Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Solo District's Stratus set to rise

This time last year it was Vantage that lit up the sky near Lougheed and Willingdon.  This year, the crane to begin construction of the Stratus building at Solo District which will include a Whole Foods below it is ready to go.  With the Brentwood Mall Redevelopment at the opposite corner inching forward, we can expect a flurry of activity over the next few years.

Solo crane today.

Vantage crane last year
Vantage crane

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

TransLink website not helpful this snowy morning

Having woken up to a snowy morning, I decided to go to TransLink's website to see if the SkyTrain was running on time.  Although the snow began to stick to the ground in many parts of Metro Vancouver by 8pm last night, TransLink's website page that displays updates on its service delivery times was not at all helpful by 5:55am this morning.  This is what TransLink had on its page:

Bus: Operating Normally.
Dec 17 2012

SkyTrain: Operating normally.
Dec 17 2012

Power Rail Replacement Project: There will be no single tracking from December 16 - 20, 2012 for the power rail replacement project. SkyTrain will be operating its regular evening service.
The Project will be suspended for the Christmas Holiday after Thursday, December 20, 2012 and will resume Sunday, January 6, 2013.

SeaBus: Operating normally.
Dec 17 2012

West Coast Express: Operating Normally
West Coast Express
Dec 17 2012

West Van Blue Bus: Operating normally.
West Van Blue Bus
Dec 17 2012

HandyDART: Operating normally.
Dec 17 2012

To further the frustration for transit users, the TV that displays advertising and news tickers along with the message boards that contain month-old "updates" at Brentwood Station had no useful announcements regarding transit issues this morning.  To give TransLink some credit, it had an inaudible announcement over its PA system trying to tell waiting transit users something about a delay caused by the snow...

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Neighbourhood planning; forethought vs afterthought

In his editorial to the Vancouver Sun (below), Bob Ransford explains the importance of timing when asking questions regarding transit planning and the problem of not asking the right questions.   Focusing on the "UBC Line" which had been receiving much attention recently, Ransford concludes his piece by pointing out the differing approaches to development between Burnaby and Vancouver around the stations along the Millennium Line.

Vancouver Sun article

The number of stations would have a huge impact on the shaping of neighbourhoods along the rapid transit line

Now that Vancouver city council has decided that a $2.8-billion subway rapid transit line to UBC is the best way to meet the growing public transportation demand along the Broadway corridor, some hard questions need to be asked.
Why ask the questions after the decision has been made?
Well, if history is our teacher, we should know that securing a political commitment to finance a transit project close to $3 billion is a near-impossible task. I can almost guarantee we're facing at last five years of wrangling over transit governance, regional planning priorities, provincial participation, tax policy, cost sharing and a myriad of other issues standing in the way of finding the money. While that wrangling is going on, there will be lots of time for asking and answering questions.
Second, if a miraculous agreement can be reached to secure $3 billion to build a single transit line in a region that needs at least double that amount of money to finance a short list of other transportation priorities, our attention will then turn to another two to three years of serious planning.
It's during this serious planning phase that we can't afford to ignore asking the serious questions and answering them honestly and completely.
These are the serious questions that went unasked and therefore unanswered during the dysfunctional planning that led to the construction of the Canada Line. That's why, more than seven years after the Canada Line station locations were planned, not a single new housing unit along this high capacity transit system has been built in Vancouver. It's also why at least three and perhaps as many as five transit stations are missing on the line. It's why the system was designed with small station platforms, inhibiting expansion of trains to accommodate increased ridership.
These questions weren't asked because all the attention focused on seeking consensus on raising the money to build the system. When a tenuous agreement among a long list of partners was reached to fund the project, after seemingly endless wrangling to, no one wanted to provoke any more serious debates. "Forget the questions, let's just build the system" became the mantra.
We can't afford to repeat that fiasco. Serious questions need to be asked before a contract to build the system is signed.
The first and most important question that needs to be asked is about how this new transit system will shape neighbourhoods along the line. The plan is to build a subway all the way to UBC with only three proposed stations between Arbutus Street and the UBC campus. Research demonstrates that automobile trips are one of the biggest contributors to GHG emissions. We also know that most people make vehicle trips in a range just beyond where they are comfortable walking, primarily to meet their daily needs.
UBC Prof. Patrick Condon has demonstrated in his extensive work comparing transit systems performance and costs that local buses and streetcars extend the walk trip at costs considerably less than SkyTrain LRT, allowing frequent on and off stops for trip chaining (performing more than one errand on the same trip) and accommodating typically short trips to work or to shop when compared to other modes.
Walking becomes the mainstay mode of movement in streetcar neighbourhoods, with the streetcar itself acting as a sort of pedestrian accelerator, extending the reach of the walk trip.
A mixed-use neighbourhood flourishes when people either walk between their homes and local shops, services or jobs or take a short jaunt on a streetcar and get on or off close to their destination. Typically, streetcar stations are 300 to 400 metres apart. Residential densities within a 400-metre radius of these lines typically average 20 to 30 units per acre. That means low-rise apartments close to the station and townhouses, duplexes and some single-family homes near the edge of the 400-metre radius. With a streetcar, over time along the Broadway corridor, modest redevelopment would occur and the existing retail villages along the corridor would be revitalized and would thrive.
Compare this neighbourhood-shaping influence to a high-capacity, costly subway system with just three stations between Arbutus and UBC, more than a kilometre apart. First, the system is aimed at moving people relatively long distances quickly, rather than serving local neighbourhoods. Hence, three stations.
The idea is to move large numbers of people from the Broadway/Commercial transit node to the Central Broadway jobs centre and others on to the terminus at UBC.
This type of transit line will do little to support the existing retail villages along the corridor. There will be pressure to develop density around the three transit stations. It will be the kind of density most existing residents will find unacceptable and will characterize as "spot zoning".
Densities around transit stations of this type should radiate up to about 800 metres from the stations and should be in excess of 30 units per acre on average, with much higher densities within the 400-metre radius.
This kind of density transforms neighbourhoods. This is the kind of transformation Burnaby has been embracing along the Expo and Millennium lines for years. It's this kind of density Vancouver planners and politicians have been afraid to talk about, leaving seas of low-density housing around a number of existing expensive, high-capacity transit stations in Vancouver years after the stations were built.
So after we've answered the first question about whether or not we can afford to invest $3 billion of public money in a single transit line moving people from A to B and on to C along the Broadway corridor, we then need to ask how that transit line will reshape our neighbourhoods.
Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with Counterpoint Communications Inc. He is a former real estate developer who specializes in urban land-use issues. Email: ransford@counterpoint.ca or Twitter.com/BobRansford

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Why is real estate so expensive in Metro Vancouver?

This is not meant to be a political blog but sometimes I need to let out my beliefs when something hits a nerve.

According to a Burnaby NewLeader article below, Burnaby has the third highest real estate prices in Canada. What is the reason behind such high real estate prices in Burnaby and Metro Vancouver?

Politician's Answer

If you ask provincial politicians, they will tell you that land values in Metro Vancouver have remained among the highest in North America because of things like immigration, overseas investment or the fact that Metro Vancouver is such a wonderful place to live because it is arguably one of the most diverse regions in the world.  Ask a real estate agent and you will receive the same cookie-cutter, rah, rah, rah answer.  If you ask someone that is really creative, they will tell you that it is a combination of the above factors along with other economic factors that has led to Metro Vancouver having such "valuable" land.  Don't get me wrong, the above reasons ARE  factors in making property values higher but there is more to it than what the "experts" are always parroting.

What BC politicians will never tell you about high property values in Metro Vancouver and elsewhere in BC is the fact that property tax rates for residents and non-residents* are the same in Metro Vancouver, allowing non-residents to use Metro Vancouver real estate as a shelter/hedge for their accumulated cash against anticipated foreign currency price fluctuations.  This is true for locals who own secondary properties aside from their primary residences and pay the same rate as non-locals who own multiple properties.  They pay the same rate on non-primary properties.

* Note: "non-resident" refers to those either not living in BC or not living in Canada altogether.

A simple counter argument to the tax-rate argument is that there currently already is a higher property tax rate on properties that are not the primary residence of the owner.  This difference is not only minuscule in comparison to the primary-residence rate, but even that can be overcome by having a non-primary residence address registered as a primary residence of a family member such as a spouse or offspring.  Taken even further, non-residents of BC are easily able to own real estate and falsely report a BC property as their primary residence allowing them to pay the same tax rate as BC residents.  The fact remains that non-residents pay the same rate as residents.

Real Estate Stock Market

The best part, for such speculators that do not want to go through the minor hassles of registering multiple homes under different family members or pretending to live here, is the fact that the tax rate difference between primary and non-primary homes is small enough to not even worry about it.  It is not unheard of for wealthy non-residents to buy up as many as ten homes in one swoop and sit on those empty homes while they pay a small fee to have them maintained while they sit empty.   Those empty homes, not being in either the real estate or the rental market, put artificial upward pressure on Metro Vancouver real estate prices, leaving locals to compete for a smaller share of the real estate pie, whether they are buying or renting, with earnings made locally at rates that have not kept pace with rising real estate prices, putting further upwards pressure on whatever little is left in the local real estate market.  Look at high-rise towers throughout Metro Vancouver in the evening from 6pm to 10pm and you will see many darkened spaces, sometimes as many as half are darkened where units are unoccupied but owned by someone.

What does this mean for Metro Vancouver residents?  Actual residents of Metro Vancouver that really live in BC and earn BC wages are subject to property price manipulations in Metro Vancouver as non-BC speculators drop large sums of their cash (earned from outside of the BC economy), placing upward pressure on property values.  We have essentially been subject to our BC Governments having allowed our real estate market to become a manipulated stock market.  This has been allowed to happen under the watch of BC Governments, regardless of party affiliation.  Why has this not been identified as an issue?  Is it because politicians don't want to make an effort to solve a complex problem or is it because they are not smart enough to identify it as a problem?  I believe the truth lies somewhere between the two possibilities depending on which politician you ask.

The well-being of locals that earn local wages is negatively impacted by competition from non-locals that have accumulated their cash in economies outside of BC's.  Such negative impacts are felt locally with the need for affordable housing being an important topic for Metro Vancouver today.  If we ask our politicians, past and present who have or are currently making a career out of so-called issues while ignoring issues that directly effect the economic well-being of local taxpaying residents, why they have failed to correct a problem that has existed over the span of their political careers, I wonder what their answer would be?  I don't believe that any politician has ever been directly asked about non-resident ownership, and believe that they have been given a free pass on this issue while we continue to get bombarded in the media about positive annual reviews about Vancouver's high livability ratings.  Why is an inequitable property tax system not an issue considering the efforts provincial and federal governments make to protect Canadian corporations from foreign takeovers while individuals are left to their own devices at the residential real estate level?

No Money for Transit Improvements

We are continually told that local residents must seriously consider paying property tax levies or road tolls to pay for transit and road infrastructure improvements but are continually ignoring the wealthy non-resident property owners that pay a relatively nominal investment fee known as a property tax.  There needs to be a benefit for all locals rather than just the benefits that some locals have gained by speculating in higher real estate prices spurred by non-local investment.

The answer to propped up real estate prices which negatively impact local residents can and should be a an exponentially higher tax rate for non residents compared to local residents, regardless of whether it is a primary or non-primary residence.  How would politicians figure out who actually lives here or not?  If they do not already know how to determine this, our problem is much greater than the public thinks considering how many non-residents are benefitting from and draining public services that are meant to benefit local residents and NOT non-residents pretending to live here.  What have our decision-makers been doing all these decades while earning great salaries and life-long pensions?  The unasked, unanswered questions continue to exist while our politicians come and go with their high salaries and gold-plated pensions at the public's expense.

Burnaby NewsLeader - News

Burnaby the third most-expensive real estate in Canada: study

Burnaby is the third-most expensive market in Canada to buy a home after Vancouver and Richmond, according to a study by Coldwell Banker Real Estate.

The study looked at Coldwell Banker’s average listing prices of four-bedroom, two-bathroom properties on its company website between January and June of this year.

In Burnaby, the average price for the company’s listings was $917,968, after Vancouver’s $1.87 million and Richmond’s $1.18 million.
Burnaby was well ahead of fourth place, Oakville, Ont. at $745,000. The most affordable city in the study was Windsor, Ont., with an average listing price of $170,991.
Arthur Ng, manager of Coldwell Banker Westburn Realty, said Burnaby’s popularity with home buyers is due to its proximity to Vancouver and its central location yet being relatively more affordable.
“I think people are realizing, I only have so much money and I don’t want to be out in the boonies,” Ng said.
Richmond’s market is more influenced by Asian buyers, specifically those from overseas.
But Ng said those buyers aren’t just investors and speculators.
“That’s what the misconception is. I wouldn’t call it an investment ... Their kids are going to school [here] so they buy properties for them and they have plans to retire here, and many of them have come to retire here.”
Ng said many overseas Asian buyers have bought here and set down roots, planting their families, attracted by the stability of Canada, but with the breadwinners sometimes continuing to work back in their home countries.
They often settle in Richmond because they feel at home with its many Asian shops and restaurants.
“Of course the prices now are so high there so that’s why now they’re coming to Burnaby,” which has its own share of Asian shops and services, said Ng.
In recent months, after the study period, Ng said his company’s Burnaby list prices (as opposed to sale prices) have dropped by five to eight per cent.
“People are realizing that, the market’s slowing down, if I need to sell I need to adjust my price in order to get some activity on it,” Ng said.
“But by no means are we seeing a fire sale.”
As for whether prices will drop further, he believes that’s unlikely since most people are living in or renting out their homes.
In the United States, people are scrambling to sell to get out of the market after becoming victims of too much speculation, he said.
“But no one here sells their principal residence for no reason just because the market is bad.”
Prospective buyers who have been holding off waiting for prices to drop further are starting to see there are no drastic reductions likely and are jumping back into the market while interest rates are still low.
“We’re seeing a bit of a turnaround already now.”
In 2008 and 2009, local real estate prices dropped by 20 to 25 per cent “but it came back like wildfire within nine months. That was a global collapse, we’re not in a global collapse now.”
Ng predicts prices will continue to go up, but more gradually than in the past when 10 to 20 per cent jumps were common. Instead, in the next few years he sees prices rising two to five per cent annually.
Those larger increases simply weren’t sustainable, he said, but the Lower Mainland continues to be an attractive place to live, drawing upwards of 60,000 new people to B.C. each year which helps fuel the local housing market.


Burnaby NewsLeader - Opinion

COLUMN: Burnaby must do more for the homeless

Burnaby does a great job helping to provide social housing.

For most people of modest means, living with a disability, elderly—or all three—there is a decent array of options. It could always be better, of course, but in general this city's got it covered.

And the City of Burnaby deserves credit for working with developers, the province, Ottawa and local non-profit agencies to help that happen.
But where it falls short is with the city's most vulnerable people. The homeless.
As many will know, there is no permanent shelter for the homeless in this rapidly growing city of 225,000 people. Vancouver, New West, Surrey, Langley, Maple Ridge and the North Shore all have shelters, but not Burnaby.
The only option is during a few months of the year when a local church opens its doors and staff from the Lookout Emergency Services Society operate an extreme weather shelter. And it's only open on nights when weather is severe enough that it can create a higher health risk to homeless people.
So for the rest of the year in Burnaby people can be found sleeping in Central Park, tenting in the forest behind Discovery Park, and using the washrooms at the McGill branch as though they are their private bathroom facilities.
Or they're forced to go to Vancouver. Or New West, or one of the growing host of cities working to fill this vital piece of the housing continuum. The Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy website shows more than two dozen shelters for the homeless in Vancouver, depending upon the time of year. Many are year-round. In New Westminster, a city of 60,000, there are four.
Burnaby doesn't do permanent shelters.
Why? To prove a point?
Mayor Derek Corrigan says housing is not a municipal responsibility, and under his leadership the city has stood its ground on the issue.
In interviews, he's called the practice of giving people a bed indoors for the night, then pushing them out the door in the morning “ridiculous social policy," that distracts from dealing with the core issues of why these people are on the street in the first place.
He points to provincial government policies that have cut people off welfare, closed mental health institutions and increased the child poverty rate. He points to the fact that until recently, B.C. had the lowest minimum wage in Canada.
And he's also criticized Ottawa for all-but ceasing to fund social housing 20 years ago.
And those are all fair comments. They really are.
But in the '90s when Ottawa drastically reduced funds for health care, social programs and infrastructure did the provinces and cities just hold the line on everything to make a point? No, because some things are essential.
Back in 2006, the provincial government put a call out to cities. They said if you put up a piece of land and waive the development costs, we'll build and fund new housing for the homeless.
Eight cities responded. Vancouver put up 14 sites. Cities such as Surrey, Maple Ridge, Abbotsford and Kelowna also put up sites.
Where was Burnaby?
Why is a city with almost $600 million in reserves—one of the richest municipalities in Canada—doing nothing?
Corrigan says it's a slippery slope: Look at Vancouver's rising property taxes, he says—aren't they exceeding their mandate at residents' expense?
That's a red herring. Burnaby can afford to take the risk. It can make a start by offering a single piece of land, maybe even with a building on it. Near Metrotown, at the edge of an industrial area, near the SkyTrain line.
It's time for a permanent shelter in Burnaby.
This city must do its part.
• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.