Hundreds (or thousands) of Jane’s Walks (free, grassroots, guided neighbourhood walks) will be held this weekend in cities around the world. But this year, only one might be the target of a grassroots citizen protest.
That would be this walk in Burnaby, British Columbia, led by fifth term mayor Derek Corrigan: Beresford Street – Envisioning Burnaby’s Outdoor Art Gallery (starting at the Metrotown station, 10:30 am, Friday, May 1, 2015). The protesters plan to be there.
It is not particularly the content of the walk they protest, but the irony of its leader.
Jane’s Walks are the essence of grassroots, named after the venerated urbanist Jane Jacobs who once wrote, “No one can find what will work for our cities by looking at … suburban garden cities, manipulating scale models, or inventing dream cities. You’ve got to get out and walk.” (Downtown is for People, 1957). She is perhaps best known for The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, in which she wrote “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
And there is the irony: Look at how Burnaby is being created, by an elite dynasty fueled by corporate and union donations, accelerating the demolition of affordable housing and stratospheric prices for land being marketed to foreign speculators making cash purchases. The protesters believe Jacobs would be “rolling in her grave” at what Corrigan is doing, with highly centralized planning in his city, and a political dynasty that has all-but snuffed the life out of political opposition and community-based planning. His critics refer to “astroturf grassroots organizing,” demolishing low-rise affordable housing, building tower for wealthy offshore investors and speculators, and promoting corporate-sponsored ‘public’ art. (The art at the gallery, destination of the walk, is paid for by density bonus funds from “super-sized” towers approved by Corrigan and his party.) Recent media coverage shows how serious are the threats to affordable housing and the health of existing neighbourhoods and communities in Corrigan’s city.
“Foreign investors snap up Burnaby real estate” (Global News, 30-Apr-2015). Excerpts: Never mind the weather, Vancouver’s housing market is a go-to conversation topic in the Lower Mainland. But foreign investors are recently looking outside the city’s boundaries for their next investments, causing a land rush in Burnaby specifically… Four key areas of the nearby Vancouver suburb are being snapped up: Brentwood, Metrotown, Edmonds and Lougheed. If the names sound familiar, it’s because there’s a Skytrain hub in each of them…. In Metrotown, smaller, wood-framed apartment buildings are being sold at record prices… Unlike its neighbour of Vancouver, Burnaby has no requirement to replace demolished rental housing. However, [realtor] Goold says this shouldn’t be a problem… But some local residents are concerned about the price point of the new developments. “If they’re going to tear down low-rises that are affordable, they need to have some kind of affordable housing strategy,” says Rick McGowan of the Metrotown Residents Association…. Burnaby’s mayor, Derek Corrigan says he’s not surprised by the increased interest from foreign investors, noting real estate in the city is still relatively inexpensive compared to Vancouver… “It’s put huge pressure on our real estate prices, on our vacancy rates,” says Corrigan. “Like anything, it has both its blessings and its detriments.”
“Investors scoop old Burnaby apartment blocks in land development rush:
$850 rental apartments selling for $350,000 per door” (Business in Vancouver, 29-Apr-2015). Excerpts: A wave of land speculators led by mainland Chinese buyers is snapping up old Burnaby rental apartment buildings, driving per door prices above $350,000 and razing the units for high-rise condominium construction… The land rush is centred around four transit-linked Burnaby town centres where at least three dozen apartment buildings have been bought for demolition in the past year. Unlike Vancouver, Burnaby has no restrictions on tearing down low-cost rental apartments and building condominiums in their place. Last year, the suburban city issued 419 demolition permits and are averaging 34 per month so far in 2015… “At least 95% of recent [new] condominium sales in Metrotown are by buyers of Chinese descent,” according to Ben Williams, a broker with Burnaby-based London Pacific Property Agents Inc… The apartments [being snapped up by offshore buyers, for demolition] are mostly in two and three storey wood-frame buildings that are 40 or 50 years old, with rents below the Metro Vancouver average…. According to Williams, all of the apartments deemed for development are being replaced by condominiums that will be sold to investors….The Patterson SkyTrain station area is not officially a town centre, but speculators are also bidding up multi-family sites in that area in anticipation of higher-density zoning….If a site is too small to qualify for maximum density, Williams and Goold will negotiate with adjacent building owners to assembly land into larger parcels… Investors are attracted by the math. Even with per-buildable-foot prices of $120 to $140, money can be made if the condo and rental markets remain heated…“I have 1,000 buyers looking for apartment sites,” said Goold, a specialist in multi-family sales. He said it is not uncommon to have 15 buyers lined up for an open house. “We are seeing multiple bids.” Goold confirmed that nearly all his recent Burnaby land development sales are to investors from mainland China, which he visited last month on a successful sales trip. “One buyer from China flew over here and paid $40 million cash for a Metrotown site,” Goold said.”
In response to all this, Burnaby civic activist Held Ward told MetroVanWatch: “The legal fact is the Community Plan for Metrotown Town Centre states that these apartments in the Maywood area of Metrotown are suppose to be “protected.” The all-NDP Burnaby Citizens Association Council and Mayor Corrigan are illegally ignoring this. The Plan has not been amended to allow this. The developers were big donors to the BCA in 2011 and 2014. Maximum height in Bylaws is supposed to be 180 feet but we are getting towers over 600 feet. Staff told me that this is allowed as height can be “varied.”
As for political donations and their influence on civic politics, Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham wrote a scathing commentary after contributions were reported publicly for the 2014 civic elections. Here are a few excerpts from “Political dynasties thrive with no election spending caps” (3-Mar-2015): “Derek Corrigan is now serving his fifth term as mayor of Burnaby… Few political dynasties have flourished as long as the Burnaby Citizens Association, which has dominated civic politics in British Columbia’s third-largest city for nearly 40 years. In the last two elections, its candidates took every council and school board seat. There are also few politicians who have enjoyed the longevity of Derek Corrigan. This year marks his 28th consecutive year on council and his fifth term as mayor… It’s due in part to lax election financing laws that favour parties, incumbents and big spenders… Of course, his city already has 11 SkyTrain stations, which have sparked a development boom… Burnaby’s population jumped by 20,000 between 2006 and 2011 with 355,000 forecast to live there by 2041. That’s why developers have been happy to contribute… As unfair and undemocratic as it seems that the scales tilt so firmly in favour of incumbent parties, none of this is illegal. But it ought to be.”
50 Years Later Jane Jacobs still influences City Planning (CityHallWatch, 31-Dec-2011)
Ned Jacobs reflects on Geoff Olson opinion piece: Jane Jacobs’ vision lost among Vancouver’s high towers (CityHallWatch, 24-Oct-2014)
Tally of Metro Vancouver Director votes on Southlands development: Delta Mayor Jackson, Burnaby Mayor Corrigan had enormous influence on outcome (21-May 21-2014): This is the story of a highly controversial and strongly opposed development on agricultural land in Delta. Corrigan already had a huge influence as chair of Metro Vancouver’s Regional Development Committee for several years. Then, he was chair of the Public Hearing on the day of the vote. He had been opposed to the rezoning, but at the very end of his five minutes to speak before voting, he revealed that he had that very morning reversed his position, and now was in favour of Southlands. As they second director to indicate how he would vote that day, he probably had an enormous influence on subsequent voting.