Talking Turkey With Developers

February 28, 2014

About three months ago, the Urban Development Institute, the development industry’s trade body, invited me to speak as part of one of their lunch panels.  It was about community engagement.  Today was the second part of that conversation, with a panel made up developers and their aides, giving the industry’s perspective on engaging with the communities.  Once again I was invited, this time as a guest.

Bob Ransford was once again the moderator.  The panelists were Virginia Bird who works for developers securing support for their projects, Beau Jarvis and Deanna Grinnell both of Westgroup Development, and developer Marc Josephson.  The room was busy and the standing lunch — a great opportunity to network — was excellent as usual.

All of the panelists were keen on early engagement with the neighbourhoods, with face-to-face meetings, identifying potential issues and getting on with dealing with them, and sticking with the community partners through the entire project even if that is ten or twenty or more years.

However, in conversations before and after the session, many of them agreed that many — perhaps most — developers shy away from early contact, scared perhaps of what they’ll hear.  I noted that developers ought to be intelligent enough to recognize that finding out problems in the beginning is a lot easier and cheaper to deal with than five minutes before they want to put spades in the ground.

They said they need a degree of certainty and often don’t get it; there were a couple of examples given where the projects were entirely in line with community plans and city policies and yet still were rejected, by either the neighbourhood or the City who didn’t give them the political coverage they felt they were entitled to after they had followed the rules. I am obliged to note that projects that follow established zoning and guidelines rarely cause major controversy.  Problems usually arise when the developers are seeking a rezoning against the will of the community.

Still, it was good to meet with them and share our ideas.  We need to do more of this.

By the way, today was perhaps the finest weather day of the year so far, with clear blue skies and bright sunshine.  That seemed to make the views from the 34th floor of the Hyatt even more spectacular than usual.

City Council v. The People

February 28, 2014

The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods has written to Mayor Gregor Robertson about the scheduling of important public hearings:

The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods is writing to ask that you urgently reconsider the City’s recent decision to schedule vitally important public hearings during inconvenient daytime work hours. These scheduled hearings include significant and controversial rezonings for the Oakridge Centre Mall project, for Casa Mia in Southlands, as well as contested spot rezoning proposals in Kitsilano and other neighbourhoods.

The Coalition notes that public hearings held during traditional working hours severely limit the ability of most citizens to attend, imposing barriers to public access to City decision-making that are inconsistent with the recent publication of the Mayor’s Engaged City Task Force Report.  In particular, these hearings fail to meet any of the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2)’s core values that were included in the Task Force’s recommendations.

The Core Values define the expectations and aspirations of the public participation process as follows:

1.    Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.

2.    Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision.

3.    Public participation promotes sustainable decisions by recognizing and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including decision makers.

4.    Public participation seeks out and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision.

5.    Public participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.

6.    Public participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.

7.    Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.

However, these ideals appear to have been ignored almost entirely by the actions of Council in scheduling these hearings.  Public access, input, and influence are priorities officially accepted by Council. These should be honoured and fulfilled.

Mayor Robertson, you stated on January 30 this year that “I’ve heard the concerns people have raised over how City Hall engages with residents. There’s no question we can do better.” We ask you to confirm those fine words with concrete action.

The Coalition understands that evening and weekend hearings are inconvenient for Councillors and City staff but notes that this is the people’s business and the people’s convenience too.

In another development, yesterday the City issued a 400+ page report on the DTES Community Plan which contains, I understand, substantial changes from the previous documents.  Residents are being given less than two weeks to analyze this massive document, and will have just five minutes to speak to Council about it.

This is a Council that claims to be interested in community engagement!  What an undemocratic farce.