Lisa Helps first caught our attention just over three years ago. She was the thirtysomething, newly elected mayor of one of the country’s most iconic cities – Victoria, with its unique, Commonwealth sensibilities and monarchist charms.
When it came time to be sworn in, and take the oath of allegiance to the Queen, Ms. Helps declined. It was nothing against Elizabeth II, she explained, but rather her view that Victoria rose on the ancestral lands of the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations. And that wasn’t recognized in the traditional pledge. The Queen’s many fans in B.C.’s capital were not amused.
But the incident – if we can call it that – demonstrated two things: Victoria’s new mayor had chutzpah, and the city she was elected to run was no longer the stuffy, tweed-jacketed bastion of royalism many imagined. Yes, it might continue to trade on that reputation, including the double-decker tourist buses wrapped in the Union Jack, but beyond those commercial interests Ms. Helps was proof Victoria was changing, becoming a more modern, progressive outpost struggling with big-city issues.
Ms. Helps, who turned 42 this month, announced earlier this year she would seek a second, four-year term in the fall. So far, no one has stepped forward to challenge her. But someone will. While she has won the respect of many during her time in office, including a development community that was skeptical upon her arrival, she’s made her share of enemies, too.
One of her most contentious moves has been bringing in a series of bike lanes downtown. Bike lanes are controversial wherever they’re brought in. Ms. Helps defends the move, saying there will be 10,000 more people living in the city’s downtown core over the next five to 10 years, and it’s better they get to work by bike, than car, further congesting an area already clogged with traffic. And many will agree. But the cost of the first phase of the city’s bike lane expansion has almost doubled in price: from just over $7-million originally to more than $14-million now – or $2.7-million per kilometre.
Ms. Helps says it’s the result of listening to business owners along the route, and making the changes for which they’ve asked. Her critics say it’s an insane amount of money to be spending on what they see as a vanity project.
“I have to think 30 to 50 years down the road,” Ms. Helps told me during an interview in her office. “That is the mayor’s job, to think long-term. What are the city’s needs going to be down the road? I have to think beyond the day-to-day.”
She does. Unfortunately, the people who inhabit her city live in the here and now. And they are also upset about the number of homeless people who continue to seek refuge on city streets. There have been large, homeless encampments that have also riled the populace.
Ms. Helps has helped shape a plan that will see more than 2,000 units of housing built over the next 10 years. Just over half of it will be so-called “affordable,” with 400 units being set aside for those “earning” $375 a month or less. She has come up with $60-million of the $90-million necessary to see her vision come to life; she just needs to lock down another $30-million from Ottawa, which she thinks she’s done.
There are cranes dotting the downtown landscape. Construction is booming, in large part because the mayor streamlined the rezoning process so approvals that once took up to three years, now happen in six to eight months. It’s helped bring the downtown alive. The retail vacancy rate was over 11 per cent when she took over; now it’s under 4 per cent.
However, Victoria continues to struggle with the high cost of housing. In the past couple of years, the city has seen an influx of people selling homes in Vancouver and moving to the genteel confines of the capital. That has been the greatest driver of price escalation, not foreign investors. And because the city has the most moderate climate in Canada, it will always be an attractive destination.
Recently, Ms. Helps announced she was leaving Facebook. It got quite a bit of attention, given that she’s a product of the social media age. But she just felt it was no longer a good place for civil public dialogue; she’d put up a blog post and watch citizens attack one another in the comment section. “It’s detrimental to community building,” the mayor told me. “I felt my page was contributing to, and this is a strong word, the desecration of community.”
Ms. Helps says she’s committed to one more term and no more. Regardless of whether she wins or not, there’s no question that she will have left her mark on a city that is changing before our eyes.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this column said a bike lane along one of Victoria’s main arteries will cost $14-million. In fact, that total refers to the cost of installing bike lanes along five streets.