Friday, February 27, 2015

Aruba: One of the ABC Islands

At only 33 km in length, Aruba is the smallest of the ABC islands in the Caribbean (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao).  A former Dutch colony, it is a delightful mix of Dutch, Spanish, English and Caribbean cultures. It is reported that more than 90 different nationalities live on this small island with a population of just over 100,000.

We came here to visit Vancouver’s former Dutch Consul General and his wife who now live here, and to enjoy a week in the sun. I was surprised to discover, however, a number of initiatives intended to make Aruba a 100% green economy by 2020. 

It has very good drinking water, the result of the second largest desalination plant in the world, and a modern electric tram that runs through Oranjestat, the capital. More about this later.

One of the other things that has surprised me is the number of people who repeatedly return to the island year after year from all over the US and Europe. They find the island to be a safe, clean, and enjoyable place with particularly good food. I have to agree.

However, a review of the accommodation options will reveal that this can be a very expensive to stay. Partially as a result of the weak Canadian dollar, it is difficult to find good accommodation for much less than $350 CAD a night. We were therefore delighted to discover on AirBNB a place called Swiss Paradise Villas and Suites which I can highly recommend for a number of reasons.

Located at the northern end of the island, minutes from the Tierra del Sol golf course and a number of lovely white sand beaches (yes, it’s a cliché, but the sand really is like white sugar, extending out into the ocean) the resort is a mix of different accommodation options. 

The most intriguing is a collection of rooms and self-contained suites clustered around a small swimming pool and very well fitted out European style outdoor kitchen. There’s an adjacent lounge area with large outdoor TV and other outdoor seating. We stayed in one of the smaller rooms (the only one available) for the first few nights, but were impressed with the modern bathroom design, very large flat screen TV and a bed with remote control adjustments. There was also a loft which we did not need.

During our stay a villa became available so we moved over. It had large indoor and outdoor living areas, a private pool and 3 to 5 bedrooms, depending on the configuration. Sadly, there was just Sally and me.

The General Manager is Juerg Braendli, a Swiss engineer who moved here a number of years ago, and along with business partner Tina is slowly expanding the resort. It’s a very hands- on operation for Juerg who also rents cars to guests and is most willing to help out with any arrangements.  

Aruba has a year round temperature of about 27 degrees centigrade (82 degrees Fahrenheit) and constant breezes. While it is further than Hawaii, Mexico or Palm Springs for Vancouverites, you might want to do what we did and stopover in New York there and back. 

It’s a most enjoyable place….one we do not often think about, and one that I'll be reluctant to leave. But we'll be back.

Editorial: Is there a peak for Metro housing prices? Impossible to say Vancouver is reaching the outer limits of conceivable pricing for home buyers Vancouver Sun February 26, 2015

Editorial: Vancouver is reaching the outer limits of conceivable pricing for home buyers

Editorial: Is there a peak for Metro housing prices? Impossible to say

It's hard to say what the limits in escalating housing prices in Metro Vancouver are.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann , PNG

Vancouver is reaching the outer limits of conceivable pricing for home buyers. That view, expressed recently by Business Council of B.C. executive vice-president Jock Finlayson, reflects the sentiments of many.

However, similar observations have been made in the past. Still, the cost of housing in the Vancouver area has kept climbing. It is impossible to predict when the pricing peak truly will be reached.
Greater Vancouver’s January home price index for a single detached home hit a record $1,010,000, up 8.4 per cent from one year earlier.

The rental market is equally daunting, with a low vacancy rate and hefty rents, especially for condo units.

Behind the problem of unaffordability is, and always has been, the law of supply and demand. There is no indication this force soon will be diminishing.

Greater Vancouver is attracting tens of thousands of newcomers a year, both from other countries and provinces.

For wealthy foreign migrants, the housing situation likely poses no obstacle. But most local buyers and renters, and migrants from other provinces, are not in a position to pay high rents or $1 million-plus to purchase.

Influential architect Michael Geller recently played host to a Simon Fraser University lecture, titled: 12 Affordable Housing Ideas For Vancouver. Unsurprisingly, it was so well attended that many would-be registrants were turned away.

Geller is calling for a two-pronged approach that would:
• have those wishing to live here reducing expectations about the size of housing they require and their need for two-car garages and granite countertops;
• have city planners become more creative and flexible with zoning, and building rules and regulations.

Specifically, Geller wants Vancouver-area planning departments to permit designs that maximize land use and have been tried successfully elsewhere.

Designs would, for example, allow construction of a cluster of small cottage-like homes on a single large residential lot; and designs that would extend construction of a house or apartment buildings right to side-lot property lines, as in dense European urban cores. Municipalities could more liberally permit construction and sale of micro suites of 300 to 400 square feet, laneway and coach houses and allow townhouses and duplexes to accommodate basements, which then could be rented as crucial mortgage helpers.

The city of Vancouver is well aware it has a severe housing affordability problem, having established an arm’s length affordable housing agency in 2014 to find ways of supplying more housing at more reasonable prices.

But the agency has yet to launch a much-needed public discussion about innovative proposals such as Geller’s. The public deserves a chance to digest the prospect of further densification.
Early action clearly is needed in the face of the ever-escalating property prices.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Opinion: Confessions of a Vancouver transit plebiscite supporter Vancouver Courier February 24, 2015

It was too cold in New York to take good pictures of the new public spaces along Broadway, but here's a shot further down the street.

Doctor, we need to talk. I am becoming obsessed with the forthcoming transportation referendum.
Last week, I travelled to Aruba via Newark. On every leg of the journey I could not stop comparing my trip with travels on TransLink.

Leaving Vancouver, the Air Canada computers were not working properly. We were then delayed because a conveyor belt was broken. Even though the oversized baggage had been screened and waiting on the belt, no one had the sense to let passengers go to the gates until mechanics finally got the equipment working.
Despite these breakdowns, I did not hear anyone complain about the continuous Airport Improvement Fees or excessive Airport Authority CEO salary.

We eventually made it to New Jersey. It was very cold and the hotel shuttle bus was late.
But no one was complaining. I told waiting passengers that if this was a Vancouver TransLink bus, these days the delay would be frontpage and radio news.

I boarded a New Jersey Transit train to Penn Station. After 10 minutes, the train stopped and over the loudspeaker we were told there would be a delay because the drawbridge was up.
Then we were told the bridge was not closing properly and we would have to get off and board a waiting train on Platform 2.

We all climbed up the stairs since the escalator was broken and took seats on the new train.
Then a voice over the loudspeaker told us to return to the original train. Eventually we made it Penn Station, but I doubt this incident would have made the news the following day because other passengers told me this sort of thing happens all the time.

I wandered down Broadway where neon lights and illuminated billboards revealed colourful tables and chairs set out in what were once traffic lanes. It was delightful, but all I could think about was how this would not happen in Vancouver since a growing majority do not want to approve a transit improvement referendum that could help reduce congestion like recent New York initiatives.

Over the past few weeks, I have taken to Twitter to express my growing frustration.
On Valentine’s Day, when I should have been spending time with my wife, I tweeted about a $30-billion crowdfunding campaign in Boston aimed at fixing the city’s failing transit system.
Since the state cannot come up with even a fraction of the $3-billion maintenance backlog, let alone $30 billion needed for capital improvements, a local citizen is trying to raise the money.
Vancouver’s system is so much better run.

Two days later, Metro Chairman Greg Moore was talking with Rick Cluff on the CBC Early Edition. As “no” side voters took to Twitter I had to ask, “Will no transit tax voters please show me where $ comes from to fund transit improvements. It sounds like a property tax increase to me.”
One of my followers replied, “I think they will try a vehicle levy and an increase in gasoline tax as an alternative.”

Is that what the “no” voters want?

Next up was the TransLink Chair speaking with CBC’s Stephen Quinn. I waited for her to justify the dual CEO salaries, but she struggled. Most intelligent people know what the board was trying to do, but it failed. Nonetheless, I had to tweet this was still not a good reason to vote no.
That weekend, the Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason and Stephen Quinn both criticized the TransLink Board decision. I had to agree and tweeted, “It sure is hard to defend the yes side except for one thing. The need for transit improvements.”

The next day I tweeted, “It now seems like the transit funding debate is inextricably linked to the TransLink CEO salaries. Think about this when waiting for a bus or stuck in traffic. It’s nuts.”
I wondered aloud on Twitter, “Will people soon stop contributing to cancer research because of past problems with the BC Cancer Agency’s CEO salary?”

Yes doctor, I am saddened and depressed. But I am also optimistic about a yes victory since it now seems as unlikely as a Liberal government win a month before the last provincial election.
- See more at:

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Saturday February 21st is Fight Night. A fundraiser in support of Intersections Media!

On February 21, 2015 Contenders Boxing and Promosa Management will be holding a boxing fundraising event at The Imperial (at 319 Main Street) with 100% of the proceeds being donated to Intersections Media Opportunities for Youth Society.

Intersections is a non-profit charitable organization founded by the late William Vince(“Bill”), an Oscar-nominated Vancouver filmmaker and advocate for youth at risk. It offers 'employability' and life skills workshops and work experience opportunity to youth facing multiple barriers to employment. 

I am pleased to help promote this event since my daughter Claire works with this most worthwhile organization.

Through the unique and familiar medium of art and digital filmmaking as well as involvement in group-based projects, the program participants gain the experience and confidence for long-term attachment to the workforce. In 2013 over 86% of participants become employed or pursued further education.

This is the second annual “Fight Night” in support of this program and the organizers hope you will consider supporting Intersections by attending what I am sure will be a fascinating event. Tickets are $35. Ringside tickets are $65 To purchase

To donate to Intersections:
If you are interested in being an Event Sponsor or learn more about Intersections contact Christopher Hindle 778 858 6565

Opinion: How to make Vancouver housing more affordable Vancouver Courier February 11, 2015

There is a need for more rowhousing throughout Metro Vancouver, but especially in the city.

“Vancouver will always be an expensive place to live. However, with innovative planning and financing ideas, we can create more affordable housing choices throughout the region.”

So read the announcement for last week’s talk at Simon Fraser University. Titled “12 Affordable Housing Ideas for Vancouver,” it examined housing designs and financing programs from around the world that should have a place in Metro Vancouver.

While I was pleased that more than 230 people showed up, I was disappointed that Green Coun. Adriane Carr was the only Metro Vancouver politician in attendance. To broaden affordable housing choices in the region, we need local politicians to better understand available options and approve zoning changes to make them happen.

Hopefully, the numerous municipal planners and others in attendance will pass on to the politicians what they saw and heard, as urged by SFU city program director Gordon Price in his closing remarks.
During the question-and-answer period, Coun. Carr asked a number of good questions on how best to fund future growth and gain community support for zoning changes. Before repeating my answers to her questions, here are a few of the 12 ideas I presented.
Many of us grew up in three-bedroom houses of less than 1000 square feet However today’s new houses are significantly larger. It is time to reinvent the past and build smaller detached houses on smaller lots. In some cases, it would make sense to subdivide 50-foot-wide lots into two 25-foot lots as they are doing in Seattle.
These Hollyburn Mews coach houses sold to people looking for a more affordable housing choice in an established West Vancouver neighbourhood 
Laneway houses and coach houses, as they are sometimes called, provide an attractive new housing choice for many households. However, not everyone wants to be a renter. Under certain circumstances, laneway houses should be available for sale, especially on larger corner lots or single family lots with character houses.
All new houses in Vancouver have side-yards on both sides. However, often one or both side-yards are rarely used. To make better use of land, we should modify zoning bylaws to allow houses with just one side-yard. In planning terms, this is known as zero lot-line housing.
Duplexes, especially when designed with an asymmetrical facade, can fit nicely into single family neighbourhoods and offer a more affordable housing choice. But not everyone likes the strata-title arrangement. Semi-detached housing might be the solution.
Duplexes are attractive forms of housing for many households. They combine two units side-by-side, up and down or front and back. However, purchasers often do not realize they are strata-title developments. For those wanting to avoid this legal arrangement, semi-detached housing, where each house sits on its own lot, would be an attractive option.
Many people would consider moving into a townhouse; however, they do not want to live in a condominium and have to deal with a strata council. A fee-simple townhouse, where each unit sits on its own legal lot avoids condominium ownership. While popular around the world, our zoning and subdivision bylaws generally discourage this housing form.
These stacked two and three bedroom townhouses are an attractive option for young Toronto families
For those who cannot afford a townhouse but do not want to live in an apartment, a stacked-townhouse could be the answer. A popular housing form in Toronto, it is in limited supply here. With one townhouse stacked above another, this housing form meets the needs of those not minding stairs and appreciating having their own front door at the street.

While we tend to think of ownership and rental as the only two tenure options, there are other choices. Shared-equity ownership is a hybrid model that combines the advantages of both. Life-lease ownership allows someone to purchase a home at a lower price on the understanding that there will not be price appreciation. 
Performing Arts Lodge on Cardero Street
The Performing Arts Lodge at Bayshore in Coal Harbour is an excellent example of how effectively this can work.

To reduce housing costs we need to rethink how we finance growth. Under the current system, new home buyers are often subsidizing social housing and other amenity costs that should really be shared by more taxpayers over time. Local Improvement Charges or long-term Bond Financing could be more equitable funding approaches.

To help neighbourhoods understand and accept new housing forms, it would be helpful to build demonstration projects. Often the only way to appreciate these housing ideas is to see on-the-ground examples.

While Vancouver will never be as affordable as Winnipeg, with government support, these housing ideas could improve affordability for many local residents.

© 2015 Vancouver Courier