West End residents packed St Paul’s Anglican Church to air their concerns about housing, transportation, neighbourhood development and other issues at a Vision Vancouver town hall Nov 7.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, Councillor Tim Stevenson, school board trustee Cherie Payne and park board commissioners Aaron Jasper and Trevor Loke fielded questions and comments from the predominantly friendly audience and provided updates on city initiatives.

Robertson says affordable housing has been the council’s top priority because the market is not keeping up with need.

“The city owns tons of land and buildings; we need to use those assets a lot better and leverage more affordable housing on those sites,” he says.

Robertson says the city will be entertaining 20 proposals for development of buildings up to six storeys along such critical arteries as Main Street to achieve more density. “It has to be affordable; 20 percent below market [value] if it’s for sale or it has to be rental housing.”

Robertson says the city wants to create an affordable housing authority to ensure that type of housing is built.

But not everyone who showed up at the forum was convinced that city council’s plans are in residents’ best interests.

Prior to the start of the meeting, almost a dozen people representing neighbourhood associations across the city gathered outside bearing placards that read "Stop Vision."

Spokesperson Rand Chatterjee believes the majority of council is “out to bulldoze” Vancouver neighbourhoods to benefit private developers.

“We’re very upset in particular with the bulldozing of low-income housing and the restriction on low-income housing in the city, from Little Mountain to Heather Place and countless seniors housing and older buildings that had been in public hands, had been affordable rental, are being sold off, privatized, and we’re sick of it.”

Chatterjee is skeptical of the new community plans that are being developed. “They’re a sham; there’s no conservation whatsoever. The entire intent is to manufacture consent for redevelopment.”

He’d like to see a replication of the “open door” West End planning process of the late 1970s-'80s. “It was done with the planning staff working with the community, in the community.” 

West End resident Aerlyn Weissman, who has been involved with the area’s planning from the beginning, also remembers when the process was more community-focused. She says the 1987 plan included more participation and real decision making by the community. “This time around, we’re advisory,” she says.

“I’d like to believe we’re not being massaged,” she says of the town hall.

“The city has made a big issue about community engagement,” she explains, but she too is skeptical about who’s making the decisions and whose interests will be prioritized.

She says that by the time the community is consulted, it has very little opportunity or influence to make changes. “You’re always chasing a process you’re not fundamentally a part of.”

Echoing Chatterjee, Weissman says she’s waiting to see if events like the town hall are an exercise in “manufacturing consent” — or a place where the social capital of the citizens who inhabit and built the community is acknowledged and harnessed.

City planners recently completed a cultural assets mapping process that recognized the West End as the gay hub.

Vancouver school board trustee Cherie Payne, who recently returned to the West End after a 13-year absence, says one of the main reasons she is now a resident and owner in the area is to be close to a very large queer community.

“I think that people who have grown up in or come of age as members of a cultural minority see the world a little bit differently, mainly because we’re treated a little bit differently,” she says. “It’s important for me to be near a queer community so that I could hear people who had that kind of shared perspective and that shared experience.”

Weissman says that unless housing issues are addressed so queer people can afford to live here, the West End will become “a façade of something that used to be a heart of the queer community.”

Dean Malone, co-chair of the city’s LGBTQ advisory committee, says a subcommittee has been struck to liaise with the city’s planning department and West End planning.

“We’re going to be working directly now with the planning process to make sure Davie Village continues to have queer significance,” Malone says.

The LGBTQ advisory committee has also struck a housing subcommittee, he notes. The challenge is to identify the areas earmarked for redevelopment where below-market rentals and condos can be accommodated.

Malone, who is a West End resident, says there are not a lot of places where the queer community can get together on Davie Street outside of the pubs. Bringing Davie businesses onto the street is key, as well as allowing some of the vacant space to become more arts and culture focused, he suggests.

Malone is also still optimistic that space can be found to house a queer community centre if the community feels that’s important. “We still have an empty lot on Davie and Burrard, and there are spaces on Davie Street that will be redeveloped over the next 10 years.”

None of these ideas is new, he acknowledges, but when the opportunities arise the community needs to be ready to have dialogue with the city and developers so “we’re not an afterthought,” he says.

The community has spread out, Loke says. “If we’re going to pull people back in, we need methods to do that. We need the services to be here, we need the entertainment to reflect the diversity, we need the businesses on the street to be more reflective of the diversity of the community.”
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