"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Monday, November 30, 2015

Diversity, and then what?

When it comes to the sort of ethnic, cultural and racial diversity of which our country and our community are so proud, can there be “too much of a good thing”? The answer is “yes,” according to Martin Collacott, Canada’s former ambassador to Syria and Lebanon, whose opinion was featured as the “Letter of the Day” in the November 30 issue of the Vancouver Sun.

Is Collacott correct? It’s a timely question, not only for Canadians to consider, but also for Coquitlam residents to ponder as we continue to welcome new immigrants into our community on a regular basis and, more notably, also await the arrival of Syrian refugees in the coming months.

Results from "I love Canada because..." mural.
Collacott acknowledges that the increased diversity this country has experienced in recent decades “has made Canadian society more vibrant and interesting in some respects.” However, he continues, “too much diversity can create major problems.” This “has been amply illustrated in the case of more than a few European countries that have begun to discover there are limits to how much diversity they can absorb without harming themselves.”

Canada’s diverse composition may, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently said, be “our strength,” but Collacott answers that diversity is not an unqualified good, in and of itself.

Looking at the question from a common-sense point of view, Collacott makes a good point. Consider the question this way: We may say that “variety is the spice of life,” but there are limits to the sort of variety sane persons will subject themselves to.

Whether it’s in our choice of what we wear (comfortable and warm in winter, not irritating and cold) or what we eat (nutritious and delicious, not poisonous and disgusting), we have boundaries.

Similarly, while we may say that we embrace diversity, most of us would not want to live in a truly diverse community filled with, for example, unrepentant members of Pol Pot’s murderous Cambodian regime from the second half 1970s. Or, of course, with unrepentant members of ISIS. (And, for the most comprehensive look at what ISIS is all about, please click here to see a story from The Atlantic magazine.)

When diversity works in Canada it is not because of the simple fact that the country accepts diversity, and neither is it because of the celebration of diversity; rather, it is because of the fact the new Canadians reciprocate with a commitment to fit into Canada. It’s called integration, and it’s a vital and too-often unacknowledged part of the Canadian success story.

Coquitlam Canada Day activities.
Coquitlam’s official position on diversity is one of unalloyed acceptance, inclusion and celebration. You can read the policy by clicking here. It’s great as far as it goes. But even the city’s own Multicultural Advisory Committee, of which I am vice-chair, is acting of late as if there is more to multiculturalism than celebration of diversity.

Consider, for example, the committee’s successful 2015 Canada Day display which was the subject of a report to council-in-committee on November 23. The display went beyond the usual “tell us where you are from” interactive display and, instead, asked participants to write a message on an “I Love Canada Because…” mural.

For the record, six top themes emerged – natural environment, people, values and culture, safety, family, and general satisfaction with the country. City staff also presented a word cloud, shown at the top of this blog, to illustrate the predominant themes. You can read the full staff report by clicking here.

The real import of the mural is not so much in the answers it found, but in the question it asked: Why do you love Canada? The question springs from an implicit understanding that diversity is a two-way street, that “We’ll accept you, but you have to buy into what Canada is all about, too.”

This represents a real and important maturation in the development of multiculturalism in our country. It’s not just about celebration of diversity. And it’s not even abut embracing the more advanced concept of “inter-culturalism,” which encourages cross-cultural understanding.

Rather, it is about identifying and celebrating those values that we hold in common—the values that are not signs of our diversity but of our unity. And that’s a good thing.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Picturing a more meaningful Remembrance Day

Beny-Sur-Mer
At the urging of a friend, my brother Doug and his wife Wendy visited the Beny-Sur-Mer Canadian war cemetery in Calvados, France, a few years ago while travelling in Europe. They were told it would be a moving experience.
It was certainly all that and more, for they stumbled upon information about a grave bearing the inscription: "Lieutenant F.S. O'Neill, the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, 26th June 1944."
Arnprior, Ont.
Knowing that, upon arriving from Tipperary, Ireland in 1848, our ancestors, Francis and Julia O'Neill and their young family had settled in the Ottawa Valley, Doug and Wendy wondered whether the F.S. O'Neill was related to us. They obtained a photo of the headstone and sent it to me and my five other brothers.
Peace Tower book.
Intrigued, we dove into some on-line and personal research shortly thereafter and we discovered that, yes, F. S. O'Neill was, indeed, a relative, and a rather close one at that -- he was my father's first cousin, Frank Smith (his mother's maiden name) O'Neill, and that, according to a story my father related to us for the first time, Frank had died on a patrol or a scouting mission shortly after D-Day.
Just hours after I first posted this blog, a distant cousin in Toronto came across it and sent me more information about the death--information which came to him by word of mouth from my distant cousin's grandfather. Reportedly, Frank was clearing a farmhouse or gatehouse, inland on the road toward Caen, and was hit in a doorway by light artillery or possibly rocket fire. He was killed instantly.
Lt. Frank Smith O'Neill, RIP
My family's Internet sleuthing and emails also produced a wealth of images, including: a photo of a cenotaph, in Arnprior, Ontario, bearing cousin Frank's name; and a photo of the page on which his name is recorded in the memorial book, displayed at the Memorial Chamber of the Peace Tower in Ottawa, which bears the names of all those who gave their lives for Canada in the Second World War.
But there was one image we hadn't found--a photograph of cousin Frank himself.
And so, on the eve of Remembrance Day 2015, I decided to restart my Internet search. It didn't take long for me to find what I was looking for on Veterans Affairs Canada's Canadian Virtual War Memorial website.
There, alongside a photo of his grave marker, and a photo of a Roll of Honour produced by the Bank of Nova Scotia (commemorating employees who died during the Second World War), was a photo of the man himself.
What a difference such a photo makes to our remembrance of this relative who gave his life for his country.
Cameron Highlanders, in Iceland, en route to England.
Making the photo even more moving is the fact that cousin Frank bears a passing resemblance to our father and an even closer resemblance to one of my brothers' sons.
And so, Remembrance Day has an especially deep meaning for us this year, as we remember the life that our cousin, whom we can now picture, gave in defence of his country and all it stands for. Thank-you, Frank!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Five schools on four sites

SD43's plan for 5 schools at 4 sites on Burke Mountain
This past January, I posted an item on this blog dealing with the location and timing of schools on Burke Mountain. Well, a fair bit has changed since then (here's a link to a Tri-City News story about the issue, from this past June), so I thought I'd better post a new item.
And so, with the help of School District 43 (from whose staff I confirmed this information), we can say that there are plans for five schools to be built on four sites. (Please see adjoining map and timeline chart for more detail.)
1. First would be the "Smiling Creek" elementary school, the funding approval (from Victoria) for which is being eagerly awaited by the SD (and everyone else, for that matter). If all goes well, the school will open in the autumn of 2018. More on this later.
Latest timeline projections from SD43.
2. Next up would be the "Partington Creek" elementary school, to be built at the Sheffield site. It could open in 2020-'21.
3. Next would be the "Northeast" middle school, to be constructed on part of the long-established high-school site in the Lower Hyde Creek neighbourhood. It could open in 2023-'24.
4. Following close on the middle school's heels would be the "Burke Mountain" secondary school, in the 2024-'25 time period.
5. Finally, we have the "Marigold Street" elementary school, on the far eastern side of Burke Mountain. It's pencilled in for opening in the 2025-'26 period.
There may be a need for another elementary school, in the Riverwalk area, but that decision-making process has to wait until after the current city-run Northwest Burke visioning exercise is complete.
No official names for any of the proposed schools have been selected.
As for the Smiling Creek school, SD43's Judy Shirra, chair of the board of education, released a letter on Nov. 6 saying the school "continues to be the top priority for this Board on our Five Year Capital Plan recently submitted to government."
Shirra explains, "In anticipation of a funding announcement from the Government of BC, a great deal of work has already been done by the district to prepare for the start of construction. Our staff continue to have numerous conversations with the Ministry of Education regarding this matter, as recently as today, and continue to speak with them on a regular basis with a positive outcome expected soon.
"In support of our commitment, SD43's Board has already invested significant funds upfront to keep the project moving forward to enable us to build and open the school as soon as possible. The school district continues the planning and preparation process including school site preparation, architecture work and other important tasks. Although we have not yet received funding from the Government of BC, no delays have been caused to date."
She also noted that Council recently passed OCP and zoning amendments for the site (which is jointly owned by the SD and the City), and that the district is "prepared to apply for a building permit at the start of December pending provincial funding approval."
So there you have it!


Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A city-wide CAC would worsen affordability problem

What is the best way for cities to raise funds for amenities that are needed as communities grow? Higher property taxes? Spending-authorization referendums? Increased fees?

Cities in B.C. raise all their basic money through property taxes and also get to levy Development Cost Charges against developers to fund some basic infrastructure. But, by provincial law, those DCCs cannot be used for amenities such as fire halls, community centres and swimming pools.

In Coquitlam, we also have a Density Bonus system through which the city collects revenue from developers who, in exchange, get to build their projects to a more-dense standard that normally allowed. In the City Centre and Burquitlam areas, this typically translates into higher condo towers than would otherwise be allowed.

The City also established a Community Amenities Contribution program in Burquitlam that accepted even more funds from developers. This money is being used to fund the City’s share of the proposed new YMCA.

Now, there’s a plan afoot to extend the CAC program throughout Coquitlam and to have it apply to all residential development that involves a rezoning, even on a single lot where, for example, the owner wants to subdivide in order to build two smaller houses. The proposed charge is about $5,000 for every new lot. All the details can be found by clicking here.

On Monday, Nov. 2, Council voted 6-2 to support the plan in principle; it will now go to the public and to the development industry for its feedback. I was one of the two (along with Councillor Asmundson; Councillor Reid was absent) who opposed its going forward. And my main concern is that I believe such a program worsens to the affordability problem.

Simply put, I don’t agree with the contention, advanced by staff and strongly supported by Mayor Stewart, that the CAC charge will ultimately be borne by the person who sells the land to the developer.

The argument that CACs do not negatively impact the cost of housing is a fragile one, but is one that has gained traction throughout Metro Vancouver because of one consultant who is not an economist, but is a planner. Our staff cites, on page 10 of the report to council, the consultant’s study concluding that CACs have not impacted home prices; however, it appears no economic analysis was put forward to support this conclusion.

Dr. Michael Goldberg, Dean Emeritus of the UBC Sauder School of Business and one of North America's most celebrated urban-land economists, has taken a contrary view. He has explained that, in a mythical, totally-elastic market, where land supply is infinite, the consultant’s claim that--land prices will fall to account for the CAC burden--could be realistic.

However, Metro’s developable land market is notoriously inelastic due to geographic and regulatory constraints on land supply, like Metro Vancouver’s Urban Containment Boundary, which I spoke about 10 days ago at the Metro Council of Council meeting; there, I asked about whether anyone had studied its impact on housing affordability. Apparently no one has, even though it surely must have a negative impact on affordability.

Continuing with Dr. Goldberg, he has said another reason the developable land market is inelastic is due to the political risk associated with obtaining land-use entitlements. Since there is a limited supply of developable land, a vendor of a development site will hesitate in selling if he believes he must discount his land, resulting in less land available and higher land costs overall in the market.

At a macro-economic level, CACs are simply inefficient. Altus Group has done a number of studies on this over the last decade for the Canadian Homebuilders' Association. In effect, if the CAC cost is built into the home price, the homeowner ends up financing that cost in the residential mortgage market. (In the case of an estimated $5,500 CAC cost, the homeowner repays the original $5,500 plus $3,405 in interest cost over the life of a 25-year mortgage -- assuming a 4.25% mortgage rate). So, $8,905 is the real cost of that contribution to civic infrastructure.

On the other hand, if we, as a municipal government, borrowed through the MFA to finance that infrastructure, our borrowing costs would likely be 2% to 2.5% lower and we would amortize the borrowing over the life of the infrastructure – more like 50 years instead of the limited 25-year amortization of residential mortgages.

But what about the political considerations? Yes, it’s easier for a council to charge CACs than to hike taxes or user fees to pay for a new swimming pool. But this doesn't really represent full disclosure. By hiding this tax burden in the cost of new housing, we’re fooling taxpayers. We are pretending we are limiting taxes, when we are really hiding part of it and targeting the burden on a select group of taxpayers.

Mayor Stewart launched a strong rebuttal to my anti-CAC speech last night. One of his main points was that, because of market pressures, the added CAC cost will not be reflected in the selling price of a home. The market is the market is the market, he essentially said. The implication is that either the seller of the land or the developer would eat the cost of the CAC.

I didn’t get an opportunity to reply to the mayor, but I will do so now with this single point: if, as the mayor declared, the retail market is the market is the market (and I don’t completely buy that, of course; instead, I believe the CACs will drive up the price), then surely the land-sale “market is the market is the market,” and the price of that land won’t be discounted in response to the CAC charge.

This being the case, it will be the developer who must bear the burden of the CAC – yet another charge, hoop, obstacle, and hurdle with which the developer must cope.

Pity the developer? No, not really. Instead, pity the prospective home buyer who will have fewer opportunities to buy a home when a developer concludes, reluctantly, that the CAC is the straw the breaks the camel’s back, making the proposed development economically unviable. I hope it doesn’t come to this.