Van­cou­ver mayor re­flects on record

Gre­gor Robert­son had clear vi­sion for city


Af­ter 10 years lead­ing Bri­tish Columbia’s largest city, Gre­gor Robert­son is pre­par­ing to step away from the helm. What­ever the out­go­ing mayor set out to achieve for Van­cou­ver has largely been over­shad­owed by his role pi­lot­ing the city through some of its great­est tri­als.

Sit­ting in the cer­e­mo­nial room where he has hosted count­less meet­ings, Robert­son said he’s com­fort­able with any lens peo­ple choose to view his per­for­mance.

“Col­lec­tively we’ve achieved a lot of great suc­cesses. But gen­er­ally in pol­i­tics and par­tic­u­larly be­ing the mayor, you end up be­ing in the blame game for when things do go wrong. And when there are global chal­lenges, like af­ford­abil­ity, that are hit­ting ev­ery big city in the world and hit­ting us par­tic­u­larly hard, peo­ple want to blame me for that,” Robert­son, 54, said.

“That’s OK, I can han­dle it.”

A decade ago, Robert­son had a clear vi­sion for achieve­ment: Make Van­cou­ver the green­est city in the world by 2020, end home­less­ness by 2015, in­crease af­ford­able hous­ing and strengthen the econ­omy.

In fact, Robert­son and his coun­cil man­aged to achieve, or at least make dents in, many of those goals.

The unem­ploy­ment rate is among the low­est in the coun­try at 4.5 per cent. Robert­son said more than half of res­i­dents use trans­porta­tion other than cars, an ob­jec­tive that he said was reached five years ahead of sched­ule in 2015.

Gor­don Price, who was a Van­cou­ver coun­cil­lor for six terms and is the for­mer direc­tor for The City Pro­gram at Si­mon Fraser Uni­ver­sity, said when a po­lit­i­cal prom­ise is checked off the list it doesn’t of­ten come with gold stars from vot­ers.

“In a sense, when you were elected to do some­thing and you ac­tu­ally do it, the big re­sponse is ‘yawn,’ ” Price said.

What Robert­son didn’t an­tic­i­pate was the scale of mul­ti­ple crises that would knock some of Van­cou­ver’s most vul­ner­a­ble down and change the very char­ac­ter of the city.

The year he took of­fice, the global eco­nomic re­ces­sion hit. Four years ago, peo­ple be­gan dy­ing from over­doses in un­prece­dented num­bers. In the last decade, ris­ing prop­erty val­ues made the city un­af­ford­able for many.

Each pre­sented an ob­sta­cle, taken to­gether, they have over­whelmed the city, Robert­son said.

“Peo­ple are dy­ing in un­prece­dented num­bers, that’s been re­ally dif­fi­cult. You know the big­ger, longer cri­sis of af­ford­able hous­ing was decades in the mak­ing and then we got wal­loped with the big­gest in­flux of global cap­i­tal re­ally that any city had seen all at once.”

Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist David Mo­scrop, who re­cently left B.C. for the de­part­ment of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Uni­ver­sity of Ot­tawa, said Robert­son promised too much in cer­tain ar­eas like home­less­ness.

In 2018, the num­ber of Van­cou­verites fac­ing home­less­ness was pegged at 2,181, over 1,500 were liv­ing in shel­ters or other cen­tres and 659 were liv­ing on the street. In 2010, just over 1,700 home­less were counted in the city.

Mo­scrop said it’s un­fair to put all of the blame for such prob­lems on lo­cal govern­ments when they re­quire a co­or­di­nated re­sponse from their pro­vin­cial and fed­eral coun­ter­parts.

On bal­ance, Mo­scrop said Robert­son did “fine” and given the chal­lenges, he’s not sure any­one could have done bet­ter.

“I think he’s about as good as he could be within the con­text he was op­er­at­ing,” Mo­scrop said.

Mo­scrop pre­dicted an­other tough few years for the city.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt he’s leav­ing it in worse shape than he found it. But I’m not con­vinced the next mayor will nec­es­sar­ily be able to ad­dress these prob­lems ei­ther,” he said.

How­ever, Mo­scrop said the next coun­cil will have the ben­e­fit of work­ing with other lev­els of govern­ment that are now “will­ing to play ball.”

Fi­nan­cially, Robert­son said Van­cou­ver is in bet­ter shape than its ever been.

Rental hous­ing ac­counted for more than half of the de­vel­op­ments ap­proved this year, he said, com­pared with 10 years ago when it made up five per cent of the sup­ply.

“The new coun­cil and mayor, they’re go­ing to have to keep go­ing. This is go­ing to take years,” Robert­son said.

The city also has a his­tory of “bounc­ing back,” he said, point­ing to the way the com­mu­nity came to­gether to clean up af­ter the Stan­ley Cup ri­ots in 2011.

“I think as a city we’ve got­ten a lot more re­silient and closer in terms of deal­ing with these chal­lenges.”

As for what’s on the hori­zon, Robert­son plans to take his first long va­ca­tion in about 20 years this win­ter.

“I’m ready for a break from pol­i­tics,” he said. “Ba­si­cally, I won’t be re­spon­si­ble for the city any­more so I need to tran­si­tion out of that mind­set and open my eyes to what I want to do next.”

Cana­dian Press photo

Out­go­ing mayor Gre­gor Robert­son is pic­tured out­side his of­fice at City Hall in Van­cou­ver. Af­ter 10 years lead­ing Bri­tish Columbia's largest city, Robert­son is pre­par­ing to step away from the helm.

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