Maureen Sugrue thought she was doing a good thing.
When Vancouver councillors started pitching the idea of taking down the viaducts that connect the downtown to eastern Vancouver, Sugrue and many other residents campaigned energetically to get city engineers to also look at how to reduce commuter traffic that streams from those viaducts through a main Strathcona street.
Engineers agreed and said that it would be better if the commuter traffic were moved from the existing Prior Street over a block to Malkin Avenue.
But then, it turned out, that would mean the destruction of a beloved community garden.
“I was completely behind the calming Prior Street campaign, but nobody expected the city to turn around and take Malkin Avenue,” said Sugrue. “I don’t support that as an option. There’s got to be a better way.”
But neither she nor city staff have been able to find a road, literally, out of the quandary they are both in: where to put a major commuter route from downtown to the east.
It wasn’t supposed to be like that. When the idea of taking down the viaducts first emerged, it was seen as a way to remove one of the ugly sections of a freeway planned in the 1960s, a freeway that never got built because of community opposition.
The idea was to show the city’s ultimate triumph over car culture.
But, in the initial viaducts-removal plan, Prior Street was slated to become the major road that would connect the east to the downtown core.
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After Sugrue and her neighbours put up vehement opposition, council backed down.
“The residents along Prior Street have made a very compelling case in addressing their longstanding concerns about traffic and I believe that some immediate improvements are warranted,” said Mayor Gregor Roberston in a late July council meeting to discuss the viaducts-removal plan.
“We need to pursue the Malkin Street connection. It’s been in the background for years and it’s time to act on it.”
However, no sooner had Robertson appeased the residents of Prior Street than he evoked the ire of another group of Strathcona residents in a different corner of the neighbourhood, where the Cottonwood community garden was planted 22 years ago.
The group defending that piece of Strathcona turf is threatening the city with both direct action and shame.
Oliver Kellhammer, a pioneer of Cottonwood Gardens, said that Vision Vancouver with “their explicit advocacy of urban agriculture, had better come up with a better solution that lives up to their party name.”
If Vision councillors don’t do that, Kellhammer said, “I can pretty much guarantee there would be a massive protest, should it come to bulldozers moving in. The spectacle of photogenic young environmentalists and outraged senior citizens chaining themselves to the garden greenery … would be death to Vision’s green brand.”
The land belongs to the city
The issue of Cottonwood Gardens is made thornier because it was never officially given community garden status. Like many community gardens, it is on land that belongs to the city. But guerrilla gardeners converted the vacant lot into a garden 22 years ago without any permission from the city. Some of it is is on what was designated a city “right of way,” for a future, wider road that was in the plans.
Previously, Vision Vancouver celebrated Cottonwood Gardens and touted it as a shining example of community-led urban agriculture.
But now the city wants its land back to build a road. In an interview with The Thunderbird, city Coun. Geoff Meggs said he had told the Cottonwood gardeners that if their plots are on the right-of-way, then they have no guarantees that they will be allowed to stay.
At the same time, though, Meggs also told The Thunderbird that he was “quite puzzled” by the vitriol coming from the community and that residents seem to have “jumped to the conclusion that there is no solution.”
Meggs, whose family gardened at the nearby Strathcona community garden for years, said that he “can’t imagine that neighbourhood without Cottonwood Gardens,”and with imagination and creativity, he is sure that together they can find a better outcome.
City staff are actively exploring alternate solutions and are due to report back to council in January. Council, staff and the residents of Strathcona are all hoping for a solution to the impasse in the New Year.