March 10, 2020 – Mike Harcourt, “Sustainable Cities”

Mike Harcourt
Former Premier

Mike Harcourt served as Premier of British Columbia 1991-96 and City Councillor 1972-1980, prior to that mayor of Vancouver, 1981-86. Mr. Harcourt helped the province earn its reputation as one of the most liveable places in the world. After stepping down from politics, he was appointed by the Prime Minister to serve as a member of the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy, 1996-2004. There, Mr. Harcourt served on the Executive Committee and Chaired the Urban Sustainability Program. He was also a federally appointed BC Treaty Commissioner 2003 – 2007 and was appointed Chair of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee for Cities and Communities mandated to examine the future of Canada’s cities and communities 2003.

Mr. Harcourt is the lead faculty of United Way’s Public Policy Institute, 2009 – present. and on and the Advisory Board of Canada’s ECOFISCAL Commission. As well, he Chaired Age-Well to improve the quality of life for aging Canadians. He now Chairs the Advisory Board of the STAR Research Institute, Science and technology for Aging Seniors at Simon Fraser University.

With his many years of experience, he is a sought-after speaker, and consultant, particularly on how to create sustainable cities and communities with smart energy plans.

Mike currently dedicates his time to numerous initiatives such as sustainability education, Aboriginal economic development, and promoting healthy living. He co-chairs Dogwood 25, a collaborative which supports the academic success of Aboriginal students.

His decades of leadership have earned Mike numerous accolades including the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service, the Order of Canada, The Canadian Urban Institute’s Jane Jacobs Lifetime Achievement Award and the Freedom of the City and multiple honorary degrees.

Q & A

Q: Thank you for an excellent talk: an introduction to the problems of the city’s growing. I’m interested in, particularly if you could focus on the political game in our cities with more population and more expenditures, has the political power of the mayors been increasing? And could you address a bit the relationship politically between the power of the mayors versus the provincial governments versus the federal government?

A: Well, the tax receipts tell the story. The tax receipts, in Canada, 50% go to the federal government, 42% go to provinces, and 8% come from the cities. Probably 75% of that comes from company property tax, and half of that is the school tax that we collect from the province. In fact, Vancouver sends a $0.5B to $1B extra to the rest of the province to finance the school systems in other parts of BC. So is that there’s an inequality of tax sources in Canada compared to most other countries. Where cities in the U.S., they have what’s called ‘home rule’ where a lot of cities have access to sales taxes, some income taxes, and a variety of different tax sources that allow them to finance a lot of these very expensive infrastructure projects and services. So, that’s part of the problem is this inequality and a reliance on property tax, which I take the old-fashioned view that property taxes are there to pay for services to the public. They should be there to pay for the Police, Fire, Engineering Services, Parks and Recreation facilities, cultural activities, libraries… Some people think it should be applied as it is now by BC Assessment, which is killing small businesses all over Vancouver. Highest and best use. So, if you’ve got a one-story retail building, it’s now being taxed as though it can be the highest and best use – 6 to 8-story mixed-use apartment. And it’s just killing restaurants and small businesses. And I’m trying to contact, if anybody knows how I can get through to the Head Assessment that oversees all the BC assessment, I’ve tried to get through to them, it’s very difficult, to say, “you got to change that!” because it’s really hurting small business. So, that is a very big issue that cities are the frontline of dealing with population growth, dealing with expensive projects, transit projects, affordable housing issues, affordable childcare, post-secondary access… and that needs to change. And we’ve been trying as mayors to do that for a long time, and to his credit, Paul Martin brought in Revenue Sharing of five cents equivalent and financing one-third of the cost for the province’s 130 city’s infrastructure projects. So, we’re kind of limping in the right direction, which is funding cities properly.

Q: We’re neighbours, and rezoning is causing quite the concern on Macdonald and Third Avenue and 5th Avenue about what the city’s rezoning to put four-story homes streets and Homes apartment what your feelings and there is a public hearing tomorrow.

A: Well, I think that that is just a symptom of where we’re going over the next 20 years, and I think neighbourhoods are going to be struggling with, you know, we want to have higher densities but how dense is too dense for the neighbourhood? And we faced that in the single-family neighborhoods even more if you remember where, people wanted to preserve the integrity of the RS1 single-family zoning. Most of the time, except for the dirty little secret that 1 in 2 had basement suites that were illegal. And as Mayor, I practiced a policy that was called Blind Hypocrisy *laughter*. If there wasn’t a written complaint, then it didn’t exist, right? If we got a complaint, then we’d have to go up and investigate and all of that. In any event, we’re finding through that, I think, the zoning in the RS1 zones is now where you can build a duplex, which we did at our home on MacDonald in Point Gray and our kids and our grandkids lived below us. Let’s say it’s a family compound. I told my wife that, “we’re living smart like the Indo-Canadian community,” where they all live in the same house. So, I think what you’re talking about in the apartment zones and along the bus corridors, is the next other battle between neighbours that aren’t against density, but too much is too much, and we’ve got to work that one out, I think. The single-family zone, I think, is a done deal. There is no single-family zoning in Vancouver anymore. You can build a duplex or an up-down basement suite, main suite with lane cottage. And frankly, I think what we’re going to end up doing is building row housing, townhouses, stack townhouses where there are schools that are underpopulated close by. So, I think that’s going to happen. And then I think when we finally build out Cambie Street, that hopefully every heavy rapid transit system under Broadway all the way to UBC, that around the stations will go 18 to 30 story high-rises. So, Vancouver I think is going to be able to handle the next million people coming 300,000 to Vancouver, 400,000 to Surrey, and 300,000 in rest of the region if we catch up on the $30 B worth of new bridges and roads and rapid transit, rapid buses, we need to put in. So you’re right at the tip of the eye. I wouldn’t say it’s a battleground because I think most people realize that density if it’s done right is okay, but it’s going to look down on my house or ruin a view, then it gets tricky.

Question: What do you think about the redevelopment that’s going just next door here?

Answer: Well, I think there’s a lot of questions. I’ve got a good friend, Scott, who lives a couple blocks away. So, I’ve been giving the Residents’ Association some advice about what they should be asking the city for, which is planning resources to ask about where the 6000 units, about 15,000 people, the size of Jericho, are going to move around? What transportation changes are going to have. Where are they all going to go to school? They can’t all go to Henry Hudson. It’s got a waiting list. And how about libraries? There’s a whole bunch of questions that need to be answered. Not just about that site, but across the street at the Molson site that’s owned by Concord. They want to tear down the old Molson Brewery and do the same thing. And then you’ve got the renegotiating going on at False Creek on the leases. Probably the result of that is going to be a relief to the leaseholders not getting chased out by a 1000% increase in the lease rates of probably be more modest, at least that’s what the Mayor has been saying. But higher density, on the backside of the False Creek South. So, you can’t just take it in isolation. You got to put it in the context of these other developments that are going to happen. The whole west side of the Olympic Village site is going to get developed. So, do you have your transit in place? Do you have ways of diverting the traffic that is already starting to get overwhelming in Kits Point by adding these permanent residents to these areas? So, there’s a lot of questions that need to be answered, and City Hall needs to do a better job engaging citizens for these kinds of changes.

Question: Where are the parks and playgrounds in these traffic-heavy corridors?

Answer: Well, one of the advantages that Vancouver has over Surrey is that we’ve by and large done a pretty good job of providing the Parks and Recreation facilities and branch libraries. And I think it’s dependent on how big the site is and what’s the requirement for open space? So, like False Creek North Side. You know the Expo site. I remember sitting down with Stanley Kwok when he was advising the BC government and Concord and us going to lunch one day and drawing out the design that would be acceptable in the north side of False Creek. Basically, what got built was designed on a napkin, and you know, it got more sophisticated after that. But we decided that the waterfront was going to be accessible to the public. There were going to be parks put in. We got parks put in there now with the David Lam Park and others that were built into the design. So, if you got a big enough site, you can do that. We did the same thing in Coal Harbour, where we put in the walkway. So, it’s really a question of smart planning and the will to do it. To provide the amenities that people should have. Does that answer your question?

Question (follow-up): Well, it doesn’t answer Cambie Street, Granville Street, Broadway. There are some existing parks, but they don’t accommodate 20-storey buildings.

Answer: Well, Cambie, the Oak Ridge development, has a substantial green component to it – the redevelopment of the shopping center. And the two RCMP properties that are going to be redeveloped by the Musqueam, Squamish, and the Tsleil-Waututh and Canada lands have open space provisions in them. And then you’ve got of course Queen Elizabeth Park. So, I think they’ll be pretty good component of parks and open space. It’s the other amenities you need too: libraries and community centers and community facilities that need to be built into that. And the other big one that’s going to go and be developed too is the old bus terminal on 41st and Oak. I would hope there would be proper provision for open space in that too. So, a good point. I think people are entitled to the amenities you’re talking about, and they should be provided.

Question: You mentioned early on that the Lower Mainland’s main problem is traffic compared to many, many other places. And that’s obviously directly linked to infrastructure for public transportation. And if you’re in the suburbs, you’re in trouble if we have to come to Vancouver other large cities. Is this one area where Vancouver or the Lower Mainland has really dropped the ball from your opinion?

Answer: Yes. Big time. We’re about ten to twenty years behind. Two projects that I’m advocating for are a heavy Rapid Transit Line, like the 6th Avenue Line in New York, under Broadway from North Road to UBC. Two of the sets of tracks being express so we can get from the Lougheed Mall to UBC in 20 minutes. And it would link up with the major six or seven hospitals, six or seven major post-secondary institutions, and there’s a hundreds if not thousands of high-tech outfits that are within a half a mile or so of Broadway or Lougheed – they’re popping up all over the place. So, I would build that.

I would also put in place a bridge authority that would put all 25 bridges in the Lower Mainland under its jurisdiction or provincial authority and charge a loonie toll on all 25 targeted by legislation only to replacing the (well Pattullo’s being built now), but replacing Queensboro, Knight, Hope, Massey, and the Second Narrows with new bridges that are Rapid Transit friendly, you know for light rail or fast buses, or Rapid Transit of some sort. And if you want to if you want to build it out in 10 to 15 years, charge a toonie on all 25. Target it to doing that. If you want to do it 20 years stick with the loonie. And if you want to take 30 years or more stick with the mess we have now. Which is costing by the way $2B a year! People are already paying this. The congestion is costing time, money, air pollution, stress, and health problems. So, what you want to do is to transfer some of that $2B a year from your right pocket and invest in your left pocket, to invest in mobility. So, I think that debate is going to come back and the provincial government, whether you know, took the tolls off because it was unfair just toll two bridges, and people of all the other bridges didn’t have to pay a toll, and that’s a legitimate complaint. I think they should all pay for it. I remember when I lived in North Shore, there were tolls on the Lion’s Gate, right? So, it’s not as though we haven’t done it before.

Question: What are your thoughts on the Olympics for 2030?

Answer: It’s possible. The Winter Olympics, not the Summer Olympics are too big. The Winter Olympics are a tenth the size. And we’ve actually been pretty ruthless as a city at extracting useful infrastructure out of these. For ’86 we got the north side of Falls Creek cleared. We were able to get the province to foot the bill for the $680M debt from that, which is the reason I ran for Mayor, I don’t want to pull a Jean Drapeau. They ended up with a $1.2 B debt in Montreal for the ’76. We got off the promissory note, so no, $150M debt to pay off. So, we could put a plebiscite out for the Cambie Bridge to build it using a new construction continual pour technique that a bunch of smart young engineers in Calgary put together that came in 7 months ahead of time and 25% under budget. We got the trade and conference cruise ship facility. So, from ’86, we did well. And the Olympics we did well with the Canada Line, which was underbuilt, which happens when you don’t think big enough. It was crowded the day it opened, but they can’t fix it now because they built the stations too small. So, it’s really dumbed to do it that way. You’re better to build it for a hundred years out. The tunnel is going to last a long time, they’re still using the tunnels they built in London and New York they’re over a hundred years old now, so that’s what I would do.

Question: Where would we put the housing that you just mentioned? I think Molson’s and Concord would be just perfect.

Answer: Yeah, well, as I said, I’m open to it. Our Mayor is waffling because he’s trying to figure out what the city can extract, which we’ve done. As I said, you look at where some cities really screwed up. Like Athens really screwed up and was part of the bankruptcy of Greece. Places like Barcelona’s World’s Fairs and Olympics have done well. Brisbane did well with their World’s Fair. Others have done you know, really terrible job, unless you’re a corrupt authoritarian regime like Russia where you know Putin just told his pals, “go ahead and bid on these projects and we’ll spend $50 B,” as they did on the Winter Olympics. So, you’ve got to be really careful looking at these gift horses in the mouth, so they don’t turn into a financial downward spiral. So, I’d like to do a little homework on that, and I hope the mayor that’s why the Mayor’s being coy right now.

Question: you mentioned transit as a key component of the growth of the city in the future. What can we ever do the TransLink dysfunction that currently has us? Every time they open a new SkyTrain Line, it’s 10 years late. Can that be fixed in any way?

Answer: Well, I think the way you fix it is to get smart. Frankly, I’d change the governance we have now, from 22 different municipalities to 6. I’d take all five on the North Shore and make them one. I’d take all the municipalities in the Northeast, you know from the two little ones at Belcarra right up to Maple Ridge and make them one. I mean if you if you want to sort of shake your head about something, there are three City Halls within a mile of each, Port Moody, Port Coquitlam, and Coquitlam. I wouldn’t have wasted time, as Doug McCallum’s doing, getting a municipal police force. I would have gone a Regional Police force; we should have one police force for the whole region. So, I’d do that, and then I’d make sure that TransLink, and they’re doing it… Look they’ve got a 30-year new Transit plan they’re developing; public input is to come shortly. The region’s doing. Metro is looking ahead 30 years, and the Mayor’s council is doing the same thing, and the province is starting to look 30 years out. I think it’s going to take some financial creativity like the bridge line that that I mentioned earlier. It’s probably going to cost about $9.4B, and I think you could get $1.8B of it that’s there now to build out the extension from the Millennium line from Clark to crazy a crazy endpoint, Arbutus, nothing there. Why would you do that? It’s dumb. Then it’s another couple of billion to take it out to UBC. And if you did the express, public or private pension funds or capital sources love those kinds of infrastructure projects, so you could probably get $3B from pension funds and then I’d recapture the increased density. Developers have pocketed that money for decades where they build, you know, high rises around the rapid transit station, and there are people that buy. They pocket the increase in the value of that property instead of paying for the cost of the station, at least that they’re surrounding. It costs $50M to build a station underground so they should at least pay for that. So you could probably raise $2-3B along the line from Lougheed Mall, which is going up three times its current size. Brentwood is doing the same. And then you would have similar increases in density around the other stations along the line. Jericho should pay for the cost of the station there. Then UBC’s already said they’re prepared to start the bargaining for $100M. They’ve increased their density, their square footage that they were going to build, 6,000,000 square feet more to 10,000,000 to pay for that. So, they could probably put in $300M at least like we did at the airport. When I was on the airport board of directors, we put in $300M to extend the Canada line from Bridgeport to the airport. So, I think we need to be smarter about the way we govern ourselves and the way we do these major projects. Answer your question?

Question (follow-up): Well smart and TransLink don’t often appear in the same sentence. It’s hard to find out how this could come about. The structural problems of TransLink are at the root of it, and who can fix that?

Answer: Well, the province. The latest members of the board, the Chair, Tony Gugliotta, who was VP of Finance out of YVR, a very smart capable guy, and the board member in charge of long-term planning is Larry Beasley. So, I think they’ve got the right board members, and the other members of the board, I think, are pretty high quality. So, what they need to do is to inspire their staff to stretch their thinking. So, I think the basic components are there for TransLink, but alas we’re not going to go from 22 different jurisdictions to 6 because of the political capital you’d have to expend as a provincial government to take on all those mayors and councils that don’t want to go out of business. Should be done, though. Victoria should be one, not 13 municipalities.


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