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Vancouver council orders another round of public drinking at plazas

Program ran at six sites last year without concerns from Vancouver police
City council approved Wednesday the continuation of a program that allows for people to legally drink alcohol at select public spaces in Vancouver.

An experiment that began in the summer of 2020 to allow the public consumption of alcohol in select public spaces around Vancouver will continue this year after city council approved Wednesday what could be an annual seasonal program.

Council was unanimous in wanting to continue providing people with spaces such as the pop-up plaza at Cambie Street and 17th Avenue to legally consume alcohol. The Cambie Street space was one of six sites that operated last year between May and October.

The program was borne out of council’s concern during the early days of the pandemic that alcohol-serving businesses were hurting because of public health restrictions.

Council also wanted to open up spaces for people to consume alcohol who didn’t have access to private outdoor spaces, or couldn’t afford to dine out at a patio.

“Someone like myself doesn't feel uncomfortable having a beer in public, but others do,” Coun. Michael Wiebe said.

“Recognizing my privilege in being able to experience alcohol in public compared to others, this is a great way to move forward so more people feel comfortable.”

In addition to the Cambie Street plaza, the five other sites were located on Robson Street outside the Art Gallery, Fraser and 27th, Granville and 13th, Granville and 14th and Maple and Fourth.

No issues with program

Rachel Magnusson, the city’s branch manager of street activities, told council that neither the Vancouver Police Department nor Vancouver Coastal Health raised any concerns over last year’s program and locations.

“We may not hear about all health and safety issues that are in the plazas, but certainly from the perspective of our partners and ourselves, there didn't seem to be any issues,” said Magnusson, noting surveys returned a 92 per cent satisfaction rate with the program.

She also pointed out that the city’s monitoring of the plazas showed only about 20 per cent of people were consuming alcohol. Magnusson said the “core purpose” of the program was to give “low-cost flexible options for socializing.”

She credited the program’s success to business improvement associations and others who managed the sites and ensured on-site washrooms were available and locked at the end of the day.

'Like a Cadillac'

Washrooms was a topic raised by Coun. Adriane Carr, who visited all six plazas last year.

“I noticed that the washrooms varied,” Carr said. “So the washroom I liked the best — and I saw people commenting on — was the one at 17th and Cambie. I'm not sure who determines what the portable washroom is, but that one was like a Cadillac.”

Magnusson credited the Cambie Business Improvement Association for the washroom.

Council’s approval Wednesday now gives the green light to business improvement associations, non-profit groups, community groups and others to apply to enter into an agreement with the city to manage a site and ensure it is “maintained, inclusive and comfortable.”

The city hasn’t said how many sites will operate this year but each proposal will go before police and the health authority before returning to council for approval.

Drinking space in Downtown Eastside

Council also agreed Wednesday to an amendment from Coun. Jean Swanson to have staff consult with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and the Eastside Illicit Drinkers Group for Education about creating a “peer-staffed outdoor drinking space in the Downtown Eastside as a form of alcohol harm reduction.”

The drinkers’ group has suggested Oppenheimer Park.

Earlier in the meeting, council unanimously approved extending the provision to allow a parklet at 111 Princess Ave. to continue operating as a space for a community-based managed alcohol and harm reduction program operated by the Portland Hotel Society.

“The parklet was introduced as part of a broader community harm reduction initiative aimed at bringing community partners together to provide more welcoming and safe public infrastructure for illicit drinkers in the Downtown Eastside,” said a staff report, noting the parklet was created to reduce drinking at the bus stop near the Astoria hotel.

Meanwhile, the park board is considering allowing people to legally drink alcohol in select parks again this year. The experiment in 22 parks last year went “super well,” park commissioner Dave Demers told Vancouver Is Awesome in February.

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