World class? Not good enough

By Gene Miller, April 2012

Even with storm clouds on the horizon, Victoria continues to avoid direct action.

AT A RECENT Urban Development Institute luncheon, guest speaker Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, invited to profile the City’s new economic development strategy, told this story:

“I was giving a speech in James Bay and mentioned Victoria as a world-class city...and someone in the audience said “What if we don’t want to be a world-class city?”

Now, this raises some interesting questions: What does it mean to be a world-class city? What does it mean if your city isn’t? And last, who cares what some shrubby, unemployed, dope-smoking loser in James Bay thinks? Or, why would the mayor throw that goad at a James Bay audience, any more than he would say: “Ya know, James Bay could really use a bunch of 30-storey condo towers, four active traffic lanes on Simcoe Street, and a nuclear reactor at Ogden Point?” 

Amongst the top gleanings on Google for “world class” are World Class Hockey Camp, World Class Luxury Vehicle Detailing, and World Class Wreckin’ Cru (an electro rap group).

Clearly, “world class” has about the same definitional precision as “Awesome!” and “Like, totally!” I would say to the James Bay audience member: nothing to worry about. By Google’s standards, we’re world class whether we like it or not. 

As I listened to the mayor tick off Victoria’s assets and, implicitly, his own administration’s accomplishments, I developed a growing sense of the void between political image-play and reality—that is, two different systems of thought or species of narrative akin to: “The glass is half-full” versus “There is no glass.” Of course, this is not unique to Victoria. I draw your attention to the profoundly diverging political/social/values/economic narratives fighting an epic war to the death or the next presidential election, whichever comes first, south of our border.

Years ago, when I was teaching at the High Mowing School, a Waldorf high school in New Hampshire, one of my students, Christopher Stoney, a goggle-eyed, physically uncoordinated dork with a fine mind but differently-wired circuitry (yes, he may have been a Venusian), would often interrupt a lecture or class discussion to blurt troubling and ponderously framed questions like: “Mr. Miller, if you say you want creative and original expression from us, why do you give us specific topics to write about?” Or, “We call it a two-by-four, but it isn’t. Why don’t we call it a one-and-a-half by three-and-a-half?” His queries—clearly, such matters had been fare-jumping his mental gates for hours—would be accompanied by eye-rolls and audible here-we-go-again groans from the other students, but also a grudging fondness for his zingers. It’s like he didn’t get it. His view of the world was too logical, too literal. He got some other “it.”

Listening to the mayor, I felt a bit like Christopher Stoney.

Now, if “world class” means “mostly crappy but nice in places,” then the mayor and I are on the same page. But honestly, if you Google for the “Ten Most Beautiful Harbours,” or “Ten Most Beautiful Waterfront Cities,” or “Ten Most Beautiful Heritage Cities,” or “Ten Most Beautiful Urban Parks,” or “Ten Most Architecturally Significant Cities,” or “Ten Most Culturally Rich Cities,” or “Ten Most Dynamic Downtowns,” you’ll be stunned by the global competition and shocked not to see Victoria referenced on any such lists. It’s a big, world-class world out there.

Such evidence delivers an inescapable message: “Get real!”

Here, then, is a clutch of annotated Christopher Stoney-like questions:

At the UDI luncheon, the mayor couldn’t say too often that the city needs developers to believe in Victoria and invest in local projects, and that the City considers itself a stakeholder in successful outcomes (“We’re your partner.”). Given the flight of economic and shopper energy to the suburbs and the mounting weakness and frangibility of the network of downtown shopping and commerce, why would the City adopt a downtown bonus density policy designed (however unwittingly) to discourage developers from creating more office, commercial and residential space, and other policies and procedures that make the City notorious for obstruction and micromanagement of the development approval process? 

Considering how the City maunders on about setting a high standard for architectural design excellence, why is there a near-total absence of outstanding contemporary architecture (though, God knows, a few developers and their architects try, in spite of the obstacles)? Could it have anything to do with the economic realities of development? Is it conceivable that good design costs more, and is automatically elided from too-thinly-profitable development pro formas?

Why does much of the downtown public realm look like a back-up set for Blade Runner?

What extended and continuing psychotic episode has allowed two of the most significant harbourfront properties along Wharf Street to operate as surface parking lots?

Why has the city been incapable of completing the Inner Harbour walkway?

Why were ten of the 13 business and education community members of the city’s Economic Development Advisory Panel people with no particular business, organizational or institutional mandate (or regionally competitive passion) to make downtown Victoria hyper-successful?

How does a couple thousand tech workers (far less than one percent of the total regional worker population) make us a Silicon Valley-like hotbed of high-tech innovation?

Why is the city spending hundreds of thousands annually on “message management,” when everybody knows it’s just “good news” varnish, hyperbole, turd-buffing, or old dither in a new wrapper?

From the City’s Victoria’s Economic Development Strategy comes the following strategy points concerning downtown:

Focused effort is required to retain and support the region’s main urban centre.

Short-term:

• implement the Downtown Core area plan

• create a comprehensive waterfront plan for the entire core area waterfront from Ogden Point to Rock Bay

• foster a lively downtown arts and culture scene

• with the development industry, improve the public realm by enhancing sidewalks, lighting, landscaping, and street furniture [sic] improve safety and security downtown

Long-term:

• explore the feasibility of creating a new downtown educational presence for the major post-secondary institutions.

Let’s do a brief semiotic analysis of this language and syntax (the entire strategy document is studded with similar examples). “Focused effort is required” means: “Downtown’s circling the drain and somebody better do something. Not us, of course, but an abstracted somebody.”

“Create a comprehensive waterfront plan” means “Do what Victoria does best: create plans. Someday. When Planning Services manages to scratch a few completed projects off its hundred-item list...unless other priorities come along.”

“Foster a lively downtown arts and culture scene” means “Do absolutely nothing, but for God’s sake, call it fostering.”

“With the development industry, improve the public realm” means “Omigod, we don’t have a dime in the bucket after we tackle infrastructure and capital spending items, so make the developers provide public space improvements. Oh, memo to ourselves: capture 75 percent (the City’s favoured number, thankfully modified at the last moment by the mayor) of the lift in the land value if they want more density and spend the money wherever and on whatever we please, because we’re near-broke, but then ask them to provide public space improvements.”

“Explore the feasibility of creating” means “Form an all-stakeholder study group to propose a methodology for optimizing strategies for exploring the feasibility of creating a report outlining a framework of recommendations to review options for the creation of absolutely nothing.”

As I write, the downtown retail vacancy rate is creeping toward eight percent. And in that vein, apart from its tendency toward the aspirational, the report (available online at: www.victoria.ca/assets/Business/Documents/economic-development-strategy.pdf) does harbour a suspect and risk-laden idea: it refers to downtown as the regional “hub for specialty retail.” This raises two issues. First, Frontrunners, the “specialty” running shoe store on Vancouver Street, also has a store in Langford. That is, the suburbs is not some benighted landscape littered with nothing but cruddy big box stores, but an increasingly sophisticated and diverse retail landscape. Second, if your wallet becomes thin in a prolonged economic downturn like the current one, are you going to buy milk and hamburger meat at the Superstore, or violet-infused elderberry all-butter shortbread at that adorable little patisserie on Fort Street?

I mean, simply, to highlight a form of institutional and cultural pathology in Victoria: a tendency to abstract, to avoid direct, beneficial action at all costs, even if the storm clouds are visible on the horizon. Other places: “I need a hammer, right now. Please give me one.” Victoria: “It would be helpful to have a hammer.” I have to believe that if an advisory committee submitted such a report to Stew Young, mayor of Langford, their skeletons would be exhumed from the Hartland Road landfill in a decade or two. Not really. It would be a century (Stew is a waste management professional). 

It’s not that the entire Economic Development Strategy Report has this hallucinatory quality. In places, it makes reasonable and sensible recommendations. The real tragedy is that the report underscores the disconnect between the city’s economic hopes and the kind of liberating policies and implementation that could make those ambitions come true. I know the mayor wants the best for the city, but I worry that he and his council are stuck to their hips in a toxic fudge of wrong-thinking and counterproductive policy design. 

Like Christopher Stoney, I’m looking at an economic development one-and-a-half by three-and-a-half, and being told it’s a two-by-four. 

Guess I’m getting the wrong “it.”

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre and Monday Magazine and is currently writing Massive Collaboration: Stories That Divide Us, Stories That Bind Us and The Hundred-Mile Economy: Preparing For Local Life.