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Vision Vancouver Hits the Panic Button

Confusion Rules at City Hall on January 20

by Joseph Jones

Mayor Robertson Says He Already Heard Enough
Mayor Robertson Says He Already Heard Enough

Also posted by Joseph Jones:

At 11:45 am on 20 January 2011, Vision Vancouver suddenly declared a special emergency session at City Council. Then with a lightning bolt shot from their backroom caucus, they welded the doors shut on untold dozens of riled-up speakers. That last-minute maneuver saved them having to endure the accountability of listening to many hours of intense criticism.

A blend of arrogance and stupidity led the Vision faction into this severe embarrassment. Even a month ago, it was clear that the Historic Area Height Review (HAHR) was seriously deficient. But deficiency almost never halts Council – or the city planners who act as their shock troops. This one time, blatant deficiency did cause the juggernaut to have to stop in its tracks. Scarcely, though – and probably only temporarily.

Recipe for Trouble

Vision Vancouver needs to deliver a lot more to the developer interests that funded its election, and time is fast running out. Cramming putrid planning pills down the throats of various neighborhoods only months before an election will not sit well with people. It is dilemma time at City Hall. Developers don't care – with Vision out, the NPA would serve them just as well.

The Vancouver Council Votes web site demonstrates how the Vision faction has consistently voted as a bloc to override the concerns of neighborhoods. Vision was gearing up to do the same to the Downtown Eastside. Deploy confusion. What else besides that strategy could have been in the minds of an administration that slapped five or six big items onto the agenda for one calendar day? Count 'em. Ellen Woodsworth's motion on density, a potential site for a new art gallery (about thirty speakers signed up for that one), and a mega-Casino – all postponed. Historic Area Height Review shut right down (that effort alone required almost an hour). Greenest City palaver ate up most of the afternoon. To wrap up the day of chaos, that other evil height twin, Vancouver Views, motivated over forty speakers to sign up. Enough of those speakers braved the snow and endured the waiting to run the clock until 11:00 pm, at which time Council ducked out on letting speakers actually watch them debate and vote.

How Vision Failed to Bull Through

Back in December, in the Downtown Eastside, it looked pretty clear that the "social impact study," promised a year ago, was taking dubious form and would not be completed by January, despite efforts to rush the job. Nevertheless, HAHR continued to roll full steam ahead toward Council approval. Two December stories by Tristan Markle laid the meat on the table: Vision Embraces NPA's Gentrification Plan for the Downtown Eastside and Author of 'Height Study' Comes Out Against City's DTES Condo Plan. Then Christmas holidays took over. Markle's second story presaged the flak that eventually flew in January. Ray Spaxman (former City of Vancouver Director of Planning, one of two outside consultants on HAHR) was disturbed enough to bite the hand that fed him that contract business, and specifically to call out developer interests.

A parallel and related proposal has aimed to clear the way for seven super-skyscrapers in downtown Vancouver. That was the Vancouver Views item that did consume five to six hours of Council business on January 20. Tristan Markle again laid out the big picture: consideration of socially meaningless isolated height connected Views with HAHR and generated cognitive dissonance. CityHallWatch held Council's feet to the fire on Views with rapid mobilization in response to a scheduled December 16 Council meeting, followed up with a public forum on January 11. Under attack, the City of Vancouver threw together a January 17 "information session" to issue counterspin and to lay basis for the usual suspect claims of consultation.

In the few days before January 20, two outside groups weighed in. That crucial conjunction of disapproval sent Vision running for cover at the eleventh hour. The Building Community Society of Greater Vancouver (BCS) issued two public letters on January 11 and January 19. (The BCS list of associated individuals reads like a who's who of former senior city planners.) The first BCS letter rips Council for a report that does not specify "what additional amounts or types of floor space would be achieved beyond what is permitted in existing zoning" or "what amount of anticipated public benefit will be achieved by the additional height (or density)." Translation: Developers working through Council were out to write themselves a blank cheque. That same letter goes on to call for "overall social, economic and environmental planning." The second BCS letter responds to – and quotes correspondence from – Vision councillor Andrea Reimer. After opening with a concern "that Council appears to be proceeding without the benefit of a proper process of planning," the letter provides five quotations that show that Vision's overarching concern and naked interest is to rezone as much as possible as fast as possible. [This intent stands out below in the comments of Raymond Louie and Gregor Robertson during debate on the emergency motion.] (Worth remembering: BCS also submitted a letter [pdf 9-13] to the 26 January 2010 Council meeting on HAHR.)

To judge by what was said in Council on January 20, the BCS all by itself might have been ignored. The other group consisted of 29 SFU and UBC professors, ad hoc signers of an open letter to Mayor and Council. Veteran journalist Frances Bula exclaimed in a January 19 blog entry, "Never seen anything like this before." As detailed below, the stand-out phrase "learned people" ricocheted from one councillor to the next as Vision maneuvered its avoidance.


At 12:35 pm Council unleashed a scramble to notify persons registered to speak to HAHR in the Council session to begin at 2:00 pm. (This writer received an email time-stamped 1:22 pm. The clerk was rattled enough to provide 36 speakers with each other's email addresses in the header!)

Three working days later, an emailed notice from HAHR said: "Staff are currently identifying next steps to implement Council's decisions, and will provide you with updates as they are available."

The emergency motion may be difficult to implement. It calls for "the City Manager to ensure the report is severed accordingly." Translation: Get the Downtown Eastside mess out of this thing so we can get on with all that rezoning in Chinatown right now.

The Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC) has issued an early statement. As one of the two bodies to which City Council abruptly delegated its problem, with no consultation, what the DNC has to say going forward may determine whether the motion can even take effect. The DNC report and statement show happiness at the juggernaut's pause, wariness at the potential allocation of powers, and determination that "Chinatown" not be severed from the Downtown Eastside.

A printed news release handed out at City Hall cannot be found listed among City of Vancouver online news releases. However, a slight rewrite can be found on the Mayor's blog: Mayor Calls for More Public Consultation in Downtown Eastside. Phrases like "we've heard from the community" erupted ad nauseam from the lips of Vision councillors during debate over the emergency motion.

Replay of Crazy Hour at City Hall

For about forty-five minutes Council wrangled over the Vision bolt out of the blue. Mayor Gregor Robertson announced an "urgent piece of business." Raymond Louie then proceeded to detail "this emergency motion." Ellen Woodsworth declared herself "stunned," followed by Suzanne Anton chalking up "another blow to democracy." Raymond Louie came back to tout being "expeditious" in the interests of a "Chinatown community wanting to move more quickly." Andrea Reimer fell back on Olympics and snow and budget as excuses for uncompleted work, and went on to proclaim: "I don't see the point in going through the political theatre." George Chow did a weird spin about deferral providing "a great opportunity for us to listen" to "that many speakers."

Ellen Woodsworth referred to 78 expected speakers, and complained: "Now it becomes an emergency because so many significant people are speaking out." Kerry Jang picked up the thread of responding to "so many learned people." Suzanne Anton retorted, "Now we've heard from learned people, we're going to change course." Anton pointed out the difficulty of trying to implement only some HAHR recommendations when Appendix A refers to all of them. David Cadman said he had never seen the likes of such an "emergency resolution" in thirty years. He called attention to loose allocation and redirection of unspecified staff and budget, and wondered at the impact on other neighborhoods like Grandview, West End, and Marpole. "Because the learneds have weighed in on this, all of a sudden it's an emergency." Cadman moved to refer the motion and "first hear from the public." Cadman closed by observing that the motion itself would push the issue "till after the next election."

The first to speak in the amendment queue, Raymond Louie harped again on the theme that Chinatown "should not wait one to two years." Ellen Woodsworth criticized Vision's "political emergency" and noted, "Clearly there was a meeting before this meeting." Andrea Reimer said that the motion represented "a new direction," not "a new planning process." She mentioned ninety speakers. In her view, the two democratic bodies specified by the motion – Building Community Society and the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council – could be "authentic" in dealing with the responsibility that would be delegated to them. Cadman's motion to refer was supported only by Anton and Woodsworth.

David Cadman pointed out that eleven months probably would not suffice to complete the specified Downtown Eastside planning, and that unknown costs would be entailed, perhaps to the detriment of other planning. Ellen Woodsworth declared that the motion would "divide the community." Gregor Robertson opened with damage control, asserting that the situation was "urgent," not "emergency." He regretted that Council had failed to "enhance and accelerate" the process. He made it clear that Vision wants HA-1 and HA-1A provisions confirmed immediately for Chinatown. Raymond Louie led up to the vote by stating that the "time frame" for the Downtown Eastside could always be extended or contracted.

Viewers having long patience and strong stomach can watch this farce play out on screen.

Back Story

The Historic Area Height Review was already kicking around behind the scenes when City Council adopted EcoDensity™ on 10 June 2008. (Remember here that the contentious provisions of EcoDensity™ brought speakers out to Council on seven evenings, that their extensive opposition was misrepresented and disregarded, and that the crushing defeat suffered by the NPA in November 2008 owed much to this arrogance.)

The Initial Actions of EcoDensity™ included Action B-1, what was then called Historic Precinct Height Study. That "study" was described as "currently being undertaken by staff" (p. 7). The resulting report of September 2008 was Historic Precinct Height Study 2008 : Final Report by Spaxman Consulting Group Ltd., LWPAC (Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture Inc.). The report consolidated and build on previous work by City of Vancouver staff:

The City provided the consultants with the work that staff had already produced regarding organizing principles, evaluation criteria, and identification criteria of possible special sites where higher buildings might be considered. (p. 5)

Exactly where all this traces back to remains shrouded in mystery. A City of Vancouver panel board shows an origin in Technical Analysis 2008 – which looks like covert EcoDensity™ agenda launched prior to approval of that policy. Key direction 6 of 10, as outlined in March 2009 in 10 Years of Downtown Eastside Revitalization: a Backgrounder, is Preserve and enhance the heritage and cultural legacy of the neighbourhoods. The item ends with four challenges, whose linkages explain a lot of murky agenda:

  • Bonus density created under the Heritage Building Rehabilitation Program
  • Uncompleted Chinatown Revitalization Plan
  • Uncompleted Historic Precinct Height Study
  • Lack of "local planning attention" for Strathcona since the early nineties

The huge unnamed suspect in this quest for origins, of course, is the gentrification bombshell of the Woodward's project. A report from the Woodward's Steering Committee to Vancouver City Council in September 2005 makes clear that the strategically positioned project sought permeable perimeter into the historic precincts. The military tone of this language corresponds neatly with the massive funding directed in parallel at hosting the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

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