Cultures stir up Renfrew-Collingwood neighbourhood

October 25, 2013

The Georgia Straight - September 18, 2013

THE TRAIN CLIMBS a gentle incline as it leaves 29th Avenue Station heading east. The tracks rise above the streets in no time. Not long after, tall buildings loom. A chime sounds, and a recording announces the next station, Joyce-Collingwood.

It’s the SkyTrain’s last stop in Vancouver before it crosses Boundary Road into Burnaby. With the station’s arrival during the ’80s, a dense and vibrant urban village came to life.

The birth of Collingwood Village within the larger Renfrew-Collingwood neighbourhood is a story the City of Vancouver may want to revisit, as it might prove valuable. There is ongoing grassroots unrest over plans to redevelop communities across the city. From the Downtown Eastside to the West End, Marpole, and Grandview-Woodland, many residents feel their voices are being ignored.

Like these communities, Renfrew-Collingwood once faced the prospect of becoming more packed with people living in multifamily homes. It embraced the idea and worked with a sympathetic city government and supportive developer, resulting in community benefits such as a new child-care facility and an elementary school.

But as other neighbourhoods grapple with the pressures of growth, city hall isn’t the same as it used to be, long-time Renfrew-Collingwood resident Christina Taulu suggests.

“The city has changed, and it’s not as open as it was when we were involved,” Taulu told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.

When Concert Properties completed Collingwood Village in 2006, it was the largest master-planned community in B.C. at that time, according to a case study by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

The company constructed 16 condominium and rental buildings of various heights, from four-storey town homes to mid- and high-rise apartments, the federal housing agency’s study states. Since construction began in the 1990s, some 2,700 new homes have sprung up on what used to be industrial lands south of Vanness Avenue, which the SkyTrain tracks follow, and east of Joyce Street.

Kingsway lies a few blocks further south, easily accessible by foot, where a Safeway, a London Drugs, banks, produce shops, restaurants, and many retail and service establishments can be found. Amenities received by Renfrew-Collingwood as part of the development deal also included a community policing office on Joyce Street. It’s run by a nonprofit for which Taulu serves as executive director.

More than a quarter of the 11-hectare development site was devoted to open spaces, in the form of three parks. On a late summer afternoon, Rafael “RJ” Aquino was out with his family at one of these parks. The one-hectare Aberdeen Park is just steps away from their home at a 27-storey condo building, the tallest in the village.

“We want to stay in this neighbourhood,” Aquino told the Straight.

The 33-year-old has lived in the tree-lined Collingwood Village for about a decade. He came here as a single person, and he’s now the father of two young children.

“I’ve become so invested in the well-being of this neighbourhood,” Aquino added. He is a member of the board that runs the neighbourhood- house building on Joyce Street that was constructed by Concert Properties, another amenity gained by Renfrew-Collingwood.

From a housing co-op south of Kingsway where her family lives, Jennifer Gray-Grant walks to Collingwood Neighbourhood House, where she works as executive director.

“We’re about forming community,” Gray-Grant told the Straight in an interview at her office. “What the community wants and needs, that’s where we want to work with the community.”

The neighbourhood house runs music, dance, arts, gardening, and food-preparation activities. It’s adopted an “intercultural” approach in delivering services to a diverse population, facilitating interaction of people of various backgrounds. This differs from the multicultural model of representing distinct traditions through ethnic-specific activities.

According to Gray-Grant, many immigrants are attracted to Renfrew-Collingwood because it’s served well by public transit. On its website, the neighbourhood house estimates that about 75 percent of Renfrew-Collingwood residents speak English as a second language. Forty-three percent speak Chinese; six percent Tagalog; four percent Vietnamese; four percent Punjabi or Hindi; and over one percent identify as aboriginal.

“The idea was to bring everybody together,” Gray-Grant said. “We’re living together. Why would we separate people? That doesn’t make sense.”

UBC professor of community and regional planning Leonie Sandercock cites Collingwood Neighbourhood House’s intercultural outlook in her book Cosmopolis II: Mongrel Cities of the 21st Century as an example of a “significant leap from multicultural rhetoric”.

According to Sandercock, it’s “instructive in what it takes to work towards living with diversity, beyond the model of ‘indifference to difference’, towards actually building an intercultural community”.

Bordered by Boundary Road on the east, Nanaimo Street on the west, East Broadway to the north, and East 45th Avenue to the south, Renfrew-Collingwood is the second most populous neighbourhood in Vancouver after Downtown. The 2011 Census tallies the number of residents at over 50,000. Just as in the ’80s, this still mostly single-family-home neighbourhood is again facing rapid growth.

In 2011, city council approved a rezoning application by Wall Financial Corporation covering 33 parcels of land east of Collingwood Village on Boundary Road, Vanness Avenue, and Ormidale Street. This paves the way for Wall Centre Central Park, a development of three residential towers of 28, 29, and 30 storeys, all exceeding the existing heights in Collingwood Village.

As part of the rezoning, council required 33,000 square feet of space to be provided to the community. Gray-Grant noted that Collingwood Neighbourhood House will get a 10,000-square-foot annex at the site.

Among those who spoke in favour of Wall Centre Central Park at a public hearing in November 2011 were community-safety advocate Taulu and former city planner Nathan Edelson. Edelson joined Vancouver’s planning staff during the early ’80s, and preparations for a transit-oriented community around Joyce-Collingwood Station became his primary assignment at the time.

He recalled working with a neighbourhood that understood the relationship between density and building heights and community benefits. “They figured out ways of working together, so the people who maybe are a bit more conservative and those who are a bit more on the liberal side figured out that they could support each other on a lot of initiatives,” Edelson told the Straight by phone. “And that’s still happening today.”

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