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Architect Graham McGarva at South False Creek. He has lived in South False Creek since its founding 40 years ago.Kerry Gold/The Globe and Mail

Last week, Vancouver released the results of a month-long survey that asked citizens what should be done with the city-owned land of False Creek South. Vancouverites are familiar with the cluster of 1970s stacked townhouses that hug the southern False Creek shoreline, and sit between Cambie and Burrard Street bridges.

Through online meetings and survey questionnaires sent out in February, 4,349 people responded, and the answers that came back were general in nature. False Creek South residents and others surveyed mostly agree that the neighbourhood needs more affordable housing options for a great many people, more diversity, and that any redevelopment should be gradual and not disruptive to the people living there.

For the False Creek South Neighbourhood Association, none of it was eye opening. For the past decade, they’ve been planning a way to revitalize the community by adding seniors housing and services that would free up the leasehold strata condos, and the two and three bedroom rentals and co-op units to a lot more young families. They’ve identified vacant spaces where low and mid-rise infill could easily be added, to create workforce housing and permanent housing for the homeless. They have a preliminary plan to more than double the density of their community without spoiling the uniquely livable environment that they’ve created over the decades, so that future generations will enjoy it. But the process has not been an easy one.

The units have been well maintained and the 40-year-old buildings are in good shape, says Graham McGarva, who lives in False Creek South. Mr. McGarva is no stranger to the planning of major density. As founding principal of VIA Architecture, he worked on Concord Pacific Place, International Village and the 2010 Olympic Village. He is also part of the volunteer group that includes many planners and urban designers that created a citizen-driven plan for the city-owned neighbourhood, called RePlan.

A couple of years ago, with the city and hundreds of people from around the area, they came up with the guiding principles for that new plan. City council unanimously approved. But the city has been reluctant to meaningfully engage, says Mr. McGarva, and this is of particular concern because one of the co-ops comes up for renewal in the next six months. Other co-op leases will soon follow. It’s an uncertain future for those residents, many of them low income.

Residents at some of the co-ops have subsidized their low-income neighbours through an anonymous payment system. Mr. McGarva says the payments might amount to $100 or $200 a month extra, but vary case by case. It’s a uniquely community-forward approach to housing, and it’s voluntary. It’s a model they hope to replicate in their expansion plans.

As for the results of the city’s survey, Mr. McGarva says if the city staff needed to hear from the general public, and it helps moves things forward, that’s all good.

“It’s kind of like, ‘ho hum,’ but now it’s a baseline and now we can carry on with the work we’ve been doing.”

But proponents of the False Creek South model say there are a couple of troubling issues in regard to how the city has been handling the matter of False Creek South. There is a lack of transparency around discussions that staff is having with city councillors, which have been held in private. And there’s also the problematic nature of the city’s survey, which included a “fact sheet” containing demographic information that wasn’t specific to their community. The city data provided for the survey mistakenly made it appear that the median household income of the community is 20 per cent higher than incomes throughout the rest of the city.

The city used data for the census tract that includes pricey freehold strata condos to the east and the west.

In an e-mail response, city staff referred to a 2017 City of Vancouver report on False Creek South and acknowledged that, “overall, the median income for all households in False Creek South on city land is 13 per cent higher than Vancouver. And the median income for all households in False Creek South on non-city Land is 20 per cent higher than Vancouver.”

The 2016 census tract the city used has a population of 5,969 people. The actual city-owned land has a population of 3,250, according to Mr. McGarva.

The city referred to the area as 80 acres in size; however, if they remove public parks, the area is closer to 58 acres, and that includes roads and paths.

Residents of the community have been targeted on social media, and portrayed in print as self-serving, wealthy, older people refusing to vacate city-owned property. One article went as far as to call the entire False Creek South project “a failure.”

“It’s an example of a blatant data error,” Mr. McGarva says. “It’s laziness, I don’t think it’s evil. But it becomes a hate-filled, venom-filled argument you can’t go anywhere with.”

The city fact sheet provided to survey respondents did not mention that almost half of the 1,800 housing units are market housing, including leasehold strata and market rental units. The other half is non-market and social housing, available to seniors, disabled people and low-income earners.

“It’s very odd that the city would present the data the way they did and then essentially paint this picture of people in social housing as if they are taking advantage of the public,” said University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski, whose urban planning PhD thesis in the 1970s included False Creek South. “That these are really wealthy people living in non-profit housing on city-owned land, and they want to continue living there. Of course they do. Who wants to be displaced?”

In fact, the incomes in the area are a study in contrasts.

For statistical analysis, the smallest geographic pocket is called a dissemination area (DA), and two out of the eight DA’s for False Creek South are among the lowest income groups in the city, according to analysis by Simon Fraser University community data science instructor Craig Jones. Mr. Jones is also a University of B.C. PhD candidate for urban geography.

There are no single-family houses in False Creek South, and it has a higher rate of residents who walk and cycle to work than the city overall. If the idea is to expand upon a safe, central, walkable, affordable community where people interact, and kids can play outdoors, where seniors can age in place, it’s the ideal, many experts who’ve studied it say.

However, if the plan is to turn it into a sea of towers at market rates that will displace residents and bust up the uniquely high standard of livability, then that would be a tragic loss for the whole city, says Andy Yan, director of the city program for SFU. He says the inspiration behind False Creek South grew out of inclusive community movements of the early 1970s, such as Habitat ’76, the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, held in Vancouver.

“It was a time when we began to understand the importance of community-centred projects,” Mr. Yan says. “False Creek South is a changing neighbourhood, but in no way is it a ‘failed’ neighbourhood. It’s very much a globally celebrated example of inclusive development in Vancouver.”

In an effort at involving the public in the process, last week Councillor Jean Swanson introduced a motion that called for more transparency around city staff discussions on False Creek South. City council accepted the motion unanimously.

Ray Spaxman, former director of planning for the city, says that in order to establish trust and quash rumours, the city needs that transparency. Mr. Spaxman was the chief of planning from 1973 to 1989 and keen on public participation in the planning process.

He calls False Creek South a “remarkable experiment,” that was “radical” for the time.

Mr. Yan says it still stands out as a remarkable experiment, because it’s housing for people – not investment, like so many of the city strata condos that surround it.

But public engagement requires factual information and transparency, Mr. Spaxman says.

“This is not the right way to do it,” he says. “There’s this whole question of openness and community involvement … about the way to get trust in government is to be open and talk about stuff.

“False Creek South was a raging success – a prototype of how to meet social, environmental and economic desires of a community. And also, the process was benefiting from the Jane Jacobs era of talking to people about what’s really going on – and being truthful with them.”

Mr. McGarva says collaboration and trust are key when the goals include adding infill to an existing community, rebalancing its socio-economic diversity and also respecting the market forces that press upon surrounding freehold land.

“That is what I and RePlan are aiming for, which is made more difficult in the climate of click bait. Our mantra is: ‘We are the solution, not the problem.’”

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