8. A Day at the Circus

December 17 was a day to remember. It all started the night before when I read on the Richmond Review website about a special meeting of Richmond Council to discuss the Garden City lands. I dug into the 43-page information package*.

Soon I was perusing a lawyer’s letter. A council committee had requested a second opinion on certain questions from—in the words of George Duncan, Richmond’s chief administrative officer—“an independent law firm.” The request apparently arose from concerns about advice, via city staff, from the city’s usual Garden City lands lawyer. Instead of a second opinion, the letter turned out to be, in Mr. Duncan’s words, “a summation of discussions and legal advice that we have held/received from [the usual lawyer] from time to time. . . .”

As I read the letter, I wondered about some interpretations and omissions, so I started an analysis on the Garden City Lands blog. Then I read that the lawyer was wondering too. On the core question, he said that different opinions were possible, and he had no opinion about what the courts would decide.

I was surprised to see a federal bureaucrat’s letter favouring Canada Lands Company’s ownership in a way that seemed at odds with the Garden City lands agreements. Then I saw it had stemmed from discussion with Canada Lands, with no reference to the agreements.

I blogged until 3 a.m., emailed council to share my input, and fell asleep, happy they would learn the truth.

At the meeting that afternoon, I addressed council. Since I’d noticed key gaps in their information, I tried to enable them to make informed decisions. That’s when the fun mushroomed.

I pointed out the mistake in stating that the city would get 68 acres, half the lands. In the information package, the city’s uses for the lands that will be presented to the public and eventually the Agricultural Land Commission don’t include the underfunded trade and exhibition centre, and the effect under the agreements is that the land for it will be split with Canada Lands and the Musqueam Indian Band. That reduces the city’s share to 58 acres, with 78 acres for Canada Lands and the Musqueam.

The “Richmond land uses” are explicitly stated in a resolution that all council members supported. However, when questioned after I pointed out the effect, city staff said that maybe there’ll be a downsized trade and exhibition centre. They were busy and hadn’t had time to mention it.

The city’s stated land uses also don’t include schools, and the cost will be massive if the school board has to buy land from the developers at mega-density residential prices. I suggested ensuring space for schools. Someone quipped about high-rise schools.

It seems that the city hasn’t thought much about the future Garden City lands population, let alone school kids. But I have. The minimum need, based on expert advice, censuses, and school board reports, including trends, is for two large elementary schools. In response to a question, I explained that.

The mayor, seeming irritated, expressed his awareness that one more city centre school might be needed but not necessarily in the nearby Garden City lands. That school is already required, so it will hardly have room for another thousand children. Also, school board would not want huge numbers of children to have to travel long distances—and across major arterial roads—between the Garden City Lands and the city centre, but there was no chance to make the case further.

There was related discussion about the development density, which staff  seemed to view as medium. In reality, the agreements require a floor area ratio (at least 2.0 to 2.5) that is higher than the high-density-residential limit in Richmond’s zoning bylaw (maximum of 2.0, as stated in clause 205.2.01c). It’s best described as mega-density.

I advocated that we consider the effects, especially ongoing risk, of the city not taking ownership until at least January 2013 and probably far later. That date, which city staff didn’t know about, is derived from a George Duncan memo.

A major risk is that the Musqueam and/or Canada Lands will terminate the agreements in later years if the city doesn’t keep them happy. That could leave them with vastly more value if the lands have somehow been removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve—and leave the city in a mess. My warning was shrugged off, but those who study the agreements won’t shrug.

Time ran out before I could explain how the city’s options are limited by the parcels of city land being scattered throughout the megadensity development, as required in the agreements. That arrangment is good for Canada Lands’ developments, since it gives them green space, but it makes the city lands less available to benefit the whole city.

Linda Barnes, one of a few alert council members, brought up city expenses from taking on Canada Lands’ responsibility for the application to the Agricultural Land Commission to remove the lands from the ALR. Then I realized why city staff can’t keep up: the application is devouring staff time.

As my eyes glazed, the scene morphed into seals jumping through hoops, ostriches with their heads in the sand, and in-sync trapeze artists at a higher level.

_______________

*Note: If you don’t mind downloading a 2 MB PDF, you can study the Dec. 17 meeting package. The download will not be fast.

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