Front-line/Downtown – Community Solutions

April 2, 2009 at 1:25 pm | In addiction, community_associations, crime, health, homelessness, housing, justice, leadership, local_not_global, victoria | 1 Comment

On Monday March 30, the Downtown Residents Association (DRA) hosted a public meeting, On The Front Lines: Community Solutions for Homelessness and Social Issues, at City Hall. Moderated by DRA chair Rob Randall, we heard from Victoria City Councilor Charlayne Thornton-Joe, the Coalition to End Homelessness‘s Jill Clements, the Downtown Victoria Business Association’s Ken Kelley, and Victoria Police Department Chief Jamie Graham.

Rob wrote a follow-up report on his blog – go check it out (especially the comments). Davin Greenwell also posted a great summary, and included photo documentation, so do take a look at it here.

I haven’t commented on Rob’s post, but just left a long comment on Davin’s entry. Click through to read my (partial) response to the session.

One of the categories I’m filing my post under is “leadership,” a quality that Jill Clements of the Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness seems to have, and it’s something we expect from Jamie Graham. We also see it in Charlayne Thornton-Joe.

As I was checking off categories, I also checked “justice,” as I was reminded of Graham’s discussion of implementing Restorative Justice (see Saanich’s program), which we hope to see used more frequently in Victoria. Incidentally, Restorative Justice is modeled on First Nations approaches to crime and social disorder, and reminded me that the American Congress (and Senate?) is modeled on a New World/ First Nations approach (vs. the British Parliamentarianism we still practice in Canada, where everyone shouts at the same time and heckles the opposition). Sorry, can’t provide a link right now, but just think of the concept of the talking stick. Works for me – bring it on.

What’s wrong with Victoria’s business community?

October 25, 2008 at 12:27 am | In community_associations, leadership, politics, victoria | 12 Comments

I take it as a given that cities need healthy economies if they are to thrive as vibrant, creative places. And I wonder what’s wrong with the established business interests in Victoria, whether in traditional commerce, or in our growing high tech sector, or even in tourism.

Here’s the problem: we have a municipal election coming up on November 15.  With the sh*tstorm of issues facing us (homelessness on a big scale, drug abuse and addiction, financial turmoil,  credit crunches, possible stagnation, crumbling infrastructure, and provincially mandated sewage treatment to the tune of $1.2b), you’d think that everyone must have their eyes on the candidates — because whoever gets in for this next round is going to have a hard row to hoe, and we want to make sure we don’t elect NOOPs.

And guess what?  Many people are paying attention.  Witness the all-candidates meetings held around the city at various venues.

But here’s the rub: these events are almost all hosted by various community associations and community groups, and none of these have the broader economic health of the whole city on their agenda.  Instead, these are issue-driven venues with issue-driven agendas that cater to important, but nonetheless specialized, interests: whether it’s a community association (often with a NIMBY agenda) that wants to grill candidates on their stance around development and affordable housing, or poverty activists that want to grill candidates on what they propose to do about the growing problem of homelessness, none of these sponsors of all-candidates meetings have a balanced, holistic view of the entire city or its economic well-being.

Let’s face it: if you get enough people together in a room and agitate them with issues that are already in their faces, it won’t take much to have normally intelligent people reduce issues of great complexity to black-and-white caricature, and you’ll find that people readily sort themselves into rigid interest groups that brook little dialogue.  One of first complexities to go by the board is economics.  Whether or not our government is doing anything (beyond raising or lowering our property or business tax rates) to facilitate a climate of economic health is uninteresting in those contexts, because their focus is on what’s perceived as the immediate crisis to hand.

The typically agenda-driven community-organized meeting is about focusing on all the problems that bedevil us, and often on demanding our “rights” to better services.  Take affordable housing, a truly complex issue.  At your typical community association-sponsored all-candidates meeting, the issue invariably devolves to this: someone from the audience asks the candidates whether they will “stand up to” the developers of new buildings and “make them” include “affordable” housing.  And if they’re not able to “stand up to” those evil rich bloodsuckers, will they shut down development so that “our” city won’t be “given over” to the rich and the poor won’t be squeezed out?  That’s how easy many people think it should be. If we can’t get what we want, shut the whole damn thing down.  Stop everything.

Complexity?  Com-schmexity.  Rhetoric and posturing is all that matters.  The candidates are forced to respond and react within this framework, and the result is ridiculous.

Further, we have 7 people running for mayor, of which at most 2 are actually qualified in any real sense of the word.  And we have 35 people running for 8 council seats, and here again there’s a majority that’s simply unelectable because they have a single agenda or fringe idee fixe that speaks volumes about their inability to govern anything as complex as a city.

Yet the community-sponsored all-candidates meetings bring out the “best” (i.e., the worst) in these candidates, because inevitably the more fringe-y ones can turn things into a circus with help from the audience.  Of the 3 meetings so far, 2 degenerated quickly into out-and-out gong shows.  The venue and the audience / question period encourages this: insofar as audiences here typically already feel aggrieved, rational candidates cannot, in the 2 minutes allotted to them, convey a nuanced sense of what their platform is, and instead the decidedly more manic candidates act out and use the stage to perform what can only be described as a spectacle of narcissistic self-display that serves to whip up audience fervor.

Gong show.  Truly.

I am not suggesting that we get rid of the community association or community agenda-sponsored meetings.  But here’s my question: why are they the only ones who host open, free-to-all meetings?

Where, for example, is the business community and why isn’t it sponsoring all-candidates meetings?  In a private exchange I asked:

Where is the “business community,” anyway? UDI Victoria is hosting a mayoral candidates event at the Ambrosia Centre on 11/3 (which will probably involve charging admission), but where are the all-candidates meetings that aren’t being driven by the agendas of the poverty-industry advocates and/ or community associations?

Those groups look only at the negative stuff — they don’t talk about what’s positive, what’s worth continuing.

Where are the groups that could and should host meetings that don’t devolve down to 150% negativity? The business groups? VIATEC/ the technology community? Higher learning?

They seem to be allowing Victoria to flounder, flail, and drown.

Giant fail.

Well, it turns out the Chamber of Commerce is hosting a mayoral candidates meeting (albeit not an all-candidates meeting), but what a dog’s-breakfast they’ve made of it.

In a nutshell, it exemplifies what’s wrong with our municipal democracy: on the one hand, community-agenda driven meetings that seem blind to business issues, and on the other a Chamber of Commerce, which, by hosting a meeting that for all intents and purposes may as well take place in a different galaxy for all the relevance it’ll have, thumbs its nose at the larger community.

Here’s the format for the Chamber’s meeting:

City of Victoria Mayoral Candidate Forum

Join the Chamber and hear what your candidates have to say about issues that affect your business.
The Mayoral Candidate Forum will be moderated by Bruce Carter and questions will be encouraged from the audience.

Candidates participating in this forum are:

Dean Fortin
Rob Reid
Steve Filipovic

November 12th, 2008

Delta Victoria – Ocean Pointe Resort & Spa
7:15 a.m. – Registration
7:30 a.m. – Event Start
Continental Buffet Breakfast Provided

The page continues, but a note first.  There are 7 mayoral candidates, and by excluding 4, the Chamber is engaging in some heavy-duty editing.  But most interesting is that they chose to include Steve Filipovic, who doesn’t stand a chance to be elected.  He’s the token candidate; the Chamber would have been better off to directly state that Dean Fortin and Rob Reid are the only two viable candidates, with Fortin an incumbent councilor with lots of experience, and Reid the newcomer who wants to shake things up a bit.  (Although I’m not impressed by Reid’s strategy of aligning himself with several NIMBYist community association leaders, who will surely bring the city to a halt if elected.  My impression now is that Reid doesn’t know what he’s doing.)

Ok, here’s my point as to why the Chamber’s efforts are a dog’s breakfast.  First, the venue is the Ocean Pointe, which just screams “exclusive” and “riff-raff keep out.”  Second, here’s the price of admission:

Nov 12, 2008
07:30 am – 09:00 am
Members: $30.00 +GST
Future Members: $45.00 +GST

The cute “Future Members” notwithstanding, I found that $45 price tag maddening.

So we have a “no riff-raff” venue and an admission price that seals the deal that this meeting is for the “let them eat cake” crowd.

But these are stupid cake eaters, to boot.  For here’s the final straw.  After exhorting us (in bold) to Register Today!, we read:

Note: Our online registration system is not compatible with Mozilla Firefox or Mac computers and only accepts Visa & MasterCard. [emphasis added]

That really takes the cake — alas, it doesn’t take the cake away, but it takes it.

If that’s our representative business chamber, obviously reliant on proprietary Microsoft software and unable to deal with either Macs or Firefox (because they use Internet Exploder), then how can we expect any innovation or creative thinking from this sector?

And how can the voters in this city expect innovation or creativity from potential leaders who are forced to flail about between the horrible Scylla and Charybdis of crisis-focused community groups on the one hand and fossilized business thinking on the other?

What a mess.

(Additional blog post on this topic from 10/26 here.)

Cities do it (land use) better

December 12, 2007 at 6:18 pm | In cities, community_associations, land_use, NIMBYism, urbanism, victoria | 7 Comments

Here’s a “must read” piece by Edward Glaeser, just republished in the CEO for Cities blog, The Greenness of Cities, and first published in the New York Sun on January 30/07. It explains why, from an environmentalism perspective, it’s far better to build highrises (and use land efficiently) than to oppose development (and force development into other areas, which typically don’t have the efficiencies in place that cities do).

How I wish that every board member of Victoria’s own Fairfield Community Association and James Bay Neighbourhood Association and Vic West Community Association would read this piece. I’m naming these groups specifically for their extreme NIMBYism, which they wield over the city’s core. Wedded to some obscene notion of a city forever preserved in aspic (which, if it’s kept up, will kill our city), they retard progressive development by defending what they consider Victoria’s “character,” “quaintness,” and “charme” (yes, with an “e” at the end — it’s all so veddy veddy English, don’t you know?). They do not understand what a city is or what it needs at all, and to shore up their inability to understand, they refuse to understand that Victoria is a city. “Their” Victoria is denial made manifest. The real Victoria suffers because of this.

Since they don’t understand the real Victoria at all (having no understanding of cities), they therefore fight development not just in their own neighbourhoods (for which they could be forgiven), but also in the city’s downtown (for which they cannot). The James Bay Neighbourhood Association is a particular thorn in my urbanist side, since this group insists on arrogating to itself areas that any sane person would recognize as belonging to downtown and having nothing to do with James Bay. But, as in all power trips, the more “authority” you can claim, the better your chances of inflating your importance.

They fight tooth and nail against any development that exceeds the city’s insanely arbitrary (and niggardly) height limits or that transgresses density limits established in a bygone age (the fifties?) when land was cheap. And they cling to strange fantasies, for example, that all of Victoria could do well with buildings kept to 6 floors — “like Paris,” they dreamily say, conveniently forgetting that their romantic notion of a low-rise Paris was born at the expense of massive expropriations and the destruction of the medieval city by Baron Haussmann in the 19th century. If anyone proposed anything remotely similar today, they’d be institutionalized. They also forget that those 6-story Parisian behemoths sit on land parcels approximately one square city block in size, hence the possibility of creating nifty enclosed courtyards for the residents. Given our comparatively tiny city lots (ranging from 9,000 to at most 15,000 square feet), it’s impossible to make the numbers come out right unless you go tall.

Oh, and how I wish that our supposedly “Green” city councilor, Sonya Chandler (who hasn’t been seen or heard from since she became a mother some months ago), would read this piece. Sonya — from Vic West, incidentally — who balks when a concrete high-rise proposal comes before council, because (in her mind) anything that isn’t “small” isn’t “green.”

How I wish the luminaries and wanna-be politicos from the various community associations, who think they have what it takes to lead a city and who plan to run for council seats, would read Glaeser’s article. I shudder to think what will happen if some of the Waynes or Dianes or Cornelias or Tims actually were to get elected next year: they, with their punitive attitude toward developers, with their firm belief that development is just another way of being a pervert (especially if the new building isn’t in some Disney-esque faux heritage “style”) and that it must be brought into line, ladies and gentlemen!

And what is this article I want them all to read actually saying?

Here are some key excerpts (pay attention, Sonya!):

If the environmental footprint of the average suburban home is a size 15 hiking boot, the environmental footprint of a New York apartment is a stiletto-heeled Jimmy Choo. Eight million New Yorkers use only 301 square miles, which comes to less than one-fortieth of an acre a person. Even supposedly green Portland, Ore., is using up more than six times as much land a person than New York.

New York’s biggest environmental contribution lies in the fact that less than one-third of New Yorkers drive to work. Nationwide, more than seven out of eight commuters drive. More than one-third of all the public transportation commuters in America live in the five boroughs. The absence of cars leads Matthew Kahn, in his fascinating book, “Green Cities,” to estimate that New York has by a wide margin the least gas usage per capita of all American metropolitan areas. The Department of Energy data confirm that New York State’s energy consumption is next to last in the country because of New York City.


…the ground troops of the environmental movement haven’t yet got themselves around to being pro-development, even in places, like New York, where development makes the most environmental sense. All of those years of opposing new development have made many activists reflexively anti-growth. Almost every act of neighborhood anti-development Nimbyism, or Not In My Back Yard, gets wrapped up in a mantle of environmentalism. The great problem with being reflexively anti-growth is that development in America is close to being a zero-sum game. New homes are going to be built to meet the needs of a growing population. If you stop development in some areas, you are ensuring more development elsewhere. [emph. added]

Some of my friends in the pro-urbanism camp have used this argument when speaking before council, albeit without the nuance it apparently requires to get through to councilors. As a result, when they now speak at public hearings to remind council of the sprawl in our Western Communities and to argue that highrises downtown could allay this, councilors shrug and pretend the argument is invalid. It isn’t. Certainly we’ll still see more single-family-homes (SFHs) going up in the suburbs, but that’s partly because of our overall growth here. We could — and should — still be doing a lot better in building downtown up, higher and denser.

Glaeser adds:

Good environmentalism requires a national perspective, not the narrow outlook of a single neighborhood trying to keep out builders. As a nation, we need to think clearly about where new housing causes the least environmental damage, and we need to make sure that our land-use policies help that happen. A local approach can do more harm than good because dense areas are rich in protesters who push new housing out to where there are fewer people to oppose it.

If one wrote, “[g]ood environmentalism requires a regional perspective, not the narrow outlook of a single neighborhood trying to keep out builders,” we could apply that entire paragraph to the situation in Victoria. For a perspective on the missing regional approach as it relates to municipal infrastructure funding and our overreliance on property taxes, see my recently published piece in Vibrant Victoria, Victoria’s Choice: to be or not to be …is not the question.

The “local approach” referenced by Glaeser is in our case a “neighbourhood approach” that seems to compound a peculiar political dysfunction of the region: the City of Victoria is a small political entity, but it’s the heart of regional entity of 350,000 people. The problem is that the city is but one municipality — out of 13. Within walking and biking distance are the municipalities of Oak Bay, Saanich, Esquimalt, View Royal, and so on, which have their own mayors and councils …and their own this-departments and that-departments. And so, the councilors — the politicians — in the City of Victoria are unhealthily dependent — to the detriment of the region — on the few neighbourhoods (some of whose organizations I listed above) for their voter base. It’s deadlock: the politicians dare not piss off the neighbourhood activists (who are often the only ones who bother to vote), even when this causes harm to the region as a whole — and certainly causes harm to what is the region’s downtown.

Next month (January 2008) I’ll have an article in FOCUS Magazine, which also tackles the stranglehold of the neighbourhoods over the city. I plan to post it and my other pieces from FOCUS (which unfortunately is not available online) to my blog soon.

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