Plans for Salem’s Harbor Power Station: Realpolitik or Missed Opportunity?

July 9, 2012 at 7:54 pm | In cities, green, health, innovation, jane_jacobs, land_use, leadership, NIMBYism, politics, power_grid, real_estate, resources, silo_think | Comments Off on Plans for Salem’s Harbor Power Station: Realpolitik or Missed Opportunity?

Last year, when I was still in Victoria BC but considering a move back to Boston’s North Shore, I read about the impending closure of the Salem Harbor Power Station and immediately thought,”Wow, what a fantastic redevelopment opportunity!” Suffice to say that my optimism may have been premature.

Bedeviled by a Dirtball

The Salem Harbor Power Station is one of the region’s dirtiest coal- and oil-burning power generators. For six decades, the plant has occupied sixty-two acres of prime waterfront real estate, cutting residents off from all other historically and economically significant maritime uses on shore. Its hulking facility, topped by two smokestacks that pierce the skyline, has visually dominated the coastline not only for its Salem neighbors, but also for folks in Beverly and Marblehead.

(Photo, above, from Dominion’s website)

Zombie Infrastructure

And it has spewed tons of pollutants into the air. As the Denver Post put it in an article about these many long-in-the-tooth dirty power plants, “Utilities dragged feet”:

These plants have been allowed to run for decades without modern pollution controls because it was thought that they were on the verge of being shuttered by the utilities that own them. But that didn’t happen.

Indeed. The Salem station was one of those zombie economy necessities that refused to die: a lot of people shrugged and accepted it as an unavoidable evil that had to be borne. After all, the region is famous for being bedeviled, right? The struggle to force either a clean-up or a closure of the Salem station was epic – but now it’s finally happening.

Or is it?

There’s a dearth of information about how the situation went from “the plant is closing” = “really new opportunities” to “the plant is dead” = “long live the plant,” but some weeks ago, the latter option grew in strength when the station’s current owner, Dominion, began negotiations to sell the property as-is to New Jersey-based startup Footprint Power. The latter wants to operate a natural gas-burning power plant at the site. Admittedly, natural gas burns cleaner than coal or oil – but wait! There have been hints that the backup fuel could be …diesel oil. Because, you know, depending on the markets, natural gas might become too expensive and we’d have to go back to something a little dirtier.

It seems zombies are hard to kill dead.

Why has there been no recent public input on the plans?

On June 26, Andrea Fox of Green Drinks of Greater Salem moderated a discussion of current plans for the station. The three presenters – Healthlink‘s Jane Bright, State Rep. Lori Ehrlich, and attorney Jan Schlichtmann (whose work has often focused on environmental issues) – questioned the plans now on offer. Schlichtmann in particular pointed out that, while there was a surge of interest initially in what would happen to the site, the recent negotiations between Dominion, Footprint, and Massachusetts politicians have effectively put a kibosh on any further public input. The Green Drinks discussion was essentially meant to breathe some life into the conversation. It seems that as soon as the corporation(s) decided on a course of action, the people rolled over and went quiet.

The lone voice speaking in favor of Footprint Power’s plan was Shelley Alpern, a Salem resident and member of SAFE – the Salem Alliance for the Environment (but she made it clear that she wasn’t speaking on SAFE’s behalf). Alpern’s cred as an environmentalist goes way back, so it was surprising to hear her question the vision for a sustainable redeveloped waterfront site and instead pleading Footprint’s case.

The arguments at Green Drinks revolved around the following:

  • how much will it really cost to clean up the brownfield site? Some put the price tag at $75m, others argue that this number is inflated and meant to scare people into accepting Footprint’s option, lest the alternative be “the padlock” (meaning the site just gets shuttered and turns into a decaying eyesore versus a toxic waste spewing eyesore). See also Speaking alternatives to power
  • is the lifecycle of natural gas really that much better than coal or oil? Sure, it’s cleaner (somewhat) and currently cheaper (somewhat), but no one knows how the markets are going to shape prices in the future, near or far. And what about the externalities and costs consumer don’t directly see when the natural gas is extracted, such as the enormous environmental cost of fracking? What about the dangers of putting pipelines, which will inevitably break down and leak, through watershed areas? There are already pipelines running from Nova Scotia in Canada, through Beverly, and into Salem. What’s their “lifecycle”?
  • will Footprint Power keep its promises? Some stakeholders have been told by Footprint that a natural gas-burning plant might need to use diesel fuel as a back-up; some were told that the existing plant might have to stay on for some time (vs being dismantled). Other stakeholders have heard no such thing when they sat down with Footprint – but we’re dealing with corporations, and with energy corporations, to boot …not exactly always the white-hat guys.
  • what of the missed opportunities to develop something truly amazing?

That last point – missing opportunities because vision is lacking – strikes me as the most compelling. Rep. Ehrlich made the case in a Marblehead Reporter op-ed on May 14, 2012, Vision still lacking at Salem power-plant site (also available on her website, here). The column sparked a flaming letter-to-the-editor in response, Get over the aesthetics; think clean energy, whose author compared opposition to off-shore (and backyard) wind turbines to a kind of la-la-land NIMBYism that wants a “pretty” picture without facing the inescapable reality of our energy needs. His point was that Ehrlich and those who think like her are in la-la-land because we pussy-foot around the fact that we still need to get our energy from somewhere, while he is a realist who understands that Footprint’s proposal is the region’s best bet.

I think it’s a false choice.

Macro / Micro

Consider for a moment perspective. What the critics, especially Ehrlich and Schlichtmann, have is a fine-grained, close-view perspective. It reminds me of Jane Jacobs‘s analysis of neighborhoods at the street level. She looked at the details and decoded what she termed a street ballet, understanding that how people use a thing (a street) – and how they are able to use it – determines the whole, irrespective of how much planning-from-above tries to predict outcomes. This was pretty much in opposition (at the time) to the thinking of professional planners, who believed that streets must be rationally planned (preferably according to the needs of the automobile) and that buildings, placed according to mostly “ideal” reasons, would determine uses. If Jacobs had a micro view, the planners of the day had the macro view.

It strikes me as ironic that the micro-view is actually the Big Picture “vision” view, and that the macro approach, which tries to account for a larger perspective, has a blind spot about the “users” or people on the ground. The Realpolitik view defaults to the macro – and I count Alpern’s approach here. Expert knowledge about hydro-fracking regulations in Bulgaria and Pennsylvania is good to have, but it’s not enough to impel local people to act differently. Local inertia is a strong force, and if you build another power plant, you will have another power plant. For another sixty years. But if you give the people who actually want change the power to control their destinies, they can move the rest of us out of our inertia. That’s the claim mocked by the letter writer who thinks a power plant alternative is la-la-land thinking – but what is the alternative? Another planned-from-above mega-project that repeats many of the same patterns established by the old project?

Deep waters, old uses

Schlichtmann made the truly relevant point that Salem’s history was built on maritime industry. The current site of the Salem Harbor Power Station is Salem’s only deep-water port – what passes for the city’s tourist harbor is a shallow pond, incapable of harboring bigger vessels. The original coal-burning plant was built on that prime spot because of the deep harbor, which allowed ships to offload coal. It’s an incredibly shortsighted move willfully to dismiss an opportunity to reclaim that harbor for what it represents (Salem’s fantastic seafaring history). All around the industrialized world, cities are reclaiming waterfront that was savaged by mono-uses (waterfront freeways, power plants, factories, etc.), and reintegrating them into a more sustainable urban fabric. Why should Salem shut itself out from that renaissance?

Well, because we need energy. But consider this: ISO New England has said that there’s no longer any need for a power plant in Salem. As Ehrlich noted in her column, “The old plant is barely running, and ISO, the region’s reliability-cautious grid operator, said that power production on that site is no longer needed. Why such an enormous plant?”

More references

For more images of the Salem Harbor Power Station, see Healthlink‘s photostream, here.

For an informative PDF, see Repurposed Coal Plant Sites Empower and Revive Communities.

Sierra Club, Victory! Salem Coal Plant Announces Closing.

ArchBOSTON forum discussion (brief) here.

Growing cities

May 19, 2010 at 7:51 pm | In cities, green, jane_jacobs, land_use, NIMBYism, sprawl, victoria | 3 Comments

The City of Victoria has had a revision of its Downtown Plan in the works for the past …oh, two?, four? six? years (I know that I attended workshops and other public participation exercises on same around four years ago). The plan is finally out (it was pre-released to the media on Monday, 5/17), and for some inexplicable reason it will now be subjected to another six weeks or so of “public participation” before being put to the vote.

One of the city’s media outlets put the whole 183-page document on, which is a blessing. See Downtown Core Area Plan Draft. The original is in PDF, but on Scribd you can, among other things, see a “tiled” version, which lets you hone in on the pages that you think might be relevant – without having to scroll tediously through the PDF itself. (Hooray!)

On the same day that Victoria’s proposed Downtown Plan (which has one or two things to say about density and building heights) was released to the media, I came across two articles on cities, densities, and building heights, which piqued my interest.



One is from Ed Glaeser, an economist who writes about urban economics and development: Taller Buildings, Cheaper Homes (New York Times, 5/4/10). The other is from the Globe & Mail newspaper and presents a snap-shot of Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary. It’s called How cities grow – up is in.

In the former article, Glaeser argues that Jane Jacobs’s aversion to high-rises was misplaced, and that taller buildings can make a city both more diverse and more affordable. Jacobs believed that lack of diversity and unaffordability went hand-in-hand – which isn’t hard to argue with. Presumably she saw high-rises as luxury (unaffordable) dwellings, which automatically means that they exclude diversity (only a specific class can afford them). Glaeser, on the other hand, argues that high-rises contribute to affordability. I think the key word may be “rental.” Glaeser writes of growing up in a 25-story rental building – and he also describes units that, at 1600 square feet, can accommodate families.

I wish that I could say that I know of tall rental buildings with family-sized units, either already built or under construction. But when I look at what’s going up in Victoria (or in Vancouver – or, I’d wager, in most western downtowns), it’s not rental units (unless the condo owners choose to rent their units out), and it’s not family-sized units either. If anything, the trend is toward small (really small) units that appeal to singles or the retired demographic. That’s not to say that I prefer the alternative (underutilized land, no new buildings), but I don’t see “affordable” and “family-sized” (that is, able to accommodate parents and two kids of opposite sex, which means 3 bedrooms) used in the same sentence when we describe what we’re building in our cities at present. This is a problem.

How can cities attract construction that meets rental demands and is friendly to families?

Glaeser notes:

Restricting supply led to higher prices and a city with space only for the rich. In the 1950s and 1960s, middle-income people, like Jane Jacobs and my parents, could afford Manhattan.  Equivalent families today can’t afford the city, and that’s a pity. By contrast, Chicago, with its longstanding pro-construction ethos, remains far more affordable even in prime locations.

I’d love some pointers to Chicago’s successes, and, if applicable, hints as to how they might transfer. Does the “pro-construction ethos” have to be really longstanding (as in decades), or is this something cities can adopt quickly? Vancouver has been fairly pro-construction lately, but it’s very unaffordable. So what’s the secret?

In his article, Glaeser brings the question back to density, which is surely a big sticking point for many people whose experience(s) with density to date were either negative or shaped by cultural myths and prejudices. Aversion to density is cultural, but that’s not to say that people should learn to accept actual intolerable conditions. Far from it – for if the mix of amenities is right, density is experienced as a convenience and as a good thing. If density is experienced as an intolerable constraint, it means the amenities are missing. Properly designed, density is an affordance, too: proximity to shops, recreation, parks, entertainment, clubs, friends. Shoddy buildings, on the other hand, make density intolerable: if you can hear your neighbor’s every evacuation or sneeze, something’s wrong. But cheaply-built buildings are, well, cheaper to build – which in turn gets back to economics and affordability.

In the Globe & Mail article, the comments board gives readers an indication of how far white, suburban-raised North Americans are from seeing density as an affordance. In most people’s views, it’s strictly a negative constraint, one that mostly affects their individual freedom.

Some commenters go up a level, from the individual to the societal, and focus on waste management. They conjure visions of cities choking on their own trash; or on water supply, warning of depletion of drinking water.

Several invoke Malthusian principles, arguing that we simply can’t grow any more. (Note: I get a bit impatient around this line of thinking – it seems to me that population regulates itself when prosperity rises and women gain equality. At some point thereafter, population settles at replacement levels or drops significantly below that.)

Clearly, the “pull up the drawbridge, we’re full” attitude is very common not just in my city, but elsewhere, too. It’s not exactly possible, legally, to tell citizens they can’t move to a city within their country, so unless we learn to manage growth well (affordance, not constraint), we’ll just get even more sprawl (which is already happening anyway, but why encourage it?).

So, Mr. Glaeser: back to you. We know that Jacobs’s vision of a somewhat quaint Greenwich Village in no way precludes an exclusive (and therefore anti-diversity) gentrification that’s unaffordable for mere mortals. In other words, quaint does not mean affordable or diverse or even friendly. And how, given the realities of economics, do we address another point she raised: the influx of “catastrophic money” (major urban renewal projects or very large civic projects that chew up entire city blocks, creating a kind of branded corporate-land that’s the antithesis of a neighborhood)? Finally, how can municipal governments and planning departments promote high-rise developments that are also affordable and family-friendly, while being amenity-rich and designed to make density an affordance, not a negative constraint?


May 3, 2010 at 11:16 pm | In green, NIMBYism, power_grid | 2 Comments

When the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico began, I noticed some bittersweet satirical tweets reporting a windspill. For example, five days ago: “Hope u r ready to help clean up the inevitable windspill. :)” Or, three days ago: “BREAKING NEWS: Massive Windspill at WIndfarm… Residents complain about the breeze!”

By yesterday, Daily Kos published a “windspill” satire, and by today “windspill” made it to The Huffington Post: “BREAKING: Large Air Spill At Wind Farm. No Threats Reported. Some Claim To Enjoy The Breeze. (PICTURE)

It’s one of those satires that’s truly mordant. If only, if only…, we think, as the #oilspill disaster also known as #fuckbp spreads.

But why don’t we have a windspill “disaster”? Wouldn’t it be a stroke of luck, …instead of the mess we really have?

On April 29, Sarah Green, associate editor at the Harvard Business Review, posted From Oil Spills to Wind Farms, From NIMBY to BANANA. In her article, she gets to the heart of that question by pointing to NIMBYist (or BANANAist) obstructionism.

(If you’re not familiar with the acronyms, NIMBY stands for “Not In My Backyard” and BANANA stands for “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody [or Anything].”

Green describes the attempts to get wind farms built near Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, both of which depend heavily on tourism. For the past ten years, residents and other stakeholders have blocked the construction of wind farms, arguing that they’ll destroy the ambiance.

Energy, it seems, is something we can get elsewhere, from a wall socket or from petroleum that’s extracted (and refined) far, far away (in someone else’s backyard…). At home (in our backyard), we can maintain the status quo. The latter may be completely artificial, but it’s familiar and therefore comfortable.

Green asks:

So how will the energy industry — and the rest of the economy, which relies so heavily upon it — move forward when citizens seem determined to maintain the status quo? Politican after politician has espoused the need to create green jobs to revitalize the American economy and put it on a path to the future. The pages of HBR, among many others, have pointed to the necessity of building sustainable businesses to remain competitive in a world where companies will increasingly have to pay the costs of what were once dismissed as “externalities.” But as the local case study of Cape Wind makes all too clear, knowing that something is an economic necessity is very different from actually embracing it when it shows up on your own shores. (source)

Given what the Gulf residents will have to embrace when it shows up on their shores, maybe opposition to the construction of alternative power sources will soften.

(PS: I’m writing this on yet another day with wind warnings in effect for Southern Vancouver Island. While it’s always windy here, the past six weeks have been especially unrelenting. Earlier today, I posted a tweet with the hashtag #surrenderdorothy: it’s so harsh, I expect to see angry flying monkeys sweeping by, ready to take a swipe at us for not harnessing our wind energy here. What’s stopping us?)

Mark Holland to speak in Victoria BC

March 15, 2010 at 8:48 am | In NIMBYism, politics, victoria | 3 Comments

The City of Victoria’s Shape Your Future site notes that Mark Holland will be at the next community forum on March 26:

Mark Holland has been announced as the keynote speaker for the March 26 Community Forum. He will be joined by a panel of Victoria citizens at the Friday evening event from 5:30 p.m. – 8 p.m at Crystal Garden.

The Shape Your Future site is set up like a blog, yet doesn’t allow comments (which bugs me). Since I can’t post comments on the City’s site, I’ll have to do it on my own blog. I’d like to point to some things Holland said in a 2006 Tyee interview with James Glave, which I annotated via Diigo at the time, although I forgot all about it.

In James Glave’s interview, Holland notes that “The market isn’t a clean thing, it is completely invented and it’s constantly maintained and managed and manipulated by regulations.” In other words, as part of a feedback loop, taxation and subsidies act as a kind of information: they literally inform (that is, form or shape) the market. Municipalities in Canada are in a hard place here since they don’t have the autonomy to shape those feedback loops fully. However, they do have some powers, and it’s critical that cities figure out what they can do to move markets in the right direction. And as Holland adds, “…the question is, ‘Do we want to create national and international agreements to create a structure that leads us toward a more sustainable society, or do we want to create market forces that lead us away from it?’ That is one of the biggest questions in play right now.”

It means that at the city level, different departments need to cooperate, work together to figure this part of the puzzle out. (It also implies quite a lot at the regional level, which is a whole other matter when dealing with a municipal puzzle as tricky as ours. More on that, below.)

I also really liked what Holland said about the world-changers. After first noting that “The only sustainable future we can have is a profitable one. If you can’t make money saving the world, you won’t save the world,” he adds a couple of thoughts about partisans:

“But there is a stream that still carries on in the old way — supported by trade unions, and people who have little experience with how government works — largely driven by those who have an ‘outsider’ psychology [guilty as charged, I have my share of ‘outsider psychology’…]. They move the world forward very slowly. That said, they are critical for creating demand for those on the inside to do something. Without them banging on the pots and pans, no one anywhere needs to do anything. So, governments do sometimes need people throwing their bodies against the wall. But we will never change the world by going around the system. We have to change the system from within.”

And, a bit further down:

You can’t presume that the do-gooder, 1970s approach to changing your lifestyle is going to change the world, because it’s not. There is no way that trying to sell starving in the dark and doing without is ever going to make a penetration. In fact, it’s highly irresponsible for activists to argue that. They turn the world against those of us who are trying to change it, we all get branded the same way.

Makes sense to me, but the place we’re talking about is Victoria, where everyone wants to save the world – either by not changing a thing, pulling up the drawbridge, or being politically partisan (which usually involves comparing the BC Liberals to child molesters or worse). And in this city it’s going to be a hard slog to convince certain people to look at markets like they’re you’re friend, vs some kind of “alien” thing you can eliminate.

Consider, for example, one of James Glave’s own recent posts, Density is not the boogieman, which includes a passionate letter to his municipality, Bowen Island. He notes that he’s “advocating …for the best and most responsible way to deal with the growth that is already occurring,” which is exactly what we should be dealing with in Victoria, too (versus thinking we should stop growth by pulling up the drawbridge). Here, too, there’s a typical rejection of density – perhaps because people don’t understand that by not allowing it, they’re encouraging sprawl and the paving over of greenfields.

If you read through Glave’s letter, consider also reading Bernard von Schulmann’s January 12 post, Higher density needed near UVic. One of the comments on that post is particularly telling: Barbara Julian asks, “Why does everybody accept density and overpopulation? Anyone remember ‘small is beautiful’? UVIC has to grow for whose benefit …? Corporate interests did you say ..?” Julian’s questions encapsulate the thinking around here: stop development, density is bad, just don’t let anyone else move here (aka the drawbridge mindset) and we’ll be all set.

It’s a hopeful sign that we also have people like Rob Randall, who posted this response to Julian:

“Why does everybody accept density and overpopulation?”

Because density is good, Barbara.

Because density is good.

But you know, those of us who get that also get awfully beaten down by those who bury their heads in the sand on questions of growth (and growth management).

Once more back to Mark Holland, this time on the question of community gardens, which also illuminates what a hard sell Victorians wanting change will have here. Holland notes, “We need to include serious community gardens in our public parks.”

Let’s see anyone try to move that past the Friends of Beacon Hill Park, who fight tooth and nail against any “infringement” on the museum quality of that public park, whether it’s a temporary advertising banner to support a community festival (Luminara, anyone?) …or community gardening.

So, all this from Glave’s 2006 article, which I annotated the hell out of almost four years ago. In the years preceding 2006 as well as the years following I attended numerous community planning sessions, bashing my head against certain Victorians who always seem to find time to attend these events. Now I can’t muster an appetite for this stuff anymore. It’s up to the people getting paid – city staff – to find out if it’s really the case that everyone here has a BANANA mentality, or if it’s just a very vocal subset. City staff and politicians have, however, nearly bankrupted public trust due to the still-ongoing Johnson Street Bridge debacle. Nobody trusts them anymore, including me.

And I’m also less than hopeful because our municipal employees can’t do what Andrea DiMaio so eloquently suggests in How To Love Government 2.0 and Be A Contrarian at the Same Time:

My main concern, which I have expressed countless times, is that an open government must be a government that both talks more about what it does and how it operates, and listens to what people have to say. But in doing so, it does not pretend it owns or controls the communication channels or the style of interaction.


If governments really want to address the other side of the engagement coin, and figure out where people are, what they care about, what language they use, what makes them tick on a topic and stick to a community, then they need to empower their employees to be market researchers, information brokers, idea transformers.

The attitude needs to shift from “we need to engage people who tell us how to work (because our folks are not good enough)” to “we want our folks to become even better by tapping into the ingenuity and creativity of people”. Now, I’m sure you’ve heard many gov 2.0 leaders and proponents using similar words. But if you read the fine prints, you may have noticed that they say “government must tap into the ingenuity of people” and not “government employees”. This is a fundamental difference, and one that I have been stressing for quite some time now.

What DiMaio, followed up by Candi Harrison in her post, Use Your Best Resources to Engage Citizens – Your Employees, propose is getting government employees to talk to their friends, neighbors, social circles to find out what people are thinking and want for their community. Why is this a problem in Victoria (aside from possible internal communication blocks between management and staff)? Political balkanization – thirteen municipalities, each with their own municipal governments. The City of Victoria’s own highest paid employee – Gail Stephens, City Manager – doesn’t even live in Victoria. What’s the point if she talks to her neighbors? They’re not Victorians. And while I don’t have the statistics, I’m sure a significant percentage of City employees don’t live Victoria.

In other words, the political balkanization contributes to making shared information either difficult or …irrelevant. Neighboring folks in Saanich might aspire to the same things as those in Victoria, but under our crazy system their views must be addressed to Saanich politicians, not Victoria’s. It’s completely ridiculous.

Which is why I wish Mark Holland luck in addressing Victoria. I think he’ll enjoy it and will find lots of enthusiastic world changers. But they just might not be aware of how market-oriented his thinking is. In fact, I wonder how much of a surprise Holland’s approach will be to some of the usual participants at these events, people who are against all development. And I wonder, too, how much bringing Holland here was a staff-driven decision as opposed to one made on the basis of gauging the community. Holland’s views on underlying economic drivers are so progressive that I have a hard time reconciling them with the usual stance of Victorians.

By my lights, it’s now pretty late in the day and Mark Holland should have been here four years ago to talk about shaping Victoria’s Official Community Plan.

At any rate I think I’ll be staying home on March 26. After waiting all these years, I’ve come down with a real bad case of community fatigue.

What is Victoria saying?

March 10, 2010 at 7:01 am | In just_so, local_not_global, NIMBYism, politics, victoria | 2 Comments

The City of Victoria is trying to gauge public attitudes as part of its efforts to come up with a renewed Official Community Plan (OCP). There’s a website dedicated just to this endeavor, Shape Your Future Victoria. There are surveys to fill out, questionnaires to answer, …and opportunities to be a jackass on camera.

I won’t be filling out a single survey anymore. I’m done with Victoria.

It finally came home for me just how royally and Victorially we are screwed when I bothered to watch one of the videos on the city’s site. It’s on the right sidebar, introduced as follows:

We Asked Victorians

Posted February 05, 2010

We walked the streets of Victoria one fine February day and asked random Victorians what they loved about Victoria and what they’d like to see improved. Listen to their thoughts. We’d like to hear yours.

The first speaker, a middle-aged woman, responds with “I love everything about Victoria, I love the weather, I love the beauty of the city…”

The second part of the nearly 2-minute video poses the question, “What does your Victoria look like in 30 years?”

The same woman answers, “First of all, stop anyone else from moving here because it’s big enough…”


Let me repeat that:

“First of all, stop anyone else from moving here because it’s big enough…”


I get it now.

Could I just say that keeping people out is at best a Plan B? It’s not and never will be a Plan A.

The respondent’s attitude is what I have repeatedly called “the Island DNA,” that vicious kudzu of the soul, a sort of entitlement (“I’ve got mine and I’m alright, Jack”): I moved here, but now that I’m here, don’t let anybody else come here! Pull up the drawbridge!

It starts with an island mind-set: no bridge to the mainland of course, no connections to “outside,” no one else allowed in our little paradise.

And it perfectly sums up why Victoria will never be a happening place. It is an island, and that island mentality of keeping the outsiders out is exactly what retards development here, including and especially good development.

There are a few other voices that make more sense on this video, but the “stop anyone else from moving here” sentiment informs far too many people here.

Let me just close with this: I have never, ever lived anywhere else where keeping people out was turned into a virtue. Not in Vancouver, not in Montreal, not in Munich, not in Berlin, not even in Boston. But in Victoria, Plan B, a.k.a. keeping people out (excepting the tourists in tourist season, for fleecing purposes), is the Official Community Plan.


March 2, 2010 at 3:02 pm | In architecture, cities, green, homelessness, ideas, land_use, local_not_global, NIMBYism, politics, real_estate, social_critique, street_life, urbanism, victoria | 4 Comments

In yesterday’s post, Thinking out loud on social media platforms, I responded to a comment with an extended rant about Victoria, the pressing strangeness of its people and their often bizarre sense of entitlement:

Much of the strangeness comes from their huge sense of entitlement, which is weirdly crooked, and is based in large part on this crazy notion that, since we live in the best place on earth, we’re entitled to act with an attitude of entitlement – even though we have done nothing to earn it, for what can you do to earn the beauty of nature, which is our only saving grace? Yet the entitlement attitude persists. For example, at the downtown YMCA where I work out, women steal from other women in the membership-plus changing rooms. These are members who pay a premium for a “plus” membership, yet they steal from other “plus” members. It’s the sort of behavior locals might associate with “the big city,” except we’re not the big city. We just think we can get away with shit.

For those who are wondering why I know about thieving at the gym: because I read the posted notices about upticks in petty theft; because I make it a point to talk to people; and because I’ve seen women looking for items that, whoops!, went missing in the blink of an eye. What’s also interesting is that the women who steal don’t just steal from other women, they also steal from the gym. Who would steal from the YMCA, I wonder? It’s all small stuff (the facility’s towels, or other members’ high-end cosmetics, or maybe a $20-bill that’s left unattended in an open locker for a few minutes), but it adds up.

To what? Misplaced entitlement.


Victoria BC


Without a doubt, Victoria is one of the most naturally beautiful (urban) places in Canada. It’s the low-rise yin to Vancouver’s upright, high-rise yang. However, there is nothing, not a single thing, that the people who live here have done to create or to earn this beauty.

Our older residential core neighborhoods are quite pretty – they are densely built up (a good thing) and are incredibly leafy, festooned with an abundance of fabulous trees (which city workers strive hard to maintain), and of course year-round greenery. Some folks start mowing lawns in February. Aside from the bouts of landscaping mandated by the Ministry of Perpetual Gardening (that’s a joke, coined by David Burke), we haven’t, however, done anything to earn natural beauty: it’s just there, and it grows on, just as the Olympic mountains across the Juan de Fuca Strait simply exist, just as the granite outcroppings simply are (when we haven’t blasted them to smithereens to build a subdivision), just as the ocean ebbs and flows.

What we have actually built – particularly since World War II and particularly where it really matters, namely in our downtown where the urban part of our urban existence should shine – is largely awful.

In Vancouver, the beauty of the recent built form is earned. People in Vancouver built it, they built it in the last 30 years, and it looks great. It looks even better set against the unearned majestic beauty of the landscape: looming close-up mountains (very yang and very different from our far-off and therefore yin elevations) and restless ocean, beaches and the thick forests of Stanley Park.

But in the past 75 years, Victoria’s downtown has earned little.

Victoria BC : Old Town, seen from the water (Photo: Robert Beaumont)

Victoria BC : Old Town, seen from the water (Photo: Robert Beaumont)


Old Town (photo, above) and Chinatown are charming, but their structures were finished around the turn of the century before the last one. What was added last century is for the most part a dog’s breakfast – whether we refer to Centennial Square, to the uninspired commercial buildings that replaced older (and actually taller!) buildings, or to the wasteland of one- or two-story buildings lining what should be key shopping streets (which now sport far too many “for lease” signs).

Face it, Victoria’s more recent “pretty” parts aren’t downtown, they’re in the village centers of the older neighborhoods, from Oak Bay Village to Cook Street Village to Fernwood Square, to James Bay, and so on. (And even then, some of those areas would be boring white-bread toast if it weren’t for the trees.) Downtown has been left to languish, and aside from recent handsome Humboldt Valley developments (which the NIMBYs fought tooth and nail), there is little to please the eye.

Downtown as a whole has in fact turned into a slightly watered down version of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (and yes, Vancouver isn’t perfect as it has a huge problem there), with panhandlers, drug addicts, and the mentally ill sleeping in the entryways of all those useless one-story buildings with the empty storefronts sporting “for lease” signs.

I can put a date on when things really changed: in 2005, seeing a trio of emaciated, hollow-eyed addicts tweaking (see def. #4 under “verb”) at 3 p.m. on the SW corner of Vancouver Street and Rockland Avenue was unusual enough to make me call a friend on the neighborhood’s community board: “Hey, I just saw a two women taking their clothes off, trying to hook passers-by, and there was a guy with them who looked like he was their pimp. All three of them seem totally strung out…”

In the five years since then, I’m not surprised anymore by anything I see in my neighborhood or along Rockland Avenue (on my way to the YMCA), even though this is a “nice” area. Junkies, people smoking crack in Pioneer Square (where a sign reminds me that I can’t walk my dog, even as the clean-up patrol daily comes ’round to pick up used needles), human feces, vomit, guys peeing against buildings, people tweaking.

Most mornings (and especially on recycling day), I wake (and fall asleep again) to the dawn-time jingle of “binners” pushing (stolen) shopping carts past my window, in search of bottles to take to the nearby Bottle Depot. In 2005 there was one single binner, “our” binner, in this neighborhood. Now there are dozens, competing for the scraps we might toss out.

I used to write blog posts about how awful this human misery is (looking for this post, I realize I published it as “private” in 2005, meaning that no one was ever able to read it; go read it now, and most especially listen to the singing iceberg, linked at very end). I used to support all the pious studies for how to end homelessness.

But I almost don’t care anymore. It’s so depressing to see this acceptance of drug use and destruction, and to see it wash over every block of your neighborhood and your downtown. Of course the homeless, most of whom have mental health problems as well as drug addictions, are left to fend for themselves by Federal and Provincial governments that have handed the problem to cash-strapped municipalities. The municipalities make all sorts of lovely noises about task forces and helping and asking Mr and Ms Jo-Shmo Citizen to kick in some extra money for shelters, but things have just gotten worse. At the same time, because the poor and the hard to house really are getting shafted by senior levels of government, everyone on the street (which tacitly includes us, the non-homeless residents) feels that they, the homeless, really are entitled to be exactly where they are: on the street, making everyone feel guilty or bad or fed up.

Because (the thinking goes) where else, after all, can they go, given that the services they need are located in the city?

You see where this is going? Here, even the homeless are entitled. Because if there’s one thing that’s true about entitlement, it’s that you don’t earn it. You just take it.

And all the while, we build nothing of beauty, even as those of us who have housing smugly think we’ve done something to earn the natural beauty that surrounds us. That’s why everyone likes to bleat on about the lifestyle here.

Gag me with the lifestyle already.

This isn’t Lotus Land, but we are surely Lotus Eaters: addled into feeling we’ve earned the natural beauty, we’re totally apathetic about actually creating a built beauty, blind to how cheap and ugly-looking Victoria, in particular its under-built and under-utilized city center, has become.

A retired city worker recently told me that much of Victoria’s downtown real estate is owned by families, some of whom have held the property for generations. They don’t need to sell it (they’d be penalized with capital gains taxes on the sale), they make enough from renting the ground floor out to some crap store that sells t-shirts to the tourists, and they don’t bother with a seismic retrofit of the upper story, they just leave it empty. In other words, it’s blood-sucking, half-empty, not-earning-its-keep, underutilized real estate that the trust fund kids can keep in their back pockets, collecting the monthly $5000 to $10000 in rent, all without doing a stitch of work or doing anything useful with the building. That, according to my source, is a big problem with real estate in the city.

Now, if I were running the show, I’d make it illegal to have property downtown that isn’t operating at a minimum of 5:1 FSR. That would put the fear of god into any useless leech who owns valuable land downtown but does nothing with it to improve the commonweal.

But then again, in this city of entitled Lotus Eaters, “developer” is a dirty word. The anti-development NIMBY crowd thinks that development contributes to the city’s ugliness. Oh kids, grow up. Our built city (not its natural setting) is ugly because it’s underdeveloped.


Now, there’s a codicil to this rant…

I believe that the desire to have earned what is naturally given is what underwrites the burgeoning and absolutely exciting currents of outright biophilia that in our region finds expression in land conservation, in stewardship, and in the uptick in environmental groups and causes and projects. The Capital Regional District (that is, Greater Victoria and the surrounding municipalities from Sooke and Metchosin in the west through to Saltspring Island in the Georgia Strait to the east) and the Cowichan Valley Regional District just to the north of us are home to eco-living initiatives gaining world-wide attention. (More on those in a later blog post.)

The biophiliacs are trying to earn beauty through environmental stewardship – and they’re succeeding.

But as a fan of cities, I wish that my fellow urban biophiliacs would spend a bit of energy on fixing our built environment, so that we can earn an urban beauty worthy of the fabulous natural beauty that surrounds us.

I’m not sure whose “job” this is. As far as I can tell, the city’s urban planners are asleep at the wheel, as are the politicians. If I had a magic wand, I’d kick them all to out and do what Vancouver did: hire the best, hire people with imagination. The latter is nowhere in evidence in Victoria, and it’s also missing in our largest neighboring municipality, Saanich, judging by the atrocity of Uptown (a shopping center redevelopment) now under construction.

A new retail/ commercial/ mixed use development in Saanich, BC that just screams Fuck you to the humanity hurtling by

A new retail/ commercial development in Saanich, BC that just screams "Fuck you"


So that’s my wish: I want us to lay off the Lotus Leaves that lull us into thinking we’ve earned the natural beauty that surrounds us, and to focus instead on earning a built beauty that aspires to be the best. And I want the NIMBYs who try to thwart development downtown to take a hike. Come back when you’ve earned the right to contribute, otherwise you’re just acting entitled.

Update, 3/5:

There’s an excellent photo of the Uptown development on Flickr, taken by Glenalan54. Check out the astute comments.

Developers v. NIMBYs: Lessons from “Johnny Guitar”

May 16, 2009 at 4:05 pm | In ideas, NIMBYism, social_critique, women, writing | Comments Off on Developers v. NIMBYs: Lessons from “Johnny Guitar”

Watching Nicholas Ray‘s 1954 classic Western Johnny Guitar, I kept focusing on the antagonisms between Joan Crawford’s character Vienna and Mercedes McCambridge’s Emma Small as ones between developers and NIMBYs. The story is psychologically complex, conjuring objectively social and personally individual reasons for both the desire to maintain the status quo and the will to change it.

On the one hand, Emma Small’s security is threatened by change. She’s a big fish in a small pond, comfortably established as a landowner and cattle baron(ess). She has enough social status and power to boss the community’s menfolk around, too. No wonder she resists the changes that development would bring – and development is literally embodied in Joan Crawford’s Vienna.  Vienna runs a saloon where social control lapses and norms break down through risk when patrons enjoy enough alcohol, entertainment, and gambling. Vienna is a risk-taker herself, and she’s not afraid to peddle risk. Like any developer worth his or her salt, she’s taking a huge risk when she stakes everything (including social goodwill) on her main gamble: that the railroad will come to the area. Should she win, she’ll develop the depot and upzone her lowly saloon into a key mercantile hub and infrastructure powerhouse.

Intertwined in that objective description, however, are forces fueled by desire. For example, Vienna has also successfully sold herself as a purveyor of glamour. In one scene, Emma verbally pistol-whips the all-male posse to stop playing with themselves and to hunt Vienna instead. She taunts them for believing that Vienna is somehow better quality, or that they, by associating with her, are improved. In not so many words, Emma reminds the men that Vienna is cheap and that they’re still just cowpokes – in other words, that change (for the men) is an illusion. They’re essentially still swine (reversing Circe’s trick) and should remember their place. Change is for tricksters; real people should be content with their lot, especially if it’s a relatively cozy and secure one. Real people don’t take risks, it seems. If you can avoid risk, you can avoid change.

And here’s where additional psychological complexity comes into play: the change that’s very close to home for Emma Small is a sexual one. Emma has convinced herself that an outlaw named The Dancin’ Kid is behind a stage coach robbery that killed her brother. A not-so-minor detail is that The Dancin’ Kid frequents Vienna’s saloon and occasionally shares Vienna’s bed. It’s through the body of The Dancin’ Kid that Emma’s fear of change multiplies in her own mind, eventually encompassing all change, whether social or personal. As Vienna puts it in answering Johnny Guitar’s question why Emma has it in for The Dancin’ Kid, “he makes her feel like a woman, and that scares her.” In fact, toward the end of the film, Emma puts a bullet through The Dancin’ Kid’s head, literally stopping change in its tracks …temporarily, at any rate.

At its core, the story suggests that change has social and personal drivers – and in every case where we think we’ve identified the “objective” social reasons, there are underlying psychological reasons that drive the actors in individual ways both difficult to identify and to reason with.

Poster for Johnny Guitar
I’ve seen Johnny Guitar a couple of times now, but this is the first time I watched it through the lens of urban development and community consultation.

Bonus: Image of Circe (via Flickr here)
Circe, with Odysseus's sailors turned to swine

Fantasy, failure, and faux: that’s Victoria!

November 20, 2008 at 8:28 pm | In authenticity, heritage, local_not_global, NIMBYism, urbanism, victoria | 2 Comments

There are plenty of important things to write about (like Canada’s miserable inability to defend net neutrality), but I just realized something important about fantasy, failure, and the city of Victoria’s self-deceiving love affair with faux heritage. It’s a mind-set espoused by way too many people, and likely to contribute to our upcoming stagnation.

A man I know quite well wrote a letter to our weekly “alt” <kof> paper, Monday Magazine, and it was published in the current edition, here. He tries to construct some sort of metaphor based on Tolkien’s Middle Earth, with urban development functioning as the evil towers of bad ol’ Saruman/ Sauron. In a misplaced effort to invest himself with authority, he references the fact that his great-grandfather was the Bishop of BC, as if that contributed anything to the issue at hand.  (And incidentally: In his letter, he writes that his grandfather was Bishop, yet that’s completely untrue. Fantasy worlds do tend to warp the time-space continuum a bit, I suppose…)

He then mentions me by name, and references an article I wrote last April for Focus magazine (and which is available online via Scribd, here).  He writes: “Yule Heibel in Focus magazine talks about having View Towers declared a heritage site. Has Ms. Heibel actually been in View Towers?”

Well, let me answer that last question first: yes, I have. Admittedly, it was a long time ago (the early 70s), but one of my good friends from high school lived in View Towers with her family. There were nice people living in the building, believe it or not, despite the fact that today many (myself included) think it looks like typical “commie block” architecture.

As to the letter writer’s first assertion, I didn’t talk about “having View Towers declared a heritage site.” I was writing about our attitude toward blight, and how we too easily get caught up in aesthetics, instead of focusing on real human needs and usages.  View Towers, importantly, continues to fulfill a crucial role in Victoria by providing much-needed affordable housing to many people.

Here’s what I actually wrote:

Centennial Square replaced an area labeled “blight” by 60s-era planners.  Its decrepit buildings looked awful.  The area was economically depressed, aspersion cast on its social networks and human uses associated with them.  Because they looked “slummy” and undesirable, the assumption was that anyone associated with those spaces was probably undesirable, too.  Whatever embodied energy those spaces contained was deemed less meaningful than a clean slate.

I’m reminded again of the BC Historical Federation symposium last May, “Heritage & Tourism – Compatibility or Conflict?”  A woman in the audience spoke up to say that defining heritage only as “valuable” architecture is far too limiting, since this elides what buildings actually embody.  Stripped of embodied heritage energy, buildings are just containers; but if we consider how they’re used, another real dimension snaps into focus.

The woman’s husband had grown up in Eastern Europe, in a building we’d probably dismiss as a “Commie block” tower.  Yet for him, that “ugly” building was his history and personal heritage.   He’s hardly alone.  In Berlin, there’s a nostalgic and carefully cultivated revival of  “Commie block” style, indulged by middle-aged people for whom those buildings represent their pre-1989 youth: the bars and eateries, the apartments, the cheap concrete — all of it literally embodies their coming of age, before the Wall came down.

And so, consider View Towers.  I’d argue it has a richer history of use than Centennial Square: its embodied energy is tremendous, particularly compared to the square’s suburban one-dimensionality.

Would we endorse knocking View Towers down just because we don’t like its looks?  Or because we (mistakenly) believe it might house dodgy people?  I wouldn’t.  If anything, I’d encourage increasing the density around View Towers with equally imposing (if differently styled) multi-use buildings, to balance its sometimes oppressive and lonely formal energy.

What might this perspective mean for “real” (read: historically and aesthetically more significant) urban heritage?  It again comes back to uses, and the energies embodied in them.  Heritage buildings need to live, which means they need to be used.

In cities, buildings can’t afford to be museum pieces unless they actually are museums – in which case they need to be paid for and maintained by some foundation with really deep pockets.  Otherwise, they have to earn their keep.  This means that buildings have to be adaptable to other uses over time.

In other words, I don’t say anywhere that this building should be declared a “heritage site.”

The author of the letter gives kudos to one of Monday‘s writers whose hobby-horse is development-bashing. This staff writer likes to cloak himself in a green and socially-conscious mantle, all the while espousing the “values” of suburban sprawl: the single-family home with a lawn out front and a nice picket fence, set in low-density zoning.

Folks, that’s not a city.

And it’s not environmentally responsible, either.

But here’s the crux. This letter-writer, who has already given himself a false lineage to claim an authority that escapes him, exposes himself further as a lover of fakery:

My grandfather [sic, see above] was Bishop of B.C. and oversaw the construction of Christ Church Cathedral and I never fail to marvel at those sere towers and magnificent flying buttresses. I suggest City Council are flying, that this mania is akin to the worst of manic highs and that we are going to regret this period of growth when the distinct seven villages in town are no more. One only has to view the gaping hole where the Oak Bay Beach Hotel was to experience an ineffable sense of loss and now I hear that Anne Hathaway’s cottage is slated for demolition. (more)

Note the bolded part: after castigating View Towers, which at least and to its credit is an honest building, built in an age when concrete slab apartment towers were all the rage in Soviet lands as well as their meteorological kin (i.e., the colder parts of Canada), expressing nothing but their own truth (utility and the belief that you could safely warehouse people – which of course you can’t), he exalts two structures that embody all the fakery of “olde Englande” heritage, often known as mock Tudorbethan.

Admittedly, after enough time has passed even Tudorbethan might become “authentic,” providing it can be maintained (which requires deep pockets and a sense of economics).

But authenticity will forever elude people who live only in the past, rely on false authority, create fantasy worlds that don’t even function as thoughtful prototypes for imaginative action – in short,  people who really should move out of the city.

How Victoria’s Monday Magazine gets it wrong

February 2, 2008 at 10:16 pm | In free_press, homelessness, local_not_global, media, newspapers, NIMBYism, scenes_victoria, victoria, writing | Comments Off on How Victoria’s Monday Magazine gets it wrong

Victoria has a weekly tabloid newspaper called Monday Magazine, which, starting as an alternative publication ~35 years ago, has somehow managed to stay mired in the worst sort of “us and them” thinking that feeds into (and off) the roiling Schadenfreude of the perpetually resentful.

Lately, one of their old writers from some many years ago, Sid Tafler, returned to roost. He is riding the resentment wave, in particular with an article published a week ago Wednesday (Jan.23), when the Jan.24-30/08 edition hit the street, with Tafler’s “Faulty Towers; Empty condos a tragedy of urban planning failure.” The article — full of errors and shoddy thinking, was promptly posted to Victoria’s best online forum for urbanism, Vibrant Victoria, where it received both a thread of its own, Monday Article – Faulty Towers – by Sid Tafler, as well as lengthy critiques.

Some Monday Magazine articles are online, while others aren’t. Tafler’s wasn’t, but the forumer who started the thread posted a scanned version to the thread — if anyone wants to read the article, click through to the thread. Note that the columns of text in the scans run vertically, and you have to finish the first column on the first scan in the first column on the second scan, and so on…

In the next issue of Monday, the magazine printed 3 letters strongly in support and 1 conditionally in support of Tafler’s junk analysis, with one by former architect Roger Smeeth taking the prize for suggesting silly and impossible things. (Again, see the forum thread for really incisive critiques of Smeeth’s letter.)

I too sent a letter to Monday Magazine, dated Jan.26, but since I was critical of Tafler’s odious column, the editors perhaps didn’t see fit to publish it. And so I’m publishing it here on my blog — because I want to make sure that a record of the opposition and criticism that Tafler’s cheap shot provoked never fades from the Google record.

Here’s my letter:

Dear Editor:

I sincerely hope that Sid Tafler’s ears started burning on Thursday Jan.24, when he, with “Faulty Towers” freshly published, attended Charles Campbell‘s UVic lecture on conglomeration in the Canadian press and heard Campbell specifically and vigorously castigate Canadian journalists for their slovenly habits of retailing untruths. “Faulty Towers” is certainly and thoroughly corrupted by untruth and exaggeration, to the point that one wonders whether Tafler’s exercise in demagoguery veiled another purpose. But maybe he is just being jejune.

It’s difficult to know where to begin setting Mr. Tafler straight, because of course he’s just clever enough to appeal to legitimate concerns around affordability, which breathe enough life into his straw man (or is “Condoria” a woman?) for his article to appeal to the credulous.

But let’s just remember that practically all the condos he so abhors sit on what used to be surface parking lots, and they didn’t displace anybody’s “comfortable single-family home with a back yard.” Really, Mr. Tafler: you appear to be concerned about social and environmental ills, yet advocate a hackneyed suburban vision.

Mr. Tafler writes that “the city of Victoria approved 3,000 condo units in the last five years — 800 in 2007 alone, more than any other year” — as if that were a bad thing. I’d argue it’s a great thing: that’s 3,000 fewer “units” going to suburban sprawl; that’s 3,000 more “units” contributing to the city’s tax base (even if some of the owners are absent some of the time, they’re still paying property taxes, which happen to fund a vast part of the city’s budget); and that’s 3,000 potential “units” of people downtown, shopping, recreating, adding life to those streets.

Believe it or not, there are people living in many of those “units.” Good friends of mine live in Shutters, although, since they travelled for the past 2 months, their “unit” is dark. Likewise, you’ll find many empty-nesters who leave Victoria at this time of year to catch some sun. Their “units,” too, will be dark. In the lower price range, you will find investors buying “units,” but guess what? They rent them out, which helps alleviate Victoria’s rental crunch.

What would Mr. Tafler do instead? Have all these “units” to move to Bear Mountain? Would that be preferable? Incredible as it may seem, some of us cheer every time we can wrest some “units” back to our downtown.

Nor did these projects derail some magical solution to homelessness or affordability. It’s not the case that anyone was willing to step up to donate a building to that cause, nor is it the case that city councils can somehow magically wave a wand and make affordable housing appear.

Which brings me to my last point: you have to love the armchair quarterback, second-guessing all those lazy, incompetent city councilors, don’t you? Really, judging from Mr. Tafler’s grasp of economics (a simultaneously shallow and flaccid grasp it is), I’d hate to see him in a councilor’s seat, because I’m sure he’d go mad at the workload and the demands on his attention by every citizen who knows everything about anything better than he, the councilor, does. Those folks, as Mr. Tafler’s own example shows, are a dime a dozen, and when you’re in that seat, they’ll have you for breakfast. I wonder how Sid Tafler would like being made a meal of.

Yule Heibel

Tafler was at the Charles Campbell lecture (about which I’ll have more to blog later), and my use of the word “jejune” specifically points to a rather acid comment Campbell was making about Conrad Black v. the Asper family.

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