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Letter to Mayor and Council re. 2023 budget and 2023-2026 strategic plan

January 16, 2023


To Mayor Alto and Council:


Re. Victoria Downtown Residents Association requests for consideration in the 2023 Budget and the 2023-2026 Strategic Plan


The Victoria Downtown Residents Association (DRA) is a volunteer, member-elected and provincially registered non-profit society that supports and fosters a diverse, vibrant, and safe Downtown neighbourhood for all our residents, both present and future.


In 2021, the estimated population of the neighbourhood was 8,945, an increase of 51% since 2016. By comparison, the City of Victoria has grown only 7.1% over the same period of time. Between the years 2016 and 2021, 3,000 units of housing were added to our neighbourhood and an additional 3,800 are under construction or in the development process. With an average of 1.5 people per household, our residents occupy 5,655 private dwellings, 99% of which are multi-unit buildings.


Living in the midst of such density provides unique challenges to developing a healthy sense of community. To welcome and integrate new residents, meet their needs for public amenities and increase the livability of the neighbourhood, including adaptation to climate change, intentional action is required on the part of both the municipal government and non-profit organizations such as neighbourhood associations.



With this in mind, we are writing to request your consideration as we articulate our needs on behalf of our neighbourhood. We are grateful to Council for the increase in DRA funding during 2022, which provided the staffing resources to hire a Neighbourhood Engagement Coordinator and a Land Use Planning Advisor and, among other things, to conduct a residents survey to learn more about the concerns of those living Downtown. Given the public engagement challenges of multi-unit dwellings, the survey gave us valuable information about those who choose to live in our neighbourhood. The DRA strongly urges Council to implement the following actions so the Downtown neighbourhood can become more engaging and attractive to residents. Together we can build a stronger and more resilient community.


Parks/Green Space/Tree Canopy/Playgrounds/Community Centre: The ongoing shortage of parks and green space in the Downtown neighbourhood is of increasing concern as the realities of climate change have become apparent, especially over these last couple of years. According to the City’s Urban Forest Master Plan, the Downtown neighbourhood has the lowest percentage of tree cover in Victoria. Government Street’s canopy cover is estimated at 14%, half the city-wide average of 28%. If one looks at the Downtown neighbourhood as a whole, the canopy cover is estimated to be less than 10%. This has a significant impact on the ability of those in our neighbourhood to cool themselves during the heat of the summer months. Studies done at UBC suggest that neighbourhoods which have higher amounts of canopy cover can be 8-20 degrees Celsius cooler than neighbourhoods surrounded by concrete and asphalt. We are concerned that this situation will worsen when the Government Street Refresh is completed and the trees that currently shade Government Street are removed and potentially replaced with immature ones. Those of us who have access to transportation can easily leave for other neighbourhoods during the worst of the summer heat. For those with mobility challenges or limited income, the options are few and the consequences potentially lethal. (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/green-canopy-climate-change-1.6500919)


In addition, the Downtown neighbourhood is demonstrably deficient in parks and green space. Currently, the neighbourhood has three small parks (Harris Green, Cridge and Reeson) all located on the periphery of our boundaries and all without washrooms or recreational facilities. We have almost no places for residents to gather. Although we border the ocean, there are no access points to the water. We are without children playgrounds, off-leash dog parks or a community centre.


With 3,800 new units of housing either under construction or in the development process, our neighbourhood is absorbing the majority of new density in the City without public amenities being delivered to increase the quality of life for those who make Downtown their home. Our neighbourhood is more than a location for business or tourism and requires what other neighbourhoods have and take for granted - access to public amenities.


We ask Council to include in their 2023-2026 Strategic Plan a commitment to acquire and adequately fund new land for parks, to identify and develop orphan lots that might be suitable for pocket parks, to begin planning for a community centre and to prioritize the planting of shade trees in our neighbourhood.


Community Gardens: The Yates Street Community Garden (YSCG) has been an important part of the Downtown community since it was first opened in the spring of 2017. Since then, the community garden has grown to 75 garden beds available to residents. In addition, garden beds are dedicated to community services such as the Victoria Immigration and Refugee Centre and the Victoria Disability Resource Centre. These garden beds provide an important source of fresh and healthy food and help address the issue of food security for Downtown residents. Access to garden beds is especially critical to Downtown residents who almost exclusively live in multi-unit buildings without access to private gardens or even boulevards to grow their own food.


The waitlist for the YSCG has soared to over 175 applicants. The continued increase in the number of new Downtown residences is likely to mean that the waitlist will grow in number. This high demand has prompted the YSCG Steering Committee to search for a possible site for a second community garden. The DRA envisions a second community garden serving multiple community functions. In addition to providing community garden plots, a second community garden could serve as a place for education, hosting community events, supporting food security systems in the Downtown neighbourhood and as a public space accessible to all residents of the community. One model for this is UpGarden in Seattle (http://upgarden.org). Recognizing a lack of available street level options, an innovative potential solution would be the transformation of the rooftop of the City-owned View Street parkade. We have tracked car use in this parkade for over a year and have data to show that the roof-top space is significantly under-utilized.


We request that, as part of the 2023-2026 Strategic Plan, Council instruct staff to work with the Steering Committee of the Yates Street Community Garden to explore the feasibility of using the View Street Parkade as a future second community garden site for the Downtown neighbourhood.


Transportation Planning: The DRA supports and applauds the cycling infrastructure that has been installed and welcomes the continued expansion of the AAA cycling network through our neighbourhood. However, maintenance and improvements to the pedestrian infrastructure have not kept pace, and with a high number of Downtown residents who walk or run as their primary means of moving around the City, this needs to be addressed. This issue is of even greater importance to persons with mobility challenges.



When asked about priorities regarding future transportation improvements in the Downtown neighbourhood, pedestrian infrastructure ranked the highest (32%) and there was an even spread among the other options, with transit infrastructure at 20% and cycling infrastructure at 18%.

74% of respondents strongly agreed or agreed with supporting car-free zones in the neighbourhood. This should be an important consideration in the continuation and possible expansion of the car-free zone on Government Street.


We request additional signage, crosswalk markings and expanded use of flashing lights at crosswalks as an important step in providing greater safety for pedestrians. Also, a commitment to the creation of more mid-block walkways that are permanently open is needed. This would promote more walking Downtown and would support the needs of elderly and mobility challenged residents.


Housing Affordability and Livability: Housing affordability continues to be one of the main issues of concern for Downtown residents, with 75% citing it as a priority in our 2022 residents survey. The DRA acknowledges the pressing need for additional rental housing in Victoria - especially affordable rentals - and supports and encourages the development of additional and affordable rental housing within the Downtown neighbourhood. We are pleased to see movement on the part of the provincial government to respond to these concerns and applaud the commitment of Council to address this issue. We believe that affordability and livability go hand in hand and that housing can be developed in a way that promotes and fosters the livability of the City, especially the neighbourhood in which the housing is located. Council must address the on-going and continuing failure to commit to providing real public amenities in our neighbourhood, despite the significant recent and on-going increases in population. 



The DRA urges Council work with senior levels of government to consider various other options to address affordability including “vacancy controls” which would tie rent increases to the unit and not to the tenant thereby limiting increases between tenancies.


Needs of the Unsheltered Population: Homelessness was mentioned by a significant number of respondents to our residents survey as a concern that impacts multiple topics: housing, public safety, and use of parks. Special concern has been expressed about those left to camp on Pandora Avenue and in public parks this winter. Given the lack of adequate shelter space and the complex issues that often make shelters unattractive to those who remain outside, we believe that meeting basic human needs for washroom facilities on the 900 block of Pandora would improve not only the lives of those living on the block but would also help to alleviate the strain on small businesses, non-profit service providers and faith organizations in the area. This is the bare minimum that needs to be done to treat those who are most marginalized with dignity.


We request that priority be given to creating temporary, public, staffed washrooms on the 900 block of Pandora Avenue open 24/7 until there is a clear strategy to meet the needs of those who currently fall outside the shelter and housing system.


Adoption of a Municipal Alcohol Policy: The creation of a municipal alcohol policy was a strategic plan deliverable for the Fall of 2019. It is our understanding that the staff work has been completed and that the policy awaits a final review by Council. During this time, many applications for liquor licenses in the Downtown have been approved without clear guidelines for decision-making. These include licenses for new venues and for expansion of existing venues.


We ask Council to move this process through to its conclusion so that decision-making is guided by clear policy. The Municipal Alcohol Policy will provide a uniform standard across all stakeholders who connect with the approval process and replace the ad hoc decision-making process currently in use. Applicants will have a better understanding of what is expected of them. Staff will have a reliable standard on which to assess applications. The DRA will be able to respond appropriately when asked to review and comment and Council can be assured that each application coming before them has been assessed on the basis of the same criteria as every other.


Thank you for your consideration.


Sandra Severs

President

Victoria Downtown Neighbourhood Association

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