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British Columbia Opponents of Vision Vancouver join forces to influence city planning

Fern Jeffries of the False Creek Residents' Association, second from right, meets with reps from community groups that include Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council and Dunbar Residents Association in downtown Vancouver, Thursday, October 24, 2013.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Boosting an already strong surge of protests over new development, bike lanes and growth plans in this rapidly changing city, some residents' groups are joining forces to fight for more control over future projects.

"We're very tired of the old model of city consultation," said Fern Jeffries, a False Creek resident who has helped pull together 18 neighbourhood groups into the new Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods. "We want the respect that acknowledges that residents really are the experts on their own neighbourhoods."

The group, which includes members from Dunbar in the west to Marpole in the south and Norquay in the east, says local residents feel "damaged and disappointed" when their hours of input are ignored in current city planning.

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The new coalition is the latest manifestation of opposition that is growing more vocal and unified to the five-year-old Vision Vancouver party, which has an aggressive agenda to build more rental housing, create more cycling paths, plan for more density and streamline city operations.

It also comes as developers, who spent the past two decades building tower projects on empty industrial land downtown, have run out of room there and moved into more settled neighbourhoods.

The combination has resulted in huge brawls over individual projects, like the Rize tower at Kingsway and Broadway, area plans for four large districts in the city, new management plans for community centres, and new bike lanes.

Last weekend, two protests at opposite ends of the city brought out hundreds of angry residents, one group objecting to a plan for a bike path through a park, the other related to the fight over management at a community centre.

Vision councillors say opposition is not new in a city that has often been conflicted about change.

But they say that opposition has to be measured against the serious challenges the city faces and what the Vision party was elected to do.

"We've tried to move thoughtfully, but it's hard to stare problems in the face ... and not take action even if it's difficult," Councillor Andrea Reimer said.

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Ms. Reimer said previous councils took a go-slow approach that left Vision to deal with a backlog, which has resulted in a lot of change.

She said the city recognized a year ago that old consultation processes were not working and it created a task force to come up with better strategies. The Engaged City Task Force is about to issue a final report.

"There's a long history of neighbourhoods seeking a greater voice at city hall, but the expectations of the community are always rising and the tools are changing," Ms. Reimer said.

Residents involved in the new coalition say a lot of distrust built up over the past several years as one project after another was pushed through. They are not sure that any recommendations from the new task force will help.

"Right now, there is tremendous suspicion," Ms. Jeffries said.

Jonathan Weisman of the Dunbar Residents Association said city planners often do not give people a chance to make a free choice about what they would like in their neighbourhoods.

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"It's effectively push-polling. We're given an opportunity to rank undesirable choices," said Mr. Weisman, a lawyer who moved to Dunbar from Toronto four years earlier, little expecting to get enveloped in development tussles.

As well, people in the group have their doubts about the style of density that city planners seem to be pushing, especially the numerous proposals for future towers in low-rise districts.

In Dunbar, an expensive and leafy neighbourhood of single-family homes, the most recent fight was over plans for a six-storey building.

The city turned down the proposal this week. But residents are worried it could come back through a different channel, Mr. Weisman said.

"There seems to be a general notion that we need to build more, but it looks like we might just homogenize the city."

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