G-W Portraits: Jak King

I’m starting a new series that will appear on the blog from time to time. It’s called G-W Portraits and it celebrates the citizens of my neighbourhood, Grandview-Woodland. We’ve got a diverse cast of characters in this part of Vancouver, so you can expect to meet activists, food lovers, artists, musicians, families of all configurations, and more.

I’m asking three questions: Who are you? What are you doing (as a practice, job, vocation, hobby, or right this minute)? What do you love about Grandview-Woodland?

I’m excited to share the stories of the people in my neighbourhood with you. To kick things off, I’ve got a short interview with long-time G-W resident, Jak King – a historian and neighbourhood activist.

I’m using Periscope as a platform for this series, so you can catch it live on Twitter and join in a conversation during the broadcast. I’ll start giving a heads up tweet a few minutes before each one to facilitate that. Afterward, I’ll upload the videos to YouTube, then share them on the blog.

I expect the first ones will be a little rough around the edges, as I get used to using my phone as a video camera, so bear with me.

One Last Kick at the Plan

CAtables

Tonight, the Citizens’ Assembly on the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan had its last community roundtable. The subject of discussion was the draft sub-area recommendations, on specific parts of the community like Cedar Cove, Nanaimo, and Broadway and Commercial.

I arrived shortly before seven and the line up of participants was nearly out the door, while inside, most of the tables were almost full. I managed to get a seat at one of the Britannia-Woodland discussion tables, then during the second round, sat at a Commercial Drive discussion table. People were still arriving as the discussion started and as with all of the meetings I’ve attended so far, there were enough participants to fill at least a half dozen more tables. As it was, people found space where they could, or sat two-deep for some of the more contentious discussions.

CAlineup

As always, I was impressed by the knowledge and commitment of the Assembly members and the community members who came to the meeting. There were fruitful discussions and agreement on many issues, though there will never be consensus on others.

Here are a few of the highlights from the summaries at the end of the night:

  • More creative use of industrial lands is needed.
  • Nanaimo Street needs to be developed, but in a way that respects current residential uses.
  • Affordable housing is the crucial issue for the Britannia-Woodland sub-area.
  • Cedar Cove needs to be better integrated into the neighbourhood, with transit and Commercial Drive-like spaces for small business.
  • Commercial Drive needs to be kept affordable for independent, small-scale businesses. Ideas like allowing businesses to make use of laneways might be part of the solution.
  • Public space needs to be truly public, rather that the private-public space seen in places like Yaletown, that’s not truly accessible to citizens.
  • Co-operative housing and other affordable housing need to be protected and promoted, so that we can retain a mixed income community.

No consensus was reached on the development at Venables and Commercial and there was also a concern that though there has been broad consensus at all public meetings on a height restriction of four storeys, the proposals that are presented to the public keep integrating greater height limits.

There was broad support, with some objections, to the plan for bike lanes along Commercial/Salsbury, along with wider sidewalks from 1st to Broadway. The active transportation plan for Commercial seems like it’s going to become a reality.

There’s a divide of opinion on how to protect and expand affordable housing in the neighbourhood. Some believe that density created through condo development and tower construction will achieve that, though the results elsewhere in the City show the opposite effect. Others (including me) believe that density achieved through infill, smaller development, and more distributed density will help protect existing affordable housing stock, while allowing more to be built. Creative approaches to preserving existing buildings, while allowing redevelopment are seen as crucial by many of us.

Those are just a few of the points made tonight. And there’s still a little time to comment on the draft before the Assembly’s last meeting on May 9th. You can email them at assembly@grandview-woodland.ca and you can download a copy of the draft here.

I don’t hold out much hope that the City will respect the recommendations of the Assembly or the neighbourhood at large. But I still don’t think this process has been a waste of time. The Assembly has done an admirable job of recording the views of the neighbourhood and sifting through all the information that’s been given to them.

Most importantly, the overwhelming interest in the process shows just how active our neighbourhood will be in challenging the City if it should present us with something that doesn’t reflect the concerns and ideas that this community has voiced.

Deeply Local: Grandview-Woodland’s Citizens’ Assembly

Juxtaposition

These are some of the things I love most about my neighbourhood: I can walk the length of the shopping street as quickly (or sometimes more quickly) than the time it takes for the bus to arrive and carry me from one end to the other; the variety of foodstuffs and staples available within walking distance; the wealth of restaurants and coffee shops; brick and mortar bookstores, record shops, and even a video store; the mix of heritage homes, 1950s walk ups, and affordable apartment buildings, many with room for vegetable gardens; a feeling of engagement with one’s neighbours across the district. The things that I don’t love include the increasing unaffordability of the neighbourhood for both residents and small business owners, the proliferation of condos designed to last little longer than a mortgage cycle, and the increasing feeling that our neighbourhood is destined for suburbification and its attendant disconnection from the deep feelings of community that have been built here.

With all this in mind, I found myself inside on a sunny Saturday along with almost seventy other Grandview-Woodlanders, debating the questions around the construction of a Citizens’ Assembly and the part it will play in crafting the plan that will guide our neighbourhood’s future. The City hired a facilitator who specializes in forms of deliberative democracy like Citizens’ Assemblies and over the course of the afternoon, participants had an opportunity to tackle at least two of the structural questions the City put before us. We met in small groups for half-hour periods, then at the end of the day, there was a summary from each of the tables about the most important ideas that had emerged. All ideas were written up on tear sheets that were taped up around the room and at the end of each session, participants marked their priorities dotmocracy-style.

We were encouraged to choose the discussions we felt most passionate about, but a more accurate assessment for me would be that I chose the discussions I was most worried about. My choices were Composition of the Assembly and Community Engagement. Some of the ideas that came out of the first group included: representing three kinds of tenure – owners, renters, and housing co-op members; reserving seats for aboriginal members, whether or not candidates are identified through the initial call out; using a multi-pronged strategy for recruiting candidates that includes outreach to community groups as well as more passive strategies like mailouts; that twenty Assembly members was probably too few and fifty probably too many; and making sure that there’s representation across the district. The ideas that came out of the second group drilled down a little deeper. Outreach by Assembly members to community groups to capture viewpoints that might not be represented by the Assembly, especially those of vulnerable populations. The three levels of the process (City-led, Assembly, and Community) should not be separate, but should inform each other – community consultation should happen in conjunction with the Assembly and the City, rather than separately; the Assembly’s report should be brought to the public for critique and comment on a regular basis; the City’s plan should be both informed by the Assembly’s proceedings and incorporate the Assembly’s critiques and comments.

I hope that when the City finishes gathering the suggestions from the two sessions and the online consultation, that the information is presented in an unabridged form and that the Assembly is constructed on the most representative basis, not just on the basis of demographic diversity, but also with a socially just distribution that accounts for differences in privilege.

I came away from Saturday’s session with a cautious optimism, not because I believe that this process will be the salvation of my neighbourhood, but because I was engaged with so many people who care about the district as much as I do. I know that a number of people felt the session was too constrained and directed by the City – you can find out more about that here and here. My hope is that the Assembly might help shift the focus of Grandview-Woodland’s future away from developers and toward residents and that through this process, the City will come to value the area as the model of liveability (mixed-income, walkable, diverse, lovely) that it is already.

It’s not too late to comment on the Assembly composition debates. You can find the Discussion Paper here and the link to the City’s questionnaire is here.

No Doldrums Here

Live Now

It may seem counterintuitive, but January and February are busy months in Vancouver. Years ago, restaurateurs got together and created Dine Out Vancouver to help combat slow post-Christmas sales. It’s become a tradition and there can be fierce competition to get reservations for the discounted, set course meals at some of the swankier tables in town. One of the most anticipated events, though, is not all that swanky. Street Food City is a four-day gathering of some of Vancouver’s hottest food trucks and many of them have added Dine Out exclusive dishes. I suspect there will be line ups around the block again this year.

Other events have grown up around the Dine Out frenzy, like Feast Van, which offers prix fixe meals at a nice selection of mid-range restaurants, with $1.00 from each meal benefitting the Strathcona Community Center Backpack Food Program. I admire their model – great food for a great cause.

Another favourite of mine is the Hot Chocolate Festival, which runs until the middle of February. It’s a great way to wait out the last of the chill and sample some of Vancouver’s finest chocolatiers.

It’s not all about food, though. This weekend, the Museum of Vancouver is presenting their annual Winter Wander, which allows you to visit all six Vanier Park venues for a total of $5.00. It’s a great way to explore these out-of-the-way attractions and I suspect a lot of people buy yearly memberships after their visits – a boon to venues and patrons alike. It’s also time for the PuSh Festival of Performing Arts, which seems to get bigger and more innovative every year.

In sadder news, the legendary Ridge Theatre will be screening its very last films in the coming weeks as they present their Last Film Festival. Vancouver has lost so much of its cultural capacity and heritage to out-of-control, cookie-cutter condo development. The Ridge and The Waldorf are just the latest casualties.

Though it’s true that venues come and go, in Vancouver they seem to go and go and go. Affordable space for upcoming musicians, actors, and dancers seems increasingly endangered. I don’t think the solution is for ‘everybody’ to move to New Westminster, either.

My worries about the future aside, I’ll leave you with something to look forward to – the 2013 Vancouver Poutine Festival has just been announced and it’s going to be bigger than ever. You might want to make some travel plans for early March, as at least one of my out-of-town friends is trying to arrange.

Bourgeois Populism

New pizza place opening soon on Victoria Drive.

I was telling a friend today that I’m a mixture of the bourgeois and the populist. Well, neither of those words is a perfect match for me, but that’s what I came up with today. My blog reflects this, with my definition of community encompassing everything from social justice issues to local shopping. One must embrace the contradictions of one’s nature, I suppose.

Sometimes though, the mixture can be a little hard to handle.

Today, I took the photo at the top of the post. I always have contradictory feelings when I see a new restaurant starting up in the neighbourhood. I like the expansion of food choices within walking distance, but fear the trend these openings represent. Right now, we have a number of produce vendors, food markets, and small merchants along the Drive. These are the sort of businesses that get pushed out with gentrification.

Our neighbourhood also seems to have been promised to developers for mid-rise, suburban-style condos. The number of rezonings approved by council is rapidly increasing. Long-time residents, who support independent businesses, are being pushed out of the neighbourhood. I suspect they will be replaced with folks with a suburban perspective, along with greater demand for chain stores and restaurants.

I like my mixed-income, (somewhat) diverse neighbourhood, that’s still able to support a video store, an old school diner, and a walkable street culture. Decrying the expensive, car-centric housing developments that are slated for this area gets one dismissed as an out-of-touch NIMBY. But what about the community that exists here? Surely there’s a way to preserve it, one of the most functional neighbourhoods in the city, while making room for new businesses that add to the ambiance?

I suppose not.

Transition City, Part III

I’m (finally) wrapping up my series of posts about Moving Through. After the walks were finished, the groups convened at the new Woodward’s Building for a wrap-up moderated by Gordon Price.

The various tour leaders gave summaries of the three mini-walks and were then asked to identify what they would like to see addressed in the conversations around Vancouver’s future development.

Here are a few of the ideas were raised:

Michael Green kicked things off by asking why the most successful neighbourhoods were the least developed. He also spoke about the need to incorporate the street in the used or “activated” space of neighbourhoods.

– Rather than simply building concentrations of dense residential buildings, create nodal communities, with amenities, residential, retail and office space in walkable sectors around transit nodes and cycling infrastructure.

– Extend the principals used in laneway housing zoning to create infill office and retail space.

This discussion, and the MOV project of which it is a part, are very timely. Vancouver residents are starting to demand to be part of the conversation around future development, because it’s our existing neighbourhoods that are being targeted. What we value about this city is at stake.

MOV recorded the speakers during each of the walks, along with the wrap-up discussion. You can find the podcasts here.

Transition City, Part II

Last week I wrote about development trends in Vancouver and the Moving Through walking tours arranged Museum of Vancouver (MOV) as part of their Not an Architectural Speaker’s Series. As promised, here’s a little more about Moving Through.

Three different mini-walks took place in the morning, with a wrap-up discussion for everyone afterward. One walk focused on the role of the viaducts in the evolution of downtown Vancouver, another (using Commercial/Broadway station as a jumping off point) explored the role of transit hubs in shaping the city and the third looked at the impact the Cambie Line has had on those neighbourhoods’ development.

I chose the first walk, which was called “The Path(s) Not Taken: Viaducts, Expressways, and Almost Vancouvers.” The walk was led by architect Michael Green, one of the instigators of MOV’s Not an Architectural Speaker’s Series, along with Brandon Yan and Demian Rueter of Vancouver Public Space Network .

This walk started underneath the viaducts, near the stadiums downtown. The viaducts were built in anticipation of a larger freeway network that was planned in the 1950s and 1960s. A thriving black community, Hogan’s Alley, was destroyed to make way for the viaducts. Project 200 would have also razed Chinatown and Gastown and replaced them with (mainly) office towers. Brandon and Demian of VPSN showed us artists’ renderings of what might have existed if the plans had gone through, then as we toured the neighbourhood, our hosts led a discussion on how Vancouver has developed, what might have been and the changes that are on the horizon. We were supposed to move through Chinatown, the Downtown Eastside and Gastown, ending at Granville Square (the only Project 200 building that was actually erected). The discussions were too interesting, so we only got as far as Gastown.

As we walked through Chinatown, Michael Green discussed the ways in which the heritage low-rise buildings interact with the street, which many newer buildings don’t successfully achieve. He spoke about the architectural challenge of making the street usable, active space, rather than being solely concerned with what happens inside buildings.

Green also pointed out that the stadiums and viaducts have acted as a physical barrier to density moving east. There is talk of removing one or both viaducts, which will open up space for more development and erase any clear density boundary between downtown and the eastern neighbourhoods. Near the end of our walk, in Gastown, Green discussed the neighbourhood’s mix of social housing and social services co-existing with market housing and mid to upscale business.

This walk illustrated the tensions between planning departments, developers and existing neighbourhoods. It also brought up a number of questions:

What makes a successful neighbourhood?

What role should citizens have in neighbourhood development and preservation?

What are the criteria local governments should follow when redeveloping existing neighbourhoods?

I have one more post for you on this subject. I’ll be posting a short piece about the wrap up discussion after the walks.

Transition City, Part I

A couple of weekends ago, I took part in one of the Museum of Vancouver’s Moving Through walking tours, part of the Museum’s Not an Architectural Speaker’s Series. The three tours explored aspects of Vancouver’s built environment, topics that are especially fraught now, as the city is in a period of significant transition.

The downtown core of Vancouver has been transformed over the last twenty-five years, particularly in the last decade. What were once business districts, light industrial zones and commercial waterfront properties have become residential towers, retail districts and entertainment zones. The City has embraced the concept of EcoDensity, which is meant to create a walkable live/work cityscape that limits the environmental impact of an increasing population by concentrating utility use and reducing the distances that residents travel for work and shopping. The reality is that more lucrative residential development has eliminated much of the office space downtown and has reversed commuting patterns, as downtown residents travel to and from jobs outside Vancouver proper. This new urban environment has been described as a vertical form of the dormitory suburb.

Now that much of the development downtown is complete, the City has begun looking beyond its core. The Cambie corridor, the West End and Vancouver’s eastern neighbourhoods are all areas targeted for increased density. The eastern neighbourhoods are particularly attractive, as they’re directly adjacent to the city’s core. As I’ve described elsewhere, the travel time from downtown to my East Vancouver neighbourhood is about an hour by foot, past the viaducts and through the Downtown Eastside (DTES), Chinatown and Strathcona. Though the distance is relatively short, the character of each neighbourhood is distinct. The DTES and Chinatown, along with Gastown, have some of the oldest buildings in the city. Strathcona has the character of an old-fashioned city suburb, with houses, walk ups and corner stores. Between Strathcona and my Commercial Drive neighbourhood, there’s a light industrial zone, which is also home to the artists’ district that comes alive for the yearly Eastside Culture Crawl. Commercial Drive is like a younger version of Strathcona’s mix, with some mid-rise apartments thrown in, and anchored around one of Vancouver’s major thoroughfares. What you don’t see, with a few very visible exceptions, are high-rises in much of Chinatown or most of Strathcona and Commercial Drive.

All of these neighbourhoods have seen waves of change. The DTES, which has been described as Canada’s poorest postal code, is being transformed into a mix of residential tower development alongside social housing. Gastown was until recently primarily a tourist zone, but is now home to condominiums and upscale dining and shopping. Chinatown is becoming a hotbed for new restaurants and stores, along with controversial plans for condo development. Strathcona is now famous for its renovated houses, many of which carry heritage designations, while Commercial Drive has been transformed from a working-class neighbourhood into a mixed income cultural district. It’s not as if this is the first time that Vancouver’s neighbourhoods have dealt with demographic change. For good or ill, this is part of urban life.

What’s different about this wave of development is that the neighbourhoods targeted are already residential, the pace of change is likely to be much faster and the form of development is much more invasive than in previous shifts. In the DTES, it’s feared that social housing reform is being pushed aside in favour of expensive condominiums. In Chinatown and eastward, the fears are that mixed income housing and affordable retail space are going to be lost, along with the character of each neighbourhood’s built environment.

It’s in the context of these changes and anxieties that the Moving Through walks took place. Next week, I’ll tell you more about the walk I took part in and the discussion that took place afterward.