This month City Hall passed a policy on upzoning the full length of Cambie Street, thereby lining the pockets of developers and speculators. This was no easy task: it required that the Planning Department devise and implement a ‘consultation’ strategy to preempt, co-opt and neutralize resident organizations.
There are many reasons residents might oppose top-down free-market gentrification of their neighbourhoods. Some will be shaded out, some priced-out, while others are faced with more complicated dilemmas. For example, when a bungalow is upzoned to accommodate 12-storey towers, the land value multiplies, but so too do the property taxes, leaving the owner no option but to sell-out to developers trying to consolidate lots. While some home-owners may have legal recourse, residential or commercial tenants have no hope.
Planning has progressed slightly since 19th century Paris, where the younger Napoleon would send in the army to secure and build proto-planner Baron Haussmann’s corridors without a modicum of commune consultation. Today Gregor sends in Toderian to consult corridor residents and secure community buy-in – a useful stamp of approval. To this end, City Planning collaborated with concerned residents to form the Riley Park South Cambie (RPSC) Visions Group, which began consulting area residents about their aspirations and concerns.
However, it turned out that Vision Vancouver was not interested in the visions of this ‘Visions group’, as the visions were pre-determined. Norm Dooley, one of the most active members of the RPSC told The Mainlander: “The Stage 2 process started with a pre-determined set of outcomes and did not vary significantly from its stated goals. There was no room for alternative ideas.”
The City supported the RPSC Vision Group so long as it funneled information in one direction – from the City to residents. But once RPSC began collecting feedback, criticisms, or (heaven forbid) visions, the City was less supportive. According to Norm Dooley:
The opening stage of public meetings that provided information was straight forward enough, but the Riley Park South Cambie Visions Group had to exert pressure to be allowed a presence at those sessions with our information on the larger picture of growth in the immediate area beyond the strict physical definition of the Cambie Corridor (Heather to Manitoba Streets). This made it seem that the Planning Department did not want the public to grasp just how much change our area is in for.
Also, there never was a response from Planning to the public’s input at the two public meetings that were held in our area. In short, Planning collected the ideas and positions of the local community but did not return to say what they had learned and how they planned to use the public’s input. In fact, they ignored nearly all of the public’s concerns about very high buildings and stayed with their original plans.
When asked to what extent the consultation was meaningful, Dooley told The Mainlander:
Not sufficiently. There needed to be greater recognition of the values and concerns of local residents, but that was not provided. There was minimum cooperation on those concerns, no community consensus building and a distinct disregard for compromise.
In fact, the inability to advocate on behalf of residents was extremely frustrating for Dooley:
We tried to work with Planning and urged lower condominium building heights on behalf of local residents (those adjoining 25th and 41st Avenues) and lower condos adjacent to and across from Queen Elizabeth Park on Cambie. We were unable to move Planning at all and I feel as if the RPSC was misused in its role as the City of Vancouver-sanctioned public group. We sought in good faith not to have the most dramatic of the proposed changes inflicted on residents living near the stations, but got nothing for those residents; neither were we successful in protecting Cambie Boulevard and Queen Elizabeth Park from encroachment of over-size buildings.
The City’s first error, then, was its failure to empower residents to forge their own destiny. Despite progressing beyond the consultation process of 1870s Paris, we have regressed significantly from 1990, when COPE’s campaign slogan called for “A New Era of Participatory Neighbourhood Planning in Vancouver.”
The City’s second error was to leave the false impression that residents would have a say on matters of consequence. It is a key planning principle to be honest about the (lack of) influence residents are to be afforded.
There are important lessons to learn from this story. Other neighbourhood organizations throughout the City are currently dancing with the City, contemplating a partnership on neighbourhood visioning, such as the West End Mayor’s Advisory Committee and the DTES Local Area Planning Committee. These groups might take heed of Norm Dooley’s “take-home-message”:
Residents have to challenge Planning’s definition of the “problem” and proposed solutions at the start rather than expect that they can modify them along the way. It would have been better to go to the public media at the outset and explain that we would not participate in the process because Phase 2 had predetermined outcomes.
For its part, the City Council should also take heed that neighbourhoods across Vancouver are losing faith in the democratic process, and that a resident-based movement aimed at replacing the current parties and their councilors is all but inevitable.