Upmarket waterfronts are sterile and boring

Appeared in North Shore News – June 11, 2010

“Urban waterfront redevelopment in Metro Vancouver has made our shorelines sterile and boring.”

So Bob Ransford begins his May 29 Vancouver Sun column, followed by this left-right to the solar plexus: “This is in contrast to the gritty, bustling and eclectic waterfronts of Metro Vancouver’s past.”

Sterile. Boring. West Van’s isn’t. But in future?

I’ve long admired and always read Ransford, a former real estate developer and now public affairs consultant with Counterpoint Communications.

Being congenitally disagreeable, I doubt if he and I would be in complete accord about the Spirit Trail project from West Van’s Argyle Avenue at 13th to John Lawson Park, an act of official vandalism of a mature “people place” (I never thought I’d use that sticky term). Driven by mountain-biking cabinet minister Kevin Falcon under the umbrella of Gordon Campbell’s flavour-of-the-month greenism, and abetted by the premier’s obedient corporals at North Shore town halls, it’s being sacrificed to recreational cyclists, bladers and boarders, and a doubtful number of backpackers.

But if our words differ here and there, I relish Ransford’s music. He overturns the convention: Metro’s waterfronts were once “homes to everything from greasy-spoon cafés that fed longshoremen, mill workers and fishermen, to repair shops, ship chandleries, small grocers and rooming houses. . . .

“Today, miles of shoreline have been reclaimed from industry, cleaned up and moved upmarket.” Upmarket — bang-on. Ransford’s own once-busy Steveston waterfront neighbourhood “has one of the most unexciting, sterile stretches of Fraser River waterfront.”

Radical and right. I may be the only Vancouverite who misses Sweeney’s cooperage and Granville Island’s gritty factories and ugly lumber mill — real people, real jobs (now exported to China), however attractive its present consumer-sucking glitter.

West Vancouver held an entirely bogus Waterfront Plan open house — easily spotted as one of the phonies because it was held after council’s enabling decision, meant not to consult but to mollify restive residents — complete with a motherhood questionnaire no one should have completed that will allow Mayor Pam Goldsmith-Jones to declare: “We’ve listened to your concerns. . . .” (To be fair, under pressure council is reconsidering removal of the boat ramp.)

Councillors — all but Michael Smith, absent in Africa — were there to sound sympathetic to all points of view. Coun. Michael Lewis, who evidently reads this column, told me what I thought lay in Argyle’s future: “Coney Island! Ferris wheels!” He’d have read my mind more accurately with late columnist Jim Coleman’s 65-year-old Thought-Recording Machine, which ran on vacuum tubes.

But coincidentally I’d been thinking of another island: Martha’s Vineyard, which I’ve cycled around, and nearby Nantucket. Their famous weather-beaten houses are essential parts of the seaview, not obscuring it, as Argyle’s are stupidly considered.

Lewis also scoffed at my belief that such houses along lonely beaches at night are a safety factor. Who, in the hermetic condos on the north side of Bellevue, could hear anyone’s daughter crying for help, screaming rape? Lewis plainly considered this melodramatic nonsense.

Freshly back from Africa, Smith wrote me: “I do not want to see any major change along Argyle either, as this is a special place. The Spirit Trail I think should be put on the back burner for now. Even though the province pays some of the cost, as we have discussed West Van does not have the funds to proceed further. The reserves are pretty much spent and the routing is far from settled.”

A relief to hear. It carries weight, especially from a possible future mayoralty candidate. (As for West Van’s empty coffers, just the short Spirit Trail section from south of Park Royal to 13th Street– a project that moved glacially, apart from ruining a perfectly good path — cost an alarming $1.2 million, about half paid by Victoria, i.e. all B.C. taxpayers.)

I asked, in careful detail, Mayor Goldsmith-Jones how the Silk Purse could possibly survive in present form as a music and art venue under the coming dispensation (no parking, beachgoers six metres from the piano, artists lugging heavy frames back and forth to somewhere or other).

She answered a question. But not mine. She’s become adept at the politician’s 177-word answer to a question not asked — Premier Campbell did a similar classic job of filling the largest amount of air with the smallest amount of information when CKNW’s Bill Good asked him if his next move was appointment to the Senate.

But the mayor did state unambiguously that the Silk Purse will stay as it is. I’ve bet a lunch against that. I think covetous eyes are cast on the Silk Purse and its priceless location. My sense is town hall hugely favours the glossier Kay Meek Centre, a newer, bigger venue, all the more as budgets get tighter.

My take is shaped in part by the fact that a few years ago Patricia Leslie, town hall’s communications manager — very capable, very professional, who recently departed for a job in Whistler — ran for and was elected to the Silk Purse board. A conflict? In my eyes that raises questions about what she might have mentioned even in casual conversation about the Purse back at town hall.

I’d even hazard a guess that a certain amount of jealousy hovers over Silk Purse director Cheryl Karchut, because she’s done so much with so little. She may even have grumblers on the Purse’s board.

Hell, I even guess that a visibly political appointee might succeed Karchut when she retires Sept. 30. (Go ahead, call me a cynic. That’s what they said when I was a very early skeptic about Blair Wilson and Kash Heed.)

Shot in the dark: former councillor Liz Byrd.

– – –

Speaking of town hall open houses, Susanne Petrik was exercised when one was held recently over installing a traffic light at 15th and Mathers.

She claimed that 90 per cent of attendees were opposed — but it was a “done deal” and “basically, no one cared what the residents thought.”

Currently this is one of many four-way stops on the slopes. And, a testament to people’s (or anyway West Van people’s) civility when they are free to behave co-operatively, they work well. At predictable times this is a slow intersection, sure enough, with two schools nearby. But Susanne Petrik writes: “We are concerned that the traffic will be much faster on 15th as people race to catch the green light.”

Dead right. The students are likely to be at greater, not less, risk. To say nothing of residents near the corner in danger of finding a car in their living room.

– – –

Strange, perhaps unforgiveable oversight: The recently unveiled plaque marking the 71st anniversary of the Lions Gate Bridge ignores the Guinness family that built it, albeit with the self-interest of accessing its British Pacific Properties — one of the shrewdest real estate investments ($75,000 for 4,700-odd acres) since the Indians sold Manhattan. BPP project manager A.J.T. Taylor also goes unrecognized.

The Guinnesses are a fascinating family, worthy of books — and they’ve been written. Especially, as my numerous literary readers know well, about and by the madly diverse daughters of Lord Moyne, the Mitford girls.

Oh well, the plaque initiative involved Ottawa, and what do they know?

© Trevor Lautens, 2010

Argyle’s changes point to a new type of town

Appeared in North Shore News – May 28, 2010

West Vancouver town hall is busily hyping its vandalism of the district’s most peaceable, genuine “people’s place” — Argyle Avenue from 13th to John Lawson Park — having detected that the feel-good but bad-vibes Spirit Trail project isn’t universally loved.

This area is West Vancouver’s equivalent of the European-style public square. It is insane to destroy it in favour of recreational cyclists, skateboarders and bladers.

Last night, too late for my deadline, town hall sneaked in an Ambleside Waterfront Plan Open House which, as of last weekend, hadn’t been flagged on its official calendar. West Vancouver’s most dedicated and knowledgeable council-watcher, Carolanne Reynolds, stumbled on it through a Ferry Building Gallery message.

This “open house” asking for public input was utterly bogus. Fact: The morning before council’s April 12 meeting unanimously approving the project, an earth-mover was on the Ambleside Beach sands behind Argyle Avenue, ready to roll. The decision had already been made behind the usual closed doors and the public council discussion was a farce.

Town hall has stepped on the accelerator to whip through this barbarism — demolishing the millennial clock (an initiative of Mayor Pam Goldsmith-Jones’s predecessor, Ron Wood) at top speed and patting down fresh turf — before it gets much scrutiny.

But, not to be parochial, how has the Spirit Trail — a 35-kilometre vision of hearty, healthy cyclists and chest-expanding backpackers linking Deep Cove and Horseshoe Bay — fared in its progress, including through North Vancouver?

Reader K’nud Hille sums it up: “Only the easy pieces have been picked so far, including a few hundred feet from/to nowhere along the Mosquito Creek Marina; a couple of kilometres from/to nowhere along West First Street/Welch Street and through the neighbourhood Welch Park Strip; and a couple of kilometres from/to nowhere behind Park Royal Shopping Centre and the Ambleside sports fields.” (My Secret Agent MT0218 beautifully describes the latter as looking “like the start of a cattle drive on the Ponderosa.”)

Hille isn’t alone in scorning the belief that cyclists and pedestrians can coexist on the same trails and seawall walks, citing Stanley Park and New Westminster. Is it possible that there are enthusiasts for the Argyle section, but they’re keeping quiet? Maybe.

Owners of properties on the north side of Bellevue, looking south over Argyle Street and facing the water and downtown Vancouver skyline, might conceivably be among them. Once the houses and probably the trees are gone, their view will be hugely enhanced. Herewith the addresses, ownership, street-level businesses where applicable, and current assessments of some of them:

– 1467 Bellevue Ave. (Bellevue Natural Health Clinic), Benevolent Realty Enterprises, $4,625,000;

– 1427 Bellevue Ave. (Canada Post), Sarah W. Lai, $5,656,000;

– 1455 Bellevue Ave. (Walker Place), Bellevue Properties Ltd. — a handsome, multi-tenanted project of Chuck Walker, whose (very charming and smart) daughter, Shannon Walker, is now a WV councillor — $13,095,000;

– 1571 Bellevue Ave. (containing many doctors’, realtors’ etc. premises), $2,573,000; suite 203, separately listed, is attributed to Noordin Madatali, assessed value $3,000,000;

– 1507 Bellevue Ave. (Dentistry-on-Bellevue), North Bellevue Holdings Ltd., $4,961,000;

– 1875 Bellevue Ave., Broadway Properties Ltd., $13,368,000.

With enhanced views, in which direction would you expect the market value of these properties to move?

No one can be blamed for self-interest. But destroying mature Argyle Avenue’s present peaceful mix of pedestrians, dog-walkers, runners, casual young cyclists and, yes, very slow-moving cars needed by frailer and child-transporting people to get to the area, demonstrates that town hall politicians, public sector unions and entrepreneurs will lightly roll over people taking time to stop and stare and chat — or to attend classes at The Music Box, or concerts at the Silk Purse.

Constant Reader knows my affection for the latter — a gem of high-quality, low-price concerts. Disclosure necessary? I donate to the Silk Purse (but seldom attend).

I suspect most councillors — who now have retreated on abolishing the boat ramp and allowing a beachfront seafood restaurant — wouldn’t know the Silk Purse if they fell over it. Town hall’s treatment of it is not merely indifferent, it’s aggressive. Mayor, councillors and bureaucrats should be ashamed.

The new beach path is right on the property line, literally six metres, 20 feet, from the piano. Noisy passersby especially in summer would make concerts utterly impossible — and the end of nearby parking is a death warrant. Town hall’s fair-haired boy is the Kay Meek Centre, a very different, splendid but also flawed gem: Its shared space with West Van secondary and especially its almost scary night parking are problems.

I’m amazed at former Silk Purse board president David Schreck’s optimism that the foot traffic “may be a good thing — more people will become aware of it.” Well, attendance is strong now. But Schreck — former New Democrat MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale — accurately added: “Relocation would essentially kill (the Silk Purse).”

Its directors are publicly silent. My guess: They’re too nice. And, not so nice, they doubtless include supporters of Goldsmith-Jones, and in this small town are reluctant to speak up, many compromised by their connections or ambitions. (I’ve sought other prominent people’s opinions and their silence speaks.)

I hesitate to respond to News letter-writers. But I count the following as personal friends, salt-of-the-earth people.

Neale Adams, former newspaper colleague and the gentlest of men, writes a witty letter supporting the Spirit Trail and looks forward to cycling along it. Thanks, Neale, and remind me to warmly recommend a cement factory on your street — which is near Cambie and 25th, Vancouver. A tad distant from the scene.

Marc Strongman, co-chair of the Spirit Trail Committee and member of a family I admire and have broken bread with, gently admonishes me. He recalls the difficulty of learning to cycle on the North Shore as a boy. I fearlessly predict that Argyle as it is would be a far better place for children to learn to ride than Argyle as it will be. On Victoria Day a mom and her two small children were doing just that, the street with its throngs amiable and tolerant.

Marc reveals: “Never, ever has the trail been considered a bicycle commuter route.” Zounds! That would be its chief, or only, justification.

Are these a lot of words for a little issue? I think not. The larger movement of which Argyle Street is a part is toward a very different town, especially the redevelopment ahead for Marine Drive in Ambleside, certain to drive out many small, non-chic existing businesses. West Vancouver is doomed to become a ghetto of three classes: The well-off, the rich, and the stinkin’ rich.

It’s already afoot. A lot of older people are land-rich and everything-else-poor. You can see them counting coins at the Ambleside Safeway, hoping they outlive their change purses. Few younger people, our children, have a hope in hell of buying here.

The big bass drum hyping Vancouver as a grrreat cosmopolitan city welcoming the world, beaten by Premier Gordon Campbell, the Liberals, and West Van’s power structure — I turn my deaf ear toward it. This will not be a pleasanter West Vancouver.

© Trevor Lautens, 2010

Render Unto Santa The Things That Are Santa’s

For release Dec. 19, 2008

The elves had filled the sleigh beyond full. The young elves were certain it was far too heavy and would never, ever budge. The old elves looked wise, as the old in heaven and on earth and everywhere in between do, and quietly advised them to wait and see. The old elves were unexcited. They had seen too
many miracles.

Warm from their great effort, all the elves – in every corner of the North Pole, in the toy shop, in quality control, in the planning department, in the cafeteria (when it comes to eating, elves hit far above their weight), in the barn, and of course the sweating packers and loaders – stood expectantly around the sleigh, their breath making icy haloes in the cold, cold air. The reindeer impatiently pawed the frozen turf, their breath in long twin cylinders. Not strong enough to pull the sleigh? Just watch us! They shook
with anticipation, making their sleigh bells ring out as if it was Christmas. Which, of course, it was.

Santa and Mrs. Claus appeared at their cottage door, to great applause. Santa waved and blew the elves kisses. Mrs. Claus fidgeted and fussed, checking Santa’s suit buttons, fluffing up his scarf, trying not to look anxious.

“Be sure to keep warm and do drive carefully,” she said. “So much traffic in the skies these days!”

Santa chuckled softly, deeply, from the bottom of his chest: “Ho, ho, ho.  Now don’t you worry about a thing, my dear. Have the reindeer and sleigh ever failed me?”

“I do hope you won’t need that one with the dreadful red nose,” said Mrs. Claus. “So tasteless! And I really dislike the way the others fawned over him that year!”

“The night will be perfectly clear,” Santa assured her. “I’ll let you know when I’m close enough to put the tea on. Goodbye!” And he kissed her cheek and turned to the sleigh.

His Top Elves stepped forward. “Fine night, sir,” said Snowy, the director of the Itinerary Department.

“The sleigh is in perfect order and the runners have been thoroughly greased,” said Chilly, chief of the Service Department.

“Whereas,” said Icy, head of the Legal Department, ” Santa Claus, doing business as Santa Claus Corporation Unlimited, the party of the first part, and whereas the nations of the world of the second part, having divers statutes, tort laws, property rights, local bylaws and acts and regulations pertaining to responsibility for accidents, misrepresentation, safety of chimneys, defective toys …”

“Yes, yes,” said Santa soothingly, “no need to go through the list, Icy, you always look after such matters very capably.”

” … and responsibility for purity of milk and cookies left under the Christmas trees, etc. etc.,” said Icy, stiffly, insisting on getting that point in.

“Well done, all,” said Santa affectionately. “Now, the sun is just dipping below the horizon. Perfect timing! Goodbye!” And he sat down, shook the reins once, and reindeer, sleigh and Santa shot off in a flurry of snow and quickly disappeared.

Before settling down to the night’s work, Santa decided to take the slow and scenic route from the North Pole through a galaxy or two, where the twinkling stars briefly glowed even brighter in friendly acknowledgement as they passed. Then Santa put down the reins and turned on the GPS to return to
Planet Earth. The diversion had taken less than the smallest part of a human-measured second, for Santa of course operated on SST, Santa Standard Time. In truth it is a timeless time without beginning or end.

The sleigh glided smoothly and silently into Earth’s skies. Below Santa could see the lonely lights of farmhouses in the darkness, and clusters of lights that meant cities. And with his crinkly eyes he could tenderly see into the homes where families slept – tired mothers and dads, restless children so excited it had taken them a long time to nod off, cats curled up on warm vents, and at the foot of beds snoring dogs who would quickly come alert at the slightest suspicious noise.

But Santa made no noise. There were few chimneys these days – as mankind measured time – but it is well established that Santa is a resourceful elf, and able to slip under doors, through keyholes, cracks in walls, and, sometimes most difficult, into hardened human hearts. And everywhere he left gifts, not always the gifts asked for, as he knew well, and not as many as people would want if they had limitless choice. One did not have to be an elf to know that among this race of men there are those for whom even enough is not enough.

At last the sleigh was empty. Their night’s work well done, the proud reindeer seemed to dance with the prospect of a swift dash home. Santa punched some data into his computer and prepared to sign out.

A message flashed on the screen: “One missing.”

One missing! How could that be? Santa never missed anyone. For even those who didn’t “believe” in him were always left with a gift – nudging them to doubt their doubt.

Santa’s pride was hurt. He turned off the GPS. He would find the missing recipient. He would navigate the traditional way, by the stars. He gave the reins a shake and the reindeer sprang joyously into the skies.

His travel brought him into open countryside over what he thought might be a small motorcycle or garden tool shed, or was it a low barn of some kind? In no time at all – quite literally, for, to repeat, Santa is timeless – he was inside.

The room was totally bare, even coldly stark. It was empty except for a Very Old Man seated in a chair, which, in contrast, was magnificent, almost a throne. The Very Old Man nodded cordially.

Santa looked closely. No, rather he was an exceedingly handsome Young Man in full strength of manhood. On further examination it was not a man at all but a Woman of breathtaking mature beauty. But Santa strained to see – not a Woman after all, instead a Girl no more than 10 years old. Then her fine features seemed to melt into that of a Boy. Santa shook his head, for he had repeatedly been mistaken – it was a Child, the rich chair a small plain bed. Santa removed his spectacles and rubbed his eyes. Mrs. Claus had scolded him to get his prescription changed, and how right she was.

“Good evening, Santa,” said the Child. “I was expecting you.”

“Good evening to you,” said Santa. That a child spoke so clearly was startling, but no more than his appearance, which continually and fluidly morphed into the other forms. “But I’m afraid I will disappoint you. You were not on my list. I have no gift for you.”

“I need no gift other than your welcome visit,” said the Child. “I too distribute gifts to those who wish to receive them.”

Santa’s white eyebrows rose. “Then we are competitors!” he smiled.

“No,” said the Child, “we are comrades, Spirits, you and I, to the race we both love and cherish. For you are the Spirit of Things Seen, and I of Things Unseen.”

“Ah,” said Santa. “I wish my lawyer, Icy, an impressive intellectual elf, were here to debate this. I fear I am out of my depth. Icy understands ideas, including human ideas. Though I sometimes wonder if elf flesh is so different from human flesh after all.”

“Just as Spirits will always have something of the human in them,” the Child replied. “How else could we enter their sorrows and their joys, and their wounds and their triumphs?”

“I just distribute gifts,” Santa said humbly. “Things.”

“You are the gatekeeper of goodness,” said the Child. “How many children learn their very first lessons of goodness from you? And your jolly face and figure bring smiles to even the wearied old. Yours is the republic of Earth’s gifts, as mine is the kingdom of the searching soul. The bodily first need food, water, light – material things that are the clothes of the soul.”

“I have seen my material gifts misused,” Santa said, unnecessarily, for it was clear that the Child equally knew the spoken and the unspoken.

“Gifts come in all colours,” the Child said. “Possessions have no morality in them. The way of the world is for some to make, for others to sell, for others to use, and for yet others to misuse. Even the hungry and the dispossessed are a special gift to the world. The world is a teacher. It was not misdesigned. It is perfect of its kind – an experiment, and each life an experiment in it. What benefit would there be if each of those you and I love and care for were handed a script?”

The reindeer were stamping impatiently on the roof.

“I too must go,” said the Child, and abruptly he disappeared and was replaced by a youth, bearded, with green-tinted hair, flashing a beautiful smile and astride a motorcycle – Santa’s first impression that the structure was a motorcycle shed was correct. “I will do good this night in this guise, because like you I can take many forms and leave no signature. Good night, sweet elf!” And the Spirit vanished.

When Santa landed at the North Pole his elves were gathered outside his cottage, Mrs. Claus anxiously waiting at the door.

Snowy, the director of the Itinerary Department, stepped forward worriedly. “If I had a watch,” he said, “and if there were such a thing as time here, I would think you were a nanosecond late. Did I make a mistake in planning?”

Chilly, chief of the Service Department said tremblingly: “I hope the sleigh didn’t break down?”

Said Icy, head of the Legal Department: “Whereas the return of Santa, party of the first part, was inexplicably delayed, his elves, party of the second part, did debate assembling and dispatching a search party …”

Santa left his reindeer with affectionate pats, and hugged Mrs. Claus, who hid her worry by scolding him for giving everyone a fright.

“Everything went just fine,” he reassured the elves. “The light in the sky made navigation even better than at other Christmases. Now let us all have a well-earned rest, for tomorrow we will be back at work. That is the joyful task of elves. We must make our toys.”

© Trevor Lautens, 2008