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Vancouver park board pulled into Riley Park Hillcrest community centre association dispute

People swim at the Aquatic Centre at Hillcrest Park which is part of the Vancouver Olympic Centre in Little Mountain neighborhood in Vancouver, British Columbia, Monday, May 23, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The city's already beleaguered park board, embroiled in debates over whales, a homeless camp and a tussle over the management of its community centres, now has two other eruptions on its hands.

A dispute between two groups of people, each claiming to be the board of directors for the Riley Park Hillcrest community centre association, has forced the board to take over paying the centre's program instructors while the two fight it out in court this week.

And many people who use Vancouver's popular Aquatic Centre in the West End have been startled to learn that the city's real-estate division is floating the idea of having a developer replace the massive facility as its community-amenity contribution for new condo projects around the Granville Bridge.

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That has park-board commissioners trying to catch up on both issues and figure out what's next.

Vision Vancouver's Aaron Jasper and the Non-Partisan Association's John Coupar say they are in wait-and-see mode on both, although with some differences.

Mr. Jasper said the battle between the two groups at the Riley Park centre is proof the current system of having volunteer associations co-manage community centres with the park board needs some updating.

"Most of the time, we have high-functioning boards whose hearts and minds are in the right place," Mr. Jasper said. "But it is open to these kinds of problems. We need some better checks and balances."

Mr. Coupar, on the other hand, thinks the Riley Park fight is an anomaly, and once it is settled will never occur again, so reform is not necessary.

The battle started at Riley Park in 2011, when a new group of directors, several of them from outside the neighbourhood and affiliated with the NPA, was elected after the new community centre was completed as part of the Winter Olympic Games.

Jesse Johl, who was named the association's president at that time, became a vocal opponent of the park board's plan to change its agreement with the volunteer boards on how to distribute money and manage the centres. He and five other community centre associations sued the park board over the plan.

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In June, a group of Riley Park members decided to stage a coup, holding an emergency meeting and electing a new set of directors. They complained the association got involved in the lawsuit against the park board without their agreement, and that it was not providing any financial information to members.

The bank that holds the association's considerable reserves has frozen them until a decision is made on which group is the real community-association board.

As a result, the park board has had to step in and pay the 30 program instructors who usually get their cheques from the association.

As well, Mr. Johl and some of the previous board directors are suing members of the new board, saying they were improperly elected. The two sides spent Thursday in court trying to get a ruling on whether a new AGM should be held and who controls the bank account.

"It's a really difficult position," said Marion Waterston, chair of the recently elected board. "I've never been sued before."

Meanwhile, in another part of town, many residents were surprised to hear the city is inviting developers not just to bid on a piece of municipal land under one of the Granville loops – the circular off-ramps of the Granville Bridge – but also potentially to build a new aquatic centre as part of the development.

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The offer has been advertised in local newspapers, but Glen Chernen, who has started a new political party and plans to run for mayor, has accused city staff of secretly planning a vast new development with no public consultation.

Although the city has had a plan in place since 2010 to remove the Granville Loops and sell land it owns under them, even Mr. Jasper and Mr. Coupar said they did not know the city was seeking offers until they heard about it in news stories.

They, along with the city's general manager of planning, Brian Jackson, said the bid process is just a test to see if anyone is interested in developing the $36-million parcel of land and what kinds of community facilities they might be willing to provide.

And they say the park board could gain, in the end.

"There may be a win-win" if the current aquatic centre can eventually be demolished, Mr. Coupar said. "We could return that to green space."

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More


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