Saying there’s more work to be done to steer the city toward affordability and sustainability, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps will stand for re-election in October. “It hasn’t been an easy decision. It’s been a great three years in lots of ways and a challenging three years in other ways,” Helps, 41, said in a year-end interview
“I’m committed to one more term and no more. Definitively. After that, that’s it. Eight years is a long time to be in this job.”
Asked about successes of the past three year, Helps points to construction cranes dotting the downtown skyline. They’re building hundreds of new rental units, encouraged, she said, by a more development and neighbourhood friendly city hall. She also points to the Regional Housing First initiative in which the capital region and the province have each committed $30 million toward creation of new affordable housing, creation of the South Island Prosperity Project and construction start on the regional sewage treatment. The South Island Prosperity Project is a new regional economic development agency.
Combating climate change will have to take centre stage this year and throughout the next term, she said..
“The job of government, good government is to look 50 years down the road or 30 years down the road and say: ‘What do we need to do now so that we’re ready for the future?’ That is the most challenging aspect of this job.
“Our job is to make sure that in 2050 Victoria is sustainable and Victoria is affordable. Part of that is bike lanes. Part of that is affordable housing, even when people feel it is hard to have that in their neighbourhood. Part of that is taking really bold action, and this is a lot of what the next term is going to be about, on climate action,” she said.
Helps sees transportation — or more specifically bus rapid transit to the West Shore — to be the next big regional issue. It has to be up and running in the next four to seven years, she said, “or our region will be left behind” in addressing issues like greenhouse gases, congestion downtown, affordability, prosperity and travel times.
“What sewage was in the last term, transportation and particularly transit will be in the next term,” she said.
“Yes, it’s going to be expensive to do bus rapid transit all the way there and back including the Uptown exchange and all of the stations. But it will save people lots of money when they don’t have to drive in from the West Shore every day.”
Helps, then a one-term city councillor, ran a social media savvy, grassroots mayoral campaign in 2014 that eked out a slim 89-vote victory over incumbent Dean Fortin in a crowded field of candidates.
But that election was as much about the Johnson Street Bridge project as it was anything else. Fortin’s opponents hammered away at the project’s rising costs and missed deadlines as failures of his leadership.
By the time voters go to the polls this year, the Johnson Street Bridge should be in everybody’s rear-view mirror. This time out, however, Helps has her own mayoral baggage stuffed into her bicycle saddlebags.
Homelessness and the issues it can bring to a neighbourhood became a focus with the tent city that dug in on the courthouse lawn in November 2015 and stayed until mid-August2016. The area is within Victoria but the specific property falls under provincial jurisdiction. Another hot-button issue that could dog her campaign is the new All Ages and Abilities (AAA) bike lane network under construction downtown.
Perceived special treatment given to residents of the tent city encampment and what some thought was indifference to neighbourhood concerns gave birth to a Mad As Hell neighbourhood group. Some from that group are actively campaigning against Helps and her entire council.
And a group calling itself Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria is increasingly lobbying against rising city taxes.
Ever since the first leg of the bicycling network opened — a 1.2-kilometre stretch on Pandora between Cook and Wharf streets — it has stirred controversy.
Some find the two-way bike route on a one-way street to be counter-intuitive and confusing to motorists with its separate signals and no right turns on red lights. Others are dismayed at the loss of parking and narrowing of the roadway.
And costs are ballooning as the project scope expands.
The cost of the 5.4-kilometre downtown network has grown to an estimated $14.5 million — almost $2.7 million per kilometre — about double the $7.75 million the city initially set aside.
Helps said the additional costs are not budget overruns but due to taking a complete streets approach to the project, so the scope is broadened as things like fixing curbs, adding crosswalks and benches, improving intersections and underground infrastructure are done at the same time the bike lanes are being built.
She agrees that for whatever reason there’s an undercurrent of anger in the community and that a few hot button issues could dominate the campaign
“What I want to try and do is shift the conversation so we’re not having a conversation about now, but we’re having a conversation about Victoria at mid-century,” Helps said.
But she admits shifting mind-sets won’t be easy. For whatever reason -- perhaps, in part due to the social media echo chambers -- “we come to conversations with our minds already made up and our positions already established. So there’s not room to change our minds,” she said.
Still, Helps remains positive.
“People in their true humanity don’t want to be mad and they don’t want to be grumpy. People want to feel good. People want to feel happy. People want to feel joyful,” she said.
“If you give people something positive to go towards versus something negative to go towards, as humans we’ll go for the positive. We’ll go for what feels good. That’s really what the election and the next four years and the next 30 years should be about, creating and enacting a positive, optimistic, joyful and happy vision for Victoria that includes the things that we want.”