Friday, October 14, 2011

Occupy Vancouver: the great unknown

Is the City of Vancouver ready for Occupy Vancouver on Oct. 15?

Transportation director Jerry Dobrovolny says it is, but admits the local version of Occupy Wall Street is a great unknown.

“The difficulty here is that there is not a clear organizer, there is nobody that has stepped forward to take out a permit, there is no plan that we can review with them and approve,” Dobrovolny said on the eve of the protest at the Vancouver Art Gallery. “Our number one priority is safety to the public and property in the area.”

If protesters occupy the VAG plaza and try to camp there, Dobrovolny said city staff will ensure they are not using combustibles, such as propane-powered stoves. A propane tank exploded before the official opening of the Vancouver Christmas Market at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre last year.

Occupy Vancouver organizers held a planning meeting on Oct. 8 at W2. Asked if any of City of Vancouver staff attended to gather information or connect with the organizers, Dobrovolny said: "I'm not aware if any staff were at the planning meetings."

Mayor Gregor Robertson issued a statement on Oct. 14, recognizing the discontent with the global economical upheaval but encouraging peaceful protest. He mentioned the June 15 Stanley Cup riot as an event marred by a minority. The Stanley Cup fan zone that was marred by the riot was organized by Robertson, who is among the public officials who have not admitted fault for the chaos that happened the night the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup on home ice. Four months after the riot, not a single rioter or looter has been charged.

Occupy Vancouver could be the first big test of the April-enacted Bylaw number 10252, better known as an amendment to the Street and Traffic Bylaw regarding political expression on structures on streets. The controversial bylaw says “a person must not build, place, maintain, occupy or cause to be constructed, placed, maintained or occupied in any street any structure, object or substance which is an obstruction to the free use of such street, or which may encroach thereon, without having first obtained a permit issued by the City Engineer...”

Those who do get permits must take down their temporary structures from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily. Tables that convey political expression, however, do not require a permit, if they meet 18 requirements, including the 8 p.m. curfew and a limit of one table per city block at any time.

But, as Dobrovolny said, the Occupy Vancouver group has not applied for a permit.

One can only wonder whether the lack of permit might be all the police need to move in and put an abrupt end to any protest that lasts more than a day.

Needless to say, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association was opposed to the measures when they were introduced in reaction to a court ruling on a long-running protest hut outside the Chinese consulate in Vancouver by members of Falun Gong.

BCCLA executive director David Eby is scoffing at the Vancouver Police Department’s ridiculous Oct. 14 advice to protesters to not wear masks “for everyone’s safety.”

“You have no business wearing a mask at a legitimate protest,” said Const. Jana McGuinness.

Said Eby:

"I guess I've just never seen the press release from the RCMP or VPD that talks about the threat presented by insider trading and corporate malfeasance to Canadians' pensions and retirements. Or how a large gathering of corporate executives can act as a cover for 1% to pay themselves absurd rewards at the expense of the rest.

"Hey, no mask required!

"Don't wear a mask, says the VPD release. 'We need to identify you because your protest is a threat to the public,' is the implicit message.

Yes, we have seen irresponsible, violent mask wearers at the 1999 World Trade Organization protest in Seattle, the 2010 Heart Attack protest on the second day of the Vancouver Winter Olympics and when the G20 summit was hosted in Toronto in 2010. The ugly actions of a few (coupled with bad reactions by police) overshadowed the important messages of the majority of people expressing dissent.

But since when did the VPD anoint themselves the fashion police, especially during the mask-wearing season of Hallowe’en? It’s not a one-night celebration anymore, but a multi-weekend, big business season that rivals Christmastime from a business standpoint. I have never heard VPD discourage the wearing of masks among attendees of Playland's Fright Nights or nightclubs on the Granville Mall.

I witnessed a peaceful anti-Olympic torch relay protest in Victoria on Oct. 30, 2009 where most of the participants wore some form of mask or face paint. The participants were under the constant watch of both police and media and got their message across without violence or damage. Mind you, they didn't exactly make new friends when they forced the torch relay's re-routing and disappointed several people who were looking forward to running the Olympic flame on its first day in Canada.

There is no law that prohibits law-abiding citizens from wearing a mask in public, either as individuals or members of a group. Go right ahead and draw attention to yourself -- expect stares and whispers. A reasonable person should never wear a mask in places like a bank or a hospital.

If a masked citizen in public crosses the line and assaults another person or damages property, that's when police have reasonable grounds to unmask and arrest a masked person under the “Disguise with Intent” law in section 351(2) of the Criminal Code of Canada. The consequences are serious. It says:

“Every one who, with intent to commit an indictable offence, has his face masked or coloured or is otherwise disguised is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.”

So that means you’re free to wear a Guy Fawkes mask, Phantom of the Opera mask, cucumber/avocado facial healing mask or even paint your face like your favourite member of KISS (I always wanted to paint my face like Ace “Spaceman” Frehley). Just obey the law and respect people and property while exercising your freedom of speech and assembly.

Protests where the words speak louder than the actions are the most effective. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, the roles and responsibilities of governments and corporations in our lives deserve to be debated in a rational manner.

False Creek water is clearer than Olympic Village sales

Vancouver’s Olympic Village is the multiparty monument to megalomania. The entire complex may no longer be a ghost-town, but Canada House (right), the waterfront home of Canada's 2010 Olympic team, remains an eerily empty haunted pocket on the controversial $1.1 billion site.

Whether it was the NPA, COPE or Vision Vancouver in charge at 12th and Cambie, they all share in the blame for creating this financial monster and it's the civic taxpayer that winds up with the ghastly loss.

The official version is a $48 million loss. We will never know the value of the time spent (or lost) by bureaucrats on this file since word leaked that a secret meeting took place on Oct. 14, 2008 to give developer Millennium a $100 million bailout after lender Fortress Credit Corporation walked away amid cost overruns and the global economic crisis.

The rush to slap the "sustainability" label onto this project was laughable and, frankly, deceptive.

Did you know? The original plan in the 1998 bid to the Canadian Olympic Committee was for the village to be student housing at UBC. UBC went ahead and built housing for students, but also for the market, anyway. City hall under NPA Mayor Philip Owen wanted to use the village to kickstart development in Southeast False Creek. A laudable goal, but it was a victim of scope escalation. Just like the Olympics, it had to be bigger, better, glitzier. World class!

Did the city really need more luxury real estate?

It's also the classic case of overpromising and underdelivering in the realm of social housing. Plentiful and affordable it’s not.

NPA Coun. Suzanne Anton, who is running to be mayor, has proposed a motion to council on Oct. 18 seeking the up-to-date numbers on sales and occupancy. We haven't had an official report since May 17 when Ernst and Young made new court filings. Anton really ought to be promising a full and complete independent audit and inquiry of the entire history of the project, should she upset incumbent Mayor Gregor Robertson in the Nov. 19 civic election. Of course, Anton was wearing her pom-poms when the NPA-majority city council chose Millennium as the developer in 2006. Millennium did not have the experience and, it turns out, the financial backing to undertake the ambitious project. A report by KPMG questioned Millennium's selection.

Lo and behold, city manager Penny Ballem has become a late addition to the agenda, to provide an update on the Olympic Village. Perhaps Ballem will explain why she signed a document filed at the Land Title Office that appears to let Millennium Development off the hook for $1 billion. Read my story here and see the documents here. Millennium is also a partner in a controversial West End condo tower where 49 rental apartments are being built under the politically motivated Short Term Incentives for Rental program. Ballem did not respond to my repeated requests for an interview on the topic.

Did Ballem, either working alone or on the instruction of the Mayor or council, leave money on the table in the negotiations with Millennium over its $740 million debt?

Perhaps Ballem will untangle the web of confusion and answer questions about those Land Title Office documents. Not to mention, tell us exactly how many Olympic Village units were sold and when. The answers are so elusive.

Marketer Bob Rennie told me in an April 11 interview that as of April 5, there had been 118 unconditional sales of units worth $80 million since the February marketing relaunch as the Village on False Creek.

On Vision Vancouver Coun. Geoff Meggs blog, it says there were 164 sold as of mid-September. His blog also says that 427 of the 737 total market units are sold.

Back in July 2009, Rennie told me there were 265 buyers. Does that mean only 162 units have sold in the last two years?

And how many of those since April 5? Forty-six?

Spokeswoman Lesli Boldt pointed out that the May 17 report from receiver Ernst and Young said there were 124 sales or unconditional offers, with a gross value of $86 million, since the relaunch.

"In other words, 40 additional condo sales occurred between mid-May and mid-September (and this is during summer, a typically slow sales season)," Boldt said.

That's four months with just 40 sales -- 10 per month, averaging 2 1/4 per week.

Meanwhile, lawyer Bryan Baynham, who is acting for 70 purchasers who want refunds for alleged shoddy workmanship and deceptive marketing, tells me there are no settlements or hearing dates scheduled and the city has yet to send him a list of documents.

The civic election happens Nov. 19, two days after the first anniversary of the receivership of Millennium’s Southeast False Creek division that developed the Village.

This story is far from over.

Gorby vs. Christy: statesman vs. eternal talkshow host

Oct. 13, 1986 was the closing day of Vancouver’s Expo 86. The world exposition on transportation and communication. I was there, all the way until the end, roaming the empty, closed site one last time. From end-to-end.

Twenty-five years later I was in two venues that didn’t exist at the time: Rogers Arena, built in 1995 near the site of Expo 86’s giant flag, hockey stick and puck and Vancouver Convention Centre West, opened in 2009 to be the international broadcast centre for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The east wing was built as the Expo 86 Canada Pavilion.

At Rogers Arena, it was Free the Children’s annual We Day. A day of inspirational speakers and hopeful messages for the leaders of tomorrow. With what passes for today’s top 40 music between the speakers.

Among the speakers was Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991. A man who changed the world and won the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 14, 1990. I was among the minority of people in the arena who was alive when Gorbachev was in power. (I also remember one of his previous Vancouver visits, when Nardwuar the Human Serviette made him laugh.)

Gorbachev, who turned 80 earlier this year, told the youth audience, through his translator, that the hopes of the world after the Cold War have not been fulfilled. The world is troubled by terrorism, poverty and an environmental crisis.

“The global financial crisis that was caused by the greed of a few people is being resolved at the expense of ordinary people, ordinary people who are not to blame for that crisis,” he said.

He said we're on the cusp of a new arms race that could be more dangerous than the last one.

His most poignant message?

"Never despair… never panic. Unite," Gorbachev said. "Don't allow anyone to deceive you. Don't allow anyone to exploit you."

After his speech, he came to a news conference. Reporters were crestfallen when told by a We Day organizer that the news conference would last only 10 minutes. We got angry when the moderator cut it short. Both Gorbachev and his interpreter briefly pleaded with their hosts for more time! Imagine that, a career politician who did not want a press conference to end!

That bought him a few more minutes, but it was still not enough. A great statesman deserves more time. A man who changed the world deserves more time.

He was asked for his thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement. During his presidency, people in the Eastern Bloc risked their lives and took to the streets to demand better government and better jobs. It even influenced the short-lived pro-democracy movement in China that ended so violently at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

"The constitution of your country, the constitution of our country, the constitutions of all democratic countries contain democratic rights, including the right to protest. In Russia, we know that there are people, including people in government, who don’t like it when people protest in the streets and when they present their demands by demonstrating. And sometimes there are even bad consequences and even clashes as a result,” Gorbachev said.

“We have to be wary, though, of certain extremist elements who are trying to turn these just demands and just protests in a certain direction to exploit those movements. Nevertheless, those elements are an exception. People today are more confident when they act; they are more confident of the rightness of their demands and their actions.”

In the afternoon, I attended a news conference to announce the Grey Cup festival in Vancouver, where the star attraction was not the Grey Cup (it wasn’t there) or the Vanier Cup (which was there), but Premier Christy Clark. The B.C. Liberals “jersey girl” added a Grey Cup souvenir jersey to her collection. She even dropped a football, in a neo-Stanfieldian moment. (My camera was unfortunately not rolling.)

This is what she had to say about the Occupy Wall Street movement coming to Vancouver on Oct. 15:

"Canada is a profoundly different place than America. When we look south of the border and see what's going on there, we feel pretty grateful that we live here, in a country where we have a thriving middle class, where we have a large degree of equity and social justice. I think groups that want to try and start up something like Occupy Wall Street here aren't going to see the same kind of success. We are a fundamentally different country from America. We are a fair country, we're not always perfect, there's no question about that, but this is a country that is a whole lot fairer than almost any other country in the world. I think when you live in a country like this it's a lot harder to recruit people to groups like Occupy Wall Street than it is in other countries in the world where maybe they don't have the same kind of equity that we have here."

Translation: Be a good Canadian. Be deferential to the powers that be. You have it good, don't demand better. Don't complain or ask questions.

After a scrum that lasted exactly four minutes and 52 seconds, Clark turned her back and walked away. My shouted question about the upcoming first anniversary of the end of the notorious "Basi-Virk" government corruption trial didn’t prompt her to turn around. Instead it made her walk away faster, into a nearby ballroom.

Before her tenure as a CKNW talkshow host, Clark was deputy premier when BC Rail, a taxpayer-owned railway, was privatized in a fishy deal with CN Rail in 2003. A deal which sparked the famed bribery trial of ministerial aides David Basi and Bob Virk, which shockingly ended on Oct. 18, 2010 with a plea bargain and the government agreeing to pay Basi and Virk’s $6 million legal bills.

Here’s my story on the first anniversary and renewed calls for a public inquiry by the men who know the scandal the best: Bill Tieleman and Alex Tsakumis.

While the Occupy Wall Street movement encourages discourse about the role of governments and corporations, British Columbians should never forget the scandal which dominated the news for most of a decade. The BC Rail corruption scandal was the most egregious example in this province's history of government cozying up to corporate interests and losing sight of its responsibility to the people. A public asset was sold in sordid fashion and none of the politicians involved has offered a full and complete explanation about how and why the deal went down.

Premier Gordon Campbell said it was only about two men who admitted their guilt. His successor Clark has parroted the line. She has refused calls for a public inquiry.

Are they telling the truth or was this a massive cover-up? Were Basi and Virk the only perpetrators or were they patsies?

The reality is government has to buy from and sell to private companies. If a tendering process cannot be transparent when it demands transparency or be secret when it demands secrecy, why should the taxpaying public or private companies have any trust in government? Until "BC Railscam" is fully understood and government integrity rescued, citizens will remain skeptical of any case of any private-public partnership, privatization, subsidy or bailout.

Contrast Clark's behavior with that of Gorbachev, a man of courage, willing to spend more time to take more questions. During his presidency, he was a politician who wanted less power, not more, in a country with a nasty history of megalomania (read: Stalin). Gorbachev is not universally admired in Russia. Many of his compatriots wish the Soviet Union still existed. Others are thankful they could taste some freedom, but want less corruption and more democracy from today's leadership duo of Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin.

Gorbachev wanted the people to take a deep breath and shape their own future, not politicians. "Glasnost" (openness) and "Perestroika" (restructuring) were the hallmarks of Gorbachev's administration. What a concept? They mean so much more than Clark's "jobs" and "families" mantra. Without openness and restructuring, how can families enjoy prosperity?

If people don’t trust their government to listen to the people, then people take to the streets in protest. A protest like Occupy Wall Street. Or Occupy Vancouver.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Going to B.C. Place Stadium? Dress accordingly.

If you're going to see the Vancouver Whitecaps host D.C. United on Oct. 12, wear a rain jacket and bring an umbrella. In fact, this umbrella hat could be the most appropriate attire for any event at B.C. Place Stadium for the time being.

Oh, the new retractable roof of B.C. Place Stadium is bound to be closed for most of this fall for the obvious seasonal weather. But after several fans at the B.C. Lions' Oct. 8 win over the Calgary Stampeders got wet, B.C. Pavilion Corporation cannot guarantee a dry experience. Workers are still sealing the roof from the elements.

Should we be surprised? British Columbia has a long history of leaky buildings.

Expo 86 modular pavilions were leaky and needed patching. Same for the Expo Centre, now known as Science World, after it opened in 1985. There was a billion-dollar epidemic of leaky condominiums because of shoddy 1980s and 1990s workmanship. An estimated 65,000 dwellings had leaks that rotted walls. Former Premier Dave Barrett conducted an inquiry into the scandal.

As the 2010 Winter Olympics approached, B.C. Place Stadium’s 1982-installed, air-supported roof needed constant care from maintenance workers. Many gray garbage cans were redeployed from trash catching to drip catching. (That original roof was inflated in November 1982, more than six months before it opened, affording workers a shield from the elements while they finished the building.)

B.C. Pavilion Corporation is blaming the weather for the leaks after reopening from a $563 million renovation. But that is not the root cause.

Minutes of the B.C. Pavilion Corporation construction committee in August 2010 show the stadium was on-track for a Nov. 1, 2011 “substantial completion.” Owner’s representative Roy Patzer called the schedule “tight.” Then, suddenly, on Feb. 7, 2011, PavCo chairman David Podmore announced a Sept. 30 reopening -- a full month sooner.

When Podmore announced the accelerated opening, the governing B.C. Liberal Party was in the middle of a leadership campaign to replace the unpopular Premier Gordon Campbell. The successor, who turned out to be Christy Clark, was expected to call an election for October. There even is an internal government document called "Implications of a Fall Election" that contemplated a Sept. 14 election call and Oct. 12 voting day. That issue note was written Feb. 9 and dated Feb. 10. So it's not a great leap of logic for the stadium's reopening to have been a photo opportunity on the election trail.

Within a matter of weeks of Podmore's proclamation, construction was in turmoil. The installation of roof fabric was supposed to begin in February, but was delayed to April and then until June. Quebec-based steel supplier Canam Group reported to shareholders that its Structal division suffered a $25 million cost overrun and blamed it on French cable installer Freyssinet. Architects, engineers and builders had to shuffle work schedules. The B.C. Lions and Vancouver Whitecaps were chomping at the bit to return downtown. It would have been a major embarrassment for the two main tenants to have delayed their moves to B.C. Place after announcing their schedules.

Under the original schedule, crews would have enjoyed the long, mostly dry days of August to methodically put the finishing touches on B.C. Place’s roof. Instead, they had to battle the September and October rains. More than a week after the stadium's reopening, crews are still welding and sealing the fixed fabric panels.

What’s more, leaks were a problem for many months after Commerzbank Arena opened in 2005. The Frankfurt stadium’s retractable roof technology is at work in Vancouver.

After the reopening night gong show that subjected paying customers to long lineups at ticket booths and concession stands and a lack of food and beverage supplies, delaying the opening seems like one of those "hindsight is 20/20" thoughts.

As it is, Telus has delayed the announcement that it is the naming rights sponsor for seemingly pragmatic reasons. The multi-year, multimillion-dollar deal will include some cash, but it will largely be what's called "value in-kind" or goods and services in lieu of cash. Technicians are still installing telecommunications gear and teaching B.C. Place staff how to use the new equipment. Cisco is a key contractor working with Telus on the StadiumVision media management system that includes the shoebox-style, centre-hung scoreboard (what I call the Titanic Tube Under the Tarp.) Telus is using the screens at B.C. Place, both big and small, but is understandably reluctant to attach its name to the building amid what can be termed a rocky reopening. Why show off the expensive bells and whistles before you're confident they'll ding and toot properly? Why would Telus, a combatant in the telecom marketing war, want to risk embarrassment?

PavCo is hoping that all the glitches will be forgotten by Nov. 27 when the stadium hosts the 99th Grey Cup, for which the government paid $1.88 million to the Canadian Football League for hosting rights.

Expect a glitzy press conference near the end of October or start of November for the corporate renaming of B.C. Place. Will we have to dress accordingly?

Three years later, more questions than answers

October 14 is an ominous day for the history of the City of Vancouver.

Vancouver city council voted unanimously in a closed-door meeting on that day in 2008 for a $100 million bailout of Olympic Village developer Millennium. Financier Fortress Credit Corporation, an arm of a Wall Street hedge fund, walked away from the deal in the wake of $65 million in cost overruns and the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. Fortress exploited a loophole in the deal in which Vancouver city hall agreed to fund the project if Millennium faltered.

When Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason broke the story on Nov. 6, 2008, it was the turning point in the civic election. Ex-NDP MLA Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver party swept to power over Coun. Peter Ladner and the NPA. Robertson became the Olympic mayor and is seen in the photo above giving the key to the Olympic Village to Millennium owners/brothers Shahram Malekyazdi and Peter Malek at the public opening on May 15, 2010.

Not even a month after Robertson was sworn-in, he proclaimed after a Jan. 9, 2009 technical briefing that taxpayers were "on the hook" for the $1.1 billion athletes' village. Premier Gordon Campbell and his B.C. Liberals amended the Vancouver Charter to allow the city to borrow without a referendum. The village was refinanced and opened in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Post-Games sales were so dismal that Millennium Southeast False Creek Properties was petitioned into receivership on Nov. 17, 2010 because of a $740 million debt. Ernst and Young took over and rebranded Millennium Water as The Village on False Creek for its February 2011 relaunch. The controversy is bound to be on voters' minds as the Nov. 19 civic election approaches.

City manager Penny Ballem gleefully showed off a list of properties in an April 8, 2011 presentation that Millennium agreed to give the city. She claimed the city would recover between $56 million and $70 million but end up with a projected $48 million loss once all condos were sold in the next couple of years.

Lo and behold, filings from the Land Title Office that I obtained show that Ballem signed a form on Feb. 2, 2011 to discharge Millennium from a mortgage that was worth $1 billion on Sept. 14, 2010. See my Vancouver Courier story here.

A debenture signed Oct. 14, 2008 -- the same day as the $100 million secret bailout -- shows Millennium admits that it was really "on-the-hook" for $1 billion.

"The Grantors (Millennium Development, Millennium Properties, et al) jointly and severally make the agreements set out in this debenture and jointly and severally acknowledge themselves liable to and promise to pay to or to the order of the city, ON DEMAND, the principal sum of one billion ($1,000,000,000) dollars at such place as the city may designate by notice in writing to the grantors and to pay interest on the principal sum outstanding from time to time… at the rate of 20% per annum both before and after demand, default and judgement."

Millennium English Bay Properties was among the seven arms of Millennium listed as a grantor on the debenture. Millennium EBP is also a partner in the Alexandra condo tower under construction at Davie and Bidwell. It is to contain 49 rental suites, as per Mayor Gregor Robertson's controversial Short Term Incentives for Rental program intended to increase rental housing in the city. Here is a critical look at STIR by the West End Neighbours, who are opposed to Alexandra.

Neither Ballem nor Millennium's Malekyazdi responded to repeated requests for an interview.

The questions remain.

Could the City of Vancouver have negotiated for or seized more of Millennium's assets, so as to avoid leaving taxpayers with a loss on the Olympic Village?

Did Millennium's commitment to build politically motivated rental apartments in the Alexandra tower cause city hall to go soft on Millennium in the 2011 election year?

See the Land Title Office documents for yourself.

Premier Christy Clark plans to introduce an auditor general for municipalities. Here's hoping that the Olympic Village mess is the first matter examined by the watchdog.


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