Communities in action - TC October 3, 2018

Gonzales neighbourhood plan put on hold due to community resistance

While this news article from the Times Colonist today isn’t about the Oak Bay, it illustrates how important effective consultation is in any community process. Early and meaningful discussion can save everyone a lot of time and grief. If the Oak Bay United Church had made an effort, the local community might not be so divided today.
The last two paragraphs summarize what should be taken away from the experience of the Gonzales community:

…[…] “the win in Gonzales means you can fight city hall. I think it should be a lesson to our political leadership that if you engage people in a reasonable, honest process and put them first, you’re going to get a lot of constructive input.
“But if you try and basically put up a process as a masquerade to try to get approval for what you’ve already decided you’re going to do, people are going to object. And we did.”

Victoria’s plan to fast-track 10 new neighbourhood plans has hit a roadblock in Gonzales where city planners have met pushback over proposals to shape how the area will grow.
After two years of community meetings, workshops, surveys, draft plans, revisions, more drafts and more meetings, councillors have agreed to throw in the towel on the Gonzales neighbourhood plan, putting it indefinitely on hold.
Instead, the city will tackle such other neighbourhoods as Fernwood, North Park, Rockland, and North and South Jubilee.
“I think the neighbourhood is relieved and celebrating,” said Gonzales resident Michael Bloomfield, who has been opposed to the planning process from the outset.
“They tried to impose something on us through rather a devious process and people found time in their busy lives to rise up and say: ‘No, we just don’t want you to do this to our neighbourhood,’ ” Bloomfield said.
The process dates to 2015, when city council decided on a $700,000 “accelerated” program to, in the span of 3 1/2 years, update 10 neighbourhood plans bringing them in line with Victoria’s Official Community Plan. It’s a process that would normally take about 25 years.
Things started off well for city planners and two of the 10 updates, in Vic West and Burnside, were completed in quick order.
But that changed when they began working on the Fairfield/Gonzales update.
Coun. Chris Coleman, council liaison to the neighbourhood, said many of the objections were simply about accepting change. “People say they’re OK with density, but it’s change that they may have some difficulty with. When you boil it all down, we know we need more housing and a range of housing options but [the question is] how do you manage that?”
He notes the city’s Official Community Plan says Victoria will absorb 20,000 new residents over 25 years. Half are to be downtown, 8,000 in “villages,” and the balance via densification of residential neighbourhoods.
Bloomfield said Gonzales neighbourhood objections weren’t just about density but included aspects of proposals dealing with green space and tree canopy preservation, village areas and transportation routes.
Most frustrating, he said, was that for all the city “consultation,” it seemed no one was listening. “We would be promised modifications that were respectful to the community, and the next draft would come out and none of them would be in there and some new ones that set your hair on fire would have been added.”
Coun. Pam Madoff, for whom updated neighbourhood plans have long been a priority, said it is vital that city planners not only hear from residents but also listen to what they are saying.
Madoff said local area plans have to be about more than population numbers. “I think you have to understand the DNA of the neighbourhood and really listen to what people have to say as well.
“One of the things I’ve heard from a number of quarters is that the Official Community Plan, rather than being seen as a tool, is really being seen as a weapon,” she said, citing the northwest quadrant of Fairfield (between Cook and Vancouver streets up to Fort Street) as an example where zoning changes to allow greater height could tear apart a neighbourhood.
“And when you actually do an analysis of the number of units created in Fairfield, they’re exceeding the projections in the Official Community Plan on a yearly basis. So as they say, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? If you’re already getting these numbers without significant rezonings, why should we change to another model?” Madoff said.
Originally tackled as one large neighbourhood, Fairfield and Gonzales are now being treated separately with a newly formed Gonzales neighbourhood group.
Mayor Lisa Helps said there have been key lessons learned. “One is you can’t rush a neighbourhood plan and, two, neighbourhood plans are more than just about land use. They’re about public space. They’re about transportation.”
She points to “groundbreaking” work being done in Fairfield. “Fairfield is open to density and the best way to densify Fairfield … is to look at how can we use single-family lots better than we are right now, to put in triplexes and four-plexes and five-plexes that look and feel like single family homes but that can accommodate many more people.”
While Gonzales slips to the back of the queue, there’s now a neighbourhood group trying to find a consensus.
“They’re not throwing up their hands and saying we don’t want a plan. They’re saying move on and let us really dig into the issues here as a community,” Helps said.
Bloomfield, meanwhile, said the win in Gonzales means you can fight city hall. “I think it should be a lesson to our political leadership that if you engage people in a reasonable, honest process and put them first, you’re going to get a lot of constructive input.
“But if you try and basically put up a process as a masquerade to try to get approval for what you’ve already decided you’re going to do, people are going to object. And we did.”

Problems with densification - TC June 30, 2018

The following article from the Times-Colonist points out many of the problems caused by densification:

Victoria’s aggressive densification plan is unnecessary and unfair, causing people to ask: “Is accelerated densification being pursued for the right reasons, in appropriate locations, following an honest public process that puts people who live here first?”

In Fairfield-Gonzales alone, at least 10 groups have arisen from these concerns, people willing to consider sensible proposals, but fed up with what they have experienced as an unfair process. This phenomenon is happening across the city.
Unfairness has occurred in numerous ways:
• A questionnaire asks leading and misleading questions.
• Meetings are poorly publicized and held at inconvenient times, such as during summer.
• Anyone from anywhere is allowed to participate, diluting input from people living here.
• City consultations have been far more sales job than sincere collaboration
• Developers are involved in what should be public decision-making.
• Community associations and land-use committees are used to promote approval.

Many criticize the process as undemocratic and question the role of developers. Some seek provincial review. Others are organizing for November’s election, seeking to ensure mayor and council put community interests first. Community associations and land-use committees are being challenged to restore independence and public representation.
And questions abound about the need for expensive new plans. Significant growth has occurred over the past 15 years under existing plans. During the same time, the city failed to expand services or facilities to accommodate growth. What will be the cost for additional police, fire, roadwork, etc., and who pays? Will accelerated growth worsen existing problems such as the shortage of family doctors?

My Gonzales neighbourhood exemplifies why accelerated densification is not needed.
• Between 1991 and 2011, our population increased by 27 per cent, more than twice Victoria’s overall rate of 12.5 per cent. Single-family homes decreased from 74 to 54 per cent, duplexes and secondary suites increased from 18 to 27 per cent, and apartment buildings from seven per cent to 18 per cent.
• At the same time, no appreciable improvements were made to meagre infrastructure or services, nor did the city deal with increased traffic and parking problem.
• Heritage homes were permitted to be destroyed and replaced by oversized out-of-character houses
Gonzales residents have done more than their share and overwhelmingly reject accelerated densification. Most oppose proposals that will dramatically change the neighbourhood, including a multistorey Fairfield Plaza and redirecting traffic from Richardson Street to busier Fairfield Road. Urban villages are regarded as Trojan horses for more development.
Is it reasonable for everyone who wants to live in Victoria to do so? That’s not possible, unless the rest of us are willing to accept increased traffic and pollution, reduced greenspace, more pressure on already insufficient schools, health services, roads, parks and recreation and the increased costs to maintain and expand them.
Finally, let’s stop the accusations levelled against residents, who have a different vision for Victoria than canyons of high-rises, more traffic and pollution and greater pressure on our limited amenities.
This fight is not about privilege or an intergenerational conflict. Victorians are supportive of help to people confronted with soaring housing costs, but accelerated densification raises serious questions that are not being answered about where, how much and for whose benefit.
It’s time for mayor, council and city staff to work with neighbourhood groups in good faith.
The most reasonable option is to update the existing 2002 plans, which are doing their job. At the same time, let’s fix other problems.
• The official community plan is easily exploited for its loopholes.
• Spot re-zoning is too easy and lacks meaningful community oversight.
• Neighbours have too little input during approval of developments directly affecting them.
• Developer involvement in local politics and planning contradicts transparency and fairness.
And while we are making our civic process more democratic, the mayor and councillors should live in Victoria. Otherwise, are they truly accountable to their neighbours and fairly sharing the burdens of the decisions they seek to impose on others?
How many more people does the city plan to shoehorn in, for whose benefit and at what cost? It should be up to the people who live here to decide Victoria’s future not developers and politicians pushing accelerated development for their own reasons.
Michael Bloomfield is a sustainability advocate and a resident of Gonzales.