Opinion: I’m all through with (empty) promises

As I reflect on the events of the past week, I am reminded of the 1968 Dionne Warwick song “Promises, Promises” from the Broadway play of the same name.

Three promises were very much in the news. The mayor’s 2008 promise to end homelessness by 2015 prompted an angry response from Oppenheimer Park campers. The mayor’s promise to purchase the Arbutus Corridor for fair market value raised hopes amongst community gardeners. The mayor’s promise to buy Granville Island also resulted in significant media discussion.

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I would like to respond to each.

Upon arriving in Vancouver in 1974, my first assignment for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) was to prepare a building inventory and map of Granville Island. Over the subsequent four decades I watched it flourish as a local amenity and major tourist attraction.

UBC Planning Professor Emeritus Michael Seelig pointed out in a recent Vancouver Sun op-ed that for many years Granville Island was very well managed by a local trust empowered to make decisions.

As one of the founders of Bridges Restaurant and two-time Granville Island trustee, he argues there is no reason why a similarly empowered trust could not manage the island on behalf of the Vancouver Port Corporation. I completely agree.

The city should not be contemplating the purchase of Granville Island. We do not have the money to buy and carry out much needed infrastructure improvements.  The federal government is not going to sell it, and even if it wanted to, any sale would likely trigger a native land claim.

What the city can and should do is offer to participate on a reinvigorated Granville Island Trust and contribute to effective local decision-making

Similarly, the city should not be promising to buy the Arbutus Corridor. For one thing, the city’s estimate of fair market value is a fraction of what Canadian Pacific believes the fair market value to be. Furthermore, it is not necessary for the city to buy it.

I would prefer to see the city and CP collaborate on a long-term plan that ensures the property is retained as an above and below ground transit corridor.

I would also like to see parks and trails and yes, community gardens, along with residential and commercial uses, on the understanding that increased land values and development revenues could help fund future transit down the corridor.

This brings me to the mayor’s promise to end homelessness. While one civic affairs commentator termed it an “ambitious” promise, I believe it was a naïve and preposterous political promise.

I say this not as a failed NPA council candidate but as the former CMHC program manager for social housing once charged with the responsibility of building housing for the homeless in the Downtown Eastside.

We will never end homelessness in Vancouver. However, we can reduce it provided we take a systemic approach involving other levels of government and specialized community service agencies. This will require new and renovated buildings, along with shelters, support services and rent supplements. We also need to consider employment and family reunification programs.

Sadly, in an effort to fulfil the mayor’s promise, the city is sometimes doing more harm than good. I refer to the development of very expensive provincially funded social housing buildings on city-owned sites.

To improve the homeless count, the city is insisting that some of these projects be filled with predominantly homeless and otherwise hard-to-house residents rather than with a broader social mix as originally intended. The results have been very unfortunate.

A most notable example is Marguerite Ford House. Named in honour of the much admired former city alderman, this building at 215 West Second Ave. is, in the words of a board member of the project’s sponsor “a horror show.”

I am told the situation is so bad the city has so far been unable to organize the customary ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The city manager recently stated the city intends to house an additional 385 homeless people in three other about-to-be completed buildings. Please do not do this.

In future columns I will have much more to say about how the city can effectively reduce homelessness. Until then, I promise not to make any further promises.

michaelarthurgeller@gmail.com

twitter.com/michaelgeller

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