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Michael Geller, New Blood for NPA

Vancouver's reigning party stumbled, says developer who seeks one of its council slots.

By Monte Paulsen 28 Aug 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Monte Paulsen is investigative editor of The Tyee. He welcomes e-mail and invites respectful comment in the forum below.

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Geller: 'Would have done differently' Southeast False Creek. Photo by Monte Paulsen.

"When I told people that I was thinking of running for Vancouver City Council, invariably their first question was, 'With which party?'" boasted Non-Partisan Association candidate Michael Geller. "I want to flaunt that. Because I like to think that while I'm running with the NPA, the values that I bring could fit with all of the parties, including COPE."

Geller, an architect and developer, is one of just two political newcomers on the NPA's slowly emerging council slate. The other is former banker David Lee, who is expected to join the race within days. Geller and Lee will be touted as new blood within Vancouver's oldest political party, and as proof-of-life for the city's fractured centre-right.

But in a wide-ranging interview with The Tyee, Geller painted himself less as a saviour of the NPA than as a lowercase non-partisan who doesn't agree with everything his party has done, and wants to help all sides figure out how to fix the city's affordable housing crisis.

"In hindsight, I think my children probably would have been happier if I'd run with Vision Vancouver. My wife even commented that I might have a better chance of winning if I was with Vision," he chuckled.

"But, just to show that I'm not a complete idiot, I am a candidate for city council under the NPA banner. I would ask you, if I were trying to get nominated under the Vision banner -- given all those other candidates -- do you think I'd get a slot?" Geller asked. "So maybe I wasn't so stupid."

'I wanted to put up buildings'

Michael Geller, now 60, is that rare individual who seems to have known what he wanted to do since he was a boy growing up along Bathurst Street in North Toronto.

"I wanted to put up buildings," he said. "When I was very little, I got something called Bayko. It was a children's toy, sort of like Lego, and you made little houses. I think it influenced my life."

He studied architecture at the University of Toronto, and went to work for housing innovator Irving Grossman. "I was doing stacked townhouses at 21 years of age," he said. "I've always had an interest in multi-family housing."

Geller joined the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in 1972, where he designed homes for seniors and people with disabilities. With the CMHC, he moved to Vancouver in 1974.

"My first assignment was to do a map of Granville Island." He went on to manage the development of social housing on the south shore of False Creek.

"It was a fabulous time," he said, "because that's when CHMC had money. We had co-op housing programs. Non-profit programs. There was more money, often, than there were projects to be funded."

Geller joined The Narod Group in 1981, and later started his own development firm. He has served as president of the Urban Development Institute, and has written extensively about architecture for The Vancouver Sun, among other activities.

Asked to name the developments of which he's most proud, he named the creation of three seniors-oriented housing projects on the west side (including one at Larch and 41st), the redevelopment of the Westin Bayshore in Coal Harbour and UniverCity, Simon Fraser University's planned community on Burnaby Mountain.

'Pangs of regret' drive desire for change

Noticeably absent from Geller's list of accomplishments is the development in which he and his family reside.

Deering Island is a private refuge just south of the Southlands, on which Geller helped develop 32 waterfront homes.

"This isn't on the list because it didn't turn out as well as it should have," he said.

Geller had hoped to create a more New Urbanist style community, with a narrow, tree-lined lane winding among a mix of town homes and traditional white waterfront residences.

But he said the city nixed the narrow road, the parks board killed the cherry trees, and Deering Island devolved into yet another monotonous row of suburban mini-mansions. Geller is particularly critical of the role played by former city councillor George Puil.

It was a bitter defeat for a man reputed to be a tough negotiator, and one who drives his Toyota Prius home every evening.

"Often, as I arrive, I feel little pangs of regret for what this could have been," he said.

Those pangs are part of why he is running for council. For the past three decades, he's watched how council decisions have literally reshaped the city, and he thinks council can do better. Specifically:

"The first thing is the Downtown Eastside. I would like to be on council when the tide changes in terms of things starting to get better rather than continuing to get worse," he said.

"Affordable housing is the second thing," he said. "I live in a 3,600-square-foot home. I'm lucky, and I know it. But my two adult children are also living here at the moment. I know from their experience what you get for $800 a month -- and they can't really afford $800 a month."

Third, he's concerned about what he sees as the city's faltering social fabric.

"Having taken a year off and travelled around the world... I came back and discovered that Vancouver wasn't quite as happy a place as it seemed to me when I left," he said. "I saw so much more life in European cities."

Having stood before Vancouver City Council so many times himself, Geller believes he could facilitate better outcomes -- and maybe settle a few old scores.

"One irony is that George Puil is now a development consultant, and one day may well come before me on council," he chuckled. "I intend to show him the same sense of fairness that he always showed me."

'A new aura to the NPA'

Many of Geller's long-time friends were less surprised to learn that he is running for council than they were to discover he is running within the Non-Partisan Association.

"The simple answer is that the NPA approached me," Geller said. He credited Jost Bakker, a fellow architect and former chair of the party's nomination committee, for making the pitch.

"At that point, the party was split between Sam and Peter, genuinely split. Some directors were for Sam, some for Peter. And given my personal interests, it didn't really matter to me whether the next mayoral nominee would be Sam or Peter. I could see pros and cons to both. I didn't know either of them really well," Geller said.

He's since come to know NPA mayoral nominee Peter Ladner and his NPA running mates much better.

"I think Ladner is a remarkable guy. And I can't understand why he isn't more popular, because he has all the qualities I would love to have," he said. "Suzanne Anton and Kim Capri both strike me as reasonable, caring, thoughtful people. I am quite proud to be running with them."

Geller is advising his supporters to make up their own minds.

NPA from a Jewish perspective

"I would like to see the best people win," he said. "I don't know all the candidates yet. But I've already gone on record as saying I will be voting for some people who are not in my party if I think they are better. And I think everybody should do that. They should vote for the best people."

And he seems to enjoy confronting people -- including some within his own family -- who would have preferred he run within Vision.

"When a friend of mine who is associated with Vision heard that I might be running with the NPA, she asked, 'How can you run for the NPA? The party is not sympathetic to the Jews. The NPA once had a major fundraiser on the holiest night of the year. They had their annual general meeting on the first night of Passover,'" Geller recalled.

"I told her, 'Yes, that's true. But if I'm elected, they'll never do that again.'"

He believes that in the wake of the Sullivan era, Vancouver's oldest political party is changing.

"There's potentially a new aura to the NPA," he said. "We really are quite a diverse lot. I am not an old Vancouver, Anglo-Saxon protestant blue blood. I'm a Jewish guy from North Toronto."

He added, puckishly, "Besides, I'm still more left than one of the Vision mayoralty candidates."

NPA 'wrong' at Southeast False Creek

The Tyee asked how Geller, who spent the first decade of his career developing social housing, could support a party that cut social housing at Southeast False Creek, and back-peddled from the city's commitment to build social housing in conjunction with the 2010 Winter Games.

"I can see certain policy issues that I think were wrong. I think in Southeast False Creek, that's one that I would have done differently," Geller said.

He added that the NPA-led council acted on advice of staff, which, in hindsight, significantly underestimated how much money the city land would fetch.

"I actually did feel that the party needed some more fiscal strength, when I looked at the list of candidates. But I feel we've now got that with the upcoming announcement of David Lee," he said.

"Southeast False Creek isn't finished," he added. "More importantly, there are a lot of other potential projects where more socially sustainable decisions can be made."

Sullivan no 'born leader'

Likewise, Geller was blunt when asked why the NPA-led council appears to have abdicated the development of new social housing to Housing Minister Rich Coleman.

"I think a lot of people did criticize Sullivan because he was not a born leader. I think he's a very clever guy, but not a born leader," Geller said.

"I think that the NPA, on some of these issues, has not done as well as other parties might have done," he added.

But, he added, "Many of the things that the NPA has stood for over the years are policies that I would basically support."

And he said Vancouver continues to be admired for its achievements toward social and environmental sustainability.

"I think you might be a little too harsh," he said. "Have you seen what's happening in Edmonton and Calgary and Winnipeg?"

Things the city can do

Geller is hardly alone in naming housing affordability as among Vancouver's most pressing problems. NPA, Vision and COPE candidates all cite the issue. And at some point, most candidates cite the withdrawal of federal and provincial funds as primary causes of the problem. Mayor Sullivan went so far as to make the lack of funding from senior governments a central theme of his term in office.

As a social housing developer in the 1970s, Geller has forgotten more details about former federal funding programs than most of his competitors will ever know. But what distinguishes Geller from the rest of the pack is that he is literally brimming with ideas he believes would lead to the creation of more affordable housing, and nearly all of his proposals could be implemented with or without new funding.

Ten of Geller's ideas are outlined below.

"The biggest thing has to do with the spirit of cooperation... No developer, non-profit, or government can do these things alone," he said.

"I like collaboration. I particularly like strange bedfellows. And I take pride in working with people who you wouldn't normally expect me to work with."





Geller's To Do List

During his Tyee interview, Michael Geller tossed out 10 ideas he says would create more affordable housing in Vancouver. They are:

  1. Reduce parking requirements. Overturn the existing formula to make current minimum parking requirements the new maximums.

    "How can you build a 450-square foot, one-bedroom suite, and then have to pay $55,000 for the underground parking space?"

  2. Allow secondary suites in apartments and townhouses.

    "This could increase the stock of rental accommodation. At UniverCity, second and third bedrooms have their own door to the corridor, and provisions for small kitchens, so they can be rented out as mortgage helpers."

  3. Encourage back lane housing, mews and other 'infill units.'

    "This won't work everywhere, but needs to be encouraged as an affordable solution. We also need to rethink what a laneway can look like."

  4. Fee-simple row houses.

    "Why should young families and other homeowners who can least afford it be forced by a condo association into paying someone else to cut their tiny plot of grass?"

  5. Encourage alternative forms of family housing. Semi-detached homes, triplexes and four-plexes can be build alongside single-family houses.

    "It would have been so easy on Deering Island to allow some of the lots to have had semi-detached units. But the zoning blocked it."

  6. Facilitate light-weight steel construction as an alternative to concrete for mid-rise buildings.

    "An affordable alternative between wood-frame and concrete construction."

  7. Shrink the lot size. Allow corner lots to be redeveloped into two single-family lots.

    "You can do a very nice detached housed on a 25-foot lot. For those neighbourhoods stubbornly determined to fight townhouses, at least let's get smaller single-family houses."

  8. Lease city land at graduated payment rates to organizations developing affordable housing.

    "If you can reduce the land component by not paying for it up front, you can begin to help reduce the cost of developing new housing."

  9. Encourage creative partnerships between the private, non-profit and public sectors.

    "There are a lot of churches and other organizations that have parking lots or other land on which they could build a project that might provide both housing and space for community amenities."

  10. Speed up the approval process. Zone for more flexible development.

    "Buyers wind up paying the carrying costs of unused land. Who do you think reimburses a developer who pays interest on a site for two or more years before he can even begin construction?"

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