British Columbia·Analysis

City Votes 2014: talk trumps solutions in Vancouver

Pipelines, a UBC subway and the housing market may be sexy subjects, but municipal politics is really about parks, community centres and yes, bike lanes.

Candidates spend too much time on big issues they can't control, and not enough on the nitty gritty

Vancouver City Council has no purview over pipelines, foreign investment or when the subway line to UBC might actually surface.

Has the Canadian federal election arrived a year early? Anyone following the current race to capture Vancouver City Hall could be forgiven for thinking as much.

Little chatter about property taxes, sewer and water, parks and recreation, garbage and recycling and the ever-controversial, bike lanes; lots of talk about transit expansion, housing, the economy and the environment.

Important issues to be sure, but too bad the candidates have little ability to affect large-scale change on those matters.


Take a bus from Broadway and Commercial  to UBC, and you'll quickly find out Vancouver could use a new rapid transit route or subway. But, despite Vision Vancouver's clever campaign which suggests a subway is a sure thing if their team gets elected, there are huge speed bumps in the way.

Money's the main thing: TransLink estimates that extending the Millennium Line with a tunnel to the campus could cost up to $3 billion. Vancouver simply cannot afford that. The city must negotiate with other Lower Mainland communities for those scarce transit dollars.

A subway spur to the UBC campus is too expensive a proposition for Vancouver council to go it alone. (CBC)

The Mayors' Council on Regional Transportation has only agreed to extend the Millennium line to Arbutus within the next 10 years—a far cry from UBC. Plus, the province and Ottawa would both have to be partners and so far there is no firm commitment from either. Then there's the pesky little problem of the promised 2015 province-wide referendum on how we should pay for future transit projects.

Far from a done deal, all civic politicians can do is advocate and lobby...and get to the back of the 99 bus.

Housing and affordability

It's no secret: Vancouver's an expensive place to live. Hemmed in by mountains and ocean, the only way to accommodate more people is to build more homes on the limited amount of land we already have.

There's also the question of foreigners driving up property values by investing in condos or paying top dollar for West Side tear-downs. As the theory goes, real estate investing and providing a safe haven for foreign money is making it expensive for all of us. But the fact is, no one really knows how big the problem is because there is no hard data.

The NPA's Kirk LaPointe says he will launch a study to find out more and then decide what to do about it later. Vision Vancouver is also waiting on data results, but rejects the idea of charging foreign buyers a Hong Kong-style surtax. The Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) is promising a luxury housing tax and a crackdown on owners who leave their properties vacant.

Foreign ownership of Vancouver property is a hot-button issue, but council really deals with sidewalks and streets. (CBC)

Can civic politicians really shape the market and bring down prices? Simple economics suggest demand (and prices) drop when supply goes up. Will any candidate stand up and advocate for more aggressive building?

Good luck with that: neighbourhood activists angrily accuse Gregor Robertson and council of not listening and favouring developers as project after project gets approved. The mayor's opponents promise a more open, consultative process but it's hard to imagine the process being more open than it already is. City staff bend over backwards posting development permit applications online, hosting public open houses and neighbourhood plan consultations.There is plenty of information available on the city's website to find out what's going on, if you take the time to look for it.

But it's really not about consultation. It's about keeping things in your neighbourhood the same. NIMBYism reigns supreme. Expect more of the same.

More rental housing? Well, many of those foreign buyers of condos turn around and rent them out. But the city wants dedicated rental housing. Where you sign a lease and get to stay, rather than be turfed out because the landlord is flipping it. Fair enough. But how many of those new rental units are affordable? The one on Vision's website (Westbank's controversial The Lauren) in Vancouver's West End, rents some (family-friendly?) two bedrooms for around $3000 a month.


Vancouver takes great pride in its greenness, but in reality there are many things beyond the control of city hall. Despite what the candidates may be saying and passing resolutions on, the city can't dictate the amount of oil piped to or coal shipped from Port Metro Vancouver. Major oil and coal terminals aren't even within Vancouver's city limits.

On the same front, the mayor and council can express concerns about the potential impacts of tanker traffic, but they can't stop a pipeline if Ottawa (and the courts) say it should go ahead.

Bike lanes. Love them or hate them, they are part of the real work of Vancouver City Council. ((CBC))

This doesn't mean you shouldn't choose candidates that best reflect your positions on these issues. Far from it. But municipal politics is much more about things closer to home: what your neighbourhood park will look like; how police and fire personnel will protect you; what programs your community centre will have; the sidewalks you walk on; the bike paths you ride on; the roads you drive on. 

This year, in addition to choosing your candidates, you will be asked to approve $235 million in spending on specific capital projects: parks, fire hall and police buildings, streets and bridges. Not necessarily sexy, but importantand within Vancouver City Council's mandate.

Just like those popular dinner party conversation starters: bike lanes.


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