Values Refined, Bike Lanes Debated, “Independent” Economy Discussed at Third Assembly Meeting

The Citizens’ Assembly on the Grandview Woodland Community Plan has been moving, in more ways than one. The third assembly meeting took place Saturday, October 25, at the rehearsal space of the Vancouver Opera, at McLean Drive and Third Avenue, after two meetings at the Croatian Cultural Centre. The opera space is not exactly your neighbour’s living room, but there’s a lovely kitchen, artwork on the walls, and a congenial intimacy to a rehearsal room that’s just the right size of the group.

The day’s work began with a few reports and remarks from Assembly members. A representative of the outreach working group reported that they have met twice to plan ways to extend a hand to “faces we don’t see around the table here”. She said they’re drawing up questions, connecting with representative groups, and that the city is helping with translation services.

As the scope of the job becomes more and more apparent, some are in a hurry to get to the business of decision-making, others are worried about the time frame. “Can we ask for an extension?” said one. For those worried about deadlines, the day’s work refining the Assembly’s guiding principles might seem an unnecessary luxury, but it’s an important stage and central to the work of any assembly. Once people have created a rapport by discussing shared values, it’s much easier to have respectful conversations about more difficult specific issues.

Assembly Chair Rachel Magnusson outlined how the final report will be structured. It will begin with an explanation of the process and an introduction to the recommendations. The priorities and recommendations drafted by the Assembly members will form the core of the report. That will be accompanied by a land-use map. A minority report outlining any areas of disagreement will ensure that everyone’s views are represented.

Magnusson said that through focus, building on previous work, and collective capacity (allowing working groups to work on specific issues and report to the whole group), the Assembly will be able to meet the challenge of producing the report. She also said that Assembly staff welcome input from members (individually or through group discussion) on the program, and urged members to connect with the community and bring the perspectives they encounter to the Assembly tables.

Then she reiterated the predominant themes of the Assembly’s values discussions from the previous meeting. In terms of increased density, these included appropriate development, gradual change and local control. “A lot of tables mentioned in one way or another the theme of social connectedness,” Magnusson said. “Every table mentioned diversity.”


BIAs discuss bike lanes, streetscapes, industrial land

Patricia Barnes, executive director, of the Hastings North Business Improvement Association, and Nick Pogor, executive director of the Commercial Drive Business Society, were the day’s first presenters.

For Pogor, whose association represents businesses from Adanac Street south to East 13th Avenue, the owner-operated, single-location nature of business on the Drive is critical to its success. Protecting that character is a key objective. He outlined the Drive society’s other roles and concerns: safety and security, keeping streets clean and free of graffiti, controlling taxes and rents, managing busking and street vending, and supporting and producing street festivals.

Pogor said Drive businesses generally have less revenue on car-free days. He added that parking affects both local shoppers and destination visitors, and is a key need that shouldn’t be trumped by the appetite for expanded bike lanes. “It’s a contentious issue,” he said. “We really do support alternative modes of transportation, [but] if we are going to remove parking from the streets, where will those cars go?” He said more outreach and consultation is required, as is more discussion among the business association membership. “The BIA and its members ask that you look closely and deeply at the issue of bike lanes.”

Barnes, whose association represents retail businesses from Hastings Sunrise down toward Commercial and into the surrounding industrial zones, also emphasized the importance of the independent nature of East Hastings Street businesses. She said property speculation and the resulting rise in taxes and rents are a threat to the small operators that are part of the area’s growing appeal.

Current zoning for commercial use at street level and three storeys of residential above already creates pressure, because the value of land is based substantially on its potential use. “What happens to a business that is one storey of commercial when they are upzoned? We’re worried about losing our small independents…. We need to protect the unique character of our neighbhourhoods,” she said, arguing that to make them attractive to residents and tourists it’s critical to maintain their differences.

Barnes also said the fate of light industrial land “is one of our major concerns”, and that proposed zoning that would allow 15-, 12- and eight-storey buildings along Hastings has created real apprehension. “What happens when you put residential next to light industrial? We don’t want to create conflict.” Barnes said she’s concerned that employment-generating business could be lost to other municipalities.

Barnes added that a greenway and bike route along Powell Street, a congested and busy truck route, is not good policy. (The June 2013 Emerging Directions document proposed allowing up to 15 storeys at Hastings and Clark Drive, a major entry and exit point for Port Metro Vancouver truck traffic.)

Barnes acknowledged that everyone is wrestling with the mix of uses, and that we don’t necessarily need to reinvent the wheel. “We always look to Portland as a success story.”


Good design can create good health

Claire Gram, a policy analyst with Vancouver Coastal Health, offered a big-picture view of the role that urban design plays in community health. She said good health and well-being are determined far more by where we live, how we live and what we eat than by health services. Gram said evidence shows that we need to priorize new development within or adjoining existing communities, and that we need to look beyond health services to cope with concerning health trends related to diet and exercise. “This may be the first generation that won’t outlive its parents,” she said.

She distributed the Shaping Active, Healthy Communities “toolkit, ”which outlined issues and solutions. One is to design streets and living environments in ways that make the most basic physical activity easy and attractive. Another is to ensure a mix of employment and residential uses. Increasing density, improving transportation infrastructure, and delivering services close to home are other key strategies.

City of Vancouver senior transportation engineer Lisa Leblanc recounted Einstein’s dictum that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he’d spend 55 minutes defining it. It’s good advice in city planning, where there is no shortage of evidence of misdirected energy and unintended consequences.

However, Leblanc also showed how good planning can achieve remarkable results. She said that population in downtown Vancouver grew by 75 per cent between 1997 and 2012, while the number of jobs increased by 26 percent. Yet during the same period, car traffic declined by 20 percent.

Leblanc said city-wide the objective is that by 2040 two-thirds of traffic will be by walking, cycling or transit. “Recent data shows that we are clearly on track.” Another “lofty” goal, she said, is zero traffic fatalities, noting that safety arises by shifting modes, but she showed that trends are moving markedly in the right direction. However, she said, Grandview-Woodland is also home to some of the city’s top accident locations.

Regarding bike routes, Leblanc said planning should create opportunity for the reticent, and for all ages. On parking, she said planners must employ updated data on who parks when and where, to understand what our real needs are. In Grandview-Woodland, she added, attention to goods movement and port concerns are also an issue. (Clark Drive is a key corridor, as is Stewart Street on the port lands, and Powell/Dundas, McGill, Hastings, and Nanaimo streets are among others used to varying degrees.)


Planning so far: proposals and feedback

Andrew Pask, the lead planner for Grandview-Woodland, then looked at the transportation and business components of the planning work done to date. On transportation, key objectives included:

  • maintain and enhance a well-developed pedestrian network
  • improve and expand the existing cycling network
  • work with TransLink to enhance transit service
  • promote the safe and efficient use of the road network, and gradually reduce car dependence

These goals were, for the most part, supported during the community feedback process, Pask, said. Opinions differed regarding bike plans on the Drive, there were calls for more traffic calming, modes of transit at Broadway and Commercial were at issue, and there were concerns about a rapid bus on the Drive and a shuttle on East First Avenue, he said. The effect of density on Broadway and Commercial congestion is also a concern, as is potential loss of parking.

Of course, the city wishes to foster a robust, resilient economy. Pask said issues ranged from protecting industrial land to maintaining retail character.

Objectives included the following:

  • Support for Grandview-Woodland’s high streets, along with allowing opportunity for growth at key locations.
  • Enhancing and expanding small nodes of commercial activity
  • Maintaining the fine-grained commercial opportunities in residential areas
  • Ensure long-term availability of industrial land and associated jobs
  • Recognizing role of industrial land in the cultural and food economies
  • Supporting the port’s role in the economy


Feedback included:

  • Concerns about controlling rents and leases (which Pask noted is a challenge given limited city powers).
  • Support for the independent character of neighbourhood businesses, fear of change and concern about chain stores
  • Mixed opinions on new density and population growth’s impact on businesses
  • Ideas about improving the look and feel of commercial and industrial areas
  • Concern about building height and form, mostly at Commercial and Venables, Broadway and Commercial, and the eastern portion of Hastings Street
  • Concern about residential and industrial conflict (Pask said buffering is intended to address these concerns)

Pask was asked about the potential for access to the water, and said he know’s it’s a community interest and it’s been discussed with the Port Metro Vancouver, but it’s outside the city’s jurisdiction and the port has controlled its land very tightly since 9/11.

Lisa Leblanc was asked about the effect of separated bike lanes on business. She said it’s often hard to get meaningful data, but that studies have suggested both benefits and neutral outcomes.


An activist’s perspective: this process is important

Then it was Matt Hern’s turn to open a window on some of the contradictions of change. The longtime Commercial Drive activist, author and teacher — a key figure in creating Car Free Days in the city, beginning a decade ago on the Drive — began by saying that the assembly’s work is “a potentially historic planning exercise for the city of Vancouver.”

He urged the assembly not to fear density “We should actively seek density,” he said, not just for transportation and ecological reasons but for cultural reasons as well. The question for the assembly, he said, is “what kind of density.”

Hern cautioned the assembly to be careful when it talks about affordability, to be clear on who it’s for and in what context. He also urged care on using the word we. What is community? Is it a gated community? “If we are talking about us, there necessarily has to be a them.” Hearn said the best of what we’ve got is about permeability, about difference, about “people who are not like you.”

“I would encourage you to think about displacement, and about dispossession,” he said. He talked about gentrification in Northeast Portland, around Alberta and Mississippi streets, where the neighbourhood was once 75 per cent African-American and is now 25 per cent African-American. He said the city lost its one neighbourhood where the minority was a majority.

(Grandview-Woodland, which has a declining overall population, according to federal census numbers, has also seen a marked decline in its aboriginal population, to eight percent of the total from 10 between 2006 and 2011.)

Hern recalled someone saying that they knew the black community was screwed when they saw the bike lanes, and noted that his own Car Free Days is a gentrifying influence. “Have I contributed to the pricing out of my friends and neighbours?” he said. “We need to think carefully about the implications.”

He talked also about rising real estate values as common wealth. “That money is a social achievement,” he said. “What we have normalized is the idea of differential access to those benefits.” It’s undermining our communities, and our relationship to our neighbours, he said, and argued that when we improve our neighbourhoods we make them more sellable.

Hern said he’s not arguing that he should have kicked out a few windows, but that we should plan in ways that employ what we’ve got to benefit those who have less. “A housing cooperative cannot be bought and sold,” he said.


Community round tables, round two

Once again, several community groups came for small group discussions, in response to the assembly members’ appetite for more of them. Heather Redfern, executive director of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, said we need more density and greater affordability. She also urged the assembly to think of the community not just as residents and commercial businesses but as a collection of non-profit organizations and industrial employers. In the past, she’s argued that the community needs to create mechanisms to include these critical groups in ongoing conversations about community development.

Redfern also stumped for attention to the role of art in Grandview-Woodland’s life. “This is the entertainment district — you don’t have to fake one downtown” But she said artists with families can no longer afford to live here, and the artists that her three theatres (the Cultch, the Culture Lab, and the York) employ don’t have a place to stay in the community. “I need a hotel.”

She also made a case that density transfers create benefits for the community, noting that the historic York Theatre’s restoration was funded by $15 million from the Wall Group, which received $13 million in density to be used on projects elsewhere in Vancouver as a result.

Streets for Everyone also made a case for more crosswalks, shorter crossings, better transit shelters, landscaping, and of course separated bike lanes on the southern half of Commercial Drive. “Over 50 per cent of residents in Grandview-Woodland get around not by car,” said the group’s Sarah FioRoto. “They are an afterthought.” She argued that “every single piece of business research” shows that businesses benefit from bike lanes.

“You shouldn’t have to be brave to use a sustainable, affordable form of transportation,” FioRito said.

The Public Space Network talked about ways to involve the community in enhancing public spaces. “You’re making a Christmas tree, but you’re making a tree, not the decorations,” said Stewart Burgess. Ian Marcuse of the Britannia Coummunity Services Centre’s food security program, talked about various initiatives to promote small-scale food production, distribution, and healthy eating. For Marcuse, access at all times for people of all incomes to safe, nutritious food is key, as is bringing food production closer to home. The Grandview-Woodland Community Policing Centre’s Adrian Archambault also spoke about the ways in which planning and neighbourhood infrastructure can make the community safer.

The day concluded with more group work by assembly members to refine the community values that will underpin future work. These values will also be discussed when assembly members participate in a public meeting with the community on Wednesday, November 26, at the Maritime Labour Centre. The assembly itself next meets on Saturday, November 22, at the Vancouver Opera building on McLean Drive.

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The Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly put local residents at the centre of the community planning process. Forty-eight randomly selected local residents and business owners met eleven times over nine months to learn, listen and put forward their recommendations concerning the future of the Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood. Download their final report here.