Making a place for people in the heart of Vancouver’s Davie Village

I lived in Vancouver’s West End for three years just a few blocks from Davie Street, which runs through the centre of the city’s gay village. While the street was billed as the “heart” of the village, it was more like an artery in search of a heart.

There was nowhere along the strip to hang out, chat with people, host community events and watch the bustle of the street. There was nearby Nelson Park, which got a nice facelift during my time there, but what the street lacked–and what many neighbourhoods in Vancouver lack–was a public space or plaza that acted as a central gathering spot right on the street.

A few years ago the City decided to change that. The result, the newly opened Jim Deva Plaza, is a great example of both why pilot projects matter and why programming is so important to public spaces.

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Test ideas with pilots to gain support before making expensive permanent changes

The City opened up a portion of a Bute Street, which intersects with Davie, by removing car access and creating a quick and cheap public space to test the idea. Tables and chairs were put out, and small community events, like games nights, were encouraged.

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The pilot was so successful that when the City surveyed the community about whether they wanted to make the plaza permanent, over 80% said yes.

This September I went back to Vancouver to attend Placemaking Week, and got to check out the now permanent Jim Deva Plaza, named after a local community activist around gay rights and free speech who died tragically a few years ago in an accident. The giant megaphone structure seen in the title picture acts both as a statement about Deva’s advocacy and provides a place for people to perform.

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Don’t just provide a space, provide something for people to do

The plaza seems to be working as a spot to mix and mingle. On a somewhat cool, but sunny day I sat in the plaza on one of the moveable chairs left out for people. A man with a guitar sang songs and intermittently chatted with a woman from Australia who sat nearby. A group of skateboarders stopped to play over-sized Jenga, which turned into a huge magnet for people walking by. I counted 12 people stopping to watch and talk to the guys in 10 minutes, including lots of older adults.

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Successful public plazas are ones that provide opportunities for people to do things. Whether that’s play guitar, sit with friends, or interact in some low-key game. Too often we simply provide the space and then walk away thinking that’s the end of it. But it’s the activities in these spaces that really draw people, keep them there, and provide an opportunity to chat with people they don’t know and may not have interacted with otherwise.

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When the Jenga blocks finally fell over, there were smiles from everyone in the plaza, and then they started all over again.

all photos are mine except the pre-designed space, which is from the Vancouver Courier

5 important points about Rail Deck Park

At Executive Committee on September 22, Rail Deck Park went through its first vote (they grow up so fast, don’t they?). Before the committee was a request for $2.4 million to do the prep work necessary to understand how to move the park forward. It passed easily and will head to council next.

You can read the staff recommendations here, but below are a few key points that emerged from the meeting about an idea to create this much-needed new 21-acre park over the rail corridor in downtown Toronto.

Rail Deck Park will likely be built in phases

It wasn’t explicitly articulated this way, but the message was clear: this park will be expensive and long-term, but it can also be built in a smaller set of phases rather than all at once. The report outlines certain partial-builds of the park and their high-level costs. Expect to hear more about this in future implementation plans. Here’s how the City broke down the different ways Rail Deck Park could be built over time:

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Partnerships will make this happen

Included in the report, and specifically highlighted by Deputy City Manager John Livey, was the importance that partnerships—with residents, community groups, businesses, and non-profits—will have in the construction, operation, and programming of Rail Deck Park.

We “need a new model” for this park, Livey said, mentioning the conservancy model specifically. There are a range of park partnership models, however, with a straight-up conservancy (basically a partnership between a City and a non-profit organization dedicated to the park) being on one end of the scale and local “friends of” groups on the other.

It will be interesting to see where Rail Deck Park ultimately ends up on that scale. City Council recently approved a new non-profit to manage The Bentway (formerly the Under Gardiner), so it’s not uncharted territory for Toronto. But one thing was clear: the City can’t do this alone.

There are dedicated funding streams for parks

People have pointed out that there’s no money set aside for Rail Deck Park. That’s true–sort of. There is no account right now with money sitting in it for the park; however, as the staff report outlined, and John Livey stressed, there are already several dedicated funding sources available. These funding sources are also growth-related, which is a jargony way of saying that new developments help pay for services/amenities that the new people living in those developments need. Growth pays for growth.

These are:

  • Section 37 (density bonus funds generated from tall, dense developments—aka pretty much every development in the downtown)
  • Section 42 (park levy funds generated from every development)
  • Development Charges (fees every development must pay per unit for a range of services, with Rail Deck Park to be included after the next DC review).

So it’s inaccurate to say there’s no money for this project or no one has thought of a way to pay for it. We do have funding mechanisms. And money collected for parks under Section 42 and through Development Charges can only be used for parks.

That’s important: they can only be used for parks. They can’t be used for housing or transit, by law. This is why these funding streams were created: so we’d have dedicated money for park improvements and acquisition as we grew (and grew and grew and grew).

Our park acquisition policies don’t work for downtown

This is a key point that John Livey talked about in his presentation. The way that we collect park levies from new developments downtown is largely through the Alternate Parkland Dedication Rate (Toronto’s is 0.4 hectares of land collected for every 300 units built). Often the City accepts cash in lieu of parkland from developers because the land provided would be such a small space given that downtown developments are largely tall buildings on tiny postage stamps of land. So we get money. Yay!

But: Toronto caps the amount that developers pay in park levies, which means that at a certain point in a high-density building, the City essentially stops collecting park levies. For a brief primer on why caps are used, head to the middle of this post. Here’s how that works out:

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Most developments in downtown would be under 1 hectare of land. So basically once the alternate rate (0.4 ha per 300 units) results in a land dedication of 10% of the development site, the City stops collecting park levies.

This may have been okay when our buildings were 30-storeys on average, Livey said, but now that we’re seeing 50, 60, and even 80 storey buildings on tiny pieces of land as the new normal, we need to revisit this cap because it’s not generating enough parkland/money to meet the needs of all those new residents. Reviewing these policies is long overdo.

Part of the hesitation around reviewing these policies stemmed from the fact that they could be appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board. But a recent court decision related to Richmond Hill (you can read about that here) has helped clarify municipalities power to set parkland policies. Take that OMB!

Getting more in park levies from downtown developments helps the whole city

Councillor Joe Cressy, whose ward contains Rail Deck Park, pointed out that increasing the cap on park levies would net more money for parks downtown, but also for the entire city. This is because of the way park levy money is divided up. A good chunk of the money generated for parks from downtown developments goes into a citywide account. Here’s the breakdown for all you nerds out there:

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Increasing the amount of funds collected in downtown then would also increase the amount of funds that goes citywide. You are essentially creating a bigger pie, so we all get bigger slices. This is good news for people who like pie, but also for neighbourhoods that don’t see a lot of development who rely on these citywide reserve funds for their park improvement needs.

Stay tuned for what I’m sure will be an interesting debate over this project when this item goes to City Council on October 5 and 6 (and, who are we kidding, probably 7 too).

You can read more here about the challenges of buying parkland downtown. The charts were taken from this 2013 City of Toronto staff report

Court overturns OMB ruling on Richmond Hill’s park by-law

Okay, this news is a bit old, but I’m guessing not many people are exactly following OMB parkland dedication court cases with the same close eye that they would, oh say the split of Hollywood couples (RIP Brangelina).

A few months back I wrote about an OMB decision that essentially said that the Town of Richmond Hill did not have the ability to set its own level of parkland dedication, as the Planning Act allows.

Earlier this month (while I was on vacation in Vancouver), the court overturned that OMB decision.

In short, Richmond Hill had approved their park levy at the highest that is allowable under the Planning Act. This wasn’t done willy-nilly, but after analyzing the future park needs of the Town and compiling all of that in their 2013 Parks Plan. The OMB then ruled it was too high and imposed a cap. The court ultimately ruled the OMB “exceeded its mandate.”

This decision is a big one because it will have ramifications for other municipalities that are experiencing intensification (like Vaughan and Markham), who are re-tooling how they collect park levies from those new developments to pay for the parks that residents living in high-density neighbourhoods need.

Here’s the press release:

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Both the Toronto Star and Torontoist have written articles on the decision.