If Mayor Gregor Robertson is re-elected for a third term this Saturday, he will become Vancouver’s longest serving mayor – a governing term that spans a decade, from 2008 to 2018, and through one of the city’s most pivotal and transformative moments.
“I’m proud of how the city has come of age since the 2010 Olympics, and there has been tons of momentum with our tech economy which is great for entrepreneurs,” Robertson told Vancity Buzz. “The city feels like a true cosmopolitan city now with a lot more potential.”
During Vision Vancouver’s rule, entirely new neighbourhoods have emerged from the ground, the skyline continued its vertical ascend sealing Vancouver’s identity as a global city, and the city as a whole has arguably become more active, vibrant and green.
When asked what he was most proud of, Robertson said, “it’s being in City Hall and finally tackling affordability as the issue has been ignored for decades, which has led to a pent-up homelessness challenge and an ongoing scenario where few people can buy a house or even rent due to low supply.”
“The work to reach our progress has been challenging, we’re focused on a lot of different elements of affordability. It’s a key issue for us that is on the radar, affordability is essential for the future of the city.”
Having become one of the city’s greatest influencers, Robertson, who celebrated his 50th birthday in September, hopes he can plant the seeds for Vancouver to “really achieve success as a very diverse city by every definition.”
“We will continue to be diverse and are the greenest city in the world, home to exceptional companies that have shaped the future of the planet,” he added. “Right now, with the trajectory of climate change, cities are struggling all over the world and Vancouver is a bright light.”
While Robertson’s top agenda items include getting everyone in the streets in housing, creating plentiful economic opportunities and making a dent in affordable housing options, he is also looking forward to getting the shovels in the dirt for the Broadway subway. The crosstown extension of the existing SkyTrain Millennium Line from VCC-Clark has the potential to completely transform the city’s urban fabric and how Vancouverites get around across the region.
- Favourite restaurants: Chao Veggie Express (Victoria Drive), Forage Restaurant (Robson Street), Chambar Restaurant (Beatty Street)
- Typical Sunday outside of the campaign: In dreams? Soccer as well as the beach and into the water.
- Favourite neighbourhood: I love them all!
- Thoughts on the Canucks’ performance: I am a true believer and will not get discouraged by downers. There’s a lot of energy at the start of this year.
- Playlist through the election: Delhi to Dublin, Mother Mother, and the Black Keys
Here is our one-on-one with Gregor Robertson, covering key Vancouver issues and NPA platform elements ahead of the November 15 civic election.
Image: Donovan Mahoney / Vancity Buzz
Bike lanes and bike share
Looking at bike lanes, I know it has been an issue for a lot of people and it’s something you’re looking to continue to build more of. Where would you like to build more bike lanes?
Most of the next steps of the bike lanes will be improving the existing network. We’ve got the basic network built now, all the major routes. But there are a number of connections and improvements that are needed to make the system safer and more convenient for people of all ages and abilities.
The improvements need to focus on the False Creek bridges, the major bike routes along 10th Avenue and Ontario Streets… because ridership is up so much, we need to make them safer and more convenient and that will be my priority for the next term – to get it ready for the ridership growth to come.
A bike share program would be perfect for the needs of those who want the bike but can’t. What is the status of the program?
The bike share is still in the works… we had a setback with the bike share equipment provider Bixi, which is in financial trouble. My principle is that we don’t create big risk for taxpayers. With bike share, we need to make sure the financial case is very strong, but we’re not there yet.
I hope to see it running in 2015. We have a great game plan, a lot of work is already done – we just need the final step of ensuring the finances are nailed down and the suppliers are solid.
Do you think the helmet laws are an issue that is going to come up next year?
I don’t expect the provincial government to change the helmet law. It has made no positive movements on this, so I assume it will continue.
We’ve worked out a helmet solution for the bike share, and it is partially why it has taken longer than anticipated to launch it.
Do you think bike share will work with the helmet laws in place?
I think it will work… we’re seeing other cities starting to phase in helmet programs with bike shares. Many people ride with helmets in Vancouver, some don’t. That’s the law we’re living here provincially, we’ll make it work.
You’re a big supporter of transit expansion, but the big question is how to fund it. You’ve said that you’re against raising property taxes and for carbon and sales taxes. How exactly are we going to fill TransLink’s funding gap?
The tools that mayors around the region have considered for the referendum are a carbon tax, sales tax and mobility pricing. No matter what, we need to invest more in transit – the city is growing fast, we can’t let traffic congestion to get any worse.
We need to see the same transit investment we just came through over the past ten years for the next years. Our ten year plan includes the Broadway subway, Surrey light rail and much better bus service for the region.
These funding tools are the most sensible… if we don’t have a good transit system, people will be paying way more to drive by sitting in traffic. There are big time costs to our economy and lifestyle.
Leading into the referendum, I’ll be pushing hard for a ‘Yes’ for transit and ensure that we make that investment. The Broadway subway needs to be done right the first time – it will be around for the next 100 years.
Realistically, how much will the Broadway subway cost?
The estimates vary between $2 to 3-billion. That’s an extension of the Millennium Line through the Broadway Corridor from VCC-Clark to Arbutus, and an express bus from Arbutus to UBC. Altogether this is the first phase.
It will be comparable to a Canada Line type of investment. It’s now hard to imagine Vancouver without the Canada Line, it’s now a huge success. At the time, it was a big decision… and a Broadway subway is our no brainer. There will be 250,000 riders on the first day and it will reduce 50,000 cars from the road.
How do you balance the region’s transit priorities? We have regional politicians, particularly Surrey, fighting over limited funding…
Well, the good news is that we have consensus between the mayors of the region. There are 22 mayors that support the 10 year plan that will allow all of these transit investments happen concurrently. The only hitch is getting the transit funding approved by the province through a referendum. We’re waiting on that patiently, but we really need that referendum to pass so that we can get it started and avoid any further delays.
It will take at least five years to build the Broadway subway once the project is approved. That’s the same timeframe for the Canada Line. We need to get it going as soon as possible.
Image: Donovan Mahoney / Vancity Buzz
Uber’s entry into Vancouver
Although it is a provincial issue, what are your thoughts on bringing Uber to the city?
It is up to the province… we have concerns about how the overall taxi system works in the region. City Council has supported a six month study period that will ensure we make the best decisions.
We have a good taxi system here, but it isn’t without its challenges. It could benefit from better technology like what Uber introduced. It’s a lot of small businesses operating our taxi services, compared to Uber which is now a $17-billion global company. We want to ensure that the taxis, Uber and anyone else provides accessible, safe and green passenger service.
The situation is a little tense… we don’t want to upset these small businesses and see impacts to these jobs. The goal is to make improvements and make sure the province is on board with Uber.
What are you doing with the Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts in downtown?
City staff are studying the next steps. The idea is to tear down the viaducts and turn Pacific Boulevard into the area’s new arterial. New parks and housing will replace the space of the viaducts and transform the neighbourhood in the process.
The transportation staff have made a good case for traffic flow, which many people weren’t sure of. But we still have work to do on the overall financial case and make deals with the provincial government and Concord Pacific. We expect these final aspects to come back to us in 2015 for a final decision based on the finances, if there’s a strong business case and if transportation and land use issues are cleared.
Speaking of Concord Pacific, what is happening to that parcel of waterfront land at False Creek next to the viaducts? When will it become a park?
It will definitely become a park extension. It’s waiting for the outcome of the viaducts decision as there are new opportunities with the viaducts coming down in how we shape the park and build the amenities. There are also legal challenges with Concord Pacific’s obligation to fund the park, so that funding piece needs to be resolved along with the viaducts question.
What are your thoughts on your rival’s plans (NPA’s Kirk Lapointe) to introduce free parking outside of downtown Vancouver on Sundays and reduce the hours that are metered?
Our parking rates are all gauged to market prices in major North American cities. The NPA’s proposal would mean a $7.5-million hole in the city’s annual budget as the city’s revenues come mainly from property taxes and parking. Their idea will mean cuts in services or a raise in property taxes.
So I think the current parking rate system is working okay and we don’t want to mess with the budget and cut services just to make parking occasionally cheaper. I think it is a bizarre proposal that came out of the blue.
Homelessness and affordable housing
It doesn’t look like homelessness will be ending by next year, which was your goal, and there has been an increase in homeless in the streets. Delays from the provincial government and a lack of federal funding are major factors, but does the city also have a responsibility with the increase?
No, we’ve seen the homelessness numbers level off over the past five years compared to our huge increase in the decade before. Our goal is to end street homelessness first to ensure nobody is stuck sleeping outside.
We have seen well over 500 people move from the street through our shelters into housing… but it’s a tough challenge and something I won’t back down – to tackle homelessness.
I will call on our all of our partners to come to the table and invest more and ensure we have enough housing. Shelters are important, but they’re only a bandaid for the problem. I am worried about the NPA coming in as they voted against social housing, over 500 units of social housing this term to be precise. It’s atrocious.
The history before Vision was to let the market figure it out and don’t build social housing. So we have to keep at it and I’m hopeful. We have about 400 units of social housing opening over the next two months, and it will be a critical supply as winter kicks in. Four different buildings are opening around the city and it will help a lot of people get off the street.
How do you make sure these individuals don’t end up back in the street?
The support services are essential for solving homelessness whether it’s our mental health and addictions treatment programs, which is starting to be recognized by the province after the police chief and I called upon them to act on the mental health crisis. We’ve seen $25-million invested to start dealing with supporting people with serious addictions – we need that to continue.
Our supportive housing projects need to be staffed properly so that people in the buildings receive the support they need. There is also a variety of services that need to be there for them to ensure they get healthy… it’s a combination of housing and support systems to stabilize their lives.
Is homelessness an issue outside of the Downtown Eastside? What kind of strategies do you have in place for these areas?
Well, our social housing projects are spread across the city now. We no longer concentrate them into the Downtown Eastside, although there is still a big need there. But we’re finding that lots of people want to move out to other neighbourhoods, and there are also homeless people in those areas of the city.
We’ve taken this approach and it will continue. The buildings in these neighbourhoods have been successful.
Some of the residents near the Quality Inn interim housing project are upset that they weren’t consulted. What are your plans for consulting them and others in the near future?
Well, we only had a few emails expressing concerns over the Quality Inn conversion, which is a huge opportunity for the city to create temporary housing on Howe Street for the next two years. With people still stuck outside and winter arriving, we had to take action.
There will be ongoing community meetings and dialogue to deal with any issues that come up. This is the same approach for all of our other social housing projects… they work well.
We had big concerns over the Ramada Inn project in East Vancouver, and it’s ended up being a great success. It’s operated by the same people that will run the Howe Street building.
We ask for everyone’s patience and support as we get people inside. I mean, it’s brutal having people sleeping outside in the winter. We can’t accept this and we have to act swiftly when the opportunity comes.
You’ve committed to requiring major developments to build 35 per cent of their units as two and three bedroom suites to meet family housing demands. How will you achieve that and what is the percentage breakdown for these suites?
Well, City Council has signalled that we want more family housing units and we’ve seen that rise by over 25 per cent in major projects over the last few years. We now see the opportunity to peg it at 35 per cent for major projects through rezoning.
I think we can get there, it is going to be crucial for families to live in the city. There is a big shortage from all the one bedroom and studio units being built in downtown. We just need to retool our zoning strategy.
What is your definition of a green city?
I could go on for hours on this one… it’s a city living in balance with nature, ultimately. But we have a long way to go on this. And it’s also about creating green jobs…
What do you mean by “green jobs”?
“Green jobs” is actually a United Nations term. It means jobs that restore the environment, such as renewable energy, clean technology… it’s a very specific definition that we adhere to and track the metrics of. We’ve seen over 3,000 green jobs created over the last three years, which is four times the national job growth rate for this sector.
Some industries that meet this definition include green buildings that we’re constructing, such as the boom in office towers that largely have green designs. Some major projects like the TELUS Garden are pursuing the top standards of LEED certification.
Vancouver is now one of the leading cities in the world with green buildings. We’re reducing our load on the planet while creating economic opportunities.
I know that one of your goals was to reduce greenhouse gases by 33 per cent between 2007 to 2020. But it’s something that has only been reduced by a few percentage points to date… is this still your goal for 2020?
It is, it absolutely is. A lot of the initiatives to reach that goal kick in over the next five years.
Carbon emissions are primarily driven by buildings while transportation comes second. So making existing buildings more energy efficient and shifting people out of single occupancy cars and into public transit, walking and biking will dramatically reduce our emissions. We have a good clear plan on this… we already have the lowest carbon emissions of any North American city, and pushing it to the next level is our goal.
We have local companies using their innovations and exporting these ideas to other cities around the world that are trying to pursue the same emission reduction goals.
Preserving cultural districts
How do you preserve cultural neighbourhoods like Little India, Chinatown and Commercial Drive? For instance, Little India on Main Street has been going downhill as many small businesses have moved away to Surrey.
It’s really about supporting the evolution of neighbourhoods, helping them steer towards their own future. So the neighbourhood plans have been very important in the Downtown Eastside, Marpole, Grandview-Woodlands, West End… we’ve had four neighbourhood plans going. The City used to do one at a time, but we saw the need to refresh these plans more aggressively.
It’s also about ensuring small businesses have opportunities. We’ve seen immense revitalization in Chinatown being mixed in with heritage buildings. There are now new businesses immersing themselves into Chinatown, taking advantage of the new approach.
Chinatown will never be what it was, but the important thing is to have more people and activity – to retain and protect the essential character while also looking at ways to attract new businesses.
Little India also needs focus. A lot of people moved out to Surrey along with the businesses that were located there. Vancouver has some great shopping areas and neighbourhoods that we need to pay attention to, and the Vancouver Economic Commission will be working with local business improvement associations to determine what actions can be taken.
When it comes to signature events, Vancity Buzz tried to put on a New Year’s Eve event. That didn’t go so well due to a funding shortage, but we’ll try again next year. We had the Olympics, however, there isn’t really that one signature annual event. What are your thoughts on this?
We’ve seen an enormous growth in many of the celebrations and festivities. We’ve seen new ones emerge while old ones are becoming more stable and successful.
I don’t think we can expect there being one event equivalent to the Calgary Stampede or one event that defines us… we’re a mosaic here, so having many strong celebrations is even more valuable and accessible. But that should include a big New Year’s Eve party and more opportunities throughout the winter. We need to make the winter months more action pack, but the summer months are doing pretty well – it’s quite action packed with events.
There are some groups that say they don’t get to do as much or that they try but City Hall’s red tape prevents them from doing things in public spaces. How do we improve this? Are we scared of hosting big events?
Well, I think the ‘No Fun City’ stigma is dead. We lost it once and for all after the Olympics, and since then there has been no shortage of good times and vibrancy. But we do want to keep advancing… we want fresh new opportunities of having fun.
In our Vision platform, we have new steps to fund events and festivals in their start-up phase and commitment to work on improving the permitting system for special events. So we get more happening and we enable people to create new events.
We’ve recognized that we’re ready to take it to the next level. We want to take patio hours even later, hopefully next year. We’re steadily getting there. It also means people have to be there to support these activities and improvements.
Now it’s about building up the Olympics. The riots were obviously a setback for big public gatherings in downtown.
*End of interview*
Vancouver’s municipal election takes place on Saturday, November 15. Voting is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Find out more about the election and where to vote through the City of Vancouver’s website.