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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