Monday, 11 November 2013


Why are Neighborhood Associations so enraged? Whatever the VISION Council does today seems to be greeted by protest. Neighborhood associations have no electoral mandate. If they have any influence on politicians, it comes from the fact that they know more about their own neighborhoods than people who live somewhere else. They can be useful to politicians because they provide insight into local issues. Many such associations and neighborhood councils are slow to participate in protests that go beyond writing letters and making occasional appearances at hearings. 

This is because their Boards try to remain politically neutral. They recognize that their membership includes a cross section of voters. To endorse one particular party risks offending some of the people they claim to represent. Also, they are anxious to remain on as cordial terms as possible with the government of the day. Single issue groups are much more likely to be carrying signs, denouncing one party or another and speaking publically on the steps of City Hall. 

Today, many neighborhood associations are joining everyone else in protests. Here is one reason why.

From the mid-1980s through the 1990’s neighborhood associations were relatively quiet. Mayor Gordon Campbell (1986 to 1993) and Mayor Philip Owen (1993 to 2002) were careful not to stray far from issues raised in their election campaigns. Mayor Gordon Campbell, for example, in the late 80s suggested that illegal suites should be shut down. When owners told him that they needed them as mortgage helpers he proposed methods of allowing them to be upgraded and licensed. Massive waterfront Developments took place during this period but they resulted from a thorough planning process and were not projects that affected everyone.

In 2002, Larry Campbell, Vancouver’s 37th Mayor led a COPE council to victory. COPE accomplished the redevelopment of the Woodward’s Building and the safe injection site. Neither of these Downtown East Side projects, directly affected communities other than the one in which they were located. Other areas remained quiet. Larry Campbell graduated after his first term to the Senate. That was that.

In 2005, running against two separate candidates each named Jim Green, only one of whom ran for COPE, Sam Sullivan, led the NPA to a narrow victory. In June 2006, he introduced his “Eco-Density” initiative which proposed to enormously densify Vancouver. There would be towers and laneway houses. It had not surfaced in the election and yet it was so radical that Sullivan saw fit to copyright the name. This was the start of the current neighourhood protest movement. 

The Planners loved eco density, however and ultimately the Canadian Institute of Planners awarded Vancouver its Planning Excellence award.

Overnight everyone became an environmentalist. Vancouver’s former Director of Planning, Brent Toderian was hired by Sullivan. Born with a silver ecological footprint in his mouth, he said things like, “Vancouver’s challenge is to grow in a way that reduces our ecological footprint. The neighborhood-centre model supports the principles of Eco-Density—smart, sustainable growth.”

The Globe and Mail reported, when the VISION Council released Mr. Todarian:

But for years, development-community members unhappy with him had been saying he didn’t give clear messages about the planning department’s direction, with the result that projects floundered and stalled as people tried to figure out what he and the department really wanted.

Others blamed his leadership for the steady rise of neighbourhood anti-development groups; while another group of critics was concerned about what they said was a lack of overall vision for the city.

During his time, Mr. Toderian steered through the Eco-Density policy – Mr. Sullivan’s idea about increasing density as a way of making the city more environmentally sustainable – laneway housing, and a plan to transform the single-family housing along Cambie Street and the Canada Line into a row of apartments and office towers

One of the endearing aspects of the planning profession is that they are quite certain that they are correct and that all others are wrong. Sam Sullivan’s Eco-Density reflected the prevailing view held by American Planners and Todarian, that high density cities are correct, and that low density suburbs are not. This is called Smart Growth. Planners are to the manor born in that they are spared the indignity of running for public office. They can just tell the rest of us to get with their program.

It was the Norquay Neighborhood Association that first took on the ménage a trois of planners, developers and politicians. They took their protests to the steps of City Hall and were supported by members of other neighborhood associations.

The Dunbar Residents Association, met with Sullivan in the Dunbar Community Centre to discuss Eco-density. Many were enraged that such a policy would be introduced with no discussion during the election. Dunbar and other neighborhoods had several years earlier been led through a process by City Hall which, after almost two years of work, resulted in a plan called the Dunbar Vision. It supported densification but also specified areas where it was to occur. The Neighborhood bought into it.

Because of the intensity of opposition to Eco-Density, Sullivan was denied the NPA nomination in 2008. Peter Ladner replaced him as the NPA’s mayoral candidate. Not surprisingly, he lost. ROBERSTON and VISION won 7 seats. COPE Classic took two and the NPA elected only Suzanne Anton. During VISION’s and ROBERTSON’S first term, there were a number of issues that annoyed people but not yet to mutiny. That came later. For now, the election was taken to be a repudiation of centralized planning as represented by Eco-Density.

In 2011, VISION sought a second term and ran on its record. There was no reason why voters would consider returning to the NPA. It had not renounced its densification policy which conflicted with the existing neighborhood vision Plans and current zoning.

The floodgates of anger were opened when the VISION Council in its second term implemented Eco-Density under a different name. It was bad enough for Sullivan to introduce a change that affected all neighborhoods when he never raised it in his campaign. When VISION implemented that plan, many people realized that the election had been hijacked. Today no action by VISION escapes the attention of communities and their associations. A series of law suits is pending.

VISION could easily have avoided this by the simple expedient of listening to affected neighborhood associations. Now VISION is in an even worse position than Sam Sullivan was in 2008. Politicians who are feared can survive. When they are seen as ridiculous, they are finished.

With a year to go until the next election, to whom will the voters turn? I t is too early to tell since candidates have not yet been selected. According to the Georgia Straight VISION is creating neighborhood cells of Visionistas. This possibly reflects the fact that they have burned their bridges with existing groups. The other parties would be well advised to establish and reinforce their connections with all of the Neighborhood Associations.

1 comment:

  1. Darnit, Jonathan, I was expecting a witty parody of the video game
    "Angry Birds" , not a succinct explanation of Vision's treachery and betrayal of community groups. Where I grew up in Northern Ireland, the local dialect was Elizabethan English and the word " bird" was pronounced as " bored" . (Wind was wined and board was boord.) . In our little village of Harrison, all citizen-based committees have been cancelled as the members insisted on asking awkward questions of council and having ideas of their own. John Allen, Harrison Hot Springs