Robertson, round two

Despite criticism over bike lanes, green grants and backyard chickens, Mayor Gregor Robertson remains committed to the Vision Vancouver agenda as the November election looms

Mayor Gregor Robertson ambles into his office, leaves a cup of whats left of his green tea on a desk and eases himself into a chair at a boardroom-sized table.

He apologizes for being late.

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Robertson has just come from a meeting with Police Chief Jim Chu to discuss the citys strategy for monitoring the large crowd expected at the Occupy Vancouver protest outside the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Its been a lot of work this week and its proving to be challenging because this job doesnt stop for an election, Robertson says the day before the peaceful gathering began.

The preparation for the protest came during homelessness action week, which saw the mayor make several public appearances and talk about his three-year-old promise to end street homelessness by 2015. Lots of camera time, lots of interviews. The exposure was fortuitous for an incumbent mayor seeking re-election in Novembers civic vote. The fact more homeless people are off the streets than when Robertson took office in 2008 played well in the medias coverage.

But on the day he spoke to the Courier, the news on the homelessness front took a disappointing turn for Robertson as he learned only a small percentage of homeless people were offered suites in four new social housing buildings. Not exactly good timing for a mayor who assumed the four buildings and 10 others to be built on city-owned sites would first open their doors to homeless people.

The NPAs Suzanne Anton, who is Robertsons main challenger in the Nov. 19 election, immediately pounced on the city staff report that revealed only 37 per cent of tenants in four of the first 14 buildings were previously homeless.

How, Anton asked, could this have happened on Robertsons watch?

The mayor offered a long explanation, using the words surprised and concerned to convey his disappointmentand, more pointedly, that he is constrained by what is a fact in the business of constructing and managing social housing in B.C. The province is ultimately calling these shots, he says. You just have to keep pushing harder, thats what it comes down to.

And no, he adds, the timing of the news so close to an election is not worrisome. Just because its an election doesnt mean we dont back off on being transparent with the numbers and the truth. We want to know what the situation is regardless of the political landscape and we want to take action to remedy it if its a big problem.

Transparency has been a go-to word for Robertson during his three years in office but its one critics of separated bike lanes, shelters and proposed rental towers say they havent seen from the mayor and his ruling Vision Vancouver council.

Prominent business associations, including the Vancouver Board of Trade, criticized councils lack of consultation before implementing the Hornby and Dunsmuir bike lanes. Residents living near shelters at the north end of the Granville Street Bridge launched the same criticism at the mayor and complained of drug activity and public disorder outside their high-priced condos.

Then a group in the West End collected almost 10,000 signatures opposing Visions proposal to have developers build highrise rental towers without first establishing a comprehensive plan for the neighbourhood.

The mayor nods, acknowledging the criticism. Well, certainly we could have done better in some of our actions in consulting citizens but in other cases I think weve done an exceptional job, he says, referring to the citys Talk green to us campaign that attracted 35,000 people.

And heres the other point, the mayor says: Much of what Vision implemented over the past three years was either promised or laid out in the partys 2008 platform, from opening shelters to separated bike lanes and a so-called green grant program.

Still, nearly 50,000 people who live mostly on the West Side of the city chose to vote in 2008 for then-NPA mayoral candidate Peter Ladner. And many of those voters are likely behind Anton as she continues to attack what she calls Robertsons goofy agenda of allowing backyard chickens and doling out grants for people to grow wheat in their front yards.

For Robertson, he says Antons campaign is not providing context to a bold agenda that he still believes resonates with citizens and will carry him and his council to another victory next month.

Weve had a decade of chaos at city hall before we were elected in 2008, he says. Im the first mayor to run for re-election in 12 years and we finally have a very stable and experienced council that are focused on what people care about. So I think were on the right track. Weve just got to get the word out and make sure people come out to vote.

Getting the vote out could be Robertsons biggest challenge, according to Terri Evans, a Simon Fraser University political science instructor who manages the urban studies program.

Unlike Visions 2008 campaign, which saw more than 15,000 new members join the party and Robertson challenge Raymond Louie to lead Vision, there is little buzz in the city for an overhaul of the current administration.

With various polls released this year showing respondents generally support Robertson and Vision, the worry for Vision has to be a content and apathetic electorate that may not show up on voting day, Evans says. That may be where their election challenge is, she says. It will be important for them to get their vote out, especially because their vote is split across variations of the left. Theyll need to put the same kind of attention into those recruitment efforts that proved to be so fruitful last campaign.

Historically, the NPA has gotten its vote out and is working to raise $2.5 million in what could be one of the partys most expensive campaigns this decade. But will Antons continued attacks on bike lanes, chickens, wheat fields and blaming the Stanley Cup riot on Robertson sway voters to her camp?

How about the Olympic Village saga, where there is still uncertainty whether taxpayers will be on the hook for up to $100 million? Will the tag that Robertson is a bike-loving green radical who only appeases special interest groups stick?

Evans believes voters will zero in on Robertsons promise to decrease homelessness. His number one campaign priority in 2008 was ending homelessness by 2015.

Its a phrase he uttered many times early on in his term but now uses street homelessness, as he did at the official opening of Karis Place social housing complex last week. His advisors explain Robertson was always focused on ending street homelessness, as is printed in the partys 2008 campaign platform. Its just that sometimes the mayor inadvertently forgets to use street as an adjective.

It may seem a subtle difference but not when campaigning for re-election and overall homelessness increased in the city from 1,580 in 2008 to 1,605 this year, according to Metro Vancouver homeless counts.

The information Robertson chose to pull from the Metro Vancouver statistics is that 670 people found shelter between 2008 and 2011 for a decrease in street homelessness of 82 per cent.

While the mayor can take credit for driving the agenda to get temporary and year-round shelters operating in the city, he knows their openings hinged on several million dollars from the provincial government. That, and a good relationship with Housing Minister Rich Colemana relationship the NPA predicted would sour at city hall once Robertson and his centre-left Vision team took office.

That hasnt been the case.

Coleman announced funding for Robertsons so-called HEAT shelters soon after the mayors inauguration in December 2008. The provincial government also announced more than $300 million to build the 14 social housing buildings on city properties.

But has it all been Robertsons cajoling of Coleman that did this?

The facts are Larry Campbell as mayor between 2002 and 2005 laid the groundwork for a homeless action plan. Sam Sullivans government followed up from 2005 to 2008 and identified at least 12 of the 14 city sites for social housing.

Robertson argues it was his government that negotiated the funding for the 14 sites, although Anton believes the money was coming anyway. But, according to Coleman, it really does matter who is in the mayors chairthat the provincial government doesnt dole out cash to municipalities regardless of who is leading city hall. It matters if somebody were to decide that they werent going to do the relationship where theyll put up land and forgive development cost charges in the future because that would affect future investments by governments, he said, referring to the city contributing $120 million worth of land for the 14 social housing buildings. I think everybody can take credit but Id like to say the biggest piece is us. But would it have been successful if we didnt have a cooperative government? Probably not.

Since Robertson took office, a total of 1,056 new units of social/affordable housing opened in Vancouver, according to the citys communications department. They include 252 units at the Olympic Village, 200 at Woodwards and more than 300 units spread over the first four of 14 buildings built on city sites.

Others are the 92-unit Lux on East Hastings, the 87-unit Kindred Place on Richards Street and 37 units at the Union Gospel Mission in the Downtown Eastside. The provincial government funded all but the Olympic Village units, which are city-owned.

Though Robertson understands housing is a provincial responsibility, his council has tried to get rental housing built without relying on funding from Victoria.

Under the Short Term Incentives for Rental Program, or STIR, the city has convinced some developers to build affordable rental housing in return for incentives such as waiving development cost charges and allowing for increased density.

So far, nothing has been built but three projects, for a total of 347 units, are under construction at 1142 Granville St., 3522 Porter St. and 1215 Bidwell St. Another 661 units are in the pipeline at city hall.

The projected rents, which some housing critics argue are not affordable, will range from $780 at the Granville building to $1,800 per month at the Porter complex. The Bidwell tower is expected to fetch rents of $975 per month.

Tom Durning, a spokesperson for Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre, says his recent research shows an average one-bedroom apartment in the West End goes for more than $1,100 per month. So, he says, $975 per month sounds reasonable.

The thing about rental housing is that its almost impossible to do in Vancouver because of the cost of land, says Durning, noting it wasnt until Larry Campbell was elected mayor in 2002 when secondary suites were legalized. Im not saying Im for or against the STIR program but how else are we going to get rental housing built if we dont give the developer some incentive?

Adds Durning: I realize some communities have some concerns, but I think the concerns are more that they dont want big towers in their neighbourhoods. I dont want to start a fight with anybody, but we need rental housing.

Following close behind Robertsons housing agenda is his drive to make the city more environmentally friendly via separated bike lanes, the creation of so-called green jobs and providing local food options for residents. This is where he collides head-on with Anton.

Some background: Anton, an avid cyclist, voted for the most controversial link of the separated bike lane network on Hornby Street, only to attempt to rescind her vote the next day after concluding the council meeting was a mere formalitypolitical theatre, she called it.

City statistics show bicycle trips have increased significantly along Hornby Street and the rest of the separated lane network, which runs over the Burrard Bridge, along Hornby to Dunsmuir and across the Dunsmuir viaduct to Chinatown.

While Robertson agrees some businesses are upset with the lanesbut he knows none that have gone bankrupt as Anton suggestedhe makes no apologies for implementing a change to the citys road system that he believes is crucial to the citys future. Many of the debates in Vancouver end up very inwardly focused and we dont look outward at the world and see what other cities have done, he says. The bike lanes are an example of that, where people dont know this is happening in all the worlds greatest cities. Its the only way that you can intensify the activity in a downtown without more congestion and pollution.

To the chickens: As of June 2010, residents have been allowed to keep backyard hens. So far, 55 households are registered with the program. And according to the city, there have been no costs associated to the initiative; the $20,000 allocated for a so-called shelter for abandoned chickens hasnt been spent because the city has successfully relocated chickens to hobby farms.

As for the lawns to loaves project that Anton has criticized, Robertson sees merit in giving $5,000 to the Environmental Youth Alliance to promote growing wheat on 30 lawns. All of us are conscious of how are tax dollars are being spent, particularly with a recession and people feeling the pinch on affordability, he says. So it is easy to raise a stink about an issue of spending that might sound goofy to some. But I think food is an important issue in our city.

Food options are central in the 162-page Greenest Action Plan that had Anton asking why no costs were associated to an ambitious agenda applauded by various environmental groups when the plan was approved in July. Its a long term plan that will have many actions that will come back to council for approval, the mayor says. The cost of any individual action will be clear when those decisions are made. The plan is setting a course and goals and metrics to achieve that. Its not a detailed to-do list with a budget attached.

So, do you believe himdo you believe in him?

Or is Robertson really a bicycle-riding radical bent on a green agenda, no matter what the cost to budgets, neighbourhoods and the citys economy?

Were elected at large in this city and we work hard to represent the whole city and its long-term interests, Robertson says. Sometimes theres short-term pain for long-term gain and our decisions are tough. Thats the reality of governing.

The election is Nov. 19.

Twitter: @Howellings

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