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Two mayor candidates’ visions of the Downtown Eastside

October 22nd, 2008 · 9 Comments

Another night, another debate. This one got hot a few times, though, thanks to giving mayoral candidates Gregor Robertson and Peter Ladner a chance to argue with each other. As well, there were several good questions from the audience and moderator Gary Mason of the Globe & Mail.

The most noteworthy one of the night was Gary’s question to the two candidates about the Downtown Eastside. Given that the neighbourhood is a source of embarassment and that it attracts addicts and crime (his words, not mine), “what if the Downtown Eastside ceased to exist? What if gentrification consumed the Downtown Eastside? Would you think that was bad or beneficial?”

After the debate, both candidates told me they thought their opponent’s answer was one of the most revealing moments of the evening. Gregor said he thought Peter’s answer confirmed some of his worst suspicions. Peter said Gregor’s answer showed he wasn’t ready to make tough decisions.

Here’s what they had to say (I didn’t use a tape recorder, because that’s impossible to work with quickly at such a long event. I’m sure both parties with have complete transcripts available soon.)

Peter, who got to respond first to Gary’s question: “That’s the only solution.” He noted the city policy is to protect the existing housing stock and then what the neighbourhood needs is to “mix in some other kind of housing to normalize that neighbourhood.” Otherwise nothing will change, he said, and people will continue to live miserable existences where they barely survive and live in fear of being raped in their crummy hotel rooms, while their drug habits are fed by “buys on cellphones coming down in BMWs.” He cited Woodward’s as an example of the kind of project the area needs, which has mixed uses and which will “infuse the neighbourhood with social capital.” That means people with the energy to clean up the area, which the desperate types who are living day to day don’t have the means to do. He mentioned NPA council candidate Sean Bickerton as the kind of person he meant, an entertainment-industry guy who moved into Tinseltown and, when he found out about a significant social problem affecting his building, organized the strata council to make change.

Gregor’s response: “I worry when I hear what’s between the lines, when you use words like normalizing.” Gregor stressed that the Downtown Eastside isn’t just dysfunctional. “It’s already a community and they don’t necessarily want their neighbourhood transformed to some shiny happy new neighbourhood.” He said whatever plan is devised for the area, people who live there have to be part of it. “I don’t think there’s a solution that can be imposed by city hall. It’ll be a war zone if that’s what happens.” Ultimately, he said, “we need to see change but it has to be supportive.” He referred to the efforts that have been made by the group led by Milton Wong and Michael Clague in that area to try to develop a comprehensive plan for the area that everyone in the community can agree on.

Peter rebutted by saying there have been eight different plans for the area and nothing has changed. In fact, he said that even though the city developed a housing plan a few years ago with the input of local leaders, when market housing started coming into the area as projected, they immediately opposed it. He also noted that there are “some people who like it the way it is because they benefit from it in some perverse way.”

Other comments about the evening:

– Thankfully, it seemed to draw more than half the audience from regular people, i.e. not media, campaign workers or candidates. Instead, the evening, put on by the organization Leadership Vancouver, had a lot of people who work with businesses and non-profits in the city and who have worked with LV to improve their understanding of the community and their leadership skills.

– The candidates were each presented with a gift when the night ended by LV. Peter’s gift was a six-pack of Happy Planet juice, from the company that Gregor started. Gregor’s was a copy of Business in Vancouver, the newspaper that Peter started.

– It started off with both candidates sounding hesitant and rote-like, with the predictable emphasis on the themes we’ve heard so far: Gregor Robertson has no experience and you need experience when times are tough; Peter Ladner has shown no leadership and you need leadership when you’re facing a crisis of homelessness. Gregor’s signature, opening question: “Did the NPA do a good job? Is Vancouver a better city now than it was three years ago?” (Shades of Ronald Reagan)

– They each got to ask one question. Peter’s was: Why do you think you’re qualified to lead the city when you’ve never made a single decision in government or been to a full council meeting? (Answer: I think Vancouver is ready for a change in leadership. Direct experience at the city does not directly translate to good leadership. You need a mayor who is never afraid to speak up.) Gregor’s was: “Why should you trust Peter Ladner to make progress on homelessness? If you walk around Vancouver, in just about every neighbourhood, you will find people sleeping on the streets.” (Millions have been spent on housing. Who do you think has a better chance of cutting deal with the provincial government for more? To say nothing has been done is to say that you don’t understand what has happened here.)

– Gregor continued to be completely vague about what he will do to show leadership on homelessness, but I understand that some details are going to come out at the debate tomorrow night, which is specifically about homelessness, mental illness and affordable housing. (That’s at St. Andrew’s Wesley, Nelson and Burrard, and I’ll be on the panel.)

– They talked about what they would do to make the city more green. Gregor emphasized that the city should be trying dedicated cycling lanes and a new trial of a Burrard Bridge bike lane. (And this is a guy who really cycles the talk. After the debate, I saw him head off on his bike at 9 p.m., while Peter was still inside chatting to people.) He also said the city should have been pushing much harder in the past three years to develop district heating systems. And he blamed the lack of leadership on lack of political will and a structural problem at city hall that has relegated the sustainability office to the “basement.” (Actually, the staff cafeteria is in the basement. The sustainability office is under the Cambie Bridge.)

Ladner talked about what the city has already done — setting GHG reduction and carbon-neutral goals, passing new green-building standards, and his own motion to start a public bike-share system like the one in Paris.

There’s more, but I’m too tired to write any more tonight.

Overall, my impression was that Gregor is really hammering on the theme of people’s unhappiness with the blots on the city: homelessness, lack of significant green leadership, lack of financial control. Peter is focusing on the positives, emphasizing everything that’s good about Vancouver and what it has achieved. The real question people are being driven to answering in this vote: Are you happy with the Vancouver you see?

Your vote?

Categories: 2008 Vancouver Civic Election

  • Big points for Gregor on his answer to the DTES. There is much wisdom in his answer, that you can’t impose solutions on a community without their input. I find Ladner’s response disconcerting.

    But I’m disappointed in two things about Vision so far: one, his opening attack ad. Two, his vagueness on housing. I will be staying tuned for more on that. Ms. Bula, I have a rehearsal tomorrow night, so take good notes, would you? 😉

  • AMD

    I was at the debate and enjoyed Gary Mason’s casual moderation and willingness to allow the candidates to actually debate rather than take turns trading campaign slogans.
    While not naturally gifted with smooth and endearing oratory skills, I’d have to give the nod to Ladner based on his better knowledge of the issues and his apparent understanding of what a municipality does and does not have in its arsenal to actually affect change on issues.
    Robertson came across as an earnest and engaging speaker (when not making dismissive facial reactions while Ladner spoke), but he just leaves me wanting when it comes to substance. “Leadership”, a campaign theme for him and for the evening, has got to be more than just stating obvious truths (“we need to work together”, and “we need to capitalize on opportunities”), doesn’t it? It also needs to be about providing a realistic route to those truths. I hope we see more meat on the bone before Nov 15.

  • “Are you happy with the Vancouver you see?” and could it be better?

    Of course I’m happy with the Vancouver I see. It’s a pretty great city. However, it also has some significant problems, ones the current administration hasn’t addressed particularly well. My Vancouver could be a lot better.

    I’ve just spent a few days in SROs in the downtown core, and it is not a pretty sight. I spoke to one man who hasn’t had heating in his room for two winters. Bedbugs and roaches are fairly common, and tonight we saw bowls of rat poison in the hallways of one building. I’m pretty sure focusing on crime isn’t going to do much for the residents of these buildings.

  • Todd

    Mr. Ladner loses my confidence with the response that there’s only one answer to the problems of the DTE, and, quel surprise from the NPA, it’s a development-centric one. If Peter thinks that community leaders have had their chance and they blew it, then what makes him any different from the ‘my way or highway’ approach that made Sam so unpopular?

    You can solve social problems with a bulldozer and glassy condos, but I’m not sure about the kind of city that that leaves one with.

  • Dawn Steele

    To suggest that the social crisis we call “the Downtown Eastside” is just about a lack of housing seems to me like attributing illness to a shortage of hospitals.

    Similarly, to suggest that gentrifying the area will resolve the problem seems akin to saying the obesity crisis can be fixed by “thin mirrors,” corsets and cunningly-styled apparel.

    Maybe it’s confusion regarding cause, symptom, bandaids and cure. And having what’s essentially a social issue concentrated in a single geographic sector perhaps encourages the idea that the “place” is the problem, and thus fixing the place becomes a simplistic “cure.” There may be different dynamics when it’s geographically focussed vs. dispersed, but either way it’s fundamentally about what happens when individuals are unable to cope unsupported within the parameters we have set for successful citizenship. And if that’s what it is, that’s a problem that is entirely independent of place.

    I’ve been watching a youth in care, now 16, spiralling down towards that social fate we call “the Downtown Eastside” for several years now. Good, caring people are trying to head him off, but there’s so much working against him as to make that fate seem almost inevitable: a badly broken family, special needs, an overwhelmed public school system that saw him entering high school unable to read, social workers who lack the resources and/or will for the herculean task of saving a broken kid, and a govt system that’s now seriously considering putting him out to live on his own, with the last pitiful supports cut for good at age 19. This for an overgrown kid with the judgment of an 8-year old. I can’t imagine any kind of housing that will stop him getting caught up in drug addiction, crime and personal catastrophe.

    Unquestioningly, housing is a priority need for addressing homeless. And setting/enforcing basic standards and rights to safe, clean shelter. But that’s just Step 1. The problem is fundamentally about the gap between support systems and the parameters we set for successful citizenship. As the bar rises and support systems retreat, more and more failed citizens fall through the widening gap. That gap is ultimately what we have to focus on closing/ narrowing if we’re not just going to be standing below and applying bandaids by trying to catch and shelter more and more people who don’t make it.

  • jf

    Dawn is right on. Housing is needed but for most people housing is just a way of ‘getting them off the street’. We have to go beyond warehousing and get to the root of the problems. Poverty, addiction, illness, lack of education, poor decision making skills and most of all access to health care including proper diet, all have to be addressed before there can be meaningful and long lasting change. Giving a developer carte blanche will only mask the problems.

  • AMD

    jf – Agreed on your list of root problems. And what policy mechanisms and resources does a single municipal government have to address eliminating poverty, illness, poor decision making skills and healthcare? I really want to know before I go to the ballot box.

  • jf

    Well of course the city can’t do it alone. It has to be an integrated effort from all levels of government, the community, business and the public at large. My point is that to simplify it as just an issue to be solved by developers is not only naive, but completely wrong. We could redevelop the entire DTES, rename it something fancy and think we have solved the problem, but we won’t have. We would just have moved it somewhere else. It will take someone with vision (no pun intended) and commitment. Philip Owens had some of that. Sam had none. Most of the others were lacking it as well. I hope that one of the candidates for mayor has what it takes. I haven’t heard what Robertson’s vision is, but Ladner’s seems to be just more of the same old same old. I hope I am wrong. I hope they both can share their vision and then we can truly choose who would be the best person for the job.

  • Dawn Steele

    Agreed JF, if we continue the silo thinking where we just expect the city to do X because that’s their mandate and the province to do Y because that’s their job, people will continue to fall through the cracks. These are hugely complex issues that cross multiple realms and jurisdictions, and we need all players to come together to devise complete, holistic solutions, which can then be broken down into manageable chunks and prioritised.

    There needs to be a higher accountability that’s about whether the players are contributing to solving the over-arching problems, vs. just looking at whether they’re fulfilling traditional narrow mandates that may amount to nothing but tinkering on the margins. It’s up to us as voters to demand this higher accountability and to demand that all the players come to the table and start working together in a new paradigm that’s better fitted to the tasks at hand.