Brighter days in Nanaimo

On Wallace Street at the edge of the Old City Quarter

Fraseropolis Occidental Hotel

The Occidental Hotel, 1886, restored in the 1980s.

Nanaimo’s roots go back to the 19th century. Its central area has rich architectural and heritage interest — combined with a mix of sometimes brutal modernist styles, and a tendency in recent decades for local owner-operated business to fail.

But as of 2018, central Nanaimo may finally be finding its feet.

The city occupies a difficult site. It faces the lights of Vancouver across the Strait of Georgia, which is atmospheric, but it’s fragmented by steep hills, gorges and bogs. Growth has hugged the coastline, sprawling northward. As with many Canadian cities, the establishment of ever-bigger shopping malls sucked the energy — i.e. the pedestrian traffic, and therefore the potential customers — out of the old downtown.

So what’s happening now to reverse the trend? In no particular order: we could look at the exodus of boomers from Vancouver, cashing out of their high-priced homes and looking for something cheaper and calmer. We could notice that climate change and extremely hot weather in the United States is bringing hordes of American tourists to the B.C. coast, seeking relief. At the same time, the city government’s central area plan, adopted in 2002, is generating new apartment housing and improved transit.

My co-tourist on a late Saturday afternoon was Russell MacEwen. Russ remembers when Nanaimo residents travelled downtown to shop at the butcher shop and the department store. He landed his first job at Ryan’s wholesalers in 1962, at the edge of what they now call the Old City Quarter. He assembled packets of school supplies for delivery to drug stores and such.

During our walk, he pointed to where the high school stood, to ruined steps leading up to a vanished mansion, and to an empty field where the bells once rang at the Catholic convent. However, we also saw structures that have been rescued by redevelopment. The railway station is now a pub and museum, the Eaton’s department store is an apartment complex, and heritage homes have been occupied by lawyers and health clinics.

Fraseropolis Coach and Horses Nanaimo

A corner of the E&N Railway station, dated 1920, now partly occupied by the Coach and Horses pub.

Fraseropolis Nanaimo pot cafe

On Selby Street opposite the railway station. This classic streetscape shows up Nanaimo’s history as a town of miners and mill workers. The yellow structure, a former neighbourhood grocery store, is now a cannabis club.

Boutiques on Wesley Street, a block below Selby.

Nanaimo’s harbour marina and the Old City Quarter make up the two poles of an easy touristic walk. They are about 10 minutes apart by the most direct route. In between lies the old downtown, with a European-style network of winding streets.

Fraseropolis Nanaimo marina

Nanaimo’s waterfront promenade: a bistro with a newish residential tower behind

The marina lies close to the southern end of a scenic waterfront promenade, offering a half-hour walk with a view of islands and parks. The marina precinct has seen its own struggles: it was conceived some decades ago as a tourist attraction, especially because of its proximity to the city’s convention centre. However, the federally-controlled Harbour Commission (by local rumour) has been greedy in setting rents for ice-cream vendors and gift stalls, with disruptive results. The pattern may have stabilized; there is certainly lots of foot traffic in high summer.

Menu reducedWe had dinner for four at Le Café Francais, just behind the convention centre. It is operated by a very nice family from a town in Normandy, and the food was good. Our server, one of the sons, joked about having to post pictures of the Eiffel Tower on the walls, but c’est la vie.

Fraseropolis Nanaimo downtown

The Nanaimo marina, with the high-end Cameron Island residences to the right

Fraseropolis Nanaimo downtown 2Fraseropolis Nanaimo downtown plan

Fraseropolis Nanaimo Commonwealth

Meanwhile, back in the real world: Nanaimo’s central area also features severe examples of modernist architecture. At the top of this set of three is the rear of the City Hall, showing postwar Art Deco elements. Second is a commercial block on Wallace Street. Dunsmuir Place, immediately above, was developed around 1980 by the Nanaimo Commonwealth Holding Society. This “charity,” fed by bingo revenues, was the child of a one-time B.C. Minister of Finance, David Stupich. His insurance company happened to rent space in the building. He was sentenced to prison for diverting charitable donations to the New Democratic Party, but he died before he could serve his time.

Fraseropolis Nanaimo heritage

A shambles of settlement-era wooden structures in the lower downtown, possibly 1880s, with the Cameron Island tower in the background.

Fraseropolis Nanaimo downtown plan 2

Fronts of the same structures, facing Victoria Crescent

B.C.’s trading profile: coal to Japan, mystery food to the U.S.

A vintage terminal building at the Port of Vancouver, 2014

Over the past year, the United States has taken steps to restrict Canadian imports, and the President has threatened to ramp this up with tariffs on vehicles and auto parts.

Responding to public anxiety, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has created a Ministry of International Trade Diversification — though in fact, we’ve been trying to reduce our dependence on the U.S. for decades, with no clear pattern of progress. Canada sent 68 per cent of its exports to the U.S. in 2008; that figure was up to 76.3% in 2016.

The new federal trade minister, Jim Carr, says there’s “an awful lot of affection for Canada” among our non-U.S, trading partners: but from the statistics, we have bigger problems with Europe or Japan than we do with the United States. The value of Canadian exports to China more than doubled from 2008 to 2017; exports to the U.S. grew by 50 per cent; to the European Union, 15 per cent; and with Japan, there was no growth.

In British Columbia, we ship to a diverse list of countries. Fifty-one per cent of B.C. exports went to the United States in 2017, versus 82 per cent in Ontario. Our trade with the U.S., on the surface, is not going well. B.C. has been a target of the “America First” agenda since 2017, with steep American tariffs on softwood lumber. However, the results to date are something of a muddle.

The U.S. administration imposed preliminary lumber duties through mid-2017 and a “final” formula targeting individual lumber producers in November 2017. Tariffs run as high as 25 per cent. The value of B.C. lumber exports to the U.S. shrank in early 2017, but the picture is improving; as of the end of June, softwood lumber shipments were down just 4.5 per cent from the first half of the previous year.

At the same time, lumber sales from B.C. to China are declining. Maybe it’s because U.S. producers are dumping logs in China, maybe it’s because the Canadian railways have capacity problems. But looking at the overall picture, total wood products sales for 2018 well above average historic levels. They are likely to account for something like $9.5 billion, or more than 20 per cent of B.C. exports. The share prices of B.C. lumber producers have also done well in 2018.

Trade numbers are always volatile. However, the total value of B.C. exports showed an upward trend in the first six months of 2018 (see the monthly data on the BC Stats trade page.). This is despite the drop in lumber sales, and a much bigger drop in the value of energy sales to the United States. Revenues from natural gas shipments south were down by a whopping $430,000,000 to June 2018, and sales to the U.S. of electricity, coal and crude oil were also down sharply.

So in a year where me might sell (guessing) $42 or $43 billion worth of stuff, where is B.C. succeeding in spite of Trump’s trade wars?

  • Coal. Not rated as B.C.’s most environmentally friendly export, but important to communities in the Kootenays. We are on track to repeat last year’s performance, with more than $6 billion in sales. High diversification score: $1.7 billion worth of coal will go to Japan, $1.3 billion to Korea, $900 million to China, $800 million to Europe, and substantial amounts to southeast Asia and India.
  • Machinery and equipment. With luck, B.C. could see a record $5 billion sales in 2018. 65 per cent of this type of product goes to the U.S., with auto parts representing only a marginal share; scientific and electrical equipment are more important. Europe, which appears to block most Canadian products other than coal, is taking 15 per cent of our electrical equipment in the current year.
  • Wood pulp. Likely to hit $4 billion in sales this year, with more than 90 per cent going to non-U.S. customers, especially the Asian industrial powers. Pulp is used for the production of paper and sometimes chemicals.
  • Copper ore. B.C. may export a record $3 billion this year. Well over half goes to Korea, Japan or China, with zero going to the U.S. The slag heaps around the B.C. copper town of Logan Lake are vast; the product helps to produce batteries and electronic equipment.
  • Fish. A $1.3 billion item in 2018, modestly above recent averages. Close to 30% of this will go to China and Japan; other Asian markets are growing, while demand in the U.S. is easing.
  • “Food preparations for manufacturing and health products.” What is this? Beats me, but it will account for $1.4 billion in sales, with 70 per cent of that going to the U.S. With recognizable food (another $1.4 billion), we are similarly tied to the U.S., selling them fruit and nuts, vegetables and baked goods. One exception is our modest meat trade (c.$160 million), destined mostly for is with China, Japan and elsewhere in Asia. Canada as a whole sells about as much meat as B.C. sells coal, with two thirds of this going to our neighbours.

This list of trade goods from B.C. includes a lot of unprocessed or lightly processed raw materials. People have argued for decades that we should be focusing on the development of services for international markets, because services create more and better jobs for the same dollar of investment. And we have made progress in this area, with a growing international profile for our movie and TV productions, tourism attractions, scientific research and luxury real estate.

On the other hand (in this trade discussion, there always seems to be another hand), Canadians are buying more goods and services externally than ever before, and our combined goods and services current account deficit is sitting at near-record levels.


Metro Vancouver transit: fastest growth in North America in 2017

A detail from a 2016 Council of Mayors plan showing transit improvement priorities

TransLink’s service levels are increasing rapidly, and a new funding plan should allow continued expansion — for a while.

The Metro Vancouver transit authority’s latest performance report, published on June 21, shows that with added service, boardings across the system — bus, SeaBus, and SkyTrain — increased by 5.7 per cent through 2017 to a record 407 million. This was the biggest jump in ridership among major urban areas in North America (see the chart at the bottom of this post.) Continue reading

Trouble in Brookswood


Brookswood, a classic 1950s subdivision in the Township of Langley, has been locked for years in a dispute over the pace of development. It sits just minutes from malls and highways, but it has a deep country feel.

In late 2017, on the third try in four years, Township Council approved a plan that contemplates significant population growth in the Brookswood-Fernridge planning area. From fewer than 14,000 residents, the population is supposed to grow to 39,000 when projected development is complete. In percentage terms, Langley is growing faster than any other major municipality in Greater Vancouver, and it needs land for medium-density housing. The question here is whether the preservation of an old, sprawling suburb might be justified because of its special character. Continue reading

Family incomes in Metro Vancouver

Yaletown, 2017

Statistics Canada has added new community profiles to its website based on the 2016 census. These include income measures the federal Conservative government axed from the 2011 census — possibly because open up a discussion about economic inequality.

Within Metro Vancouver, the highest median family income, in North Vancouver District, is 50 per cent higher than in Richmond, which has the lowest family and individual incomes and the biggest low-income population (“federal Low-income measure, after tax”). Continue reading

Riding Vancouver’s fast train to nowhere

Adam Fitch’s rapid transit map. His LRT line idea is shown with a cord painted green, from a proposed new Emily Carr SkyTrain station in east False Creek to UBC. The red line, with marked stations, traces TransLink’s SkyTrain route plan as of about 2012. In the real world, stations from Arbutus are to go into service before 2025; stations west of Arbutus have been delayed indefinitely.

My thanks to Kamloops-based planner Adam Fitch. He invited me to join him on a May 4 “Jane’s Walk” to consider a cheaper alternative to the Broadway Extension rapid transit project.

Fitch’s proposal would take advantage of a corridor owned by the City of Vancouver, and would avoid most of the tunneling costs associated with the Broadway scheme. It’s an entertaining concept, but it won’t get built, largely because it won’t take people where they want to go. Continue reading

Funding for Metro Vancouver transit: are we there yet?

Surrey Central SkyTrain station

Over the past 20 years, British Columbia and local governments have failed to agree on a long-term transit funding formula for Metro Vancouver.

The regional transit authority (TransLink) sits in a governmental neutral zone, neither provincial nor local, and it suffers for a lack of political champions. Continue reading