How specific should a recommendation be? This was the key question, in theory and practice, as the Citizens’ Assembly on the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan met Saturday, February 28, at the Vancouver Opera rehearsal hall to refine its proposals for an upcoming public meeting.
Assembly chair Rachel Magnusson began the meeting by looking some of the 35 recommendations drafted at the previous meeting. Clear and concise is good, she said. “You want to find the sweet spot between not too general and not too specific,” she added. The Assembly needs, Magnusson said, to provide a balance between a fine-grained review of the existing city recommendations in the June 2013 Emerging Directions document and some of the big-picture creative thinking the Assembly has heard and discussed during its first six meetings.
And then there was the longhouse idea. In the middle of a working day devoted mainly to drafting recommendations, the Assembly heard from Scott Clark, executive director of ALIVE (the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society), and Reconciliation Canada’s Marissa Lawrence.
During a heartfelt discussion of reconciliation and social justice issues, Clark — who was a member of the Assembly until other work obliged him to bow out — talked about the importance of the longhouse to First Nations as a centre of culture and governance. While in Victoria recently, he saw the importance of longhouses that serve all aboriginal communities. “Why don’t we have one of those in Vancouver?” he said.
While there are traditional and contemporary examples at UBC, and others that serve specific bands around the Lower Mainland, there isn’t one in the city itself run by and mainly for the broad range of First Nations communities that now call Vancouver home.
Emerging Directions recommends that the City of Vancouver “continue to work with non-profit organizations that are contemplating redevelopment (expansion and enhancement) of their existing facilities”, “work with the local Aboriginal Community to identify bylaw restrictions that limit the opportunity to undertake traditional food-preparation, medicine and health practices (e.g. smokehouses)”, and “encourage a greater proportion of urban Aboriginal art … into Grandview-Woodland’s parks and public spaces”.
All of which is good, and might even include a longhouse. But a single thing we can all easily visualize — to animate our ambitions for the community — can have a lot more power than a generality, however thoughtful, well crafted and inclusive it may be. Conversely, a specific idea may tie the city and the community to an idea that may not, on close examination, be ideal or achievable. But without something specific, no one has an inspiring goal to shoot for. The community doesn’t have a galvanizing idea, and planners don’t have a clear target.
A common longhouse, in a city with so many churches, says Clark, is a facility that would bring health and reconciliation to communities that sorely need it. And it would acknowledge the key place of Aboriginals in Grandview-Woodland, where First Nations make up close to one tenth of the population. By the end of the afternoon, the word longhouse showed up in at least two recommendations being developed by the various working groups.
Clark and Lawrence also talked about the obvious challenges for the aboriginal community, and paired people off to talk about what reconciliation means to them. “Let reconciliation assist you in your recommendations to the city,” Lawrence said.
Clark noted that 70 percent of indigenous students are pushed out of the school system before they graduate, that 60 percent of survival sex workers are aboriginal, and that 40 percent of those workers have a child in some form of foster care. “We all own it,” he said. “It’s not an aboriginal issue.” One of the key challenges, Clark said, is that such numbers have become normalized. He wants the Assembly to keep in mind that “services are important for all vulnerable populations.”
Disagreement on cycling is cited
Both before and after lunch, there was some reporting out to the Assembly on group work. By day’s end there were more than 80 draft neighbourhood-wide recommendations, which will be discussed at a Public Roundtable on Thursday, March 5, at the Croatian Cultural Centre.
The Transportation group came first to the sticky issue of cycling.
Emerging Directions says this: “Improve and expand the existing cycling network with low-stress, high quality routes to support safe and convenient cycling for people of all ages and abilities. Provide direct and intuitive connections to meaningful destinations and the broader region.” Specific routes follow: Commercial Drive between 10th and Gravely, then north along Salsbury to Adanac; Victoria Drive, Charles or William street, Powell Street, Pandora Street, East Eighth Avenue, and others, possibly including Nanaimo.
However, while this is a reasonable representation of what many want, bike lanes and routes continue to be a contentious issue, and the unresolved finer points of the City of Vancouver’s existing proposals are also a source of friction. So the group suggested something like this: “Expedite the creation of a multi-stakeholder task force that reviews objective, transparent research to resolve locations of proposed cycling routes.”
“Nobody at our table,” one Assembly member declared in the final reporting out, “agreed on anything with regards to cycling.”
On transit, agreement was easier. “We want transit to be nice and warm and fuzzy. And work,” said one member, reflecting a general recommendation that was more precise but less entertaining. The group emphasized its interest in a community shuttle, which is mentioned in Emerging Directions in the context of East First Avenue transit service (or lack thereof).
Controlling truck and commuter traffic, the impact of changes to the viaducts into downtown, and transportation of hazardous goods were among the other concerns. The reintroduction of street parking on East First to turn it “into a local street” was among the more daring ideas.
The Local Economy group wants more people to be able to work in the neighbourhood, noting that just 11 percent do so now, but observed that building new commercial space is less profitable than residential space. “We’re prepared to allow a little more density to get job space.”
In the final reporting out, the group keyed on creating more diverse opportunity for economic activity. It wanted to maintain industrial zoning, increase office space near transit, limit business frontages to restrict large chain businesses, and encourage reform of assessment and taxation rules to prevent businesses from being taxed on the potential use of their land.
Existing private housing a key concern
The Housing group talked about the challenge of renewing older rental stock through renovation. “The renoviction thing, whatever you want to call it, that’s really important.” As such, the group suggested creating a funding mechanism to assist in the maintenance of existing housing stock, as long as rents are protected.
Support for alternative housing programs informed many recommendations, and the controversial Community Amenity Contribution was deemed acceptable as a tool to create non-market housing “pending support from the local community”. The draft ideas recommended requiring significant family-oriented housing in new development and fostering small and low-cost suites for rent in almost all contexts.
On many issues, the Housing group wants community input on issues it wants to address, including tenant relocation, preventing displacement because of gentrification, restricting land assembly, reducing setbacks, lowering building costs, and creating greater transparency at the City of Vancouver on housing and development issues.
The Energy and Climate Change/ Community Well-being and Health group said it mostly agreed with Emerging Directions recommendations, with “a few tweaks”. These included support for the REACH clinic’s efforts to maintain and even expand its services, and encouragement for more health and social service groups to locate in Grandview-Woodland. The need to improve childcare, particularly culturally appropriate childcare, was a focus.
Access to sunlight was an issue. A clear policy regarding disclosure of smell and noise issues to both renters and property purchasers was recommended. Safety was a concern, along more prosaic issues like access to garbage cans. Both the creation of and more particularly the protection of safe, affordable housing were recommended. The group also cited several issues it wants to address, including encouraging “developers to incorporate design elements to encourage social connection in new buildings”.
Working with other governments and agencies to improve energy retrofit and demand management programs were other areas where existing language was refined. New was a call to make reducing the use of resources a higher educational priority than recycling.
The Public Realm group proposed altered wording on new development to encourage the creation of new park space, and wanted better control of rats to improve the greenspaces that do exist. The group wants pools at both Templeton and Britannia. And, of course, a longhouse.
The Heritage/Arts and Culture group refined and reinforced many Emerging Directions recommendations, wanted a broader definition of heritage, and asked that the put particular emphasis on preserving and reflecting the social and cultural diversity of the neighbourhood. One recommendation wrestled with how to create a better forum for conversations about neighbourhood heritage preservation when redevelopment occurs.
On Arts and Culture, protecting and increasing affordable space was key, and creating hotel accommodation for artists and audiences was deemed important. The draft recommendations also encourage new opportunity for community-based art and strengthening the neighbourhood’s festival tradition (particularly First Nations events).
The Wild Card table got a round of applause when it called for a city-wide plan for growth that would fairly distribute density, resources and amenities. There was also a call for the city to better facilitate conversations regarding how Grandview-Woodland schools can become a stronger resource for the community.
At the end of the meeting, there was some debate regarding the group’s recommendation for a community advocate to ensure planning proposals are properly implemented. One member said elections are our accountability mechanism; another said there’s more to democracy than elections; a third talked about employing a community report card on implementation.
Once again, the tension between the general and the specific made itself evident. Everybody agreed that performance and accountability were the goals. It’s the mechanism that was debated. As always, and in more ways than one, the devil is in the details.