For all of Vancouver’s history, one thing has been invariably true: we prize our public spaces, our parks and waterfront especially, and we’re prepared to pay well for them.
A recent council motion in December – one of many made by the new council on its first budget – seemed to suggest that funding direction might be changing. Less money for urban improvements, more for affordable housing.
In April, 2016, the previous Council approved the closure of 800 Robson Street to motor vehicle traffic to fulfil the original vision of Arthur Erickson: a permanent public plaza, a seamless part of Robson Square from Art Gallery to Court House.
After the closure, money was spent to bring the road bed up to the level of the sidewalks, but a permanent design was still to come. Money from Community Amenity Contributions as a result of downtown development was to pay for a lot of it.
But even before it’s finished, the 800-bock plaza has become a truly Vancouver space: a place for people moving through, coming to gather, set in gardens and great architecture.
In the years following 2016, the consultation and design work was done, waiting only for the approval of Council to release the capital dollars collected to fund the final improvements.
But then, on December 18, 2018, when City Council approved the 2019 Capital budget, Melissa DeGenova moved this:
FURTHER THAT Council defer the approval of the funding of $5,381,000 recommended in the 2019 Capital Budget for improvements to Robson Plaza and direct staff to seek partner funding from the province and/or private sector partners.
Since the money had been allocated, a change on this particular project came fraught with meaning, whether it was meant to or not. What was the message that council was sending? That we need to look at reducing or deflecting money for physical improvements for a greater commitment to affordable housing? That it might it be better if some of the nice-but-not-necessary money went for a higher priority?
There is, however, a very consequential difference between the two – the difference between a set budget and an open-ended commitment. Specific projects, when built, don’t get more capital dollars; affordable housing can never have enough. There’s always demand for something … affordable.
Council made this move without a lot of consideration. But they’ll have another chance.
On January 30, Council gets a report back, with the funding pretty much as originally proposed, with some reallocated dollars from a TransLink active transportation program. I’d expect it to pass. But this motion is not really about the amount; it’s whether that priority on public spaces still prevails. How can money for, say, sidewalk accessibility, bike lanes or public art – particularly when branded as gentrification – be able to compete with something as unquestionably needed as affordable housing?
Either way, it’s another indication of Council’s priorities, and how they intend to pay for them.