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Passport progress: Canada rolls out new website to track delays – CTV News Windsor

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“It’s useless information to me,” says one Windsorite stuck in line, outside waiting on the street to get into the CIBC building downtown.

Fawzi Qaisi, who has spent the last week getting his application organized, needs a new passport to go on a trip to Ohio.

CTV News asked him about a new Passport Canada website, which outlines the number of passports issued in the previous week, how much overtime staff are working and how many new employees were hired by the agency.

“That’s great, but when you can’t get an appointment to get your passport, it’s useless information to me,” says Qaisi.

The most recent data is for the week of July 11-July 17.

It indicates, more than 48,000 passports were issued across Canada, more than 7,000 hours of overtime were worked and 50 new employees were hired, to try to tackle the passport backlog.

Signs up at the passport office in Windsor, Ont. on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (Chris Campbell/CTV Windsor)Ed Zusko needs a new passport because his was recently stolen and he wants to make sure his old one is cancelled and a new one issued.

He braved the line Monday because calling Passport Canada didn’t fix the situation.

“It’s more than frustrating,” says Zusko. “I don’t mind waiting 25 minutes on the phone but an hour later nobody’s still answering? That’s ridiculous.”

Passport Canada also has a website dedicated to wait times.

Connor Bondy could have spared himself time off work with that website, after being turned away last week at the Windsor office.

“We came with two hours left at two (o’clock) because it closes at four but we got sent home saying that we won’t have enough time,” Bondy tells CTV News.

He took another day off work Monday just to get his passport application processed, in advance of a planned trip to Mexico in November.

“I knew this was gonna be like a big time waster so I came here bright and early,” says Bondy.

Also in the crowd, Avleen Bath and her family.

“We were at Service Canada, and we were waiting for like an hour. And then they couldn’t help us. So we came here (to CIBC building),” says Bath.

Her brother needs a new passport in time for a planned trip to Mexico in November. 

Travellers who need are in urgent need of a passport will have to prove they need the document soon and will face additional fees.

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What will become of Canada's empty offices? – CTV News

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The COVID-19 pandemic has generated significant short- and long-term changes to the way people live, play and, especially, work.

While some aspects of pre-pandemic life – like socializing indoors without a mask and travelling – have made a comeback, offices across the country have yet to return to their pre-pandemic occupancy rates.

Whether companies will abandon the remote and hybrid workplace models that became popular during the pandemic is to be determined. But two things are clear: Office vacancy rates have been rising since the beginning of the pandemic and office-to-residential conversions are becoming more common in mid-size and large Canadian cities.

In its latest National Market Snapshot, investment management company Colliers took stock of office vacancy rates in 12 Canadian cities during the third quarter of 2022. According to the report, the average office vacancy rate across Canada is 13 per cent, compared to just over 8 per cent at the start of the pandemic.

Calgary has the highest vacancy rate, with 27.5 per cent of offices sitting empty. Edmonton’s rate sits at 19 per cent, Regina’s at 17.5 per cent, Montreal’s at 14.7 per cent, Saskatoon’s at 14.5 per cent, Halifax’s at 14.1 per cent, Waterloo’s at 13.3 per cent, Winnipeg’s at 12.7, Ottawa’s at 10.6 and Toronto’s at 10.1. Vancouver boasts the lowest vacancy rate, at 5.8 per cent.

Penny Gurstein is a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning who specializes in real estate and housing. She believes what’s happening is the acceleration of a trend that began before the pandemic.

“I think COVID really just sped up the trend toward more flexible working arrangements that’s been going on for a while,” she told CTVNews.ca in an interview over the phone on Wednesday. “Businesses that are trying to attract a younger workforce have recognized that something their employees want is more flexibility, so they don’t need as much office space.”

As office vacancy rates creep, building owners, developers and city planners are increasingly warming to the idea of converting empty and outdated office spaces into homes. This saves them from needing to demolish and rebuild underused assets, and fills demand for housing.

This concept isn’t new either.

For decades, developers have transformed banks, schools, factories and churches into condominiums and apartments, and there are several examples of office conversions in Canada prior to the pandemic.

An advantage of repurposing existing buildings is that it reduces some of the environmental impact of construction. Between three office-to-residential conversion projects completed since 2019 and an upcoming fourth project, Alberta-based Strategic Group estimates it will have saved 56,000 tonnes of building materials and 17 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

A photo from Strategic Group shows the kitchen and living room of a unit in the Cube housing development, which saw an empty office building in downtown Calgary converted into a residential building with 65 one- and two-bedroom apartments. (Strategic Group)

“That’s the equivalent of taking 37,000 vehicles off the road each year,” Ken Toews, Strategic Group’s senior vice president of development, said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca on Wednesday.

Toews explained that construction accounts for 11 per cent of global climate emissions, according to the World Green Building Council, so part of the appeal of repurposing existing buildings is to help bring that number down.

Of course, there are also financial considerations.

Once a building’s vacancy rate creeps up to 20 per cent, it starts to lose money, explained Steven Paynter, principal at Gensler Architecture and Design.

“There’s a lot of buildings at that point now,” he told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Wednesday. “In the last six months, as the vacancy rates have climbed up and people are not renewing their office leases, all of a sudden everyone wants to talk about it and wants to get these projects moving.”

Gensler saw this coming at the beginning of the pandemic and created a scoring system to help developers determine which buildings are well suited for conversion and which aren’t.

Buildings with a small floor plate are ideal because it’s easier to design residential units in a space with an elevator-to-window depth of around 35 feet than, for example, 80 feet. Buildings from the 1970s tend to have these smaller floor plates. Buildings with plenty of windows and pre-existing parking are also an asset, since it’s difficult and costly to retrofit these features.

“We’ve done a lot of work on this,” Paynter said. “We’ve studied over 350 buildings around North America now, and what we’ve found is, if you’re lucky. About 30 per cent of the time these projects will make economic sense.”

Nevertheless, Paynter expects to see office-to-residential conversions in every major North American city before long, though it’ll take more time to happen in some cities than others, mostly due to municipal zoning and approval policies.

Cities need to approve applications for office-to-residential conversions, and some cities have zoning rules that protect office space. For example, Paynter said Toronto has designated employment zones where the amount of office space is protected. This adds another barrier to making conversions.

“At the moment it’s hard to do these types of conversions in Toronto because of the city rules,” Paynter said.

The federal Liberals are aware of this barrier, and in the 2021 election, campaigned on a promise to commit to $600 million to support office- and retail-to-housing conversions, and to work with municipalities to create a fast-track system for permits to allow faster conversions.

Paynter said he hasn’t noticed any movement on those promises yet, but in the meantime, some municipalities have taken up the mantle.

Through its Downtown Calgary Development Incentive Program, the City of Calgary offers a grant for office-to-residential conversions of $75 per square foot. The program launched in August 2021 and has approved five conversions, with two more likely to receive approval soon.

Calgary has also made progress speeding up the zoning approval process for office-to-residential conversions, said Toews.

Since 2019, Strategic Group has completed three office-to-residential conversions in Edmonton and Calgary, creating more than 200 new residential units, and is about to break ground on a fourth.

A photo from Strategic Group shows the kitchen of a unit in the e11even housing development, which saw an empty office building in downtown Edmonton converted into a residential building with 177 rental units. (Strategic Group)

“We’ve been pretty excited about conversions for quite a while,” he Toews said. “I knew we were on the right track when we were working on adaptive reuse for buildings, but I didn’t realize it was that big a deal.”

Toews said it took only a month to receive zoning approval for one of its Calgary conversions.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “Calgary has taken a different approach and it’s refreshing because a lot of developers get disenchanted with low approvals.”

Calgary’s city council sees office-to-residential conversions as a solution to excess office space and a way to develop more vibrant downtown neighbourhoods. The federal government sees them as an opportunity for property owners and communities to trade excess space for market-based rentals.

Gurstein sees them as a potential opportunity to create affordable housing, one she hopes won’t be wasted.

“If they ensure at least some affordable units geared-to-income, those kinds of things, I think that’s totally reasonable,” she said.

“But unless there is sort of something in place to ensure there would be affordability in there, I don’t really see it as addressing affordability.” 

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Canada's COVID-19 travel restrictions have officially ended – CTV News

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OTTAWA –

As of this morning, travellers to Canada do not need to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 — and wearing a mask on planes and trains is now optional, though it is still recommended.

People entering the country are no longer subject to random mandatory tests for the virus, and those who are unvaccinated will not need to isolate upon arrival.

Anyone who entered Canada in the last two weeks and was subject to quarantine or testing is off the hook as of today.

And inbound travellers do not need to fill out the controversial ArriveCan app anymore, although they can still use it to fill out their customs declarations at certain airports.

Federal ministers announced the end of the COVID-19 public health restrictions earlier this week, saying the latest wave of the disease has largely passed and travel-related cases aren’t having a major impact.

But Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos warned restrictions could be brought back again if they are needed.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2022.

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BC Wildfire Service warns season not yet over amid drought

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VANCOUVER — Seemingly endless summer conditions in British Columbia have prompted a warning that this year’s “very unique fire season” in the province is not yet over.

Hot and dry conditions persist, something the superintendent of the BC Wildfire Service’s predictive services said is “quite problematic,” and creates conditions for potential ignitions across B.C.

Neal McLoughlin said the season was unusual because it started slowly and was damp, with a delayed snowmelt, then it transitioned into hot, dry conditions by July that continue to persist into October.

Temperatures are about five to eight degrees above normal for this time of year, and there’s been little to no rain in several parts of B.C. in weeks.

“We are starting to switch the status of a lot of our fires to ‘being held’ or ‘under control,’ but there still is fire activity on the landscape,” McLoughlin said in an interview. “I would suggest, while we are maintaining this hot, dry, precipitation-free period, fire season is by no means over yet.”

The service is citing a below-average season for area burned, and while lightning-caused fires reached about twice the average in August, low winds help crews to fight the fires, McLoughlin said.

“Strong winds are basically the accelerator on a fire in terms of its rate of spread and how far it can grow,” he explained.

He said between 10 and 20 millimetres of rain across B.C. over a one- or two-day period would likely be needed for the service to consider fire season over.

“Although we’re not seeing as many human-caused fire starts and lightnings are tapering off, it only takes one ignition under the right conditions, and we could see a large fire or an aggressive day in terms of fire behaviour.”

While the wildfire service downgraded the last so-called “wildfire of note” on Sept. 24, more than160 wildfirescontinued to burn across the province on Friday, two dozen of them had been sparked in the last week.

This comes as the Forests Ministry warns about drought conditions in parts of the province. Vancouver Island, the inner south coast and the northeast corner of the province reached the second-most severe level of drought on the five-point rating scale.

The ministry ranked those areas at Drought Level 4, meaning conditions are extremely dry and will likely have unfavourable effects on everything from jobs to ecosystems.

“While most forests can withstand occasional water shortages, repeated droughts cause stress to forests and trees. When trees are stressed, they are at higher risk of pests and disease,” the ministry said in an emailed statement.

It said forest health is a “key priority” for the province.

“Strategies are being developed to ensure future forests are healthy and resilient in the face of climate change and changing weather conditions. These include using adaptive management to mitigate risks through planting a wider diversity of native species that can better tolerate drought,” it said.

Robert Guy, a professor of forestry and tree physiology at the University of British Columbia, said he’s “not terribly concerned” about the dry start to fall. He said droughts are more problematic to forest health during the spring, when growth occurs.

“Overall, I don’t think having a drought at this time of year is going to be terribly consequential and in terms of forest growth,” Guy said. “Fires are, of course, a concern at any time of year when it’s this dry though.”

However, he said recurrent droughts do make trees more vulnerable to fires and insect attacks.

“One summer is not so bad, but two or three in a row, then you start to see problems, particularly with young trees. Trees where the root systems don’t go particularly deep are the most vulnerable to drought,” he said.

McLoughlin agreed.

“If this were to extend into next fire season, and then maybe another season where we have two to three back-to-back years where we have very dry conditions, that typically will then be a lead into a very catastrophic fire year,” he said.

It is too early to predict whether the drought will affect next season, McLoughlin said.

“We do have higher drought conditions leading into the end of our fire season, which could carry over into next year if we don’t see good overwinter precipitation and recovery from a precipitation and moisture perspective,” he said. “So, there’s the possibility, but it’s not to say that there’s certainty that will play out.”

The BC Wildfire Service plans to release a comprehensive wildfire summary later this month.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2022.

 

Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press

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