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Is Kitsilano’s jam-packed anti-tower meeting a sign of things to come?

Organizers promise more meetings in bigger venues soon.

by Carol Volkart

So far, Vancouverites have been an acquiescent bunch as towers pop up where no towers have been seen before, a forest of cranes presages even more, and blue and yellow “rezoning application” signs pepper every neighbourhood of the city.

That may be about to change.

Consider March 14, when streams of disappointed people had to be turned away from a town-hall meeting about Kitsilano’s high-rise future under the Broadway Plan. Inside Kitsilano Neighbourhood House, a capacity crowd of 120 evoked the rebellious spirit of the area’s counterculture past, using phrases like “storm city hall” and “uprising” that haven’t been heard for many a year in this pricey precinct.

“We didn’t know how much interest there would be, how many people to expect,” moderator Larry Benge said at the start of the meeting, noting it had been

organized in two weeks by the CityHallWatch Media Foundation and KitsPlan, a coming-together of several Kitsilano groups. As he spoke, CityHallWatch’s Randy Helten was outside, placating 50 to 80 “angry” turnaways blocking the entrance.

Last-minute livestreaming was set up, and while the numbers who watched couldn’t be tracked, Helten said later, “I know for certain that avid viewers were there as I started receiving squawks by text and e-mail as soon as the feed stopped.”

Helten and KitsPlan’s Benge said more meetings will be planned for bigger venues in future.

The theme of the meeting was people power – informing residents of the tsunami of towers the Broadway Plan will bring to Kitsilano and drawing the community together to work toward better housing solutions. “We want to find out what you want in this neighbourhood in a way that protects its beauty and character,” said KitsPlan’s Benge. “We don’t want to lose that while we densify.”

For too long, he said, city council has turned its back on residents while working with developers behind closed doors to permit high-profit towers that have brought neither affordability nor livability. “We’re ignored. They act like we’re impediments to the progress of this growing city.”

High-rises were the target of the evening, with architect Brian Palmquist dismaying the crowd with a map showing Kitsilano pockmarked with huge towers. Benge said towers have their place and some people like living in them, but they have many downsides, especially if they replace affordable walk-up apartments and oust existing tenants. They’re also climate and family unfriendly, pose dangers in fires, and will be uninhabitable after an earthquake, he said.

Even long-time developer Michael Geller was on the attack, calling for at least a temporary moratorium on high-rises in duplex zones. His concern was sparked by an “atrocious” 18-storey tower proposed for a duplex zone on West 14th, a leafy residential area that he said will be damaged by the proposal. It’s “fundamentally wrong,” he said, to suddenly allow 10 times the existing density in such areas, damaging the neighbourhood character. Changes should be more incremental and neighbourhood character should be protected, he said.

It was a receptive crowd, and listening to their comments, it was hard not to think of the counterculture Kitsilano of the 1970s.

“I haven’t heard anyone stand up and say ‘power to the people’ for awhile, but maybe that time is now,” said audience member Colleen Hardwick, former TEAM for a Livable Vancouver councillor and mayoral candidate. Her proposal for a ward system that would give residents better representation at city hall was greeted warmly, with calls of “Hear! Hear!”

Meena Wong, COPE’s mayoral candidate in 2014, said residents must speak up and let council know how they feel about the new developments. It’s time to “storm city hall,” she said, drawing a loud round of applause when she added: “We need to get our spirit back.”

A speaker who’d been through the development of the Cambie Corridor called for collective action from groups throughout the city, a “full-on” press of the media, a march on city hall and an embrace of Geller’s proposed moratorium. “We have to shame the city. We must do something. We have to get the word out.”

Another speaker pointed to the lack of city planning for all the amenities new residents will need, from water to parks to schools and community centres. “We’re not looking at what the city will be like in 50 years,” she said. “Let’s stop talking dollars and start talking lifestyles.”

The elephant in the room was the age of the audience, although Helten said later that many young people were among those who had to be turned away. Geller noted that when he tweeted out a photo of the crowd, the immediate response was, "Where are the young people?" But he said the older crowd all have children and grandchildren, and are concerned about where younger people will be able to live.

The last two audience members to speak were from that rare demographic. One braved the temper of the room by speaking of the “downzoning” that’s created the current housing crisis, and asked how reducing the new high-density zoning will make housing more affordable.

Urban designer Scot Hein, sitting near the young man, said his concerns were valid. He said that if the speculative aspect can be removed from the creation of new housing – for example, if existing owners can be encouraged to add housing to their properties – affordable housing can be created without the high densities the city is pushing.

That little exchange was the kind of thing organizers were hoping for, Benge said later. When young and old, renters and homeowners, can talk face to face and find ways to collaborate, there’s a chance of finding housing solutions that don’t depend on high-rises. Benge hopes that Kitsilano can develop a collaborative model for other neighbourhoods to follow.

Helten said that after the meeting, someone recalled how Kitsilano was the birthplace of Greenpeace and a source of inspiration to many. “It’s a great place for a new movement to tackle some of the critical issues of our time.”

Amidst all the construction cranes busily at work in Vancouver, what chance is there for a new approach to providing needed housing? By jam-packing a meeting on alternative solutions, the people of Kitsilano have made a brave start.


Carol Volkart is a retired Vancouver Sun editor and former city hall reporter.


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