Concerns and questions about City consultation processes (Comox Helmcken Greenway as a case study)

Are there problems with the integrity of the consultation process on the “Comox-Helmcken Greenway”? Perhaps yes, perhaps not. This is an open question, but we encourage neighbours in our community to keep an eye on this topic, as it may be a symbol of how things are operating at City Hall. These are some issues and we will and will report back if we there is a response from the City’s Engineering, other departments, or higher up. Note that the final open house of this consultation process is tonight (September 27) at the Roundhouse Community Centre. [Update 6 pm, September 30, 2011: WEN today received an e-mail response from Engineering indicating that the website change mentioned below was just a text update consistent with official policy.]

The City is now engaged in consultations about the “Comox-Helmcken Greenway.” Changes are being considered in our community to create a special path from False Creek to Stanley Park. (What is a “greenway”? Click here for more info. ) Part of the WEN petition, signed by over 12,000 people, calls for “meaningful” consultation. While the petition relates to rezoning, development, and a community plan, we believe from thousands of conversations that West Enders would generally support “greenway” objectives. But people expect to see a meaningful and trustworthy consultation process by our public servants and end product that is fair and offers a good balance for all users of Comox Street (and other routes through our community). How much of the final outcome is already predetermined? How much is being “steered” from back rooms at City Hall? Below we provide a detailed commentary on observations so far. If you have further comments, please e-mail us at info [at] 

Residents need to have confidence in the objectivity and capabilities of the staff responsible for the future of their neighbourhoods. Based on recent City consultations, including the Hornby Bike lane “trial” currently under way, people have developed a cynical view of city staff, these consultations, and City Council’s approach to decision-making. We are hearing many individuals express their sense that many parts of the Comox-Helmcken Greenway are predetermined, “a done deal,” and that the consultation may be for show.

We are hearing residents say that it is difficult to provide useful input without a better sense of the parameters of the project. People are saying that to have City Staff indicate “we’re listening to your ideas” is not very helpful when there are presumably some very real terms of reference for the ways in which other Greenways have been formatted, for the functional requirements of the transportation system, and limits on potential expenditures. The consultation should not be a “screaming match” where the largest number or loudest comments win the day and decide the future of the greenway. Rather staff need to balance the needs of various users, including those who live on the streets most affected.

We have heard that there may have only been two actual residents on one of the walking tours from Stanley Park to Nelson Park. If the tours were “stacked” with staff and community activists, they may result in predictable outcomes, rather than solutions that truly reflect the objectives of residents. We encourage residents to ask staff how the public be assured that the tours were not stacked.

The public servants and elected officials are expected to “balance the wants and needs of different interests.” For example, the objectives of cyclists should not override the objectives of residents or seniors. Related to this, we have heard some concerns about potential closures of portions of Comox Street or adjacent streets to traffic. When questioned on the potential for street closures, Douglas Scott, City of Vancouver Landscape Architect, on September 23 indicated that the City’s approach to closures had recently been updated.

Lo and behold, the original text from the City’s website:

Question 6. Will I lose on-street parking or access to my street or home?
Answer (as of Sept. 13): Every Greenway will have a distinctive character. Many of them will be constructed along existing residential streets. In projects so far, emphasis has been placed on maintaining on-street parking, especially in front of residents’ homes. Roadways would only be closed to vehicular traffic where access to existing homes from their street or lane is not affected and where the adjacent residents support the closure.

On further investigation, we see that with no public explanation or notice, FAQ # 6 was altered on the City’s official website (apparently, on Sept 16 as indicated in the site’s footer):

Answer 6 (revised on  Sept. 16): Will I lose on-street parking? Every Greenway will have a distinctive character with different adjacent land uses, community needs and on-street uses such as short term parking for loading and passengers. While the focus is to improve walking and cycling for people of all abilities between the ages of 8 to 80, consideration is given to balancing the needs of all road users. While many residents are fortunate to have on-street parking available near their homes, the City is not able or obligated to provide on-street parking.

Now our comment: Changing policies in the week leading up to the consultation should leave Vancouver citizens questioning the transparency of an exercise like this consultation. Is this common practice at the City of Vancouver? We note that the transportation plan approved by City Council in 2002 set out some specific parameters for Greenways, and for vehicle access – available here.

The bottom of page 87 / top of page 88, indicates the expectations for Comox/Helmcken:

The report notes that local vehicle access will be retained. It would seem therefore that a proposal to transfer existing vehicle traffic to Nelson Street or other West End streets is unfair to users and residents of Comox Street and unfair to users and residents of these other streets – such a move is inconsistent with Council’s direction in the 2002 plan.

Nowhere in the survey or the information on the City’s website are there references to the use of these greenway streets for access to people’s homes. This of course creates some concern for people who live along any greenway route (in the case of the West End, Comox Street) as their objectives are likely to be different than a casual user who wants a convenient route (e.g., access from False Creek to the Second Beach pool, a few times a year).

So now, our questions to City Hall: Who decided to change the policy, who was involved in the decision, when did they decide, and why?  And what else on this page was changed besides #6?

This specific policy change on #6 may appear trivial to some, but it could also be considered as symbolic, as a case study regarding current practices of City Hall in public consultation. How will the City respond? If we get an answer, we’ll let our readers know.

Here are some other messages we have heard that residents expressed to the City, which may or may not be included in the official summary of comments received:

  1. Comox Street in the West End actually functions quite well as it is: comfortable for pedestrians, quiet, low traffic and generally safe for cycles. Only modest changes should be necessary. The street’s current low traffic volumes should be used as an indication that many people in the neighbourhood are already engaging in “active transportation” rather than being used as an argument to further restrict vehicle traffic.
  2. Larger changes are likely needed on Helmcken Street to make it a comfortable greenway, including changes to sidewalks, parking, travel lanes, landscaping, and intersections.
  3. Residents who rely on Comox Street to access their homes need to have a say in the future of the street. A cyclist from East Vancouver is obviously going to encourage the use of Comox Street solely for bikes, but this doesn’t recognize the differences in objectives for those passing through and those who live here.
  4. Opportunities for “social gathering spaces” need to be balanced with the potential negative impacts of these spaces such as noise, smoking, and litter.
  5. There are some concerns that a Greenway along Comox going downhill to Stanley Park could be hazardous as tourists, commuters and fitness users (with a mix of skate-borders?) hurtle down a hitherto pleasant and quiet street trying to avoid children, residents and seniors.
  6. The transition from Comox to Helmcken crossing Burrard could do with some improvement for cycling, as could the intersection at Thurlow and Comox for both cycling and pedestrians, i.e. Thurlow and Comox should have a three-way traffic light, or at the very least a controlled cross-walk on the north side of Thurlow for pedestrians to avoid cars on Comox turning south on Thurlow who creep into the intersection to see if there is oncoming traffic.
  7. Overall, existing vehicle traffic on inner West End streets is already very respectful of other users, such as pedestrians and cyclists.
  8. At the Open Houses and consultations, why didn’t staff survey how people actually got to the events? In the West End, they would have likely discovered that the majority of people arrived by walking, cycling, scooter, or other eco-friendly means. And if so, this may give a sense of the existing state of mobility through the West End and habits of its residents. And may also give an idea about the cost-effectiveness of what may be costly and disruptive changes if City staff end up recommending dramatic changes.
  9. How much coordination is there between the Comox-Helmcken Greenway planning process and other processes (West End Community Plan 2012-onward), Transportation 2040 plan, West End Business Improvement Area (WEBIA) visioning process, and so on? Specifically, in the case of this greenway consultation, WHO is looking after the big picture for the benefit of all taxpayers and West End residents, and specifically, by what process does this occur?
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