Vancouver's governing party, the NPA, and Mayor Sam Sullivan seem determined to spend their first year in office focused exclusively on reversing decisions made by the previous city council. This preoccupation with political revenge against the previous COPE/Vision council reveals a mayor so far incapable of formulating a coherent vision for one of Canada's most important cities.
Council's decisions become part of what we are known for internationally and with the Olympics coming in 2010, we will be under a microscope. Mayor Sullivan's reversal of the city's minimal commitment to host the peace messenger cities conference, his cancellation of the Burrard Bridge bike lane experiment and his determination to slash low and middle income housing in the South East False Creek development demonstrate a serious lack of political leadership.
Has the NPA forgotten that Vancouver's success is increasingly dependent on its international reputation as a progressive, environmentally conscious and far-sighted city?
Bid sold on sustainability
The Olympics were supported in a referendum in part because its promoters acknowledged the principles on which the Olympics are based -- including sustainability -- and promised they would be reflected in how the 2010 games were carried out. The Vancouver Olympic Committee defined sustainability as "living and working in ways that support our current environmental, economic and social needs . . . finding a balance between what we need now . . . and what we will need in the future, such as affordable housing and untouched wilderness."
Sam Sullivan's and the NPA's actions violate that promise. But they are not just short-sighted, they are parochial. The reason Vancouver bid for the Olympics was to highlight its desirability as a place to visit and invest. In the four years leading up to the Olympics, city council's actions in relation to the values and image of the Olympics will matter. During the Olympics 10,000 reporters will descend on Vancouver to cover the games. But even before that, the international media will be alert to what is happening here.
When the media cover the World Urban Forum and the World Peace Forum in June and report back to their respective countries and cities that Vancouver officially snubbed the peace messenger city mayors, what will people in those countries think? They are likely to think Vancouver is strictly small town and not up to the challenge entailed in hosting the Olympics.
But the affordable housing issue is even more indicative of the NPA's insensitivity to what the Olympics is actually supposed to stand for. A key part of the Olympic spirit, which is supposed to guide host cities, is that of social justice and sustainability. But the NPA decided to throw out the window ten years of consultations and planning, much of it under previous NPA administrations, for Southeast False Creek. That decision reveals a small mindedness not representative of Vancouverites.
City for the wealthy?
According to a recent study by Demographia International Affordability Survey, Vancouver is the least affordable city in Canada when it comes to housing. The study pointed out that "home ownership represents a pillar of a sustainable, affluent economy."
In recognition of this situation, the previous city council went beyond the 20 percent social housing target mandated back in 1970 for major developments. The new plan called for one third market housing, one third low income housing and one third middle income housing to ensure a sustainable community at Southeast False Creek. During debate on the formula, interveners and COPE council strongly implied that this formula should apply to future large developments. To pay for it, council assigned $50 million - four percent -- of the city's Property Endowment Fund, a key source of municipal support for affordable housing. But Sullivan and company declared that fiscally irresponsible and eliminated the middle income portion and cut the social housing back to 20 percent.
NPA councillor Elizabeth Ball told The Tyee last week that she still fully supports the NPA's decision to reverse the Official Development Plan's (ODP) commitment to one third each of market, low income and middle income housing for the Olympic village. Ball says it is more important to ensure the fund for the future than spend it on Southeast False Creek plan. Asked why she supports reversing the plan she said: "I think it's tremendously important that we keep the Property Endowment Fund healthy so that we can support ongoing social housing in the city of Vancouver."
Ball is satisfied with the NPA's new plan which would break the formal commitment but ask developers to try, voluntarily, over time to achieve the one third low income target. "Council would not have voted this way if they didn't feel there was a number of creative options. [Developers] are going to want to get as much affordable housing in there and make it work as quickly as they can." (Previous voluntary efforts at Yaletown failed to reach even 20 percent. Developers managed just 15 percent.)
Chance for public to weigh in
NPA councillor B.C. Lee also told The Tyee last week that he is opposed to the old plan because it departs from the norm by spending money out of the PEF's principal rather than just from the interest earned. He says he doesn't want to make promises the city can't keep. "It's easy for the city to say we will do 30 percent. We will do 50 percent. We can even say 80 percent. But how do we do it [without funding from senior levels of government]?" Lee says he is firm on opposing the old plan because of its ad hoc nature. "But that doesn't mean that I am not open [in the future] to a comprehensive re-examination of the property fund and how it can be used."
There seems to be at least an outside chance that the new NPA-dominated council will come to its senses in the next few weeks and save itself some embarrassment. If it does, Vancouverites can rest a little easier about the city's international image. People close to the World Peace Forum say that negotiations may lead to a resolution of the peace messenger mayors issue this week.
Sullivan and the NPA councillors also have a face saving possibility regarding their ill-considered assault on affordable housing. To change the housing mix, the city has to change its Official Development Plan and it is obliged to hold public hearings on the changes. These will take place March 7th and 8th.
The old plan, one of the most far-sighted and democratically legitimate plans the city ever endorsed, might still be saved.
But don't count on it. Councillors are supposed keep an open mind until after the hearings happen. But it seems that NPA councillors Ball and Lee have already made up their minds.
Murray Dobbin's 'State of the Nation' column appears twice monthly on The Tyee.