Collaboration and hard work were the order of the day at the Croatian Cultural Centre as the Citizens’ Assembly refined proposed recommendations for a public forum at the centre on May 5. The Assembly built on work from the previous meeting to draft recommendations for the community’s seven sub areas, and some members also worked to revise neighbourhood-wide recommendations.
The day began with a general discussion of one of the most contentious issues: the Kettle Friendship Society’s plan to partner with Boffo Properties to build social housing, mental health services and market condominiums, possibly including a tower of about a dozen storeys, at Commercial Drive and Venables Street.
Assembly chair Rachel Magnusson began the discussion with a simple declaration: “I set you up for an impossible task.” Members have been deeply divided on the concept. Almost all of them support the Kettle’s goals to expand on the site, but the use of a community amenity contribution from the developer in return for increased density is the sticking point. It’s a common situation with the so-called CACs, the city’s often-controversial tool to create social housing, daycares, cultural facilities and other benefits as part of new developments.
On the Kettle plan, the previous meeting’s discussions led most to believe that consensus is simply out of reach. “We could have had an Assembly on this alone,” Magnusson said. “My recommendation to you is that you move on.” The City of Vancouver itself must do more consultation, she said, and while it would like direction from the Assembly, it would not be the final word on a proposal that is not yet fully formed.
“Set out what you do agree on,” Magnusson said, citing the Kettle’s mental health work, a potential public gathering space, and new retail storefronts on the Drive as areas where consensus might be achieved. “Set out where the disagreement lies,” she added, and “think about what’s appropriate for the site.”
For some members, setting aside key elements of the issue was a big problem. “The height of that building is one of the main reasons I’m here,” said one. “Our purpose will be watered down.” He suggested a vote.
Magnusson said votes divide people, and the Assembly model is based on achieving a generally supported result based on consensus.
And the consensus of the Assembly appeared to support Magnusson’s suggestions. One member opposed to a tall building on the site said “if we could just talk about the site, it would be a more constructive conversation.” Another said most members are participating to develop a long-term vision for the whole neighbourhood. “If we get bogged down on this, we will miss other opportunities.”
One member still inclined to vote said he’d like to know if support for the Kettle/Boffo plan is 50/50 or 60/40 or 90/10. Another responded by suggesting the Assembly would be better served by returning to its values to establish points of agreement and difference.
Magnusson said it would be hard to decide what exactly the Assembly might vote on, given that there are so many issues and caveats involved.
Area planner Andrew Pask said in creating a long-term community plan, it can be problematic to get lost in the weeds of a particular project. He suggested the Assembly focus on the site as a key and very interesting transitional location.
The member who first called for a vote noted that his issue with the Commercial and Venables site is the impact of building height.
Key issues: displacement, scale, character
And with that, the Assembly turned to drafting ideas for public comment. Magnusson said the day would begin with the seven sub-area groups sharing ideas with each other in small group discussions. “The point is to put more eyes and brains to work on each others’ ideas.” She added that later in the day graphic facilitators would help the sub-area groups with mapping height and other elements of their recommendations.
Preambles were discussed as a tool to provide context for recommendations. Later in the morning, there was a similar discussion of the benefit of a rationale within individual recommendations, to help the city and the community understand the Assembly’s goals. The importance of being precise and firm, but not condescending, was also discussed.
Magnusson reiterated key objectives: provide direction to city council on what is appropriate growth and on key sticky issues. Members don’t need to love every recommendation, Magnusson said, but they need to be able to live with them. However, she added that it’s important for people to find key directions they can strongly support.
As such, she asked members to identify two key priorities, and invited examples from the floor. The first was firm: “We do not accept the logic that CACs should fund social good. We do not accept the logic that density creates affordability.” Others included the following:
- Aboriginal reconciliation
- Character of buildings, and a lively economy
- Character of the Drive, and affordability for businesses and residents
- Create a well of cool ideas and enliven underutilized areas
- Keep growth in line with the city’s prevailing one-percent trend
- Protect existing rental housing stock and increase the percentage of rental
- Maintain affordable rental stock
- And, to dispel any doubt on the point, long-term protection of existing housing stock
The conversation wrapped up with one member’s call to have some humility about the changing nature of cities. It’s a theme that Pask touched on a little later in the day. “The way cities change — it’s idiosyncratic,” he said. Sites become available, or not. He said the plan shouldn’t encourage a free-for-all in year one. At the same time, he noted that the market can have a limiting effect. “Be general, but get to the heart of the issue.”
Ideas remain works in progress
At the Broadway and Commercial table, both creative thinking and humility were on display. The group had been floating ways to create density without tall buildings, and had looked at allowing some outlying 10-storey buildings with a plaza at the Safeway site. “It may not be practical,” said a proponent, acknowledging the Olympic Village inspiration isn’t necessarily applicable. “The Olympic Village was a clean slate and this area inherits so much.”
Extending a public plaza at East 10th to the south under the SkyTrain guideway was on the group’s agenda. Targeted consultation for public amenities for unmet needs of seniors, youth, aboriginals and other underserved groups was another goal.
One idea was conditional but firmly held. If in five years there is no resolution to the proposal for new rapid transit infrastructure along Broadway, which would contain much of the bus-related sidewalk traffic within the station, the city must deal with congestion on the street.
Other presentations reflected open and productive conversations intended to create ideas worthy of public input. The Grandview table had wrestled with practical ways it could take on some additional density, and focused on improvements to the area’s limited park space. During the brief reporting out at the end of the day, the group said it was considering allowing four storeys in some form on East First Avenue, wanted a cycling pump track in an area park, improved traffic safety on Victoria, and attention to biodiversity and garbage.
The Britannia Woodland group mentioned a new bike route along Charles and a bicycle underpass in the Grandview Cut at Clark. The Hastings table wanted to build a cultural corridor from the Waldorf Hotel to the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, connect Hastings to Woodland and Pandora parks with greenways, and make additional density in the area conditional on cultural benefits. The Cedar Cove group persisted in the long-term dream of access to the water, at the end of Victoria Drive, and called for bike route extensions and some nodes of mixed use, particularly at Wall and Powell streets.
The Commercial Drive group stuck mainly with existing heights and proposed limits on property assembly and business frontages. It favoured bike lanes from East 14th to Gravely that continue north along Salsbury Drive. “We’ve got some possible minority reports,” said one, acknowledging the group’s differences of opinion.
The Nanaimo table also talked about limits on property assembly and a plan that begins with redeveloping key nodes. The group wants to address safety issues at key intersections and increase street trees. The Broadway and Commercial group looked at an eight- to 12-storey range, with six down Commercial, eight at 12th and Commercial, four storeys on 12th, and six storeys along the south side of the Grandview Cut.
All the ideas and maps, which are now posted on the Assembly website and can be found here, are subject to input from the public on May 5 and another day’s work hashing out the details when the Assembly formally meets for the last time on May 9. “Nothing is done until it’s done,” Magnusson said as she wrapped up the day’s work.
In the end, there will be broad consensus on many issues and a few marked differences of opinion. For the Assembly, though, the end is finally in sight.