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My Responses to Esquimalt Chamber of Commerce Questions

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Here’s my responses to the Chamber’s questions. I did submit them by deadline Sunday night, but apparently some technological gremlins prevented them from being posted. Below are my answers in full:

Candidate Statement

I want Esquimalt to articulate a vision of what we want to see – and I interpret a vision as being a bit more detailed than saying we’re a welcoming or engaged community – it’s what we see in our mind’s eye when we imagine Esquimalt in 5 to 15 years. I see a vibrant community of shops and businesses, with lots of people out on the street interacting with each other in our commercial areas. I want Esquimalt to be the place that our friends and colleagues from Saanich or Victoria bring their visitors to because it is a ‘must-see destination’ with diverse and interesting businesses that are unique and appealing. It’s a place of festivals and activities that happen year-round. We have a thriving arts sector, abundant housing and manage to maintain the diversity of people and incomes that has always been so special about Esquimalt. We’re a place where we do things together, not just talk about things.

We need to work with the business community to figure out how to actively build this vision- I’ve heard on the doorstep that people are worried that with recent residential development we risk becoming a bedroom suburb of Victoria where people leave during the day because they can’t find the services they need here and can’t find good jobs to keep people here during the day.

We need to take the Economic Development Strategy approved back in 2015, and run with it: update it, sure, but let’s get going and start making the policy and budget changes that it asked for. We’re a small township with limited staff so we need to be deliberate in what we choose to do.

What 3 types of businesses do you think Esquimalt is lacking and how would you stimulate and/or attract these businesses to grow the vibrancy of new local businesses in our community?

It’s important to point out that Council does not have the power to determine what kinds of businesses come and remain in Esquimalt: it’s up to the business owners. We can create an environment that attracts people to Esquimalt and create enough commercial space so that when business owners wants to start or relocate a business here, they can find a place to build that business.

The obvious ones are fully staffed Doctor’s offices, a bank and a pub. But if we’re dreaming, I’d love to see:

  • a restaurant that caters to parents of young children. When our kids were young, we used to visit cafes in other municipalities that target parents with young kids: kid friendly food, good coffee, and a place where kids can play safely in all-weather with minimal supervision. They helped foster a great community of parents and families.
  • A tech/software company to provide well paid jobs to locals, and provide customers for service businesses in our core.
  • A co-working space, similar to Kwench downtown which has created an amazingly creative space for people who are tired of working out of their homes all the time. Lots of Esquimalt residents travel downtown to use co-working spaces- why not have one here. Other communities have had non-profits take on this role: we could support one if publicly owned space was available.

How would you capitalize on the opportunities that the Industrial area brings to Esquimalt?

We need to celebrate our industrial area! There are so many great businesses in the industrial area that don’t seem to get much attention. There are private gyms, light manufacturing, artists’ studios and all kinds of construction companies. Recent developments, like the Driftwood and Lighthouse tasting rooms, are starting to bring people in to see what is going on there. It’s probably the most dynamic area in Esquimalt. We need to recognize what it is: it’s a place where stuff gets done, which I think is a good tagline for the Esquimalt I want to live in.

There’s lots of great things already happening- events like the Mural festival and the mural race organized by the Esquimalt Community Arts Hub are attracting attention and making it more visible.

There’s a lot of interest in bringing more businesses into the area: focusing on services for the base and Seaspan, as well as other marine technology companies. If this happens, one concern I have is what does that do for the existing businesses that are there now: will we be able to find place for them to stay in Esquimalt?

There’s also a lot of similar uses happening in some of our residential neighbourhoods: I can think of a major internet retailer, a light manufacturing company, lots of small construction/tradespeople operating out of their garages. They’re operating in a grey area, and I wonder if the current land use restrictions are stopping them from growing in the way they want to. I’d like to look at our live/work bylaws- so many of our land use restrictions are from decades ago, before changes in technology and practice have reduced the impact of many things. Maybe instead of regulating use, we should be regulating and enforcing impacts like noise? We should be helping these small businesses grow to the point where they can afford to move to the industrial area if desired, or move from the industrial area into nearby areas if they do not negatively impact their neighbours.

What struggles do you think Esquimalt has in attracting and retaining
businesses and how would you remedy these?

Businesses are struggling to find workers: people can no longer afford to live here and are in high demand, so they are choosing to work near where they can find affordable housing. We need to address the housing crisis for everyone’s sake, including business.

I’ve also heard from many business owners that there are not a lot of options in Esquimalt for business space that meets their needs or budget. Companies grow or change, and want to stay here in Esquimalt, but they can’t find a suitable location.

We need to be proactive in requiring commercial space in our existing commercial areas: we’re seeing redevelopment of sites into thousands of units of housing, with relatively little commercial floorspace attached to them. In some cases, we’re seeing commercial spaces like the Gorge Point Pub being redeveloped into housing with far less commercial space than was there previously. I worry we are going to regret these decisions.

Other municipalities have been more insistent in requiring commercial space under residential space – even when the development community complained bitterly that it wasn’t viable. Vancouver springs to mind- many new commercial spaces under residential sat vacant for many years while the economic calculation shifted to allow new small businesses to open and thrive. But if we don’t build it, it won’t be available when we need it. If commercial spaces are truly not viable in the current economic environment, maybe we need to explore amenity bonusing. We need to carefully examine development proformas and understand what we need to do to ensure we are building enough of the right types of commercial space for the future.

Our Official Community Plan (OCP) designates large areas on major roads like Esquimalt Road as “Neighbourhood Commercial Mixed-Use” but does not require commercial space to be built as part of mixed use buildings: it is merely a suggestion. As a result, we have buildings being built that don’t have commercial space. We need to strengthen this policy to require commercial space.

A Manager of Economic Development is coming to Esquimalt as per the
2022 municipal budget. What role do you think that position should play
and what do you believe should be the focus of that role’s first 3-6
months on the job?

The new manager’s role is to implement the economic development strategy: to promote economic development and support new and existing businesses in Esquimalt.

For the first 3-6 months, I think they should work to update Economic Development Strategy, developed in 2014 (it called for an update in 2020) by talking to every single business owner in Esquimalt, and ask what they think is working, and what isn’t. They should focus on reviewing policies and programs and see what can be improved and removed.

In particular, I’d like to see the Esquimalt Rd Revitalization Program revamped in its entirety- it’s a program that provided tax exemptions for businesses that “beautify” Esquimalt Rd. I would go back to first principles and ask: what do businesses on Esquimalt Road need to thrive? I’m not sure that cleaning up facades or a coat of paint is really what’s impeding businesses from being successful. The Community Charter allowing the tax exemption program is broad and we should examine what incentives we could give new and expanding businesses: should we give tax exemptions for new retail-facing small businesses? For those who invest inside their spaces instead of just on the outside? We need to think big.

What are your thoughts on density bonusing with regard to business
development and amenity funding?

I’m generally supportive of density bonusing, but it needs to be used carefully, to make sure that we are getting significant public benefit for what amounts to creating value out of thin air for developers. Our OCP already has aggressive height limits and building massing built into it- exceeding them would be controversial in many areas (as we saw at the corner of Head and Esquimalt.) We need to make sure we understand what we are giving, and that the benefit to the community is commensurate with what we are giving away.

There is also a lot of demand from the community for new developments: for affordable housing and for climate action in addition to business development.

Rather than negotiating each amenity bonus in isolation, I want Esquimalt to develop a policy around amenity bonuses- so it is clear in advance what we are willing to give in exchange for what amenity and so expectations are clearer for the applicant as well as the overall community.

Recently Esquimalt utilized an Alternative Approval Process. This decision was contentious, and many spoke out that this should have been taken to a referendum. Do you believe that there should be limiting factors on when an AAP can be used? Why or why not?

I studied in Switzerland, where they vote every 3 months on all kinds of spending projects and public policy. I learned that we should not be afraid of the electorate, and we should not be afraid of referendums. They are an important tool to build consensus on large projects. The AAP process was contentious in part because I don’t think many residents felt that Council made the case strongly enough for why spending $42 million on the Public Safety Building was required, and why it needed to be built in its current form and budget. I know I read every document and watched every meeting where it was discussed publicly, and I still don’t understand why the building couldn’t have included affordable housing on top. I know the reasons given publicly, but they don’t add up when compared to other similar buildings in the region and around BC. It’s a valuable site- it’s jarring that we expect others to build up to maximize their return on a piece of land, but the township doesn’t do the same.

The reasons may have been valid, but they were not made clearly to the public. For a project that is now approaching $50 million dollars, I think it’s Council’s responsibility to get out and make the case vigorously as to why this is the best use of our land and our limited budget. Candidates are out knocking on doors and talking to residents during the election: Council should have been doing the same to raise awareness for a referendum. A referendum would have provided a mandate for the public safety building, and the Council would now be insulated from criticism as the budget goes up with cost over-runs. It would be a project we’d all be proud of rather than something to criticize.

Every other municipality in the CRD levies Development Cost Charges from developers to pay for new infrastructure. Should Esquimalt have development fees?

My platform already calls for a review of the decision not to collect Development Cost Charges. Instead of selling off forested land adjacent to existing parks to replenish the Parkland Acquisition Fund (as was done at 880 Fleming), we should be collecting fees from developers to pay for the additional demands put on our services like parks, utilities, and roads. While the decision not to collect fees may have made sense while Esquimalt was trying to attract development after years of stagnant growth, it is clear that Esquimalt has now been “discovered.” Exemptions can and should be made for developments that provide public benefits and amenities to the township such as affordable housing, helping meet climate goals or creating public plazas and/or spaces.

What will you do to address the improvements needed to our current infrastructure as well as future infrastructure needs as densification increases?

I believe we first need to understand what our needs are: how much do we need to invest in increased capacity for stormwater systems, our transportation system and in our parks to accommodate the growth of demand as well as the replacement of ageing infrastructure. This should provide us with a need for future funding and we can determine what kinds of development charges are appropriate, how much should be paid for out of grants from senior governments, and how much of our tax revenue should go to improving our infrastructure.

With development and business growth, how would you attract workers for restaurants, medical, etc. when there is a shortage of labour and affordable housing?

There is a desperate need in Esquimalt for truly affordable housing in order that people who work in Esquimalt can afford to live in Esquimalt. While affordable housing is largely a provincial and federal jurisdiction, there is a lot Esquimalt can do to help make housing more affordable.

I’d like Esquimalt to:

  • Prioritize housing development that meet affordable housing goals, including providing deeply affordable units and units suitable for working families, people on disability assistance and seniors on limited incomes.
  • Create clearer guidelines and expectations for new developments, especially for townhouses and smaller (4-10 unit) developments. Right now, our OCP is ambiguous: a developer can honestly state that their project is “fully compliant with our OCP” while a resident can read the same OCP and declare that it is “absolutely non-compliant”. This creates needless conflict in our community.
  • Streamline development processes so that more decisions can be delegated to staff: not every Accessory Dwelling unit (backyard coach house) needs to be reviewed by advisory committees and go to full public hearing. This adds unnecessary costs and complexities to property owners with little benefit if well-drafted guidelines are in place.
  • Actively work with non-profit housing providers, provincial and federal housing agencies and funders to attract new non-market housing to Esquimalt.
  • Continue to review parking minimums to ensure that we aren’t prioritizing building parking spaces over housing units.

What areas in Esquimalt will the new Mayor and Council prioritize for business development?

I don’t think Esquimalt is large enough to need specific policies for different areas. We need to identify what the barriers for business development are, and work to reduce and/or eliminate them. The new Manager of Economic Development should work to ensure that all areas of Esquimalt that are designated for commercial and light-industrial are equally served by Esquimalt policies. There is already a revitalization program for Esquimalt Road under review: as part of this review, council should ask whether or not it makes sense to extend it to other areas already designated as commercial in order to support new and existing businesses across Esquimalt.

What are you doing or planning to do to reduce red tape for businesses to allow growth in Esquimalt?

We need to streamline approvals, in particular for small projects, by creating more specific policy guidelines and delegating decisions to staff more. When a small business wanted to build a patio in its own parking spot, it was required to seek approval from the Advisory Planning Commission and ultimately Council before proceeding. As a vice-chair of the APC, I have consistently advocated for fewer projects requiring these steps which add little value except for time and risk to the proponent. Council should work on setting policies and letting staff interpret them rather than being the final arbiter on every minor building project. In a similar vein, we should rely more on the Board of Variance (BoV) to quickly approve minor variances: other municipalities in the CRD refer far more to the BoV than Esquimalt does.