photos: Photo by Aurora Tejeida

Trouble on the Waterfront

Local News: Proposed changes for the Downtown Eastside’s only park on the water raise concerns

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Thirty-four years ago, Don Larson set out to create a waterfront park for the people of the Downtown Eastside.

“Our intent was to get a waterfront park so that people living in small rooms could go down and have green grass and be able to touch and go in the water,” says Larson, founder of the Crab — Water for Life Society. His efforts resulted in the creation of Crab Park, the only public green space with access to the water in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Now at age 70, Larson is fighting a new battle—this time against Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s proposed Centerm expansion. The port authority intends to expand the pier by 15 per cent, basically adding nearly three hectares (seven acres) by extending out (to get a better sense of this number, consider that all of Crab Park is slightly under three hectares in size). According to Port Metro Vancouver, this would increase the number of containers that can be handled at the terminal by approximately two-thirds.

But a perceived lack of community engagement and environmental oversight have community members like Larson worried about the fate of the park and the people who rely on it for contact with nature and the water.

Container question

“People swim there all the time, I am concerned about the water quality that will be degraded,” Larson explains. “If they go ahead with the proposal and build their pier, the first thing they would have to do is prepare the seabed, which disturbs whatever chemicals might be there and that's not good.”

According to Rachel Wong, a communications advisor at Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, sediment sampling takes place all throughout the port authority’s jurisdiction.

“I don't see why this area would be any different. So if there is any sediment, they would be aware of what it is. Once there is a project application there is additional sampling that takes place so they know what is there and if it can be disturbed or if it has to be moved,” Wong says.

But sediment is just one of the myriad concerns voiced by Larson and other community members. There’s also the fear of an increase in movement of dangerous chemicals by railroad and truck. Larson recalls an accident that occurred on March 4, 2015 at the same pier the port hopes to extend. A container caught fire and caused a bleaching agent to burn for more than an hour. The toxic fumes sent at least three people to the hospital with respiratory concerns.

When asked to explain what exactly is going to be moved in the additional 600,000 containers that will make their way through this pier, project team members explained that the nature of the goods shipped through Centerm is not expected to change as a result of this project.

“The majority of goods moved by containers are exports of Canada’s natural resources and agricultural products, and imports of consumer and manufacturing goods such as electronics, clothing, household goods, specialty foods, engine parts, construction materials and machinery,” the project team said in an email.

Community consultation?

“As far as process goes, they sent out [an Internet-based] survey from the port of Vancouver, which almost no one found out about. They had at most 72 responses out of a community of at least 10,000,” Larson says. He added that Internet notices do not work in the Downtown Eastside, and vulnerable communities are not being taken into account.

The port authority consulted with the community and stakeholders in August, according to Wong.

“We put up a bunch of signs in the Downtown Eastside, and there was a team that handed out invitations I believe [for people with no permanent addresses]; they also emailed information for the three consultations that took place at two different cafés,” Wong says.

But both Larson and Barb Daniel, president of the Four Sisters co-op board, say the invitation came too late and that they were the ones who reached out to the community to try to get people to attend.

Information sessions or consultations were held three times from Aug. 16 to 20. Daniel attended the last meeting. The other two sessions, the ones on Tuesday and Thursday, were held during working hours—making it impossible for community members with 9 to 5 jobs to attend. On top of that, the locations were both loud and small.

“Somebody would come sit beside us and engage in a conversation, and that was great. But nobody else could hear what was going on with anybody else,” Daniel says. “What we were expecting was for them to do a presentation and then do a Q&A, it wasn't that at all. It was very confusing and non-informative.”

The port authority is still determining whether this proposed project will advance to the permit application phase. When asked if they would consider cancelling the project due to community protest, project team members said they’re still assessing the potential impacts the project may have on the environment and the community.

If the project does move on to the next phase, a detailed project proposal and permit application, along with the results of all technical and environmental studies, would be posted online. At that time there would be additional consultation with stakeholders and the public.

For community members like Daniel, the matter is simple and it comes down to maintaining the “calm and tranquility” the park and its access to water creates for the neighbourhood.

“The people of the Downtown Eastside who live in little tiny apartments and [single-room occupancy hotels], this is their only yard space, their only garden space. To deprive them of that would make the neighbourhood so much more intense than it already is, and it's pretty intense already,” Daniel says.

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