Am I blue

by Gene Miller, October 2010

In the face of debt and crumbling infrastructure, a well-functioning city demands funds and engaged citizens.

So there you are still dressed in the hospital-issue green pyjamas, bathrobe and plastic ID wristband you were wearing when you bolted the Jubilee, having shown up there four days ago complaining about the demons invading your brain. You’ve been popping mood levellers like they were M&M’s, trying to duct-tape your rickety mental apparatus. With shaking hands you page-turn a discarded Times Colonist, hoping for normalcy; but you spot the following and you know, with something approaching liturgical certainty, that you are not the problem:

Japanese speed eating champ Takeru (Tsunami) Kobayashi was told by a New York judge that he no longer faces prosecution for starting a disturbance at the city’s annual hotdog contest. Kobayashi was arrested at the famous Coney Island endurance eating competition after trying to break through security and get on stage. He had missed this year’s contest because of a contractual dispute, but says he was trying to join his comrades when security guards wrestled him away. Kobayashi still retains various records from other competitions, including eating 57 cow brains in 15 minutes.

And turning now from animal consumption to animal redemption, the TC—that Lux Mundi of broadsheets—appropriately chose a Sunday edition weeks ago (emphasis on themes of spirit and uplift) and paired these two zoological notes: “Special ‘wheelchair’ gives paralyzed alpaca a chance” and “Injured cat walks again with bionic paws.” 

Tempting though it is to rail against our daily for descending into some four-legged, Weekly World News-like degeneracy, let’s go high-road and see where that gets us. The case can be made that the TC is on to something with these pentecostal themes of healing, repair and resurrection, and might want to devote expanding amounts of its real estate to similar takes on everyday issues that bedevil our city. 

Clever title options abound, like: “So you think you can transubstantiate,” or “Canada’s next top mother superior,” but I like the simple refrain: “What would Jesus do?” The column could be guest-edited by some fusion of a televangelist and a Jerry Springer or Maury Povich-type, possibly opening up wide new swathes of ecumenical readership by tweaking Povich’s oft-repeated tv show theme “you are not the father!” to “You are not The Father!” 

Everybody wants to know what Jesus would do. People are, after all, looking for an ethical compass. For example…

An engineering study determines that Victoria’s Blue Bridge is at risk in an earthquake. The city, facing unavoidable public safety responsibilities, proposes a new bridge and, hoping to take advantage of some provincial/federal infrastructure money that will cover two-thirds of costs, proffers three designs. Anti-replacement activists immediately express a preference for the heritage bridge, and favouring renovation over replacement—presumably at a lower cost to taxpayers—gather enough signatures on a petition to force a spending vote. Subsequent (and very pricey) studies determine that both renovation and replacement costs have skyrocketed. What would Jesus do?

As Scripture suggests (Leviticus, 9:16 “He who innovateth performeth great service in the eyes of the Lord”), Jesus would lower the oceans, altogether eliminating the need for a drawbridge; or would arrange for the thin mast tops and the occasional smokestack of the few vessels that need access to the Gorge waters to be hinged, allowing them to proceed under the Blue Bridge without any further need for the bridge span to rise. To deal with the aging structure He would then install new steel-reinforced concrete pilings to carry the bridge frame, permitting the removal of that vast, now-superfluous concrete counterweight at a cost of $4,000,000. The counterweight—clearly, an important heritage structure in its own right—would be strategically relocated to the middle of Vancouver Street between View and Yates Streets, thus serving as a deterrent (second in efficacy only to mandatory castration) to drivers who disregard the ‘no left turn’ signs and illegally cut into the London Drugs parking lot.

The extraordinary furore over the state and fate of that dismal pile of scrap iron connecting downtown and Vic West, as best I can tell, has served as a massive distraction just when the City is in the middle of chaperoning two vastly important initiatives through public process. Anybody remember the Draft Downtown Plan and the Official Community Plan? Didn’t think so. 

The city seems to have gently woken up to the possibility that there might be a tenuous connection between physical planning and economic planning by convening an economic advisory group whose constituency, awkwardly, is heavily weighted toward organizations with mandates that prohibit an exclusive (i.e. competitive) interest in downtown—worthy agencies like the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce. Balance in all things: that’s our way here; and when in doubt, form an advisory group stocked with the usual suspects, even if this convenes ambiguous loyalties. 

Like it or not, though, downtown functions (thrives or fails) in a market environment, and markets imply choice in which downtown is only one option amongst many for living, working, running a business, and cultural or recreational consumption.

Cash is king. The City has a financial shortfall north of a half-billion dollars’ worth of capital projects on the books, and lots more that probably should be added to the list. While these aren’t all immediate, it’s clear that the value of this work won’t diminish and, like the “surprise” of Blue Bridge renewal (currently pegged at around $80 million—a euphemism for $100 million by the time the mayor cuts the ribbon), you can be sure that other unplanned-for exigencies (a lot of our infrastructure is way past its replace-by date) will materialize and take priority over normal housekeeping or a wish-list of new and needed amenities. 

But what if the City took its financial objectives as a starting point and said: what downtown plan (and wider Official Community Plan) will, barring the unforeseen, produce steady, durable financial outcomes adequate to allow us to systematically knock off items on that capital projects list and an amenity wish list? How do we fully integrate physical and financial planning?

Imagine that, a dozen years from now, Victoria’s downtown is one of the great small downtowns in North America: populous, financially successful, socially successful, brimming with cultural and other amenities, beautiful wherever you turn your eye. Imagine, as well, that this goal can be achieved only as a result of a unique vision and execution of a partnership between local government, the business sector and a range of community interests and advocacies. Last, imagine the Downtown Plan as the roadmap to get us there—a resilient document (things do change) brimming with outcomes, rich in strategy, integrated as to its implementation, loaded with performance targets, smart about how, and at what pace, to finance these results.

So this doesn’t seem like too much of an abstraction, let me present two vignettes. First, whatever else you think of it, there is no missing the dramatic physical upgrading in Langford. Everywhere you look, amenities and beautification have been added, and the city centre along Goldstream Avenue is looking right pretty these days. Every curb, every landscaped boulevard, every bit of attractive paving had a price tag. The point? There is a connection between financial capacity and physical outcomes and quality of the living experience. It isn’t magic. It isn’t achieved through prayer. It’s about achieving annual surpluses from taxes and fees that allow a city to do something extra beyond the provision of basic services. 

Second, how long has the City of Victoria dreamed of moving the art gallery downtown? Or creating a showcase central library (that one’s dead, by the way)? Or replacing the aging Crystal Pool? Or taking action on a hundred other examples of beautification and amenitization? Why do all of these dreams linger stillborn for so long? The answer is: look in the City’s bank account and realize that poverty is the real author of the Downtown Plan.

While I’m dubious about its other purposes, the one thing the Blue Bridge protesting has done is to turn our attention toward the meaning of public spending. More people are twigging to the likelihood that a municipal Blue Bridge debt on the order of $50 million will produce both functional and emotional constraints on other kinds of public investment. I mean, long-term debt is consequential, and is likely to make taxpayers and politicians shy about other spending adventures.

The entire debate over the bridge has forced us toward economic citizenship, and it would be a shame to squander this on a single issue. The City is in possession of a consultant’s study, sort of a conversation-starter about municipal economy, less prescriptive than descriptive. Titled Trends and Prospects in Victoria’s Economy, it’s available on the City’s website. What it doesn’t do (well outside its scope) is propose the means to harmonize ideas about physical planning with an economic development strategy, or to test ideas of physical planning in the context of economic desiderata.

Jesus may have tossed the moneylenders out of the temple, but nowhere is it recorded that he put them out of business. Hope and faith spring eternal, but it’s also nice to hear the cash register ring. 

Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.