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- What's on Patrick Johnstone's agenda for the next four years?
What's on Patrick Johnstone's agenda for the next four years?
Revitalizing downtown, active transportation, public transit, and climate change are all top of mind
Patrick Johnstone speaks to reporters after his victory was confirmed on election night, Oct. 15. / Dustin Godfrey, New West Anchor
Editor's note: New West Anchor is getting to know the six councillors and the new mayor elected to city hall. We're running a series of pieces on them in our newsletters—be sure to take a look at our piece on councillors-elect Daniel Fontaine and Paul Minhas.
If Patrick Johnstone breathed a sigh of relief after Saturday night’s election results rolled in, the relief was only temporary.
The work of campaigning is over, but the mayor-elect still has some work to do ahead of the new council’s Nov. 7 inauguration, followed by four years on council.
Before the first council meeting, which is currently scheduled for Nov. 28, Johnstone said he’s planning to sit down with all councillors-elect to gauge what they’re interested in for the coming four years.
He said he doesn’t plan on overhauling the committee structure at this point, but with four new councillors, there are some slots that will need to be filled. And those new councillors will also need to be trained on what their duties are and aren’t.
There will also be some conversations at the regional level, as the new set of councils prepare for another four years of running Metro Vancouver and the Mayors’ Council at TransLink.
And come Nov. 24, council will have just about two months’ worth of work to catch up on, with the last pre-election council meeting taking place on Oct. 3.
Council will first have to begin budget talks, as the city tends to try to have the capital budget finalized by the end of November—a guideline that may not be met this year—and the operational budget done by early January.
Once all of that is out of the way, council can get to work on mapping out its next four years.
Johnstone will have to work with the remainder of council to get anything passed, but here are some of the things he said he hopes to focus on over the next four years.
Johnstone said he brought a motion to council last year asking for staff to report back on what tools are available to “activate some of the … empty and derelict sites downtown.”
“That may look like us getting very proactive with derelict buildings and forcing the owners’ hand a little bit, or it may look like incentives to help some of those sites pencil out better for developments,” he said.
That report, he said, is expected “imminently,” but he couldn’t say exactly when it would come.
New West Anchor already interviewed Johnstone about downtown, which you can read about in our pre-election coverage.
Council approved a $36-million five-year active transportation plan in its final meeting before the election, and now Johnstone said that will need to be worked into the capital budget.
“The plan is lines on a map right now, and I want to make sure we find room in our capital budget and find a timeline to get that mobility network built,” he said.
The active transportation network received some negative press ahead of the election, particularly with respect to the Sixth Street bike lanes.
The New West Record published eight brief letters from readers earlier this week, all of which railed against the Sixth Street lanes—the issue being the loss of parking and its impact on businesses.
Some residents claimed the city didn’t adequately consult with the community, but Johnstone disagreed.
“We went through two years of consultation on the uptown mobility network and the importance of getting a safe route to school,” he said.
“That two-block piece of work to get the school connected with safe mobility lanes is ongoing.”
As for the rest of the network, Johnstone said it’s not so much about building corridors but filling the gaps within those corridors. He pointed to Stewardson Way as an example.
“That stretch between 14th [Street] and Fifth [Avenue] on Stewardson Way, where there is an active transportation route on both sides—it’s safe; it’s comfortable—and then there’s a one-block stretch where you have to sit on a narrow sidewalk next to heavy traffic,” he said.
Transportation, more broadly
Johnstone said the city specifically needs to work on transportation in and connecting to Queensborough.
“There’s a lot of challenges in Queensborough, especially with rush hour traffic and having a hard time getting around in Queensborough during rush hour and getting on and off the island,” Johnstone said.
And he noted similar problems facing Annacis Island in Delta and Hamilton in Richmond, both of which occupy a similar space geographically and face similar transportation issues.
He pointed to the work done by the Integrated North Shore Planning Project across the Burrard Inlet as an example for getting around some of the jurisdictional challenges to making all three neighbourhoods accessible.
He said he’s also interested in improving regional transit that runs through and services New West, including Queensborough. More specifically, he pointed to the potential use of transit priority lanes to afford buses more ease in moving around.
Community Energy and Emissions Plan (CEEP)
Members of the Community First slate watch as results from the Oct. 15 election roll in. / Dustin Godfrey, New West Anchor
The plan is already in place, but implementing CEEP will still require ongoing work.
“The city, I think, is doing a very good job on its corporate energy plan, dealing with the greenhouse gases we produce when we drive a garbage truck or when we heat our own buildings and pools,” Johnstone said.
But the more challenging work is still yet to come: expanding efficiency and greenhouse gas reductions throughout the community.
What that looks like is still up in the air, but Johnstone said it’s likely a balance of incentives and regulations.
He noted the city is in a fortunate position to have its own electrical utility, which it can leverage to provide more incentives for things like efficiency and emissions reductions.
Unlike Vancouver, New West can’t ban natural gas heating in new developments, but it can incentivize moving away from it. The city has implemented the BC Energy Step Code, which sets escalating levels of efficiency standards for building.
One tool for encouraging a move away from natural gas energy, he said, would be to allow a development to go down a step in its efficiency standards if the developers agree not to use natural gas.
This, he said, would trade efficiency for emissions reductions.
He added that the city, through its electrical utility, can help pay for some of a property’s costs to switch to heat pumps, which require less energy than air conditioners and forms of heating.
The utility can then recuperate that cost by continuing to charge that property the same amount in its electric bill, rather than the reduced amount that would result from implementing the more efficient model.
Johnstone noted that 30 people died in New Westminster as a result of the heat dome in 2021, and some neighbourhoods were hit worse than others.
Brow of the Hill, he noted, has more older multi-family buildings with less tree coverage to provide shade.
And there’s an economic factor in that as well. People in more wealthy neighbourhoods “have more access to escape the heat,” Johnstone said, pointing to the prevalence of trees and air conditioning in those neighbourhoods compared to poorer neighbourhoods.
A transition to heat pumps would help for people living with heating but no air conditioning, as heat pumps provide both heating and cooling.
And he said the city could look at a “one cool room” policy, requiring landlords and property managers to have at least one cool room in a building that people can retreat to when they’re feeling too warm in their own apartment.
He compared the issue to that of fire safety in buildings. The city requires buildings to have fire alarms, for instance, to ensure that when there is a fire, people can get out of the building.
“If we had 30 people in the city die in a fire in a building that didn’t have proper fire safety, we would be talking about that, about why our fire safety systems totally failed and what we could do to improve our fire safety systems,” he said.
“I think we need to have the same level of conversation about heat domes. If they’re going to be our reality, we have to think about how we’re approaching them, not just as something that people have to be self-responsible for, but something that we make sure that everyone’s taking responsibility for.”
Johnstone said he believes the City of New West has pulled more than its weight in seeing purpose-built rentals constructed in recent years, and he expects to stay the course on that.
“I know it sometimes doesn’t feel satisfying in a housing crisis for a city to say we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing because we haven’t solved the crisis,” Johnstone said.
“But I think that if every city in the region had been doing what New Westminster had done over the last eight years, we wouldn’t be in a rental crisis. We have built so much rental, so much purpose-built rental.”
And he said the city has done that without losing many of its older, more affordable rental buildings in the community.
One area he does expect to see some fiddling around, however, is in terms of infill density.
The 2017 Official Community Plan allowed “a lot of flexibility” in where things like townhouses can be built, but the uptake hasn’t been as high as the city hoped.
“The economics on that shifted since 2017. Land prices have changed so much since our OCP was adopted,” he said.
So he asid the city will need to look at how to make building that missing middle housing more viable for developers. That could look like streamlining approvals processes. Or it could mean providing pre-approved designs that developers can use and know that they will not be bogged down with meeting various regulatory approvals.
The toxic drug crisis
The city’s role in addressing the toxic drug crisis, Johnstone said, is largely reactionary and relate to the city’s first responders.
But the city, he said, has also been “proactive in bringing in harm reduction within the capacity that we can as a local government.”
“We are also very supportive of the recovery programs that are happening in the city. We know there’s no silver bullet on this, and I know that there's a challenge and an ongoing discussion about the role of recovery versus the role of harm reduction,” he said.
“I don’t think we can step away from either of them until we know what’s working best, and ultimately, our goal is to keep people alive so they can get to recovery.”
Drug users and public health professionals have been advocating in recent years for a vast expansion of a safe supply of drugs, and Johnstone said the city may have a small role in that.
While it’s ultimately the province and Fraser Health and the federal government that need to buy in, Johnstone said the city can at least participate in that dialogue in an advocacy capacity.