EcoDensity concept gets public's attention
Sunday, March 02, 2008
VANCOUVER - EcoDensity has emerged as the surprise hot-policy topic of Vancouver, with a second week of public meetings kicking off today to accommodate the 160-plus people who want to speak to council to support it or oppose it.
It's not what anyone could have predicted when it was announced two years ago by Mayor Sam Sullivan at the World Urban Forum as a vague but catchily named idea aimed at making Vancouver a more sustainable city.
Some, like Coalition of Progressive Electors Coun. David Cadman, say Sullivan's concept is a bad publicity stunt that has done little more than reawaken anti-developer resentment that had disappeared for a decade.
Others, including Sullivan's one-time opponent Jim Green, say that even if it's a flawed process, the EcoDensity Charter - done right - has the potential to create a road map for a better and more environmental city.
But no one disagrees that it has ignited a passionate debate.
Among the dozens of speakers are planners, architects, regular residents, former mayor and premier Mike Harcourt, environmental groups, academics, Downtown Eastside activists, developers, resident associations, business groups and you name it.
Non-Partisan Association Coun. Suzanne Anton, who has championed the idea, says the turnout "is a testament to the city's interest in the issue."
She insists that most of that interest is positive and describes the opposition as mainly "a minority" who are part of a predictable group opposed for partisan reasons.
Anton is adamant that, even in her west-side Kerrisdale neighbourhood that used to be a bastion of anti-density sentiment, people are asking her daily when it's going to go through so they can start building laneway cottages - one of the ideas that's been talked about a lot as a quick and easy first step for EcoDensity.
But those on the other side say the poorly defined and density-first focus of EcoDensity has actually managed to bring together opponents, and lots of them, from every neighbourhood in the city.
The Group of Neighbourhoods, headed by longtime COPE activist Mel Lehan, has representatives from 30 resident groups who represent every part of Vancouver.
Cadman said that's a shame.
"You've now got people who are antagonistic to developers where before you had communities working things through. We've now created a divide where none existed or needed to exist. The mayor has actually put out a disuniter between the community and the developers."
Certainly, dozens of the speakers will be emphasizing their fears that EcoDensity will just mean having density shoved into their neighbourhoods without any real efforts to make those neighbourhoods sustainable by providing services, transit, or parks.
Cadman says that's understandable, given that the EcoDensity charter doesn't seem to have any guarantees that sustainability or community services will be as important as density.
People like Green or Cheeying Ho from the environmental group Smart Growth say they understand why people in the community are nervous and their fears need to be addressed.
But they're supporting EcoDensity anyway because there's so much that is valuable to be gained from it.
"They have legitimate concerns that are very real," says Green. "And I don't think [the EcoDensity process] has been handled correctly and I don't think people trust the NPA."
In spite of that, says Green, he's supporting the charter and even its most controversial amendment, the one that Anton introduced to consider allowing extra density in the city's historic districts of Gastown, Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside.
Green said that kind of policy will help save those districts, by giving the city a tool to get community services from developers in exchange for extra density.
Green is working with at least two consultants in the Downtown Eastside on projects that involve having the city grant extra density in exchange for social housing.
He said he sees the Woodward's project he championed, which includes private and social housing, community non-profits and a university arts centre, as a "first-stage EcoDensity" project.
"All of us will find aspects in this concept that are contrary to our vision of Vancouver's future. And there are elements that we can all endorse."