Sittin’ on a fence post, talkin’ ’bout the living wage

New Westminster led the way in April 2010 when it became the first municipality in Canada to adopt a living wage policy. Set by the Candian Centre for Policy Alternatives at $16.74/hour, the wage reflected the minimum rate necessary for a family of four with working parents to cover the cost of food, clothing, shelter, child care, education and health.

Since then, the cost of living in Metro Vancouver has continued to inch skywards, and accordingly, the living wage has been bumped up to $18.81/hour.

This means that all firms contracted directly or indirectly by the City of New Westminster are required to pay their employees almost double the provincially mandated minimum wage of $9.50/hour. (Or, put another way, significantly more than I have ever made ever. Including the summer I was solely responsible for the health and happiness of eight 5-year-old girls and was paid something absurd like $3.50/hour… while my friends at the arena concession gorged themselves on free pop and pizza to the tune of $150/shift.)

And while the policy certainly has it’s supporters (who isn’t favour of putting dinner on the table and paying their utility bill on time?), it also has it’s critics (and, to the surprise of no one more than myself, I’m starting to think I might be one of them).

When the Record ran a story about the allegations of one New Westminster resident who said that the policy was being violated by a firm contracted to work on the future civic centre on Columbia Street, John Ashdown wrote a letter to the paper saying that the man had “only touched the tip of the inequalities of the city’s fair living wage policy.”

According to Ashdown, who is the president of the West End Business Association and ran for council in the November municipal election, fair wage legislation impedes the contracting out of services to private companies and increases unions’ ability to compete for contracts.

“It’s time for this council to justify the real cost/benefits of this policy now and into the future,” Ashdown wrote.

“Tell us the benefit of adding $40,000 for a union position to provide sandwiches for staff, which was previously contracted out. Tell us about the $60,000 cost to bring jail custodians up to fair living wages. Tell us now what we can expect at the civic centre or Pier Park? A tube steak vendor forced to pay $18 per hour instead of allowing free enterprise to survive and prosper?”

Despite his attention-grabbing closing line (“stop trying to turn New Westminster into a bedroom of socialists”) I, um, kind of think he has a point. A few points, actually.

But since I also can’t quite convince myself that something so seemingly glorious is actually a bad thing, I’ve done what I often do when I have to make a tough decision: I’ve drawn up a list of pros and cons. Behold, figure A.

I did take first-year economics in university (I got a C!) so clearly, I know what I’m talking about.

Truthfully, there are a lot of much more authoritative, educated supply-and-demand types out there who are a lot more qualified to make a case for or against the living wage than I. You should check them out. And then report back to me. I’ll be here, sitting on the fence, when you get back.

Note to the curious: The title of this post is a throwback to my camp counselling days, referring to the beloved campfire song Herman the Worm. The original lyrics are “sittin’ on a fence post/chewin’ my bubble gum”. You can watch a 4-year-old sing it here. He kind of botches the lyrics, but I’ll forgive him because he is four.

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Development concerns surround subdivision in Queensborough

Below is a story I wrote from an agenda item at Monday’s (Feb. 20) council meeting. The item concerned a development variance permit requested for a subdivided lot in Queensborough to allow a smaller site frontage than what is permitted under the bylaw. Councillors passed the motion, but neighbouring property owners raised concerns about development that Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said are recurrent issues in the community.

Queensborough residents say their neighbourhood is becoming increasingly congested and unsafe due to new developments in the area.

At last night’s council meeting, neighbours of 311 Johnston Street voiced their concerns over the owner’s proposal to subdivide and develop the property, saying it could create parking problems, impede emergency access and even damage their homes.

“We already have various issues with parking due to illegal basement suites, legal basement suites, double occupants, and I believe the extra congestion with having a couple more houses in a one-property area … would only make it more difficult for emergency responders,” said Darren Kucheran, whose parents own an adjacent lot.

According to neighbour Lorne Elliottt, the same party that purchased 311 Johnston Street also bought two lots across the street last year and has since built “two castles” that aren’t up to code.

“The houses across the street that they just built are supposed to be set back 25 feet from the front under the bylaws,” he said. “Engineering has them recorded at 31 feet, but I took my tape measure, went over there and they measured 21 feet, not 31. And then [they] added a front porch.”

One of the two properties – listed as a 5-bedroom, 4-bathroom custom-built home with a 450-square-foot garage – is currently on the market for $689,000.

Down the street, Elliott said 13 new homes have gone up in recent years, and there’s as many as five suites in each house.

“They’re going to turn our street into a ghetto,” he said, pointing out that the size and proximity of the new homes presents a fire hazard.

“We get one fire, we’re going to lose the whole block.”

Presented with Elliott’s numbers, planning analyst David Guiney said, “I don’t know how to react … I just don’t have an answer for that.”

Land surveys show that the homes on both properties meet the city’s site area and frontage bylaws.

After the meeting, Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said that subdivision in New Westminster is a contentious issue – especially in Queensborough, where lots were originally zoned bigger than elsewhere in the city to accommodate septic fields.

According to Puchmayr, some of the people who bought those lots built “extremely large houses, very non-contextual, three stories and sometimes housing several units.”

Since then, the city has brought in bylaws and created incentives for developers to build homes that are more suited to the neighbourhood.

He refuted Elliott’s claims that the homes on Johnston Street violated code.

“That’s impossible. People have to hire a surveyor, the city has to approve the plans, the inspector has to come down. There’s a lot that goes into it, and for him to say that a few houses across the street basically violated the building code and built these houses 10 feet closer than they were permitted, that just can’t happen.”

Puchmayr also explained that under provincial floodplain regulations, new developments in Queensborough must be “preloaded,” or built at a higher elevation than existing homes.

“Suddenly you could have the house on your left and the house on your right and the house in front of you all developing at a new level above the floodplain and you’re still at the lower level down in a valley. It creates huge issues with drainage and water problems.”

For people like Kucheran, whose parents’ 1954 home is built at grade, this means an increased risk of flooding.

He said he’s also worried about the impact that the process of driving steel piles into the earth could have on their house.

“Our property is built on a concrete slab foundation directly beside the property and I believe pile driving construction will cause a lot of damage,” he said.

While Puchmayr said that pile driving companies are legally bound to pay for any damages to adjacent properties they cause, he admitted it’s a difficult issue.

“There are a lot of growing pains with development in Queensborough,” he said. “Especially when you have to preload and drive piles.”

New Westminster wins national sustainability award

A 3D rendering of what the park will look like, courtesy of a council slide presentation.

New Westminster has been recognized as a sustainable community with an award from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities for its redevelopment of Westminster Pier Park.

Coun. Lorrie Williams and engineering director Jim Lowrie accepted the award in Ottawa on Feb. 8 and presented it to Mayor Wayne Wright at tonight’s council meeting.

“Obviously, this goes to the staff, this goes to the people who did the job,” said Wright.

The award is one of 12 given to communities across Canada that “demonstrate excellence in environmental responsibility.” This year, 5 of the 12 awards were won by municipalities in B.C.

“B.C. is certainly leading the way in terms of greening our country,” said Williams.

Westminster Pier Park won the Sustainable Communities Award in the brownfield category, meaning that the land the park sits on was previously used for industrial purposes, and the vegetation that has been planted there will help to rehabilitate the soil.

According to FCM, “In just three years, Westminster Pier Park has been transformed from a contaminated brownfield into a sparkling waterfront jewel that will stimulate tourism and revitalize downtown New Westminster.”

The Westminster Pier Park project was launched in 2009 when the city purchased the site for $8 million. The cost of developing the park was $25 million, of which two-thirds was funded through the Build Canada Fund.

Wright said the park will open to the public sometime in March.

“We’ll be having an opening in about a month or so and everyone will see what a wonderful place it really is.”

Of dumbwaiters and wraparound porches

Monday marks the beginning of heritage week in B.C., and while New Westminster’s kids sharpen their pencil crayons to colour in Victorian homes, I’ve been waxing nostalgic about the city’s history and reflecting on the importance of preserving our urban heritage.

Galbraith House, located at the corner of Queen's Avenue and 8th Street in New Westminster, was built in 1894. Once decaying and in a state of collapse, Galbraith House has since been bought, renovated and turned into office suites and a conference centre.

There are around 1,000 registered heritage homes in New Westminster, and in my own neighbourhood, Queen’s Park, weekend warrior types have lovingly restored many of the area’s 100-year-old homes to their former (and in some cases, probably better than former) glory.

(If you’ve got some spare time to kill and are as fascinated by “old stuff” as I am, the Heritage Resource Inventory — an unofficial list of heritage properties drawn up by the city and some summer work students in the 1980s — provides hours of cheap thrills.)

Growing up in New West, servant stair cases, milk doors, laundry chutes and fold-out ironing boards made my childhood environment every bit as stimulating as my friends who grew up in more rural areas, building forts and playing games of their own invention in the woods.

After it was abandoned but before it was torn down, my brother and I spent our summers playing hide-and-go-seek in the overgrown gardens and empty swimming pool behind the A.M. Parsons house down the street (that’s what the HRI calls it — we, for some reason, called it the boat house).

"The boat house," captured sometime around 1985 as it appears in the Heritage Resource Inventory.

Over the years, we’ve dug up countless treasures in our backyard, including half a dozen ebony piano keys, a collection of  glass medecine bottles and a ladies boot that I would expertly carbon date to the “Barkerville era”.

Aside from the fact that I still have nightmares about the bullet lodged in the doorframe at Irving House, growing up in a place so steeped in and proud of its heritage as New Westminster is has contributed to my curiosity and my appreciation for this place.

Kids in most cities don’t get much of an education about their city, but events like May Day and girl guide trips to the old penitentiary (now home to my physiotherapist’s office) meant that I did.

Two years ago, the city introduced a unit on the civic history to the grade 5 social studies curriculum with the interactive book, My New Westminster: A Neighbourhood History. Elementary students now get the unique opportunity to learn about New Westminster’s beginnings as a Gold Rush pioneer settlement, to its regal days as the capital of British Columbia, to the Great Fire and the ensuing rebuild.

When so much of our attention is drawn to what is new, it’s important to take the time to think about what came before. Buildings, monuments, cemeteries, street patterns and homes are all important reminders of our city’s remarkable achievements, conflicts and changes. I’m grateful to live in a city that understands and values that.

Scaling grades sets dangerous precedent

People seem to be moving on from what was probably the most media coverage grade 11 math has ever received anywhere ever, but can we pause for a moment and consider the (absolutely ludicrous) outcome of all this?

For those that haven’t been following the story, parents began raising concerns in early January about their children’s (mostly failing) high school math grades. Though the teachers’ union normally does not comment on personnel matters, NWTU President Grant Osborne defended the teacher in question, saying that if there are problems, they stem from the (recently revised) curriculum, not the individual “hard marking” teacher. Parents continued to be upset, district administrators tried to diffuse the situation, revisions to the complaints process were presented, and high school students on both sides wrote letters to the local papers.

And then report cards came out and students saw their grades suddenly and inexplicably jump five to 15 per cent.

Why? Because district administrators (though no one  is saying who) scaled their marks.

There are several ways that scaling can be done, but basically students’ grades are compared with each other and students are assigned new grades based on where they fall on a relative scale.

Though I’ll admit that the district’s decision to up students’ math marks rubs me the wrong way (I think it sends a dangerous message to students about the value of grades, and how to go about getting what you want), what I am most concerned about is the doubt it casts on teachers’ abilities to do their jobs.

According to Osborne, members of the high school’s math department weren’t consulted or asked to have any part in the scaling.

I’m not insensitive to the feelings of “demoralization” that these failing students allegedly felt. Math is a hard subject — something, like the girl who spent many nights in tears over her looming final exam, I know from personal experience.

But responding to mass failure by simply elevating marks to passing grades helps no one. It renders grades meaningless and says that teachers know neither how to teach nor evaluate their students.

Instead of fully investigating the problem, administrators have slapped a quick fix on it, potentially rewarding students their for laziness and stripping the teacher of her authority.

Osborne has called the decision to scale “new territory” for the district and says he’s worried about the precedent it has set.

I, for one, have to agree. Is indiscriminately boosting marks by entire letter grades regardless of ability or effort to about become the new norm? It’s a question I’m afraid to learn the answer to.

Hyack honeybees educate and pollinate

Biology teacher and beekeeper Axel Krause at work in NWSS's rooftop apiary. Photo cred: NWSS environment club

New Westminster Secondary School is a hive of activity these days, and not only because students are buzzing about the hallways, gearing up for second semester.

Four years ago this month, at the urging of his students, biology teacher Axel Krause approached the school board with a plan to build an apiary on the roof of the Pearson wing.

The plan was approved, and NWSS is now home to two beehives, with another shipment of bees on its way.

“It’s a unique kind of thing to our school,” said environment club president Isabel Sadowski, 17. “Not a lot of schools have beehives.”

The bees are part of an International Baccalaureate unit Krause teaches on social biology, and students are encouraged to get involved as beekeepers, honey collectors and candle makers through the environment club.

The club sells the handmade candles and pots of ‘Hyack honey’ at parent nights and Christmas fairs as a fundraiser.

“A hard part of being part of environment club is that sometimes your actions don’t really produce a lot,” said Sadowski. “You can raise awareness, you can change your own habits, but it’s hard to see the effect that you’re having. With the beehives, you can actually see the work you’ve been doing is creating something.”

But for Krause and Sadowski, bees are so much more important than the substances they produce.

“Every third mouthful of food you eat has had a bee involved,” said Krause, explaining that even dairy cows depend on bees to pollinate the alfalfa they eat. “It’s amazing how much food we eat that’s pollinated by bees. And the bees are dying.”

This month in California, one million beehives will arrive from all over the United States to pollinate over 700,000 acres of almonds. In the summer, many of those bees will be shipped to the Fraser Valley to pollinate blueberry crops, then to Alberta for canola.

Krause believes this practice may be a factor in Colony Collapse Disorder – the sudden loss of entire hives of bees that has plagued beekeepers since it was first documented in 2006.

“Do you like bananas?” asked Krause. “Do you want to eat bananas for two weeks straight? No. But that’s what we’re doing to our bees. We’re putting them into the almonds, and for two weeks all they get is almond pollen.”

Steady diets of a single kind of pollen, pesticides and viruses have contributed to the deaths of billions of bees in recent years, but Krause believes urban beekeeping is one solution.

Like many municipalities in the Lower Mainland, New Westminster has a pesticide bylaw that prohibits the use of toxic chemicals in gardens. Bees therefore have a much cleaner, more diverse area to pollinate.

“People get our honey and they say, ‘the honey is just so good, what’s in it?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know, whatever the people around the school have in their gardens,” said Krause. “This is garden variety honey.”

Since the beehives arrived in 2008, several other teachers at the school have taken up beekeeping in their own backyards. With Krause set to retire in June, Sadowski (who is graduating this year) said she hopes one of them will take command of the rooftop apiary.

“It really is Mr. Krause’s project. He makes the honey, prepares the wax for the candles, so I just hope that the beehives still continue … It will be upsetting if it doesn’t continue in the way that it has in the past.”

But given the strong interest and support of the community, Sadowski said the beehives will likely be there long after she and Krause are gone.

“We have such a big school, it’s nice that we have some kind of project that is a little more unique and really beneficial.”