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Developing Story: Citizens’ Assembly takes form

City of Vancouver attempt at Grandview-Woodland consultation faces stiff criticism

Nearly 500 people have submitted applications to the Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly, city hall’s attempt to make good on consultations after the community rebelled against city development plans last year.

Forty-eight will be selected randomly to participate in the group, which will develop recommendations for the neighbourhood’s community plan and submit a report to city council. Although member selection will be through a blind draw, membership will be composed of an equal number of men and women, a proportionate number from six neighbourhood zones, a proportionate number from each of four age groups, and a proportionate number of people who rent their home, own their home or live in a co-op.

The Citizens’ Assembly will meet on 10 Saturdays from Sept. 20 to April 25, 2015. The deadline for applications is Thursday July 31. Members will be chosen Aug. 6. 

City council created the assembly, which is being run by a company called MASS LBP, after Grandview-Woodland residents roundly objected to draft community plan proposals such as one that envisioned a tower up to 36 storeys for the Safeway site at the Broadway and Commercial Drive and news that other locations in the surrounding area were cited for future highrises between 22 and 28 storeys.

Rachel Magnusson, director of MASS West, and the assembly’s chair, told the Courier she’s pleased by the number of applications that have been submitted given the time commitment that’s expected.

“We recognize a lot of people are really busy, so this is a really good number,” she said. “We’re also pleased because it gives us the demographic range that we’re looking for. So we are getting people from all walks of life who are registering.”

Tower heights, density, built form, protecting heritage and safety are among topics that have already been raised for discussion.

Magnusson said she’s spoken to people who are hesitant about the Citizens’ Assembly process and others who are cautiously optimistic.

 “As we go along, we will bring people to the assembly much as possible, so the assembly members aren’t just hearing from planning experts. So they’re hearing from the community from all sorts of avenues,” she said.

“So what we do is focus on the communities and we start there — what are the community concerns and priorities in the neighbourhoods, and the values. Once you’ve identified those, you have a common place to work from. From our initial conversations with people, through the submissions we’re getting and community interviews, it’s pretty clear there’s a strong base of common values to work from.”

Magnusson  said there are a handful of “sticky issues” where there’s going to be disagreement about what’s the best way forward, but when common ground is developed at the beginning, it’s “quite amazing” how people are able to come together to make compromises.

“The other important bit is we’re going to work towards consensus, but if there are strong minority opinions in the room, those [opinions] will be in the report as well. So there’s no sense that those are going to be lost. That will be presented,” she said.

Critics say assembly’s power too limited

The Citizens’ Assembly has its detractors, namely a group called Our Community, Our Plan, which has been lobbying against the project. It’s even mocked the assembly selection through social media by asking followers to enter its Slice of Democracy contest, in which participants “recycle” their application forms in creative ways and post pictures online. One entry transformed ballots into slippers. Best entry wins 48 slices of pizza.

More seriously, Our Community Our Plan criticizes the Citizens’ Assembly process on subjects ranging from its membership being limited to English speakers and the fact its recommendations won’t be binding on city council.

Zool Suleman, one of Our Community Our Plan’s spokespeople, has lived in Grandview-Woodland for 20 years. He’s not convinced the outcome of the Citizens’ Assembly will be satisfactory, but the group will continue to attempt to influence its process and continue to hold its own meetings to reach out to specific groups like youth and non-English speakers such as Cantonese-speaking residents, particularly seniors.

“We’re in the process of figuring out what the next stage is as the assembly starts to move into its work phase — what our response to that is,” Suleman said. “In part, I think it will be to influence the work of the assembly in terms of making sure that different views are heard, but we also anticipate continuing to have our meetings. We’re planning town hall meetings with urban planners, town hall meetings on the idea of hyper-gentrification, and we’re also possibly looking at some kind of all-candidates meeting as the election gets going.”

Suleman maintains the city has not adequately responded to questions about expected population growth in the neighbourhood and why it proposes a built form like tall towers with a podium around transportation hubs rather than, for example, six-storey high buildings over several blocks “so there’s a more manageable scale.”

“There have been no answers to the numbers of people and there are no answers to why they’ve decided to plunk the density where they have,” he said. “So it’s very hard when the planning department won’t speak to us.”

With respect to the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations not being binding, Magnusson said in a democracy city council must be allowed to make its own call, but she added that she expects the final report will carry a lot of weight and will be difficult to ignore.

“My sense is that the folks in the planning department and city council really do want to know what the community is going to have to say…  And, the community in Grandview-Woodland is a strong one and they’re going to make sure that they’re heard and that’s important,” she said.

Magnusson added that the city will be running its own focus groups for non-English speakers. Information collected will be passed on to the Citizens' Assembly and it will be included in the final report, which is expected to go to council before the end of June 2015.

She hopes residents involved in Our Community Our Plan come to see the value of the Citizens’ Assembly.

“We have met with them and we hope to meet with them again. We know their position at the moment, but we’re keeping the lines of communication open. We need to hear from them and the assembly members need to hear from them. They’re an important group. Obviously, we would love if they participate in the process and felt like it was a success in the end.”

The city has budgeted $275,000 for the additional consultation about Grandview-Woodland’s community plan. City communication staff told the Courier that the Citizens’ Assembly is only one part of the community plan process and that other activities will include focus groups, sub-area workshops, community roundtables and online activities. Details are expected to be released soon.