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City of Vancouver promises to restore social circle

Vision Coun. Andrea Reimer acts after seeing Courier story
traffic circle
George Rahi (left) and Julien Thomas enjoyed a cup of coffee on the traffic calming circle at St. George and 10th Ave. in 2013. File Photograph by: Dan Toulgoet

A Mount Pleasant artist is happy he’ll once again be allowed to serve coffee to neighbours in a traffic circle near his home.

Julien Thomas told the Courier earlier this week he was surprised when the city contacted him recently to say he’s no longer allowed to organize social activities for the centre of the traffic circle at St. George Street on the 10th Avenue bike route.

But on Thursday night, just hours after the Courier story was published online, Thomas received a phone call from Vision Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer.

“Andrea told me that as soon as she saw the story she called the mayor. I’m happy because the decision flies in the face of everything they’re trying to do,” said Thomas. “I’m so glad she shares my point of view.”

Ironically, Thomas had been a member of the mayor’s Engaged City Task Force’s public space committee where he worked on arts-based civic engagement. At the time, Thomas recommended an ombudsman position be created to help residents navigate the public space committee. The city’s website says the main goal of the task force is to “increase neighbourhood engagement, and improve upon the many ways the city connects with Vancouver residents.”

Thomas was contacted in January by the city’s Green Streets coordinator who told him to stop holding events in the popular traffic circle/public art project, dubbed “Gather Round.”

In 2012, Thomas successfully applied to the Vancouver Foundation’s Neighbourhood Small Grants Fund and received $800 towards the project. The money paid for plants, a stonework mosaic, a website and a coffeemaker to keep visitors and weekend work parties caffeinated. Thomas sat in the circle most Sundays offering cups of fresh-brewed coffee to neighbours and passing cyclists and pedestrians.

“I started it to bring the community together,” Thomas told the Courier earlier this week. “When I was with the Engaged City Task Force I worked on arts-based civic engagement and suggested an ombudsman position be created to help residents navigate the public space committee.”

According to a statement from the city, staff contacted Thomas following “concerns raised by community members.” An email to the Courier from the city’s communications department said, “The primary intention of a traffic circle is to direct the flow of traffic and a secondary benefit is that there can be gardens located in the circles. For safety reasons, the city does not support people staying in traffic circles for extended periods of time beyond the time needed to garden.” The email added city staff has suggested other areas, such as an adjacent sidewalk, where people can gather and socialize. The city also offered additional plants to fill in the traffic circle.

Thomas wants to take the city up on that offer.

“My next event will be a planting party and we’ll use those plants to fill in parts of the traffic circle,” said Thomas.

This is not the only public engagement art project Thomas has launched. Last September, Thomas created Park-a-Park downtown, a disposal bin on wheels transformed into a mobile community space complete with benches, tables, plants, shrubs and an umbrella, where the artist would sometimes barbecue. In December, Thomas created a tiny “parklet” in two curbside parking spots on Commercial Drive. All of Thomas’ projects are designed to bring community members together while sparking discussion.