Gregor Robertson's planning policies meets opposition from Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver

Charlie Smith, November 10, 2011

Ask Elizabeth Murphy why she’s running for Vancouver city council, and prepare yourself for a lengthy response. As a former city-housing-department employee and a former B.C. Housing development officer, the rookie council candidate — who’s running with Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver — knows her way around the planning process. And she’s not impressed by the way the Vancouver Non-Partisan Association and Vision Vancouver have been managing the city over the past six years. To her, it looks like a case of developers running wild.

“Really, it comes down to an issue of follow the money,” Murphy said during an interview at the Georgia Straight office. “And I think that one of the reasons thta they are so similar is how they are both funded. It is of particular concern because one of the major roles for the city council is land-use authority. So essentially, they regulate land. They determine what can be built in the city.”

Elizabeth Murphy worries about the impact of big money on planning decisions.

The problem, according to her, is that Vision Vancouver and the NPA both generate millions of dollars to run their campaigns, and much of this comes from the development industry. “So essentially, what you have is the regulators being funded by those that are being regulated,” Murphy said. “That is a fundamental problem in the system. So when you look at the different types of policies that each of them have been bringing through when they each had a majority, they’re very similar.”

To illustrate her point, she claimed that the NPA’s EcoDensity policy, which was advanced by ex-mayor Sam Sullivan, was based on the claim that density is environmentally beneficial. And therefore, more density was seen as being more environmental friendly.

“Rather than having it community driven, it’s a top-down model,” she said

Murphy accused Vision Vancouver of acting in a similar manner with the so-called STIR—short-term incentives for rental housing—program. She characterized it as a plan to dump density into neighbourhoods like the West End. Murphy claimed that under this policy, developers can receive huge subsidies, up to $100,000 per unit, for building rental units at market rates.

“Those are basically flawed programs that are brought forward to meet certain interests that are not necessarily to the public interest,” Murphy declared. “We have to get to the point where the people on council are actually representing the good of the public, rather than just the good of certain funders.”

Elizabeth Murphy eviscerates the Vancouver planning department’s processes.

This is a major reason why Murphy and four others—mayoral candidate Randy Helten and council candidates Nicole Benson, Marie Kerchum, and Terry Martin—have created the Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver slate. Murphy, who’s never been elected, expressed blunt concerns about the way senior city staff have been running things over the last two terms, and she declared that “everything should be on the table”—including staff tenure—after the election. “I feel if we are to make a change in direction, we have to ensure that the bureaucracy that upholds that and implements that is also on the same page,” she said.

Mayor Gregor Robertson visited the Georgia Straight building a couple of weeks after Murphy had said her piece. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t accept the claim that Vision Vancouver and the NPA are identical twins. “We have a track record now of being focused on homelessness and affordable housing,” Robertson stated. “We’ll continue with that. We now have got a 10-year plan to address that—with a critical focus on street homelessness—and making sure we eliminate that by 2015.”

Gregor Robertson discusses the differences between Vision Vancouver and the NPA.

Robertson noted that NPA mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton voted against his party’s “green agenda”. He alleged that the NPA was “totally out to lunch” on homelessness. He noted that street homelessness is down 82 percent from 2008.

He insisted that the Vision council listens to the public. “We’ve worked really hard to make sure people have a voice,” the mayor said. “The public-hearing process obviously does that. We’ve enhanced the consultation process to make sure developers are actually doing work in the neighbourhood prior to those applications being brought before council.”

Recently, council approved the Telus Garden mixed-use development project downtown, which will allow a 45-storey residential tower. The developer’s $10-million community-amenity contribution mostly went to create a new park at the corner of Smithe and Richards streets, with nothing set aside for affordable housing. A week later, that same developer held a fundraising event with other developers for Vision Vancouver.

Gregor Robertson talks about campaign-finance rules, cycling, and housing.

Robertson said council has to make “tough choices” when it comes to allocating community-amenity contributions in return for rezoning land.

“We have pushed really hard for campaign-finance reform and we’ve pushed hard on Victoria to change Vancouver’s rules so that we prohibit donations from corporations and labour unions,” he said. The mayor added that because the B.C. Liberal government hasn’t made any changes, Vision Vancouver is playing by the existing rules. “We basically are in a position where if we want to be competitive in an election, we’ve got to fundraise from all the different sources around the city who support our work,” Robertson maintained.

Elizabeth Murphy explains why she’s running for Vancouver city council.

Murphy said that the November 19 election is critical for Vancouver’s future because the next council will create a “regional-context statement” as part of the new regional growth strategy. She explained that this is a zoning document, which will have to be approved by the Metro Vancouver board and TransLink. “Once that is implemented, it will be very hard to change because it’s a 30-year plan,” she said. “It will have to have the approval of Metro and TransLink to make any changes in the future. So this is a turning point for the city of Vancouver.”

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