The Citizens’ Assembly on the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan held its first roundtable with the public on Wednesday, November 26, and the evening was marked by congenial small-group discussions and some pointed questions from area residents.
After Assembly chair Rachel Magnusson and lead facilitator Susanna Haas Lyons welcomed the 150 attendees, Assembly member Larissa Ardis talked directly about the matter on the minds of many: “Is this a legitimate process?”
Ardis first addressed the claim made by some that the Assembly was “hand-picked.” She explained that the selection process, run by an independent firm that specializes in running “deliberative democracy” panels, was designed to ensure the assembly is demographically representative, by sex, area of residence, owner or renter, and other factors. “We care about this community, and we want to do a better job than was done before,” she said, alluding to controversy after the June 2013 draft proposals included towers and provoked widespread opposition in the community.
“None of us are actually trained seals barking for government, or sheep lining up to be indoctrinated,” she added, explaining that the Assembly wants ideas from the community. “We depend on your expertise, activism and continued support.”
Then came the pointed questions. The first related to the allegation that some proposals and zoning maps prepared by the planning department were supressed. “Can the community get access to the map that was prepared before the plan was released?”said one area resident. “If it met all our collective values, it seems to me it would be a useful shortcut.”
There was some debate about whether “iterations” was the right word to describe the map or maps that preceded the release of the2013 Goals, Directions and Emerging Policies map, which created real community controversy. Veteran City of Vancouver area planner Andrew Pask said there are several prior iterations, in various stages of completion, and that he’d look into the possibility of releasing them.
There were other questions that reflected public scepticism about the process. One resident said trust has been broken by the city. Given that trust is generally an issue, why weren’t the Assembly’s draft values sent out in advance? “The Citizens’ Assembly has to demonstrate transparency.” Another asked about transparency regarding the input of big developers. “Is their input going to be made public?”
Assembly chair Rachel Magnusson said she would work to make material available in a more timely manner. Later in the meeting, Andrew Pask addressed concern that developers have a privileged position in the process.
Although Haas Lyons quoted from the Assembly’s terms of reference, that its recommendations “will significantly inform the next iteration of the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan,” many in the audience expressed concern that city council and the planning department will ignore community input on key issues.
Values refined, issues debated
Three Assembly members then talked about the Draft Values for Grandview-Woodland that were developed at the Assembly’s first four meetings. Hilda Castillo, Heather Williams and Asher deGroot took turns reading them out, and Castillo explained that the values are a guide and provide a basis for the Assembly’s recommendations.
Group discussion then followed at the 18 tables, each of which generally included a couple of Assembly members, as well as a facilitator to record the public input, which will be reported back to the Assembly at its next meeting.
At Ardis’s table, scale was identified as a key element in the community that is not being valued. “Our neighbourhood is already denser than 70 percent of the city,” said one. Conversely, the community “has thrived by welcoming people,” and no one spoke against that. Scale was viewed as a key consideration in creating a walkable community with viable businesses, but there was debate about whether that scale should, at key locations, be limited to four, six or 10 storeys.
The diversity of housing types that comfortably coexist was seen as a valuable asset by one person, who argued this is the case because the development has taken place slowly. The notion that the city is planning a “top-down” introduction of substantial new density was seen as contrary to the community’s more organic development history.
Other key qualities were also identified, with walkability, diversity, affordability and friendliness high among them. One said long-time residents and their families need to have a future in the community, but it’s not looking likely.
Scale and height were important issues, particularly in key locations, including Commercial Drive at Broadway and at Venables, and along Hastings. One expressed concern that a single tall building will create a precedent. Another said a variety of effects may ripple through the surrounding blocks.
Conversely, one person argued that if there is going to be density, it will have to be “pretty high” to make it affordable. Another argued creating more housing where people already live is more in keeping with the community, rather than someone building something large before they “take off.”
Some issues discussed were fairly fine-grained, such as how strata councils banning rentals affects the availability of rental housing, or how new development will affect view corridors, or how requiring better building materials might improve building quality.
One person, who said the Assembly process could be “a model for … other parts of the city,” suggested that specific zoning and height changes need to be on the table sooner rather than later. “I would encourage the Assembly not to make the map the last thing, because people are going to go crazy.”
Another said it’s critical that the Assembly address the issue of process: “The process by which change will happen is just as important as the substance of the change.”
Scale, diversity, cost and process dominate
The tables were then asked to distil and report out on three key concerns. While there was an effort at the meeting to separate feedback on neighbourhood values and issues, they often overlapped. Housing, diversity, and increased density (and its relationship to the street) was the report from the first table, and it was a typical response, along with a strong call for attention to affordability, for both residents and businesses.
Other values and issues raised in the reporting out included “meaningful involvement of the aboriginal community” and opening up the industrial area to more arts uses, including potential production-related retail uses, particularly along Venables. Arts was cited as being absent from the values statement, and there was a call for more emphasis on the local economy.
Many felt the planning process hasn’t shown enough attention to what’s at risk in the community. One person called for evidence of “an appreciation of what exists now.”
Process was also a key theme — it emerged early and often. “I think we’re still questioning this process,” said one person, who asked how we can “make sure this process has an impact and that it will be listened to at city hall?” Said another: “Trust is the most important issue,” adding that the public has no assurance that the city will listen. Said yet another: “What’s most important is the continuing participation of citizens.”
When planner Andrew Pask spoke toward the end of the meeting, he argued that there are reasons for confidence, and they begin with what happened in the summer of 2013, when the city first released its controversial ideas. “There was a very strong signal sent [to the city’s] senior management by you guys,” he said, explaining that as a result towers proposed around Broadway and Commercial were taken off the table. He added that city council also initiated the Citizens’ Assembly process.
Pask also said he values and considers developers’ input as much as anyone else’s. He made the case that developers shape and build this city, and their input isn’t can be valuable. “Some of them are your neighbours.” However, he said “there is no privileged place for developers in this process.”
Many attendees, of course, will wait to see what the Assembly proposes, and how the city responds. In the meantime, definitions will be discussed. What’s a tower? What’s affordable? And what does it mean to say that the Assembly’s report will “significantly inform” the next iteration of the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan?