Cities increasingly jump in to fill the gaps
Published Friday, December 19, 2008 1:46PM PST
The new Vancouver city council has been hyperactive in the last two weeks, giving out some substantial holiday gifts to the needy.
Last week, it threw in $10,000 to help First United Church open as an all-night shelter. This week, it committed $500,000 to opening up 200 shelter beds in three new facilities. Yesterday, it committed to provided up to $12 million through density bonuses, outright cash and other incentives to save the York Theatre on Commercial Drive.
For all of that, the new council is getting many thanks -- and even tears in some cases. After the York Theatre decision yesterday, some people from the arts community were crying with relief that the 1913 theatre used in recent years to show Bollywood films (next to Nick's Spaghetti House, for those of you who orient yourselves in the city by restaurant) was going to see new life, through a renovation and reincarnation as an arts facility..
Others were euphoric. People like Heather Redfern, from the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, and former city councillor Jim Green, who works with the Cultch on various projects, said this marked the beginning of a new era of city support and encouraged for the arts.
That echoed the sentiments of others when it came to the homelessness announcements, as people expressed their gratitude for a council that was finally taking action on one of Vancouver's most disturbing social problems.
What a lot of people don't realize with these decisions is that Vancouver is moving into funding things it hasn't in the past -- or at least not to this extent.
In the 1990s, the city did put up $50,000 a year to run a shelter in Marpole. And it has often contributed to cultural institutions around the city. But it moved into new territory this week, with half a million for running shelters for one winter and a promise to come up with mechanisms to fully fund an entire theatre reno.
In the past, the city has said that it will put money into permanent housing, but that shelters are the provincial government's responsibility. For cultural facilities, it has typically held to a policy that it will contribute a third, but that the other two-thirds have to come from the other levels of government.
Vancouver isn't the only city that's moving to fill in the gaps that have been created by Victoria and Ottawa trimming their budgets at the expense of cities. Surrey''s new homelessness foundation gets it money from density bonuses (in essence, giving developers permission to build higher or denser than the zoning on a piece of property allows) to community amenity contributions from developers to development cost charges.
That's not free money. If other levels of government were contributing to housing or theatres as needed, that money could be put into other things that cities always need -- parks, community centres, more cultural facilities.
So, while it's a relief to all of us to see cities willing to take action to tackle important problems and projects, no one should kid themselves that this comes without a price. Sometimes the cost is money. Sometimes the cost is in the extra density that cities take on as they sell the most valuable asset they have -- the right to build -- in order to pay for what they need.
That density has an impact on the quality of life in our cities. For cities these days, though, it's the trade-off they're having to make to improve the quality of life in other ways when senior governments won't help out.