September 10 PLUC Summary & Observations

It was a brief meeting this morning (agenda here and final motions here). Councillors Coleman & Thornton-Joe were absent and the only real thought I had observing the rest of them, is that the meeting (like so many others) played out like game of Ping Pong. The context is always somewhat competitive and usually only partially thought out because hey, you have to move quickly to hit the small ball and win. Isn’t that what running a city is all about?

I digress. So what happened this morning (video here)?

Heritage Designation Application 727-29 Johnson St

The meeting started off on a bit of a different foot. Instead of creating a Consent agenda on the fly, Mayor Helps spoke of how there were no late additions to the agenda but there have been changes to recommendations attached to reports on the agenda. Specifically, this report from the City Heritage Planner that had previously recommended refusing a Heritage Designation Application for 727-29 Johnson Street, became a recommendation to Council (not on the agenda by the way) to support the application pending a phased approach which was described in some detail during the meeting (outlined here).

The whole thing made me scratch my head. Two reasons for this:

  1. I’ve been told by other developers that they don’t know where City staff have landed on their proposals until staff reports are written so I wasn’t too surprised by the Heritage Planner’s talking this morning about the quickly arranged meeting that occurred yesterday with the applicant. What I found odd was why and how exactly, the city originally found it appropriate to reject a recommendation (to approve) from the Heritage Advisory Panel (HAP) especially since the City’s Land Use Procedures Bylaw seems to suggest that referrals come from PLUC not staff (see section 2.5) so why was this proposal at HAP in the first place?
  2. Review of Heritage Designation Applications shouldn’t be a process that is made up on the fly and my observations of city process this morning, was that approval was recommended late in the game after staff and the applicant got together to discuss and work through terms required for the actual Heritage Designation.  Why/how was this not part of the original discussion I wonder?

The property and proposal in question has already been subject to some discussion from the Vibrant Victoria folks (see more here) and I must say that I found the 727-29 Johson St Statement of Significance (included in agenda package but not really discussed) really intriguing as well. So what did Council actually pick up on this morning while they were sitting in their Planning and Land Use format? Not much.

Madoff  spoke at length about how improvements to 727-729 Johnson St could feed in with recently announced new artwork for the Johnson St City parkade as well as with improvements to Theatre Alley (e.g., new public space by Odeon Theatre on Yates St). Ever helpful Councillor Isitt also added his two cents to the discussion by suggesting that they need for “better transportation support” be flagged because a lot of folks wait for the bus in that area. But he didn’t make any motion related to this.

What wasn’t discussed this morning, were applicant plans for maximizing the good will of the Heritage Designation later on down the road to properly develop the building and perhaps this is because the proposed details revealed by Vibrant Victoria (as referenced above) would be compliant with the existing CA-4 zone?

We shall have to see. It is hard to tell with the City.

Mandatory Seismic Upgrading Bylaw

Unlike when this report was originally presented to PLUC back on July 23rd, only Councillor Young declared Conflict of Interest this time around which allowed the staff presentation to proceed.

So what was up for debate? A recommendation that:

That Council consider engaging with the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) to advocate to the Provincial Government for the following:

1. Provincial policy changes that would support mandatory seismic upgrading of existing buildings within earthquake­prone regions.

2. Examination of policy impacts to ensure mandatory upgrade regulations do not create an excessive financial disincentive for property­owners to upgrade heritage and unreinforced structures.

Staff comments about these recommendations, was that they undertook work on the report (mandatory Seismic upgrading) in response to a Strategic Objective of Council (strategic plan here) and that such bylaws are without precedent in Canada and if Council were to fully consider such things, they would run the risk of isolating the City and sending investors elsewhere.

Funny thing however, is that when you look at the two relevant Actions identified for 2015 (listed on page 17 of Strategic Plan), you find that exploration of the potential of a Mandatory Bylaw wasn’t really what was asked for. This is what is written instead:

  • Begin seismic analysis of privately-owned properties and infrastructure.
  • Explore potential for City to require upgrades to heritage buildings for seismic protection even where use is not changed, combined with subsidy program.

So why was it brought forward? Madoff was quick to pounce this morning and spoke at length about both wanting to see more documentation on previous City interactions with representatives from Christchurch New Zealand to talk about Lessons Learned as well as existing city efforts to increase seismic stability of heritage buildings (through the City Heritage Civic Trust) and the need to involve the Heritage Advisory Panel in any and all discussions related to seismic upgrading going forward.

Ultimately, she also wanted to know why staff hadn’t provided a comparative analysis of city options for enhancing the current situation (e.g., the original 2015 Action shown above) and this was then made into an actual motion from Isitt. Madoff subsequently got a two additional motions passed (see here) requiring that the original report exploring a possible bylaw be referred to the HAP and also that representatives from the Victoria Civic Heritage Trust make a presentation to Council on their seismic upgrading efforts as per funding made available through DCAP Bonus Density provisions. Or so I presume.

Most interesting part of this item for me, was the contrast between comments made by Madoff and Lucas (as trust representative) regarding the role and responsibilities of the Victoria Civic Trust. Where Lucas was under the impression that City Heritage buildings were subject to high insurance rates as a result of seismic risk, Madoff pointed out that insurance rates are set by Postal Code and therefore not impacted at all by Seismic stability. As for who is right, I honestly don’t know. Related to this confusion of the contextual playing field, Isitt also seemed to suggest that municipal authority should/could override provincial authority with respect to the building code.

Nothing made much sense.

All and all, Council behaviour this morning was emblematic of my “seemed like game of ping pong” comment because, when you think of ping pong, I don’t believe there are many rules involved other than hitting the small ball back and forth. Such a mentality then leads to trouble with Victoria City council, because it seems to me that when Council treats various city requirements casually (as they are wont to do) staff then assumes that Council actually understands/is concerned/is engaged with what is going on.

Delegated Authority and Exemptions

The person speaking to this report today was a Senior Planner with the Community Planning Division. Unfortunately, his concerted effort to provide a neutral overview of a vastly complex issue didn’t serve, as may have been intended, to prompt Council discussion.

So what was up?

The report from today was in effect, apparently Step 1 of a forth coming City Action Plan (to be presented at October 1st PLUC)  in response to the 2015 Development Summit that was held a few months back. Where major concerns had been expressed from developers about the lengthy, expensive and unpredictable nature of the City’s development process, particularly for large projects, the focus of today’s report was  – ok, so how do we tidy up smaller development request. What needed to be more clearly communicated this morning mind you, was how the nearly two pages of recommendations from this morning are needed to provide the groundwork for future City and Council efforts to streamline & enhance the development process.

This wasn’t clear and so Council with their political hats on decided to send the report and its multiple attachments for referral to the Heritage Advisory Panel, Advisory Design PanelCommunity Association Land Use Committees (CALUCs), and the Urban Development Institute, inviting comment on the report and recommendations by October 30th.

Attachment 1 – Proposed Development Permit Exemptions

Attachment 2 – Recommended DP Application Types

Attachment 3 – Sample Photos and Plans

Attachment 4 – GPC Staff Report (June 7, 2012) and Council Minutes

Attachment 6 – PLUC Staff Report (Sept 4, 2014) and Council Minutes

Attachment 5 – GPC Staff Report (Nov 8, 2013) and Council Minutes

It was odd to watch. Here for instance are final comments:

Trouble with the referral motion, is how can proposed recommendations (e.g., the two pages of possible delegations & exemption) from staff be appropriately consulted on when they are lacking the actual shape (e.g., proposed bylaw amendments etc) necessary for consultation? Where Madoff in the clip above makes reasonable comments on how the Development Summit itself (a 2 hour event) should not be seen as complete consultation and that more consultation is needed (something I’ve previously written about), I had some trouble with her second comment.

In particular, I found the naive way in which she spoke to the importance of high quality staff (as key for her decision making) worrisome because I’ve personally heard staff speak time and time again to City Council on how their decision making is constrained by the presence/absence of relevant design guidelines (hence today’s recommendations for exemptions & delegations). Which is to say, Madoff as a big voice on and frequently against city development, impressed me once again for what seems to be a substantive lack of knowledge of city process.

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