Contradictory voices: Mount Pleasant Implementation Committee collapses in confusion

Few documents placed before Vancouver City Council in recent months have been as peculiar as the one submitted recently by some members of the Mount Pleasant Implementation Committee (MPIC), an advisory group established as one way the city sought public input on implementation of the Mount Pleasant Community Plan.

The staff report to council on next steps in the Mount Pleasant plan — the city is focusing on public benefits, some local area plans and “public realm” improvements that will take 30 years to implement — came to council Wednesday. MPIC’s recommendations were included.

But it quickly became clear that the MPIC, which started with great promise and enthusiasm, had become a battleground in which some community members sought to torpedo the community plan altogether. Of the several dozen who participated at some point, only 10 to 12 lasted to the end.

(Council ultimately approved the staff recommendations, along with two proposed by the Vancouver Public Space Network.)

Symptomatic of the problem was the report of a June charrette conducted by some 11 MPIC members without city involvement, although the city provided the room and materials. The Mount Pleasant Charrette Plan urged densification to “include all lots in Mount Pleasant”  and virtual elimination of street parking on arterials, which would be widened dramatically over time. (Some speakers at council said it also called for closure of Kingsway, but I couldn’t find that in the charrette report.)

None of these proposals are consistent with the plan they are supposed to reflect — they contradict it. Not surprising: council was told today that many MPIC members actually opposed the plan all along, urbanist and charrette organizer Lewis Villegas among them.

Even the discussion of terms of reference saw MPIC “split in two” said one member, largely because some members were “refighting the plan.” Others were “sometimes not comfortable to speak.”

During council’s debate a resident e-mailed council to

‘Listen to what the residents of Mount Pleasant are communicating to you about their concerns . . .  In talking to neighbors in community the general feeling is that the decisions have already been made before any input from the residents and business owners.”

But it was clear there was broad support for the plan, with its commitment to affordable housing, more green space, retail revitalization and much more.

Also available for council consideration, in addition to that from MPIC,  was input from 800 participants in various events over the past two years, 100 survey forms and the feedback from an e-mail list of 900.

There were, of course, contrary views on specific points, but not a single intervenor at council called for outright rejection of the staff report. Several urged immediate adoption and long-time opponents called for deferral. (There were 14 speakers, including eight MPIC participants.)

Even members of the Mount Pleasant Implementation Committee who were critical of aspects of the report supported other elements — and agreed that an MPIC submission drafted by Villegas had “flaws.” (One flaw: the virtual elimination of street parking on arterials, although the same speaker welcomed the “out of the box” thinking in the charrette.)

No wonder some  MPIC members who signed the report gave  very qualified endorsements that weakened further in front of council. (A formal MPIC submission to council with specific recommendations incorporated the same main points produced by the charrette.)

What happened? No one could mistake the bad news delivered by staff in diplomatic terms on page 11 of their report. Constant turnover in MPIC due to personal commitments and interpersonal conflict meant that:

“. . . the MPIC diminished in numbers down to a relatively small group (approximately 10) that could not be considered to be broadly representative of the community . . . An inherent challenge within the MPIC model was a strong desire by some members for greater influence and decision-making authority. MPIC members were also divided on the need for consensus in providing input versus including diverse comments representing individuals at the table. These conflicts resulted in divisive discussions amongst the committee members that impacted the overall effectiveness of the group.”

Yet the MPIC proposals failed to win unqualified support even from four of seven MPIC members who signed the charrette report. (Twenty-six signed in all, most of whom who had not been involved in MPIC or the charrette.) Examples:

  • Danielle Peacock agreed with the “overarching principles but not all details.”
  • Stephen Bohus thought it was “great work,” but “industrial land infill needs more study.”
  • Stuart Alcock was “insufficiently knowledgeable about taxation matters to sign on” to the tax measures proposed.
  • Grace Mackenzie agreed “only in principle and not in detail.”

There were other signatories, of course, who had no doubts. Joseph Jones, of Norquay Village, signed on. Rand Chatterjee, a director of the Residents Association of Mount Pleasant, also signed as an MPIC observer, and so it went.

Once the charrette was over, Villegas explained, he had contacted “other people in my community that agreed to be signatories,” including a barista, an architect, an urbanist, a high tech entrepreneur, a collector of architectural artifacts and a linguistics professor.

All good people, no doubt, but not all Mount Pleasant residents and with only this in common: they know Lewis Villegas. Broadly representative of community views? Doubtful, at best.

All in all, a costly exercise that produced very little, despite the best efforts of city staff. The entire affair highlights the obstacles that can be encountered while seeking to engage the community, get effective input and understand all the underlying agendas, all the while seeking to develop a community plan.