4 min

Reviving Nelson Park

Plan for the park needs more gay community input

Credit: Daniel Collins

Today, it’s an almost barren plot of land whose two main features are a meandering path used primarily as a shortcut and the Lord Roberts Annex K-3 elementary school. The site is punctuated with the occasional tree and bench-a magnet for drug dealers and vendors of possibly stolen goods and the crime that comes in their wake. Frequent piles of doggie do cover the ground in the off-leash site.

But after years of the gay community crying out for its improvement-and recently joined by two West End resident organizations-Nelson Park is now the topic of a major rejuvenation.

The question remains: will the changes respond to the need for non-commercial gathering spots for gays, and others, in the West End-a place to make new friends and socialize surrounded by green space.

For more than a year now, representatives of various community groups have brainstormed with senior Vancouver Parks Board staff about how to revive the underutilized space. With a tentative plan now on the table, the general public will be the next up for comment.

Among the proposals being considered for the park are a fenced off-leash area, a basketball court with a controlled hoop to discourage nighttime use, areas for socializing and the relocation of the community policing office into the park’s field house-a move vigorously opposed by Commercial Dr gays when proposed there in 1999.

Jim Lowden, director of the Stanley Park district for the parks board, says he was taken aback when people began to protest against the suggestion the police bike squad make its home in the caretaker’s building at the northwest corner of the park. He expected more concerns about the dog area.

The idea for the police presence was floated partially due to concerns about safety at the western edge of the park, he says.

“We got into this whole issue because people felt unwelcome and unsafe in the park because of some of the characters who were hanging out there,” Lowden says. “What more balanced, appropriate form of policing could I put in there?”

Lowden says the vision is to have a dynamic park that meets the needs of the West End’s diverse population.

He explains the park’s rolling lawns will remain and a concentrated area for socialization will be added at the Bute and Comox corner, including benches and tables for people to stop and chat.

“We’re turning that into more of an urban plaza,” he says.

But, he stresses, Nelson Park needs to be planned and used properly. And, he adds, it’s a million-dollar project.

“This is as intense and as urban a park, in many ways, as we’ve got in the city,” Lowden says. “It’s dropped in the middle of one of the densest areas we have, and one of the most park-deficient areas.”

After consultation with a variety of community groups, the planning process is ready to get the public involved again, says Lowden.

“Now what I need is a community validation process,” Lowden says of the plans. “They need to be tested against the broader community.”

That happens Nov 25 at 7 pm at the Parks Board office, on the edge of Stanley Park. Everyone is welcome to examine the plans and have their say.

The suggested plan is getting a lukewarm suggestion from the gay community. For years, gays have lobbied for a re-development of Nelson Park. That voice got louder after the Vancouver Parks Board made it clear in 1996, when considering the location for an AIDS Memorial, that the gay community had no special claim to Stanley Park and its fringes despite a century of gay use of the park and the close proximity of the gay community. Despite repeated promises to the gay community from candidates during parks board elections, this new planning process was launched only after the West End Residents Association and a school-parent group got active.

Gay businessman Jim Deva sat in on the preliminary planning process. He says Lowden’s plan needs more work to make the park a place for people to meet and to socialize. There are now few spots queers can meet without it having to be on private property, where money must change hands.

“We need a place where people can meet and talk. We need a backyard,” says Deva. The park needs not one, but perhaps several, focal points where people can come together and meet.

Lesbian parks commissioner Lyndsay Poaps agrees. Perhaps unaware of the history of promises to the gay community, Poaps says it was the West End Residents Association and the school parent advisory council that initiated discussions about the park.

Still, she says, queers need a place outside bars and other places to meet.

“Especially young queer people who can’t go to bars yet,” Poaps says. “We really want to hear from the queer community. This is a park that has a lot of different stakeholders.”

COPE parks commissioner Eva Riccius says that while many people attended planning sessions, they weren’t specifically from the queer community. She says many, however, welcomed the thought of a plaza where people could meet (Deva says the plaza “needs to be intense and beautiful.”)

As for Lowden’s proposals for the park, Deva wants to see the parks board break new ground in taking it to the people of the West End for comments and suggestions for changes. It’s good that stakeholders have been involved so far, says Deva, who also sits on the Davie Street community policing board and the Davie Village Business Improvement Association. But now it’s time to broaden the input.

Deva wants the parks board to set up a tent at Nelson Park on a weekend to introduce the plans and hear ideas from residents.

“We have to be really creative about how all the people’s needs are met,” Deva says. “My real fear is that they’re going to just go, ‘We’ve done the public consultation part of this, it’s gone before the parks board, here’s the design’ and they move ahead with that.

“That would be a real travesty,” Deva says.

Riccius isn’t so sure.

“We’re not going to find a solution everyone in the West End is going to be thrilled about,” the COPE commissioner says. “Our goal is to find a solution most people would like.”


Public Meeting.

Nelson Park Plan.

Nov 25, 7 pm.

Vancouver Park Board office.

Beach Ave at Stanley Park.

Open to all.