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In a letter written to City Council in advance of this Thursday’s vote on approving new condo developments in the Downtown Eastside, former Vancouver Mayor and BC Premier Mike Harcourt has written a letter to the current Mayor and City Council criticizing their approach to community development in the area.

Harcourt emphasizes that the City’s proposed rezoning package would not only increase building height, but would of course add density to the area – a new cohort of residents would be brought into the neighbourhood. Rents could go up, and the things that current residents need and enjoy could be priced-out.

Harcourt writes:

It is well known that this is a uniquely sensitive area of the city. Shifts in its populations brought on by inadequately considered rezoning could be extremely harmful to the affected communities. Unforeseen displacements, deficiencies in services and amenities, and disruption of community assets may well result.

Harcourt suggests that the City should do an analysis of the impact of such demographic shifts before making decisions about particular rezonings. More importantly, community development should take a holistic approach that recognizes and addresses social issues: “We question why there is priority for this ‘height-only’ study when there is a serious lack of overall social, economic and environmental planning for the DTES?” asks Harcourt.

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The 10 SITES COALITION of Downtown Eastside organizations has issued a statement opposing the “Historic Area Height Review,” which goes before City Council on January 20 2011. The so-called “Height Review,” which the Coalition calls the “condo tower plan,” anticipates 7 condo 15-storey condominum developments in the Downtown Eastside – 2 North of Pender between Carrall and Abbott, and 5 in South Chinatown.

The Coalition statement outlines concerns that market condo gentrification is causing rent increases, renovictions, displacement of low-income residents, increased police harrassments, and erosion of community assets.

A three year community-mapping process from 2007-2010, facilitated by the Carnegie Community Action Project, identified “unique and authentic community assets” of the Downtown Eastside community (for the series of three reports, see here).

The Coalition statement asks Vancouver City Council to “vote against adding any new density for condos within the Downtown Eastside until the assets and tenure of low-income residents are secured and until the Social Impact Study and DTES Strategy are complete.”

The statement asks Council to instead take proactive measures to stop gentrification by “[buying] 10 sites for low income resident-controlled social housing within the Downtown Eastside before the next municipal election [in Nov 2011]” (click here for a list of the 10 sites).

The City’s administrative (see page 15) claims that there is broad community support for the condo plan, with the exception of one group:

Community groups were also generally supportive of the draft Rezoning Policy, noting however that the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) remains concerned about the impact of new development on the low-income community.

But the Coalition letter to City Council, dated Thursday Jan 13 2011, is signed by a dozen organizations, including:

Association of Chinese Canadians for Equality and Solidarity Society
Carnegie Community Action Project
Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council
Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre Power of Women
REED
Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users
Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction
W2
Gallery Gachet

The next day, Jan 14 2011, Vancouver City Councilor Geoff Meggs told The Mainlander “so far, I have not seen any negative comment on the current report from Chinese community leaders or activists, but plenty from those who live elsewhere.”

Meggs referred the “Historic Area Height Review” incorrectly as the “Chinatown Height Review,” and suggested that the new condo developments were all South of Pender. As mentioned, two of the most controversial sites are North of Pender, including the half-block BC Electric site across from Pigeon Park.

The 10 SITES COALITION is calling on residents and allies of the Downtown Eastside to speak to City Council against more condos: “Before you can speak, you have to phone 604 873 7268 and ask for Tina Hildebrandt. Tell her that you want to speak on the issue of the Historic Area Height Review (that’s what staff is calling the condo tower plan) on Jan. 20.”



At a forum held last night at the VPL, residents questioned the way the City of Vancouver conducts public consultations. The event’s organizers, a group called cityhallwatch, admitted that the forum had been, out of necessity, organized on short notice.

Nevertheless, the forum was well attended, including a member from each of the city’s three sitting municipal parties, real-estate developers, city planners, and grassroots community organizers. There was urgency in the air, as the policies under discussion go to City Council next week.

Randy Helten, cityhallwatch founder, argued that lack of notification and community involvement are only part of a systemic problem in municipal politics in Vancouver. Staff reports and public hearing agendas are often released with very short notice to the public.

Jean Swanson, of the Carnegie Community Action Project, explained how building 7 condo towers in the Downtown Eastside, as proposed, would displace the community’s current residents and community assets by pricing them out and attracting a new class of condo buyers and boutique stores catering to them.

After the evening’s planned presentations, the audience was invited to speak on any particular issues they had. There was significant criticism of Vision Vancouver’s planning policies, and their general attitude towards the community.

The only Vision councillor in attendance, Geoff Meggs, stood up to represent Vision and defend his party, arguing that consultations had been made and that views of the mountains would be saved. Many attendees emphasized that even they (who tended to be relatively engaged in municipal politics) hadn’t been included in consultations, nevermind notified of them.

Concerns were also raised about who exactly would benefit from rezoning for towers. Helten emphasized the increasingly influential role of developers in city planning, and brought up the recent radio interview where former Director of City Planning Ray Spaxman (former consultant on the Historic Area Height Review, who recently spoke with The Mainlander) warned of their influence.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM |

Legislation that would make Vancouver municipal parties disclose their donors and would cap corporate donations and overall campaign spending, might be in jeopardy. While the legislation has the support of the municipalities themselves, including Vancouver, several BC Liberal candidates have said the legislation is no longer a priority.

Campaign finance reform is increasingly important in Vancouver, where wealth disparity is growing. And with real-estate developers, often anonymously, pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into civic campaigns to influence planning decisions, campaign finance reform cannot come too soon. The legislation was to be enacted before Vancouver’s upcoming November election. Are the Liberals stalling to help their wealthy associates?

HEIGHT |

A public forum will be held tonight at 6:30 at the Vancouver Public Library discussing the future of height in Vancouver. Details on a live stream of the forum will be available here. This forum is just a part of the community convergence that has occurred around this issue.

In an interview last week, City Director of Planning reiterated that the city planning department “believe[s] strongly in the value of engagement and consultation.”

The Mainlander recently reported on the negative impact the proposed height increases would have on the Downtown Eastside (DTES). This past Saturday, Jan 8, the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC) general membership voted overwhelmingly to oppose this DTES condo tower plan.

When there is a rezoning, the City negotiates with the developer to extract contributions that will “benefit” the community (e.g. parks, social housing units, jobs, etc); on Saturday the DNC also voted to oppose the current method whereby residents are shut out of these negotiations.

Council is set to vote on the proposal for 7 condo towers in the DTES at 2:30 on Jan 20 2011. The public is welcome to speak on the rezoning policy, which can be found here.

A memorial service for the three men who died in an East Van house fire was held Saturday at the Longhouse Council Native Ministry.

Garland McKay, Dwayne Rasmussen and Steven Yellowquill died on Dec 22 when the porch they were living in at 2862 Pandora St. caught fire.

On Saturday, the Longhouse was filled to capacity with friends and family. The service began with a song led by Traditional Mothers. Morris then asked the mourners to stand up and share memories of the three men. For friends and family, it was a day to honour the men and their strengths. A picture emerged of the men as compassionate, respectful, and selfless.

At Saturday’s memorial, a broad picture of the men’s journey and challenges also emerged. There were many preventable factors creating the conditions for the tragedy.

The three men came from First Nations across the country (Rasmussen from Mount Currie, McKay from Kelowna, Yellowquill from Manitoba) to Vancouver looking for opportunity, but were unable to access appropriate non-market housing. As a result, the only housing that was accessible to them was the unsafe and inadequate “rooming-house” at 2862 Pandora St.

Last month City Council adopted the Mount Pleasant Community Plan (MPCP). The MPCP, the culmination of three years of community feedback and consultations, is the first city-sponsored community plan for the area since 1989.

Many residents of Mount Pleasant are concerned about what is happening to their neighbourhood – and with good reason. There have been significant demographic shifts since the last census was performed in 2006. Condos have been popping up along Kingsway, Broadway and Main. Mount Pleasant is a traditionally working-class neighbourhood, the average income in Mount Pleasant being thousand dollars below the citywide average. 23% of people living in the neighborhood are low-income and 67% in the neighborhood are renters.

Mount Pleasant residents have been becoming more active in recent months – many concerned about gentrification and affordability, others concerned about height of new buildings in the abstract.

This summer, these issues came to the surface in a debate about a development at one of the area’s hubs – a social housing and rental development project at Broadway and Fraser. The City Council meeting dealing with the rezoning had to be extended to three days to accommodate the more than 70 speakers. Some members of the community argued that the proposed 11 story development was too tall, where others argued that the neighbourhood is in dire need of more rental and social housing units. In the end, the project was approved with minor adjustments.

The MPCP passes over many of these issues, and attempts to reconcile the wishes of existing residents with developers’ desire for increased density.

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We previously reported that on Jan 20 2011, Vancouver City Council will consider a proposal to build seven condo towers in the Downtown Eastside, and that there is significant community opposition to the plan. The City calls the plan the “Historic Area/Precinct Height Review/Study,” while critics call it a “gentrification package” for the Downtown Eastside.

This week, Ray Spaxman spoke out about the plan. On Dec 13, he told The Mainlander that he was more amenable “to getting an area plan going before we do this rezoning.”

Then on Dec 15 Spaxman was interviewed by CKNW’s Phillip Till about the Height Study, where he reiterated the problems of developing a rezoning plan without a community plan: “there seems to be a lack of attention to the impact of that density on all the facilities and services that are needed in the city as a consequence of those extra heights.”

The comments are significant because not only was Spaxman Vancouver’s Director of Planning from 1973 to 1989, but he was also hired by the City in 2007/8 as main researcher and author of the original Sept 2008 Historic Precinct Height Study.

Spaxman told The Mainlander that his contract with the city “was defined to focus on the question of height.” However, he noted his team’s concern that “by talking only about height instead of density and people, the City risks overlooking the social implications of development.”