it properly anyway, and for exemplifying the ugliest, but I mean the ugliest, aspects of an “old boys network” mentality. That prompted some of my Facebook friends to write on my wall or leave messages, asking what was up.

Even though I know that this local paper is a total waste paper basket case and that nothing will change it, I had better muster the energy and interest to write my reply. First, some background:

  • around the middle of last month I submitted a paragraph-long write up to FastCompany, nominating Victoria for “fast city” status; you can read about the whole process here: So “fast,” I’m nearly invisible, my blog entry from July 18, 2007
  • if you read through to the update and follow the comments on the comments board, you’ll see that Dan Gunn from VIATec commented on July 19; I communicated all the information he needed to visit, rank, and comment since, as I learned also that very day, Victoria had been accepted by FastCompany’s editorial team: see Victoria’s page
  • on July 20, I emailed Bruce Carter of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce about my submission, explaining the nomination and asking him to rank / comment on Victoria (I never heard back from him: no response)
  • I emailed as many people I could think of, but heard back from none — a disappointing process I wrote about on my blog on July 29, in a post called Benchmarks; I ended this entry with these remarks: “And so the response / lack of response has become another benchmark for me. Climates of trust are built on response and responsiveness.”
  • in the middle of July, I wrote a brief article about Victoria, which dealt with the “fast city” submission and also addressed the findings of Geoffrey West, featured in the July/Aug.2007 edition of SEED Magazine (“The Living City” by Jonah Lehrer)
  • on July 17, I submitted this article to another local paper, The Business Examiner, and while I received an email back from the publisher (Simon Lindley), I never heard once from the editor (Steve Weatherbe), who was on vacation initially but ignored all subsequent emails from me, including the last one on I sent on Aug.2; in that email, I wrote that since I hadn’t heard from him since his return from vacation on July 23, I assumed it was ok if I placed my article elsewhere
  • on Aug. 13, Vibrant Victoria published my article (called The Race That Should be On: Victoria as “Fast City?”), linking to it from its front page as well as from the forum; I noted its appearance on my blog that same day with this entry: My “fast” appearance on Vibrant Victoria

I would argue that all of this establishes my role in this story — in fact, without me, there wouldn’t have been a story. And without Vibrant Victoria, whose focus is primarily on urbanism — not technology — my article would not have been published locally. Certainly The Business Examiner showed zero interest, aside from the friendly and courteous reply I received from its publisher. The editor, however, left unanswered what were at least 3 emails from me.

But now look what a cat’s breakfast our local daily paper, The Times-Colonist, and its allegedly professional reporter, Mr. Andrew A. Duffy, make of it. On Aug.17, co-incidentally (or not?) a mere 4 days after my piece appeared on VV’s page, he produced a front page — yes, a front page — article called Does Victoria make the cut? Its teaser intro states, “‘Booming’ Victoria should get quick trip to fast-city status, say tech workers”… Suddenly, this is solely an issue centred on technology, not urbanism; and suddenly, it’s also something that just sort of happened, and that was created — without Duffy ever writing who was behind it (me!) — by the technology sector. Who happen to be all men, too. Most galling is the fact that Duffy clearly interviewed Dan Gunn and Bruce Carter, and that even though they were in the picture from July 19/20 onward, they fail to mention my pivotal role.

And yes, I emailed both “gentlemen,” but have heard nothing back from either one.

Here’s what Duffy wrote in his fluff piece of distortion — it’s the full article, but I shall interrupt for clarity:

Does Victoria make the cut?
‘Booming’ Victoria should get quick trip to fast-city status, say tech workers
Andrew A. Duffy, Times Colonist staff
Published: Friday, August 17, 2007

‘Fast cities” are billed as creative, innovative places of the future, and a group of Victoria high-tech workers believes it’s high time B.C.’s capital joined their number.

That’s called fudging the facts. Duffy makes it sound as if these “high-tech workers” nominated Victoria. They didn’t — they’re not that fast.

Fast Company, a magazine that sells itself as a playbook for and chronicler of the “new economy,” recently released its Fast Cities issue, listing the 30 fastest cities — those deemed ideal for you and your business — in the world.

Victoria did not make the list, but Toronto and Vancouver did — the only Canadian cities to do so.

Ah, again: wrong. Duffy can’t get anything right, can he? Calgary also made the cut. Moral of this part of the story? Whatever you do, don’t believe everything that so-called professional journalists tell you.

But some capital region tech workers think Victoria should make the cut the next time round.

Already, 27 people, most tech workers, have gone to bat for Victoria on the Fast Company website ( www.fastcompany.com).

Poor Mr. Duffy is decidedly un-web-savvy, otherwise he would have linked to the page for Victoria, for it’s not exactly easy to find us otherwise. There’s the user map, but even that takes a number of zoom-in clicks to the Pacific Northwest.

“Victoria is booming! There are cranes everywhere. Jobs are plentiful and we were a host city for the FIFA U-20. We just need the rest of the country to recognize it,” wrote Thomas Guerrero.

I would guess Duffy was being very lazy here. That’s the first comment up, and it indicates to me that he didn’t bother scrolling down the page to read some of the other remarks.

According to Dan Gunn, executive director of the Vancouver Island Advanced Technology Centre, it’s about time people starting talking about Victoria in glowing terms.

“It’s very important to us if we are going to maintain our largest private-sector industry,” said Gunn of getting Victoria onto the world’s radar screen. “We can’t be a quiet industry anymore and that involves pumping up our chests once in a while.”

Gunn said that while Victoria’s high-tech industry has grown to a $1.7-billion sector and is going head-to-head with cities around the world for talent and investment, it sometimes gets forgotten.

“We’re not on the tip of everyone’s tongue like Silicon Valley,” he said. “Can we honestly expect to be put in the same category? No, but we can be considered one of the up-and-coming, most innovative and best places to live.”

Yes, it’s about time people started talking the place up, but you know what? It wasn’t your technologists at VIATec who did it, Dan. And it’s not about “pumping up” in some manly macho manner, either.

Bruce Carter, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, applauded the talk-up-Victoria campaign, saying Victoria has been too modest for too long.

Lovely, Bruce, glad to know that you applauded. But guess what? I didn’t hear you!

“It’s our job to do that, our job as associations, and as a municipality and citizens to say, ‘hey we’re not newlywed and nearly dead. There is lots of stuff going on here,’ ” he said. And, he said, the city can sell itself as a place for large companies to set down head offices by playing up the lifestyle for workers.

Vancouver made the fast cities list as a green leader alongside Chicago, Stockholm and Portland, Ore., while Toronto made the list as a global village alongside Johannesburg and Berlin. Other cities on the 30-fastest list include usual suspects like New York, San Francisco, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., London, Shanghai and Sydney.

The magazine also put out a list of five slow cities: Budapest, Havana, New Orleans, Detroit and St. Louis, Mo.; five too-fast cities: Cairo; Almaty, Kazakhstan; Greenwich, Conn.; Las Vegas; and Shenzhen, China; and 20 cities on the verge, which included Seattle, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Beijing.


Cities need the power to think big and innovate

August 14, 2007 at 5:19 pm | In canada, cities | 4 Comments

Christopher Hume, who writes about architecture and city culture for the Toronto Star, takes another shot at our Canadian complacency and our institutionalized bias against cities: Toronto: A metaphor for a country in decline. This isn’t his first — there was Time for Toronto to get angry on July 19; and How do you spell creative bankruptcy? R-O-U-N-D-H-O-U-S-E on June 16.

Among other things, Hume writes in today’s column:

Toronto, like all of Canada, is based largely on myths that border on lies. We like to think that the city is among the greatest and the country a respected world citizen. We may be a middling power, but always sensible and responsible.

In fact, we grow increasingly irrelevant. And although Canada still ranks among the most desirable places on the planet, by any measure – productivity, innovation, wealth creation, education, environmental integrity, tolerance – we are slipping. This was confirmed most recently by the Conference Board of Canada in a massive three-volume report that took three years to prepare.

Like all Canadian cities, Toronto is chronically and systemically underfunded. This is built into the very governance structure of the nation, which undervalues urban centres. We have set it up that way.

Toronto isn’t just Canada’s largest and most important city; it has become a metaphor for a country in decline. Our administratively burdened federation has reached a point of fragmentation where the premiers fail miserably when it comes to dealing with the most urgent issue facing us and the rest of the planet: global warming. This isn’t just worrisome, it’s immoral.

Because they fear reality, Canadians are terrified of change. The idea of reducing the role of the provinces and empowering cities isn’t taken seriously. Yet it’s something that must happen if we are to achieve the nimbleness we need to keep up with the wholesale transformation of Asia and Europe.

Instead, we grow slow and complacent, content to rely on resource exploitation rather than the value-added approach of leading economies.

In the meantime, we continue to demand European-style public services on American-level taxes.

As we Torontonians are finding out, it doesn’t work that way.

This is all so true, and it holds not just for Toronto — after all, we always knew they were smug! The charge of complacency and misplaced self-esteem in orbit could be leveled at quite a few cities.

And in the past I’ve made similar points about Victoria, more recently also basing my comments (as does Hume) on the Conference Board of Canada’s report.

Last March (2006), I wrote an article on my now-defunct wiki called Natural Capitalism and cities, using as jumping off point the Lovins’s & Hawken’s observation (on p.164 of the book Natural Capitalism), which I quoted:

Taxes and subsidies are, in essence, a form of information. At the most basic level, they cause change. Everybody in the world, whether rich or poor, acts on price information every day. Taxes make something more expensive to buy, subsidies artificially lower prices. Thus, when something is taxed, you tend to buy less of it, and when you subsidize, you reduce prices and stimulate consumption. A practical step in moving toward radical resource productivity would be to shift taxes away from labor and income, and toward pollution, waste, carbon fuels, and resource exploitation, all of which are presently subsidized. For every dollar of taxation that is added to the cost of resources or waste, one dollar is removed from taxes on labor and capital formation. (Source: Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L.Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, p.164.)

I noted that in Canada, the tax structure benefits the provinces and the feds, but not the cities:

In Canada, consumers pay a provincial sales tax (PST) as well as a goods and services tax (GST). In BC, they add up to 14% together. [Edit/update: it’s now at 13% — GST went down 1% under Stephen Harper.] But when I hire a carpenter to fix my doors (and pay a GST for his services) or when I buy a pair of shoes (and pay PST and GST), none of those tax revenues flow directly to the community I paid the taxes in. It doesn’t matter if I shop in Victoria (or buy services where I live, in Victoria), or if I spend my money elsewhere. My consumption doesn’t figure into the locale, from a consumer tax p.o.v. The cities don’t get to collect any of the consumption taxes (PST or GST) — they go to the province or to the feds, but not to the cities, which are expected to pay for infrastructure, etc., through property taxes, and to beg, hat in hand at the various provincial or federal ministries’ doors, for funds.

Obviously, a city can’t keep paying for everything by taxing property and business owners to the hilt. We could use some new information via tax reform. (See Victoria City Style Council wiki, Natural Capitalism andCities.)

This is one example of the sort of fiscal tutelage the provinces and feds exert over the cities: it’s as though cities are not even adolescent yet, and are given a small allowance. But heaven forbid they have a real income of their own…

In the comments thread to So “Fast,” I’m Nearly Invisible — scroll down on this page for the comments string — I quoted a big section from a June 14 Globe & Mail article (now behind a pay-per wall), “Canada, a land of mediocrity.” This article examined the Conference Board of Canada’s findings, and wow!, it minced no words.

Let’s hope that more people start chipping away at the myth that Canadians live alongside rural wheatfields or camp out with lumberjacks in the deep primeval forests. Most of us live in cities small, medium, and large. It’s time we were weaned off the allowance and were allowed to work for a living.

My “fast” appearance on Vibrant Victoria

August 13, 2007 at 5:47 pm | In cities, fastcompany, links, victoria | 1 Comment

I’m pleased to be able to point readers to a short article of mine available on Vibrant Victoria‘s front page. It’s called The Race That Should be On: Victoria as “Fast City?” and you can read it by clicking through on the link.

Silly Dick!

August 11, 2007 at 8:55 pm | In just_so | Comments Off on Silly Dick!

It’s a weekend, and …well, there’s always “just a little lovin’ early in the [Sunday] morning” to look forward to, but before we get to Sunday morning, we have …Saturday night. So here’s A Dick in A Box (via YouTube)…

Warning: dangerously funny.

Extended surreality…

August 10, 2007 at 8:47 pm | In homelessness, just_so, scenes_victoria | Comments Off on Extended surreality…

I had a very strange experience today, lasting over the course of about an hour or two. I don’t normally ride the buses here — either I walk, or I walk, or sometimes I walk. When that doesn’t work, I will drive. Today I had to ride the bus to pick up the car from a regularly scheduled service so that I could drive it home.

As I wait by the bus stop — downtown, at the Fort and Douglas intersection — I see a girl I just know I’ve seen in a TV show. That is, she looks exactly like someone I’ve seen in a TV show …and never mind that I don’t get TV. But you know, …there’re video rental places, right?

A million buses go by, and finally “my” bus arrives. As I board, I see this guy get on who I swear is the 200% double of Rudy on Shop Around the Corner. Spitting image, total body double. A short while later, another guy gets on who is the double of a peculiarly crazed character on The Avengers. I think. (In this episode — he played the maniacal homocidal blacksmith.)

And so it went.

Everyone looked like someone else. Very very bizarre.

The guy who looked like the fellow on The Avengers especially spooked me. Why? I had seen him yesterday. He was in front of me at the Bottle Depot, where I had gone (driving, yes, in my car) to drop off two or three or more weeks worth of “empties,” including Tropicana OJ containers, many wine bottles, and several Tetrapaks of apple juice.

An aside: In BC, we pay a $0.05 to $0.20 deposit on all returnable/ recyclable containers, excepting milk products — the Milk Board made sure they were exempt. This deposit is returned if/ when we return the containers either to the store where we bought the item in the first place, or to a generic Bottle Depot. The latter have become magnets for the increasingly large army of “binners,” marginal or a-social people who pick through other people’s cast-offs, looking for “returnables.” The binners are often homeless, often drug- and/or alcohol-dependent, and they typically use (stolen) shopping carts to wheel their goods to the Depot. In some ways they perform a useful function since they do salvage returnables that some people simply throw out, although people typically throw these items into the curbside recycling bins. And if they’re in recycling bins, they get recycled. If they’re taken to Bottle Depots, they get recycled. The only difference is that the Bottle Depot pays you for the empties (or, more factually, reimburses you your deposit, which you paid at purchase), while the recycling service doesn’t pay you. When the binners snag returnables that you’ve decided you’re not going to redeem because it’s too much bother, they “earn” the refund money.
Many people are fed up with standing in line to redeem their empties’ deposit, and after yesterday’s experience, I’m one of them. I returned $13.65 worth of stuff — it was a trolley full of bottles and plastics. I thought it was a significant amount of change. But the guy in front of me — the one who looked like he had been on a bender for the past ten years and had washed perhaps once in all that time: the same guy who got on the bus with me today looking like the mad blacksmith in “The Town of No Return” — he returned over $80 worth of scavenged returnables. He hauled an incredible amount of stuff into the Depot, which on top of everything was swarming with wasps trying to feed off the rims of soda cans and wine bottles. Everyone and everything seemed to be feeding off something else: the great chain of garbage, nature at its finest. And yes, this is natural.

My plan has always been never to stand in line at the Bottle Depot again: I plan to build a small recycling station next to my garage where the binners can scavenge the empties. They can have the $0.10 per bottle, and I don’t have to take them to the Bottle Depot (or return them to the grocery or liquor store). But after seeing this guy yesterday, with his $80.65 in scavenged bottles, I wonder what exactly I’m supporting if I do that.

Meanwhile, as the bus continued, the whole Felliniesque circus played on. Everyone had at least two roles, some had three or more.

My service bill for the car was also surreal: $500.

But hey, I can drive to the Bottle Depot…

Red Fish Blue Fish

August 6, 2007 at 5:58 pm | In architecture, business, facebook, heritage, local_not_global, scenes_victoria, victoria | 3 Comments

It’s a holiday today in British Columbia, and I managed to take full advantage of the fact (well, aside from doing the usual Monday laundry-loads , food-preps, dog-walks, and other normal family life stuff…). But around mid-day all five of us (that’s counting the dog) walked over to Red Fish Blue Fish to have lunch.

The food was really delicious (a scallop sandwich to die for, for example), and the only drawback was that the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority has forbidden Red Fish Blue Fish to set up any tables or chairs on the pier. So we parked ourselves on the pier’s edge, which wasn’t quite as comfy as sitting at a proper table. The irony is that “safety issues” are Harbour Authority’s excuse for not allowing table set-up — perhaps they feel the tables might be wobbly on the old pier? Whatever the reason, “safety issues” is a hilarious objection since perching on the edge of the pier is risky. You could topple over the edge and land 15 feet below on some gangway (if you’re lucky) or fall right into the harbour waters (if you’re outta luck), or you could get some serious splinters in your bum from the old wood (if you just want to be sublimely distressed). (Did I mention that the pier is old?)

Speaking of sublime, do take a look at the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority front page — they have an impressive banner photo (currently, anyway) that shows Ogden Point with two docked cruise ships, and part of downtown to the north, past the trees of James Bay, the residential neighbourhood between downtown and Ogdon Point.

I uploaded photos of Red Fish Blue Fish’s facility to my Facebook account, which you can view if you have an account. Their idea isn’t new, but it’s great nonetheless: the entire operation is housed in a converted shipping container, which the partners creatively remodeled into a charming piece of ex-industrial humdrum hunk-of-steel qua architectural trendiness. They planted the roof with drought-resistant plants (sedums and grasses — typically, our summers are extremely dry), which very fetchingly sets off the space-age style chimney and vent, and pierced the container with openings that serve both a useful function (air, ventilation) and make for a pretty cool “look,” too.

In addition, the restaurant is situated right below “Malahat Building,” also known as the Old Customs House, on a pier that could well deserve the “heritage” designation. While the Inner Harbour has silted up somewhat, it used to be a deep water harbour all the way up the rock edge at the foot of the Customs House. Embedded into the rock are three iron rings (one of which, under water whenever the tide is up, is mightily corroded while the others — above the tide line — are still in good shape). These were the rings that Sir James Douglas’s men attached to the rock to tie up their ship after they sailed to Vancouver Island in the 1840s — they’re effectively what remains of the decision by the initial European explorers — James Douglas, actually — to make this particular place the birthplace of what would become British Columbia.

In recent years, that particular spot became a favoured locale for drunks and junkies to congregate and watch the sun setting over the harbour behind the Sooke Hills. After they finished drinking and shooting up, they smashed their bottles on to the rocks and chucked their needles into the shrubs that cling to the edge. When Red Fish Blue Fish was building its facility, that activity continued every evening. Since they opened three days ago, however, those folks have moved on because the pier is now frequented in the evenings by other people coming to enjoy a meal.

Simon, one of the partners in the restaurant, hopes that the Harbour Authority will eventually build some stairs down to the water’s edge — as he pointed out, it’s the only place all along the city’s Inner Harbour where you can actually touch the water, play in it — and if they do, he and his people will pitch in to clean up the broken glass, clear the debris that accumulated over years of neglect, and let people know that right there, below the “heritage” pier, is Victoria’s equivalent of Plymouth Rock. Well ok, not a rock, exactly: three stout rings, one of which is massively corroded. Thanks to Simon and Red Fish Blue Fish, the corroded ring has been treated to retard or prevent further corrosion. It’s interesting that it took a business owner to make sure that this bit of history doesn’t keep slipping further into the sea…

Quick followup: I noticed that RFBF has a “press” page, which only links, however, to an already disappeared story in the local paper. Not to worry, however, as vibrant Victorians have been following this story on the Vibrant Victoria forum since last December. So, if you’re interested in how this has wound its way through city hall etc., read more on the forum…

Testing outside.in…?

August 4, 2007 at 11:02 pm | In local_not_global, scenes_victoria, web | Comments Off on Testing outside.in…?

For months now, I’ve had an account with outside.in, and for months I’ve wondered whether they’d ever include Canadian sites & blogs in the network.

A couple of days ago, outside.in’s Crysanthe Tenentes sent around an email to let members know that it’s easier than ever to get your blog posts about your neighbourhood, your places, your spaces listed, so here’s a bit of guerilla testing on my part. According to the email, all I have to do is embed the Google maps code (“link to this page”) into my blog post, and submit that post to outside.in. I can also use a zip code tag — well, actually, I can’t, since we have postal codes (not zips) in Canada. Or I can use the “where” tag (also no good since it relies on zip code). And I could use the GeoRSS feed, but that takes a bit of looking into on my part.

I’ll just test the google maps embedded link first. So here goes:

I had lunch at Zambri’s Restaurant today. We arrived just after one, when the lunch crush had already abated. It was a simple meal, but quite good: all four of us had pasta dishes, some with squid, some with gorgonzola sauce, some with sausage, some with …something else. No wine today — alas, we felt abstemious.

Afterward, the kids walked home and W. & I looked at men’s suits at Hughes on Yates. Didn’t find anything, though.

Later that afternoon, we went to Pic-a-Flic in Cook Street Village before heading down to Dallas Road so that our dog Jigger could have a nice romp in the late afternoon sun. We had that typical west coast sun today: the kind that’s all golden and brings a certain glow into the shadows, which are rich, deep, and long late in the afternoon. The breeze picked up and I almost wished I had brought a sweater. We have the best summers here.

…Well, so now my readers can get an idea of how I spent part of my Saturday. But I have the feeling that outside.in’s ability to register Canadian locations is still in the R&D stage. The search box won’t allow searches for places that aren’t in the US. It’s too bad — the application is (imo) extremely interesting in terms of how it aggregates web-based/ blog-based information that relates to actual locales.

UPDATE, 8/5/07: It works! Here’s my map on outside.in for this entry… Now I just need some neighbours — other Victoria bloggers, in other words!

ONE MORE UPDATE: I just left a comment on outside.in’s blog, asking for more information. My map is visible, but I can’t “find” Victoria from the outside.in start page. I hope that’ll change soon, and Canadian bloggers can use this app to share information about their local places…

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