Yvonne Robinson and Jan Wilson can barely contain their frustration as they stand outside Colbourne House on ivy-covered ground they hoped would be transformed into a community garden for Marpole residents’ use.
The seniors belong to Marpole Museum and Historical Society, which restored Colbourne House, a 900-square-foot working class Dutch Colonial home at 8743 Southwest Marine Dr.
For almost 20 years, the society has also been working on plans to create a community garden on a plot of city-owned land just south of the house. It even earned a city grant related to the project in 2011, at which time the society drew up plans. Last spring, however, the group learned the site is now earmarked for a viewing tower — part of the Arbutus Greenway project at the south end of the corridor known as Zone 8 or "The Lookout."
The society feels the city has overlooked both its and the neighbourhood’s interests and argues the viewing tower should be erected in Fraser River Park instead. It's also worried about the future status of Colbourne House, which is on land leased from the city. The society thinks it deserves heritage designation to help guarantee its future but, last year, the city said that wasn’t possible.
Now the group is going public to outline its grievances.
“We realize that perhaps we’re opening a can of worms or a Pandora’s box but after all the years that we’ve worked on this, we’re frustrated to be ignored, to be sidelined and to have a city so ill-informed,” Robinson told the Courier earlier this week.
Tom Thomas built the home in 1912. Henry and May Colbourne bought it in 1936, raising three children on a CPR conductor’s salary. The Colbournes sold the property in 1982. The person who bought it soon moved away and the house fell into disrepair. The city took over the land and planned to run a road through it but those plans fell through.
In 1994, the city leased the property to the historical society for 60 years — until 2054.
The society spent subsequent years raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore and maintain Colbourne House.
“We’re fundraising non-stop, through one hotdog sale after another, a Christmas fair, [and] music in the garden,” Wilson said.
Colbourne House officially opened to the public in 2005, but still requires ongoing funding to operate.
In response to requests from the society, the city informed the group in 2018 that it won’t “seek ‘protected by Heritage Designation’ status for the property” because it would limit future options for the house and site.
“They have not decided yet what they want to do with the house. In other words, they might bulldoze it and decide [the land] would be better used to put something else here — I have no idea what,” Wilson said.
Plans for the garden, meanwhile, have been years in the making. The society envisioned it back in 2000, but required approvals from the city, the Musqueam and the provincial government.
Society members have faithfully documented all the correspondence over the years — 40 letters, emails and meetings, including when city council approved the grant in 2011.
While the society has a design for the garden, it had been waiting for final approvals before going ahead with the project so members were shocked to learn last spring that the viewing tower would be installed in its place.
Wilson maintains most Marpole residents aren’t aware of the viewing tower plan, particularly seniors who don’t spend time on phones or computers keeping up with every city development.
While the city held community meetings about Arbutus Greenway’s design, Wilson said she never received any notification specific to the viewing tower or where it was to be installed.
“There hasn’t been one piece of information that’s come from my mailbox that’s told me that this is what the plan is,” she said. “If you are not on the computer or the websites they want you to be on, you are left out… If you look at [the tower], it’s an enormous structure. It’s an ultra-modern structure. It doesn’t flow with the feel of Marpole.”
Robinson said Marpole sorely lacks greenspace — neighbouring William Mackie Park, which sits on the other side of Colbourne House, is less than an acre.
“There is so little park in Marpole, it is under-parked to begin with,” she said.
The society envisioned the community garden being a neighbourhood amenity that connected with the heritage home and the park. Given the large — and increasing — number of condo and apartment buildings in the area, Wilson said community gardening space is needed.
“People who live in small buildings around here would love to have the opportunity to have a small plot, and to look after it and run it as a viable interest,” she said.
The pair insist a viewing tower won’t serve the needs of local residents, and that residents have been ignored in the planning process.
Since summer, the society has collected about 300 signatures on a petition asking that the site be used for the community garden rather than the viewing tower.
Robinson remains hopeful the society will get its wish.
“I want to be optimistic about this. As I said, this is our last kick at the can because we have done everything we can to push this forward. We have a passion for it … this isn’t for our benefit at the Colbourne House. This is for the community’s benefit, for all the people who live in this vicinity and need some more greenspace and a garden area where they can socialize and interact.”
The city’s position
For its part, the City of Vancouver says the design vision for Zone 8 on Arbutus Greenway includes a viewing tower/tree house, which will allow people of all abilities to see the Fraser River, Sea Island and the airport. It was one of the most popular design features for the corridor during feedback sessions, according to the city, which explained Zone 8 will also feature community gardens about 130 metres from Colbourne House and, at most, a three-minute walk, roll or cycle.
“During an extensive 16-month public engagement process, almost 80 per cent of respondents supported the design vision for Zone 8. We welcome feedback from the community and look forward to sharing the detailed design in early 2020,” the city wrote in an email to the Courier. Staff noted the viewing tower/tree house will likely sit on three city-owned properties south of Colbourne House at 8761, 8771 and 8781 Southwest Marine Dr., although the precise location hasn’t been finalized. Colbourne House won’t be affected.
The 2011 grant, the city added, was for "dialogue between immigrant, First Nations, and [the] local neighbourhood on heritage and food systems."
Meanwhile, the development of Zone 8 is subject to council approval and available funding, but the city anticipates the procurement phase in late 2020 for its construction. Construction requires council approval.
As for the historical society’s wish that Coulbourne house be given heritage designation, the city wrote: “The city received inquiries about a heritage designation for Colbourne House and is still looking into the matter.”
Although the society would like the viewing tower to be installed elsewhere, the city says it investigated several options but the only feasible location is on the three city-owned properties.
“Placement on the Arbutus Corridor was not suitable for safety reasons, since the corridor includes parallel BC Hydro lines. The corridor also has to be kept free of major structures that could obstruct a future streetcar. William Mackie Park was also not suitable because the viewing tower/tree house would take up too much space in what is a small neighbourhood park,” the city said.