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Mayor Robertson says he will seek a fourth term

Mayor discusses transit, housing and Trudeau visit in year-end interview
In a year-end interview with the Courier, Mayor Gregor Robertson discussed seeking a fourth term, transit, housing and other issues central to his administration’s agenda. Photo Mike Howell

The next civic election is still three years away but Mayor Gregor Robertson says he plans to seek a fourth term to keep his job at city hall.

“I’m keeping that as my game plan,” the mayor told the Courier in a recent year-end interview. “I’ll keep doing this as long as I can make a big difference to the city. I’ve got three years still to go but I’m definitely happy in my job. It looks more compelling with the Trudeau government sending positive signals.”

That’s Trudeau, as in Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada and friend to Robertson. The signals? That would be the promises to invest in transit and housing, which are central to Robertson’s agenda.

The two leaders discussed those issues and others in a brief meeting when Trudeau visited city hall Dec. 17. The next day, Robertson sat down with the Courier to discuss the Trudeau visit, his globe-trotting climate change crusade, his failure to meet his goal of ending “street” homelessness and what he thought about all those character homes being demolished.

You heard the prime minister say at the city hall news conference that his government is trying to get money in place for transit projects to get started “as soon as we can.” Then he said, “But the projects are very much in the municipalities’ hands.” Was he implying Vancouver has more work to do before the government makes any commitments?

It’s more that the Trudeau government isn’t going to decide the local priorities for transit investment. They’re leaving it up to us to work out our priorities. Obviously that includes the province, given they’re a partner in all of this. We’re pulling together our mayors’ 10-year plan to put that back on the table in its entirety, in partnership with the provincial government, so we bring a united case forward to the federal government.

So it’s not going to be every municipality in Metro Vancouver for itself in terms of identifying transit projects?

My focus is on advancing the entire 10-year plan for our region and making sure we get that comprehensive investment rather than specific projects. We want to be sure we get the whole package.

Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t provincial Transportation Minister Todd Stone say that his government is committed to funding one-third of the mayors’ $7.5 billion, 10-year transit and transportation plan?

Yes, the province has committed one-third of the capital [investment]. The gap has been no federal government commitment to the 10-year plan. The province and the feds kept saying we had to come up with one-third locally, even though we collect 11 per cent of tax, which isn’t doable. It was an impossible formula. So now the federal government is signaling flexibility with the funding formula and we’ve advanced this “fair share” approach. The funding formula recognizes how much governments collect in taxes and, therefore, how much we can invest within our financial means.

What should that percentage be?

Ultimately, the region bears responsibility on the operating side through Translink. That’s our property taxes and fares, the gas tax and parking tax. Through the life cycle of all the transit investments, we end up contributing about a third on the operating side. Historically, the province and the feds have funded all the capital. Across the country, that’s been the standard. They have the tax base and fiscal capacity to fund the projects.

So you think the province and the feds should pay the whole shot for construction of  transit projects like a subway along Broadway?

That’s what we’re working on is making sure they contribute most or all of the capital so we can get projects started. And, locally, we need to come up with operating funding going forward.

We had a letter from a reader recently that asked this question: How can we allow the frenzy of real estate development and the accompanying demolition of perfectly good homes in many residential neighbourhoods in our city and claim to be on our way to being the greenest city in the world by 2020? What’s your answer?

It’s a tough predicament, given the pressure in the real estate market and buyers’ desire to upgrade or rebuild homes. It’s true that the greenest home is keeping the existing one intact and investing in improvements. But many buyers like to start fresh, and with property ownership rules, it’s tough to constrict that. We’ve been working on the heritage and character home side to protect homes prior to 1950 – the latest steps this week were with the green demolition program and deconstruction being required for homes before 1950. That’s another approach to dealing with the waste side and discouraging people from demolition and materials going to the landfill. We’ve taken action in the Shaughnessy Conservation Area and that’s the first of its kind in Vancouver. There have been lots of concerns raised and I totally appreciate it. It's sad to see old homes getting scraped away. That’s kind of the nature of cities in North America. They do turn over fast. You don’t see this scale of demolition in European cities but a lot of their homes are buildings were built to last far longer.

You spent a lot of time in 2015 travelling the planet to talk climate change. You’ve been to Rome, New York, Washington D.C. and Paris. Some have criticized you for your travels, saying more tangible issues for citizens like affordability, homelessness and transit need to be addressed 24/7. So, specifically, how have your trips directly benefited Vancouverites? Can you provide one tangible benefit?

The focus on climate change and the green economy in 2015, leading up to Paris, created a huge opportunity for Vancouver to be in the global spotlight and for our work to advocate for transit, in particular to be a federal election priority. On both fronts, Vancouver’s green economy is booming and we want to maintain that economic growth and attract investment and talent to Vancouver to be the mecca of green enterprise. So this year, a lot of my travel was focused on promoting our city as the green capital and attracting investment in this booming side of the economy.

But when you meet people on the street and they ask how your travels benefit them and their neighbours, what do you tell them?

Well, this creates jobs. Affordability is partially addressed by creating higher paying jobs and we’re seeing that in the green economy and the creative economy. We’re seeing the fastest job creation in the country now in these sectors. But we have to be out in the real world attracting the investment and talent. We’ve got to compete with other cities on this and we have great strengths but we can’t sit back at home and just hope people come.

Earlier this year, the homeless count revealed that you did not meet your goal to end street homelessness. Your critics said you gave homeless people false hope and that this was never a realistic goal. So was your promise just political bluster or did you actually think you could achieve your goal?

I absolutely felt that we could achieve that goal -- if all partners came to the table with enough support. As a city, we’ve done more than any city in Canada to address homelessness. But we’ve had a federal government that wasn’t interested and a provincial government that did good work and made unprecedented investments, but we need more. There’s still people outside and the only way to fix this is more investment from provincial and federal governments. We’re putting land and dollars on the table like never before as a city. We’ll keep doing that. This focus is still at the top of my list and I’m thankful to see a federal government that’s talking about more investment in homelessness across the country because it’s a national disgrace. I’m hopeful that the province will step up to the next level. I don’t think we shy away from setting that goal to ending street homelessness and making sure we’re doing everything we can. We need everyone at the table committed to that goal. We haven’t had a provincial or federal government agreeing that the goal was to end street homelessness. I thought and hoped that would be a goal that others would take up with us. They’ve helped some but more is needed.

You made a commitment in the last election campaign to be more accountable, consultative and transparent to citizens. During one election debate, you apologized for not fully listening to residents. Here we are a year later, what has your government done to rectify that communication breakdown?

We initiated many of the steps to fully engage Vancouverites last term but they’re now starting to make a difference. We saw a lot less blowback in 2015 on the development front. Several years ago we started pushing more engagement at an earlier stage in development and I think that’s starting to have its desired effect – that people feel like they had input on projects that are just starting now. We’ve certainly felt that through the council process. In everything we do in the city, engagement is the first priority, with making sure people are heard and I’m hopeful that this new tone is working. It feels to me like we’re getting less flack for the pace of change when, in fact, the pace continues.

You seem to pinning a lot of your hopes for improvements in transit and housing and other issues on the new Liberal government in Ottawa. So are you saying Vancouverites can rest easy now and expect significant change in the new year and years to come?

Almost half of Vancouver tax dollars go to Ottawa. So we should expect that they reinvest in our city’s priorities – like solving homelessness and transit. We have reason for optimism when the federal campaign promises of Trudeau and mandate letters to his ministers explicitly call for more investment in cities. So we’ve got plenty to be hopeful for but we’ve got to keep the pressure on and we can’t forget about the province. The B.C. government also collects nearly half of our tax dollars and we need to keep the pressure on them to invest in cities.

Note: This interview was edited and condensed.