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Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson in front of the Public Library Monday November 17, 2008. (Carmine Marinelli For The Globe and Mail/Carmine Marinelli For The Globe and Mail)
Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson in front of the Public Library Monday November 17, 2008. (Carmine Marinelli For The Globe and Mail/Carmine Marinelli For The Globe and Mail)

Mayor's gaffe prompts apology Add to ...

An energetic group of Vancouver residents that has been campaigning against Mayor Gregor Robertson's rental-housing initiative scored a victory Monday, catching and publicizing a clip of him fuming and swearing about them at the end of a council meeting before it was wiped off the city website.

Those comments, made between Mr. Robertson and two other councillors when they thought the city's audio-recording system was turned off at the end of the meeting, have added dangerous fuel to what was already one of Mr. Robertson's major political problems: community opposition to his council's plan to create rental housing by giving incentives to developers.

The recorded comments, which went out on YouTube Monday morning, have also solidified the West End Neighbours group, which sprang up last fall to oppose the Short Term Incentive for Rental program, as one that's capable of inflicting significant damage. The group has already gathered over 7,000 names in a petition, brought 300 and 400 people out to community meetings, and completely trounced the more moderate West End Residents Association when it comes to getting media attention.

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The YouTube clip produced a media frenzy Monday morning, prompting the mayor to issue an apology for his "totally inappropriate" comments within hours.

But that apology didn't go far with those residents.

"Their comments off camera show they discount us, that they had no intention of listening to us," said Randy Helten, spokesman for WEN. "I spent a whole day at council waiting to speak and this response was very disrespectful."

Mr. Robertson said Monday that he wasn't dismissive of the West End group's concerns, but that his comments came after a long and frustrating meeting.

"We are having a tough time figuring out how to create rental housing. We're trying to do the right thing and we're finding it difficult to find the right path."

He said the current fight over setting up an advisory committee is exposing underlying problems between different interest groups in the West End, as council has tried to encourage the development of long-term rental apartments through its Short Term Incentives for Rental program.

"There is a tension between owners and renters and there's real questions as to who is being represented. There was concern that the needs of the renter community were not being voiced."

The motion approved at the contentious meeting specified that the 12 members of the future committee should reflect the demographics of the area and take into account the fact that 80 per cent of residents are renters. Mr. Helten said he has been encouraged by other Vision councillors, Kerry Jang and Raymond Louie, to apply for a spot on the committee.

But he said he's dubious about doing that.

"They want to produce this image of consultation while they get their rezonings approved."

The capture of the microphone gaffe was just the latest coup for the West End group, which has used some unusual tactics to make points, including buying tickets to Vision Vancouver fundraisers to buttonhole the mayor.

The group is opposing proposals for about half a dozen STIR projects where developers are being given more space than the zoning would normally allow, which has led to proposals for some very tall towers. In return, the developers are supposed to commit to legal agreements that their future buildings will remain as rentals for 60 years or the life of the building.

However, the WEN group has expressed doubts about all aspects of the program. At various points, they've said there is no longer a shortage of rentals in the West End, that developers will be getting windfall profits, and that there is no guarantee they won't flip their buildings for even more profit.

The group is asking for a coherent community plan before extra-tall new buildings are stuck in, an assurance that there are enough services for the new population and more information about what trade-offs the developers are getting.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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