Vancouver needs to keep jobs close at hand

Byline: Don Cayo
Vancouver Sun
You can quibble about the details — and it is clear that some people are digging in to endlessly do so — but the nub of Mayor Sam Sullivan’s EcoDensity vision is a no-brainer.
This is an era where concerns such as the impact of urban traffic (and gridlock) on climate change, and the supply and cost of energy have rightly come to the fore. It makes complete sense to develop policies that allow and encourage people to live closer to where they work.
The EcoDensity discussion is focused on an important half of the equation — where people will live. But what about the other half? If we succeed in gracefully accommodating a lot more residents within the boundaries of the city, as I think we can, where on earth will they work?

I’m not doubting Vancouver’s bright economic prospects with this alarmist question. My worry is space. Is there enough? And will businesses be able to afford to use it?
A stack of city planning documents on my desk is mute on the second question, and cautiously optimistic on the first — although senior planner Rhonda Howard acknowledges in one document that, “in the longer term, demand for job space could exceed what current zoning could supply.”
A 2005 inventory of industrial lands in the Lower Mainland underlines just how little land the whole region — especially Vancouver — has available for new industrial uses. Although old-fashioned industrial jobs aren’t likely to ever again dominate the local economy, this is a matter of concern. We can’t out-source everything, whether to other countries or to the suburbs.
As Sullivan told me three years ago, when he was a councillor crusading to save what little industrial land is left, “There is a value to having start-up incubators in the city. You’ve got lawyers, financial people coming and going all the time. There are a lot of interactions happening.”
Also, “We need city-serving industries. If we had to go to North Van for everything — for example, for the lettuce restaurants serve in their salads . . . we’d introduce inefficiencies to our city.”
Nor am I comfortable with the assumptions city staff seems to rely on as a basis for the fairly optimistic future job predictions.
Both the number of jobs and the number of people are assumed to continue growing for the next 25 years at more-or-less the same rate as the past 25. That’s certainly one possibility — but it seems to me that lots of other scenarios are possible, too.
And the city’s job-growth forecast is based on data that is old — the 2006 census numbers on employment haven’t been number-crunched yet — and is open to worrisome interpretations.
Looking at 1996 and 2001 data, the number of jobs in the City of Vancouver increased by less than 10,000 to 348,000, while the number of jobs in the rest of the GVRD increased by 80,000 to just over one million. In other words, suburban municipalities, which used to have less than two-thirds of the region’s total jobs, had eight times greater growth in that five-year period.
These figures are even more troubling if you drill down farther. Virtually half of Vancouver’s new jobs during that period have “no fixed place of work” — they’re mobile, like construction. Looking at the region as a whole, only one-sixth of the new jobs are in this category.
In other words, an overwhelming number of the new jobs located in permanent premises are in the suburbs.
Land availability is not, I’m sure, the only reason for this. So is land cost and the cheaper cost of suburban low rises compared to urban high-rise structures. And so, no doubt, is the property tax rate.
Two months ago I wrote a column showing how Vancouver business taxes have careened out of control.
It has reached the point that businesses are fleeing the city, and the number of business premises in Vancouver has actually shrunk during each of the last two years.
Following the publication of that column, I received a copy of a letter to Vancouver council from Frank Kelly, a Midas dealer who operates auto repair facilities in several Lower Mainland municipalities. He describes two of his locations that are similar in size and configuration. The one in Surrey pays $10,500 in property tax each year, and the one in Vancouver pays $54,800.
Such out-of-control costs are creating relentless pressure to convert business property into condos. So it’s not surprising that many business are leaving, and few can afford to come in.
A survey using 2001 census data by CB Richard Ellis Research showed that a third of Vancouverites were already commuting to jobs in the suburbs. As things are going, that number can only rise.
And, just as EcoDensity housing needs a champion, so do the tax and land-use policies needed to ensure there are jobs close at hand for all the new residents the city hopes to attract.