Challenging growth in Victoria: is bigger always better?

There is another way, Victoria.

Our current civic leaders are driven by the mantra of growth at all costs, the urge to meet development targets every year in the downtown and the neighbourhoods.

Many of the rest of us are not so sure. But can we be against growth? It smacks of Nimbyism, pulling up the drawbridge to prevent others from sharing the life we enjoy in this city.

Actually, in today’s world of new environmental and social realities, slow growth seems a far more responsible approach to city building than the practice of taking up as much sky and land as possible to meet and exceed our development targets.

And to many people, the idea of fast growth seems like a throwback to the ’70s or even hangover from the ’50s. When we look at our mounting environmental crises, isn’t over-development on a global scale what got us into this mess in the first place?

In an election campaign, we can get obsessed by minutiae like one- versus two-way bike lanes or whether a horse should be placed before a cart in old town Victoria. But in the final weeks of this election, we have a unique opportunity to ask the big questions about the kind of city we’re building, to what end and for whose benefit.

Community planner Eben Fodor: exploding the myth that fast-paced growth lowers housing costs

One question to pose to the candidates is whether they’ve heard of Eben Fodor, a community planner in Eugene, Oregon and a leading advocate of the slow growth movement in the U.S.

Fodor’s signature work on this issue is “Better Not Bigger, How to take control of urban growth and improve your community.” The book, he says, explodes the myth that growth brings in more tax money, provides jobs and reduces housing costs and property taxes.

The real winners in the growth game, Fodor says, are real estate developers, mortgage bankers, realtors, and construction companies who use local government to divert public resources into growth-inducing investments.

“The benefits from exploiting the community commons accrue to a few, while the costs are distributed across the entire community.”

His book is designed to empower citizens “to implement the right growth controls and present a sustainable vision for their community that is an attractive alternative to endless growth.”

Does any of this sound familiar?

It should to the mayor, who was introduced to Fodor’s book at a Community Drop-In Session last month. It didn’t make it on her list of follow-up items, but hopefully she gave it more than a cursory glance, even though it runs counter to current city hall strategy of Bigger Always Better.

Council candidate Marg Gardiner says geography is a natural limit to growth in James Bay

Last week I interviewed council candidate Marg Gardiner at the Imagine coffee shop facing Fishermen’s Wharf in James Bay. She spoke about growth pressures in her community, where she served on the local neighbourhood planning body until she took a leave of absence to run for office.

Gardiner points to geography as a natural limit to growth in James Bay. Check it out on a Google map. The community is located on a small, hand-shaped peninsula. The pinch points, the few streets leading in and out, get tighter all the time. And if they’re blocked, unless you have a boat or take a walk in the park, you’re trapped.

Now expand the map with a few clicks and you’ll see a parallel: almost all Greater of Victoria is also a small peninsula nearly surrounded by tidewater. There are only two ways out, both on roads that are severely challenged serving the existing volume of vehicle traffic: the narrow, vulnerable Malahat and the narrower, winding Sooke Road.

Most of us saw the terrifying scenes on TV of people fleeing the Carolinas to escape the worst of Hurricane Florence on highways all leading out. Could Victoria in its current size be evacuated on our two creaky highways, or how about a three-day sailing wait at Swartz Bay?

Geography and other laws of nature are not to be defied. They limit our water supply and our clean air, the latter severely degraded by those forest fires just weeks ago. They also foretell a major earthquake in our future, which should give pause to the high rise towers the city keeps approving, contrary to the traditional low and mid-rise approach. Do you want to be on the 25th storey when the big one strikes, or worse, stuck in the elevator between floors?

Just watch the laws of nature at work when homes are flooded this winter in the annual monsoons, and some homeowners proudly proclaim they avoided high water with a small back yard forest that sucked up tons of rainwater. Meanwhile other small forests, some with rare or massive trees, face the clear-cutting chain saws in advance of excavation for new projects.

This is a small, accessible, heritage city on an island, closely linked to the natural world through the sea, forests, mountains and rivers. It is not Vancouver, it is the place people from Vancouver escape to. This is our chance, maybe our last chance, to ask the people who are applying for the job of governing our city to show that they understand this dynamic and will work hard to resist the pressures of over-development and fight to preserve this city’s identity, admired around the world.

The current council, as a whole, doesn’t get this. They have pursued rapid growth, much of it unsuitable to local demand, rather than a more careful approach of housing of a type and scale that is most needed and fits best into our current environment.

Again I refer to our voting record chart of the mayor and council on major developments. Those at the lower end of the scale take a more balanced approach, but are often out-voted, by the usual 6-3 margin, by the growth hawks, those who vote 75% or higher in favour.

At the first all-candidates’ meeting in North Park last Sunday, Councillor Marianne Alto told the crowd of 150 at the Victoria Curling Rink: “I come to every decision with an open mind based on an analysis of facts and opinions.” That may be so, but that open mind closes into the same decision in favour of nearly every major development presented to council.

This mentality seems to have risen up from city hall staff and the developers’ lobby to monopolize the agenda at city hall. The word “growth” appears 28 times in the 10-page report on the review of the city’s Official Community Plan (OCP) presented to council on July 26. The terms “environment,” “climate change,” “resident” and “participation” don’t appear at all.

When you drill down to specifics, the review of the OCP or city master plan shows Victoria is well ahead of growth targets on a regional scale. The 2017 figures shows the city provided 23% of the CRD’s 3,699 new housing units, compared with a target of 20%, while the downtown was at 18% compared with a 10% goal. So where’s the standing ovation? Some would argue that this plan, despite the over-wrought descriptor “Official,” is full of flaws and contradictions and should serve us, not the other way around.

Interviewed at his office in Eugene, Fodor outlined two measures civic leaders can take to foster a more careful approach in their cities: stop promoting growth as the solution to all problems and levy adequate fees on developers who are granted higher density allowances.

In Victoria, the city is a part of the growth-promotion industry but, more of a waiter than a guest at the party, it collects much lower added density fees than other communities in B.C. These fees would give the city greater opportunities to fund the expanded facilities required to accommodate new growth and ensure our lower-income residents have a place to live.

In the end it comes down to what kind of city residents want to live in–the young and the old, newcomers and sixth generation old-timers.

The issue is more than fast versus slow growth; it’s also about how much and where. When council approved the city’s tallest building earlier this year, 26 storeys on Herald Street, no one came to the public hearing to oppose it. I take that as less than blanket approval, more as weariness and resignation over the downtown development wave.

But when residents show up by the scores and hundreds to oppose new projects in the neighbourhoods, that indicates a strong desire to draw the line at limited and appropriate growth in the communities, a line that many say has been crossed several times in the last four years. The message may be, in this small, walkable, bikeable city, we should concentrate high-density development in the core, and let the neighbourhoods pursue organic infill in the form of genuine gentle density as they have been doing for many years.

Regardless of our vision for growth in the city, it’s time to put these crucial issues to the candidates and listen to their answers before we vote.