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Metro Vancouver Municipal Politics - 2. page

Here are some less abstract articles about Vancouver municipal political issues and parties.

With Meena Wong, COPE Can Save Their Brand

Until yesterday, I was profoundly pessimistic about the fate of left-leaning candidates in this fall’s Vancouver municipal election. With polls showing that only 18% of Vancouverites were willing to use even one of their twenty-seven votes to elect a COPE candidate (versus 30% willing to give Adriane Carr one of their votes) and only 9% willing to give a single vote to the COPE splinter party OneCity, it appeared that if there were to be an opposition at City Hall, it would be a centrist Green Party opposition or a conservative NPA one. Pollsters haven’t even had the chance to pronounce on the viability of the Public Education Project, a third COPE splinter party that emerged yesterday. (I’m a big fan of PEP’s candidates and will be supporting them in the election, despite their untested brand.)

But then I read that Meena Wong was seeking the COPE mayoral nomination and appears to be a consensus candidate backed by all of the endlessly multiplying factions of the party. If any person can arrest the tailspin of schism and negativity that has overtaken the civic left, Meena is that person.

Until my resignation from the party in March, I was working with her to persuade COPE to adopt proportional representation both as party policy and for internal elections. After I quit, Meena and her husband, Les—arguably the most stalwart PR advocate in the whole BC NDP—continued relentlessly to call for the party to catch up with its voter base on the electoral system. It is due to their efforts that the party did eventually adopt PR for internal elections (although this adoption is largely symbolic because of the way PR is operationally vitiated by the party’s byzantine system of representation quotas).

In the past six months, Meena has also been able to build bridges with the main factions of the party (Tim Louis supporters and Left Front members), despite having worked closely with people who have publicly fallen out with the party. While every other force on the civic left seems to be making new enemies, Meena has been bringing people together—people it is often challenging to bring together.

If COPE nominates Meena on Sunday, she could become a crucial unifying force in the election. Unlike COPE’s other prominent remaining members, she maintains strong connections to the NDP, not just to the party’s left wing and socialist caucus but to party “modernizers” like trade critic Don Davies. After all, she ran for the NDP in an unwinnable riding in 2011 and put on a cooperative, disciplined and energetic campaign that significantly increased the party vote in Vancouver South. She could help rebuild the party’s links to rank-and-file New Democrats and to NDP and labour-aligned civil society organizations, not to mention Chinese community organizations in which she is active. Already, just by announcing her candidacy, she is drawing COPE and the voting reform movement back together after a major falling out last year.

I am producing this article, in part, to encourage the hundred or so members I signed up for COPE last year to support Meena’s candidacy.

That stated, just picking Meena for mayor will not be enough to get COPE into the territory where even one of its candidates can be elected. The party must go beyond nominating her and play more actively on her strengths. COPE needs a bridge-builder like Meena to repair relations with the parties run by its former elected officials and board members. After so much bitterness, COPE needs to make the first move with groups and individuals who have left, starting with OneCity and the Public Education Project. It needs to repair relations with the Vancouver and District Labour Council, win over progressive NDP MLAs and MPs, and open more stable lines of communication with the Green Party. These are all things she is well-positioned to do. If COPE authorizes Meena to do the kind of bridge-building on its behalf that she has done to earn the strong consensus around her candidacy, her nomination could be a game-changer that saves the party’s brand.

Nominating Meena Wong as COPE’s mayoral candidate will not, by itself, restore the party’s ability to elect candidates. But if that is the party’s first move in an ambitious project of consensus-building and outreach, COPE may just have—at the last possible moment—saved their party and provided hope to the thousands of Vancouverites who need it.

COPE and the Rush to Petty Dictatorship

Any other party that had just lost half its board, its only elected member and 40% of its support in the polls would be rushing to become broader, more open and more relevant to our city. But not COPE. The main business the party will transact at its next general meeting this March will be the current Executive’s latest efforts to prevent ordinary voters and social movement activists from setting this party’s direction going into what could be its last election campaign.

Following the Executive’s success in using procedural roadblocks, misinformation, and patently false legal and mathematical arguments to defeat proportional representation at meetings in September, October and November (despite PR winning with 66% of the vote the only time members were permitted by the chair to vote on it), the next cynical move is to appear to comply with the members clear demand for a more diverse Executive that represents more than one faction of the party. Using the language of equity and diversity, a set of Trojan Horse amendments to COPE’s constitution are now being put forward, which appear to comply with the wishes of PR-supporting members seeking diversity but which, in fact, institutionalize the current leadership through a system of appointed tokens.

This March, at the party’s two-day policy conference, COPE members will be asked to ratify a Byzantine set of bylaw amendments whose primary purpose appears to be intensifying the control of the party by the faction that currently dominates it by insulating the current Executive against defeat by the members at the July Annual General Meeting or June Nominating Convention.

2. Equity Representatives on COPE Executive
BE IT RESOLVED That PART 4 THE EXECUTIVE Point 1 be amended by adding a new point d) to read as follows
1.  The Executive shall consist of the following persons (the “Voting Executive Members”): ….
d) representatives of each Equity Caucus, who may be so designated by the respective Caucuses and ratified  at a general meeting.
1) one Voting Executive Member position for each Equity Caucus

Four new seats are being created on the COPE Executive, increasing its size from twelve elected members to sixteen. These four new members are elected not be the COPE membership as a whole but by four party committees (“equity caucuses”); these seats will be occupied from the time each caucus selects is occupant until the caucus removes them unless the next general meeting of the party votes not to ratify the selection, in which case the seat is then vacant until the caucus can make a new selection.

Because these appointments do not appear to expire and, except at the moment of ratification, are outside the purview of the general membership of the party. These appointees sit on the executive from the moment of their appointment until they face a ratification vote at a later meeting and, only if that meeting votes to leave the seat vacant rather than accepting the representative, are they removed. If they are not removed, they continue to serve until they wish to vacate the position. And even if they are removed, the caucus can appoint a replacement who will serve as an executive member until their ratification vote.

This means that, together with those elected to two-year terms at the 2013 AGM and those elected to 16-month terms at the March general meeting, there will be ten (out of a possible 16) seats on the Executive that will not be subject to election at the July AGM. In other words, even if the general membership completely repudiate the current executive at the coming AGM, they will retain a 10-6 majority on the Executive through the election.

BE IT RESOLVED that PART 7 COMMITTEES be amended by adding a new Point 6
6. Equity Standing Committees
There shall be four (4) Equity Standing Committees: Aboriginal, Differently Abled, Ethnic Diversity, and LGBTTIQQPP2S. The Committees shall be selected by their respective Equity Caucuses.

This set of bylaw amendments is odd because it does not specify who will comprise the equity caucuses. It states that the committees will be appointed by the caucuses but not how the caucuses will be appointed. With no specific rules in effect for regulation of caucus composition, the party must default to the resolution passed by directors on May 10th, 2013 concerning the composition of all internal party committees on whose composition the bylaws are silent:

Whereas the members of COPE vest final oversight powers in the Executive,

Resolved that the Executive confer on committees the power to alter their composition by a majority vote of members;

Further resolved that any decision by committees including those pertaining to their membership may be reversed by a majority vote of the Executive;

Further resolved that all committees except those named in the Constitution and Bylaws exist at the pleasure of the Executive and may be created or disbanded by a majority vote of the Executive.

Further resolved that the times and locations of each committee and caucus meeting be communicated to the Executive a reasonable amount of time in advance of each committee and caucus meeting;

Effectively, this means that the current Executive may determine the composition of the four equity caucuses which, in turn, elect four members to the Executive. This is a political feedback loop whereby the current executive can insulate itself against the democratic will of the members depriving it of its majority at the Annual General Meeting.

In other words, the Equity motions have not been forwarded for the purpose of democratizing COPE but for the purpose of empowering the current clique to appoint themselves dictators of the party, irrespective of how members vote this summer.

Some might well ask, “does it really matter who controls the Executive when the members get to pick the candidates?” Well, that’s where the Executive’s new Code of Conduct comes in, a Code that gives it sweeping powers to fire candidates at will. Below are the relevant excerpts:

1. This Code of Conduct replaces any previously enacted code of conduct and applies to

a. Members of the COPE Executive

b. COPE Candidates elected to Civic Office

c. Candidates for Civic Office

~ and ~

2. All persons to whom this Code of Conduct applies shall refrain from

a. Speaking against or criticizing COPE Policy in any public forum or communication including but not limited to media interviews or statements, candidates debates, web comments emails blogs and/or social media.

b. Speaking against or criticizing each other or any COPE Member in any public forum or communication including but not limited to media interviews or statements, candidates debates, web comments, emails, blogs and/or social media.

c. Advising or assisting COPE members to engage in 2a. or2 b. above

d Advising COPE members to express dissatisfaction with COPE and/or decisions of its membership meetings by financial means, including but not limited to boycotting COPE fundraising events, cancelling PACs, withdrawing or not providing financial support. (This especially applies to Executive members, who as Directors of the Society have a fiduciary duty to always act in the best interest of COPE).

~ and ~

6. If Allegations are upheld, consequences may include but are not limited to:

a. In case of first incident , the respondent will be offered the opportunity to resolve the matter by providing written acknowledgement that

i. their actions violated this Code of Conduct

ii. they will offer apologies as directed by the Executive

iii. they promise not to re-offend.

b. In case of

i. a first incident, should the respondent not accept the opportunity described in a. and/or

ii. a subsequent incident where allegations are upheld,

the Executive may take the following action(s).

1. In all cases the respondent will be offered the opportunity to resign.

2. Should the respondent choose not to resign

a. The Executive may remove the respondent from any “executive-appointed” role or position.

b. The Executive may make a special resolution to a general meeting to remove an Executive member per the BC Society Act: Part 3 Directors 31 (see References below )

c. The Executive may make a resolution to a general meeting to expel the respondent per COPE Bylaws Part 2 Membership 1.d) (see References below).

d. Staff may be subject to progressive discipline up to and including termination.

To be clear, then, any person expressing dissent or suspected of encouraging others to express dissent may be summarily removed from their position in COPE unless such removal is explicitly prohibited by the Society Act. This dissent might be as minor as telling a friend over the phone that an upcoming fundraising event might not be very fun for them or mocking a member of the Executive in a humorous tweet. Given the way the current Executive assumed power in COPE, by vigorously attacking the previous majority and its policies in conventional and social media, organizing phone banks and refusing to participate in key campaign events, it is clear that this group could not survive a fair application of this Code.

This leads me to believe that, as with the rules for social assistance recipients, the goal is not to have an actually enforceable policy but instead to create an environment of arbitrary terror, in which everyone is in violation of the rules all the time but only those disliked by the Executive are punished. The addition of written confessions and show trials seems especially absurd, given that the current leadership are in no other ways Stalinist, having largely adopted a small-c conservative ratepayer politics of NIMBYism, heritage preservation and meeting-intensive processes designed to magnify the voices of the wealthy and well-educated while silencing low-income and marginalized people. Marginalized people, these proposed bylaws make clear, are not to be empowered but to act as tokens or pawns, permitted to act as proxies for a rich, white, middle-aged, property-owning, West Side lawyer, but only insofar as they comply with his will and that of his handful of long-term toadies, yes-men and financial dependents.

Obviously, whether I choose to remain active in COPE will depend on how this meeting goes in March. There is little point in participating in a party that has so completely rejected democracy in favour of the pettiest, most small-minded personality cult. If this were the Cold War, one might hear grim arguments about breaking a few eggs to make an omelette or the like but this isn’t. This is about the quest of a group of bourgeois baby-boomers trying to get one guy on city council as a kind of commemorative mascot of the days it really was a Manichean struggle between the forces of labour and capital.

Surprise: Another Resignation!

In the coming days, you may hear that I have resigned from the board of COPE. I remain committed to and enthusiastic about the party’s chances in the election next year but I feel that I cannot, in good conscience, appear to support the direction our board is taking the party.

In April this year, members of COPE voted overwhelmingly for a slate called “Independent COPE” on the expectation that our party would strike a bold and independent course in the coming elections. Instead, this appears to have been interpreted by the board majority as carte blanche to enter into new and equally ill-advised alliances with regressive and dangerous forces in our city while, at the same time, rejecting overtures from community groups and social movements.

At December’s board meeting it is expected that a “Code of Conduct” will be passed prohibiting any member for the Executive from expressing dissent with or criticism of the board majority. I need to be free to speak against these ill thought-out decisions as I continue the work of building COPE and linking it with our city’s social movements. And I remain confident that the majority of members and supporters will once again choose an independent and progressive COPE at the party’s nomination meeting and AGM in 2014.

Announcing My Candidacy for the Board of COPE

Thirteen years ago, give or take a week or two, I left the field of partisan politics in BC after losing the leadership of the BC Green Party, after seven years, by a 114-86 vote at a convention in Squamish. Had I been able to bring another 29 people to the meeting or sway 15 who voted the other way, things might have turned out differently in a few areas of my life. But, by the grace of God, they did not because I badly needed perspective and a life outside politics; and even more, I needed a break.

In the past thirteen years, I have been able to turn my attention to things other than partisan politics, from doing non- and multi-partisan activist work in the voting reform movement, to obtaining a BA, MA and PhD in history, to taking time to work on my physical and mental health. As a result, I was able to celebrate my fortieth birthday last spring as a happier person than I could ever have hoped to be, had I been burdened with the wrong kind of political success.

And it is not as though the skills and contacts that came from being a politician went to waste. I served as a director and judge for the annual awards for excellence in role playing games at Gen Con thanks to my expertise in voting systems design. My capacity to produce a stream of seemingly well-informed verbiage landed me as a regular panelist on CTS Christian TV’s open line show in Ontario and as a repeat commentator on Battlestar Galactica on the Space Channel. My skills at organizing conferences yielded the small, elite gaming convention, Giant Space Telescope Con at Algonquin Radio Observatory. And my abiding affection for and interest in weird people with weird ideas turned me into an expert on Mormon history and cosmology, on which I have spoken at conferences across Canada and the US. On the strength of that, Kofford Books, a Mormon Studies publisher is releasing my first book, History Through Seer Stones later this year.

But as I have lived the past third of my life, mostly out of partisan politics, aside from a near-miss at winning the NDP nomination for a provincial byelection in Toronto, it has become increasingly clear to me that, according to my own abilities, I cannot fully contribute to the struggles against the upward redistribution of wealth and the destruction of planetary life support systems from outside of electoral politics.


Since moving back to Vancouver, it has become abundantly clear that the kind of politics in which I was involved in the 1980s and 90s is desperately needed in our city. I was one of the people who celebrated when Gregor Robertson was elected as mayor and who supported many of the people and policies associated with Vision Vancouver.

The magnitude of the betrayal of the people of this city by the mayor and his cronies cannot be overstated. Vision reports a decline in homelessness because they have changed the way we determine who is homeless; now, only those who slept on the street last night are homeless. Vision reports an increase in affordable housing because they have changed the way we determine what housing is affordable; now, any space you rent – no matter the cost – is, by definition, affordable.

Here is the reality of our city under Vision Vancouver: our civic government has financed massive corporate tax cuts by imposing and increasing regressive user fees on those who need to use community facilities. Today, Vancouver taxes corporations less than any other city in North America; meanwhile, seniors, children and low-income people pay some of the highest user fees when they try to access basic services. That does not worry our current city government, however, because these are people who cannot afford to keep living here leave and are not around to vote in the next election. The people whose money is transferred through children’s swimming lesson fees at their local community centre to finance a tax cut for Walmart are outside the political calculus because Mayor Robertson is betting that they will be living in Surrey by the time he is up for re-election.

Our current civic government is presiding over a bonanza in rezonings that destroy affordable housing, affordable grocery stores, interesting cultural venues and affordable restaurants and leave in their place an undifferentiated mass of Bikram, Starbucks and Donnelly pub group franchises with Westbank and Aquilini condos piled on top of them. The speed and rapacity of this destruction is unequaled under any previous regime, including Gordon Campbell in the 80s and Tom Campbell in the 60s.

Meanwhile, our city proudly unveils essentially meaningless, symbolic efforts to make our city seem to be a world leader in sustainability and social justice. The ever-increasing private parking capacity under new developments, the overcrowded, unreliable, unaffordable bus system: we are distracted from these things by bike lanes and green roofs.

Vancouverites who are sensitive to questions of social and environmental justice are, for the most part, paralyzed by this turn of events. Villainous hypocrisy on the scale we are seeing it is something I have not seen in BC in twenty years, not since, as a young man, I watched a similar government of educated, ecologically-minded, clever people we had all been rooting for launch a blistering assault on the most vulnerable people in our society.

Then as now, the main reaction is denial. Andrea Reimer spent most of her political career as a Green. Gregor Robertson sat as an NDP MLA. Geoff Meggs was a tireless worker for the Communist Party. “How can it be?” we ask ourselves, that this government is pursuing an agenda to the right of the Non-Partisan Association? The answer is that this is the only group of people who can get away with this. Westbank and Donelly could never remake the city on this scale by cutting big cheques to the NPA because then, progressive people would not be paralyzed. They would not be in denial; they would be fighting back.

I am not a political genius. I am not a person made for or called to every political situation. But I do know what to do when a group of smooth-talking fake progressives decide to wage war on the vulnerable on behalf of vested interests and then defend themselves with meaningless greenwashing and Third Way Newspeak. I’m pretty sure I know what to do about that.

And so, I am using this blog post to announce, formally, that I will be standing as a candidate for the executive of the Coalition of Progressive Electors at the organization’s Annual General Meeting on April 7th. That meeting will be the first in a long series of battles between those willing to stand against the mayor and his supporters and those on the left who find themselves caught in an endless cycle of political cowardice, toadying and denial. From now until the end of business on Thursday, you can purchase a COPE membership[1] and join us in the fight to take back our city. I really hope that you will.

[1] Those who live or work in Vancouver, of all ages and income levels are welcome to join COPE. Visit them here at

The Logic of Vision’s $10,000 Fine For Homelessness

Today, the Vision Vancouver majority on my city council has tabled a motion to enact a new bylaw to fine the homeless $10,000 for sleeping in the streets. Obviously, there is no expectation of the fine being paid. Instead, I imagine there is a belief that there is a better chance of imprisoning the homeless for repeated defiance of orders to pay fines.

Two quotations come to mind in response to this travesty of justice. The first is by Anatole France, a quotation that many housing activists are circulating today, “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

The quotation most applicable to his piece, however, comes from Tom Wayman, describing the Social Credit Restraint program of 1982, “we were not to notice that in the air, a sour odour was leaking as if from a refinery upwind. It was a stench of sulphur, of worn dollar bills, of half-digested steak, belched through false smiles at the poor. Soon everyone could smell it. Some people pretended it wasn’t there.”

The reason Vision Vancouver can get away with the brutal war they have waged on affordable housing, destroying thousands of affordable units through sweetheart rezoning deals with their donors, the reason they can get away with this new bylaw, the reason they can get away with redefining homelessness to exclude every homeless person who did not sleep on the street last night is simple: they are a coalition of Greens and New Democrats. They are, by definition, as a matter of identity, progressive.

As I said in my piece of Third Wayism and the Downtown Eastside, modern “progressives” remain relevant and useful servants of capital because they can more effectively de-mobilize people who would otherwise be outraged by such measures. When Mike Harcourt’s government cut welfare rates from $547 per month to $500, prohibited job-seeking migrants from obtaining welfare for their first three months in the province, prohibited refugees from either working or receiving welfare and cut welfare for over ten thousand disabled people by 16% month, he could institute these “reforms” with few consequences. Many trade unionists, anti-poverty activists and other leftists bit their tongues and those who did speak out were marginalized within the NDP for their disloyalty.

Once this kind of silence was established, his government went on to deliberately overturn the advice of local police in 100 Mile House and turn a small farm occupation by a handful of First Nations activists into a military incident, complete with tanks, land mines and over ten thousand bullets fired at the protesters, wounding one young woman and terrorizing the other dozen protesters. Every day of the Gustafsen Lake siege, the NDP’s pet polling firm, Viewpoints Research, was in the field, testing to see how voters liked the hard line the party was taking against the Indians. When voters indicated they liked the siege but wanted an even harder line, the Attorney General ordered further escalation. Hence the BC government using land mines on its own citizens, even as Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy negotiated the international land mine ban treaty in Montréal.

Punitive actions against poor and indigenous people by wealthy social democrats have a consistent logic that, when successfully applied, helps to connect them to working class voters whom they fear might abandon them.

Living paycheque to paycheque is terrifying, as is losing your affordable shabby apartment and being forced to move to Surrey or pay $1200 per month for one of Vision’s “affordable” new bachelor units. For more and more working class, Vancouverites, Vision has gone from being the party who moderately inconveniences them by installing bike lanes that cut their pizza delivery job tips by reducing the number of deliveries per hour into a real threat. They have become a party that is systematically destroying industrial employment by rezoning and annihilating the affordable housing stock at an accelerating rate, faster than any NPA regime that has ever governed this city.

When you’re living paycheque to paycheque, facing eviction from your apartment, the sight of homeless people on the streets is disquieting, one thinks to oneself, “could that be me one day soon? I still haven’t found a home I can afford. What if I don’t find one by the end of the month?

Mike Harcourt and Gregor Robertson rely on the votes of people who look at their homeless fellow citizens with anxiety. And to keep their votes they need to do two things. First, they have to reduce the visibility of homelessness and other frightening forms of poverty. Hence the project of incarcerating the homeless.

But their second line of approach is even more dangerous. They attempt to make homelessness seem pathological and criminal. They reassure the working poor that homelessness is not something that happens to regular, law-abiding, healthy people; it is something that only happens to people who were crazy or criminal all along. They seek to transform the homeless into an alien species, a type of vermin. Hence Harcourt’s famous speech introducing his reforms, promising to crack down on those “welfare cheats, deadbeats and varmints.” By describing the very poor as a kind of law-breaking vermin, he helped to reassure the working poor that they couldn’t become homeless because they homeless were nothing like them, not even the same species.

Most hard-working people pride themselves on being law-abiding, so if every homeless person they encounter is, by definition, a criminal facing incarceration in the near future, they feel safer; they can believe themselves to be different from the homeless because of their law-abiding nature. Similarly, the conflation of pre-existing madness with homelessness is reassuring. Many homeless people are mad but that is often because madness and homelessness are mutually reinforcing phenomena. I know I’d go crazy if I lost my home. Right now, I’m crazier than I was a few months ago because I’m not entirely clear on where my rent money is coming from next month.

Persecuting, incarcerating, blaming and pathologizing the homeless, then, is an attempt to reassure the working poor that they cannot become homeless, first, by rendering the homeless less visible, and second, by defining them as intrinsically unlike those who still have homes.

That is why these attacks on the very poor are part and parcel of Vision’s mass renoviction strategy. Vision received the votes of 70% of the city’s renters in the last election. To maintain that support, it is crucial for them to reassure people living paycheque to paycheque that, by virtue of their nature, they could never end up begging on the street or sleeping under a bridge or in a shelter because they’re not crazy criminals. As long as people believe that homelessness is caused by character defects.

And so, Vision hopes, they feel mildly reassured as our mayor flashes his pearly whites while the homeless are dragged off to jail, out of sight and out of mind. And we can reassure ourselves that nothing too bad has happened. After all, this policy is being implemented by a team including a former NDP MLA, Canada’s first Green school trustee and a longtime Communist Party activist; it must be progressive.

Finding the Good Side of the Georgia Viaduct

Now that I am paying more attention to civic issues in Vancouver, it’s easy to get caught up in producing an endless barrage of criticism, given the reliably disappointing set of policies and processes coming out of our hip, shiny attractive city council.

One such policy I could spend today’s column railing against is the plan to demolish the Georgia Viaduct overpass system and replace it with – you guessed it, more condos with the usual mix of designer clothing stores, Donnelly Group pubs, Starbucks coffee shops, marble-countered ice cream parlours, yoga studios and noodle houses along the ground floor. Now, far be it from me to say something bad about a new noodle house but surely, we can’t really be thinking that what Vancouver needs is more of the identical, sanitized landscape we see radiating out from the Olympic Village.

Often the case for such a move is founded on spurious environmental arguments. “Eco-density,” now rivals “clean coal,” when it comes to greenwashing bullshit terminology, or more politely, the BC dialect of Newspeak. Demolishing perfectly good infrastructure and laying down a bunch more asphalt and fill is not an ecological pursuit, nor is building a bunch more condos with a bunch more underground parking and filling them with a bunch more people. This kind of thing doesn’t save the Lower Mainland from suburban sprawl because the people buying family-friendly townhomes in Langley are not considering sea view micro-condos on False Creek or vice versa.

Nevertheless, anyone wandering through Andy Livingston Park and environs can see that Vancouver is not making the best use it can of the space around our viaducts and Skytrain guideway. So here is where I get positive.

Map of Chicago's Multi-Level Streets
Courtesy of Wikipedia, a map of Chicago’s multi-level streets.

For some reason or other I kept getting stuck in Chicago this year and while I was there, I spent a good amount of time wandering around its downtown, which contains twenty elevated streets, like North Michigan Avenue. North Michigan is the land of blue chip stores, head offices and ultra-pricey hotels, or at least that’s what is on the top layer. But underneath it is a whole separate street grid with lower-rent, more interesting establishments, establishments that help to keep downtown vibrant because their rents and taxes are lower thanks to being, literally, in the shadow of North Michigan. Because that’s one thing an overpass or viaduct can do in the centre of a city; it can create a rent shadow, an island of affordable rents in the middle of downtown.

North Michigan's Billy Goat Tavern
This business would not be possible on Upper Michigan Avenue but it’s exactly the kind of business we see underneath it.
Approaching North Michigan
North Michigan doesn’t look pretty from every angle. That’s kind of the point.

For a more local example, you can look at New Westminster’s Front Street, at least for now. Like Vancouver, New West is proposing a bunch of eco-density in place of its Front Street overpass, a real tragedy. Low rent commercial space near a downtown commercial hub is hard to create and can give rise to beautiful things. When I used to walk along Front in the 90s, it had a wonderful mix of vacant storefronts and businesses that had no business existing in a modern capitalist economy, storefront churches, galleries of unpopular and peculiar art and protracted yard sales dressed up as antique shops.

New Westminster's Front Street
There was no plan to make Front Street an interesting commercial space yet that is what it became thanks to a viaduct.

Greater Vancouver’s downtowns are rapidly losing commercial space where interesting things can happen. Musical venues and gallery spaces for artists who are not already established, experimental businesses, the very things that we supposedly love our cities for are being hunted to extinction by municipal governments who have lost sight of what actual makes for creative, vibrant urban space. And it is very rare, once the forces of gentrification begin marching, to turn that around.

But that is precisely the opportunity we have with the Georgia Viaduct. The city has the opportunity to build unconventional commercial and industrial space under the viaducts, all by ourselves, and rent it out to businesses that otherwise wouldn’t be anywhere near our downtown. This is something our government can do, all by itself.

Granville Island remains a testament to what a government can do to create good places. We didn’t contract Granville Island out to developers; instead, the government managed public land with a goal of creating something more interesting than a profit-driven private developer could, mixing industrial, artisanal and commercial space.

Imagine if, instead of knocking down our viaducts, we built under them, creating short-lease gallery space for shows and installations, light industrial artisanal and craft cooperatives, non-profit office space and other projects approved by a citizen board with a mandate to keep our downtown weird and interesting.

City councilors like Geoff Meggs have done us a favour by starting a substantive debate about our viaducts and overpasses. And they are quite right that this space is not delivering for Vancouverites. But the solution is not to destroy that space; it is to act with creativity and frugality to make it into something worthwhile.

Vision’s Trojan Train on Broadway

You have to hand it to Vision Vancouver for their ability to greenwash a debate. Apparently the Canada Line was such a positive experience for local taxpayers, merchants and residents that it deserves to be replicated on the Broadway corridor between Clark Drive and UBC.

As a longtime supporter of rapid transit down Broadway (my first sustained effort on that front was as campaign manager for the Green Party in the 1989 Vancouver-Point Grey byelection), I should be elated by the city’s preliminary report favouring this development in the very near future but I am not.

According to today’s Metro’s summary of the report Council warmly received, it will cost $2.8 billion to provide Broadway corridor rapid transit because the line will simply have to run through a tunnel. To run at-grade transit or elevated rapid transit, “it would remove 90 percent of parking, restrict turning at 90 percent of intersections, narrow sidewalks and chop trees.” In the city transportation director’s own words, “In fact, the entire corridor would have to be rebuilt from building face to building face.”

This apocalyptic scenario demonstrates the power of the unstated premise. Unstated in all this is the assumption that not one square centimeter of space allocated for moving private vehicles could possibly be sacrificed in order to build more environmentally friendly transportation infrastructure. Whatever public transportation gained in space would have to be seized from merchants, pedestrians and shoppers because the private car, as transportation method is untouchable.

Also unstated is the way senior bureaucrats are being asked to construct a false binary between, on one hand, a $3 billion megaproject and, on the other, a bus system already stretched beyond capacity. Off the table is the original elevated Skytrain technology with angle parking underneath. Similarly, all the work done in eliminating turning restrictions pioneered by the Toronto Transit Commission on the St. Clair streetcar route in the last decade is carefully ignored. It’s an expensive, completely unnecessary tunnel or nothing.

This makes me very suspicious of Vision Vancouver’s real intentions when it comes to Broadway rapid transit. So I have decided to conduct a small thought experiment: let us assume Vision knows the intellectual sleight of hand in which it is engaged, and let’s assume that they have a clear recollection of the various fiascos associated with the Canada Line. What might their actual goals be with this “go big or go home” position on Broadway transit?

1. Renoviction of Small Independent Merchants: Our city government’s current position is being justified to small business owners as defending them from a hypothetical loss of parking and sidewalk space. But, as so many current (and sadly former) merchants on Cambie Street can attest, the biggest threat to small, local business is tunneling. While big box stores, chains and large businesses can afford a complete multi-month shutdown of the street while a tunnel is dug, small businesses lack the liquidity to do the same.

Once the tunnel is complete, only the richest, least local merchants will be left standing. So we can reasonably conclude that plans for another cut and cover tunnel will be what causes and not what prevents “the entire corridor [being] rebuilt building face by building face.” Vision’s developer friends can look forward to another bonanza of redevelopment caused by government-facilitated property value inflation and weakened local merchants.

2. New Car Capacity: Currently, buses occupy a significant portion of the pavement on Broadway, crowding and slowing private vehicle traffic. In Vision’s plan, this would be literally swept under the rug as all impediments to a private motor vehicle monopoly on Broadway would be buried at great expense. Vancouver’s civic government could finally live down its courageous bike lane plan by handing a mixed-use street exclusively to the private car.

3. Public-Private Partnerships: The great thing about coming up with a really expensive big-ticket item is that “other revenue sources” are immediately on the table. By cranking the initial price tag up to just shy of $3 billion, a tremendous appetite can be created to look for “innovative” funding methods. While P3s (public-private partnerships) are more than a generation old in Canada, their supposedly innovative character remains part of the public discourse. Under Larry Campbell and COPE-lite/proto-Vision, a $1.8 billion asset was handed to a private company for anteing up a mere $300 million, along with the guarantee that if they couldn’t manage to make money off it, local government would replace their profits through a direct transfer of tax revenue.

But our civic government has had a decade to learn since their first tentative steps back in the early days of the Canada Line. By closely pairing new transit with the breakneck up-zoning of the city, stations could be financed through zoning variances and development mega-projects. Tunneling could be leveraged with for-profit underground parking to help feed the new pavement being placed at the disposal of private cars. New condos could be given preferential access to stations and associated commercial space could be placed within the envelope of the fare-paid zone as we have begun to see on the Canada Line. Hundreds of millions in “savings” could be delivered through special deals with developers to finance an otherwise-unaffordable option.

This trial balloon for privatization, overdevelopment, increased car capacity and another concerted assault on the diversity of Vancouver’s storefronts is being floated in the name of green transportation and sustainability. Transit advocates need to reach out to a broad coalition to stop Vision’s hidden agenda. Small businesses, renters, students and environmentalists must come together to reject the latest mass stealth renoviction scheme before it acquires too much momentum and affordable rental housing and local businesses collapse into a giant cut-and-cover pit the way they have on growing swaths of Cambie Street.

Vancouver Renters’ Union’s Tristan Markle recently called for the reinvigoration of the Bus Riders’ Union over the latest round of fare-gouging. Here is yet another reason such an organization is desperately needed today.