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Daphne Bramham: A neighbourhood that wants density, but not as envisaged by the mayor and his developer friends

Vancouver Sun logo Vancouver Sun 2022-09-25 Daphne Bramham
From left, Loris Bertonello, Paisley Woodward, Zakir Suleman Cylia Wong, Craig Ollenberger, Ann Daskal and Mary Carman in front of Safeway at Broadway near Commercial Drive. They are residents who welcome density, but are update that the mayor appears to be deviating from a 2016 area plan by allowing even-higher highrises and playing down increases in affordable housing options. © Provided by Vancouver Sun From left, Loris Bertonello, Paisley Woodward, Zakir Suleman Cylia Wong, Craig Ollenberger, Ann Daskal and Mary Carman in front of Safeway at Broadway near Commercial Drive. They are residents who welcome density, but are update that the mayor appears to be deviating from a 2016 area plan by allowing even-higher highrises and playing down increases in affordable housing options.
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When the City of Vancouver asked Grandview-Woodland residents to come up with a plan for their neighbourhood, they overwhelmingly supported greater density.

Their 272-page community plan, formulated over nine months and approved by council in 2016, envisioned more co-op housing and buildings no more than 24 storeys. It called for a “social heart with a new civic plaza” as part of the redevelopment of the Safeway site at East Broadway and Commercial Drive, along with 1,400 units of low-rise, affordable housing that would allow for all kinds of families, from refugees to professionals.

Already populated with a lot of rental properties and multi-family homes, the community wanted to help create something exceptional. They didn’t specifically rule out luxury condo towers, but their intent was clear. The neighbourhood should remain diverse, vibrant and welcoming.

Commercial Drive is at the heart of the east Vancouver neighbourhood bound by Clark Drive, Nanaimo Street, East 12th Avenue and Burrard Inlet with its Italian/boho/craft beer vibe.

The community is home to the city’s largest Indigenous population and has a high percentage of heritage buildings. Shops along Commercial Drive and Main Street are mostly owner-operated. Flowers, fruit and vegetable bins jut out onto sidewalks from ethnic groceries.

The plan states the community’s values as “genuine democracy, transparency and inclusive engagement,” diversity and character. And change that’s “integrated, gradual and sustainable” and “responsive to the needs of local and city residents.”

It’s a neighbourhood that’s part of what’s described as the “civic crescent” by Andy Yan, the head of Simon Fraser University’s City Program. That crescent stretches to include Hastings Sunrise, Fairview Slopes, Kitsilano and bits of Point Grey and downtown.

Crescent residents are the most highly engaged in Vancouver. They vote in the highest numbers, fill out their census forms and — here’s an added twist — Yan said they’re the best neighbourhoods for trick-or-treating because almost everybody puts out a lot of candy.

Provincially, they’re represented by New Democrats. And, in 2018, most favoured former NDP MP Kennedy Stewart for mayor and his promises of transparency and affordable housing.

Four years later — deliberately or coincidentally — those neighbourhoods will be significantly reshaped by the 30-year Broadway Plan. Approved in June by a 7-4 margin (including Stewart’s vote), it rezones nearly 500 blocks, allows buildings up to 40 storeys along the SkyTrain route and 20 storeys on side streets.

Paisley Woodward and other Grandview-Woodland residents were already upset by Westbank Group’s plans for the Safeway site at Broadway and Commercial.

One of the three towers is now 40 storeys. Instead of 20 per cent affordable rentals, it was down to 12 per cent or 93 units at below market price. And of the 653 units, 215 are condos.

The ad hoc residents’ group thought the mayor would be interested in hearing from them. Other councillors were.

But Stewart, not so much.

“We wanted to have a dialogue,” Woodward said. “In a public hearing, I would imagine you could make a counter argument, but you don’t get any back and forth. And you’re limited to five minutes.”

Her first email to Stewart in 2021 didn’t even elicit an auto-response. She learned from other citizens’ groups that they had got to the mayor by going through his chief of staff, Neil Monckton.

During an online meeting with Monckton, she and the ad hoc group were told they couldn’t just come and complain. They needed to make a presentation. It seemed daunting, but urban designer Scot Hein agreed to help.

But two online meetings with Stewart were cancelled within hours of their scheduled start. In April, the group was told that a staff member was sick.

On May 10, they were told the mayor was in a special meeting. So, Hein and the group did the presentation for Monckton.

A request to reschedule a meeting with Stewart was denied. They were told Stewart had no time before the proposal’s public hearing set for July. That hearing was later put off until after the new council is sworn in.

This week, the Daily Hive reported that since the Broadway Plan increased the allowable density, the developer will be  increased submitting another revised proposal that increases the number of market rental units to 984 from 653 to rental units; 205 affordable units up from 93; and, 205 condo units up from 215.

“We care deeply about affordable housing. That’s what we want. To be brushed off and treated unceremoniously was telling,” Woodward said.

“Citizens have to be listened to because there’s a lot of fair-minded and deep thinkers. We need to be taken seriously because that’s what democracy is about. You listen to the people.”

Later, Woodward found Stewart’s calendar posted online. In March , he’d met for an hour with the Safeway project’s developer, Ian Gillespie.

“Disheartened” at the time, she said it all made more sense last week when Gillespie’s name was on the donor list for Forward Together — Stewart’s political party — that was found lying on the street last week by Stanley Q. Woodvine that featured mainly developers.

The mayor’s August calendar shows another hour-long meeting with Gillespie at the end of a month filled with hour-long calls to 15 developers on the list of 39 ‘captains’ tapped by Forward Together to raise a total of $783,500.

Most of those developers also got followup emails from Monckton before he took an unpaid leave Sept. 10 to work for the party.

“Money talks. It’s really disheartening,” Woodward said. “But it’s to your peril when thoughtful people are ignored. … If you can’t communicate, people get pigeonholed and made into caricatures.”

That caricature is NIMBY-ism — a slur that suggests elitism.

It’s the opposite of what highly engaged Grandview-Woodland residents reflected in their 2016 neighbourhood plan. It’s not what they’re saying about the Safeway redevelopment to anyone who cares to listen.

What is almost certain is that they will be voting on Oct. 15 and the candidates that they choose are likely to be running the city for the next four years.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this column made an incorrect comparison between the population densities of Grandview-Woodland and the West End. The column has been updated. 

dbramham@postmedia.com

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