Pick up any new condo ad and you get the sense that Vancouver is perpetually stuck in summer. Sun-drenched landscapes open up to lush green fields counterposed with calm waterfront scenes. Condo towers reflect on the water like huge unimposing spaceships. The North Shore Mountains complete the frame. In this reflective landscape, nature merges with its setting. At nightfall, the reflective gleam of condo towers shimmer on the Burrard Inlet, always delivering a garish constellation.

In this great real estate fiction, Vancouver comes into being as an Elysian idyll. Leisure is aplenty in this vision of the afterlife: cycling, kayaking, jogging, wine-drinking, yoga — whatever your heart contents. Weekends extend into the weekday as a waking-dream outside the day-to-day drudgery of the wage-relation. The city is endowed with a sense of grace and visual impunity. The wish-images of the future merge with death mask of its afterlife, perpetuating a present without history. Nature is imparted to the people as an unencumbered fiction.

Editors’ note: This is the first part of a series exploring the politics of sustainability, development and urban entrepreneurialism. The second part of this series will build on the analysis put forward by exploring specific case studies in Vancouver.

Vancouver has a complicated relationship with nature. Over the last decade sustainability discourses and city policies are increasingly mobilized to defend private development, in particular, condo mega-projects which are marketed as transit-oriented developments. Sustainability is embedded within a broader language and policy framework of urban entrepreneurialism and relentless ‘global city’ posturing. Urban sustainability is constructed as post-political, striving to avoid traditional ideological divisions between left and right…

City Hall is taking steps towards removing the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, leaving high-cost housing and new traffic problems in their place. The City claims that these new traffic problems can be solved by expanding one of the streets into the historic neighborhood of Strathcona. The two sites that are under threat of displacement are the Cottonwood and Strathcona community gardens, two of the oldest and largest in community gardens in town. The newer Purple Thistle Food Forest at Vernon and Charles streets, only a few blocks away, would also be threatened.

These gardens provide some of the city’s most peaceful green space and essential food sources for many Downtown Eastside residents. After this growing season and generations of use, the last thing many gardeners want is to have to struggle to protect their community from a major construction development.

The proposed street expansion on either Prior or Malkin would pave over significant portions of the historic gardens. The bulk of Cottonwood Garden’s three acres is spread along the length of Malkin street (see image below). In the expansion plans, Malkin would widen to six lanes, not including the bike lanes and dividers which gardeners estimate would reach up to eight lanes of space. According to City plans, this would destroy the majority of the garden. If the remaining space is spared by redevelopment, gardeners are concerned that this final sliver would be flooded with noise and air pollution.

Below, Tristan Markle of The Mainlander interviews Vision Vancouver’s Geoff Meggs, who is running for re-election to Vancouver City Council. We discuss Vancouver’s unaffordability malady: would Meggs make the correct diagnosis, or propose a sufficient intervention? We discuss other cities with similar disorders, but which have more robust public housing programs: would Meggs help implement those programs here, or take responsibility for the ongoing destruction of public housing? We discuss developer contributions to political parties: is Vision passing the buck on campaign finance reform? Finally, we compare 1983’s Operation Solidarity (in which Meggs was heavily involved) to the Occupy Together movement: is Vision misrepresenting, even vilifying, the new movement?

Markle: Why is housing so unaffordable in Vancouver, what’s the main reason?

Meggs: I would say there’s some short term key drivers, and some longer term ones. In the short term, the key reason’s been that the economy’s been quite buoyant here, and we’ve had a lot of people moving here, so it’s been driving up demand, and demand has been coupled with a lot of speculation. Because for about about 15 -20 years housing prices have tended to go up. So there’s a speculative element, there’s no doubt about it. But I think in the longer term I think the bigger picture is that land supply is quite constrained here and the ALR [the Agricultural Land Reserve] is part of that, it’s a positive part but it’s a contributor.

Markle: When you said that speculation plays a part, what exactly do you mean?

Meggs: Well I think many people had an expectation for a long time that if they purchased real estate that they would see gains in their equity that was faster than the rate of inflation. In other words, they could benefit economically by buying real estate more so than buying an RRSP or putting it in a bank account or buying Canadian savings bonds. And for a long time that was true. As a result, there was more pressure on the market than was justified by reality.

Markle: Last year prices went up over 20%, still. So how is that happening?

Meggs: Well I’m not an expert on all of these things, but I believe that because the BC economy and the Canadian economy have been relatively buffered from the global crisis, and because there are a number of underlying factors that make this a very attractive place to live – you know, say, no civil wars or armed conflicts going on, a pretty solid stable legal system, all of these things that are appealing – a lot of people have been coming here to purchase and to some degree to speculate. So we’ve continued to see higher prices than almost anywhere else in North America, certainly in stark contrast to the United States, for sure. That seems to be related to our place in the global economy.

Markle: We hear a lot about people from other countries buying property here on the one hand, but research doesn’t make it so clear that the majority of capital invested in new condos, for example, is necessarily coming from people from elsewhere, at all. You’ve covered some of the research that shows that it’s not so simple as that.

Meggs: I don’t think it’s useful to pursue that line of inquiry at all personally, and potentially dangerous, because it’s a classic deflection in BC politics to blame our problems on outsiders. The reality is that if there are purchases by offshore investors at the high end of the market, it’s not having and impact on anybody that I’m worried about at all. The real problem is at the mid-range.

Markle: Depending on what type of housing you’re looking at, whether it’s stand-alone homes or condos, the median price is way out of proportion to median income. High end properties won’t affect that median much at all. So when Bob Rennie did a study recently which said that all the talk about housing being unaffordable is skewed by the high end, he missed the point. The most simple measures of housing affordability – median income versus median price – are not affected by high end. So what is it then that’s driving up the prices, if it’s for the large part not money flowing in necessarily from elsewhere, not necessarily for high end luxury properties, so what is it?

Graphic Is Building Massing Drawing for STIR Project Now Under Construction at 3522 Porter Street, 1896-1898 Victoria Diversion, 3615 Victoria Drive (DE413947) ]

Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing (STIR) has been around for two years now. The city web site still claims that STIR is “a time limited (2.5 year) program” that has fastened onto

an opportunity to increase rental housing supply during the current economic downturn, while supporting the development industry to maintain jobs and invest in the City’s economy.

The “short term” is now promising to become indefinite long term. The recent Housing and Homelessness Strategy 2012-2021 (July 2011) says:

Enhance on-going rental incentive program building on lessons from STIR. Continue to achieve secure purpose built rental housing. Focus on assisting smaller projects. (Appendix B, page 4 of 11)

“Assisting” indeed. This rich and supposedly temporary package of giveaways to Vancouver’s development industry appears to have become highly addictive.

All that Vancouver residents get back from providing heavy subsidies to developers is a vaguely specified requirement for production of market rental housing.

In other words, the developer rakes in a package of fee waivers, favorable property tax assessments, parking reductions, priority permit processing — and at the same time achieves steroidal density and obtains latitude to build even smaller boxes than usual.

It’s about a lot more than viaducts.

On July 27, council’s Standing Committee on Transportation and Traffic voted to begin a comprehensive planning process for the future of the False Creek Flats, including exploring the reconfiguration or removal of the Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts into the East side. The idea of reducing or removing freeways is something lots of folks are talking about, but this plan, called the Eastern Core Strategy Study, is about a lot more than just freeways.

At the heart of the study is the acknowledgment that reducing or completely removing the viaducts will bring fundamental change to this area, one of the last areas in the city with the potential for major redevelopment. The initial phase of the study, as adopted by council, will take what staff calls a “big picture” look at the flats, including “land use and development potential” should the viaducts come down. This area includes not only city-owned lands, but also lands owned by Providence healthcare (the Catholic authority which runs St. Paul’s hospital) and developer giant Concord Pacific.

Although the first phase of the strategy carefully avoids defining what it means by “development” (the staff presentation to Council focused on uses like parks), the elephant in the room is, of course, opening up what’s currently an industrial wasteland bisected by freeways to commercial real estate development. Read: condos.

Vancouver’s two developer-funded parties, the NPA and Vision, are identical on core policy issues. Both put developers before people, and hold their breath for the market to solve our affordability and homelessness crisis. With an election on the horizon, the NPA is desperately attempting to distinguish themselves from their Vision doppelganger. In the absence of substantive differences, much is made of minor sideshows, especially environmental ones. The NPA first opposed backyard chickens, then eschewed downtown bike lanes, and recently denounced the Greenest City Neighbourhood Grants program.

But now the riot has given the NPA a new way to frame its opposition to these environmental sideshows. The NPA team is arguing that the mayor was too distracted by environmental concerns to pre-empt the Stanley Cup riot. But it is the NPA who is directing the sideshow, and it is the public who is distracted. Even with respect to the riot there is little meaningful difference between the NPA and Vision. Despite criticizing the Mayor for inviting masses of people into a confined area downtown, it was an NPA candidate who proposed the idea. He even claimed that opening up BC place stadium could be paid for through food and alcohol sales. At bottom, the NPA’s claim is that it would have implemented a different crowd management strategy involving more aggressive policing. Looking to history, we saw the results of such an approach in 1994 when riots exploded under the nose of NPA Mayor Phillip Owen: police over-reaction led to more cracked heads than windows.