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Vancouver businesses beg for red-tape relief

Empty stores can reflect lag in permits, rising street crime and high taxes: city’s response is plan to tax the vacant space
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Boarded up storefronts on Davie Street: businesses complain of "disconnect" with city hall: | Chung Chow

When it comes to the level of red tape at Vancouver City hall, few people have been as wrapped up in it in recent months as Michael Jagger.

Jagger is the founder and CEO of Provident Security Corp. and a leading entrepreneur in the city. But his latest encounter with the maze of municipal bureaucracy came not as a business owner, but instead in his role as an organizer of a long-running Little League parade.

The Kerrisdale Little League Parade was held as planned on April 30, but it almost didn’t happen. That’s because, when organizers at the Kerrisdale Business Improvement Association tried to apply for a permit at the beginning of the year – as they have done for decades – they were told it was too late.

“This just felt like this is the opposite of what the city should be doing,” said Jagger, the parade’s marshal, who added that the city told organizers they needed to apply back in November. “The city should be, if anything, going out of their way to help nurture and support events like this.

“And the fact that that people seemed willing to just say, ‘Oh, well, that’s too bad but the rules did change so sorry, you can’t do it,’ – it’s just a great example of what I think needs to be fixed at city hall.”

The city did eventually approve the permit for the parade after the Kerrisdale BIA’s story become public (with Mayor Kennedy Stewart offering support for the application), but the reason for requiring organizers to apply as early as last November – a new set of rules introduced last spring – was poorly communicated to local communities and too rigid to consider the scale and impacts of events big and small, Jagger noted.

“I mean, we’re talking about the whole parade, which takes 25 minutes,” he said. “It’s a few hundred kids with a few bands, walking down the street.… This isn’t the Santa Claus parade or some gigantic event. This is a small community event, and it’s run by volunteers.”

Jagger is far from alone in his experience.

Residents ranging from homeowners and builders applying for residential projects to businesses applying for patios and other post-COVID measures have said they’ve been bogged down, confused or otherwise affected by red tape at city hall – and the issue is much worse in Vancouver than in surrounding Lower Mainland municipalities.

In March, restaurant and brewery industry groups decried the city’s return this year to charging fees and resuming regulatory assessment processes for patios after two years of expedited approvals during the pandemic. Officials from trade associations say that some small-business owners will have to pay $5,000 or more for a patio of six square metres because of the fees and required engineering and architectural documents.

Then, when Steward proposed the city explore imposing a new empty stores tax in late April, groups like the Mount Pleasant BIA said the move highlighted a disconnect between the economic situations on the ground and the rules and fees being instituted to address the empty storefronts issue.

Community groups say the increase in vacancies reflects rising property tax levels, and long wait times for permit approvals, an observation shared on the residential side by Ron Rapp, CEO of Homebuilders Association Vancouver (HAVAN).

Rapp, who said the application times for permits in Vancouver frequently stretch to several months rather than weeks, noted that the issue of the backlog was already apparent pre-pandemic. But when COVID-19 drove municipal office staff to work from home, the combination of slowdowns in application approval and a spike in the number of home-improvement projects created a recipe for disaster.

“The underlying problem is that you’ve got a system – particularly in the City of Vancouver – that has become increasingly layered and complex over the course of the last number of years,” Rapp said.

Perhaps surprisingly, the current backlog in Vancouver’s municipal departments is an improvement from last year. In June 2021, city council approved a number of moves aimed at unclogging the system. They ranged from implementing a task force to monitor the issue and fast-tracking permits under tree bylaws and laneway homes applications.

In the city’s spring 2022 update, officials say they have now cleared “an intake backlog of more than 500 low-density housing applications,” with 450 now in line for processing. Initial contact wait times have been reduced by up to 16 weeks, the city said, and some renovation permits can now be approved in two weeks using the direct-to-inspection process.

“So far, we anticipate that with the changes we’ve made … we’ve sort of saved about 14,000 weeks of processing time and more than 10,000 hours of review time,” said Andrea Law, general manager of development, buildings and licensing at the City of Vancouver. “We’ve had to shift our model and really look at how we do our work.”

The current efforts are more focused on cutting delays in small project applications – low-density housing and commercial renovations, for instance, and Law added that a key goal is to also make the process more transparent.

“It’s about connecting with customers early in the process,” she said. “I think the frustration from customers was often the sense that, ‘We submit an application, and we don’t hear from staff.’ So we’ve implemented process changes specifically to engage with customers right away, as soon as we received their application.… That has helped us shave off approximately 16 weeks before we connect with customers. So that’s been huge.”

Rapp agreed that the situation has improved since last summer, but he reiterated that – because the backlog began well before the pandemic started – the current measures can only go so far without a more fundamental rethink of how municipal bureaucracy can be made more efficient.

“To their credit, they are chipping away at it,” he said. “They’re making an active effort to try and find the means by which to streamline and to try and expedite the process. But you know, this scenario did not evolve overnight. And it’s not going to be rectified overnight.”

That Vancouver has more to do to address the red tape and delays in various departments isn’t lost on city council. Both councillors who co-introduced the initial motion last year to trigger the red tape task force – Couns. Lisa Dominato and Sarah Kirby-Yung – acknowledged that while they commend what city staff has done up to this point, more is needed.

Kirby-Yung noted that a local study said that a delay of seven to eight months in permitting approval may cost a Vancouver business up to $720,000 – a significant amount that adds up quickly for a city now looking to rebound economically from COVID.

She added that, if the issue isn’t addressed adequately, the damage to Vancouver may be greater than even the existing numbers suggest.

“I worry that if we don’t expedite the improvements, Vancouver becomes less and less competitive,” Kirby-Yung said. “A common thing you hear is, ‘It’s so much easier to do this in Burnaby or Surrey or somewhere else’ or ‘I’ve just shifted my business and I’m now doing a project south of the border in the U.S. or in other municipalities.’ I’ve heard that quite a bit. And the other outcome can be, if it takes way too long, that you create more of an underground economy.”

Dominato agreed.

She said she has heard many stories from constituents – which spurred the original motion addressing red tape last year. Dominato said the city should clarify departmental responsibilities to expedite applications and take advantage of technology to allow people to track the progress of applications online.

“Navigating our system right now is like being a mouse in a maze, looking for the cheese at the end,” she said. “What I would like to achieve is a very open, transparent, seamless process if you’re seeking a business licence, a change of use for your business or some sort of renovation … and an underpinning philosophy for me is that every door should be the right door. When you approach the city, you shouldn’t have to worry about different departments.”

Jagger, who views the roadblock faced by the Kerrisdale Little League Parade as symptomatic of the ills at city hall, said such red tape and the empty-store tax idea underscore how deep the disconnect is between municipal government and a city in need of economic rejuvenation after the COVID malaise.

“This isn’t about the Little League Parade. This is about a systemic cultural issue as to how we approach figuring out what are the important things, how do we operate, and is the city’s role to put roadblocks up and make things harder … or to make those things easier?”