Daniel Tseghay and Sean Antrim: Vancouver viaducts and learning from history
This week, Vision Vancouver solidified its plans to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.
The party is claiming that the removal will correct a previous planning mistake and erase barriers between different parts of the city, creating space for park land and affordable housing. These are noble goals, and if they’re achieved, they could justify the proposal.
However, if the past gives us any insight, they are not the real reasons Vision wants to tear the viaducts down.
In October 2009, councillor Geoff Meggs made a telling admission. “No major development around or on the north False Creek lands can go ahead without confronting the viaducts,” he wrote, hinting at who Vision Vancouver is really working for.
A look around the site where the viaducts currently sit shows that the land is owned by two of Vancouver’s largest real-estate developers, Concord Pacific and Aquilini Development, both of whom donated heavily to Vision’s campaign in the last election.
Meggs went on to ask: “[I]s it time to replace them with something better?” The problem is that, considering the trend of massive tax breaks and the watering down of affordable housing definitions and requirements, it will only be better for real-estate developers and the future owners of the projects. Last year alone, Vision gave the Aquilinis a $35 million tax break on their property surrounding the Rogers Arena on the condition they create unaffordable market-rental units.
Though we agree that the viaducts should go down, we wonder what would be constructed in their place.
Vision has consistently put developer profits ahead of the interests of the people who need affordable housing, which makes their attempt to justify their plans by evoking the neighbourhood’s activist history questionable.
Decades ago, city planners worked to build a massive real-estate development, known then as Project 200, on top of what is now the Downtown Eastside. A freeway system, designed with the real-estate project in mind, would have paved over much of Chinatown. The Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants’ Association spearheaded a grassroots movement which stopped the “revitalization” project and the freeways, leaving the viaducts a mere vestige of a development cul-de-sac.
In 1972, Hogan’s Alley, then the city’s African-Canadian neighbourhood, was bulldozed to build the current overpass, but SPOTA and other groups managed to halt a massive highway system through the city and a dystopian real-estate development on top of the DTES.
Now, Vision opportunistically co-opts this tradition of resistance to cover its current project with a social and activist veneer, claiming that it too wants to reconnect Strathcona to the rest of the city and therefore must tear down the viaducts. The mayor and majority of council are piggybacking on the grassroots movement of Strathcona residents who fought the construction of the viaducts and the demolition and displacement in Chinatown in the late 1960s. But really they’re using the same booster rhetoric of “revitalization” and “redevelopment” that the NPA used back in 1968 to justify Project 200.
The city staff report for the viaduct removal project argues that “[i]n every city’s evolution there are opportunities to correct a past planning wrong”. The entire Project 200 plan, with the freeway and expensive office towers branded as “revitalization”, would have displaced thousands of residents. Now the city is making the same mistake.
This isn’t the first time that Vision has marketed a corporate welfare project as progressive—indeed, that’s Vision’s bread and butter. Every single real-estate project Vision Vancouver has approved has been branded a progressive solution to a pressing problem, whether it’s artists fleeing the city, the crisis of housing affordability, climate change, or small-businesses shutting their doors. These projects end up far out of reach of most renters, especially those who are most marginalized.
After five years of Vision’s corporate welfare, the city is more unaffordable than ever, the police budget is the highest it has ever been, the cost of using transit is more expensive, and renovictions and displacement are rampant. Social housing at the Olympic Village; the project of ending homelessness; displacement in the Downtown Eastside: each time, Vision cast itself as an progressive party with social aims, yet accomplished more at the expense of their intended beneficiaries than on their behalf.
This past week, VANDU president Dave Hamm highlighted that the number of market housing units is quickly outpacing the construction of much needed social housing by a ratio of 24 units of market housing for each unit of social housing. According to the city’s own laws, the ratio is supposed to be a maximum of five to one.
In this light, Vision’s vaunted and valorized affordable housing tokenism won’t materialize. If they’ve chosen not to build affordable units under normal, and even favourable conditions, can we really expect a change when they have to pay the expected $135 million to clear the viaducts and subsequently create affordable housing? The city will likely pay for this by selling of its land around the site, meaning the construction of social housing is unlikely.
This helps the developers in two ways. Developers would rather not have social housing near their luxury condos and, by tearing down the viaducts, the city is making it possible to develop Concord and Aquilini’s land, dramatically increasing the land value. And for all this, the city won’t make the developers pay for anything—it's old school corporate welfare, in a nutshell.
Things can turn out differently if we again look to the past for insight. The movement was the start of a long struggle to include the community in the planning process in Vancouver, and to stop displacement, especially in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside. It culminated in the construction of huge public housing projects in southwest False Creek and Champlain Heights, a model that we should still be following today.
This is the real lesson for Vision, a party which is at a “turning point”. They can continue to pay lip service to a tradition which, in its opposition to Project 200, would today oppose the selling off of public land to private developers—or they can commit to extensive construction of public housing and sincerely embody the progressive ideals they've so far only echoed opportunistically.