'The pandemic has really been a magnifying glass': a Q&A with Mayor Lisa Helps

The mayor talks housing, procurement, and plans for her final two years in office

By Jimmy Thomson
December 29, 2020

'The pandemic has really been a magnifying glass': a Q&A with Mayor Lisa Helps

The mayor talks housing, procurement, and plans for her final two years in office

By Jimmy Thomson
Dec 29, 2020
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps at unveiling of the City’s first on-street electric charging stations on Broad Street. Photo: Kelly-Anne Malcolmson / City of Victoria.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps at unveiling of the City’s first on-street electric charging stations on Broad Street. Photo: Kelly-Anne Malcolmson / City of Victoria.

'The pandemic has really been a magnifying glass': a Q&A with Mayor Lisa Helps

The mayor talks housing, procurement, and plans for her final two years in office

By Jimmy Thomson
December 29, 2020
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'The pandemic has really been a magnifying glass': a Q&A with Mayor Lisa Helps
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps at unveiling of the City’s first on-street electric charging stations on Broad Street. Photo: Kelly-Anne Malcolmson / City of Victoria.

This year was unlike any other in living memory, and yet civic life continued: businesses struggled to serve their customers under difficult and ever-changing conditions, residents adjusted to unfamiliar new neighbours who themselves were hoping for better, and the city looked through the rubble toward its recovery from this unique catastrophe. At the end of 2020, the longest year in many decades, Capital Daily sat down with Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps to wrap up the year and look forward at what to expect from 2021.

The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The photos last week, of campers in North Part flooded and frozen out of their tents, were pretty shocking to a lot of people—and obviously even more so to the people living in that situation. What's happening next, for the people who've now been moved to the Royal Athletic Park parking lot?

We're going to continue to work with the provincial government and encourage them and support them to create indoor spaces for people to move into.

Will those indoor spaces be in the Save-On Foods arena? Is that on the table at this point?

Yeah, the provincial government is working with the current operator of the facility just as they did earlier in the year to come up with an arrangement to hopefully open it. They haven't confirmed anything yet. But that is all well within capable provincial hands.

There was some big news this month: the Johnson Street Bridge audit was cancelled. What did you think of that?

I thought it when it happened, that that's a logical decision for the auditor to make considering his office has been shut down. And we're in the middle of a pandemic, and he wasn't able to do the work. I think we would have learned a lot about procurement from the audit.

What does it mean for future big projects?

But in terms of the next big capital project, we didn't need the audit to tell us all the things that had gone wrong with the bridge, and we, in fact, have our next big capital project underway right now. No one talks about it, because it's going well, which is the fire hall. So you know, the Johnson Street Bridge was in the news more times than I care to imagine. And I think the fire hall was in the news when we broke ground, and then when we announced that there's affordable housing on top, and that's about it.

So we took all the lessons learned, and we created a project management framework—which, shockingly, there wasn't something like that in place before the bridge project was undertaken. But more importantly, we created an estimates policy. So I think we had three private sector quantity surveyors go over the fire hall plans before we signed the contract. And then we didn't build it ourselves, we're contracting with the private sector to build the hall for us; we've paid them a $2 million deposit, and when they deliver us the fire hall, we'll pay them the rest. So all the lessons learned on the bridge have been applied to our next big project, which is underway right now without any any problem at all.

What are you most proud of from this year?

What I'm most proud of is the way that our community has really come together to support each other. I think I did a Facebook Live every day for 57 days or something like that. And at the end of each, during the kind of the height of the pandemic and at the end of each episode, we would highlight some community activity or community initiatives that was happening, [or] something in the business community, and really that is what I feel most proud of. This has been a year like no other.

And it could have been a lot worse. It could have been worse for business. It could have been worse for people who are seniors and isolated, worse for people with mental health challenges. But really I've seen our community come together and really, really support each other and not let up with that support even throughout the very long year that it's been. So I feel most proud of that.

And what are you proud of from your office, in terms of your own initiatives?

Despite the pandemic, work continued. I think the two things that I am most proud of is the release and adoption of Victoria 3.0, which is our economic action plan that digs us out of the pandemic in terms of economic recovery. Equally importantly, it lays the groundwork for a more diversified, more resilient, more inclusive economy over the next 20 years, which will be able to withstand future shocks of tourists not coming and all the provincial employees staying home. So that was adopted by Council in May. It was met with pretty big acclaim, I think both locally, and we got some good press from Western Investor as well, saying that we were a 'shining light' coming out of the pandemic. So that kind of knowledge from the private sector to Victoria 3.0 is definitely something to be proud of.

The second piece that I'm most proud of, it's one of the first big actions coming out of Victoria 3.0, which is the development of an Ocean Futures Hub and Cluster here in Victoria for the South Island. And really, in some ways, for all of British Columbia. So we got some federal funding earlier in the year from WD, to develop a business case, we worked with the ocean and marine sector really hard over a three-month period from August until November, we were delivered a business case very recently that says this is something that is not only feasible here, but necessary here to make sure that our region captures part of the $3 trillion economic opportunity that the ocean and marine sector is going to explode into over the next 10 years. And so we're now going to take the next steps in the new year to to get a hub and cluster organization up and running and bring some federal funding here to support businesses in those sectors to grow and find better export opportunities. So again, it was a lot of work this year, because I was managing the present and the future at the same time. But the ocean futures cluster is a tremendous opportunity. And it really came to life this past year.

What do you regret?

Well, I wish I'd known that pandemic was coming. That's for sure. You know, and I think as a whole society, one of the things that—I'll say my personal part in this—but one of the things that I think we all regret probably is, we know about those who are vulnerable and those who aren't, we know that inequality exists. But the pandemic has really been a magnifying glass to shine a light on that. The most visible manifestation out in our community and in cities across the country this year has been homelessness.

So I regret that as a city government, working with the province and federal governments, that we didn't do a better job, pre-pandemic, of making sure that everybody in this country city and province has a home—which is a human right, the federal government has declared housing as a human right. And because we didn't do that in advance, then then we still have people living in flooded parks, with absolutely no shelter spaces available, or housing available, in the middle of a global health pandemic. So that's, I think, my biggest regret, that we didn't have better solutions in place.

One of the myths that hopefully, hopefully has been busted this year is that, 'well, you know, people living outside really want to be outside they don't want to go inside.' Right now there literally is not one free shelter space anywhere any night in the region. And there are a lot of people who would want to go in from this if there were.

Looking forward to 2021: you mentioned the Ocean Futures Hub. When will we know more about that, and the planned Arts District?

Hopefully very soon in 2021, there'll be a bit of a splash, no pun intended, with the Ocean Futures Hub. We want to appoint an interim or startup CEO, and get a board created to basically get the organization underway. I think we'll see some interesting moves from other parts of the community that will—and none of this is my news to share—but that will give some some weight, both to the Ocean Futures Hub, and to the Arts and Innovation District.

The Arts and Innovation District—we need to get the planning process underway to lay the groundwork for the future. I talked to the landowners a couple years ago, as we were putting the idea together, and they said, 'if you want this to be an innovative district, and you've got to take an innovative approach yourselves,' which basically means doing a city-initiated rezoning of the entire area, to de-risk investment for the private sector in the future.

So we're going to set the table for what we'd like to see there: artists, studios, affordable artists' spaces, high-tech incubators, beautiful architecture, world class passive-house structures, all of those kinds of things. And we're gonna lay the groundwork for that by city-initiated rezoning. So that means that, in the future, when people go to build their five storey or 10-storey building, they'll know what it is, what can go in, if they want extra height or density, what they'll need to provide in terms of community amenities. And so that's really the work for 2021.

In terms of the Arts and Innovation District, it won't be too much visible down there, although we'd like to do a few small things that will kind of signal that there's that it's an exciting place with an exciting future. One of the private sector folks that we've been working with has called the Arts and Innovation District 'Victoria's next 100 years.' And I like that.

How is the Zero Waste strategy going to start playing out this year?

Well, it already is, with the zero-waste bins that are out in the public already. So that that was the first real step. It's such a basic one. But I think we're gonna have 20 or 30 more of those that are approved in the 2021 budget. And then staff will be working on both single-use bylaws, but also single-use pilot projects. There were some getting underway pre pandemic; there's a company, they were starting basically a cup exchange, for lack of a better word—if you got a coffee at participating coffee shops, you'd get a Nulla mug, and then you could drop it off at any other participating coffee shop and get your deposit back or just get another Nulla mug.

So that is the tip of the iceberg.

There are probably lots of creative ideas for how to accommodate takeout but not have everything go in the garbage. Those single-use items are key in terms of waste reduction, so we'll see some some pilots on that in 2021. And then also staff will be looking at some kind of bylaw for 'unbuilding.'

Unbuilding, (the process of deconstructing a house and salvaging most of it instead of demolishing it) has been gaining in popularity in BC. But it's much more expensive than demolition. What form might you expect a bylaw to take that would encourage unbuilding? Would it be something that penalizes traditional demolition or something that provides for incentives?

I don't know. Staff are still in the process of developing that; I think that there are some some best practices from elsewhere. But the point that the Unbuilders [founder, Adam Corneil] made in the press release that we sent out—and I think I copied it for my TC op ed and blog post is that we're literally throwing money in the garbage. There is so much value in those old buildings. So it might first come across as a bit of penalization or disincentives, but if there's a market for those kinds of things—which obviously there is because this guy's built a whole company around it—then I think we it might be more carrots than sticks that we end up using.

What's going to happen in March with the campers?

Well, hopefully things start happening before March with the campers. You know, I'm doing calculations every day about how many spaces are available could be available. But hopefully, the province will reopen the arena. So that would be 40 to 50 spaces that people could move into on a temporary basis. But certainly until until permanent solutions are found, the Capital City Centre—that's the motel where there was a fire —is going to reopen in mid January. Some people will be moving back in there, but others have been transitioned to other opportunities. So there'll be about 30 spaces available there.

There are right now 80 theoretical spaces available, through Island health and BC Housing rent supplements, that could be used in the private market or in affordable rental units at the Capital Regional Housing Corp. But the rent subsidies only add up to $825 a month and some of the market units start at $1,275 or $1,395. So I think again, that's a question for the provincial government. If we really want to get those rent supplements leveraged, they're going to need to top them up a bit. And I think that's hopefully something that's being considered.

So if you add in those 80 units, we're up to 150 spaces, which is getting close to providing for those who are outside. There's 24 more units opening in Langford, 24 units renting at $375 that are opening in March. So it's going to be a bit of a patch together to make sure that everyone who's currently living outside is offered a space inside by the end of March. But it is possible. BC housing believes it's possible, the housing minister believes it's possible, and we're all working together towards that date.

You have a little less than two years remaining in office. What do you want to accomplish in that time?

I have a list, actually. It's more of a mind map than a list. So I would like to get the Ocean Futures Hub and Cluster off the ground. I would like to have the Arts and Innovation District rezoned, and Micro Innovation District, up and running. That's one of the smaller actions. I would like to get everyone housed. I would like to have the Apex building under construction. That was another quiet success of this year: the City agreed to sell a piece of City-owned land to Telus to build Telus Ocean. That's at the corner of Humboldt and Douglas. So I'd like to have that under construction.

I would like to have 154 units of housing at Caledonia—which is actually right across the street from my house—under construction. The City bought a piece of land at 930 Pandora; I'd like to have a plan for that, and have that under construction. I'd like to have a plan for a new library. And again, that's a very real project that's in the works right now, a new Central Library. I'd like to have a plan in place for the old fire hall, the new one will be ready in 2022 and we need to start planning for what happens with the land at the old one. So I'd like to have that plan in place.

And more broadly, I would like to have an Island-wide climate plan adopted. That's something that I've been quietly working on with colleagues up and down the region, the Vancouver Island climate leadership plan. So that would be good to have that 2030 plan in place.

So that's a lot in the next 22 months, but that's everything I want to do. It's just a matter of keeping my foot on the gas, as it were—or on the accelerator if you're in an electric car and there's no gas. And yeah, keeping pushing, that's my job.

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