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Downtown Victoria street issues, crime and disorder Q&A with Councillor Stephen Hammond

Stephen Hammond, a City of Victoria councillor, discusses street issues, and the downtown Victoria social and business climates in Citified's latest Q&A segment.  Citified.ca

Downtown Victoria street issues, crime and disorder Q&A with Councillor Stephen Hammond
Ten on the 10th
Citified's Ten on the 10th is a monthly question-and-answer segment connecting our readers with the insight and knowledge of Victoria's top real-estate and business professionals.
 
Ten on the Tenth's May, 2024 segment features Stephen Hammond, a City of Victoria councillor serving his first term.
 
Asking the questions is Ross Marshall, Senior Vice President of the Victoria offices of commercial real-estate brokerage CBRE. As a leader in facilitating large-scale commercial real-estate transactions throughout the Capital Region – which include apartment complexes, industrial retail and office properties, and land/development opportunities – Ross and his team are at the forefront of market-leading real-estate transactions on Vancouver Island.
 
 
Would you like to be featured as part of a future Ten on the 10th Q&A? We'd like to hear from you.

Stephen's entry comment: My overriding belief comes from the late former councillor Frank Carson who said something along the lines of “the job of council is not to run the city, but to ensure the city is run well.”
 
Question: As a City Council, how are priorities for investment into the public realm determined, as in, how are spending and social initiatives prioritized? Is it council who predominantly sets the directive, or is this driven by staff?
I always want these initiatives to be brought by our expert staff and when they aren’t “expert enough”, they reach out to work with government, business and non-profit associations. However, council always has the right to set directions and to ask for changes/improvements/pull backs regarding any policies. My preference is to note the problems, then ask staff to find the best ways to address it.
 
Take a recent example, the council member motion by Councillors Krista Loughton and Dave Thompson on March 14th of this year. Their motion asked Council to use City funds for the “establishment of a collaborative working group to address community safety for Caledonia Place and the North Park neighbourhood.” While I’ve been a big critic of the lack of security and supports for the neighbourhood surrounding this facility (formerly called “tiny town”), I was willing to go along with the request and the use of City taxpayer funds. I don’t think this is breaching any confidence that Councillor Loughton and I had a discussion after her motion and I said I was impressed with the detail she put into this motion. However, I said in order to save her own time, she might have asked staff to come with suggestions, instead of her doing all the work. Again, I was impressed by what she did, but I felt, she, like other councillors, had enough work to do.
 
When we’re dealing with issues of our jobs being part time or full time, this could be an example where we rely on our staff to do these jobs.
 
Local businesses are finding it difficult to operate in the downtown area and within the City of Victoria, due to a combination of parking issues, vandalism, and social problems. Does the City have a plan to address these concerns with a specific focus on the business community?
Our council has taken initiatives on many fronts to support downtown businesses and enhance vitality to entice people to come downtown. Last year we increased parking times and rates to pay for the OurDWTN policy/program, giving more money for entertainment, with the hope of bringing more people downtown. I didn’t like the increase in parking rates, but I went along with this process when my amendment was put in, to look at programs, such as found in Kelowna, where businesses have more or less ambassadors, to help businesses when people cause problems, but don’t necessarily need police. I spoke to the head of Kelowna’s program and he said it was expensive but loved by their downtown businesses. Unfortunately, nothing has happened with this yet program yet.
 
We encourage and support the police to give more attention to downtown and we designated more money to support police to have more of a presence downtown. The Chief then told us they now have more police foot patrols, which has been popular with businesses, and my guess, people who go downtown. We also continued to fund the police’s Late Night Great Night program, which is over $200K, although in future years, council expects this to be part of the police budget, and not the City’s (keeping in mind, the City’s taxpayers fund both the Police and the City budgets).
 
In August 2023, City Council approved the Business Façade Beautification Reimbursement Program with a budget of $100,000 over two years. It is meant to give grants to clean and beautify downtown business storefronts. And then in February of this year, we were asked to tweak the program to “reduce barriers to the program”, which we did.
 
The city, through the DVBA, funded a program “Vandalism and Security Grants” which made funds available, city-wide, when vandalism, often including broken windows, took place. Tragically this program maxed out of the funds as there has been so many incidents of broken windows. Now that the province has stepped in with a program of their own, Victoria businesses will get some money for these very expensive examples of senseless destruction.
 
Is there a marketing agenda, in alignment with the DVBA perhaps, to help strengthen the image of downtown Victoria as a place to do business? With fewer shoppers coming downtown, and so many office workers no longer required to work from their offices, what is the City doing to promote the downtown business district?
As noted in the question above, the City has invested in the OUR DWTN program. I think it’s summed up best from the City’s website:
 
Established in 2023, the City's OUR DWTN revitalization program is investing in the downtown core with a focus on beautification, programming, cleaning and enhanced safety and the activation of downtown spaces. Close to $950,000 is allotted for 2024 to activate and refresh downtown through the OUR DWTN initiative, which includes a mix of new retail experiences, pop-up culinary options, recreational and cultural programming, and events and placemaking initiatives – all in a clean and safe downtown. Designed to provide safety and enjoyment to all who visit downtown Victoria, the program’s area of focus currently includes Wharf to Blanshard Streets and Belleville to Discovery Streets.
 
Non-local land developers who have done business in the City over the years are returning to Victoria, but cite concerns over the state of the city centre. We have also heard from developers that Victoria, once an investment priority, has lost its footing, and in some cases, dollars are flowing into other communities that would have been earmarked for Victoria. Is council aware of the slow-down in investment capital?
I am not familiar with any changes, so couldn’t comment if I don’t know the stats to support these claims. However, I’m very interested in making all parts of our city safer and to make people feel safer. I’ve consistently spoken up about more security in our city where we know problems exist or there’s a more likely chance for them to exist. While not the downtown, in one meeting, I grilled BC Housing Senior management about their lack of security for residents living close to their shelter on Russell Street. When they said lessons were learned, I asked what those lessons were and why, oh, why it took two years to admit there was a problem.
 
Last September, I brought forward a motion to address city problems related to the use and possession of illicit drugs. As everyone knows, the federal government, through Health Canada, has allowed an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to the Province of B.C. From January 31, 2023, until January 31, 2026, allowing adults in B.C. the personal possession of small amounts of certain illegal drugs without possible criminal prosecution. However, in certain locations, possession of illegal drugs can lead to criminal charges, such as surrounding elementary and secondary schools, childcare facilities and airports. I asked city staff to draft bylaw changes to include the following:
 
“1. The use and possession of illegal drugs be banned within 30 metres of “child- focused spaces”.
 
“2. ‘Child-focused spaces’ would be expanded to include sports fields, tennis courts, picnic tables, bus shelters, and public facilities such as libraries and community centres, in addition to the existing list of playground play structures, spray pools, wading pools and skate parks.
 
This motion was put on hold and as of late April, the province made an u-turn by asking the federal government to make any pubic use of illicit drugs, illegal. I am very happy with this change from the provincial government. I complimented Mayor Alto with her statement to the Times Colonist when she said, “The reality is people are uncomfortable in certain circumstances watching other people use drugs when the use of that drug creates unpredictable behaviour, and that is what people are often very fearful of.”
 
There is a lot more we can do to make people feel safe and secure, but there are also limits to what a city can do about them.
 
Have there been budget or priority changes to sidewalk and public realm maintenance schedules in recent years, given the visual state of pedestrian infrastructure?
Yes, council approved increased money for roads and sidewalks, etc. to deal with deficits from previous years/councils. Coincidently, the City’s Deputy City Manager and Chief Financial Officer sent the chart below to councillors showing the deficit in paving and resurfacing roads, as well as sidewalks. We are now just catching up.
 
City of Victoria paving program.
The City of Victoria's road resurfacing data shows the municipality has under-invested in its road maintenance for several decades, with the lowest levels of financial commitment between 2011 and 2018.  City of Victoria
 
Is the City in conversation with higher levels of government, where a continuation of work-from-home is supported, to assess timelines for return-to-the- office mandates?
When I asked City staff, I was told, “Everyone is rather doing their our own thing and we have more people coming back for the actual City of Victoria staff.” Otherwise, I don’t think so, but then again, I’m not the expert.
 
Update: As of September, 2024, federal government workers will be required to work from the office a minimum of three days per week.
 
Does council have a community safety and wellbeing plan? If there is such a plan, who is in charge of this plan, and/or is developing priorities within this plan?
Yes, and everyone can find the public details of this here: Community Safety and Wellbeing Plan | City of Victoria. As I write this, the city is asking for public input in various ways. The Mayor came up with the plan last year and council supported it with money. She and a team have been meeting for the last year and after this public consultation process is over, I expect to be hearing about suggestions in the Fall.
 
The courts have allowed people to shelter in parks, when there is no shelter space available for them. However, the public has no way of knowing if shelter spaces are indeed available, or are at-capacity. Is the City working with its network of social service providers to create a publicly accessible shelter capacity portal?
That thinking has been surpassed by subsequent BC court decisions. It’s no longer enough to have the space. It must be the right kind of space/sheltering for people who are homeless. Regardless, I don’t think there’s a social service agency, including government and non-profit, we aren’t working with. And in fact we have introduced, with Victoria taxpayer money, programs to get people out of parks. I think it’s an effective process, but it’s very time-consuming, as it involves working with each person individually. It takes time. That being said, as more people come within our boundaries who are homeless, or become homeless, we will always be going through this process. As for all that information being public, I’m not sure if that’s being done.
 
Oregon is walking back its drug policies after a failed drug decriminalization experiment. Is it time for Victoria, which has based many of its recent social policies on Oregon, to consider walking back or revising camping, drug use and other social order bylaws?
I’m not sure if the City of Victoria has based any recent social policies on Oregon, but perhaps the province has. I can’t speak for City Council of course on this, but I think the province and the federal government have made a mistake on this experiment and regarding one aspect – open public use of illicit drugs – they have recently put a stop to that.
 
Regarding drug decriminalization, there are many people who are passionate on one side and the other...I’m on the side that thinks this policy is bonkers. Harm reduction, without the other parts, “HEET” (harm reduction, education, enforcement, treatment and then adding another, housing) means we are making it easier for people to get access to more drugs and become addicted. What we’ve seen is some persons who are addicted, are selling government issued drugs, such as Dilaudid, which is an opioid pain medication (“dillies”), to get the dangerous drugs they really want. Victoria Doctor Mark Mallet wrote about this in the Globe and Mail last September (Opinion piece: We must end the unwitnessed safe supply of opioids), where he is saying at the very least, dillies need to be given to people, in person, so that people don’t get the opportunity to sell them. I have met a person who supports people on the street, and spends a lot of his personal time meeting with homeless and addicted people to give them supports. Before Dr. Mallet wrote his article, I heard from this fellow about the rampant selling of dillies at great profits to dealers, who sell them in other parts of Canada. The further away from BC you get, the more expensive the dillies are. When it comes to sheltering and drug use, the City of Victoria, like all Canadian cities, are only able to do so much. These issues are in the jurisdiction of the provinces and the federal government and we can only do as much as the courts allow us to do.
 
Update: in tandem with this Q&A, the federal and provincial governments have made it illegal to use hard drugs in public places. As of early May, police are once again empowered to arrest an individual who defies resquests to cease using drugs in a public space, and/or confiscate their drugs.
 
North American cities have gone through ‘doughnut’ cycles in their growth, where city centres lose their appeal, and residents move to suburbs, and businesses follow. Are we nearing a point of no return for the city centre, considering the exodus of retailers and offices from downtown Victoria to other areas?
As much as I’m critical of the crime and disorder that takes place in downtown Victoria, while I know some businesses have left for these and other reasons, I don’t see an “exodus” of retailers, despite the problems they face. In my lifetime I find Canadian cities have gone through the downtowns being undesirable, to now being very desirable and much of it has to do with the cost of housing. The density in our downtown and of most Canadian cities, allows for people to live, work & hopefully play, due to owning or renting apartments/condos.
 
Those in or buying single-family homes are out of reach for most people, except for those who are wealthy enough or those who get money from their parents. While I have voted against a number of developments, just because they are a bit too large, I, like most others, believe in more density downtown and throughout the city. It’s a matter of how much, and of course most of that decision has been taken away from all BC municipalities by the provincial government. BC cities get very little say anymore and we are expected to meet the building formulas the province has chosen.
 
Here’s are some issues where I find we, as a city, have problems. The federal legislation encourages more catch and release of people caught doing criminal activity. Hence Canadian courts do just that, and the very recent example in April of one man who was carjacking and breaking into homes, and it was only after his third horrendous criminal activity, was he held for a longer process.
 
When it comes to sheltering in parks, we have B.C. Judges stating that it’s not enough to have enough beds/shelters, it must be appropriate facilities. This could include having a spouse who can’t be in the same room/bed; having a dog where not allowed; no internal use of illicit drugs or alcohol, etc.
 
I read a Times Colonist letter to the editor where the writer said he’d encourage his mother to go downtown. If my mom was alive, so would I, but that won’t overcome the fear of people who just aren’t willing to take the chance. I see our stats from the police which show our police respond to more issues than the norm throughout BC, but I’m not sure if these create more harm for those involved in the drug trade or to the general population. I can support our downtown with all the nice banners, the fun festivals and concerts, cleaning up the storefronts and repairing broken windows...all I want. But I can’t force someone to feel safe if they don’t feel safe. We will know our downtown is safe when most people, of all ages, feel safe going downtown to catch a movie, theatre production, or concert, have a nice or even quick meal at a restaurant, or just go for a stroll along the harbour on a beautiful summer night. It won’t be because we tell them it’s safe. I want Victoria to be the safest city in BC and there is a lot needed to get there. C

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