1. INTRODUCTORY COMMENTS
Scot Hein: Scot Hein here and it’s my honour today on behalf of CityHallWatch who’s sponsoring this as their first, hopefully, in a series of interviews of important folks in Vancouver, and I would say the Lower Mainland and Western Canada as well.
We’re going to speak with Jak King today, and of course he’s just written an amazing new book called ‘Battleground: Grandview.’ I’m going to show the first prop here today. There it is. It’s a phenomenal book, a massive undertaking, I’ve read it once. I’m going to go back and read it again. For me it captures, given my time at City Hall while a lot of this was happening, a very authentic and accurate depiction of what was happening out in Grandview at that time. So it’s just great to be with you today.
I have to tell you that I’ve been really looking forward to this. I sort of feel like I know you. I think I met you at a Grandview Woodlands Area Council meeting when I believe it was Dorothy Barkley asked me to come out and do a little primer on city making. I believe you were in the audience that night. But more because I follow your blog and almost daily your music offerings, what you’re having for dinner, your poems and your photos. I have enjoyed [it] now for a number of years and so thank you. I thank you in advance for that and it’s great to speak with you. You’re a renaissance guy and I hope we have a great conversation today. So we’re going to talk about your book, obviously, but I thought maybe we might start in terms of who you are and a little bit about your lived experience so our audience can really appreciate what grounds you where you’re coming from. So over to you Jak.
2. WHAT MAKES JAK KING JAK KING?
Jak King: Okay, well I think there are probably three factors that really make me who I am with regard especially to development issues in Vancouver today. The first is I’ve lived in Grandview on the Drive for more than 30 years and I love the place and I wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else, frankly. It’s a marvelous place. The second, I’m a historian and I spend much of my time trying to understand the history of the places that I care about and to that end I’ve written three books on the history of Grandview. And third, politically, I’m very much an ardent supporter of local control and I try very hard in most of my writings to try and fix that decentralization within the history and the potential of what Grandview could be. So I think that’s really where I’m coming from.
Scot: Well I remember when we first started speaking you had a deep interest to cultivate advocacy among young people for their community and I think from what I understood [that was] a real motivation for writing this book. So maybe you could just speak a little bit about how we get how we get people to stay involved particularly those of a younger age.
Jak: Well certainly, one of the motivations for writing the book was to encourage a new cadre of activists to come into the development process, because most of us who dealt with the Grandview community plan are old gray hairs like me and I’m sort of even beyond gray hair at this point. So yeah we need I think to encourage more young people. And I wanted to give them an experience of what it was like because it’s not an easy business. But it’s one that’s quite exciting and very profitable for the neighbourhood if we can get more young people involved.
Scot: Right, so you spoke about being an historian and maybe we could reach back a little bit further if this is okay to understand your upbringing a bit, and your values that might show where those come from: your love of community, your love of history, your interests to cultivate new leadership. Is there something in your past that stands out for you for that.
Jak: Well, a thousand years ago I was in college taking history so that’s where the interest comes from and I think of all my various interests over the years history is the one that stuck with me. I have a deep and abiding interest in everywhere I’ve lived. I used to live in London and I used to write little articles about the history of my neighborhood there. It just seems to be one way that I can express my feelings about the neighborhood is by studying the history. I think one of the things when I wrote my first book on the history of the Drive 10 years ago, I had the ability to use a wonderful local newspaper called the Highland Echo, which didn’t give a damn about international news or anything else [but] just told you what was happening in the local neighborhood. And we lost that in the 1990s and one of the reasons I write a blog now is kind of to get back to what the Highland Echo could give us to the local news. We tend to live in our little bubbles; especially in this pandemic life we’re all in bubbles but just generally speaking and I think the more we can know about each other the better.
Scot: Well, the pandemic almost is forcing us to practice living in a bubble so it’s going to be fascinating to see how we can get out of our bubbles; perhaps still in the ether but certainly interpersonally as we all become vaccinated. So, history and such an interesting time in the Vancouver context. My wife and I came up in 1982 so we’re almost 40 years here and we remember the old Roundhouse before the Expo  preloading started for the site; there was pheasant and quail scampering about down at the old Roundhouse. And then we look up only a few years later and we have Concord Pacific [towers] and so, Vancouver is so rapidly changing, it feels like it just keeps speeding up in some ways, but hopefully not in others.
… So, let’s shift to Grandview Woodland now, and first off maybe if you could tell us a little bit about the history of Grandview Woodland, its context, for our audience who aren’t as familiar. What is that place? What is that community?
3. ABOUT GRANDVIEW WOODLAND
Jak: Sure. Well, Grandview was founded around 1900 and it was one of the first streetcar suburbs of Vancouver. It very quickly between 1900 and 1910 filled up with a lot of working-class people and a lot of shopkeeping merchants. I mean that’s really the basis of what Grandview was, and it was what Bruce Macdonald [Vancouver historian and author] calls an Edwardian village.
Now, geographically we were very badly positioned because we were behind what was then the unreconstructed False Creek flats, and so transportation links out of downtown tended to go north of us along Hastings or south of us along Kingsway. Grandview was in the middle and tended to be ignored. We really were the stepchild of the city, and one of one of the distinguishing features in our history is we’ve always had to fight City Hall to get any progress or any respect. It took us 50 years to get a branch library here.
Scot: Oh my gosh!
Jak: Until the 1950s, early 1950s, Grandview was very much an Anglo community, but then after the war it changed. First, the Italians moved in from Strathcona and when the immigration laws were expanded after the Second World War, more Italians and Portuguese and east Europeans came. Surprisingly perhaps, the Anglo elite welcomed those people and that’s a real marker for the future. They welcomed those people, because they brought a vitality and a prosperity to the Drive that we hadn’t seen for a generation. They were very much welcomed and ever since that time — for the last 60 years — we’ve seen continuous change.
First, we saw the Italians and the Portuguese. They were followed by Central Americans, by Jamaicans, people from the Middle and Far East, and certain African countries. And over that time, they have changed our shopping habits, our building styles, our food, our cultures; and not only different nationalities and languages but also different sexualities were welcomed here and different people of economic classes were always welcomed. I think each of these groups have left their mark on what is the patina, the glory of the Drive today. And these continuous changes have been welcomed because — and actually indeed encouraged — because they tend to be subtle, incremental, and evolutionary within the context of Grandview, which is 33 foot building lots, 25 foot storefronts, local businesses, and very family oriented. So, I think our signature DNA, to use one of your expressions, is our willingness to embrace change within that general envelope.
Scot: So rich and so diverse. Let me let me preface this by saying this interview or our conversation today is going to be a bit Vancouver-centric, but I think what we’re talking about really is applicable to many different contexts, not just in the Lower Mainland [of B.C.] but across Canada and perhaps even North America. So, the richness that you’re describing because of this kind of accretion, this layering, of new generations that bring something distinctive about them, a history, a culture, whether it’s culinary or celebratory, there’s so much there that adds up to something that for me may be a little hard to comprehend or describe. I know you try to do that…
It was interesting your comment first time I’ve heard you say about this kind of lineage of engaging with City Hall — I’ll use the word “engaging” politely — but being kind of forgotten about, it sounds like. So how is that continually rooted in in a community and how do you convert that into something that you can actually feel very proud about? Sounds like all the ingredients are there still. 11:45
Jak: Yes. I think there’s also been an evolution in how that “engagement” with City Hall works. For the first few generations it was the merchants, the Chamber of Commerce, they were actually the civic-minded people who fought. They got the Grandview Viaduct, which changed us completely, and they finally got the library. But probably by the 60s we were getting younger people there. We got a group out of Britannia School, the ATTAC group, for example, and they and others formed Grandview Woodland Area Council (GWAC), and they helped create Britannia [a valued community hub with pool, ice rink, fitness centre, youth/teen centre, gyms/field/courts, art gallery, First Nations carving centre, library]. They’ve done a great deal of good.
Scot: I’ve had the privilege of recently trying to support the Britannia board given the prospect for change there [a major renewal and redevelopment project] and I’ve just been so impressed with the commitment and passion, energy, love of community. And every meeting, of the board or the committee, it’s a lovely cross-section of interests that we always gather around. So, in some ways it strikes me that Grandview can show us the way in terms of how to make community in an open and authentic way.
… So, if you could just a little bit before we dive into the book — you’ve talked a little bit about your neighbors, you’ve talked about the merchants, I know Grandview is in flux, undergoing change, development pressure, all of that. Can you talk about — whether it’s demographically or socially just the kind of nature of people that live there — what’s changing right now? Or is it changing?
Jak: That’s difficult to answer. I think it clearly is changing. The development pressures are putting severe pressure on affordability in Grandview. It’s a major issue all over Vancouver, but in Grandview we’ve always had a very high renter population here, and the pressures on rents are extreme. We’re losing a lot of our affordable suites through redevelopment, and I’m not sure that we’re replacing families. I think we’re replacing household units, not necessarily families. So that will be a change.
… Somehow we all still manage to gather on the Drive. The Drive doesn’t change. Well the Drive does change but it’s still the Drive. It’s not being facing the same sort of development pressures. It was one of the few places that were protected under the Community Plan. So it is still our living room, I guess, the Drive — we all gather there and meet. I don’t see a lot of children and families, frankly, but maybe I just [don’t] mix in those circles, I don’t know.
Scot: Yet as you described the nature of the kind of morphology of Grandview is based on typically 33-foot lots which are perfect for an increased capacity, but with ground-oriented housing form, and the ability to kind of co-house intergenerationally within immediate proximity on site or next door. Grandview is really set up to continue to demonstrate how to do that.
Jak: It is. The houses that are currently being demolished started life [as] single-family properties, that’s for sure, but they were large and they were spacious and they had an interior structure that allowed them to be configured to multiple uses. But the very expensive townhouses and duplexes that are replacing them tend not to have basements, they don’t have attics, they’re not they’re not designed for families, I don’t think. They’re designed for a household unit, two-person household units, and I think that will, if it continues on, affect the social structure of Grandview.
Scot: You know, it’s interesting you say that. I think that municipal policy sometimes thinks too simplistically about changing zoning and entitlements based on certain kinds of containers, but the way you demise those containers is not necessarily something that gets regulated. So, you might seek a certain percentage of family-oriented units, but it’s a bit hard to compel through the market if the market doesn’t want to go there.
Jak: As I say, I don’t think they’re necessarily designed to be for those large families; they tend to be for small units.
Scot: So would you say Grandview Woodland today is healthy?
Jak: I think it is healthy. Every month I write a thing called “Changes on the Drive.” For the last 10 years, I followed all the openings and closings and building changes on Commercial Drive and up until 2019, we were ahead of most other commercial centers. Where other commercial centers were boarding up and closing down, we still we had our lowest vacancy rate at the end of 2019 than we had since 2010. But then but obviously now COVID has changed all that, and we have a lot of storefronts closed. I suspect that will bounce back, but we just have to wait for that. But I am concerned about lack of families. If we don’t allow the larger units to stay, and the affordable units to stay I’m afraid people will just simply move out. We’ve already seen people leaving.
Scot: Well coming around to the Drive — and I want to emphasize your point about family-oriented housing and maybe we’ll come back to that — but thinking about the Drive it seems like it’s set up for the comeback in large part because it’s remained an unassembled corridor. So, you still have the 25-foot finer grain which is much easier to accommodate smaller tenancies, unique tenancies. Restaurants don’t necessarily need a lot of frontage to be successful, versus some of the newer projects of course that rely on assembled land. They have to get ground-oriented tenants who can pay big rents, and usually those are lending institutions or drug stores.
Jak: Yeah. I think it’s not just the 25-foot storefronts. It’s the fact that we’ve done very well to keep chains out of Commercial Drive. It’s virtually all local ownership here, which I think is a very important part of it.
Scot: There’s big changes in store for Britannia and there’s a process going on now. Britannia’s an amazing place, a resource and social/cultural hub. It’s got all of those ingredients to celebrate a day in the life, but I wonder if Britannia is doing enough, or if there are other amenities that are lacking or community services that are really obvious that have not been thought enough about?
Jak: Well, we’re very short of amenities here in Grandview. We have a historic lack of green space. If you look at our percentage of green space compared to virtually anywhere else in Vancouver, it’s way lower than it should be. We’ve got a new Reach medical center but that was a private initiative, not anything to do with the community plan or public finance. I think we are desperately low in amenities. Britannia of course is now 40-50 years old and I think it’s no longer fit for purpose, which is why we’re going through the master plan, I guess. But that’s going to become a major controversy, because the City is bound and determined to put housing on the site, and there are some of us who are not unhappy with that, but many who feel that will change the nature of that community center completely.
Scot: Lots to think about there in terms of not only refreshing, whether it’s the pool, aquatic services experience, library, gymnasia, whatever. But also there’s some major open space, tree retention considerations as well, and the idea that you’re placeholding for future cultural/recreational/social institutional-like capacities. Once you give that away for housing uses, then it’s hard to recapture that. And so, some big questions for the Britannia plan going forward. [22:20]
Jak: There is, and I was at a meeting just about a week ago where I finally understood that most of the new [proposed] building is on city land and the green space is on Vancouver School Board land. And there’s always a problem that Vancouver School Board could sell up and close down that green space. It’s a problem.
Scot: Yeah, it falls back to the community to be the convener and perhaps mediator between Parks Board, the School Board, and Vancouver’s real estate services [department] who of course, laudable, have taxpayers’ interests in mind. And if you can create some housing capacity that’s non-market for the community, which I think is the interest there, then obviously that could be a good thing. But how do you find the sweet spot in all of those uses on what could be a pretty tightly planned site, a tough site to organize.
Jak: I think it goes along with much of the problems with planning in Grandview. It’s whether you can keep it to the human scale, which is what Grandview is. I mean 30, 40, 50 social housing units on Britannia will be different than 300, say. [23:28]
4. AND NOW FOR THE GRANDVIEW PLAN
Scot: Yeah, well that’s the segue into the Grandview plan I think thank you for that, Jak. Actually, I want to tie these two together as a way to really get into your book a little more deeply. I was at City Hall when the Grandview plan [happened]. It was in addition to of course Marpole and the West End, the Cambie corridor, the Downtown East Side [major community planning processes that all happened around the same time]. It was building on Greenest City [under former mayor Gregor Robertson] and Ecodensity [under former mayor Sam Sullivan] and CityPlan [under former Mayor Philip Owen] before it so there’s this lineage of aspiration captured in certain policy moments along City Hall’s continuum there. But I never quite understood even while at the Hall whether there had been a really robust amenities assessment looking forward to some horizon line — call it 2040 or something — and trying to figure out, given that anticipated growth, where it would happen, who it would be for, what those needs would be, and to understand what the new amenity infrastructure needs to look like. Whether there was ever an attempt to align growth and community amenity contributions through rezoning, any capture from market development that could be immediately attributed to specific amenities that the community all agrees are necessary. Was there ever a conversation about that?
Jak: No, I don’t believe there was. The first year of the plan we were talking about those kind of things and that’s what we did for a year. We talked, we had workshops and open houses about parks and public safety and cultural amenities and that sort of thing and transportation, but I’m not sure there was ever — certainly not to my understanding — there wasn’t any real discussion about well if we get X we can get Y, that sort of thing.
Scot: It’s always been, I think, challenging to make those community conversations and public engagement relevant if you don’t understand first off that the City appreciates what’s needed and that development, newly created development value, can be relevant by having a conversation about how you align the two. And I think all the public processes that I’ve experienced just doesn’t go far enough for that to help people understand that this potentially could be a partnership in a way.
So yeah, let’s talk about what happened in your book. I’m going to hold it up again. There it is. and the audience needs to know I asked you to think about this first question in advance. You’ve been volunteering for many years, lots and lots of time. I know how much time it takes away from families and loved ones. Do you have any sense of how many hours you may have volunteered to your community over the years?
Jak: Well, I tried to work it out. I think my involvement with it started in 2011 and by the time the plan was approved in 2016, it’s five years of my life. For much of that time I think I probably spent at least 40 hours a week every week doing nothing but dealing with the Community Plan, and so I was trying to figure it out. I would think that 6,000 hours would be a reasonable sum without even counting the time it took to write the book.
Scot: Oh my gosh! So I asked that question because, at least the years that I was [working at City Hall] there was always a decent attempt to do honourable public engagement, and the community planners that I worked with back in the day respected the gift of time that would come. You don’t have a process unless you have well-intentioned folks on both sides joining hands. But it doesn’t come for free and the City needs to always appreciate that this volunteerism as social capital has value. I always was interested to add a couple of zeros at a hundred dollar charge-out which is well under what professional consultants charge out when they’re out for evening meetings. And so what you’ve just told me is that you’ve contributed about six hundred thousand dollars of volunteer time to the City, and I think it’s hard to argue against that, to be honest.
Jak: I was just one of many, so I think the community contribution is well into the millions of dollars.
Scot: Exactly. When I think about what started as an almost 18 million dollar budget for the citywide plan [Vancouver Plan, consultation under way in 2021] and you start to match that at that community person charge-out rate you can you end up matching that 18 million fairly quickly over a couple of years. And that’s what you want. You want people engaged and you want it to be meaningful. These processes are really only as good as those who participate, who engage, in a way. So well, that’s outstanding. Congratulations. And I just hope enough people watch this conversation we’re having and even do their own math because it cannot be forgotten. So, let’s move into the book. What happened out there? Over to you for as long as you need. [24.50]
5. BATTEFIELD: GRANDVIEW: HOW THE COMMUNITY PLAN WAS CREATED
Jak: So well, we’d been watching the developments in Mount Pleasant and Oakridge and Norquay [major planning and development consultations in Vancouver neighbourhoods] with some trepidation. There had been some noisy and perhaps traumatic experiences going on there with our neighbors. But I think we still entered the process in 2011/2012 with a lot of hope because clearly there are parts of Grandview that need to be changed and progressed into the present day. We spent, as I think I mentioned earlier, we spent the first year in workshops and open houses talking about things like parks and transportation and public safety and culture and arts and history and heritage. And they were valuable, they were interesting. I have some issues with the process, but we’ll get into that later. But even at the very beginning of the process there were some real negative issues. For example, there was a public discussion begun about the terms of reference for the community plan, and we did have a couple of meetings [about that] but those meetings did not go very well. Eventually the terms of reference that came down were imposed on us. They were not the ones that we would have necessarily agreed with. They very severely limited public input into the process. That was a problem. [31:34]
There was also the case of what was called PACE — the Process Advisory and Public Engagement group — which was the only public access or community group established under the terms of reference. But it didn’t allow for any substantive community review of what has or would be going on, and it certainly didn’t allow for any form of community sign off on any part of the plan, either interim or at the final. And whenever we tried to introduce matters of concern to us — such as what affect the Interim Rezoning Policy, which was adopted by city council during the plan, would have on the plan — we were told that wasn’t a matter for us to discuss. We should just leave that to the planners and not worry about it. Frankly, PACE was the only forum in which we could raise those issues and as we weren’t allowed to, most of us abandoned PACE pretty quickly. So we had no official place in which we could work with the planners on that kind of business, and that was a disappointment.
Scot: I know you have more to go here, but did Grandview ever have a NIST, a Neighborhood Integrated Service Team? Does that that term even ring a bell? [Jak nods to say no.] That was an award-winning program under city manager Judy Rogers [first woman to be city manager for the City of Vancouver, from 1999 to 2008] that tried to set up cross-disciplinary cross-departmental teams that were assigned geographically to various neighborhoods. Fire, police, health related issues. But it had the potential to also decentralize the planning function out of City Hall back into a storefront-like presence with these other municipal services and disciplines. I think that the NISTs were effectively abandoned when Judy left and her political masters left, but that was ascending to be another way to potentially engage, and unfortunately it was suspended. [34:12]
Jak: Well, that reminds me of my readings of the 1980 Grandview plan where a planner did have an office in the Britannia complex, and there was an open door, as far as I could tell from reading. There was an open door between the community and the planner and lots of ideas were shared backwards and forwards. So it that sounds like that; but we didn’t have anything like that here.
Scot: Well, the geographic scope of the planning catchment is huge as it was with Marpole [neighbourhood of Vancouver with a concurrent community plan consultation that was under way]. Then you have the complexity of the community and of the places, really an assembly of smaller micro-situations that really demand understanding and attention. But when you’re dealing with such a big [area] and you’re not even out walking the beat, it gets hard to understand and appreciate and develop the kind of relationships you need to carry a plan forward. So please carry on. What happened next? [35:25]
Jak: Even though I’ve said that they were valuable, the problem with open houses and workshops — world cafe type workshops — is there is an attempt to segregate people, There’s no possibility in an open house or a world cafe situation for the whole crowd to discuss the whole issue. So you cannot get a consensus opinion, and I frankly think that’s a deliberate ploy. After five years of working with them, I’m a cynic on that. But that’s very disappointing and I think we have to find some better way of doing these things. I understand that they’re probably a good solution for planners to have the display boards up there and for people to look at them and leave yellow stickies, but there’s a real question of trust. We write our little comments on the yellow stickies and put them on the board, and then we fill out a small questionnaire at the end of each workshop. There’s no way for us to know how those comments have been taken or used, and whether they’re being used at all. And frankly on some of the world cafe situations where at the end of the meeting, your table moderator will stand up and give a little synopsis of what you’ve discussed, I was shocked sometimes by what I heard, because it wasn’t what I was listening to on the table.
Scot: Well do you have nightmares of waking up with colored dots and post-it notes.
Jak: Oh yeah!
Scot: Well, I think I understood that you didn’t even talk about land use and zoning in the first year?
Jak: That’s what I was going to get to. Eventually, after the first year they produced Emerging Directions of course which was their draft plan, and it came in two sections. The first section I thought did a pretty good job on capturing what we’d said in those workshops about art and heritage and culture and parks and those sort of things, but the big bulk of the document was on land use and rezoning, which we had never discussed for one minute in any meeting. It was quite extraordinary. It’s like we have been soothed into discussing the things we like — parks and streets and that sort of thing. The easy stuff. And the hard stuff was never broached. [38:15]
Scot: Well, and I can say that’s pretty typical — with all due respect to my colleagues of the time and at the day and some are still trying to do good work at City Hall — but the built form questions are usually the last questions, and there’s not much time left. There’s like a week left in the process to talk about use, density, and form of development. And that’s why I asked you about the amenity strategy, because you can’t really have a question about built form and the intensification and scale of things without also appreciating the kind of amenity potential and the dollars hat pay for it. And if you can put those things together at the front end then it helps you with those other softer conversations, of course, and everyone can find something to agree on there. [39:10]
Jak: But while that’s true, I want to interrupt and say that’s a modern way of thinking about CAC’s [community amenity contributions, the levies paid by developers when properties are rezoned, in order to capture some of land value gained from rezoning, for amenities in the community]. In the good old days we used to have the bi-annual vote where the people voted on what amenities we wanted. The fact that we have to rely on developers CAC’s is not something that’s historical. It’s just new right and not necessarily good.
Scot: Well, and to your point about taking the evaluation decision making out of City Hall which one could argue for all that big CAC money, which now appears as a line item in the municipal budget, there’s an expectation of CAC revenue. Where do you strategically attribute that? Well, it’s the people that are needing to enjoy that that would probably know best.
Scot: So okay, not so much on land use and zoning in the first year and then the Emerging Directions [appeared]. What happened after that?
Jak: Well Emerging Directions just created a furore here. I remember Garth Mullins looking at the document and saying it beggars the imagination of what we’re looking at. The interesting thing was it was spun by both Council people and planners that the only problem with the plan was the 30-story towers at Commercial and Broadway and the tower at Venables, but really we were concerned with the upzoning all over Grandview. But they did try very hard to spin it that way and in fact they — as you may recall — they very quickly put together a Broadway and Commercial workshop which was just like a world cafe with Lego bricks, frankly. It was by invitation and I think it was well stuffed with developers there. I was very disappointed with who was there, but we were not the only ones who complained about it. I mean, I remember Alan Garr [long-time Vancouver paper columnist on civic affairs] in the Courier called it a bait and switch by the planners and said that we were being very poorly treated. And it really did allow us to get some very strong mass participation, because as I said, we welcome incremental change. I think most people here understand that rapid strong change is going to change our community to ways that we don’t want. I think this was recognized when people saw what was in the plan, and they came out and spoke about it.
Scot: It’s always been my impression that Vancouver — and again not wanting this to be just a Vancouver-centric conversation — but if there’s honourable and transparent engagement, Vancouverites I think are fair-minded about accepting change. But they want to be part of that solution. They want to they want to have a meaningful conversation, and every context is different. [42:50]
Jak: Yeah. One of the high points for me of the whole process was a couple of months after Emerging Directions came out, we held a public meeting at Britannia, and we had more than 250 people show up on a very hot summer’s night. And dozens of them spoke with great passion about their love for the neighborhood as it was, and not how they saw the planners seeing it. And that obviously struck a chord because then Council instructed Brian Jackson [chief planner for Vancouver at the time] to create the Jackson Report that September, which essentially scrapped, as you know, the community plan process completely and put in place a Citizens Assembly.
Scot: I wonder how many of your six hundred thousand dollars of billable community time would have been invested before that plan had been scrapped?
Scot: Times all of your peers. Well, this resonates personally, because I was involved in a similar role with the Arbutus Lands and we went for five years with the prospect of towers on the old Carling O’Keefe Molson site over at essentially 10th and 12th and Vine. We drew our own plan and essentially drew towers off the table, and created what is there now more or less, a kind of a mid-rise paradigm. And that broke the process open in a positive way, because we were allowed to table our own ideas in drawings, which ultimately culminated in only one or two of us speaking at the public hearing for a project that ambitious. It wasn’t fractious. It was a decently friendly public hearing, but it was because at the time there were some folks there that invited the community to contribute in a really meaningful way. So yeah, I remember that moment. So the Citizens Assembly came out of all that? [44:59]
Jak: That of course became another problem because I mean the Jackson Report said that we were going to have a Citizens Assembly, but didn’t give any rules or procedures or processes by which it would be formed or would act. And immediately, the local planner sent us a memo, almost within days, detailing a very limited scope and limited number of people that will be in the assembly. We wrote back and said no; that we want to have as open a process as possible. What we got back in return was silence. We got four months of silence. Then, that December we had a brief meeting at City Hall with planners, which didn’t go very well. And then we had another four months of silence before they announced the following April that they would set up the assembly in the way they wanted it and it would start in September.
We had a year where nothing happened and frankly that again to us was deliberate, because what it did was it allowed the mass protest to disappear into the past. And so the only people still really watching were the activists and their circles.
And then eventually in September they formed the Citizens Assembly, which turned out to be very much a closed-door affair. There were I think only two occasions on which, in the three months that they worked, that we were allowed to even access the assembly. They met every weekend, and they began the process by being trained by planners into the planner’s worldview. Sounds like brainwashing to me, frankly. But that the whole purpose to me of the Citizens Assembly was to close down the process, and to close down the protests.
Scot: Right. Can you remind me of the election cycle of chronology in there because we were on four-year cycles, and I think Vision [Vision Vancouver civic party under Gregor Robertson] was maybe up for …
Jak: 2014 was the election, and that was the time in which the Citizens Assembly was working. We had great hopes for removing Vision from power at that point because that summer, as you will recall, there were protests not just from Grandview but from Marpole, the West End, and Downtown East Side. We had the march on City Hall in September  [see Jak speak here] and there was a lot of negative press against Vision Vancouver at that point, so we had some hopes that we might get some political change which would change the process. But as you [know] in 2014 they got back again, so we were back to square one. [48:38]
Scot: So the Citizens Assembly produced a report and just maybe to be a little bit specific as I understand and I had left the Hall by then but I think they were looking at 12 stories for Broadway & Commercial as a preferred height. So how much detail … was there any design-like engagement that helped visualize and have a conversation about built form possibilities for the Safeway site there?
Jak: I wasn’t in the Citizens Assembly so I can’t answer directly, but I understand that there was they did have a long discussion about it and as you say they produced their recommendation. It’d be I think 12 or 14 stories max and that was in the report. But I think they produced a report in June 2015 and the planners then told us that they were going to take it away and write their own report and they would integrate the results of the Citizen Assembly into the report. That took another year. So after a year of beating the locked door of the Citizen Assembly, we had another year to wait, another year of silence. So by the time the final plan came out in June 2016, we were two years away from the mass protests. [50:13]
Scot: I’m in a limited smaller group now of ex-planners, but we used to think about community engagement and these processes in a joyful way; there was no fear of the community. It was a chance to kind of do barn-raising, to roll up your sleeves and creatively engage and learn and build capacity. And in fact, these plans — whatever their horizon line is again, let’s just say a 20-year plan or something — it’s not the planners that sustain these plans, it’s the community. And so it’s the residents and it’s the shop owners, mom and pop. And so you have to in a way cultivate that and plant the seeds for that through these engagement processes. So they want to be joyful. They want people to cultivate pride. You want people to feel like they’re making a difference and they want to contribute six hundred thousand dollars of social capital over many years. It’s sad when that doesn’t happen. [51:31]
Jak: It is sad and, looking at [it] again from a cynical point of view, if you look at the land use map in Emerging Directions and you compare it to the land use map that came out with the final plan four years later, with some small cosmetic changes, it’s the same damn plan. So after four years of effort and four years of everything else, very little changed. The planners got what they wanted in the first place, and I understand that’s a cynical point of view, but that’s the way that the documents seem to show it. [52:17]
Scot: Well, let me let me see if I’ve got this. You had this effort that the City initiated and sponsored and invited, and then you said it didn’t go very well, and then it got shut down, and then you have the Citizens Assembly, and it essentially came back with more or less the same. And so that got formalized in a document. But then as I think we’re seeing now then there’s an overlay to that which invites pervasive rezonings under the guise of different forms of housing affordability. Which is producing results that aren’t aligned with what the community might have been saying in the early days and preferences under the Citizens Assembly. But it even goes beyond what the City sort of said as they consummated the Grandview plan. Is that what’s going on?
Jak: Absolutely. We were sold on the idea of a Community Plan, that it would give certainty to everybody. That was the whole purpose of a Community Plan was to give certainty to everybody. But the only certainty of a Community Plan is that the developers will ask for more and City Council will say yes. I mean that’s the only certainty we’ve seen. Instead of being a fixed maximum, what’s in the plan it’s now become the minimum. We start from that point and we work up. And it’s really an outrageous disrespect for all the time and effort the community put into it I think. [54:09]
6. DOES GRANDVIEW REALLY HAVE A COMMUNITY PLAN? AND WHAT NEXT?
Scot: Do you feel you even have a plan now? It’s on the books?
Jak: No. The latest couple of examples [are] 1766 Francis and the Safeway site. They’re using every minor little detail somewhere in the plan to push beyond what was there, what was approved. And I think eventually we’ll be subsumed in the Broadway plan, we’ll be subsumed in the Vancouver Plan, and it [Grandview Plan] will eventually be forgotten.
Scot: I’ve had a brief look at Broadway/Commercial [development plan with huge towers] and the idea that the reference to a plinth or a podium which I think is equivalent to a new Safeway volume has now been interpreted to mean nine stories, which then exacerbates heights and takes it up to within I think around the 50 feet of Woodward’s [Downtown Eastside tower in Vancouver 401 feet tall]. It’s just a travesty of that interpretation, and I have to say I don’t know how that ever got in the door, but we’ll see what council does with it.
Jak: You know the history of it, Scot. One of the things that GWAC fought against in 1989 I think was the first attempt to put a tower on that site. And then as we saw through the Community Plan, even though the Citizens Assembly wanted 12 [storeys], we know from the back story that there was political interference to make it 30-plus. Clearly there’s been a move to build there for a long, long time. [55:53]
Scot: When [the] Millennium line was being planned and we were looking at the new station there in the “Cut” [a ravine near Broadway and Commercial originally excavated in 1910 to accommodate a railway line] I attended many workshops with folks like Ray [former chief city planner] Spaxman, and Norm Hodgson, one of our most highly respected urban designers in the history of the city. And there’s a lot of good work with the community towards identifying meaningful public open space. I believe at that time anyway the consensus was that the City should acquire the site on the northeast corner of Commercial and 10th Avenue, which would be in the sun, would kind of off the Cut, off the ambient noise of Broadway, all the noise associated with the SkyTrains. Move something a little further south. There’s some interesting ideas about things that could clip on and hang into the Cut — many kinds of amphitheater or view theaters. But that for the Drive, at least that part of the Drive, to have a heart, a place, an open space for Saturday markets and all that… The Safeway site was always going to be the promise, because it was so big, to deliver on meaningful public open space, and so I think there’s some big questions about where it’s at now in terms of the current proposal.
Jak: Yeah. The so-called plaza is nothing more than just another entrance to Safeway as far as I can see. [57:21]
Scot: Yeah. I’m not sure it gets much sun either and it’s going to be difficult to program for community… So what did you do? After the Citizens Assembly? You wrote this great book, but how are you feeling about how the ‘hood is holding up now? Will the [Grandview] plan survive? It sounds like you’re not sure there even is a plan. But should it change? Should there be re-engagement? What’s next on this?
Jak: Yeah, as I said, I’m a great believer in local control. I’m not a great supporter of the Vancouver Plan. I believe that we should return essentially to the ethos of CityPlan, which was to build local plans, and then integrate those up into a city plan. That seems to me what we should be doing. But we’re now a city of centralizers and homogenizers, and they want us all to be a bit the same. Obviously, there are regional things that have to be planned — water and transportation and things like that — but local development should be in the control of local authority, I believe. And I think that we need a major structural change into a ward system, probably, before we could ever get that. And we probably need to try to change the Vancouver Charter again so that we get third-party appeals back. That was a major loss some years ago (at the City’s Board of Variance – see “Reinstate Third-Party Appeals – taking community-based planning to the Supreme Court” from 2007).
… The other thing is we’ve lost touch with the planners. We’re in this implementation stage. Five years after the plan now we’re in the implementation stage, and there were a few open houses soon after the plan was approved to deal with rezonings on Nanaimo Street and some town houses here and there. But essentially, I haven’t seen a senior planner here for a couple of years. There’s been no public meetings, no public discussions, no attempt to engage in community in any of that implementation work, and that’s a disappointment. [1:00:05]
Scot: What can I say? Yeah, just having aspiration embodied in words in policies, it’s hard to sustain those. They can be left on the shelf, or misinterpreted. What I know, a number of my colleagues, what we were finding coming out of CityPlan — because you referenced City Plan — was as we were doing then the follow-up programs, whether it’s neighborhood centers or visions, we were starting to work beyond the city-wide kind of urban framework ideas and systems to really getting to understand, as intimately as we could, what hyperlocal meant. So we would go out on Saturdays and do walkshops. The community would hold our hand, take us around, then we’d come back to the community center, and we’d make drawings together. So words are great — post-its and dots — but these drawings, not only did they have shelf life, they captured the insight and observation. And then you’d use that as a basis to say okay where are the latent capacities to introduce change in a relevant, meaningful way, aligned with amenity creation, and attributing that value to the right amenity for the right moment in the right place. You saw the community light up and get excited about being able to actually work with staff to draw out their future. And then those could become a different kind of policy where you had a visual kind of summary of where we needed to aim investment, and how we do it, how we would negotiate it at a really more local relevant way. And it’s never one-size-fits-all. I expect there are many of these little hyper-local moments throughout Grandview that have never been drawn, really.
Jak: I think that’s true. I moved to Vancouver in 1978 and one of the things that I fell in love with straightaway was the fact that it was a city of villages. [1:02:24]
Scot: Yeah, exactly.
Jak: Every neighborhood was different, and it was great fun going between each one and getting to know each one, and that’s something we need to maintain and revive and encourage.
Scot: Exactly. You mentioned the history of Grandview and the streetcar. If you look at the streetcar grid outside of the metro core, you see that it’s spaced in a way that every intersection, if you draw a five-minute walkable catchment around it, they all touch up. And there are 122 of these, and there are coincidentally about 109 public schools, and 120-some intersections where local public life convenes. You build social capital and you strengthen relationships all towards that local resiliency, because you know each other and can rely on each other. So I couldn’t agree more about your idea of a city of villages. [1:03:29]
7. DRIVING FORCE SHOULD BE CONCENTRATED AT THE LOCAL LEVEL
… So was it all worth it? Do you have any regrets, Jak, about your contribution to the public process?
Jak: No, I don’t have any regrets about my own personal time I spent on it, because I learned everything I needed to know about Grandview by doing it. Definitely. But it has left a bitter taste in the mouth. There is a significant lack of trust between the community and the planners. And that’s a shame, because as you say, it works so much better when you’re working collaboratively and trusting. It was a worthwhile exercise from an activist point of view, because we learned some of the tricks that the planners were trying to pull, and maybe we’ll be able to get around them next time. One of the worst things — I meant to mention this earlier — was the policy of producing a huge, complex document three or four days before it’s being decided. No one else ever gets a chance to read the damn thing, let alone understand it, and that sort of thing has to change.
… Getting back to your hyper local thing, I think one of the clear takeaways I’ve got from the whole experience is that a plan the size of Grandview, or bigger in the case of say the Broadway Plan or the Vancouver Plan, is too large for small groups of activists to handle efficiently. You’re going to go up against a well-financed set of professionals, working full-time and they’re supported by a vast array of development shills, with access to the media. And if I could maybe quote from the book … [1:05:20]
Scot: Please, yeah, we’d love for you to do that.
Jak: … If I can find it…
“For a small unfunded local group gathering enough mass participation to sensibly debate an entire neighborhood plan is exceedingly difficult and probably cannot be sustained over the longer term. It is necessary to deconstruct the plan and find the hot spots — the Boffo Tower, Broadway and Commercial, or Garden Park, say, for us and start small agit-prop groups in those specific locations dealing with a specific issue or a set of issues. It would be good if the local groups within each plan kept in touch and shared resources and planned joint events. Perhaps some gray hairs could be persuaded to operate the coordinating function, but the driving force and the energy and the spokespeople should be concentrated at the local level.”
I think we’re seeing that now with the group that’s forming in opposition to the Safeway site. I think we’re seeing younger local people there who are gathering to deal with that and that’s a good sign for the future.
Scot: Well, I hope that’s also true of the Britannia process, which will be going on for years.
Scot: But again, pride of neighborhood, pride of place; having a reason to step up and contribute as you’ve shown us how to do, Jak, and I want to remain very optimistic about that kind of future as well. But it has to be cultivated and nurtured, and it starts with how City Hall values community, values neighborhood contribution. So, I have just a couple of final questions for you. Given this conversation about hyperlocal, what do you think the importance of long-range planning is. Or what should long-range planning be doing, as CityPlan might have done in the day? [1:07:33]
Jak: Well, that’s probably way above my pay grade to be honest with you, Scot. Obviously, a city has to have some strategies that it’s looking towards in the future, but I think those strategies need to be bubbling up from below and not being imposed from the top. The big key for me is that we’re not a totalitarian society, and we don’t work well in that way. But that’s kind of what we’re being forced to do. I remember right at the beginning of the process we were told that it doesn’t matter what we want. If what we want clashes with any one of 14 or 15 city policies, we can’t have it, so forget it. That really doesn’t work very well. Clearly, as I say, there’s a need for long-term planning in large infrastructure projects, obviously, because they cross regions, cross locals. But I think that decisions on development should be as local as you could possibly make it.
Scot: That’s well put and I do think that there’s something we might call a planning brain and there’s something we might call a design brain. And the design brain seeks to optimize. So I’ve always found that when market forces come to the table, if the City through its leadership can shape conversations that address multiple stakeholder interests and not just the market interests, usually you can find a way to land a project that contributes beyond its own market interests, to make the community stronger, whether it’s through amenity contribution or seaming in a missing-tooth site that that has been derelict for years. But it takes a certain design attention and you can’t codify that at that level of specificity, and so it just means greater attention, and the right kind of attention and listening to the community, and trusting. I think I’ve found that trust is everything now, and if you don’t trust, it’s really hard to get anything done.
… We’re sort of getting on here. I can’t imagine folks are going to be with us now for an hour and 20 minutes or so, I hope they’ve stayed with us. But I thought it would be really nice if you have another couple of passages that might be important for you to share and maybe if you could play us out if they’re easily accessible, so that we can appreciate just a great book, “Battleground Grandview.” I won’t say anymore, Jak. Maybe we’ll just finish with your reading if that’s okay? [1:10:55]
8. ENDING ON A HOPEFUL NOTE FOR THE FUTURE
Jak: Yeah, well actually I’d rather close on something a little bit more positive, if I might.
Scot: Yeah, over to you.
Jak: I did attend a meeting of the Britannia planning last week, and it was very much like a world cafe situation except because of COVID it was done on Zoom, and the technology allowed us to see the table moderators writing the notes and putting them up on their yellow stickies, if you like, which we could then edit to make sure that they said what we thought they should say. I thought that was an extremely positive, progressive step, and I hope that perhaps if nothing else this pandemic can give us the use of more technology to make that process better than it has been in the past.
Scot: That’s wonderful that you shared that, because I also know that doing co-design meaningful co-design can also now happen in the ether, online, and the magic drawing board you can see the aspirations of community showing up before your very eyes and remaining there for comments. So yeah, exactly let’s remain optimistic and I appreciate your positive energy there Jak, and I think I’ll just simply thank you, not just for the book but all of the time and contribution, commitment, passion over a number of years for your community. You’re just a shining example of that, and we’re all very fortunate and blessed to have you contributing in that way. Thank you very much.
Jak: Thank you very much, Scot.