Open letter to Onni, Council and the Community

From:  Benjamin Woodyatt,  North Van Urban Forum founder
(with permission)

An Open Letter to Onni, to North Van City Council, to the Wider Community of the City of North Vancouver.

To whom it may concern:

I’d like to say first and foremost that I don’t envy the position of Council right now.  Underscoring this entire conversation is the glaring fact that the Safeway site, as it stands, is perhaps one of the ugliest, most dated, run-down and misused urban locales on the lower mainland.  There is no question in my mind that the site needs to be developed.  Onni have indicated that if this development proposal fails, then they may sit on their hands, leaving the site in its current state of decay for years to come.  Or worse, build us a commercial only, bunker-style site that is fully provisioned within OCP limits, depriving us not just of any perfunctory review by design panels, but also of any community amenity benefits whatsoever.

What a truly awful position for the community, not to mention Council, to be in – choiced with standing in support of a design not on its merits alone, not because it is necessarily the best use of space for our community, but because the alternative is demonstrably worse.  I was told that to speak at the public hearing I would need to sign my name either for or against the project.  I am decidedly neutral, precisely because of this no-man’s land, ‘between a rock and a hard place’ position in which we find ourselves.

For me, this is not about density.  To use a recent quote from former Vancouver planner Brent Toderian that I have used much in recent weeks: “It’s not about height dogma, it’s about an eye for great design.”  And where is the great design?  With all due respect to the architect, to me this development is lacklustre and uninspired.  It is bland – it is a blockish, visually uninteresting, cookie cutter mass of buildings with a glass obsession.

That said, great vibrant street fronts don’t care about towers.  They are born at a pedestrian level.  Great neighbourhoods care about how a building meets the ground.  My organisation, the North Van Urban Forum, was born, in part, out of conversations held while sitting in the Cafe for Contemporary Art, staring across Esplanade and ruminating on the wasted opportunities of the Pinnacle Hotel street frontage – the anti-visionary decisions that led to a modern fortress in our midst.  Dead street fronts have no place in modern planning.  Thoughtlessness about the pedestrian experience should not be tolerated in our developments.  This is why I am largely ambivalent towards conversations about parking, and traffic impacts, and vehicle entrances.  Other than safety, and aesthetics, I find it very difficult to care about such things.  The time for the dominance of the automobile in decision making around developments is rightfully over.

When we met with Onni a couple of weeks ago to discuss their changes, I acknowledged that it is very late in the game to be making substantive design amendments.  I urged them to throw anything left that they have at streetscaping.  At pavement design.  At encouraging lively, animated street fronts that will distract the eye, and lead us to be excited about this town centre opportunity.  If I were on Council, or if I worked with City staff, this would be one of the strongest messages that I would make now to Onni, and indeed to all developers.  Aesthetics matter.  Permeability matters.  The pedestrian experience matters.  Sidewalk design and streetscaping matters.  Being a good community-oriented actor matters.

Onni speaks about the risk they are taking with this, and other developments.  Of course the potential exists to lose money.  But developers are not in this game out of the goodness of their hearts.  They make a bid, a proposal because they think it makes financial sense.  They stand to profit.  If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be in the game.  So our job, as citizens, as council members, as city staff members, is to say to all developers – okay, if we let you into our community, if we let you re-shape our skylines, if we let you change the shape and character of our city in your quest for business growth – what will you give us in exchange?  What opportunities will you give us for improving our city?  What enhancements will you make to the character of our built environment?  How will you beautify our city?

Being a good community actor is about respect.  It is about respecting the community values of the places in which you operate.  It is about respecting democratic processes.  It is about respecting duly elected representatives and not publicly encouraging the populace to vote against them if they voice criticisms of you.  It is about doing everything in your power to ensure transparency, honesty, and to mitigate the opportunities for such criticisms in the first place.

We must, however, hold equally stringent standards to ourselves.  We, the public, bear a burden of responsibility also.  Onni stated to us when we met that they had been actively encouraged to significantly exceed the OCP by City staff.  There are clearly some who believe that the only way that we can pay for amenities is by getting our developers to pay for it with the scale of their developments.  While I do agree that there’s probably some validity to this argument, it is unfortunate that Onni receives the brunt of the community backlash for putting forward a proposal that so exceeds our OCP guidelines, when this is clearly also the preference of our City officials.  It is unfortunate that there is such a clear disconnect between City Hall, members of the community – and indeed from one end of Council to the other.

To the public: we must always keep an open mind. We cannot resist change simply because it is change.  We cannot viscerally attack the ideologies of others that exist in our community, simply because we have differences.  Unless we are wearing pink to combat cancer or bullying, I do not believe that colour coded displays of solidarity for or against a project are helpful to facilitating dialogue, and certainly don’t further productive, constructive conversation.

As an engaged citizen I regret that we have reached such a stage in our community debates, where vitriol, from all quarters, is allowed to flourish.  I regret that we have had to expend so much energy to encourage transparency, to defend free speech, to denounce or to declare claims of manipulation in public processes.

I regret that we have, as a community, felt so threatened that we have questioned the motives of our neighbours, our business leaders, our politicians, instead of getting on with the job of debating the merits or pitfalls of the proposals before us.

To Onni, to all developers, to council members: I would ask that you please recognise that our passions run high because with every development proposal that comes before us, our community is changed.  The character and shape of our neighbourhoods is altered, the legacy of those that came before us stands to be erased or diminished.  We ask that everything you propose, design, approve or amend, now and in the future, be proposed, designed, approved or amended because you think it is brilliant.  Because it is in the best interests of the community.  Because it is the best that you can do.  Let that be your guiding principle.

Benjamin Woodyatt

One response to “Open letter to Onni, Council and the Community

  1. Hi, just wanted to say, I liked this article. It was helpful.
    Keep on posting!

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