Paradise Makers : The Politicians – Vancouver
SFU City Programme
September 5, 2008
This evening’s “lecture” was actually more of a interview with four of the TEAM Vancouver City Councillors with Gordon Price asking the questions. He started by giving some background. 1972 was a most significant year. TEAM gained a majority on Council. The NDP was in power in BC for the first time in 20 years. It was a period of change, and set the legacy for today. For the previous four years there had been a series of battles against urban renewal. Citizens and progressive members of council were successful in delaying or defeating all these proposals
Gordon started by asking each of the participants how they become involved in local politics
In 1972 she was involved in youth work: she had joined in 1968 the Parks and Recreation team and worked with citizens to develop the integrated TEAM vision. In 1968 there had been the first great sit-in at UBC: Jerry Rubin had been invited up from the US, and the students were determined to be involved in the running of the university. The pivotal date though was 1971 when the Gastown riots occurred and the Mayor called out the mounties. She had wanted to get on the Park Board to get more recreation facilities. The City had the land but not much in the way of facilities. She was on the Park Board for 4 years, and in 1976 was elected to Council and also served on the GVRD.
He was a lawyer who was elected to council in 1972 and was mayor from 1976 to 1980. He stressed that Expo planning actually started in 1976 and he was very much involved with that although his main interest was in housing.
She joined TEAM in 1972: “Prior to that I suppose I was what is now called a hockey Mum”. She was strongly opposed to the proposed downtown freeway and Project 200 which “expropriated small businesses for benefit of the Bronfmans”. “We had a policy on everything on you could imagine. We had daylong policy meetings. It was this agreement on policy that was fundamental to the cohesion of group.”
He had a PhD in transportation planning as the Seattle freeways were completed. He came to UBC in 1966. In early seventies Wilbur Smith produced a transportation study that recommended freeways for downtown (essentially imposing the Seattle solution on Vancouver). He also pointed out that the context of was of massive urban renewal based on bulldozers. There was raw sewage being discharged into False Creek, which was home to “lots of dirty industries. All that I had learned was contrary to what was proposed.” He had lived in Seattle for 3 years. Walter Hardwick and a collection of like minded individuals – business people, union leaders – a diverse group of people – asked “What can we do?” Citizen participation was not practiced in the City at that time. Art Phillips, who became Mayor, had a very successful investment firm. He put out by word of mouth the need for a meeting, which turned out to attract many more people than could be accommodated in his firm’s boardroom.
Gordon Price asked was it fair to call this group an elite?
MB – We did not have high rises at that time and a lot of people worried about “big development”. City Hall was pretty closed. It was well run financially but there was no opportunity to express views. In 1968 a breakfast meeting was held at the Commodore. They were told that TEAM would run a slate for Council as well as the School and Park Boards. There was a political wing (concerned with winning seats) and a policy wing. Walter Hardwick was the head of policy wing, and it was this policy that determined what the slate would do if elected. In 1968 the number of voters exceeded the number of ballot papers printed. The were a number of irregularities, and the eighth seat was won on a recount.
MF – We are so lucky – because we stopped the freeway and we got participation.
SP – The opposition to freeways did not start until 1968, but TEAM was not just anti freeway. We had a set of policies of what we wanted to do instead. For example the waterfront plan for the city which was to provide more public access. Prior to that only there were only three areas of open waterfront. To some degree it was an elite – Harold Winrick was an architect, but he was also an organiser. There were university, business people, union leaders, but it was the ideas that become an umbrella they could all get under. Among this elite were people like Harry Rankin, Darlene Masari and Mike Harcourt (all leading left wingers).
MB – It wasn’t a West Side organisation, it was as inclusive as possible. There was representation across the board including media people. It was a broad spectrum – a coalition of idealists who, for a short period were willing to keep their politics to themselves, in order to achieve the stated policy goals.
SP – Because we had 8 Councillors and a Mayor we could have one or two who could stray away. It was a group with strong priorities but it needed leadership and that was provided by Art Phillips. He was a visionary. For example, in 2 years more land was acquired for parks than in the previous 70 years.
MF – Each had a part of the city to look after. Art kept each one busy on issues. Nine very energetic people were determined to get something done. As a result we saw the development of False Creek and Champlain Heights. In fact everything south of 49th Avenue. We had the great opportunity to put down the parks first, and allow the housing to grow up around them
Gordon Price pointed out that the Development Permit Board was a staff committee comprised of the Planner, Engineer, and City Manager. It was apolitical: Council set the zoning and policy, but did not make any of the individual development decisions
MB – also we had made sure that a share of the development profits went to City.
SP – Art was accused of being a communist because he took money from developers for the City.
MF – He created the Property Endowment Fund (PEF), which could then be leveraged to get federal and provincial money for social housing.
JW – I just did what Art had started
MB – Art was very good with money. He stopped the practice of selling City land to prop up the revenue budget. The PEF, which was $100m when we started is worth today $1.6 billion and puts $7m into revenue budget. For comparison in 1971 the average house price was $70,000. [Note: this paragraph was corrected on Sept 8 at 16:15]
SP – We did not have Strata Title Act – which was not proclaimed until 1974. And we had to face a lot of criticism that we were “spending money buying land”.
MF – Every shade of council supported social housing – often against local opposition
MB – Our biggest mistake was that we built a lot of social housing in the Downtown East Side. We put too much in one place and it is now out of control and our biggest problem. We were trying to be too politically correct.
MF – We should have had more market housing and we took on problems of the rest of the region.
SP – We did not have the idea of mixed use. That did not come here until mid 1980s
MB – Vancouver the played a key role in GVRD. Since then we have not shown the leadership we should have done – especially in transport.
SP – When the Arthur Laing Bridge was built (by the federal government) we did not insist on Skytrain under the bridge. It would have cost only $800,000 extra but we failed to exert influence.
Gordon the asked why they lost the referendum on wards.
MB – Our policy was of 5 ward councillors (to reflect the parliamentary seats) and 5 councillors elected at large. We did not work hard enough to get it passed.
MF – It would have caused problems of being seen to spend too much in one place (False Creek) and the typical criticism we heard of was the fabled street that only got paved on one side.
SP – Everybody really opposed illegal suites: everyone had one, but they did not want to pay tax on them.
MB – Transportation failed. We should have addressed it earlier. In 1970 the election material talked about LRT and reinstating the interurban to Chilliwack, but we did not want to pay for it
MF – The city only gets 8% of the total tax collected within its boundary. Transportation is too expensive for the City to do alone. The prime movers were the architects and planners. They achieved what they wanted to do and then went off to do other things
MB – Once you have set the policy then you should implement it, but often we could not do it. The membership felt we weren’t doing enough. By 1980 we did not have enough money for the election.
MF – We changed the direction of the city and we avoided the mistakes other cities made.
MB – We were accused of “putting people before property” and we willingly pleaded guilty. The neighbourhoods are the city’s most precious assets and we strengthened them and got them involved.
SP – “And I got short people into the fire and police departments.”
Gordon then asked how their experience translates into what is needed today.
MB – We need long range objectives, a vision for the future. For example on the waterfont: how did we get to the point when we put a restaurant or a stadium on the waterfront? What is the policy now?
JV – We need new people to get involved. We must get more people involved.
MF – The regional district needs leadership. Single family housing and industrial parks dominate most of the region, but they need transit oriented development
SP – When the Chinese have a short term plan it is for 50 years. We can’t get a three year plan.
We have excellent staff but politicians often screw up and staff cannt always save them. We need to coalesce around a new vision.
I asked Margeruite how she thought the other municipalities could be persuaded to accept Vancouver’s Leadership. I am not sure I got an answer.
Hadani Ditmars asked how we could get more culture into the Parks and Recreation remit.
MB – We do need more culture and arts in community centres. But it is always a challenge for a Park Commissioner to hang on to open space. Some people see parks, others just see open space they want to build on – and often very desirable, progressive projects.
Colleen Nystedt asked a question about their reaction to Gateway.
SP – Single purpose investments are the wrong path. Highways will just attract more cars. We need more choices. Toll gates at edge of city. Senior governments have the money but still think only of a single mode. Translink was a talk shop before – it’s silent shop now – that is not good for the city or the region
Two questions were asked about planning
SP – In 72 we had a very imperious planning department: meeting them was a bit like asking for an audience with the Queen. All other departments provide services, but the planners provide guidance. We hired Ray Spaxman away from Toronto to replace Sutton Brown. Ray was a believer in citizen participation: we just lucked out. He was a PoW in Toronto City Hall.
Asked how to densify MB responded that EcoDensity seems to be one size fits all. Everywhere thinks it is unique. Parking and cars are the problem. If you increase the number of households in an area you must tackle amenity type issues. For example we now see proposals for laneway houses, but we need demonstration projects so that we can see how they will look in our community.
At this point a long rambling address from a member of the audience had me packing away my laptop to make a quick getaway.
I must admit I was surprised by how much I learned this evening. The only thing that bothered me a bit was the way that Vancouver relates to the region. Social housing had been provided only to have Burnaby and Surrey take advantage of it. The development pattern of the region does not support transit the way Vancouver does. Of course the other municipalities do not see it quite like that. For instance, they feel that Vancouver has had an unfair share of the transit spending with not nearly enough left over for them. In some respects this is a direct result of Expo. If we had not bought into SkyTrain but stuck to LRT there would have been a lot more provision. There is also a strong sense of resentment when Vancouver is seen to dictate to the other parts of the region.
This neatly segues into the next episode which will feature regional politicians. Like all the City Program lectures, this one was recorded. I checked the SFU web site which has recordings from 2008 but this event is missing.