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Candidates face scrutiny from Vancouver coalition crowd

Applause loudest for Vision rivals

Sitting in the front row off to the side, Marie Clarke listened intently as civic election candidates fielded questions on varied subjects ranging from Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly to the viaducts to a surcharge on foreign real estate investment in Vancouver.

The candidates appeared at a two-hour long townhall the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods organized at St. James Hall Wednesday night.
Eleven mayoral and council hopefuls lined the stage in front of a mostly middle aged and older crowd of about 350 eager to hear political positions on contentious planning and development matters.

Candidates included the NPA’s Kirk LaPointe and Melissa De Genova, the Green’s Adriane Carr and Cleta Brown, the Cedar Party’s Nicholas and Glen Chernen, OneCity’s RJ Aquino, COPE’s Meena Wong and Lisa Barrett, independent Bob Kasting and Vision Vancouver’s Andrea Reimer.

The coalition emerged in October 2013 when disgruntled citizens from 18 resident groups across the city united over common concerns about consultation around community plans, including one for Marpole, since revised and adopted, and the outstanding one in Grandview-Woodland, as well as numerous controversial projects such as the billion-dollar Oakridge Centre redevelopment.

The group, which themed the meeting on its principles and goals document aimed at “putting the community back in community planning,” now claims a membership of 25 resident associations. Clarke belongs to one of them — the Arbutus Ridge Community Association.

The senior, who was born in Vancouver, remains indignant about the city process culminating in redevelopment approval for Arbutus Village Shopping Centre. In July 2011, council voted in favour of a rezoning application for a mixed-use development on the seven-acre West Side property.

Clarke maintains council didn’t listen to community complaints about the project, which she insists was a fait accompli even before residents, who spent hours with city planners outlining concerns, were approached for input.

“They just wouldn’t listen,” Clarke told the Courier. “They don’t make the developers make any changes for the community. You can obviously feel the anger in the crowd with what Vision has done with spot rezonings and things like that.”

The audience was largely well behaved during the meeting, possibly due to the format which didn’t allow for direct interaction between the public and candidates. The moderator read submitted questions.

But applause was loudest for Vision rivals. Reimer, Vision’s lone representative on the panel, was heckled on occasion, particularly during closing comments.

Boos erupted when she defended her party’s record and mentioned its work on building more affordable housing in Vancouver.

Clarke was among those unmoved by Reimer’s statements over the course of the evening. She voted for Vision Mayor Gregor Robertson in 2011, along with councillors from several political parties. This year she refuses to vote for Robertson and is leaning towards the NPA’s LaPointe, while expressing admiration for independent mayoral candidate Kasting and also for Carr who’s seeking re-election.

Clarke is hopeful a newly elected council will reflect a broader political mix.

“I don’t want one party in control,” she said.  

‘Living document’
Whether Clarke’s wish is realized Nov. 15 remains to be seen. It’s also unclear what degree of support for Vision Vancouver has eroded over disputes about projects such as Rize in Mount Pleasant, developments around False Creek and Norquay and the unresolved Grandview-Woodland community plan, which is now being addressed through a citizens’ assembly.

Coalition co-chair Larry Benge said the goal Wednesday was to illuminate candidates’ positions and general approach to planning and development prior to November’s vote with an eye to establishing a more collaborative relationship between the city and neighbourhoods over the next term.

The principles and goals document released in April calls for more accountability to residents, transparency in the planning process, viewing Vancouver as “community not commodity” and improving community involvement and influence in land-use planning to create a more liveable city.

Vision challengers on the panel endorsed the document. When asked why she hadn’t, Reimer cited concerns including lack of language around inclusion to ensure groups such as renters and minorities are represented.

Benge later dismissed those arguments to the Courier, arguing it’s a living document.

“It’s not a static document. If there are improvements that can be made that help the relationships and help the document be a better document, we’re willing to change that,” he said. “Certainly, we’re willing to discuss it, look into it and if necessary amend it.”

The meeting otherwise provided a prime opportunity for opponents of the ruling party to capitalize on some of the anti-Vision sentiment in the room through promises of increased accountability and transparency. LaPointe reiterated campaign commitments for a revitalized CityPlan, creating the “most open government in the country,” and creating an independent ombudsman to handle appeals from residents who feel wronged by the city.

“I believe this election is very much about restoring trust and restoring respect for those who have served and I don’t think you’ve had that in the last six years,” he said to applause.

Carr said the Greens would stand up for the public interest ahead of developers’ interest, OneCity’s RJ Aquino promised neighbourhood councils, while Glen Chernen of the Cedar Party said city hall is broken. Mayoral candidate Meena Wong said COPE doesn’t just endorse coalition goals, but “embraces” its plan in the party’s electoral platform, which includes addressing widespread concerns about vacant properties in neighbourhoods.

Kasting elicited applause by criticizing Vision for not listening to neighbourhoods and calling attention to a spring Vision fundraising lunch organized by condo marketer Bob Rennie asking for as much as $25,000 donations.

“As many people have said, you’ve got to listen to people who live [in neighbourhoods.] You can’t be too influenced by the people who don’t live here and who happen to have some reason to be able to influence the people who are making the decision,” he said. “The Coalition has been very much an early adopter in sorting that out. Also, you have to recognize that large contributions from donors, whether they’re real estate developers or someone else, are going to influence decisions. It’s impossible for you to pay $25,000 for lunch and not expect to have some [influence].”

Detailed answers on many questions, however, were hard to come by given the number of candidates on the panel, time restrictions and variety of questions. One of the more concrete answers came with respect to the Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly. The 48-member assembly, which began meeting in September, is tasked with developing recommendations for the neighbourhood’s community plan. The report will be presented next June.

City council created it after Grandview-Woodland residents rejected draft community plan proposals, including 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.

LaPointe was asked, if elected and with enough support on council, would he immediately end the Grandview-Woodland community plan and create an alternate process based on the coalition’s principles.

LaPointe said the principles would help inform the new CityPlan in many ways.

“I don’t believe in the Citizens’ Assembly. I believe it was the equivalent of punting the ball down the field,” he said.  “Well, the CityPlan basically asks us to stop anything that is a digression from what we have in the way of neighbourhood plans… and I believe in this case here we have to stop. It was a plan that was repelled by the community and then an extremely inauthentic process was put in place and we have to get real.”

Just the facts
Post meeting, Reimer said “there’s the fact record and then there’s how people feel about those facts,” but she insisted the Vision-led government has gone far to improve the breadth and depth of consultation by increasing the ways citizens could offer feedback and by reaching out to under-represented groups. She also pointed to the formation of the city’s Engaged City Task Force designed to improve public interest and involvement in city life.

“We have tried hard to increase that [input] and it shows in the numbers — 35,000 in Greenest City and thousands involved in neighbourhood planning exercises,” she said.

But Reimer said that increasing capacity among groups that haven’t been at the table for a long time comes at a price.

“There’s voices that have been sitting at the tables for a long time, some of them represented here for sure, who put in a lot of time and effort, and it’s challenging [for them] to see some of those new voices coming in representing new voices and ideas,” she said. “And the Downtown Eastside plan — I don’t think there’s a more challenging neighbourhood to try and do a community plan — and the first time it was successfully completed in 127 years was this year and it was because we were able to support a resident-led committee, the majority low income because that reflects the neighbourhood.”

Reimer called heckling par for the course and said she was more concerned that “some of the issues were portrayed by some of the candidates in ways that erode community trust because they were misrepresenting the factual record.”

“That’s concerning to me,” she added. “What you don’t get to see tonight is the room that I walk into with aboriginal people who feel like they didn’t have a voice before and now they feel very engaged in community planning and what’s happening in their communities. If we share values about affordable housing, about childcare, about families, about transit, then I want to figure out how we can get everyone working together on it. Because we are not going to get any money out of the province for transit, we’re not going to get any finance reform simply because we want it. We’re going to get it because we have an engaged community working for it.”

The election is Nov. 15.