Vote for vitality

By Gene Miller, November 2011

What will it take for mayor and council to realize it’s war and that job number one is to save Downtown?

After three short years it’s again time for us troglodytes to put down the remote, get our food dye-stained fingers out of the family size bag of Hawkins Cheezies, and go to the polls. Saturday the 19th—Municipal Election Day in Victoria! 

As soon as the Labour Day weekend was over and summer-ized voluptuaries were magically turned back into citizens, the civic election will-be’s and wannabe’s started their chivvying and I began to hear the grumbles: some of you were threatening a killing spree if you had to go to all-candidates meetings or read campaign brochures filled with platitudes and pledges about public safety, strong and vibrant communities, heritage protection, affordable housing, prudent tax spending, more green space, protecting our seniors, and so on.

I attribute the swamp of clichés to a kind of authorless cynicism—something like an airborne cultural pathogen or a corrosive, blanketing fog—affecting political incumbents and aspirants about what it takes to get elected or re-elected in Victoria. And if this synthetic politics is a form of public obscenity, the public itself is a willing accessory: passive and fuddled to the core, it encourages a municipal election process whose commandments are: say nothing provocative, sit on the side of the angels (signal left, that is) on all the obvious issues, spout platitudes, don’t express an original thought, pray for name recognition at the polling booth or hope that name-dropping some popular incumbent (“Dean sent me”) buys you some votes. 

Most local political contests here are little more than spats over different approaches to inertia; and God knows there’s evidence to support that view. It’s a challenge to cast local elections as serious public referendums on mayoral or councillor performance because so few credible challengers present themselves as the anti-incumbent or offer seriously competing visions or political agendas. From here we can only watch with awe (or envy) the mayoral slugfest in Vancouver where NPA contender Suzanne “It’s time for Robertson to Mayor up” Anton is attempting to paint Vision Vancouver incumbent mayor Gregor Robertson as a bumbling lightweight incapable of leadership (the Stanley Cup riot) and a capricious green clown (bike lanes on the Burrard Bridge). Her prospects may be iffy, but she gets credit for giving the voters a choice. 

Still, don’t lull yourself into thinking there are no local concerns in Victoria.

What’s interesting about the City of Victoria is that you can feel its pain. It plays a Christlike, sacrificial role in the regional hagiography, and the surrounding municipalities—solemn invocations of regional cooperation notwithstanding—can barely contain their glee. The WestShore doesn’t even bother to hide its animus and contempt. It simply wishes Victoria would drop dead. Frank Leonard, mayor of Saanich and regional elder statesman, keeps his opinions to himself, christens new shopping centres, and diligently repaves his roads.

Every politician in the region with a shred of intelligence knows exactly what’s happening: the tide of economic influence is streaming toward the suburbs and Victoria is slowly but steadily losing muscle mass in terms of regional leverage. Gormless Victoria council is either unaware or in denial. I guess they’ll just wait until Downtown wakes up dead.

The City of Victoria is the only place in the region where you get this strange condition of endless, concatenating near-fiascos: a vitiated Downtown planning process (with profound implications for Downtown’s future); homelessness and street issues; the edgy relationship with the province; Blue Bridge cost overrun debacles-in-waiting, rhapsodic embrace of LRT with no idea whatsoever if it will benefit or hurt the city; housing affordability challenges; a largely un-funded half-billion-dollar capital works to-do list; a median household income $10,000 below the regional average (and half of Oak Bay’s); legitimate worries about business and shopper exodus to the suburbs; intermunicipal competition for jobs and fading numbers for Victoria; diminishing financial reserves…. Whoo-ee! Of course, not everything’s a crisis and the city has its share of victories. The new public urinal for besotted, late-night club-goers is a big success. 

There is an alternative political narrative to the conventional one you are likely to hear at the all-candidates meetings or read from the blizzard of campaign junk. The alternative goes something like this: 

One more global economic crisis or new suburban shopping centre or really crappy tourist season away from serious implosion, downtown Victoria is at constant risk of dodo-ing out as its share of the shopper pie gets thinner and thinner, and as every bumptious, new suburban business claims turf in the regional consumer’s wallet. In spite of the conceit that Downtown is where the region shops, God knows folks in the ’burbs aren’t spending one dime Downtown. Their paycheques are being cashed at the Save-Marts and the Mega-Buys, and a thousand other shops and services filling the interstices between the big boxes. (Just wait until some enterprising dreamer creates a mall in Saanich called The Design District.) Watch what happens when the Four Horsemen of the Economy come riding through Downtown.

Starting in the 1970s, a generation of people who had a background in house-building or construction—‘napkin pro forma’ nailbangers and opportunists—made up the bulk of the city’s developers. For them, heritage buildings were just dated eyesores. Any available block was worth busting. They saw places not as neighbourhoods or social narratives, but opportunities. They threw up (I mean constructed) hundreds of butt-ugly three- and four-story utility-grade apartment and condominium blocks—taller buildings in some cases—anywhere and everywhere the City would allow it. They didn’t do it because they’re evil; they did it because they could, and because they weren’t building homes, they were cranking out “product.” 

Communities weren’t well organized; these things often landed like bombs and took the heart out of streets and neighbourhoods. Communities in reaction got up on their hind legs and started to fight back. Now, neighbourhoods have effectively fought the development industry to a draw, but all of this sulphurous history has powerfully affected land use culture and process in Victoria, making the public wary, officials and policy-makers tentative and micro-managerial, and developers defensive and hyper-strategic. 

Memory, in other words, doesn’t evaporate quickly. The City—its citizens, neighbourhoods and communities, politicians and, by reflex, its planning department—have become very accustomed to saying “no,” or “maybe.” Now, even though the locus of development has shifted out of the neighbourhoods and much closer to the Downtown core (a very good thing), the City doesn’t really know how to say “yes” very well. 

A particular set of planning skills and creative assets is required to produce vibrant, successful Downtown neighbourhoods. Victoria, even though it has some bright lights in the planning department, has not really developed these skills; or the planners are fighting against incredible political intervention and the sheer weight of the past. Vancouver has developed these skills (Yaletown, West End, Granville Island, Granville Slope); Portland has too (Pearl District, NW 23rd, PSU, the trolley system). Ironically, the new crop of Victoria developers (many are Vancouver transplants or players) is now probably far ahead of the City in its receptivity to and embrace of the best urban design ideas and sensibilities.

 

In spite of a few tentative utterances from the mayor (timed, tellingly, in the last 60 days before the election), or the prevailing lunatic “Downtown’s for everybody!” sensibility, I remain unconvinced that he and council realize that Downtown isn’t dead when the last business turns off the lights, but when the binding cement between businesses gets too soft. 

What will it take for mayor and council to realize it’s war and that we’re fighting powerful social and economic trends, and that job number one for City leadership is to design and implement a policy strategy promoting intensive, new residential and mixed use/job-related development as close to Downtown as possible—everywhere? 

What will it take for them to realize that an economic development strategy based on the idea of attraction/retention of suburban shoppers, dollars, and jobs is practically folly, and that a vast, new population of city-living folks is needed to improve the Downtown retail economy? What will it take for them to realize that the development industry has no trouble reading the push/pull, we-may-need-you-but-we-find-you-morally-repugnant nature of City policies and approval culture, as distinct from authentic partnership?

This is a City, not a business community issue. If Downtown’s stress cracks widen, the City will have to dedicate more and more resources to costly, too-late, and possibly fruitless Downtown economic repair, less and less to city-wide services and amenities. And no politician or candidate—mayoral or council—has figured out how to deliver a convincing public narrative on this subject that might bind Victorians in some kind of common cause or productive strategy.

If you do brave an all-candidates meeting, you might want to echo-sound on this subject. Do wear your tinfoil helmet, though, to protect you from the saliva-rain of spluttering clichés.

Gene Miller conceived ASH (Affordable Sustainable Homes) and is working on three books: Radical Thrift: Rightsizing Your Life in Risky Times; Massive Collaboration—Stories That Bind Us, Stories That Divide Us; and The Hundred-Mile Economy.