Could a last-minute rumble about non-engagement in Kitsilano drown the city’s megaplan?
Vancouver’s Park Board Commissioners will be in the hot seat January 29, 2018 when they decide on the fate of VanSplash, a vast 25-year city-wide aquatics plan that has so far incited outrage in two neighbourhoods.
While spirited battles to save small east and west side neighbourhood pools from demolition have landed the plan on the public radar, a third neighbourhood facing major changes has thus far remained silent – Kitsilano. But perhaps for good reason.
Few there even know about the plans.
VanSplash’s public engagement did not include directly informing or engaging the Kits Community Centre (KCC) patrons, rink patrons or neighbourhood about the proposal to build a huge “city-wide” destination indoor pool there with a “sport training” focus.
The presentation for the VanSplash final strategy report says the plan is to build a $75 million pool as part of a $30-50 million community centre renewal and/or $30-40 million rink upgrade.
Remaining a place for the community
“That will completely destroy the community that Kits has,” said KCC gym patron Lisa Henault of the community fostered by the gym. She found out about the changes from a gym friend on Dec 11, 2017, the day the plan was initially slated for approval by the Commissioners.
That evening and the following one, about 50 speakers from the public shared their thoughts with Commissioners about the multi-faceted plan, speaking mostly against it, which forced the decision to be delayed until January.
“It’s really about the community centre remaining a place for the community,” she said, explaining that the KCC gym is “like the gym version of Cheers, where everyone knows your name.”
Vancouver’s only model of the facility intended for Kits with a huge destination pool housed in a fitness megaplex is Hillcrest Community Centre, located beside Nat Bailey Stadium, surrounded mostly by a large park and Queen Elizabeth Park, away from residences.
Big box fitness
Their greatest value from an economic perspective, as is emphasized in the final strategy report, is the megaplexes’ cost-effectiveness. They serve thousands each day and because they co-locate fitness amenities, the operational cost are lower. They are the fitness equivalent of the big box store for the masses.
Henault says she avoids the Hillcrest megaplex in general because it is too busy, noting that she feels the gym there is too small for the number of people it is intended to accommodate: “It is very poorly laid out and extremely overcrowded.” She worries this will be what happens to the KCC, which is large and already busy, when it shifts to serving more than the locals.
Planners have not clarified how the proposed Kits pool will accommodate the general public – the plan says the destination pool will have a sport-training focus to serve the city’s swim clubs and aquatics athletes, and to host competitions; there will also be a “leisure component”.
Lack of public knowledge
KCC patron Bill Wadsworth is passionately outspoken about the proposed megapool and community-centre and/or rink renewal, for which planning and design are proposed to start mid-2019; construction, mid-2023. The intent is to build on the footprint of the existing community centre and/or rink facility and parking lot, and have paid underground parking, or to build it on the east side of nearby Connaught Park.
Wadsworth heard about the plan in late December from a KCC friend. One of his big issues with it is that he believes the public engagement was insufficient: “The public was not notified, there was such a limited response, it is clear there was a lack of public knowledge.”
The planners relied on feedback from 1,648 people city-wide, who completed the Phase 2 public engagement – a 12-question online survey made available online Sept 18 – Oct 8, 2017 – to conclude there was public support for the many recommendations/plans that most notably include three rebuilds of existing indoor pools, one new indoor pool at Kits, and a new outdoor pool.
All of the new pools are intended to be part of community centre renewals, and involve making larger pools, except the Vancouver Aquatic Centre which will stay destination sized.
This second phase of engagement was intended to get feedback about the draft recommendations, which were shaped by results of Phase 1 public engagement conducted in 2016, which were also shared in the Phase 2 survey.
Who had a say?
The final strategy report indicates that only 35% of respondents to the Phase 2 survey said that they think the indoor pool plans will improve indoor aquatic services in Vancouver, which the report writers attribute to the backlash against the closure of two neighbourhood pools and their supporters.
The planners hosted the in-person open houses for Phase 2 public engagement at Hillcrest Community Centre and Killarney Community Centre where no changes are planned; a third outreach was held at the Vancouver Aquatic Centre. The final report does not have any information about what input was received from these events, numbers on attendance or how the input was utilized. Half of the survey respondents heard about it from Talk Vancouver, the city of Vancouver’s email list that emails surveys to people who have signed up to give public input on city plans.
There was also a meeting for the community centre associations in the fall, which a community centre association representative from East Van who said, on the condition of anonymity, was “more of a sales presentation than a true consultation to get feedback.”
The west-side and east-side neighbourhood pools originally slated for demolition were also not directly informed of the plans for their pools. The final strategy report clarifies that planners will engage the Kits community after the central component of the plan to build the destination pool has been approved in principle as part of the 10-year strategy, and pursued further via attempting to secure capital funding.
Park Board public engagement standards policy
All of this could not be occurring at a better time; the Park Board Commissioners very recently addressed the Board’s formal policy for public engagement standards that are being created to ensure that the public is properly engaged. The policy was slated for approval in mid-November 2017, but after much debate, was sent back to staff by the Commissioners to be reworked.
The staff gave a presentation to pitch the policy, espousing general ideals such as “We seek out and facilitate the involvement of people potentially affected by or interested in a decision,” and that public engagement is “when decision makers bring together residents and stakeholders to develop or respond to ideas or issues that directly or indirectly affect them”.
It did not address the amount of engagement appropriate for city-wide plans that also have local impacts, such as the one in question, which bundles together a series of recommendations to overhaul aquatics and also community centre renewals over 10 years.
In the long discussion that followed the presentation, Commissioner Evans explained that what she asks herself when evaluating the adequacy of the Park Board staff public engagement is: “Is your level of engagement commensurate to the decision that is being made?”
Relative to the decision being made
Looking to other jurisdictions for comparisons in terms of how much engagement is conducted for proposed significant changes to community centres, North Vancouver is planning a significant renewal of the Harry Jerome Community Recreation Centre. The public engagement has included: a statistically sound randomized poll to get an idea of what the city at large feels about what kind of pool is better – 25 or 50 metres; a public opinion survey; an Open House display at Harry Jerome; staff presentations; and a Town Hall Meeting.
Wadsworth recently watched the hours and hours of 50 speakers from the Dec 11 and 12, 2017 Park Board meeting when disapprovers showed up en masse, to get a better feel for what people think.
He now thinks that what is at stake is a tremendous amount of tax payer money — $200 million, not including the community centre renewals — and feels that more input from more people is required because of the long-term implications and the breadth of what is being planned.
The overarching plan ultimately asks the Park Board Commissioners to entrench a public policy shift towards more larger, integrated megaplexes. Many of the speakers on Dec 11 and Dec 12, 2017 spoke out against this shift, emphasizing the need to prioritize the connection and community fostered by smaller spaces.
While in the debate about the public engagement policy Commissioner MacKinnon suggested that the policy standards might well be the legacy of the current Board, as elections come this October, their real legacy could end up being their approval of the super-sizing of community spaces.
“I’m ok to not get what I want in the end,” says Wadsworth, clarifying that if broader public opinion reveals that most people want big pools in big facilities, then that is part of democracy. But he believes that more people should have a say.
Still, he has had conversations with other KCC gym users who don’t like the plan. He says many tell him not to waste his time trying to do anything because there is no point: “The decision has already been made.”
From Wadsworth’s vantage point, “Nothing will happen unless people are made aware of what’s going on.”
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- To review the over 500 page report, see the VanSplash links towards the bottom of this Park Board webpage
- CBC article about socials costs of shift to bigger pools
- Vancouver Courier article about the speakers at the Park Board Meeting Dec 11 & 12, 2017
- Park Board Public Engagement Policy Standards Presentation, Nov 20, 2017: Presentation