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Who are the North Van City Voices?
It’s been a big year for the North Van City Voices, to say the least.
Today, the citizens’ group counts its membership in triple digits and has been credited — or cursed, depending on your view — with halting the massive Central Lonsdale Onni development.
But fewer than 12 months ago, those “voices” were a disparate chorus, barely numbering in the double digits and only on occasion singing from the same songbook.
Then came City Shaping, the first of a series of engagement seminars the City of North Vancouver hosted to get residents involved in the forward-looking Official Community Plan (OCP) process.
To many, City Shaping seemed innocuous enough. But to the dozen or so soon-to-be Voices, some of whom still characterize City Shaping as a developer-driven mock consultation, it was a line-in-the-sand moment.
“A group of us got talking afterward and felt that the event had been so slanted in the approach it was taking to planning a new OCP, that it seemed to be slanted towards density and development and the speakers were cheerleading density,” says John Watson, who along with Fred Dawkins, speaks on behalf of the group.
“The choices we were given and the questions we were asked were all leading towards ‘more density is great’ and ‘we should all be living on shelves and not in homes with lots and gardens,’” he continues.
The group blamed city council, and on Feb. 21, an email was circulated among them with a telling subject line; “Council-shaping.”
It was a strategy paper that, in retrospect, became the formative document of the City Voices movement. Its objective was clear, if perhaps unintentionally sinister sounding: “Limit the power of MKB.”
The letters corresponded to Mayor Darrell Mussatto and councillors Craig Keating and Linda Buchanan; those municipal governors the Voices deemed overly development friendly.
Their plan was to unite the remainder “BBCH” — councillors Don Bell, Pam Bookham, Rod Clark and Guy Heywood — through meetings, letters-to-the-editor and ads critiquing the less hard-lined among them, all in an effort to “take charge of council, set the agenda and limit the power of MKB.”
“Some of the councillors we supported didn’t seem to be reflecting our support, if you like,” Watson explains. “So we were trying to get their attention.”
But to whatever degree it was practised, the campaign met with no concrete success in shifting council on density, development or the OCP.
“We weren’t able to change anyone’s minds,” Dawkins admits.
But that doesn’t mean the North Van City Voices weren’t becoming a popular movement amongst the public, as their swelling ranks have shown.
On Dec. 4, the day a frustrated Onni announced it would quit its density-heavy redevelopment plans for 13th Street and Lonsdale Avenue due to civic backlash, traffic to the City Voices’ website reached an all-time high of 722 visitors.
That despite the group’s not even having taken an official position on the proposal yet.
“We still haven’t even met to discuss that,” Dawkins says, weeks after Onni blasted members of the group, calling them NIMBYs and blaming them for anti-development petitions which the group says it had no part in.
Dawkins is quick to say the group isn’t anti-development per se, rather he sees them as protectors of a fair OCP process, especially regarding rules for neighbourhood density.
“It seems to be automatic now that any large developer, they automatically assume the OCP is the starting point for density and then they add on to that,” he says.
“And it leads to over-reaching by developers,” he continues. “Then they scale back and we think we’ve made a great victory when it’s only twice as big as it should be instead of three times as big.”
While both Dawkins and Watson insist they’d rather be doing anything else than serving as “reluctant council watchers,” they say as long as there’s a need, the Voices will be heard.
And if Onni decides to come back for a last-chance public hearing on its Lonsdale project planned for the New Year, Dawkins says they’ll be ready. “This time we’ll want to fly the flag.”