Friday, December 19, 2014

Opinion HST history bodes ill for TransLink Vancouver Courier December 17, 2014

If the referendum passes money will go towards trams in Surrey, perhaps like this Dublin tram

By now you may be sick and tired of hearing about the transit referendum, but please read on.

When I first heard the transit referendum question, three letters came to mind: H, S and T.
The HST referendum was a very depressing episode in British Columbia politics.

From the onset it was evident many people were voting against a harmonized sales tax based on their dislike for Gordon Campbell and the way the tax was introduced rather than the financial consequences of a harmonized sales tax vs. a separate GST and PST. They did not care that most economists argued it would be good for our economy.

After the referendum was over and B.C. residents discovered the HST did not disappear overnight, and we really had to give the federal government its money back, many people regretted their vote.
But it was too late.

This brings me to the transit referendum. I would like to make it clear from the onset that holding this referendum is wrong.

As one of my colleagues put it, we elect governments to run our communities. They get to tax us. If we don’t like how they run our communities or how they tax us, we can vote them out of office.
In the case of transit funding, Premier Christy Clark did not want to be the bad person so she essentially passed the hot potato onto the mayors.

We are now being asked to say yes to a tax increase through a referendum so that the premier will not be blamed for it. After all, we voted for it.
My colleague thinks we should vote no and in so doing tell the premier and federal government “Do what we elected you to do — run our communities. If there isn’t enough money, then you will have to reduce spending or raise taxes.”

He further believes special taxes for special things are a bad idea since they become like the MSP fees — merely extra taxes, and questions the notion that if we vote no, nothing will be done. “If the province doesn’t improve public transit, the NDP will win the next election.”
While I do not disagree with much of what he says, I will be voting yes in the referendum. However, I worry that I could be in the minority.

As soon as the referendum question was announced, it became apparent that there would be strong opposition to the proposed tax.

Many are opposed because they dislike TransLink as much as they disliked Gordon Campbell. Based on its inept handling of the Compass Card and handing out of executive bonuses, these voters do not trust TransLink or its board of directors to spend our money wisely.

Ironically, within the international transportation community, TransLink is highly regarded.

I should share that on two occasions I was invited to put my name forward to serve on the TransLink board. On both occasions I made it through to the interview stage, but was not selected. During interviews, amongst other things, I questioned TransLink’s policies and approach related to fare collection and property development.

This Hong Kong subway is financed in part with revenues from land development around stations
I asked why others were getting rich by acquiring and developing land around transit stations while TransLink stood idly by. I thought we could take lessons from Hong Kong and other places where the public sector finances transit improvements in part from increased land values around stations.
However, this is not a referendum on TransLink. It is a referendum on transit funding.

Some of the money will be spent on rapid bus transit, although perhaps not quite like this Curitiba Brazil system
And while I may question the appropriateness and eventual cost of a Broadway subway, I strongly favour all of the other proposed improvements.

I am therefore concerned by the initial opposition expressed by Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation who is leading the No side in this referendum. While I agree with him that there is always a need to find efficiencies and cut waste, this is not going to fund the required improvements.

I invited Bateman to tell Courier readers how he proposes to fund transit improvements if the referendum is defeated. “All in good time” he responded, adding he proposes to roll out his plan in January.

Perhaps we can get some double-decker buses if the transit referendum passes!
Until then, I urge you to keep an open mind on the question.

Monday, December 15, 2014

My 2014 Christmas Card (or for some of you) Chanukah Card

This year's card was inspired by my travels during 2014. I visited all these places except Singapore. (However, I wanted to use the Singapore idea so I stuck it in anyway!)
I hope some of you can join me on February 2nd and April 1st for further conversations about international housing and other great ideas for Vancouver from around the world. HAPPY HOLIDAYS

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Opinion: Affordable housing, Hawaiian style Vancouver Courier December 10, 2014

Whenever travelling to other places, I enjoy observing how they are addressing the various housing issues facing Vancouver. During a recent visit to Hawaii, I did not have to look far to learn about housing issues in that U.S. state since they were all over the front page of the local newspaper.Like Vancouver, many places in Hawaii are struggling with housing affordability and homelessness.
Yes, homelessness, even in Waikiki.
One way Honolulu is trying to address these issues is to allow higher density micro-apartments, as small as 250 square feet, with limited parking. It is noteworthy that similar proposals in Vancouver have attracted considerable attention and debate. Currently, our city bylaws require rental units to not be less than 320 square feet and units for sale to not be less than 398 square feet.

However, a number of projects have received relaxations to permit smaller suite sizes. In 1993, VLC Properties, the company created by the late Jack Poole to develop affordable rental housing on city-owned lands using union pension funds, developed 600 Drake St. Sixty-four percent of the units were less than 320 square feet. (One city alderman compared these suites to coffins.) However, in the subsequent 21 years, the building has been very popular and achieved full occupancy.
An example of a lock-off suite approved and built at UniverCity
In 2009, the city approved the concept of “lock-off” suites within apartments in certain zones.
Lock-offs in existing suites can be as small as 205 square feet and 280 square feet in new units. Although this concept has proven to be popular at SFU’s UniverCity where they were marketed as “mortgage helpers in the sky,” only a limited number have been built in Vancouver, generally as a lower level in townhouse developments.

A highly publicized rental project in Vancouver is the renovated Burns Block in the Downtown Eastside. Furnished suites averaging 270 square feet rented very quickly and the developer, Reliance Properties now wants to build micro-suites for sale as part of its redevelopment of the Jim Pattison Toyota site. My personal view is that micro-suites can offer a viable housing choice, both for rent and for sale, especially when designed with built-in furniture and storage. However, to address the concerns of municipal officials, it may be appropriate to limit the size of projects, or the number of micro-apartments in a large project, until the concept has been proven.

Another hot topic in Hawaii is under what conditions to allow “Ohana units” or accessory dwelling units. In Vancouver they are better known as secondary suites or laneway houses. In the past, Ohana units had to be attached to the main house and could only be rented to relatives of people living in the main house. They also required two parking stalls. Under a new proposal, they may be rented to anyone, be attached or detached from the main house, and require just one parking space.

In comparison, although Vancouver allows basement suites attached to the main house, new grade-level secondary suites cannot be attached to the main house. They must be separate structures.
Furthermore, they do not require any additional parking space.

While most people in Hawaii favour the proposed regulations, one concern expressed by some opponents is that units may end up not as rental suites, but as illegal vacation rentals. Ironically, I discovered this is happening in Vancouver during a previous Heritage Vancouver Laneway Housing Tour. While the number of laneway houses being rented out nightly or weekly, rather than daily is not known, a few are regularly listed on the Internet.

Another interesting Hawaiian regulation allows a second home to be built and sold on larger lots.
As readers of this column are well aware, I strongly advocate allowing laneway houses or coach houses to be sold in certain situations.

Perhaps it is time for Vancouver to reconsider its regulations and allow a second house to be sold on lots over 8,000 square feet, which is approximately twice the size of a 33 foot wide lot. The second house could be at the rear or as part of a duplex.

While Hawaii can learn much from Vancouver, perhaps we can learn from it, too.

© Vancouver Courier

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Hyatt Regency Maui at Kaanapali

Ka'anapali is a very interesting part of Maui. It was the first resort community development in North America comprising luxurious and grand hotel and condominium properties along the beach and around two golf courses. Major hotel chains include Sheraton, Westin, Marriott and Hyatt.
It's a challenge walking along the lovely oceanfront walkway without being asked to chat about a timeshare unit!
The new Hyatt Timeshare project has its own pool and grounds that are just being finished
While much of the original development is becoming somewhat dated, the Westin, Marriott and Hyatt are all building and actively marketing....very actively marketing... new timeshare developments adjacent to their properties.

The resort community has various retail developments including Whalers Village, a compact, pedestrian oriented outdoor shopping area with restaurants. The two golf courses are Ka'anapali Kai and Royale golf courses, though reasonably well-maintained are over-priced and not that interesting. For some reason, the Kai course does not have any comfort 'stations' on the course. Just port-a-potties.
The Hyatt Regency has over 800 rooms and suites in three 1970s-style towers set within 40 acres of lavish gardens.
The indoor outdoor lobby atrium is grand, like many other Hyatt Regency hotels. The hotel complex has a full-service spa, 5 on-site restaurants and a water park.  We ate at the Japengo and Son'z Maui Swan Court restaurants and both were good. The service was particularly enjoyable, and the wine list, especially in Son'z caters to big spenders. I wonder how many bottles of $500+ wine they really sell? :-)
Our oceanfront room was well laid out with a king bed offering a view of the palm trees and a separate sitting area. The hotel info says it is 451 sq.ft.
An added overlooked the Drums of the Pacific Lu’au traditional Polynesian dance and music production, so we did not need to pay to experience it.
A breakfast buffet is served each morning in the very attractive indoor-outdoor Swan Court restaurant with its swans and waterfalls. It's best to ask for a table away from the kitchen.

We enjoyed the Hyatt but probably would have enjoyed it even more had we not spent four nights at the Fairmont first. The Hyatt was a bit more expensive during the post-Thanksgiving/pre-Christmas period but in reviewing hotel ratings, I note on the Fairmont is rated 5 star and the Hyatt as 4 star. I think this is reflective of the overall standard of amenities. The Fairmont has only suites, not just rooms, and it recently underwent a $70 million renovation. While the Hyatt facilities have been renovated and redecorated since it was built, they could improve the facilities, especially the hotel room bathrooms, if ours was typical.

Although the only photo of a hotel room bathroom on the website looks like this, the typical bathroom looks like this.
There is no separate shower stall, and the tub/toilet area is quite small and seems dark due to the 1970s travertine. (I suspect that the photo on the website is of a renovated bathroom in one of the renovated suites. But it is not likely what you will be getting).  I think the hotel should clarify this, so others won't be disappointed.I would also recommend that they replace the shower curtain with a European-style swinging glass door, and improve the lighting. I have many other suggestions which I will be happy to share.

Overall, the Fairmont Kea Lani and Hyatt Regency are both beautiful properties with much to offer if you are looking for a resort, rather than a condominium unit for your stay. Ka'anipali is a different place than Wailea. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. If you are considering a trip to Maui and are not sure what to expect, drop me a line. I'll be happy to offer further observations.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Fairmont Kea Lani, Wailea, Maui

From our room we could look over the pools to the ocean beyond...and hear morning prayers emitting from the room beside us!
33 years ago today, Sally and I got married. To celebrate we decided to take a last minute getaway to Maui. While we used to come to Hawaii often during Narod days and in the subsequent decades, we stopped coming as the prices for meals and golf became excessive, catering in large part to the Japanese rather than Canadian tourist.

However, while the cost of meals remains excessive by Vancouver standards, we found what seemed like a very reasonable rate at the Fairmont Kea Lani and decided to check in for three nights. We liked it so much we stayed an extra night.
One of the special features of this hotel complex, spread out over 22 acres, is that all the 400+ rooms are in fact suites....and quite the order of 700 sq.ft. There are also some wonderful 2 and 3 bedroom villas that would be ideal for a family or couples sharing. There are three swimming pools including an adults-only pool, two activity pools connected by a 140-foot waterslide, various beach activities.

There are four restaurants, which by Vancouver standards are expensive, but in the overall scheme of things not outrageous. While the price of food is higher, the wine lists offered a wide range of choices and good value in comparison to many Vancouver restaurants.
The three Wailea golf courses are nearby. We played the Old Blue but it is starting to feel a bit tired. It is getting some upgrades and a new clubhouse. The gold and emerald courses may be a better choice.

We had some good food at lunch in Mulligans, a bar next to the Old Blue clubhouse (although the clubhouse moved out last night!) where we also enjoyed a very entertaining magic show by Brenton Keith who performs every Tuesday night. If you are in the area, don't miss it. He was very good.

One of the nice features of the area is a waterfront walkway that connects you to all of the other resorts and condominium developments in the area.
Next door is the Four Seasons that is certainly up to the Four Seasons standard. We had lunch there and the salads, especially the Nicoise were good. But I think the Fairmont is a much nicer property. On the other side of the Fairmont is a very ugly condominium block that should be demolished. But it won't be.
I was impressed with the new Andaz resort which is a new Hyatt brand. It has just under 300 rooms and suites and is intended to compete with the nearby Four Seasons with room rates north of $500. But it has a very beautiful, elegant contemporary design and I was very impressed with the layered infinity pools and lobby that features an elegant sandbox. (I'm sure the cleaning staff aren't too happy with it!)
There are a number of other nearby condominium developments. I was intrigued by this complex that features four-plex units. Vancouver architect Ray Letkeman, who has a delightful place nearby, tells me they sell for millions more than I would expect.
It's hard not to reflect on the fact that it's just an accident of birth that separates those walking along the walkway, and those working in the hot sun weeding the grounds above.
After 4 days in Wailea we're heading off to the Hyatt Regency in Kaanapali for the next four nights. I haven't stayed there before, preferring Westin Hotels in the days when I was working with Westin and Aoki. But we'll see how it compares with the Fairmont, and I'll report back.

In the meanwhile, if you are planning a holiday in Maui, I would definitely check out the Fairmont Kea Lani and have the seafood zarzuela in the Ko restaurant. It was superb!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Vancouver Courier Opinion Another 10 predictions for the next 4 years! November 24, 2014

Last week I offered 10 predictions for the next four years of civic government in Vancouver.
In case you missed my column, I addressed possible changes to the electoral system, the future of the viaducts and Broadway subway, housing affordability and choices, and possible staff changes at City Hall.

Unfortunately, space did not permit me to share all my predictions, so here are ten more for the forthcoming term of office.

1.      There will still be homeless people sleeping on the streets in 2018. While many of today’s homeless will be housed, new homeless people will take their place. Fortunately, the City Manager’s office will realize it is counter-productive to place large concentrations of hard-to-house people in expensive new buildings and homeless people will be increasingly accommodated in scattered apartments throughout the city.

2.     As Vancouver residents forego car ownership in order to afford a roof over their heads, they will take more taxis. They will also increasingly use various alternative transportation services such as London style mini-cabs and Uber’s ‘ride-sharing’ service. To counter their popularity, Metro’s taxi system will be reformed to increase availability and reduce fares. Surrey cabs will no longer have to return empty from the downtown.

3.     Vancouver’s dream of a popular and cost-effective bike-share program will still be a dream four years from now because of the provincial government’s helmet law.

4.     To further protect heritage houses and compensate owners for the corresponding loss in property value, Vancouver will change its zoning bylaws to offer a modest density bonus to those who keep a pre-1940 house, which can be combined with unused density to build laneway houses and back-yard coach houses for sale.

5.     To help fund his goal of planting 150,000 new trees in Vancouver by 2020 as outlined in the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, Mayor Robertson will announce a tree dedication program that allows residents to contribute towards the cost of planting a tree to commemorate a person or life event. A small plaque will accompany each tree. It will be a very popular program and the Mayor’s goal will be reached by 2018.

6.     Noting the 2014 Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan has resulted in very little new social and market housing in the Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District, with few new businesses opening up in derelict and vacant storefronts, Brian Jackson, Manager of Planning and Development will recommend changes to the zoning bylaws to encourage new housing developments in the neighbourhood.  Council will also agree to review policing policies to reduce the increasing number of drug dealers openly operating on the streets.

7.     The mayor’s promise to build 1000 childcare spaces and update hundreds more will not be achieved as it is realized the combined effect of provincial and city standards results in costs well in excess of $125,000 for each new childcare space. Courier columnist Mike Howell will remind the mayor this should not be a surprise since his May 2014 story reported that 37 new spaces at the Collingwood Neighbourhood House facility cost $4.6 million.

8.     In response to complaints that too many Vancouver buildings are either grey or dull green, the City planning department will institute an Awards Program in 2015 encouraging  Vancouver architects to ‘brighten up the city’.  The awards will recognize outstanding achievements in the use of colour. By 2018 Vancouver residents will be complaining that the use of colour is becoming quite jarring and architects will be encouraged to return to grey and green.

9.     The City will not offer free parking at certain times, as promised by Kirk LaPointe. Instead it will reprogram parking meters so that evening and Sunday rates are reduced in many locations. The City will also propose that meter parking begin at 7 am, not 9 am with additional monies to be used to fund additional bike lanes. Following a public outcry City staff will agree to delay the start of meter parking until 8 am. The Mayor will thank the Courier for initiating such a valuable discussion.

10.  The Courier Opinion Page will welcome a new columnist to replace Michael Geller.

Next week I’ll write about something completely different.
Twitter: @michaelgeller