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Mike Robinson“We are basically not a self-sustaining society. There is no other way to provide amenities we need … currently land and development is one of Canada’s biggest exports,” Ian Egloff of Creekside Architects is quoted as saying in Kerry Gold’s real estate column in the Globe and Mail on Nov. 25.

What a great oxymoron. How can land and housing developments be exports when they’re architecturally and concretely rooted to our civic footprint? Who’s buying them? Where do these supposed exports go? Who profits from them? Are they good for cities like Vancouver and Toronto?

Some of the answers are found in Gold’s column about a mixed-use development planned in Vancouver. The company building it is 1032682 B.C. Inc. According to their architect and spokesperson, Egloff, the company’s owners are from China and they’re active in small projects. The housing units are likely being marketed to offshore buyers.

Dollars from outside the country are paying for the development. And, as Egloff says, “We are getting foreign investment, money from outside the country, that is going to provide this amenity for us, and obviously, take the profit overseas.”

So the export is profit, in Canadian dollars, probably provided to the developer by foreign buyers buying investment units.

Canadians benefit as local project bankers, architects, builders and real estate agents. But probably not as home owners.

As the mixed-use project has retail space, maybe some small businesses will move into the building. But local businesses interviewed for the article were skeptical. New building rents are generally higher than going rates for established sites, perhaps by as much as 60 to 80 percent, and city taxes would increase in lockstep. Why would a local entrepreneur take this additional risk in a new shopping strip development?

You could also question Egloff’s assumption that such an amenity is needed. When I drive around my childhood neighbourhood of Dunbar Street, on Vancouver’s west side, I see lots of new condos going up. But they’re replacing the small businesses of my youth. Toy stores, bookshops, grocery stores, gas stations and collision repair shops have moved on as developers carried out the predictable land assemblies for larger projects.

Up and down the adjacent residential streets where I once walked to kindergarten are beautifully-renovated houses with manicured lawns and gardens – but no residents. They are safe-deposit-box homes for the offshore owners in what I think of as a safe-deposit-box neighbourhood.

What’s the point of this form of civic renewal?

In our national quest for environmental and economic sustainability, are we happy about foreign-owned neighbourhoods, with infrequent visitation, silent streets where children never play and real small-business amenities don’t exist?

The actual commodity here isn’t land and mixed-use development, it’s community. And it hasn’t been exported overseas with the developer’s profits, it’s being killed as investor communities replace residential ones.

Looking back at the B.C. economy that baby boomers grew up with, there’s been a fair bit of trouncing of previous export commodities. Most of the old-growth forests have been cut, the herring and chinook salmon stocks are waning, and most B.C. mining companies now make their profits outside the province.

All those commodities were strong export muscles for the provincial economy. But, one by one, they’ve been over-exploited and under-sustained. The public amenities provided by the tax base they once generated are now wearing out and need to be replaced.

In their place, the new tax dollars for amenity construction are “land and development” based, as Egloff points out.

Where is this all leading?

Paradoxically, the vacant communities of safe-deposit-box houses are starting to pay for the renewal of hospitals, universities, highways and bridges that were first paid for by actual exports.

The great irony is that the new amenities are blossoming in a Vancouver that increasingly can’t sustain its population of service, retail and professional workers. They’re being priced out of the housing market. From barista to restauranteur to physician, they’re slowly learning that their work and residential futures lie more in outlying municipalities than in Vancouver communities.

What happens to Vancouver when it loses all its worker bees? Who’s going to look after the hive?

What’s left won’t be a self-sustaining community. And no amount of offshore investment by Egloff’s clients and others will change that.

Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.

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civic renewal, communities

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