The Honorary Jim Green

November 15, 2011 at 9:42 am Leave a comment

A few weeks ago, on World Planning Day, the Planning Institute of B.C. made Jim Green an honorary member.  Because Jim was unable to attend, past city planner Nathan Edelson spoke on his behalf.  As part of our recognition of those who have shaped the city, we’re pleased to reprint Nathan’s notes here:

Jim Green
Honorary Membership in the Planning Institute of B.C.

Presentation Notes for Acceptance Talk by Nathan Edelson

November 5, 2011

Jim Green asked me to let you know how much he appreciates being awarded this honorary membership into the Planning Institute  of British Columbia. And I feel truly honoured that he asked me to speak to you on his behalf.

Before I begin, I would like to ask:

  • How many of you have heard of Jim Green? (everyone)
  • How many of you have had a chance to speak with him? (about half )

I will try to describe my understanding of Jim’s work as a supporter of planning. But I want to point out that Jim has not reviewed my notes.  The only thing he asked of me was “don’t lose the certificate”. I found this to be consistent with the main instruction Jim would give to many of us – “Try not to ‘f’ it up.” And I understand David Crossley; the PIBC Executive Director has agreed to send it directly to Jim. So my main mission has already been accomplished.

I will be focusing on Jim’s work, but I will speak from the perspective of someone who has worked with him on a number of initiatives over the last thirty years.

As some of you may know, I was a community planner with the City of Vancouver for 25 years; the last 15 as the Senior Planner for the Downtown Eastside – which includes historic Chinatown, Gastown, Victory Square and Strathcona. I teach at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning and also continue to work on a variety of planning initiatives.

Prior to working at the City I was the Founding Executive Director of Little Mountain Neighbourhood House. Here I was interviewed and hired by a broadly based 15 member neighbourhood committee organized by a young community planner named Larry Beasley.

And it was in this capacity I met Jim in 1980 when he was the Executive Director of DERA – the Downtown Eastside Residents Association.

Touring the DTES with Jim in the 1980’s was a remarkable experience. He was truly the mayor of the inner city.

Dozens of people would come up to speak with him.

  • To give him advice
  • To ask him questions
  • To ask for a favour
  • To shake his hand in thanks for his standing up for their rights.

He knew every detail of the neighbourhood. He was a high profile community organizer; often in the media; often speaking at City Council.

But his increasing focus was about building housing; and this was a great time to be building housing because we had a national housing policy; and support from the three levels of government to create a great deal of social, coop and affordable rental housing.

Jim became obsessed with the details of design – the architectural appearance and functionality of buildings as well as urban design – the ways in which individual buildings fit together not only to form beautiful neighbourhoods, but they ways in which they contributed to strong and inclusive communities.

He was especially interested in heritage buildings. This surprised me because many community organizers in inner city neighbourhoods at that time viewed heritage conservation at best as a distraction of public resources for the frivolous enjoyment of the elite; or, as one of the early stages of gentrification – the beginning of the end for low cost housing in low income neighbourhoods.

Jim thought of heritage as an important part of community building: working people and craftsmen had built the buildings; they were part of the community’s collective memory; they would retain the area’s beauty for the enjoyment of all.

The key to community building for the Downtown Eastside was, and remains, social housing.  Jim helped save beautiful heritage buildings like the award winning Four Sisters Coop, Pendera Place and Tellier Towers.  He also developed other beautiful buildings – old and new – that are named after community heroes:

– The Lori Krill named after a young single parent who founded the Main and Hastings Housing Society and chaired the Pride Centre Board – of which I will speak in a moment, and who passed away after a courageous fight with cancer

– Bruce Eriksen Place – named after one of the founders of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association; a City Councillor, great artist, recovered alcoholic and husband to Libby Davies, another DERA founder

–  The Solheim Place – named after a man who committed suicide after being evicted from an SRO hotel room in which he had lived for more than 50 years to make way for potential Expo 86 tourists.

If you want to understand Jim Green, you have to know how much the death of this man and other long term residents touched his very core. It forged his determination to do whatever he could to help save their lives and improve the conditions under which they and other marginalized people live.

Often he would try to bring others along to build a strong constituency for needed actions. But ultimately getting projects completed – in partnership with people he felt could produce results – was his priority. And – though this was not developed by him – it is important to point out Jim Green Residence – a housing project built by Lookout Shelter society – to honour a living legend.

The idea was to build good quality social housing so low income people would have a secure base from which they could remain in the neighbourhood for generations to come.  It was also a potential source of funds so that the Downtown Eastside Residents Association could hire community organizers to continue to mobilize local residents to secure other needed social and health services

Under Jim’s leadership, DERA was the pre-eminent voice for people living in the Downtown Eastside. It took on many initiatives and began to grow – especially to manage its increasing portfolio of housing.

As the organization grew and its credibility with housing program funders increased, Jim found himself putting more and more time into housing design and development.  As with many small community organizations that mobilize residents, eventually a group of disaffected staff and residents took over the board and pushed the executive director out of his position.

As some of you may appreciate, these situations are never pretty. Accusations are made; public trials by rumour and innuendo – are impossible for the accused to win. And a neighbourhood became divided in many ways among those who supported the work Jim had done so well; and those who for a variety of reasons – some of which in my view were
legitimate – felt challenged by the ways in which he got things done.

In some ways these and similar divisions still impact the community twenty years later.

This was a terrible blow for someone like Jim who had put his life blood into this community. Ultimately the group that overthrew Jim and the one that followed it and the one that followed that – proved not to have Jim’s clear vision and extraordinary skill – and the organization diminished in influence over the years.

But the name Downtown Eastside – that originated with Bruce Eriksen and was carried forward by Jim Green remains very relevant. The name was created because the area to the east of Vancouver’s central business district is not a “ghetto” or a “slum” or “skid row”. It is a community filled with people who helped build this province and others who have found support and refuge after having been discarded from their own communities.

Some people believe it now is a damaged brand and should be changed. Like Jim and many others – I believe this brand is a badge of honour for a community that has struggled and has succeeded in surviving under very challenging circumstance.

The Downtown Eastside is a community that has experienced great suffering, but it is a community that has demonstrated incredible resilience, determination and innovation. These are characteristics that describe how Jim reinvented himself in the years following his work with DERA.

And because he has continued to take on similar challenges as when he was at DERA, Jim remains a very important part of the heart of that community.

Being forced to leave DERA was very painful for Jim. It took a while to recover. But when he did, he joined the Mike Harcourt government and worked closely with Finance Minister Glen Clark.   Here he was able to help secure funding for a tremendous amount of housing.

Much of that housing was under the management of the Portland Hotel Society. a group that was started by former DERA staff.  Jim nurtured this groups in its early days. But Jim’s focus shifted to community economic development. He began to look at inner cities across North America for models and created several new initiatives:

    • Humanities 101 to give inner city residents access to UBC courses in the arts and social sciences.
    • Arts in the Downtown Eastside – he joined the board of the Vancouver Opera and was able to encourage professional groups such as the Bach Choir, Vancouver Symphony and Vancouver Opera to perform – to the great and spontaneous  appreciation of local residents as well as the professional artists. He understood and helped others to understand the tremendous healing power of the arts for people facing
      challenges in their lives.
    • The Pride Centre – which Lori Krill chaired – was formed to become a centre for excellence in job training and on the job supports – in a manner that was relevant and respectful to the needs of inner
      city residents
    • BladeRunners – to provide low barrier on the job training for inner city youth in construction and in other spheres. The program was named to honour the first young people in the program who were hired to
      help build the hockey arena at GM Place.
    • A dental clinic – so inner city residents could get their teeth fixed, not only to improve their health, but also their appearance so they could work in the service industry.
    • Four Corners Bank – This was modelled after the South Chicago Community Bank and intended to become a major source of investment capital for social housing and social enterprise. Though it was unable to achieve that objective, it did become a place where people on social assistance could have a bank account – a basic service that most banks refused to provide for low income inner city residents.  This was first of all a public safety initiative; residents on social assistance wouldn’t have to carry around their monthly welfare money and be the subject of robberies.  It also contributed to the health of some residents since for some having less cash in their pockets reduced the temptations to purchase alcohol or illegal drugs.

In 2000 the Vancouver Agreement was formed and I represented the City on the VA’s Downtown Eastside Economic Revitalization Committee, which Jim chaired.  Here Jim introduced research he had been carrying out in Portland and elsewhere – on ways in which governments could use land use development permissions, tax incentives, procurement policies and government funding to help create jobs for inner city residents who had challenges to employment. The program he proposed was called DESTA’NEZ – the Downtown Eastside Target Area Investment Zone.

In 2001, the provincial government changed.

I’m not sure if all of you understand this, but sometimes there is a relationship between planning practice and politics.  Did I mention that in 1990 Jim Green ran for Mayor and lost to a man some , including me, but perhaps not Jim, might argue became one of Vancouver’s best Mayors – Gordon Campbell?

Did I mention that in 1996 Jim Green – the guy from the Downtown Eastside – ran for MLA in Point Grey and garnered 11,074 votes to Gordon Campbell’s 12,637?

When the government changed, funding for the Pride Centre, the Four Corners Bank and most sadly six social housing projects that were in or near the develop permit process were cancelled.

When Jim left government, I took over the chair of the VA Economic Revitalization Committee and the committee continued efforts at fulfilling the powerful vision that Jim had outlined.

  • UBC continues to sponsor Humanities 101 and now operates several dental clinics in the inner city.
  • Blade Runners found powerful supporters in the construction industry and was expanded under the new government to become a province-wide program under ACCESS, an Aboriginal employment service provides.
  • The three levels of government tried to find private partners to save Four Corners Bank. Ultimately the
    savings account functions were restored at Pigeon Park Savings – a joint initiative of the Portland Hotel Society and Van City Credit Union.
  • The Four Corners Bank building was purchased, renovated with help from the seniors governments and now is home to several employment services – including BladeRunners.
  • The VA developed Building Opportunities with Business – BOB – an organization that linked job training and job creation through business development and incentives through major development initiatives.  Although that organization has faced a number of challenges, efforts are underway to carry on the basic functions it was designed to implement.

After leaving the provincial government, Jim helped organize the IOCC – the Impact on Community Coalition – a group that helped provide support for what became the Inclusive Olympics Commitments. These commitments and the watchdog organization were parts of the reason that Vancouver won the Olympic Bid; they are also part of the reason why, unlike in Expo 86, the Province purchased and renovated many SROs and committed to new social housing in advance of the games; and why Vancouver’s homeless were not displaced from the streets in 2010.

In 2003 Jim was elected to City Council where he continued to press for many of the community building initiatives for which he had fought for years:

  • He was a champion of two policy plans that Jill Davidson, Senior Housing Planner and former President of the PIBC,  and I co-managed: the Downtown Eastside Housing Plan which committed a one-for-one replacement of the single room occupancy hotels with purpose built social housing; and the Single Room Accommodation By-law to protect this important part of the low income housing stock until it could be replaced.
  • He supported staff in negotiating jobs and on the job supports for inner city residents as part of the development of Woodwards and the Olympic Village.
  • He also helped expand the role of Cultural Services – for both the professional and community arts in Vancouver.
  • He played a major role in engaging cities throughout Canada in progressive issues while representing Vancouver in the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, under a man who became a good friend to Jim – Jack Layton.
  • It is also important to note the Portland Hotel Society – which in many ways continues in the tradition established for DERA by Bruce Eriksen and Jim Green.  As I mentioned, PHS was formed by staff who had worked for DERA. It continues to focus on the needs of people with mental health and addiction health challenges.

One of its most important initiatives is INSIGHT – North America’s first Supervised Injection Site.

The Federal government, which under the Liberals had approved the exemptions necessary for it to operate legally, attempted under the leadership of the Conservatives, to force the closure of this innovative facility. The PHS took this all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada where it won a unanimous ruling.

Their success was based on incredible community organizing and lobbying as well as on the great social science and health research on which it was based.  These actions are very much in the tradition of DERA when it was under Jim’s leadership; and that have been important components of so much of Jim’s work.

And finally there was Woodwards.

Since leaving City Hall, Jim has continued to work on many challenging projects. He was an economic development officer for the Haida Gwaii and is one of the few non-native people to be inducted as an honourary member of that First Nation.

He has also served as a development consultant on a number of major initiatives including Little Mountain Housing Project Redevelopment, the Olympic Village and now the Remand Centre. In each of these projects he has carried forward the same principles of housing for the poor, in well designed buildings that are constructed by crews that include jobs for  young people with challenges to employment.

There are many items left on Jim’s work program. And I hope you will join me in watching these with great interest, because they are often at the cutting edge of socially responsible development.

However, in many ways Woodwards stands out as his best project ever – a symbol for much of what Jim Green has worked over his long and distinguished career.

Jim started working on the redevelopment of Woodwards in the mid 1980’s – years before the store closed in 1993. He had observed that many inner city department stores were closing – some to be demolished; some to become beacons of gentrification and displacement of the poor, and others to become the heart of renewed and inclusive communities.

He also understood the symbolic importance of this site. Woodwards had been a place for everyone – from the inexpensive coffee you could nurse for hours and hearty breakfasts in the cafeteria, to the bargain clothing and furniture to expensive suites and fur coats. Woodwards was a meeting place for all the people of greater Vancouver, irrespective of class or cultural background.

After the department store closed, there were several serious proposals to develop 400 market housing units on the site. If one of these had been approved it would have been seen as a symbolic defeat for the low income population. So late in the NDP government’s term of office, Jim convinced the provincial government to purchase the site.

The new BC Liberal provincial government left the building vacant and was considering selling it for market development. A large number of local residents occupied the building for several months and became known as the Woodwards Squat. This protest really drew public attention the growing rates of homelessness in the Downtown Eastside and the need for the
building to be redeveloped.

The municipal government’s inability to end the Squat or address the issues raised contributed to Larry Campbell and Jim’s election as part of a COPE majority City Council.

As a member of City Council, Jim helped negotiate a sale of the site from the province to the City. He also negotiated housing for the homeless people who were part of the Squat.  Further negotiations with the province secured 100 units of social housing and other public benefits to be located at Woodwards. The province’s commitment to help redevelop Woodwards was a fundamental reason Jim decided to support Vancouver’s bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics. He urged Vancouverites to vote yes in what was an unprecedented successful plebiscite where Council gave Vancouverites an opportunity to vote on whether they wanted to host the games.

And then Councillor Green co-chaired the Woodward’s Steering Committee with City Manager Judy Rogers. This group was made up of department heads including Larry Beasley from Planning and Michael Flanigan from Real Estate who managed the implementation of the work. This high level committee was formed to make sure the project was fast tracked. The project grew to include all the principles for which Jim had worked over an entire career. A side benefit was that the City’s entire management team learned the basic principles of the Downtown Eastside planning program – principles that were consistent with Jim Green’s vision for the area.

I was part of the staff team instructed to carry out an extensive public process that reached out to hundreds of inner city residents and thousands of people from throughout the city and region. It was amazing how many people felt attached to Woodwards – as shoppers and as employees; and many had creative ideas for how the site should be redeveloped in keeping with the spirit of this important Vancouver institution. I was also participated in a community advisory committee that was formed by the City to help guide the evolution of the project through the development process.

After the Steering Committee finalized criteria, several corporations submitted proposals to develop the site. There was an incredible public meeting that can be seen on the City website where dozens of people spoke about the proposal they favoured. The winning proposal was designed by Gregory Henriquez in partnership with Westbank and a number of community organizations, including the Portland hotel society. It contained:

– 100 units of social housing – more than many of the local market interests would normally support

– 300 units of market housing – more than many of the low income community groups would normally support

– as well as space for an array of community based organizations, a day care, roof gardens and an active atrium.

It was supported by an unusual coalition of organizations that included:

  • Mark Townsend from the Portland Hotel Society who supported it because of the social housing, day care and other community services;
  • Dean Wilson from the VANDU – Vancouver Network of Drug Users who supported it because 125 units of housing were for people with mental illness or addicted to drugs;
  • and surprisingly – Jon Stovell – head of the Gastown Business Improvement Association – a group which had been a long time opponent of both social housing and services for the people with addictions in the area. Jon stated that he was surprised to speak before Council to fully endorse the same proposal as the Portland Hotel Society  and VANDU. Yet this project had the potential to weave together and serve in powerful ways the interests of the entire community.

After Westbank won the competition, their proposal was further enhanced when one of the competing developers who owned an adjacent site agreed to sell it to help accommodate Simon Fraser’s School of Contemporary Arts as part of the new Woodwards complex.

One other thing is worth pointing out. During the negotiations with the province concerning the Olympic Bid, Jim was able to secure an additional 100 units of social housing from the province. And the City’s senior management committee decided that these units should go into Woodwards. However, to help pay for these units, an additional 200 units of  market housing had to be added to the projects. This resulted in a significant redesign that included two towers that were considerably taller than the proposal that had been broadly supported by the public.

The senior management team decided to amend the proposal without taking it back out to the public. The concern was that further public discussion might slow down the process. Jim felt it was essential that this be done to ensure the project could move forward before the 2006 election; and so it could be constructed in time for the 2010 Olympics.

Ultimately the project was approved; it has been constructed and the vast majority of those living, working, or visiting Woodwards are very happy with the result.

However, some groups in the community felt betrayed by the increase of market units. They were especially concerned when Rennie Marketing Systems was able to sell all 500 units overnight. They felt, and a number of residents continue to feel, that Woodwards is making the area more prone to the forces of gentrification and displacement of the poor. At the very least, they feel they should have been consulted before the proposal was significantly amended.

The resulting building ultimately reflects much of Jim’s vision for the future of the community. The fact that some aspects of the design were changed with limited public consultation – has also contributed to controversy.  But a considerable amount of additional low income housing and other public amenities were built in a timely way that avoided the high risks of the entire project falling apart that a delay might have caused.

In an important way the remaining controversy is also a part of Jim’s legacy.

But in my view and that of so many others in the Downtown Eastside, throughout the city of Vancouver and indeed across Canada, Jim Green is seen as an incredible community builder who makes efforts – sometimes extraordinary efforts as with the Woodward public process – to engage local residents in decision making – but who at the end of the day gives  priority to concrete results.

Jim wants you to know that he feels very honoured to be recognized as what he has also been – a strong supporter of innovative and inclusive community planning and now member of the Planning Institute of B.C.  On Jim’s behalf and mine, I would like to thank you for recognizing his incredible work.


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