ACTBiPed Meeting Report for October 18, 2017

Our official ACTBiPed meeting for October 18, 2017 was cancelled and replaced with a projects sub-committee meeting. Some people (myself included!) like to get into the details of transportation system designs, so to keep regular meetings from getting bogged down, we have these sub-committee meetings. At the October 18, 2017 meeting we took a dive into the active transportation designs for the proposed Sapperton Green community.

Active transportation routes through Sapperton Green

Sapperton Green will have two new streets, an extension of Wilson Street, and a pile of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in it. Its proximity to the Braid Street SkyTrain station will hopefully mean that there will be greater uptake of active transportation modes by residents living there. The development of the area will also make connections from other neighbourhoods to Braid easier. At least, that’s the plan.

They’ve designed pathways to have a grade no higher than 4.9%, which is very important for people with mobility difficulties. The site is challenging in that there is a definite slope, especially at Wilson Street, which is why they’ve put in a bit of a switchback system leading towards Rousseau Street. Think of the sidewalk switchbacks at the bottom of Elliot Street and that’s what they’ll be like. The PDF (linked below) has further detail on this section.

Rousseau Street and Transit Way intersection details

We did get a chance to look at the more detailed designs, and some of them have some interesting ideas. In this close-up of the intersection of Rousseau Street and what they’re calling “Transit Way”, there’s a subtle detail that escaped me and most of the other people at the table, and that’s that the top lane of Transit Way is actually a through lane. The orange-coloured area to the left is actually a driveway entrance. The designers said they wanted to recreate the “Granville Island feeling”, which surprised a lot of people at the table. As a pedestrian on Granville Island I spend most of the time hating how poor the pedestrian environment is and thinking cars should just be banned from it altogether. Trying to recreate that in a new environment is… weird. The right turn off Rousseau is also softened like that for buses, in case you’re wondering.

That close-up also shows the thoughts for the multi-use paths. They’ll be separated from the street network but will still mix pedestrians and cyclists, and will be 4 meters wide.

Transit Way and Road B intersection details

The next close-up is the intersection of Transit Way and “Road B”, which is roughly half-way between Rousseau and the Braid bus loop. It brings up a couple of points that we made during the presentation. First, they should use raised crosswalks wherever they can. This puts pedestrians and cyclists first, and helps to slow vehicle traffic. The designers said this was a bit of a challenge on Transit Way because TransLink doesn’t like bumps, but they’ll consider it for all of the other streets, particularly ones that are crossed by multi-use pathways like this one. Second, the lanes on Road B (and Road A, check the PDF linked below for where that is) are actually wider than the lanes on Transit Way, which we found bizarre. Roads A and B don’t have multi-use paths on them so cyclists would be expected to cycle in the street (yay sharrows!). Widening the lanes means vehicles will be compelled to drive faster, and having faster vehicles mixed with bicycles is just plain crazy. We have a chance to properly engineer slower streets here, and the designers had better do it.

Brunette-Fraser Regional Greenway improvement ideas

Of course, a major part of Sapperton Green runs along the Brunette River, and includes part of the Brunette-Fraser Regional Greenway. They’re planning some pretty great improvements to the whole stretch, and these improvements include moving the BFRG away from the naturalized zone that parts of it currently go through. This will help improve the whole riparian zone along the Brunette River, which is definitely a good thing.

There are a lot of other interesting ideas going on in this development, like an adventure park, a community centre, retail facing multi-use paths to hopefully spur patio use, and intriguing public art concepts around the SkyTrain station. If you’re at all interested in learning more about Sapperton Green, please do follow the city’s webpage. I’m also making the slides from the presentation made to ACTBiPed available so you can take a closer look at the designs and streetscapes they’re proposing for this exciting new development!

Renovictions and Airbnb in New Westminster

A couple of days ago the Queens Park Residents’ Association put out this plea for assistance on Facebook:

At the AGM yesterday a couple of residents from Maple Manor Apartments (304 3rd Ave.) were invited to share their story. The apartment has new owners who have received a renovation permit and those still there will be renovicted at the end of the month. There are very few rental options in Queen’s Park and a lack of affordable rental housing in NewWest. They are stable long-term renters (5 years, 21 years and 27 years). They have incomes, but that have not increased at the same rate as the escalating market rental fees. They love living in New West and have jobs and friends near-by, but are really looking for ANY option that is affordable in the $800 – $1,000 range.

This is a too-common situation in New Westminster, and the City is working on steps to address renovictions.

But, and there’s a really big but here, rental stock in New Westminster isn’t as high as it could be, and increasing the rental stock does not involve building new buildings. It involves cracking down on people putting suites, houses, and apartments on Airbnb and other short-term rental platforms in New Westminster.

A fraction of the Queens Park Airbnb listings.

Airbnb and other short-term rental platforms are legal in New Westminster. Let’s make that abundantly clear. They are classified as a Home Based Business and an owner can apply for a business license. There are restrictions on what you can rent out for example, (it has to be an accessory use to the residential use, which means you can’t rent out an entire house on a Home Based Business License, you’d need to have proper zoning and permits to run what’s classified as a hotel). But if you look in the Open Data Catalogue you’ll find that there are currently four bed & breakfast permits issued for 2017, and none of the addresses listed are in the Queens Park neighbourhood.

So, that means that the overwhelming majority of listings on Airbnb in New Westminster are operating illegally. A number of them are for single rooms or people renting out their houses when they’re on vacation. Fine, let’s not look at those for now, because those aren’t units that would be suitable for long-term rentals.

But there are some listings that are for a separate suite in a house, or for the entire house, or for multiple units in the house, and these listings have months of available times for booking. These are listings that could very easily be long-term rentals for these people being renovicted.

227 Third Street has four Airbnb listings.

Let’s look at one example. This listing, this listing, this listing, and this listing are all rooms and suites within the same house at 227 Third Street. Right there are six rooms that could be rented out long-term, providing housing for a couple of families, that are instead being rented out to tourists.

Or this listing for a one-bedroom basement suite. Or this listing for a recently-renovated one-bedroom suite on First Street.

Of course, there are other basement suites up on Airbnb in other neighbourhoods, like this two-bedroom suite in Massey Victory Heights that would be perfect for a family.

Please note that the owners of these properties may well have all of the permits necessary and I may have missed their business licenses in the dataset. But even if they are legal, they are still potentially taking away from rental stock.

Is rental stock being eaten up by short-term rentals in New Westminster? It’s hard to look at these examples and say no. These Airbnb listings are the perfect type of suites that could be rented out to long-term renters, yet are being turned into bed and breakfast rooms for short-term visitors. I haven’t even touched apartments or condos in this cursory search. A number of stratas do not allow short-term rentals, but others don’t, and strata fines may be seen as a cost of doing business for someone putting up their unit on Airbnb.

And with the recent passing of the OCP to allow more laneway houses, will we see those go up on Airbnb or will they be long-term rentals? Financially it probably makes more sense to put them on Airbnb, but at what cost to our communities?

To answer the Queens Park Residents’ Association’s plea, I’d say go knock on the doors of your neighbours with listings on Airbnb and ask them why they’re not willing to rent out to a fellow Queens Park resident in need of housing.

Further reading: Short-term consequences: Investigating the extent, nature and rental housing implications of Airbnb listings in Vancouver, Karen Sawatzky.

Take May Day out of the schools and into the community

In New Westminster we have a May Day celebration that’s currently being put on by the school district. Elementary school children perform dances in Queen’s Park and a Royal Suite, made up of a boy and girl from each elementary school, is selected.

Back in November 2015 the New Westminster Board of Education directed that a task force be formed to examine the district’s participation in the annual May Day celebration. The report from that task force is now out, and here are some quotes taken from a survey done of district staff. Remember, the school district handles the event, and most of the planning and implementation falls on teachers, principals, and other district staff members, so they’re intimately familiar with what it takes to produce the May Day celebrations and how much effort it takes.

“…a generalized unhappiness and concern over the cost, the educational time lost in preparation for the event, the amount of preparation work involved in addition to an already challenging workload and the current relevance the existing May Day program has in 21st century learning…”

“…too much time diverted from teaching and learning. Too much energy and time reinforcing colonial traditions instead of embracing a more inclusive world view…”

“…easier to continue with the event to avoid conflict rather than re-evaluate our purpose behind it.”

“…the community can continue the event and the public can choose to take part.”

“Make it fun, not forced.”

“I think the May Day is an event that was designed for one cultural group only. It does not look at first contact, the role of immigrants in the formation of BC, the contributions of women, the development of political parties, the creation of infrastructure, the creation of Indian reservations, residential schools, etc.”

“It does not fit with our redesigned curriculum, it does not fit with our multicultural focus and our First Nations lens.”

“I feel that the redesigned curriculum promotes engagement with all histories of BC, and I’ve been confused for a long time as to why New Westminster teachers have their autonomy restricted when it comes to our professional judgement to teach BC history when May Day is NOT in the curriculum specifically.”

“[May Day] reinforces a patriarchal, settler‐dominated and exclusive culture that does not reflect the values of the District’s mission or vision.”

“…the whole Royal Suite election process has been a popularity contest that has caused social problems and conflicts within the grade 5s. It is divisive and unhelpful. It is particularly divisive in a dual track school.”

“…as long as I have been in the district I can’t remember a child with a visible disability being a May Day rep.”

“Many people have little understanding of what happens to make this event happen. It is not ‘just one day.’ All staff and students are affected by this event.”

“…students lose hours of instructional time…”

“…students are negatively affected as teachers have to arrange their placement during dance instruction.”

“…an increasing number of families now choose to keep their grade 5 students home on May Day because they feel it is very repetitive after going to May Day in grades 2, 3, and 4, which shows that the event doesn’t have full parent support…”

“It’s an exercise in crowd control; it’s a ridiculous use of teacher and student classroom instructional time, and I feel very strongly that we would better otherwise engage students in a school learning environment working on creative academics, or interest‐focused end‐of-year projects.”

Is the New Westminster school system the right place for May Day celebrations? The report and survey strongly suggest that no, it isn’t. 72% of the respondents stated that May Day was no longer an important annual event for the school district. 65% felt it doesn’t promote critical engagement with the province’s history. 72% felt the Royal Suite does not align with the school district’s values of inclusion and diversity. And 84% felt it was not a good use of district staff time and resources — estimated at $50,000 — to organize and stage the May Day ceremony.

77% did feel that the May Day ceremony should be exclusively run by the community. And this is how I feel as well. When the Royal Lancers dance was cancelled by the city, the community stepped up to do it themselves. There is nothing to suggest that the same couldn’t happen with the May Day ceremony. Perhaps it could be rolled in with the popular Ancient and Honourable Hyack Anvil Battery Salute held on Victoria Day to honour Queen Victoria?

So yes, let’s get the May Day celebration out of the hands of the school district and into the hands of a community organization such as the Hyack Festival Society or the organizers of the May Day picnic.

I’ll leave with this one last quote from the report:

“I agree it is time for change so let’s work together to make it effective such as connecting more to our community and history in New Westminster.”

On Preserving Single-Family Homes in New Westminster

There are five houses near the corner of Ash Street and Gloucester Street in New Westminster. Four of them were built in 1900 or earlier, making this one of the oldest cluster of houses in the city. The fifth was built in 1971. From building details it appears that the five (and possibly one other) properties were subdivided from one larger property sometime around 1889 and built over the next ten years. The 1971 house previously had a house built in 1890 on it.

One of the older houses is currently up for sale. Here’s part of its listing:

A true heritage home gem. Built approximately 1898 this home has been cared for but not at the expense of its character. You will be surprised at how large the home feels, the owner loves to entertain and regularly has social functions with over 25 guests. Double french doors lead to a fully fenced, landscaped backyard that adds to the livable space and creates an outdoor oasis. The ancient grapevine trunk has been carefully pruned and gives off shade from the supporting trellis as well as a bountiful harvest from its shoots.

It sounds really nice, and given the current asking price of $848,000, it’s amazing that it’s been on the market for weeks now. It was previously listed for $899,000, and I guess being on the market for so long has got the sellers to drop their asking price.

Houses at Ash & Gloucester

It probably isn’t selling because it’s on a very small lot: 33 feet by 66 feet. Compared to the standard New Westminster lot size of 50 feet by 130 feet, this lot is about a third the size of a standard lot. And the house is almost as big as you’re allowed to build (you could add another 170 square feet) so it’s probably not worth knocking the house down to build a new one.

In fact, this cluster of houses is an excellent example of fairly gentle densification with single family houses. The total area of these five houses is just about the same as two standard lots (1,202 m2 compared to 1,215 m2), meaning it’s 2.5 times denser than your standard New Westminster single-family house neighbourhood.

Gentle densification! Yay! Single-family homes! Yay! (for some non-extreme value of yay)

But let’s mention the last part of the listing for the house that’s for sale. This part wasn’t in the listing until the recent price drop, as my wife pointed out to me at the time:

INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY: This home along with the surrounding houses is not on the heritage registry. It is likely that at some point they will be assembled as a multi family development.

No!

First off, the houses on either side of this house sold at separate times within the past year. Sure, “at some point” there might be some land assembly but I’m willing to bet that that won’t happen for years to come. There’s already a lot of low-hanging fruit in Brow Of The Hill where land assembly will mean two lots being merged instead of five. Dealing with two owners is a lot easier than dealing with five.

Second, this corner is exactly the type of gentle densification that’s great! It’s got heritage, it’s got curb appeal, it’s even got a mid-70s house with a carport. What more can you ask for?

I mean yes, I’m all for densification, but not here. Let’s densify two standard single-family lots and put six townhouses on them. But let’s not tear down five single-family houses to put eight townhouses on them. This corner is already perfect, let’s not ruin that with some mad rush to assemble lots and put multi-family buildings everywhere we can.

Mapping New Westminster – Building Ages

New Westminster has published a bunch of datasets under its Open Data portal, one of which is building age. A couple of months ago I grabbed the dataset, converted the SHP file (details forthcoming, mostly because I did it a couple of months ago and can’t remember how I did it) and followed Mapzen‘s One Minute Map tutorial series to make a map showing every building in New Westminster coloured by when it was built!

I’ve made two colour schemes for this map. The first colours buildings along a seven-colour spectrum. Basically red is old, white is mid-century, and blue is new:

  • earlier than 1900
  • between 1900 and 1919
  • between 1920 to 1939
  • between 1940 and 1959
  • between 1960 and 1979
  • between 1980 and 1999
  • between 2000 and older

The second one uses the pre-1941 cutoff used for the Queens Park Heritage Conservation Area. Buildings built before 1941 are afforded greater protections in Queens Park and are coloured orange in this colour scheme. I came up with this one to see if there are any areas in the city that have similar age distributions to Queens Park, and maybe spur people to ask why Queens Park is considered more special than, say, parts of Moody Park, Sapperton, and Glenbrooke North…

Map Detail for 217 Ninth Street

Toggle between the colour schemes by using the little ‘layers’ icon in the top right corner.

You can also click on any building to find out when it was constructed and who the developer and architect were! And if you move around and zoom into a specific spot you’d like to share with friends, the URL will reflect that. For example, here’s Port Royal in Queensborough.

Enjoy the map!