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Gay city councillors urge The Centre to explore West End site

Former city councillor calls for big public meeting

Vancouver’s two gay city councillors are urging The Centre to explore the now-vacant St John’s United Church site in the West End as a possible future location for the gay community centre.

COPE city councillor Ellen Woodsworth says several groups, including Gordon Neighbourhood House and some arts communities, are interested in the Comox and Broughton St building, which is listed for sale for just over $4 million.

“The church is looking at various options,” Woodsworth says, adding that she’s spoken with The Centre’s executive director, Jennifer Breakspear, “a couple of times” and “urged her to pursue it with our staff [at the city] which she has done.”

“I think it would be worthwhile for The Centre to pursue for sure,” agrees Vision Vancouver councillor Tim Stevenson.

“But they also have to be realistic,” he notes. “In as much they don’t have money, could they raise that kind of money is a question that we’ve been asking in the community for a long time.”

Stevenson says the church wants the site developed in line with its own values and is therefore open to those who want to put a bid together.

“It really does come down to [organizations] like The Centre and a number of others who’ve indicated they’d like to have some kind of a place where [others including] themselves might be involved in it,” Stevenson says.

“And if that’s possible that would be great and I’d certainly be encouraging them to do that,” he continues. “My advice is that they should sit down with Gordon Neighbourhood House and others they’re aware of and say, ‘Here is a way we can make this work.’”

Stevenson says The Centre would have to do that “relatively quickly” because the site is such a prime property “right in the heart of the West End.”

Gordon Neighbourhood House executive director John Lucas says the organization has talked to The Centre but there was no discussion of a joint bid for the site.

“I think it’s a little beyond both of our means,” Lucas told Xtra West Jun 1. “My understanding is it’d take a half a million dollars to renovate the building to get it back into shape.”

Breakspear says she has been “in conversation” with the real estate agent handling the sale of the St John’s church. She also says that she has been “in conversation” with the city and that The Centre is “exploring all possibilities.”

Asked if there is any plan to pursue a joint bid for the site with Gordon Neighbourhood House, Breakspear says she is “not going to talk about that at this time.”

“Should there be amenity space available at Broughton and Comox, we would be interested and we are in discussions with the city of Vancouver about pursuing any possible amenity space,” she says.

Former city councillor Alan Herbert says the possibility of moving The Centre into the St John’s location came to his attention six or seven months ago. The site may offer some of the “performance standards that a community centre for the gay community is looking to achieve,” he says.

Another option, he notes, is to buy the building that currently houses The Centre, tear it down and rebuild something that would actually meet the community’s needs.

It’s an expensive option, “no question,” Herbert admits, calling for an action plan.

“Where we go from here is to present the case, and The Centre’s board has to do this,” Herbert insists.

“The Centre with a couple of other people in the community need to be put together to talk about taking this to a major community-participation public meeting,” he says.

“By this I don’t mean a couple people, a half dozen or so, meeting around the table at a coffee shop like Melriches. That’s just inadequate,” Herbert says.

“It’s got to be held in a hall where there’s a possibility of having 60 to 125 people come together so that the issue can be finally aired and established,” he advises.

The Centre also has to establish what programs it needs to run and present that in “square footage terms,” Herbert continues.

“We need to know the components that exist in other community centres that are well-established and respected, be they in Montreal or in Los Angeles or in San Francisco, or you name it.

“Vancouver deserves the same quality facility and institution, I think, as other cities have,” Herbert says.

“There is none planned at this time,” Breakspear says when asked if The Centre plans to host a town hall on relocation and the kinds of programs a new centre would accommodate.

“I’m engaging with members of the community in small and large settings all the time,” Breakspear adds. “There is no plan for a big renting-out-a-hall discussion as Alan has apparently suggested.”

Herbert also suggested that The Centre speak to the Parks Board that has community centres under its jurisdiction. There are already centres established by geographic location and group, and a gay community centre would be a third category of centre that could benefit from a Parks Board process that is tried and understood, Herbert says.

Asked if The Centre has approached the Parks Board for assistance, Breakspear says she has but there is “nothing at this time.”

“Until these two streams happen — number one is the public meeting and number two is working with the Parks Board and hopefully some of the members of city council would join in pretty quickly — then I don’t think we’re going to make a lot of progress,” Herbert predicts. “We’re just going to continue spinning our wheels.”