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


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.


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.

Co-ops and the Community Plan

Definition 2

The Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly is nearing completion of its process. By early summer it will have presented its recommendations. Then, it will be up to the City to decide how those recommendations will figure into the final community plan.

Tonight, I attended a community consultation by the Assembly that was specifically geared to co-op housing members, a part of the community that can get ignored in the discussions that centre on the needs of owners and renters in our neighbourhood. There are only two members of the Assembly that live in co-op housing, which apparently represents the proportion of co-op residents in Grandview-Woodland. There are twenty-eight Assembly members that own their residences and another eighteen that rent. I don’t know if there is any representation from social housing included amongst the eighteen renters on the Assembly.

We considered six recommendation areas that concern co-op housing: how the expiration of co-op land leases are handled; the loss of Federal support at the end of co-ops’ operating agreements; advocacy for alternative ownership models in the City; supports for co-ops’ viability over the long term; and the potential for co-op housing to be built into new development.

There was also an initial discussion of a definition of co-operative housing. Though there was a wealth of ideas about what co-op housing means for co-op members and the community, we all agreed that it’s a model distinct from social housing, renting, and owning. The City, as it stands, classes co-ops as a form of social housing, which does a disservice to both models, as they serve different needs and provide different benefits. There is absolutely a need for dedicated low-income housing, but there’s an equal need for mixed-income models that provide security of tenure whether a resident’s income increases or decreases. Mixed-income, affordable housing is especially important in a city that’s becoming increasingly unafforable for middle-income and low-income people alike.

I’m looking forward to seeing the end result of the Assembly’s process. All the members I’ve met have been passionate advocates for our neighbourhood, caring deeply about the diversity that Grandview-Woodland encompasses, and working hard to make sure they represent the need to protect this diversity over the course of the next three decades.

At the same time, I was reminded again tonight that the scope of the Assembly’s mandate is narrow, which makes it important that the community makes itself heard outside that process as well as within it. I hope that CHF BC makes its own submissions to the City with regard to neighbourhood plans across Vancouver, and that the Grandview-Woodland Area Council and the Our Community, Our Plan! group continue to lobby the City on behalf of our neighbourhood.

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.

From the Ground Up

The Estate Agent/Souvenier shop.

Plotting out the future can be a daunting task, whether it’s for a book club or a neighbourhood. Conflicting personalities, differing goals and incompatible world views can all get in the way. It’s why generating participation is the bane of any planning process. When it’s as high-stakes as public consultation about neighbourhood development, it’s easy to get discouraged by bureaucracy and lobbyists. Things can get discouraging enough, even, to make folks dream of moving to a new place, to avoid the changes that are taking the shine off their current home and to build something that better reflects their own desires. Unfortunately, one neighbourhood’s fleeing resident can become another community’s damaging interloper.

A letter from "Walmart" left on a neighbourhood doorstep, ominously promising to move into the neighbourhood.

There’s really no such thing as building a community from the ground up, at least not in the real world. But last week, the Vancouver East Cultural Centre presented an opportunity to do so imaginatively, with their home sweet home installation. This piece was created by Subject to_change, a British theatrical company that specializes in breaking down the boundaries of artistic production and putting the spectator into the centre of its pieces. Home Sweet Home has been travelling to sites world-wide since 2007.

A cardboard business, ready to put together, tied up with a welcome message, instructions and suggestions.

The piece begins as a planned community would, with lots marked out and construction materials at hand. Participants could choose to build residences, businesses or community amenities. Over the course of the installation, residents could also become involved with the community’s radio station and council or simply interact with other residents.

The community bulletin board, with lots of notes about zombies and the elusive Councillor Bob.

There were elements of the fantastical involved in the community that developed, like unicorn corrals and zombie warnings…actually the radio station and bulletin board seemed to really run with the zombie theme. But what I noticed, having arrived late in the process, was that the little village seemed to be an ideal version of the real-life neighbourhood outside. There were dog parks, community kitchens, bike shops and co-ops of all kinds. There were very few outsized developments and at least one of these was a seniors’ residence. A number of houses were given over to Canucks playoff fever and there was even a tiny East Van sign.

The tiny East Van sign - you can't tell in this photo, but it lit up like the real one.

This little East Van also reflected our neighbourhood’s anxieties – the biggest threat wasn’t really zombies (or the ongoing campaign against someone called “Councillor Bob”), but the letters delivered to residents promising an enormous Walmart development. In a neighbourhood where long-time residents are worrying about a future filled with chain stores and cookie-cutter condos, the installation encompassed what we love about this place, what we want for it and what we fear is on its way.

Anti-Walmart signs that started to appear once the ominous letter was delivered.

By leaving participants a blank slate, Subject to_change manages to make each iteration of this piece a social commentary, a learning environment and a kind of community carnival all at once. It also allows for artistic expression on a playing field that’s levelled across age groups – there were interesting and provocative structures from kids and adults alike.

A tiny version of a real place (Melk) beside an imaginary one (Beatlemania).

I’d like to adapt this concept to some of the organizations I’m involved with – a day long retreat, complete with paper, glue and decorations, might do more to foster dialogue than any number of meetings.

The village, with one of the installation workers in the background. To the right, you can see the screen where the goings-on were projected.

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.

The Roots of Homelessness

Two weeks ago, I wrote about an investigative series that CTV British Columbia was conducting on the subject of homelessness. Today, I want to follow up on that post. The series, called Off the Streets, covered a number of issues, including drug and alcohol addiction, as well as the special problems faced by homeless youth and single mothers. Mi-Jung Lee and Jon Woodward explored a number of solutions as well, focusing on supportive housing, sobering centres and programs to keep single mothers and youth off the streets.

Throughout the series, we heard that youth who had been through the foster care system, single mothers and First Nations people are particularly at risk of becoming homeless. What wasn’t mentioned is that these groups also face a higher risk of poverty or that as poverty increases in this country, so does homelessness.

It’s not easy to discuss poverty without running up against political and ideological differences. It can be safer to stick to the necessary work of finding strategies to help the people who have already found themselves disenfranchised.

Discussions about poverty in Canada are happening though, in the context of homelessness, but also in relation to poverty’s other consequences, like the toll poverty takes on the health care system and societal productivity levels. Here are a few links to some of these discussions:

Housing and Homelessness – CCPA
Child Poverty Statistics – CCRC
Poverty in Canada – The Economist

I hope that we can, as a culture, really commit to eradicating poverty and reducing income disparity, thus attacking the roots of problems like homelessness, crime and illness.

A First Step

The City of Vancouver has made a commitment to eliminate homelessness by 2015, which Mayor Gregor Robertson has said is targeted toward street homelessness. Already, the number of shelter beds available in the city has made an impact on how many people are sleeping on the street, but longer-term solutions need to be addressed as well.

Local television station CTV is in the midst of an eight-part investigative series on homelessness. Their first segment focused on the non-profit Streetohome, which aims to raise 26 million dollars to fund new supportive housing complexes. Their mandate includes providing “permanent stable housing with appropriate support services.” They’ve also identified a number of at-risk groups and intend to provide services to them that will address the issues that may lead them to become homeless.

While I think that the work that Streetohome does is fantastic, it’s only one aspect of how homelessness must be addressed. Philanthropic solutions cannot be the only action taken to relieve homelessness. Economic disenfranchisement is becoming a greater factor in our culture, especially in a city as expensive as Vancouver. I’ll be watching the CTV series with interest, to see how broadly they explore the issue.