I’ve been wondering if anyone cared about the plans to raze the corner of 16th and Arbutus, home for decades to the Ridge Theatre and theVarsity Ridge Bowling Centre.
It got sold to Cressey Developments in June 2011 for $15,584,701, in a move that surprised some, since it seemed as though the theatre and bowling alley were safe when Meinhardt’s grocery store signed a 25-year lease a few years before. But Meinhardt’s shut down under strange circumstances, and owner Sondra Green (who had bought the property in 1971, as far as I can tell) sold it shortly after to Cressey, which promptly announced plans for condos.
It’s been hard to get anyone at council interested in this issue. I’ve asked about it a couple of times and always been told there’s “nothing we can do.” Given the lack of apparent community concern, it seemed as though there were only a few nostalgia cranks who took an interest in this.
I guess I and others were wrong on this, to judge from the letter below that I received yesterday.
Dear Mayor Robertson and Councillors:
On the evening of October 9 I attended the meeting of the Development Permit Board at City Hall from 3:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. on behalf of the Kitsilano Arbutus Residents Association (KARA) where I sit on the Steering Committee for the Arbutus Ridge development. Along with many others I was registered to speak to the Arbutus Ridge Cressey Developments application on behalf of KARA, to raise my concerns about the impact of the project on our neighbourhood, both in terms of the flaws of the building and the process by which it arrived at the Development Permit Board for approval on October 9.
In doing so I received the extraordinary gift of an education I would like to share with you.
As the Vancouver Sun, CTV, Global Television and other media outlets reported, about 50 bowlers from age 10 to people in their 80s walked from the bowling alley at 15th and Arbutus several kilometres to City Hall. There they were joined by about 30 others who could not walk that distance, including several in wheelchairs, who had come by bus or were driven by others. The audience included the legally blind accompanied by guide dog, and others who were developmentally and physically challenged. A 93 year old bowler was sitting in front of me. Some were so physically challenged they had to almost crawl up City Hall steps, but were determined to be there.
Also present were at least 40 pre-registered speakers, signed up to address the serious flaws both in the process of how the City planning department excluded citizen input to arrive at a completed project, and in the proposal itself, asking for discretionary approval to build a fifth storey making it by far the highest building on the Arbutus corridor since it also sits on the high point of the ridge.
As the bowlers arrived they also signed up to speak and by 3:00 p.m. 100 speakers were on the list. By 4:00 p.m, after several additional stacks of chairs were brought in, there was still standing room only in the meeting room and in the overflow room behind it. The Chair of the meeting asked the younger people who could to give up their chairs for those who needed them more, as City Hall’s supply of chairs was exhausted. After 5:00 p.m. there was another infusion of people into the overflow room.
Why would all these elderly and physically challenged and mentally challenged people join the able bodied, the youth, the children, the residents of Kitsilano, many business people and professionals to spend hours in the hot and crowded meeting room at City Hall?
The answer was displayed at the meeting with such passion, with such raw emotion and distress as any I have seen in my professional life of more than 30 years as a psychologist.
The first speaker signalled the reason. He said the flawed process at City Hall failed to understand how deeply wounded the citizens of Kitsilano were by the actions of City Hall by both the planning staff and the politicians who had ignored the community, and by the actions of Cressey Developments.
For four hours the speakers poured their hearts out into the room. In an extraordinarily moving way that could not help but touch even hearts of stone, they told how the bowling alley community had literally saved their lives. It had provided a safe, welcoming healthy social environment to newcomers; to the elderly for whom it was their only social contact and outing; to the young girl who bonded with her grandfather who came to watch her bowl every week ( and how the people at the bowling alley supported her when her beloved grandpa had a stroke); to young children, including a 10 year old who got up to speak; to mums who knew their children were safe in the bowling alley; to university students who brought their dates to bowl; to the physically challenged, some of them middle aged, who got up and began their presentation with the words, “I am a Special Olympian, and the Varsity Ridge Bowling Alley is my home and my family.”
One of these Special Olympians had a big poster of stick figures of David and Goliath and explained in his own effective way how the bowlers were David and the City and Cressey were Goliath, who needed to be slain so the people could win. A director of a pre-school held up a poster on “Saving the Bowling Alley” made by her 3 and 4 year old charges and told how central the bowling alley was to her little ones.
We learned that 12,000 school children use the bowling alley as part of the curriculum and that millions of dollars for the CKNW Orphans Fund, for breast cancer and many other charities are raised through the bowling alley.
People who were afraid to speak in public got up shaking and made their pleas.
Interspersed with all that were the architects, engineers, lawyers and business people from the community who got up to rationally express their distress with the actions of Cressey and City Hall. They expressed how the City was giving away the farm of City taxpayer owned property to Cressey and were achieving nothing in return. These pleas were heartfelt and full of passion coming from long term residents who had paid up to five decades of taxes only to see their neighbourhood diminished for profit to the developer.
Most egregious of all were the actions in the room of the City planners who had worked with the developer for over a year without consultation with neighbours and then presented a fully blown project that allowed huge discretionary relaxation at the expense of the neighbourhood for zero returns. They then had the audacity to claim that other conditions they were imposing on the project for cosmetic changes to the building were meeting the needs of “neighbourliness.” These City planners have zero concept of what neighbourliness means.
But, if these City planners had the eyes to see, and the ears to hear it, and the heart to feel it, neighbourliness was in the room at City Hall from 3:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. What was in the room was community, alive, deep, profound—the kind of social cohesion and intergenerational compassion all leaders in Canada are looking for in a 21st century big city that is tending towards alienation.
The response of the City Hall planners (and some of their advisors around the table) to this human and priceless example of what all of us want our communities to be, was instructive. When asked by an advisor to the Board whether the idea of including a bowling alley in the plans of the current building was considered, the clear and unequivocal answer was that it was “uneconomic” and so it was dismissed as irrelevant to the task at hand, namely, to give the developer maximum economic benefit from the site.
The question hanging in the room was: “Uneconomic to whom and by how much?”
The planners who had spent their presentation time in addressing how hard they had worked at “neighbourliness” by increasing setbacks and other minimal tinkering such as a dispute about whether privacy barriers should be 24 inches or 36 inches high, repeatedly praised themselves for their hard work. They had no concept of how their insensitive posturing was being heard by the audience. Every time the word “neighbourliness” was repeated, laughter and tears broke out among the people who had come out in such great numbers on their own time to see how their City staff represented them.
The planners were speaking of cement, of plants, of setbacks into a room full of people who were a community filled with deeply felt emotion about losing the one thing that made their lives meaningful. It was truly a failure of human compassion in the face of an extraordinary slice of Canadian excellence in exactly that—human compassion. They were breaking the hearts of Canadians who again and again referred to Ken and Judy Hagen, the owners of the Varsity Ridge Bowling Centre, as surrogate parents, and their angels, deserving of the Order of Canada for what they did.
When the advisors spoke they all acknowledged that they were moved by what they had heard, but then most of them pushed that aside to say they were here to represent their particular constituency and as such they supported approval of the application. They could not see beyond their own narrow specialization to recognize that approval that night meant demolition of the bowling alley and the destruction of the dreams and hopes of so many who had spoken. They were doing their job, but it was their humanity that was on the table, and they walked away from it. Fortunately there were a few advisors who said they could not approve the proposal and suggested deferral. Hopefully, this meant giving time for thoughtful consideration of what they had heard, but some of us wondered whether it was just a way of making a decision outside that room, where people had made it so clear the project should not go ahead until wiser, fairer, consideration had been brought to bear.
When it came time for Board members to speak, hope for reasoned consideration was rekindled. One member called himself “cranky,” by which he seemed to mean he saw through what was going on between the City planning staff and the developer, and said he felt the developer “had not earned” the right for discretionary approval of a fifth storey. He was not, however, ready to reject the application and suggested deferral. Another agreed that the case for approval had not been made, and he, too, suggested deferral. The third Board member said he needed more information from staff about the height of other C-2 developments along the Arbutus corridor. So they voted unanimously to defer the decision to the next regular meeting of the Board on October 22.
People walked away hopeful but confused. Does this mean they’ll just approve it when we are not allowed to speak again? When the developer has had time to use his influence to get the votes he needs? When people who have invested so much energy in a flawed process work behind closed doors from the public to get the outcome they want?
So the issue comes back to the leaders of our City. Regardless that the way the structure of the development approval process is set up so that people like the bowlers and their interests are shunted aside, the question of your humanity remains.
Can you ignore the people who put you in office and allow their priceless institution at the heart of your community to be destroyed, now that you know it is for ECONOMIC reasons. Or are you prepared to speak up with courage for these people, for the 10 year olds to the 93 year olds? Are you going to pay attention to a petition with 10,000 names on it, or dismiss it as the planning department has done by saying that they can’t tell a developer whose project they have finessed whom he should have as a tenant? Are you prepared to intervene to find a creative solution to solve this problem by engaging with the citizens where the real wealth of creative ideas resides as shown by what they said at the meeting, and in the hundreds of letters they sent in?
Mr. Robertson, as our Mayor and our representative, we need you to speak with courage, with decency, and for right action. We are not willing to hear you quote the rules in the face of your people’s deep human and profound distress. We need you to defend and promote the excellence of a vibrant, cohesive, compassionate neighbourhood that will be the envy of all Canadians, full of vigorous and successful citizens, as well as the most vulnerable among us, as was displayed at this meeting, just as readily as you support the homeless and others who need your help.
City Councillors, are you, too, prepared to stand up for what is right rather than what is bureaucratically expedient?
Are you willing? We are waiting for your answer.
Member of the Steering Committee
Kitsilano Arbutus Residents Association