(Updated, Appendix 13, 14, 15) What’s really at stake at this four-day B.C. Supreme Court hearing starting August 25? Actually, it’s the very integrity of Vancouver’s City Hall. The integrity of our municipal government.
This lawsuit, launched by the Community Association of New Yaletown (CANY) is one of the most troubling of several legal battles (see list) launched by citizens against the City of Vancouver.
Ultimately, CANY aims to reverse a secret deal to swap public land (508 Helmcken) for a lot that was owned by Brenhill Developments (1099 Richards), cancel the Council’s rezoning approval for a 36-storey tower (508 Helmcken), and force the City to honour its promise to expand Emery Barnes Park (508 Helmcken).
Let’s try to get to the heart of the matter. For starters, what should the public expect from its local government? The City’s Code of Conduct summarizes it nicely (excerpt):
“Council officials, staff and advisory body members are keepers of the public trust and must uphold the highest standards of ethical behaviour. [They] are expected to … make decisions that benefit the community; act lawfully and within the authorities of the Vancouver Charter.”
Those words articulate the “social contract” between City Hall and society. Reviewing this case, it appears that all of these points may have been systematically and intentionally violated. If so, is this an isolated case? Or is it the tip of the iceberg? Is this kind of behaviour systemic at Vancouver City Hall?
CANY’s legal claims are scheduled for a four-day hearing in the B.C. Supreme Court, starting on August 25, 2014. The community group is asking the Court to set aside Council’s decision to rezone 508 Helmcken and to declare the related Land Exchange Contract unenforceable. It also eventually hopes to see the neighbourhood’s urban park and precious green space expanded, as the City originally promised. (Allegations have not been proven in court.)
This 3.5 minute video is our take on the story. And further below, we look at various aspects, including asking “Who is the enigmatic Brenhill Developments?” (The version below is slower than our original, and with quieter music. We received comments that our original video text went too fast, but if you prefer that 2.5 minute version, here it is: http://youtu.be/NSDcH5nbDgo.)
Here are some troubling aspects of this story:
- A deal between City Hall and a developer appears to have been made in secret, making a mockery of our municipal government’s consultation and public hearing processes. This would be a violation of trust, a violation of the social contract.
- It appears that action by City staff and Council in advance of public hearings are fettering future Council decisions. This is not permitted by legislation.
- It appears the City is effectively selling land without public tender. This is not permitted.
- It appears the City is, in essence, selling zoning. This is not permitted.
- The rezoning approval gives the developer hundreds of millions in development potential, but the neighbourhood gets little in return. Not a single unit of additional social housing is being created by this “innovative” development.
- In fact, negative impacts on the neighbourhood are considerable: It is being cheated of a promised park. Neighbours are losing light, sky, and views of the park, and will be subjected to the negative construction impacts of a huge tower development.
- Public servants are dragging their feet in providing information to concerned citizens.
- Our municipal government is using taxpayers’ money to fight against its own citizens.
- As part of the deal, a private, for-profit, elementary school is set to use the public park for its daily outdoor activities.
This is a complex case. For detail, please visit the Community Association of New Yaletown website for media releases, the summary of legal claims, chronology, media coverage, images, and more).
Here is our attempt to summarize things based on CANY documents. The main site in question, 508 Helmcken Street, is at the northeast corner of Emery Barnes Park, in the centre of the mixed-income New Yaletown neighbourhood of downtown Vancouver. The City-owned land was at 508 Helmcken [correction], the site of the Jubilee House social housing building. The building was aging, and the City’s plan, after the housing was replaced and building demolished, was to expand the park to occupy the entire city block. The City had even budgeted money for this, and local residents who chose to invest and live in the neighbourhood were counting on this promise to be fulfilled. But the plans secretly and dramatically changed, as detailed in CANY’s chronology of the case of the land swap and rezoning approval.
The now-approved development at 508 Helmcken, if built, will permanently destroy any hopes of the park occupying the entire city block. Instead, on what was publicly-owned land, Brenhill Developments now intends to build and profit from a 36-storey, with the highest floor-space ratio (density) of any residential building in the Vancouver. The proposed tower dramatically exceeds neighbourhood plans for the site:
- Over 4.5 times as tall as allowed in the Downtown Official Development Plan
- Over 5.5 times as dense (floor-space ratio)
- Just half the normal setback from sidewalks and lanes as required by law
City Council also approved plans for a private school to move into the new building and use the park’s public playground. The tower was approved via a series of breaches of procedural fairness, and in disregard of overwhelming (90%) neighbourhood opposition.
Suspecting that City Hall was following improper and unfair procedures, CANY tried but failed numerous times to get more information. When direct requests failed, they inquired using Freedom of Information legislation to make their queries. Eventually, the City released a fraction of the requested documents, but it was enough for CANY to finally have evidence that the City had secretly signed a Land Exchange Contract with a developer and agreed to rezone the land to a specific square footage. The evidence showed that City Council had approved this deal in secret even before its first public open house for the development (see July 16 media release). The documents show that if Council changed anything (such as reducing the square footage by even a tiny amount), the whole deal would fall apart. None of these facts were disclosed at the public hearing on 508 Helmcken. Over 90% of public input to the “public hearing” was opposed to the rezoning. But Council had no room to move. The development was already, in effect, a done deal.
So what does this all mean? This case shows that “community engagement,” “consultations” and even Public Hearings under the current regime at City Hall could be a sham in many cases. It undermines trust in our municipal government. Personal and organizational sacrifices of time and energy to get involved in civic decision-making could be a waste of time, if decisions have already been made and even secret contracts signed. Illegal or even criminal activities may be going on behind closed doors. This case also shows how complex some land use deals are — which is a huge obstacle for the public and media to understand and comment on specific developments. It shows how certain individuals and companies may be manipulating the civic system, or at least benefiting excessively from it. CANY’s intensive effort and costly legal struggle also shows how much effort (time, money, expertise) is required of ordinary citizens if they seek to understand a City Council decision and if they seek just treatment, even in the case of just one specific development. If the civic system is not functioning fairly and in good faith, the burden on society is huge. Benefits are focused on a few. Costs are spread out among many.
That is the story in a nutshell. Below we have short sections looking at various aspects of this story. Continue reading