Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Carnarvon Gardens, or Is That an Echo Down Here?

On November 18th, I received an invitation to an open house regarding a development at 813-823 Carnarvon Street.  Top Vision Developments is proposing to develop a 25ish story mixed use development at the site.  Unfortunately I was unable to make the open house, so as usual I am spouting off on things I found on the internets. 

The current buildings on site are:
  • Couzie’s on Carnarvon Cafe (whose owner graciously let my then recently toilet trained son use their bathroom after closing one time)
  • Two old auto repair/sales shops that appear vacant
  • Dollarama at what was formerly the Centre for Integration

Couzie’s and Dollarama are the only places that appear active, but I haven’t got a sense of what will happen to them after the development.  There will be street front retail but I haven’t seen anything indicating if they will have a right of return or not. 

While this looks like a generally good idea, there are a number of concerns with the proposal, some of which council and staff are dealing with to various degrees, and one they are not. 

The Grand Canyon of Carnarvon

This part of Carnarvon is getting quite dense with towers, and tall frontages that are very close to the street.  On top of the ground level retail will be three stories of offices fronting parking, and fifth story of above ground parking set back two-three feet in an effort to make things prettier. 

While I appreciate the efforts council and planning staff are making on this, setting back the fifth level parking one additional foot is not going to make Carnarvon less of a canyon.  Even fronting offices on the street, while making things somewhat more pleasant to look at, will still contribute to the canyon effect.  When you have a vertical wall 40-50 feet high straddling both sides of a street with narrow sidewalks, concessions like this are practically futile.  The problem on Carnarvon is less visible parkades and more being barely able to fit a stroller or wheelchair around a lamppost without falling into traffic.

Canyon environments can be pedestrian friendly, but they need room for people to breathe.  The place that does this best in my mind is the pedestrian malls in Perth, Australia. The streets have a definite canyon-like feel to them, but with no cars, dynamic storefronts and being able to walk without being pushed into traffic it’s a pleasant experience.  Walking down the sidewalk on Carnarvon feels like the big city pushing down on you, and adjusting setbacks and changing concrete for glass isn’t going to fundamentally alter this. 

Top Vision Development

Top Vision’s website is rather sparse.  They apparently have more than “20 combined years of construction and engineering experience,” and have dealt with single home through high-rise construction.  Their previous projects show two large homes in Metro Vancouver, and two high-rise projects in China.  City records show they have done a number of large suburban houses in Richmond as well.  Top Vision appears to share offices with related businesses including:
  • Yuan Heng Construction
  • Lu Tang Architecture – the archictects for this project
  • Top Vision Realty – also provides strata management services, and presumably will for this project
  • Giant Environmental Technology – no idea if this is related or not
  • Carnarvon Garden Development – the project specific company and New West Chamber of Commerce member

Their record appears decent, but part of that may be their recency.  The BBB has them rated A- with no complaints, but they registered in November, 2012.  Stratawatch gave Top Vision Realty good rating, but there is absolutely no transparency on how that rating is generated. I found some more photos and information on the MINI Impression project.  It appears to be a similar scale to what is proposed here, and has some interesting features if google translate is to be believed. 

However, building a tower in Metro Vancouver is vastly different than building a suburban mansion, and quite different than building a tower in Dalian, China.  Does Top Vision have the necessary experience or partners involved to ensure a safe, durable building suitable for our environment is designed and constructed?  Codes set a minimum, but this tower is expected to last 50 to 100 years. We want to be sure whoever is developing it has a good idea what they're doing. 


As usual, the development is requesting to come up short on parking spaces.  Now that the Front Street Parkade is definitely going (hooray!) we can’t be cutting downtown parking, especially given a significant commercial space will be included in the development.  Give credit where it’s due – proximity to the skytrain, any features they include to reduce traffic demand, but don’t let this create spillover problems into the rest of the area.  Council appears to be holding fairly firm here. 

Commercial Space

One of the proposals from the developer to address the parking visibility concern was to eliminate the top level of parking and expand the parking on the levels below.  This comes with a price, though, elimination of half of the original 23,500 square feet of office space. 

That price is too high to pay.  All of Metro Vancouver has been focused on building out condos as prices have flown into the stratosphere.  It’s quick, (relatively) easy money for the developers, and then they get to go away and leave any problems down the road for the individual unit buyers.  Creating living space but no working space makes an unbalanced community – a suburb built vertically instead of horizontally.  

The land around the skytrain stations is high value, and very limited.  We need to use it to its full potential.  Making a space where people come as well as people go.  The Anvil Centre is a start, and this development will follow with some needed new office space in New West.  I’m glad to see Council holding firm here as well.

Overall, I think this project brings a lot of potential good to the area.  However, it needs to be executed well to deliver that.  If not, it will bring decades of eyesore and grief to the city.  Take the time to get it right now – we’ll be stuck with it for a long time. 

Bookmark and Share

Friday, December 13, 2013

Back Alley Expropriation, or This Land is Your Land - sort of

Read this News Leader article.  Then, if you have the same reaction I did, read it again to make sure you’re reading it right.  Basically, the city is asking demanding owners of certain properties grant a statutory right-of-way for a potential back lane before issuing a building permit. 

 “In the past we certainly have missed opportunities to obtain statutory rights of ways. In terms of getting it, we try to do it more opportunistically, we’re not trying to disturb a home,” said Wat. “It minimizes the impact on the owner’s ability to build, it doesn’t affect square footage. They still retain the ability to build, they just cannot build on that part.”

One: they don’t retain the ability to build anything unless they agree to the city’s demands since the city won’t issue a permit.  Two: they do not retain the ability to build if their building plans require the use of that land. 

This just pisses me off.  The city is not taking your property, not paying you for it (in fact you’ll still need to pay property tax on it) or negotiating it’s use, just preventing you from doing anything on it on the chance they may or may not build a lane at some unspecified time in the future. 

All that said, I understand and appreciate the goal.  This is just an absolute garbage way to go about it.  The city has mechanisms to claim land for building roads, lanes, civic centres, etc.  If they want to claim the land to build a lane, use them – don’t blackmail owners into submission by preventing them from using their property. It's not fair or just to hold people hostage now for the city's lack of foresight or planning in the past. 

What’s not clear is if any of the applications were going to build in the claimed right-of-way.  I can see people getting pissed off if they built a shed at the back of their property only to have it demolished for a lane a year later.  But this is solved through openness and communication, not blackmail.  Responding “we are happy to grant your permit, but be aware the city intends to expropriate some of that land for a lane in the next year or two, proceed at your own risk,” is the polite way to do this.  Asking affected property owners nicely for them to grant a right-of-way, whether they are building something or not, is appropriate.  Bonus points for offering compensation for the loss of use of their land. 

What is wrong is to prevent them from building on their property, whether in the affected area or not, unless they agree to grant said right-of-way.  And in addition to being wrong, it may well be illegal.  See: Bylaw, Building, No. 6897.

Specifically, see section 14. 

14.1 A building official shall issue the permit for which the application is made, when:

Note that shall is government speak for must – if all the requirements specified are met, the city cannot withhold a building permit.  What are the requirements?

14.1.1 a completed application including all required supporting documentation has been submitted;
14.1.2 the proposed work set out in the application conforms with the Building Code, this bylaw and all other applicable bylaws and enactments;
14.1.3 the owner or their representative has paid all applicable fees prescribed by this bylaw;
14.1.4 the owner or their representative has paid all charges and met all requirements imposed by any other enactment or bylaw;
14.1.5 no enactment, covenant, agreement, or regulation in favour of the City authorizes the permit to be withheld;
14.1.6 the owner has retained a professional engineer or geoscientist if required by the provisions of the Engineers and Geoscientists Act;
14.1.7 the owner has retained an architect if required by the provisions of the Architects Act; and
14.1.8 the owner or signing officer if the owner is a corporation and the coordinating professional, if applicable, have signed the permit.

14.1.2 does refer to any other enactments or bylaws, so there could be a bylaw sitting somewhere allowing the city to withhold a permit unless the owners grant a right-of-way, but I have my doubts something like that exists.  Most of the provisions I found for withholding a building permit were related to Heritage buildings.  I have asked a Councillor what authority they are using to withhold the permits.

As mentioned in the article, builder Brian Lowka intends to address city council on this issue in February – I intend to see what comes of this and my requests for information from council.  If you are interested in hearing the outcome from the meeting or my discussions, watch the meeting in February or sign up for my email newsletter on the right.  The newsletter is where I put all my little ditties and follow-ups that don’t warrant a full blog post, and I don't send them out that often.  If the city is going to expropriate land or rights of way from property owners, let's make sure they do it properly.  

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Queensborough Ferries, or If You Believe That I've Got a Bridge to Sell You

Ahh, the pedestrian bridge to Queensborough.  The final rabbit to be pulled from the casino grant hat.  With reconfigured plans for development east of the Fraser River Discovery Centre, linking Westminster Pier Park to Quayside and potentially all the way up to Sapperton Landing, we will only be missing one link – Lulu Island to the mainland without resorting to the Queensborough Bridge. 

Much has and will be said about the eventual bridge.  It’s still many years off.  What I, and apparently a few others have wondered, is if we need to wait until the sun goes supernova before we see it, why not use a ferry for the interim?

As is usual for these sorts of things, the answer comes down to money.  Just for fun, I did an electronic paper napkin business plan for one (yes dreaming up business ideas and spreadsheeting them death is fun for me). 

The obvious analogy and comparison comes from those cute little ferries running across False Creek.  However, the operation conditions for False Creek and New West are substantially different.  For one thing we don’t have 100,000 people living within walking distance of our docks.  Secondly, we have a river to contend with and larger distances between places people actually want to go than Vancouver. 

But first of all, to run a ferry we need a boat.  From what I can tell, a 12 passenger ferry is the largest one that can be handled by one crew – more than 12 passengers you get into a whole different world of rules.  Just in case you thought otherwise – the Canada Marine Act and Regulations are hard.  I can’t believe how much time I spent just trying to figure out how many crew members you need on a ship of a given passenger capacity, and I never did find a definitive answer.  As best I can tell, Transport Canada’s answer is “show us your ship and we’ll tell you.”  So one of these, with a hardtop and in a brighter colour should do nicely.

Daylight come and me wanna go home

Next we need somewhere to go.  Being the one in charge of this fiction, I demand the route traverse the following points:
  • River Market
  • Quayside
  • Port Royal
  • Queensborough Landing

Let’s assume everyone involved is being generous and giving a dock to use at their location.  The distances as the sturgeon swims are roughly
  • River Market to Quayside:  1.0 km
  • Quayside to Port Royal: 0.4 km
  • Port Royal to Shopping: 2.2 km

Assumption time!
  • Boat cruises at 15 knots (mixing units FTW)
  • Boat burns 8 gph at cruise and 2 gph at idle (let’s throw a few more in there for fun)
  • Fuel costs $1.60 per litre (you thought I was kidding)
  • Captain’s rate of $20 per hour, all in (how do you cancel out Captains?)
  • Said Captain is also our clerk, deckhand, cashier, janitor, seasickness bag dispenser, first aid attendant, and overall superman
  • Maintenance costs are equal to half the fuel costs
  • We run 12 hours per day, every day

If you plug all that into a calculator, it will yell at you for doing science wrong.  Then it will show you that it is possible to make one round trip per hour, and your operating costs are about $62 per hour, or about $5 per seat per hour.  However, that doesn’t include overhead, depreciation, operating expenses that are non-revenue generating, and days lost due to ice on the Fraser.

Who's up for a swim?
Ice on the Fraser River – December 9th, 2013 - photo by James Crosty 
Throw all that crap in there and you’re talking $7 per seat per hour to break even, and that’s not paying off the boat or paying you unless you are the superhero captain (yarrr). 

To make a real business of it you would really need to be generating about $8-10 per seat per hour. What does that mean?  It gets tricky as it depends on both fares charged and how many people are travelling, but an example might be $4 to go from the North Fraser to Port Royal, and $7 to Queensborough Landing.  With those fares, and a mix of 80% Port Royal Passengers and 20% Queensborough Landing Passengers, you would need to run the boat 100% all the time to make money.  And you have zero upside – there’s no way to run more passengers and make more money. 

The Queensborough Landing leg is long, expensive and risky in terms of passenger attraction. What if we chop that off, move the dock so it’s centrally located between the River Market and Quayside, and do a simple shuttle back and forth to Port Royal.  Now we can increase service to four to six round trips per hour instead of one.  Let’s say we do four, so a trip every 15 minutes.  And let’s assume with the shorter crossing we can manage with a less powerful boat that burns less fuel. 

That cuts our operating expenses down - $47 instead of $62 per hour.  Overheads don’t change, so we’re only reducing revenue requirements by $1.25 per seat per hour.  So we still need $7ish per seat per hour to make this worth our while.  Let’s say we charge $3 per trip – to make money we need to average 28-32 passengers per hour, 12 hours a day. 350 people per day, 7 days a week.  That’s only 33% of capacity, so we have the ability to make money, but are there enough people to carry?  And are they willing to pay?

I’m no marketing expert, but I struggle to believe a Queensborough ferry service would get that kind of demand at this point in time.  According to thecommunity plan in 2011 there were 7,155 people living in Queensborough.  There's some 9,000 at Quayside, but if you don't go to Queensborough Landing, there's not a huge draw for them on the island.  Even at the 2040 estimate of nearly 15,000 people in Queensborough I have a hard time believe you would average 350 people per day.

I’m not aware that anyone has done a market study of demand for a ferry service.  So this is going to be the first one, right here.  If anyone is reading this besides my wife, I would love to hear from you either in the comments or @lifeinnewwest on twitter. 
  1. Would you use a River Market/Quayside to Queensborough ferry?
  2. Where would you want it to go?
  3. How often would you take it?
  4. How much would you be willing to pay?

I can’t remember where I saw it, but someone on council said the city is supportive of a ferry, but isn’t willing to run one itself (politician speak for “Good luck, kiddo”).  If we sum all the expenses, it would cost in the neighbourhood of $400,000 per year to run the ferry.  The cost of a pedestrian bridge is estimated between $5 and $10 million depending on the whether they staple it to the rail bridge or build it completely independent.
$5 million would fund a ferry for just over 12 years, assuming no revenue and no savings on overhead from sharing with the city instead of being an independent venture.  If you can get the cost down to $350,000 per year, and revenue of $100,000 per year from fares (90 passengers a day at $3 per trip), advertising and the like, $5 million would run the ferry for 20 years.  Even better, take the $5 million and stick it in some bank preferred shares at 5% - the interest alone would pay for the ferry and you wouldn't need to touch the principal.  

Then there are other possibilities to promote it and encourage ridership.  You could integrate with Translink so one fare carries you from the ferry to a bus or skytrain.  You don’t need to run to Queensborough Landing every run, but set up a deal with the shopping centre to make less frequent runs down there.  Maybe the casino too.  If the winter demand is that friggen awful, run it seasonally.

But even with none of that, a small investment could let the money we already have for the pedestrian bridge pay for a ferry until it’s time to build the bridge. Maybe it’s time for the city to take a deeper look at running a ferry to Queensborough.  

Bookmark and Share

Friday, December 6, 2013

How Many Degrees to pay off a Student Loan?

One of the hot topics of the day is employment for young people.  Are people coming out of university today over-entitled hipsters who are unwilling to take entry level work and expect to be Director of Basket Weaving right out of school?  Or is it a shift in economics that is holding them back, forcing them into slave labour where they work themselves to death.

My personal experience: I fall somewhere in the gap between Gen X and Gen Y.  I graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and partially completed a Masters in Mining Engineering (making potential employers bow down at my feet and sacrifice virgins in my name according to the news these days) and when I came out of school the recession was flirting heavily with us, but not ready for hot, sweaty sex just yet.  From there I worked myself into a niche where there are only a few jobs, but even fewer people who know how to do it well.  That is to say I have been blessed with continuous, gainful employment and I thank God for it. 

A major reason I got there was because I went to university.  My parents recommended demanded it.  I think I’m typical of my generation in this regard.  My parents’ generation largely did not go to university (8-12% had a Bachelor’s or higher in their time. They saw a significant difference in the lifestyle of those who had vs. those who had not.  That is borne out by the statistics from back in the day. 

 High School

http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/data/historical/people/ Table P-16.  My earnings in 1991 were$52. 

Side note – most all of this data is American – it’s a lot easier to find, I’m taking talking trends that are broadly similar in Canada, and for all the NSA folks reading this GO ‘MURICA!!!

So it made sense for my parents to be flogging me on that path (and I’m grateful they did).  It seems most parents of that generation said the same thing as the percentage of people with a Bachelor’s Degree has been steadily climbing.  

Given the veritable flood of ivory tower elitists compared to yesteryear, supply and demand (it’s the law, doncha know), and all the bitching and whining about no one being able to find a job after university I was expecting to see the wage gap between high school and a Bachelor’s degree shrink from 1991 to today. 

 High School



Median Earnings by Education and Year, or Stay in School, yo.

Well shit, that didn’t work.  Admittedly, I smoothed things out considerably by looking at only three years out of 20, but generally the wage premium for a degree has remained fairly steady for the last 20 years.  Maybe we need to dig deeper into the data.  Supposedly some degrees are worth more than others.  Much of this has been ballyhooed about in the news.  Get a degree in
  • Engineering
  • Advertising
  • Pharmacy
  • Accounting

and you will be rich, famous and sexy when naked.  Get a degree in
  • Arts
  • Psychology
  • Education
  • Social Science

and the stairway down from your convocation goes directly into debtor’s prison. 

That’s all good to know, if not terribly surprising.  Not many people expect to get a Physicist’s salary after their degree in Film History.  It’s nice to know what the employment and salary prospects are for various degrees.  Less for selection purposes (people choose degrees in line with their gifts, abilities and interests more than money – not everyone is meant to be a teacher or an accountant), but more so you can answer the question of whether it will be you or your children that pay off your student loan.  

Universities are complicit in this.  They sell you on the general (People with degrees make more money and are sexier when naked), but don’t get into the specifics (those Advertising majors are smokin’ but avert your eyes from the basket weavers).  Their objective is to….well, that’s a good question worth its own discussion. 

Here’s the annoying thing about all this.  Governments, business, lobbyists, and disgruntled bloggers can spit out all the statistical meanderings we want.  Yes, it can guide policy to an extent (what are the values of our country, our province, and how does our post-secondary education system encourage and support that).  But it doesn't mean jack to anyone individually.  Looking at this data and saying “hey, everything is alright,” doesn't help my friend with his teaching degree find a position in Vancouver when there are none. 

Looking at the data and saying “there’s way too many new teachers, let’s cut the number of education grads in half,” doesn't help a First Nations school hire a teacher when none are willing to go there.  Problems are local and personal.  Knowing engineering pays more than film school doesn't help the kid who made 50 short films in high school that created a YouTube cult following, but can’t for his life pass remedial Math 9. 

I struggled for a long time to find a conclusion to this post.  And to leave it here just seemed whiny and bitchy.  Overall, a Bachelor’s degree is still a great investment.  Some maybe more so than others.  Parents, discuss this with your kids.  Encourage post-secondary, but don’t just leave it at that: help them map out where their choices in post-secondary lead them five, ten years down the road. 

And don’t forget non-degree options as well.  Trades can offer as good or better money and lifestyle (again it’s specific and local – Heavy Duty Mechanics and Welders are currently hot, carpenters less so.  It will change before your kids graduate).  None of this is to force them down one road or another, but so they at least know the consequences of the choices they’re making.  Then when you have to bail out their $100,000 student loan for their degree in Post-Modern Latvian Chamber Pots you can say I told you so.  

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Family Friendly Cities or Why Can't I Find a 3rd Bedroom Out Here?

As a family renting in Vancouver you get a constant sense of dread that you will never ever ever be able to afford to buy a home.  Despite earning good money and being reasonably diligent (but far from perfect - we really need to tithe more) with it, we constantly felt that dread, particularly with home prices rising incessantly for the last five years.  So it was a bit of a surprise at the beginning of 2013 when we looked at our finances and realized - hey, we could potentially afford something that would work for us.

Our challenge was we were fairly specific in what we wanted.
- Walking distance to the skytrain (we don't have a car)
- Walking distance to grocer and other common stores (we still don't have a car)
- At least 3 Bedrooms, preferably with a den (3 kids and 3 adults gets crowded quickly)
- At least 1250 square feet (still crowded)
- At least 2 bathrooms (it's the only way)
- Under $400,000 (at pre-approval our banker offered a much larger sum. I asked if he was sane.)
- North of the Fraser (we've done Surrey and will not be doing it again)

If you search for this at mls.ca you will find very little - a few condos in Downtown/Quayside New West, and a few south of Lougheed Mall.  So we checked out the neighbourhoods.  I wasn't a big fan of the Lougheed area - it's crazy with the highway there, and a lot more mall than anything else.  We also looked a bit around Port Moody where the Evergreen Line is going.  The neighbourhood was nice, but it was getting a bit far out and the units available in our price range weren't that impressive.

So that left Quayside.  I loved New West in from when we lived in Uptown, but among other things that neighbourhood was too far away from the trains for us.  Quayside offered a remedy to that.  It's an easy walk to the skytrain.  Quayside Drive, despite being all multi-family units, is very quiet and feels nicely residential.  With the New West station development and River Market, most of our daily needs are easily walkable. There are three playgrounds within easy walking distance. There were some nicely sized units available in our price range.  And (I don't know why but this constantly slips my mind) it is literally across the street from the Fraser River.

We poked into an open house at Quayside the spring and were quite impressed with the unit.  The building had some great amenities for the whole family.  Also surprising us was how friendly everyone in the building was.  So we did some more research on the neighbourhood, hung out at it several times, investigated the building, looked into schools, all the usual stuff. We found a few things wanting:

1. The units we were looking at were facing directly over the rail yard.
2. It's a hike to the elementary school (John Robson.  That is a BIG hill)
3. The building was built mid-nineties and uses an Exterior Insulated Finishing System (technical speak for it has the potential to turn into a leaky condo.  Or a pumpkin after midnight)
4. Certain amenities are farther away than we would like (swimming, skating, library)

But those seemed manageable given the positives.  We weren't ready to buy that spring, but come fall we were in position and it became a waiting game.  A unit we had noticed previously got relisted at price that looked good to us, so we jumped on it.  (totally random - it was owned by the parents of a girl we knew at our church.  Small worlds).  We've been there just over a month now, and are still very happy with it.  The train noise doesn't bother us (though an explosion might), the strata is well managed and on top of building maintenance, I get some exercise taking the kids to school, and we can all fit inside the place at once without feeling like we're in a clown car.

All that is a long winded way to say we bought a home at Quayside because it is family friendly to us.  It has the mix of a good size home near the things we need to live, eat, work and play. And it has the bonus of being a unique neighbourhood on a river and relatively affordable.

At the December 2nd Committee of the Whole meeting, Council received a report with a title longer than my post - the Child and Youth Friendly Community Strategy and Family-Friendly Housing Policy for New Westminster. This report was developed out of a partnership with the Society for Children and Youth of BC to help with their initiative on developing strategies for creating child and youth friendly communities. The report identified a few things.

1. New West has a low percentage of children and youth compared to the rest of Metro Vancouver
2. The percentage of children relative to the city population is decreasing
3. Compared to the rest of Metro Vancouver, New West has a higher percentage of 2-bedroom housing and much lower percentage of 3+ bedroom housing and ground oriented housing.

The report is effectively calling for a Family Strategy, along the lines of what cities like Surrey and Burnaby have already developed.  The intent of the strategy is to inform development of neighbourhoods to meet the needs of children and families in an effort to attract and retain families in New West.  It will look at several areas (Employment, Housing, Childcare, Education, Belonging (I have specific questions around this), Transport, Parks and Rec, Participation and Inclusion (and this))

The goals are typically governmental wishy-wash, but a few concrete things are in there, primarily get input from families and children, develop a family housing policy, and develop a draft overall policy.

Most of the discussion on the report (and I apologize, I didn't catch the name of the staff member who presented it - he did a great job) was around housing.  That's understandable, as it is a major concern and something which the city has a lot more influence over.  It's also a peeve of mine - look at all the new development going on in Metro Vancouver, and see how much of it is 3+ bedroom.  Even when you can find a unit with 3 bedrooms, the overall size is still tiny, or as Councillor Cote pointed out, a penthouse unit and not necessarily family oriented.  I am totally in favour of driving more family oriented housing as part of the development deals/variance bribes/community amenity deals we make on new buildings, as Councillor Puchmayr (it took me three tries to get your name right) proposed.

The issue appears quite neighbourhood specific as well.  Queensborough has relatively more families, but it has relatively more ground oriented high bedroom housing.  Councillor McIntosh said she saw lots of families moving in, taking over their parents homes in Sapperton.  Great for those families with parents who own houses in Sapperton, but doesn't help anyone else.  The intent is to look at the ratios of children and families at a neighbourhood level.  This will be needed to drive specific requirements in each area.

As my extended-cut edition of our house buying process showed, family-friendliness is more than just housing and this was discussed.  Many tangibles and intangibles come into deciding whether a family will move to a home, a neighbourhood, a city.  The eight items listed above all play into it, and cover much of what is needed.

The report identified three descriptions of success for the sustainability implications of moving this direction.

1. Opportunities for residents of all age to engage with the community and be valued for it:  Absolutely. Why isn't this the case already?
2. Few children being driven to school: 100% agree.  So why are we replacing one giant high school for 60,000 people at the edge of town with a second giant high school for 70,000 people at the edge of town?  NWSS needs a serious rethink in terms of this objective.  Councillor McIntosh made a good point on this where schools now offer special programming, which parents from all over town want to enroll their children in.  This leads to far more kids being driven to school and cross-boundary enrollment than a common curriculum would.
3. Affordable quality child care that enables parent to work and contribute to the local economy:  50% agree.  Not all parents want to work and contribute to the local economy.  Some want to stay home with their kids or pursue opportunities that are not work but are still valuable to the community.  How do we encourage and support those families?

Overall, I would like to thank Council for taking this report and encourage them to move forward with it.   Stronger families make for stronger communities - my vision for this blog and all I do in the city is to make New West a place that helps build stronger families.  If you value that too, please let Council know you support this initiative.

Bookmark and Share

Monday, December 2, 2013

Fraser Coal Port - am I the only one?

Let’s just put it all on the table.  One – I’m probably not going to make too many friends with this post.  Two – I have worked at a coal mine.  I spent an eight-month co-op job at Fording River Operations near Elkford, BC, some 10 years ago while working on my degree.  I studied mechanical engineering, so I was working with the equipment as opposed to the process, but I got my hands dirty in the industry.  My first job after university was in the mining industry as a contractor, and among the many mines I worked with, a number were coal. 

As you probably already know, the Fraser Surrey Docks, under Port Metro Vancouver have proposed building a coal-terminal on the south shore of the Fraser.  This has led to much writing of letters, waving of signs, and rending of garments.  The objections have been manifold, but primarily can be distilled down to a few main points. 
  • The health and nuisance effects of coal dust from the trains, transfer, and barges
  • Diesel pollution from the coal trains
  • Emergency access and traffic concerns from the coal trains 
Do these things need to be addressed?  Absolutely.  And according to the environmental assessment, they are being addressed through standard industry practices.  Is that enough?  Given Metro Vancouver’s position as a major coal port already, I think it is.

Why I think a mountain is being made out of this molehill is this: the Fraser coal terminal practically speaking is insignificant.  Westshore Terminals, the Roberts Bank terminal, shipped 27.3 million tonnes of coal in 2011.  Neptune in North Vancouver is looking to ship 18 million.  The  four-million proposed by Fraser-Surrey docks is minor in comparison – it won’t change significantly the amount of coal dust flying around Metro Vancouver, and we’re talking one additional daily train on top of 70 in Metro Vancouver – emergency access and locomotive pollution are weak arguments to make for this. 

And as much as everyone is demonizing coal dust and the lack of understanding how small amounts of it affects  health, coal towns have been around a long time and the review of their health have been inconclusive at best

The big gap in the Environmental Assessment, as New Westminster Citizen of the Year, Environmental Geoscientist, and all around entertaining blogger Patrick Johnstone adeptly pointed out, is greenhouse gas emissions.  The Port says it’s outside their scope – some say that’s not good enough; I say it’s not the Port’s call to make. 

As a country we have said burning coal is still acceptable.  B.C. doesn’t have any, but in six out of ten provinces we burn coal for power (Manitoba uses its single coal fired boiler for emergency use only).  We burn coal for steelmaking.   It is hypocritical for us to say we can burn coal, but you can’t.  If as a country we are unwilling to stop burning coal, it is unfair and unjust to deny that opportunity to others.  (On the other hand saying a product is too hazardous for us to use butokay to ship out to the rest of the world is pretty damn sketchy.  Additional disclaimer – as a teenager I had a pen-pal from Asbestos, Quebec.  What can I say – I love their accent). 

This is effectively trying to legislate another country by fiat.  If the US called Canada one day and said “We need to stop global warming, and you guys already withdrew from Kyoto so  we’re not going to send you any more oil,” while they continued to buy SUVs by the bucket and sell oil to Mexico, we’d be rightfully pissed.  Getting our own house in order, leading by example, not being hypocrites – let’s do things right. 

Secondly, if we are concerned with local pollution from trains (and we should be), the right approach isn’t to stop one more train containing stuff we happen to not like.  The approach should be to back out to a regional level and assess what maximum level of train, truck, ship, and automobile traffic can we support at our pollution limits, and how do we drive traffic down below that.  Lo and behold, Metro Vancouver has done part of this!  Metro Vancouver has an AirQuality Management plan that provides the targets. 

The Air Quality Management Plan’s vision is “Health, clean and clear air for current and future generations.”  (suitably fuzzy and vague) and its strategies include “Reduce emissions of and public exposure to diesel particulate matter,” “Reduce air contaminant emissions from industrial, commercial and agricultural sources…,” “residential sources,” and “cars, trucks and buses.” Other strategies include increasing public engagement, partner with other agencies, reducing carbon footprints. 

Surprisingly for a government plan, it has some actual performance metrics in there – exceedances of air quality objectives, hours with Air Quality Health index in the High/Low category, and some percentages to track the year over year change.  While it would be difficult work I’m sure, we should be able to model the regional emission sources and validate that against currently measured air pollution.  From there, we can assess what level of industry and transport the region can support (or how much we need to reduce) to be within our targets for air quality.  As technology improves and emission sources get smaller we can allow additional development, create more stringent targets, or some combination of the two. 

Then we can actually answer the question of can the region support one more train per day.  Or a waste incinerator.  It can also drive policy – we can model trade-offs on truck, train, heavy equipment and industry to see the best way to reduce diesel particulate matter.  At that means we can make informed decisions on the issues instead of leaping to a panic. 

Given all that, I am in favour of the proposed facility as it is currently given.  As a country, we are still burning coal – until we decide otherwise it’s not our place to condemn others for doing the same.   As a region, we are a coal port (among other things).  Singling out this one port and 4 million tonnes while ignoring the 27 million at Roberts Bank smacks of NIMBYism.  One train per day and a 10% increase in coal through the region is not going to significantly change the regional pollution situation.  Local effects need to be managed, yes, and the trains and port are using best practices as they stand.  As those practices improve, we should pressure them to keep up.

And none of this considers the benefits to the recipients.  All of North American stands as a witness to the benefits electrification brings.  To deny that benefit to another country is imperialism – we know better than you what’s good for you, so you can’t have it.  Is there a cost to coal powered electricity?  Does it need to be weighed against the benefits?  Yes, but it’s not our place to make that decision for another country.  

Bookmark and Share