City of Vancouver rejects proposed social innovation hub at former police station site

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Former Vancouver East NDP MLA Bob Williams has strong feelings about the former Vancouver police station at 312/324 Main Street.

Over brunch in the Sylvia Hotel restaurant, the former powerhouse cabinet minister told the Georgia Straight that the cop shop must be opened up to the Downtown Eastside community, including aboriginal residents, who suffered enormously because of the bungled investigation of the missing-women cases.

“That ugly building had an ugly history and an ugly, uncaring background for decades with respect to First Nations women,” Williams said. “I think the building needs a cleansing. I think the city is looking for catharsis because of the shame we feel for the lack of care for those First Nations women.”

Williams, a director of Vancity, is spearheading a plan to accomplish this through the creation of a new Vancouver Centre for Social Innovation and Inclusion in the almost 100,000-square-foot building.

He told the Straight that it could be modelled on Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation, which brings entrepreneurs, artists, and nonprofit agencies under one roof to learn from one another.

The proposed Vancouver centre has the backing of Vancity and Simon Fraser University, which are each prepared to be represented on the board, according to Williams.

He pointed out that Vancity has forwarded $1.5 million to its community foundation for the project, and SFU is prepared to “find” a similar amount.

A report on the proposed centre features more than two dozen letters of support from high-tech and nonprofit organizations, arts groups, a First Nations society, and the local business improvement association.

Among them are the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the B.C. Technology Industry Association, and the Downtown Eastside Centre for the Arts.

“There’s really a fascinating mix,” Williams said.

The plan calls for the city to lease the building to the centre for a dollar per year, with the centre picking up all the cost of renovations.

But he claimed that the project’s proponents have run into a roadblock with city manager Penny Ballem and the Vancouver Economic Commission.

Williams revealed that the commission seems more intent on contracting a Redwood, California–based company, NestGSV, to become landlord to a cluster of high-tech companies in the former cop shop.

In his opinion, midlevel people at the commission see this as “a potential Mars project”, which he said is an unrealistic objective in the heart of the Downtown Eastside.

“My personal view is if the city tries to make it a total technology centre, they’re in for a firestorm,” Williams predicted. “I don’t think the community will accept it.”

The city recently posted a request for proposals to procure architectural services to renovate the building. City communications staff referred the Straight to the Vancouver Economic Commission, which refused to comment.

NestGSV’s receptionist referred a call from the Straight to Rick Rasmussen, who is in charge of the company’s international business development. He did not respond to a request for an interview by deadline.

In the meantime, Williams said that the city’s delay in deciding on the future of the former police station has meant that one of his group’s potential partners—SFU’s social-innovation lab and venture incubator RADIUS—is seeking another location.

He noted that the Vancouver Economic Commission was presented with a detailed proposal for the Vancouver Centre for Social Innovation and Inclusion.

Funds for it would flow through the Jim Green Foundation, which is named after the deceased former Vision Vancouver councillor. The foundation disburses money to projects that Green would have endorsed.

Following a first evaluation, Williams and the other backers returned with an amended proposal. Part of the group is Gordon Smith, former president and CEO of ICBC Properties, who worked with Williams and architect Bing Thom on creating the dazzling SFU campus at Surrey Centre.

"It was clear from day one that they didn't fully appreciate the nature of the community [Downtown Eastside] that they were within," Williams stated. "From what I hear this month, the internal group is ready to make a 'yes' or 'no' decision on the Americans."

He added that after the city negotiates a lease, it must go to council before a document is signed.

"It should be known, too, that the [city] manager at an earlier stage in 2011 was carrying out negotiations with Discovery Parks in terms of just taking the building over," Williams disclosed. "At the very end when they were expecting a signed contract at Discovery Parks, the [city] manager raised the whole question of social input and the neighbourhood."

Discovery Parks executive director and CEO Mark Betteridge declined the Straight's request for an interview. He signed one of the letters supporting the proposal for the Vancouver Centre for Social Innovation and Inclusion.

Williams said that the Vancouver Economic Commission never confirmed if there's unanimous support within city hall for a California-based landlord to take over the former police station.

"Do social-planning people really like the idea of just technology in the Downtown Eastside?" he asked.

It was Jim Green's idea

Williams said that eight years ago, former councillor Jim Green urged him to visit the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto to see if something similar could be created in Vancouver.

Around the same time, Italian industrial-design professor Pier Luigi Sacco was working with Williams and then–Vancity research associate Elvy Del Bianco on a 62-page report, The Power of the Arts in Vancouver: Creating a Great City, which explored how Vancity could stimulate the economy by focusing more attention on the creative sector.

Williams pointed out that there are more artists per capita in the Downtown Eastside than in any other census tract in the country.

He said Sacco emphasized that if Vancouver could overcome its “east-west schism”, it could unlock a great deal of potential.

Sacco also told Williams that the corridor from San Francisco to Vancouver is emerging as one of the world’s “great new creative artistic centres”.

“Sacco really talked about the best achievements in Europe, where they have broken through the silos and improved the economy and the arts at the same time,” Williams said. “It impressed us greatly and was part of our thinking in writing the [Vancouver Centre for Social Innovation and Inclusion] report, without a doubt.”

In closing, Williams said that he would like the centre in the former cop shop to be named the Jim Green Centre in honour of the former councillor. But unless Green’s Vision Vancouver friends on council get behind the idea, it’s not likely to happen.

Comments (4) Add New Comment
Rick in Richmond
The City's position is inexplicable.

The proposal led by Williams and Vancity is for a mixed-use facility that brings many forces and many energies to bear. Those who abhor the ghetto mentality in the DTES (and elsewhere) see in this proposal a powerful way to escape from it.

An all-ghetto model of technology is no better than an all-ghetto model of drug addiction.

This proposal states the obvious: when you mix arts, innovation, social entrepreneurs and tech innovators in one arena, great ideas may result. Add to the mix the sort of co-operative conscience that Vancity brings and you have lightning in a bottle. Of any place in the city, it is the DTES that desperately needs these new and creative energies.

Giving the old police station to a US-based tech outfit just makes no sense. The City needs to reconsider, and to do so now.
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G
This must be part of the Mayor's "startup city" campaign, will NetGSV get the same break on rent as the city gave Hootsuite? I am a little shocked that Vision didn't at least string people along on this until after the next civic election, have they written off support from the "social justice" community? This proposal could do more to "gentrify" the DES than any restaurant or condo. The poverty industry will be outraged by this proposal which might give it more traction than the Hootsuite deal.
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Steven Forth
Would like to know the full story here. On the surface the innovation centre described has a lot of appeal. Vancouver will not succeed by trying to copy Silicon Valley. Imitation is a recipe for failure. And bringing together artists and social innovators with business innovators could catalyse all sorts of new ideas. Hopefully the Vancity proposal described above can be given a chance.
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Margo
It would be great if the City would compromise and get a tech company to have, say, the top floor or two. The deal being that the tech company train a certain number of DTES residents in computer skills - not just social media skills - but programming; website design & maintenance and such. Give the bldg to the Innovation/Inclusion projects -- but meanwhile making an effort to bring some really decent skills training to people in the DTES. Teaching the fishing, not just giving the fish. More skills, fewer social workers. (No offence to SWs).
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