City Council uses questionable methods to fast-track Sequel 138 gentrification project

This past Monday, April 23rd, all three voting members of the Vancouver Development Permit Board (DPB) voted in favor of the ‘Sequel 138’ condo project on Hastings, next to the Carnegie Centre and across from Insite.

The decision to push through the gentrification project was made beforehand by senior city staff at the direction of the Mayor’s Office. Nevertheless, the city went through the motions of holding a DPB meeting to listen to community concerns. The meeting lasted 7 hours, from 3pm to 10pm, with about 50 community members giving speeches. Almost all delegations passionately opposed the project.

After seven hours of delegations, not one member of the DP Board or its Advisory Panel engaged in discussion or posed any further questions of staff for clarification. The Board moved immediately into a vote. First, the nine members of the Advisory Panel gave their advice. The only member of the Advisory Panel not personally associated with the development industry, Duncan Wlodarczak of SFU’s Sustainability Centre, spoke for deferring the decision until “rate of change” mechanisms are in place to address the balance between market and non-market development in the DTES, as outlined in the DTES Housing Plan. One other Advisory Panel member, Jasminka Miletic-Prelovac, spoke in favor of deferral until the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan (LAP) is in place next year.

But these advisers were ignored. As mentioned, only one of nine Advisory Panel members was not personally associated with the development industry. Although two seats are specifically reserved for developers and two more for architects/designers, Vision Vancouver has also given three of the four seats reserved for the “general public” to people in the development industry: Kevin Chen (realtor), Kate Busby (architect), and Jasminka Miletic-Prelovac (architect). Note that the Vision-appointed Chair of the Heritage Commission, Kim Maust, who also has a seat on the DPB, is VP of Bastion Development (which gave $21,000 to Vision Vancouver in 2011 alone; Kim Maust also personally contributed $525). Most of the Advisory Panel spoke in favor of Sequel 138, expressing sympathy for the developer — their colleague.

Top-down decision-making

Ironically, the advice of the Advisory Panel had no weight. The Mayor’s Office had already decided that the project was going to be approved, and had directed the Deputy General Manager David McLellan to ram the approval through. There are only three voting seats on the DPB, all of which are filled by senior city staff. David McLellan spoke first. He admitted that the project might cause gentrification, that half of the token “social housing” units are not at all affordable, and that the day’s meeting had been run in a problematic way. He did not address any of the community’s concerns or Advisory Panel’s concerns. He simply read from a list of pre-written talking points, then voted in favor of Sequel 138. McLellan’s subordinate Kent Munro then voted in favour. The third and final voting member, Peter Judd (General Manager, Engineering), suggested that the social housing units could be made less expensive than $900/month. This was shot down by McLellan, and Judd’s vote quickly fell in line. The audience jeered.

City experiments with using violence to block public access to hearing

DPB meetings are supposed to be open to the general public, and have historically been held in council chambers. Over fifty people had signed up to speak on April 23, and the city was well aware that a large contingent of residents from the Downtown Eastside (DTES) was planning to attend. The Mayor’s Office decided to block DTES community members from physically attending the meeting. The city booked the meeting in a room too small to accommodate the delegates, then drew up two sets of rules. One set of rules applied to the developer and his agents, who were allowed to sit physically inside the DPB meeting room. The other set of rules applied to members of the larger DTES contingent: they had to sit in a different room outside and watch the proceedings on a screen. If someone had signed up to speak, they were only allowed to enter the DPB meeting room when called, escorted by police, and then were forced to leave the room after speaking. The city called the VPD to enforce these two sets of discriminatory rules, unprecedented for DPB hearings.

After holding a rally outside city hall, which included a singing choir, food, and speeches, the large DTES contingent made its way toward the DPB meeting room, only to find the door blocked by 21 VPD officers, in addition to City Hall security.

Two community members who had signed up to speak waited at the door of the meeting and, when prevented from entering, insisted (verbally) that the meeting should be moved upstairs to council chambers, which were empty, so as to accommodate the public. For no other reason than the fact that they voiced their opinions, these two registered speakers were assaulted by the police. The first was forcibly dragged down the hall and thrown into the wall. See picture.

Phote credit: David Ball

A second older man was thrown to the ground and pinned to the ground for no purpose. See picture.

Photo credit: David Ball
Photo credit: David Ball

At that point a scuffle ensued and a third man was assaulted by police and strangled, again for no obvious purpose. The officer responsible, who had lost his head, was quickly removed from the room by other officers. All of this was completely avoidable, and was purely a product of the violent and discriminatory approach taken by the Mayor’s Office and head of City Hall Security, Gary Wilson.

The crowd outside the meeting began chanting “move it [the meeting] upstairs,” demanding that the meeting me moved to council chambers to make the hearing accessible. Notably, this was the first DPB meeting ever held in that particular 1st floor room with that discriminatory set-up. After the assaults, the City’s General Manager Penny Ballem repeatedly told the media that DPB meetings are always in that room, which was deliberately misleading. When pressed, Ballem admitted that the meetings had never been in that room before, but that she meant “from now on they will always be in that room.”

While the VPD were assaulting and discriminating against DTES community members, Vision Vancouver Councilors, including Geoff Meggs, Kary Jang, Andrea Reimer, and Heather Deal, kept their distance upstairs on the third floor.

Demonization of community organizations

In the lead-up to the April 23rd DPB meeting, there was a coordinated campaign by the Sequel 138 developer team to demonize opponents as “drug-dealers.” Sequel 138’s marketing manager, Anthony Kuschak of Sutton Group West Coast Realty, used the @Sequel138 twitter feed to continuously attack VANDU, a grassroots peer-support group. Kuschak also personally wheat-pasted the DTES neighbourhood with posters aimed at associating VANDU with “drug-dealers.” The poster, below, was also racist in more ways than one.

Sequel 138 developer wheat-pasted this offensive poster around DTES

VANDU is an award-winning organization that mentors harm-reduction groups around the world, and without whom Insite would have been impossible. For a “professional” developer to target a community organization in this way should set-off alarm bells.

There is a particular irony here, and perhaps a touch of projection, given that the Pantages redevelopment has long been a project of Worthington Properties, the leadership of which has unsavory connections, as noted by the Vancouver Sun. The Sun published a series of articles in 2008/2009, after Worthington Properties bought up several pulp mills. On Sept 12 2008, the Sun published an article about “Dan White, chairman of Worthington Properties”:

In Vancouver, Worthington Properties has redeveloped the landmark Koret building at Columbia and Gore and is currently restoring the Pantages Theatre on Hastings as part of a larger development. “It’s what I like to do: Buy distressed sales properties that were primarily court sales and tax sales, properties in difficulty, and then turn them around into successful ventures. That’s our model” [said Dan White].

Then on Jan 28 2009, the Sun published another article stating:

Further, Dan White, who described himself as the “point man” behind mill owner Worthington Mackenzie, has a background that includes convictions for money laundering and illegal liquor sales. He was associated with a network connected to some of B.C.’s most notorious underworld figures, including Martin Chambers and the Hells Angels.

It is also concerning that Vision Vancouver, which claims to support Insite, has been working so closely with the developer of the Sequel 138 project, and has not said a word about its divisive tactics and demonization of drug users.

Then, on April 19 2012, the Province newspaper ran an editorial parroting the Sequel 138 line. The Province editorial board suggested that the thousands of people who have signed petitions to stop Sequel 138 are motivated to “oppose a new condo project in that blighted neighbourhood because, get this, it would disrupt the illegal drug trade.”

The province concluded that: “The best thing that could happen to the Downtown Eastside is already happening – it’s being cleaned up. As some of the most expensive real estate in Canada, it’s inevitable. Council needs to ignore all voices, no matter how strident or angry, that defend the DTES’s abominable status quo.” Indeed, Council followed the Province‘s suggestion “to ignore all voices” in the community.

Many DTES community members were disturbed by the campaign to demonize residents and organizations engaged in civic issues. At Monday’s rally, Herb Varley of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council aptly reframed the addiction problem afflicting the neighbourhood: “It’s the developers who are addicted to money, and that’s driving us out of our community.”

Community resilience

Taken together, the cards were stacked against the low-income community of the Downtown Eastside. The decision was pre-determined by the Mayor’s Office, and the Permit Board was ordered to ignore community concerns (against its mandate to listen to concerns and address them in good faith). The Advisory Panel was stacked with Vision-appointed members of the development industry, who are biased in favor of unaffordable developers. The meeting was physically closed to most members of the Downtown Eastside, and there was a double-standard in terms of who was allowed access and who was not. This created a very intimidating environment, which literally included police brutality much like that experienced in the DTES everyday. Finally, there was a coordinated campaign to demonize community members and activists as “drug dealers.”

Despite these barriers, the people of the Downtown Eastside took the high road and delivered 50 of the most moving and powerful speeches delivered in this city (prompting one Advisory Panel member to suggest, although in the usual patronizing tone, that prizes might have been allotted to many speakers).

Long-time anti-poverty activist Jean Swanson noted that city staff were trying to ignore the well-known process of gentrification. “The only way to support Sequel 138 is to deny the well known global and local impacts of gentrification.”

While Vision’s Gregor Roberston and Andrea Reimer were hiding upstairs doing public relations around the Kinder-Morgan pipeline, Wendy Pederson of the Carnegie Community Action Project noted that the Sequel 138 administrative report did not include any analysis or assessment of the project’s social impact. She noted: “As with pipelines and dams, the impact study should be done before, not after, development.”

The most common topic through the seven-hours of speeches was that the Downtown Eastside is a unique, positive, non-judgmental community where people care about each other and look out for each other. For that reason above all others, many said they are committed to opposing gentrification of the neighbourhood by Worthington Properties, Vision Vancouver, and their corporate developer funders. Today, Friday April 27 2pm in the Carnegie Gym, a “non-violent civil disobedience training” session is being held to launch a campaign against developer profiteering in Vancouver’s poorest and most courageous neighbourhood.