A Decision With Many Implications

This is a post that I’ve started, stopped, edited and rewritten many times over the past few weeks. Prior to going away in August, I was quite good with the blogging. I’d easily push out multiple detailed articles a week. But since I’ve returned, nearly 6 weeks ago now I’ve only published 7 articles and attended fewer meetings.

Why the malaise?

I had to admit that observing the city process and community reaction related to the proposed Bosa Blue Sky Properties rezoning & redevelopment request of the old St. Andrews School site in North Park has really put a damper on my enthusiasm for continuing to function as a city observer (see my Proposal Summary article here). That a seemingly reasonable project proposal and opportunity to bring life into a dead area, regardless of competing arguments for community safety, can be blindly moved forward by Council only to be so thoroughly rejected by a militant group operating under the pretense of a local community is incredibly dispiriting.

Of interest is that a main theme in both statements of support and opposition to construction of 210 new units of rental residential space (including 11 affordable suites and a large commercial space) was that such a proposal would put a new face on the neighbourhood. Where proponents spoke to the value of new money and new investment in the community, opponents to this proposal spoke against “gentrification” (though this exact word was not defined) of the North Park neighbourhood because it would push the marginalized folks in need, who have traditionally and currently reside around the St. Andrews site, along to another area.

But then, is the future of these marginalized folks really supposed to be the main element for consideration when Mayor and Council finally make a decision on  Thursday and decide whether or not to approve the requested Rezoning and Development permit with Variances? Especially when representatives from Our Place and the Cool Aid Society speak in support of the proposal?  How for that matter are other community voices and inputs supposed to be weighed and considered throughout council decision making?

A Possible Framework for Decision Making

The City recently won an award from the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2). This is an award that recognizes recent city efforts to lay a “foundation” for “citizen engagement at all levels”. So it is not to say the city is the best or that it is excelling at Citizen engagement, just that they’re on their way to better engagement. And as their way of qualifying for this award, I believe the city first paid $100 to the organizers and then created this short sparkly video to celebrate city relate citizen engagement accomplishments.

So what does this award for citizen engagement represent?

If you watch the video, you’ll hear Mayor Helps and Director of Citizen Engagement & Strategic Planning Katie Hamilton talk about the importance of Innovating and Leading as well as Engaging & Empowering the Community (as per the City’s Strategic Plan). And as her way of doing this, Helps speaks to the important new city role of convening residents, asking questions and listening as well as responding to “pockets of heat” by responding to citizen groups who have already  gathered so as to help them get what they need.

But so what does this mean in terms of the more traditional & legalistic framework of something like city land use development? It means, in my opinion as a Council observer that we have a serious conflict in Victoria. We have a Mayor whose definition of governance eschews that of convention and legalistic standards (e..g, government process) for that of giving vocal community groups what they want. The challenge we have now is figuring out what this conflict means for the City as a whole and those of us who expect our City government to work for the benefit of the most people (e.g., not just those who speak up)?

As someone who has studied government (MPA) and as someone who has worked in government (provincial and local) this conflict as outlined above means that we have a serious issue here in the City of Victoria. Though she (Helps) may be well intentioned, we have a Mayor trying to do many things all at once and all while  seemingly doing her best to stay out of the City Council chambers (e.g., the place where Council business is traditionally supposed to play out in a transparent manner where principles of administrative law and procedural fairness can be observed). Going to the “pockets of heat” are growing and going to where residents are is more important.

And perhaps as a consequence of this approach, we had Mayor Helps saying this back at the original opening of the issue on August 27th (prior to 12 hours of Public comment on the Bosa proposal):

Our intention is to conclude this matter this evening…

Even with a three year project history, hundreds of people in the council chambers back on August 27th and petitions signed by an obscene amount of people (apparently 1,200 – see project topic page for consolidated links), Mayor Helps expected public hearing to have concluded back on August 27th. Instead, after 4 or so hours of comment that day it was adjourned to September 17 which after 6+ hours of additional but similar comments final decision on the proposed development was adjourned again to October 8th.

Huddling at 1:30am on Sept 17th – sorry for the blurriness130 am Council Huddle

So what are we supposed to do?

I suggest that we begin our sense making exercise by taking the framework of the IAP2 Values for which the City won its recent citizen engagement award, and then applying them to my understanding of what transpired in City Hall Council chambers on August 27th (Part 1) and September 17 (Part 2) as well as what may be anticipated as we look forward to October 8 (Part 3) when Mayor Helps and Council are expected to finally issue a decision on the proposed redevelopment.

The seven IAP2 value statements are as follows:

  1. Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.
  2. Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision.
  3. Public participation promotes sustainable decisions by recognizing and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including decision makers.
  4. Public participation seeks out and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision.
  5. Public participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.
  6. Public participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.
  7. Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.

Let us now apply them 1×1 in ascending order.

Value # 1 – Folks impacted by decision can weigh in: Immediate neighbours and residents of Mason Street worked hard to present the impression of universal opposition to the development by speaking passionately against Big money and Bad government on both days of the Public Hearing – both of which will apparently kill the local unlicensed neighbourhood farm as well as the vibrancy of the local neighbourhood. It was then interesting to observe the contrast in statements made by actual Pandora St service providers and other community residents who spoke consistently in favour of the proposal for the new vibrancy it would bring to a long dead corner across from a McDonalds.

With respect to the larger value implications of “impacted folks can weigh in” a number of speakers on both nights of the public hearing urged Council to consider the needs of the larger City rental market and the hundreds of new residents who would be able to take up occupancy in the 210 new rental suites offered by the proposal. It was also interesting to observe the apparent conflict (described above) in folks who tried to shift the emphasis of the decision impact – where the NO side argued that a YES vote would prove that government was bad, the YES side argued that a NO vote would prove that the means of government (e.g., city land use bylaws, policies and procedures) were bad.

Sample comments from the YES side:

Yes Side - Bosa Blue Sky

Sample comments from the NO side:

No Side - Bosa Blue Sky

Of some relevance to these distinct differences in opinions, and the need to ensure a balance in opportunity for those “impacted” by a land use proposal to comment, is this terse email from a Mason St residents that was submitted to Council between the two hearings:

Grumpy Email NP

But then who decides who gets “impacted” and who doesn’t? In the case of the Bosa Blue Sky Properties proposal, North Park sought to dominate any other stakeholder including the developer, all representatives of the YES side regardless of their proximity to the development, City Council and even staff. One final things to point out with respect to this emphasis from North Park on the importance of locality for opportunity to influence, is that if you read City minutes from August 27th and September 17 a significant majority of the NO side seems to live outside of North Park.

Value # 2 – Public contribution will influence decision made: When we think of public hearings, there are two ways, in my opinion, that such influence should be recognized. The first is process related documentation of applicant initiated proposal changes in response to public feedback. The second opportunity for influence can then be seen in Council acknowledgement of issues raised during Public Hearings. Where we were told & shown by Bosa Blue Sky Properties as the applicant (see PPT deck here) that many changes were made to the proposal based on neighbourhood feedback (compare 2013 plans to 2015 plans and also see video from August 27th):

It was strongly claimed by North Park & associates that their community had been entirely ignored and mistreated throughout the three years rezoning process. This was something that was emphasized many times by many speakers throughout the 10 or so hours of the public hearing during which time 120 people spoke.

So how do you make sense of this disconnect and how is Council suppose to know who is telling the truth when listening to comments made during public hearings.  According to a UBCM fact Sheet specific to Public Hearings, we find the following:

 At the hearing, the elected official’s primary duty is to hear what all interested persons have to say about the bylaw* (as defined in the Act as “all persons who believe that their interest in property is affected”). The hearing is not a forum in which elected officials should be debating among themselves or with the proponents or opponents; they should hear and (if necessary for clarification of a speaker’s point) ask questions – council or board debate takes place after the hearing has closed. Elected officials should be reasonably attentive and considerate of the public; attention to non-relevant written material, mobile phones, personal digital assistants, pagers, and private discussions between officials, should be deferred until after the hearing or breaks called by the Chair.

*Bylaw being the new Zone for the site to allow for development

Which is to say, that Council should always be weighing public comments in relation to actual development requirements while also considering their own behaviour in relation to other recent decisions. In the context of my two spheres of influence noted above (influence proposal prior to hearing and influence council opinion on proposal during public hearing) the City Official Community Plan, a series of land use Zones, and a Land Use Procedures bylaw (as mentioned above) provide the major elements of the city framework for land use and development.

Accordingly, Council are supposed to be consider all comments made during public hearings against recommendations made by staff who examined the proposed development against city land use development bylaws and policies. The trouble with this requirements now lays in how the NO side argued that Council needed to prove their worth (by not being corrupt) by rejecting the proposal while the YES side argued that Council needed to approve the project because if they didn’t they would be proving that the foundation of the City’s land use development and approval process is falsely intentioned (e..g, says one things but means/does another).

It is hard to know if your contribution will make a difference when there is no clarity on the rules being followed or upheld by council.

Value # 3 – Needs & Interests: Sustainable Decisions Making:  In accordance with good governance process, the City identifies their needs and interests in the OCP (e.g., high density residential & commercial development in appropriate locations). Businesses, developers and investors then respond to this need with relevant proposals that meet zoning and other land use requirements. By working through a 3 year process, Bosa proposed to meet this need by offering 199 market rental units, 11 affordable rental units and 50,000 feet of commercial space.

Of note is that the North Park neighbourhood association was told by city staff back in 2012 that chapter 5 (Regional Context Statement) & Chapter 6 (Land Management & Development) of the City OCP are the primary chapters for reference (see presentation video here). Which is to say, the NO side’s arguments for and of Sustainability in accordance with other chapters of the OCP (such as  Environment, Climate Change & Food Systems) don’t quite meet the standards of the City land use and development process as currently defined.

Related to this City emphasis on Chapters 5 & 6 of the OCP, speakers from the YES side argued for approval of the rezoning request because they considered the proposal a sustainable option for North Park because it matches OCP intentions for building density around the downtown perimeter.  Speakers from the NO side disagreed – largely because they had a different definition of sustainability, project impact and community need. North Park & Associates oppose the Bosa Blue Sky Properties Proposal because they say it will kill Mason St Farm, it would make their quiet street busy, and the development just wouldn’t fit in their working class, creative neighbourhood.

As mentioned above, they also have different intentions for the site:North Park St Andrews Ideal

Taken as a whole, these arguments struck me as odd since I’ve been trained to look at whether or not the applicant has acted in good faith. And based on staff recommendation, significant council approval to date (e.g., what was necessary to get the proposal to public hearing) it is clear for anyone who looks at the actual details of the project, to see that Bosa Blue Sky Properties has worked through a comprehensive process so as to meet local needs and interests to the best of their abilities.

The trouble with such an analysis however, is that it is one based on traditional styles & systems of government when Mayor Helps and the community of North Park associations are advocating for the system of governance where the loudest and most self serving voice wins instead. In reference to the IAP2 Citizen engagement values mind you, I’d suggest that even the folks who recently gave the city an award still expect that some sort of reliable process is followed for all citizen engagement activities.

Value # 4 – Process Facilitates Engagement of Impacted Parties: Keeping with the my theme of North Park attempting to speak with a supposedly unified community voice, I just want to point out that there were a lot of speakers from the NO side at the Public hearing who spoke in opposition to the proposal because they believe it will destroy both the Mason St Farms and Wellburns grocery store – however, to the best of my knowledge, neither the owner of Wellburns nor the actual owner of the Mason St Farms lands actually spoke at the hearing. Which is to say, not all impacted voices participated actively throughout the process.

Owner of Mason St Farm

Letter from Mason St Farm lands owner – an actual YES side member

And I mention this because I imagine the interests of both the grocery store owner and farm land owner are  likely land value related. Which is to say, that if the Bosa proposal is approved and developed then their land value increases and then they can sell it for a tidy sum. If you look to the opinions of the other Mason St proponents and Farm operators meanwhile, it would seem as though they are also likely concerned about possible land value changes but only because it will mean that their property tax, rent etc will increase. However, has anyone actually explicitly discussed such concerns?

Shouldn’t a good process require honest participation?

Value # 5 – Participants design how they participate: I disagree with this one because to allow someone to design how they participant, is theoretically unfair. As an example of this, I encourage you to check out the correspondence files listed on the City agenda (for Sept 17th) and the correspondence files listed on my topic page for the proposed development. In doing so, I encourage you to note how many fewer pages are provided on my site because I removed  duplicate letters. I’d also suggest that you build a chart to see how many letters were provided by the same characters (e..g, folks who made multiple submissions, using similar statements & themes).

Related to this, I have to wonder if individual councillors have a consistent standard for reviewing correspondence received on particular developments? Would they have noticed the duplicate letters and or letters essentially written by others? I know from personal conversations with City councillors that there is a common perception that developers buy positive comments and submissions for their projects, but I wonder if they have any similar experience with folks from the NO side doing something similar?

Mason St Farm – A big NO side advocate offering submission support 

Mason St Farm

The City should set the process for participation to ensure that everyone gets an equal opportunity to participate is my belief. But as I have mentioned many times throughout this process, such a system for equal opportunity for players only happens when you have a mayor and Council who subscribe to more traditional and professional models of government standards rightfully required of the legalistic procedures and process of land use development.

Value # 6 – Participants have the info they need to participate: As alluded to in my comments on other values, the NO side of the Bosa proposal seemed to have a unique/incomplete/incorrect sense/understanding of the proposed project. They also seemed to have a strange understanding of how local government and the rest of the world works. Where “good faith” & “procedural fairness” in any land use development process requires that a proposed development provide more than it takes away from a community, North Park residents and Associates  were intent, in my opinion, in  on gaming the system by claiming weakness and injustice without even bothering to know the rules of city land use and development.

Some tweets from a planning lawyer speaking to the YES side:

Planning Lawyer re- Bosa

But I’d argue that that is their fault & the city’s – not the developers.

Look to James Bay for instance. With the indomitable Marg at the helm of the James Bay Neighbourhood Association, big developments happen (such as Capital Park which incidentally was praised by speakers at the Aug 27th and Sept 17th Public Hearing) and the local community gets heard. They get appropriate amenities with the new development (such as a community library) and they also get other compensation to account for inconveniences of the construction process. But this is because the JBNA is a professional organization and this is because JBNA plays ball with developers as a fair & equal partner.

On that note, I’m thinking of going into the business of helping developers work with CALUCs. Contact Me to learn more.

Value # 7 – You get shown how your input mattered: I have argued many times through this post that it is hard to know if your input matters when, as we have with our current state of government in the city, it is hard to tell what process is being followed. With respect to the Special Council meeting being held tomorrow night for the purposes of finally issuing a decision on the Bosa Blue Sky Properties proposal, I am curious to see how Council works to demonstrate that they’ve considered all public input received when they give their final comments.

To that end, it is worthy to note that in accordance with the City Council Procedure Bylaw, each member of Council will have 15 minutes to speak on why the project (requested rezoning proposal & development permit with variances) should be approved or rejected.

I’m curious to hear what they have to say.

Judging by questions asked by Council prior to closing the hearing however (see pgs 9-14 in the September 17th minutes) I’m not optimistic that statements given will reflect the full breadth of comments made during the many hours of public hearing:

Process Tweet

So what does this all mean?

It means that if we apply the IAP2 values for which the city was  recognized for hard work in the area of public engagement, we see that engagement in the case of the Bosa proposal did not meet institutional standards for expected conduct & process. It did not meet these standards because Land Use & Development at the city is currently a game whereby nobody knows what’s really going on and nobody knows how their input will be counted or considered.

But this is because they elected a Mayor who stands for a system of governance that empowers those who empower themselves.

So What Do You Think?

Tune in to my @AnalyseVic twitter on October 8th starting at 7pm (agenda here) to see how this development file is resolved. It is going to be interesting. If you like my work, please consider Supporting us.


**Note – if anyone feels that I got anything wrong in this post, about Mayor Helps aspirations & priorities or otherwise do let me know. All content from me is based on observations of behaviours, comments & commitments made in Victoria city hall.


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One thought on “A Decision With Many Implications”

  1. I was watching it live and a woman is droning on about her prize-winning chicken and I’m thinking, “This is quality citizen engagement?”

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